Art / News/Media

Betty Wells, Legendary News Illustrator

Do you recall the moment you found a treasure and couldn’t wait to tell the world? Discovering the private collection of Betty Wells is this moment for me.

With a urgent plea for help to place her collection, Betty Wells inquired earnestly what to do with her collection of illustrations from the trial of John Hinckley accused of attempting to assassinate then President Ronald Reagan. As a mother of three sons, this was the hardest story she covered.

Knowing this was the worst moment in the lives of both President and Mrs. Reagan, I understood why the Reagan Library was not interested in this particular collection of illustrations. However, that could not be the final answer I share with Betty Wells, so I asked, “what else do you have?”

And, there a glimpse into American history was revealed.

Betty worked where cameras were not permitted and yet there was news to be covered. She worked primarily for NBC News and licensed out her illustrations to all major news outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, US News and World Report. She was a reporter, even an investigative reporter. Early in her career, Betty Wells was awarded two Emmy’s for her work – one for an investigative story she produced and the other for a series she illustrated on Washington, D.C.

She captured intimate, rare, unedited moments with American leaders working in the U.S. Congress, Supreme Court and breaking news of the day.

A major break came when Chief Justice Warren Burger approached Betty about her work to illustrate behind the scenes at the U.S. Supreme Court. As an artist himself and an art collector, he appreciated her skill and sense of humanity. After their meeting, Betty Wells was given permission to illustrate life behind the scenes at the U.S. Supreme Court for over a year to produce a series of illustration for a special program on the U.S. Supreme Court for NBC News and a special exhibit at the court. At the time, Chief Justice Burger told Betty she would be the only one ever to be given such permission with full access to illustrate the court. The only request the Chief Justice had was that Betty not illustrate any words as the Chief Justice was concerned about a decision being leaked.

Honoring his request and unique opportunity, Betty revealed a humanness of the Supreme Court beyond the figures in black robes. She illustrated Justice Blackman sitting on a book trolley doing his own research. Another sketch revealed Justice Douglas (retired) in a wheelchair.

This collection reveals the human side of leaders of judicial decisions that have significant impact on the lives of Americans. Most Americans, most likely would not know the names of any of the justices. Yet, these men and women make decisions that impact their lives. Who are these people and where do they work and with whom do they work – were the questions Betty answered in her illustrations.

Why is this personal collection important and worth the risk to invest so much time and love into, I am often asked.

Betty’s collection reminds me of two collections in the West Wing of the White House that, at first, I did not quite understand. First, was the Norman Rockwell series of The Press Lobby during the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Each illustration in the series is very simple, a table with hats indicating that the reporters were in with the President. Even Falla, the dog was included. Of course, there was a cameo of Norman Rockwell. At the time, the value for the series was well over a million dollars for each illustration. Yet, the series showed the simplicity of the press interaction with the President. It was accurate and human.

The second collection in the West Wing was the series of illustrations and paintings by George Catlin, who is known for being one of the few, if not only, illustrator to accurately portray the life of the Native American Indian community – their leaders, their traditional attire, their customs, their family life and where their lived. Catlin preserved for prosperity the truth of Native American leaders and their lives. Simple illustrations, maybe one could even say a bit primitive, certainly. Yet, Catlin recorded an important moment in American history.

As Walt Reed, the authority on American illustrators and the very person who appraised the Norman Rockwell The Press Lobby said when seeing a selection of Betty’s Supreme Court illustrations, “these illustrations are intimate.”

When the Chairman of the National Endowment of the Humanities Jim Leach, former Congressman from Iowa, saw the a few illustrations from the collection, he inquired if Betty Wells “made things up?” He shared that the press was never allowed on the floor of the Senate. Yet, Betty observed after the vote on the Panama Canal Treaty, Senate Majority Leader Senator Robert Byrd, (D-West  Virginia) on the Senate floor holding a press conference. So she illustrated the scene.

Before the days of computer graphics, cell phones taking pictures of breaking news or even Twitter, Betty had to research, be accurate and illustrate the breaking news – whether it was the Air Florida plane crash on 14th Street Bridge, the Jonestown deaths, the Iranian hostage rescue attempt and many others. At times, many witness wouldn’t not want to be photographed and yet their side of the story was essential for the news coverage. So, instead of a photograph, Betty would illustrate the witnesses to give them some anonymity. Yet, once she was too good and an intelligence source balked. On the other side, two prostitutes loved their portraits and wanted copies.

Betty worked on deadline like every other member on a news team, journalist, photographer, script writer. Instead of words or photographs, she had to accurately illustrate the scene with the emotions of anger, frustration, pride, hesitation, collegiality, and cooperation. Notice the hands in her illustrations. Hands are the most difficult for any artist to do. Yet, hands, according to psychologists and law enforcement experts, tell the truth of the state of mind of the person. Unlike many official portraits done by a sitting or photographs, notice the difference with raw candid illustrations of a leader debating, voting or making a decision.

Betty began illustrating the news in 1970 and ended her career in 2003. This was the era of the lions of American history. Betty illustrated the longest serving Senate leaders in the history of the Senate, who happened to be in office during this time period – Senators Robert Byrd, Strom Thurmond, Edward ‘Ted’ Kennedy and Daniel Innoye. Countless presidential hopefuls from the Senate are included in her private collection –  Senators Gary Hart, Barry Goldwater, Alan Cranston, Christopher Dodd, Orrin Hatch, Jesse Helms, Fritz Hollings, Edward M. Kennedy, Edward Muskie, Scoop Jackson and Pete Wilson. Betty illustrated those who did succeed to be either the party’s candidate or president – Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, Walter Mondale, Lloyd Bensten, George H.W. Bush, Dan Quayle, Robert Dole and Joe Biden.

Betty’s private collection reveals the evolution of leadership to include women and minorities. Betty illustrated Nancy Kassebaum, the first woman to the Senate elected to a full term (not replacing a husband). Or, the first African American Senator elected in the 20th century – Edward Brooke (R-Massachusetts) who served from 1967 – 1979.

This was a time of great change in America and yet leadership rarely changed. Consider the politics and tone of today as well as the ever increasing numbers of Members of Congress retiring. The reputation and leadership of Speaker of the House Tip O’Neil takes on even greater significance. Even how then Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd and Senate Minority Leader Howard Baker conducted themselves during the Panama Canal Treaty. Will this be the era to be recognized for its leadership, statesmanship above all personal consequences?

Some special moments appear. See Elizabeth Taylor blow a kiss to the Senate Floor to her then husband, Senator John Warner (R-Virgnia). Or, see Senator Ted Kennedy when he was questioning Dr. Gotlieb on the use of LSD by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Or, the time when Betty illustrated Lewis McWillie, apparently with the Las Vegas mafia, who refused to be photographed or have his voice recorded, testifying before the Kennedy Assassination hearing.

Betty pushed the boundaries for art in news – whether for broadcast or in print – for more than 30 years. Betty Wells used art to tell the story so the public would understand the news of the day.

By Keri Douglas, writer/photographer in Washington, D.C. and researcher, curator and representative of the private collection of Betty Wells and will earn a commission through any sales. This collection or select illustration are for sale to and individual or an institution that will make it available to the public for research on American history.

See the whole C-SPAN History American Artifacts program featuring Betty Wells.

For more on Betty Wells, see her web site –


One thought on “Betty Wells, Legendary News Illustrator

  1. Fantastic write-up and enjoyed the video clip as well. Betty Wells is a national treasure, and I hope that her collection finds a worthy home.

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