What's in the box? Uh, you know, lipstick, gum, cigarettes, the souls of men I consume. The usual.
Above, really nice front and rear cover art for The Blonde on the Street Corner by David Goodis, which was published by Lion Books as a paperback original in 1954. Set in Philadelphia during 1936, the book examines a bunch of guys who have big dreams but no money, no motivation, and no ideas how to escape dead-end Philly. The narrative is basically plotless, like the characters' lives. Talk about a great depression. The cover art, by Robert Maguire, is beautiful but the blonde depicted is nothing like the blonde Goodis writes about. Goodis's blonde is overweight, married, and in her mid-thirties. She does have a sexual aura, though, and certainly fits the mold of a femme fatale. This is considered lesser Goodis, but it's still good enough.
I could screw my way to the top but this method is so much more satisfying.
Above you see the covers for the 1958 and 1954 Signet editions of Death Before Bedtime, by Edgar Box, who was in reality literary legend Gore Vidal. This novel is the middle entry of a trilogy—the first is Death in the Fifth Position and the third is Death Likes It Hot. All feature public relations exec/amateur detective Peter Sargeant II, and the story in this one takes place in Washington, D.C., and involves a murdered senator, his promiscuous daughter, his widow, and various figures ranging from pure to corrupt. It owes plenty to Agatha Christie in that the murder—via dynamite, by the way—occurs in a house and everyone who was on the premises is a suspect. Unsurprisingly, there's almost as much sex as sleuthing, but there's also plenty of Vidalian wit. The top cover was painted by Robert Maguire and the second was the work of Clark Hulings.
Mid-century paperbacks and the many sides of erotic dance.
We've seen more paperback covers featuring dancers than we can count. No surprise—they are after all an essential element of crime fiction, and many of the covers depicting them are excellent. But as you might imagine, novels that feature strippers, showgirls, and burlesque dancers as characters also fall into the sleaze genre quite often, which in turn makes for a lot of low budget cover work. So we have the full range for you today in a collection depicting the kinetic art of stage dancing, with illustrations from Bernard Safran, Robert Maguire, Robert McGinnis, Gene Bilbrew, Doug Weaver, and others, as well as numerous unknowns. Enjoy.
I can’t wait until I can afford a good pair of high heels—then when I walk all over these chumps it’ll actually hurt them.
Above is the cover for the 1952 Lion Library paperback edition of Ward Greene’s Cora Potts, which was originally published in 1929 as Cora Potts: A Pilgrim’s Progress. An illiterate country girl robs her father’s store, runs away barefooted to the big city, eventually commits murder, and ends up a respectable, nouveau riche society wife. Greene was saying that the U.S. was a country that rewarded greed and ruthlessness, while respect for the rules was peddled to the lower classes to keep them in line. Some critics found this formulation unpalatable, and many thought the part where Potts burns through $100,000 in one year was just impossible. As that’s only about $1.3 million in today’s money we find their protests bizarre, but in any case Greene had based his character on an actual femme fatale with the amazing name of Kitty Queen.
Catherine Queen, as she had been born, indeed progressed from barefoot Georgia bumpkin to bejeweled society dame. She became public knowledge briefly in 1929 when her dupe of a husband, a prominent banker, was nabbed for embezzlement and the facts of his lavish expenditures on Queen came out at trial. How much had he spent on her in a year? $147,000. And like Cora Potts’ hapless first husband, Queen’s husband still loved her, wrote heartrending letters from prison, and sent her the few meager dollars he still collected via various means. And yet Queen never visited him once, same as Potts never visits her imprisoned spouse. The Manhattan critics who doubted the novel's verisimilitude knew nothing about Kitty Queen, but Greene had lived and worked in Atlanta and down there her story had been big news.
The cover at top is by Mal Singer, and the art from Lion’s 1955 re-issue at right was painted by Robert Maguire. Greene’s book is surprisingly obscure today, but its general message that in a corrupt society vice is virtue resonates more than ever. His genius was also in having a female character behave in a way typically ascribed to successful men, and having her go unpunished for breaking both the rule of law and of gender. Greene touched on similar themes more than once, but also wrote upbeat material. One of those pieces was a short story called, “Happy Dan, the Whistling Dog,” which appeared in Cosmopolitan and became a primary inspiration for one of the most beloved screen romances of all time—the animated feature Lady and the Tramp.
