It began with “Brenda Starr, Reporter,” a syndicated comic strip that Candice Bergen read faithfully when she was 9 or 10 years old. While Candice never got to play Brenda Starr in the movies (that mootable distinction going to Brooke Shields in 1989), she did get to be her in real life. A woman named Dalia Messick drew and wrote the strip, but back in 1940 she had to change her name to the gender-neutral Dale, because male editors reflexively rejected strips written by women. Dalia’s were rescued out of the trash by an assistant at the Chicago Tribune syndicate, and it was she who is rumored to have suggested that Dalia change her name.
Bergen recalls being obsessed with the comic strip: “I idolized her. Brenda Starr was a ravishing redhead, a news reporter with mauve eyes and earrings that gave off sparks like a rocket. She was fearless, and, of course, she had a Mystery Man named Basil St. John, who wore an eye patch and who was tall, dark, and absent—he may have set in play a pattern of being attracted to inaccessible men.” (Though nothing could be further from the truth, as Candice Bergen has been more Zuleika Dobson, the irresistible heroine of Max Beerbohm’s novel.) Along with Brenda Starr, Messick created a best-friend character, a sidekick reporter named Hank, “who wore dark, masculine-cut suits, wore her dull brown hair in a bob, and, perhaps, a beret. Her ears did not send off sparks,” says Bergen. “It would be 10 years before I understood she was gay. But, together, the pair brought back tough-to-get stories, and I decided that’s what I wanted to do.”