Friday, June 22, 2018

The Lesser Look: Kane’s Way

Part of a month-long celebration of Ron Lesser’s artistic legacy.

During the early to mid-1960s, publisher Dell assigned two American painters to create compelling cover artwork for Frank Kane’s then best-selling mystery series starring New York City private investigator Johnny Liddell. You can see Harry Bennett’s paperback fronts in this Killer Covers piece published a few months ago. Today we look—above and below—at Ron Lesser’s illustrations for 10 mostly different Liddell yarns.

Lesser’s wife of four decades, Claudia, posed for the covers of both Bare Trap (1965) and Hearse Class Male (1963). The artist adds that “the models for Fatal Undertaking were Lisa Karen”—previously seen on Blue Mascara Tears—“and Steve Holland. Lisa Karen also posed for Johnny Come Lately.”

The Lesser Look: “The Shell Scott Sampler”

Part of a month-long celebration of Ron Lesser’s artistic legacy.

The Shell Scott Sampler, by Richard S. Prather (Pocket, 1969).

The Lesser Look: “Fifth Wife”

Part of a month-long celebration of Ron Lesser’s artistic legacy.

Fifth Wife, by Vincent Gowen (Pyramid, 1963; originally published in 1927 as Sun and Moon). It wasn’t until yesterday that I realized Father Gowen (1893-1984) was for many years the vicar at an Episcopal church on Bainbridge Island, located just west of Seattle, Washington. However, he had spent part of his youth engaged in missionary work in Asia.

On the matter of his cover art for this paperback edition of Fifth Wife, Ron Lesser explains he once again recruited his own spouse, Claudia, as his model. The fact that Claudia has featured on so many of the novel fronts included in this Killer Covers series (see here, here, here, and here) raises doubts about Lesser’s early statement that “she did not like to pose” for his paintings. But her reign as the artists muse seems, at least, to have had a short run; he says that “After the late ’70s I stopped using Claudia.”

The Lesser Look: “My Body”

Part of a month-long celebration of Ron Lesser’s artistic legacy.

My Body, by “Robert Dietrich,” aka E. Howard Hunt (Lancer, 1973). This was the ninth entry in future Watergate conspirator Hunt’s series of thrillers starring Washington, D.C.-based CPA-cum-private eye Steve Bentley.

The Lesser Look: The End Is Near!

Today brings an end to Killer Covers’ celebration of Ron Lesser’s artistic legacy. Over the course of more than three dozen posts—four of which are still to come—this blog will have turned the spotlight on 60 of his paperback book fronts, as well as a variety of his other paintings, sketches, and movie posters. Despite such coverage, there remain many more Lesser creations we haven’t mentioned, but hope to address at a point not too far in the future.

My special thanks goes to Lesser himself, who—after mild initial hesitation and concerns—patiently answered all of my myriad questions about his life, career, and individual illustrations. I hope that someday his elegant artistry will receive the sort of book-length attention that has already been lavished on paperback-cover artists such as Robert McGinnis, Robert Maguire, and James Avati.

I also extend my gratitude to Charles Ardai, the editor of New York City-based book publisher Hard Case Crime, who encouraged me to contact the usually interview-averse Lesser, and even supplied me with his e-mail address to make that possible.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this series over the last five weeks. I don’t often get the chance to dig into a subject as frequently or as deeply as I have Ron Lesser’s work. With any luck, my efforts here will teach readers to recognize and appreciate this artist’s abundant talents—and, perhaps, encourage them to pick up one of the books he’s illustrated over the last six decades. My own collection of Lesser’s covers has lots of room to grow.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

The Lesser Look: Welcome to Summer!

Part of a month-long celebration of Ron Lesser’s artistic legacy.

The Ever-Loving Blues (previously published as Death of a Doll), by “Carter Brown,” otherwise known as Alan Geoffrey Yates (Signet, 1969). This is one of at least 30 books starring demonstrably rugged New York City private eye Danny Boyd.

To see more summer-related paperbacks, click here.

The Lesser Look: But Wait, There’s More

Part of a month-long celebration of Ron Lesser’s artistic legacy.

(Above) According to Lesser, this painting was featured in a “Cold Case Detective” calendar he created some years ago.

In addition to the many finished, Ron Lesser-illustrated book covers packed into my computer photo files, there’s also a scattering of paintings he intended for other uses, preliminary body sketches, and original images later cropped or overlaid with type by various paperback book publishers. As Killer Covers’ tribute to this American artist winds down, I want to showcase at least some of those works. I asked Lesser, via e-mail, to comment on the 16 paintings featured above and below, and have based my captions on his remarks.

“For most of my models,” Ron Lesser tells me, “I went through a model agency. Either Ford or Wilhelmina Models. There were several other New York agencies as well. Only models who did illustration photography were available to artists. The price for a model for illustration photography in the 1960s and ’70s was about $100 an hour. In the late ’70s that price went to $150 an hour. In the ’80s the artist paid $200 an hour. The client paid all of the expenses—photographer, model, and print costs.” Referring to two of his favorite cover models, Lesser says: “Steve Holland, who was never with an agency, kept his price at $100 an hour. Jane Minion had an agency for acting, but not a model agency. So I booked her directly, as I did for Steve. Jane was a dancer in the [1979] Bob Fosse-directed movie All That Jazz.”