And just to dig as deeply into this subject as we can, there is some confusion online about when Greene wrote that dog story. Nearly every website says 1943, but then again nearly every website copies from other websites. A couple of sources say the story is from 1924, while a French page says 1937. We don’t know when he wrote it, but we’re inclined to believe the 1924 date. Greene was already in his mid-thirties by then, and had been writing for Cosmo since at least 1923, publishing a piece on F. Scott Fitzgerald that year. We think Walt Disney probably read the Happy Dan story in 1943 in an old Cosmo, and at that point contacted the now respected literary figure Greene about buying the property and adapting it. But we don’t know for sure. Someone in the real world of actual libraries with actual paper info will have to sort this one out.
What do you call forty dead men? A good start.
Two years ago we shared five covers of women standing over men they had just killed and mentioned that there were many examples in vintage cover art of that particular theme. Today we’ve decided to revisit the idea in order to reiterate just how often women in pulp are the movers and shakers—and shooters and stabbers and clubbers and poisoners and scissorers. Now if they do this about a billion more times they’ll really be making a difference that counts. French publishers, interestingly, were unusually fond of this theme—so egalitarian of them. That’s why many of the covers here are from France, including one—for which we admit we bent the rules of the collection a bit, because the victim isn’t dead quite yet—of a woman actually machine gunning some hapless dude. But what a great cover. We also have a couple of Spanish killer femmes, and a Dutch example or two. Because we wanted to be comprehensive, the collection is large and some of the fronts are quite famous, but a good portion are also probably new to you. Art is by the usual suspects—Robert Maguire, Barye Phillips, Alex Piñon, Robert Bonfils, Robert McGinnis, Rudolph Belarski, et al. Enjoy.
It’s great that you’re early to rise, sweetie. Too bad you’re also quick to finish.
Above, the cover of Arnold E. Grisman’s Early To Rise with art by Robert Maguire. It’s a rags to riches story about a young guy fresh out of the army who becomes a fabric dye tycoon. Doesn’t sound thrilling, does it? Well, there are also trade secrets, connections to Indian maharajahs, and romance, if that helps. 1958 on this originally, with the Berkeley paperback appearing in ’59.
What’s in a name? Everything, if it’s the title of a vintage paperback.
Above and below you will find a large collection of pulp, post-pulp, and sleaze paperback fronts that have as their titles a character’s first name. There are hundreds of examples of these but we stopped at thirty-two. The collection really highlights, more than others we’ve put together, how rarely vintage paperback art focuses on male characters. The prose is virtually all male-centered and male-driven, of course, but because the mid-century paperback market was male-driven too, that meant putting women on the covers to attract the male eye. We tell our girlfriends this all the time, but they still think we just don’t bother looking for male-oriented vintage art. But we do. For this collection we found two novels that have male characters’ names as their titles, and we looked pretty hard. If we had to guess, we’d say less than 5% of all pulp art is male-oriented. In any case, the illustrations come from the usual suspects—Barye Phillips, Robert McGinnis, Jef de Wulf, Paul Rader, et al., plus less recognized artists like Doug Weaver. Thanks to all the original uploaders for these.
Mid-century fiction’s love affair with the East produced scores of virtuoso bookcovers.
It seems time for another themed cover collection, so today we’re sharing some of the scores of Asian styled mid-century paperback fronts we’ve seen. Much of the fiction here is offensive on some level, but then quite a bit of the old literature falls into that category. The art, on the other hand, is somewhat easier to look at dispassionately. So we have thirty-two paperback covers revealing the mid-century fascination with—or exploitation of—Asian archetypes, with art by Denis McLoughlin, Robert Maguire (identically on Ne-San and The Transistor Girls), J. Oval, aka Ben Ostrick, and more. Four or five of these came from Flickr, so thanks to the original uploaders on those.
