Esse Forrester O'Brien, poet and author, was born in Waco, Texas, on November 21, 1894, the daughter of Judge William H. and Esse (Clay) Forrester. After graduating from Waco High School she attended Baylor University, where she earned a fine arts diploma in 1913. She subsequently completed a year of postgraduate work in art at Baylor and studied under George Bridgman at the Art Students League in New York City. She continued her art studies with Lamara Goodwin in Nashville, Tennessee, with Gustav Carl Waldeck in St. Louis, Missouri, and with C. Frank Reaugh and Reveau Bassett in Dallas. After being forced to give up painting because of paint poisoning, she turned to writing and took a correspondence course in poetry from the University of Chicago. She earned a B.A. from Baylor University in 1934. She published verse and feature articles in the Texas Federation News, The Poet, Desert Magazine, Baylor Monthly and Lariat, the Dallas News, Holland's, and other publications. Esse Forrester married John L. O'Brien on June 28, 1917, in Waco, and they had one son.
In 1935 Mrs. O'Brien published Art and Artists of Texas, one of the earliest systematic attempts to catalogue artists and art activity in Texas. The book consists of anecdotal biographical sketches on artists who were active in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, together with supplemental essays on art in the Capitol, the Public Works of Art Project in Texas, and various art organizations and museums. Although the book is not always accurate, it is valuable as an early survey based in many instances on primary sources. Esse O'Brien's career as a juvenile author began when she started writing down animal stories that she told her son. She visited most of the major zoos and circuses in the United States and Europe to gather material for such children's books as Elephant Tales (1941), Clowns of the Forest (1948), Animal Tots (1956), and Reindeer Roundup (1959). Most of these were factual accounts about animals accompanied by photographs. In addition to writing books and articles, O'Brien lectured on traveling, writing, and religious subjects and conducted seminars on juvenile writing at West Texas State College and the University of Houston.
In 1941 the American Institute of Graphic Artists included Elephant Tales on its list of sixty outstanding textbooks. O'Brien also received awards from the Texas Women's Press Association, the National Federation of Press Women, Theta Sigma Phi, and Baylor University. She was a member of the American Association of University Women, the Poetry Society of Texas, the Texas Fine Arts Association, the Texas Folklore Society, the National Board of Lecturers, Theta Sigma Phi, the National Federation of Press Women, the American Poetry League, and other organizations. She died on May 21, 1975, in Valley Mills, a small community northeast of Waco.
The Handbook of Texas Women project has its own dedicated website and resources.