Nineteen forty-four was a pretty busy year, news-wise. Firstly, there was World War II, which had just entered its final, bloody throes. Then there was the discovery of DNA, which was revolutionising our understanding of biology. And there were nerds who, over at Harvard, were plugging in the world's first digital computer.
Someone must have forgotten to tell LIFE magazine, though, because in that same year they commissioned a 10-page photo essay on Tommy Tucker, a cross-dressing squirrel who “liked” to wear dresses.
We don’t really know what it was about the story that so captured the editor’s interest – perhaps people in the ’40s were just as gaga for animal photos as we are now – but we’re kinda glad it did.
Tommy belonged to Zaidee Bullis, a Washington woman who had found him as a baby in a tree in her backyard (his mother had apparently died, and the father was nowhere to be seen). Good Samaritan that she was, Bullis nursed Tommy to health. But instead of releasing him back into the wild, she decided to keep him and, for reasons that remain unclear, dress him up in custom-made frocks.
When LIFE’s editor got wind of the story, he dispatched freelance photographer Nina Leen out to report. When he saw her shots, he was apparently so impressed that he promoted her to staff photographer.
Sadly, Tommy passed away in 1949 – just one year after the Allies proved victorious in the battlefields of Europe and Asia. At the request of his owners, Tommy’s body was bequeathed to the Smithsonian. So far, the museum has declined to take him. But at least we have Leen’s photos.