What is authorship, after all?
This striking paperback cover for Mr. Arkadin was put together for Britain’s WDL Books by R. W. Smethurst, a well-known illustrator of comic books during the 1950s and 1960s. The Smethurst signature you see is not an autograph, but rather part of the art, something many of his covers contained. But the fact that he claims credit at all is rather interesting, because the art isn’t completely his. He seems to have borrowed his red-skirted femme fatale from Robert Maguire, who painted her for John D. MacDonald’s April Evil, below. It’s quite possible the other figures are borrowed as well. How strange.
Or is it? Maybe Smethurst was simply following Orson Welles’ lead. Though Welles is credited as author of Mr. Arkadin, he never wrote it. He developed a story for the film version, and wrote the script for it, but after the film he farmed out the novelization to a French film critic named Maurice Bessy. That screenplay adaptation was published in French in 1955, then translated from French into English a year later and released as what you see above. So in the end we have Welles taking credit for another’s writing, and Smethurst borrowing another’s art. And to think, all this derived from a film Welles never finished.
Yet, it’s fitting. Welles was consumed by the question of fakery. His documentary F for Fake discusses the subject in absorbing detail, even focusing on his own work. In short, he suggests that authenticity is a chimerical concept because it is subject to human error and fraud. While Welles slyly avoided explicitly claiming authorship of the Mr. Arkadin novelization, Maurice Bessy’s role, if it was ever widely known, was reconfirmed only in 2007. It’s easy to suspect that Welles knew the role of his ghostwriter would be forgotten. We’re talking about a man, after all, whose career caught fire thanks to one of history’s ultimate fakes—his panic inducing War of the Worlds broadcast.
We’re pretty sure, Smethurst, however, is not actually playing with the concept of fakery. John D. MacDonald was not obscure and neither was artist Robert Maguire, so there was no attempt at theft when Smethurst painted a close duplicate of Maguire’s femme. His cover falls into the category of pastiche—work in the style of another. What we’d really enjoy is if someone out there identified the other figures on the cover. But if those are Smethurst’s that would prove interesting too. In the meantime, if you want to know about Welles’ F for Fake and learn more about his attitudes toward authenticity, go here.
Pull the blinds and turn out the lights.
We’ve explored several cover motifs in pulp art, and another we’ve grown to appreciate is the use of venetian blind shadows or silhouettes. Always a dramatic addition to a cover, we could probably compile fifty of these, at least, but here are twenty examples. The artists—Olivier Brabbins, Emilio Freix, Robert Maguire, James Hodges, and others—use them to greater and lesser degrees, and opt for both literal and stylized renderings. For instance, the above cover from Maguire shows vertical shadows, but the sense of venetian blinds remains. As always, thanks to all the original uploaders, particularly Pulpnivora for the very nice front to La llamada de la muerte.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1950—The Great Brinks Robbery Occurs
In the U.S., eleven thieves steal more than $2 million from an armored car company's offices in Boston, Massachusetts. The skillful execution of the crime, with only a bare minimum of clues left at the scene, results in the robbery being billed as "the crime of the century." Despite this, all the members of the gang are later arrested.
1977—Gary Gilmore Is Executed
Convicted murderer Gary Gilmore is executed by a firing squad in Utah, ending a ten-year moratorium on Capital punishment in the United States. Gilmore's story is later turned into a 1979 novel entitled The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer, and the book wins the Pulitzer Prize for literature.
1942—Carole Lombard Dies in Plane Crash
American actress Carole Lombard
, who was the highest paid star in Hollywood during the late 1930s, dies in the crash of TWA Flight 3, on which she was flying from Las Vegas to Los Angeles after headlining a war bond rally in support of America's military efforts. She was thirty-three years old.
1919—Luxemburg and Liebknecht Are Killed
Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, two of the most prominent socialists in Germany, are tortured and murdered by the Freikorps. Freikorps was a term applied to various paramilitary organizations that sprang up around Germany as soldiers returned in defeat from World War I. Members of these groups would later become prominent members of the SS.
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