The lovely brunette shown reclining in the image above was Elaine Reynolds, a onetime Playboy model who, Lesser explains, “was in the magazine several times. I used her many times. She was a great model and a very nice lady. I wish her well.” Reynolds can be seen, as well, on the cover of Target for Their Dark Desire.

This art appeared on a 1966 Avon paperback edition of Charlotte Jay’s Beat Not the Bones, a work that in its original hardcover release had won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Novel. Lesser remarks: “I do not like the painting. Not up to my standards.”

In case there was any question about this, Lesser notes that “The babe on the chaise longue is Elaine Reynolds.”

Lesser says this promotional poster for the TV spy series The Man from U.N.C.L.E., starring Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, “would have been done around 1964-65. NBC used several illustrators to make paintings for the coming TV schedule for a few years. Jimmy Bama made several paintings, among other artists. I also did the art for The Dean Martin Show … It was cool to see my paintings on my television, advertising the coming schedule.”

This painting, which Lesser says “was done several years ago for a sale,” bears a striking resemblance to his cover illustration for Carter Brown’s Tomorrow Is Murder.

Lesser remembers he wasn’t particularly impressed with the male model he employed for this painting, and that “the small babe in a bikini” is one of his favorite female subjects, Jane Minion.

“I never met Sophia Loren …,” Ron Lesser confesses, “[but] I loved to paint her face. Great bones.” He created the image shown above for the 1979 Baronet paperback edition of Forever Sophia: An Intimate Portrait, by Alan Levy. Meanwhile, the distinctly more provocative image of Loren displayed below graced the 1967 Signet edition of Lament for a Lousy Lover, an Al Wheeler/Mavis Seidlitz novel by Carter Brown. Says Lesser: “I plead guilty to placing [Loren’s] head over a different body. In this painting the body belonged to Elaine Reynolds. I did this several times. No one ever seemed to notice.” By the way, Lesser had at least one more opportunity to paint the lovely Loren, for the poster promoting her 1979 film, Firepower.

One other screen queen Lesser has painted more than once is Marilyn Monroe. Of the image shown above, titled “Marilyn in Silk Scarf,” he writes: “A gallery that represented me wanted me to make this painting. I sold the painting to The Illustrated Gallery,” located in Fort Washington, Pennsylvania. To enjoy another of Lesser’s Monroe paintings, click here.

“I have no idea what these drawings were for,” Lesser admits. “Probably preliminary sketches for a book cover.”

The armed man in the painting presented above is the seemingly ubiquitous Steve Holland. Lesser identifies the blonde posing behind him as “a very cute model, Vickie Chesire.”

The title of this historical painting is “Reflection.”

Frederic Brown’s The Wench Is Dead was originally published in 1955. However, Centipede Press brought out a new hardback edition of that novel (plus bonus stories) in 2017, compete with the Ron Lesser wraparound artwork shown above. “The book sold out,” Lesser recalls. His female model here was again Jane Minion. The artist relates his uncomplicated technique for lightening her dark locks in this pose: “If the babe in the story was a blonde, I posed her with a wig. [Minion’s] hair was auburn. I had a cheap blond wig that Jane could make look pretty good. Being of Italian heritage, she was great with hair.”

Another famous figure who’s shown up on more than one Lesser canvas in the past is the so-called Queen of Pinups, former Playboy model and fashion icon Bettie Page. As with the second Sophia Loren illustration in this post, the final two paintings here show Page’s head mounted atop curvaceous bodies conceived by Lesser. The image above is called “Too Hot to Touch,” while the painting below carries the title “I’m No Angel.”

The Lesser Look: “The Name Is Malone”

Part of a month-long celebration of Ron Lesser’s artistic legacy.

The Name Is Malone, by Craig Rice (Pyramid, 1961).

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The Lesser Look: “Death on Scurvy Street”

Part of a month-long celebration of Ron Lesser’s artistic legacy.

Death on Scurvy Street, by Ben Ames Williams (Popular Library, 1956). This novel was also published as The Bellmer Mystery.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

The Lesser Look: “The Judas Gun”

Part of a month-long celebration of Ron Lesser’s artistic legacy.

The Judas Gun, by Wayne D. Overholser (Dell, 1961).

The Lesser Look: Deep Impacts

Part of a month-long celebration of Ron Lesser’s artistic legacy.

During the course of my original interview with Ron Lesser, this last April, I asked him whether there were any specific artists who had been particularly influential on his work. He quickly responded, “Norman Rockwell.” Shortly thereafter, though, he e-mailed me a list of “other artists that I really love,” noting in his introduction to it that “I will not mention living illustrators for reasons you can assume.” Below is Lesser’s list, with his comments.

A Law for the Lion, by Louis Auchincloss (Signet, 1954), with cover art by Stanley Zuckerberg; Murder in Monaco, by John Flagg (Gold Medal, 1957), with an illustration by Bob Peak.

Stanley Zuckerberg—very underrated. I believe he was the best illustrator/artist making paperback covers during the very “painty” period of the 1940s through the ’60s. Also James Avati [who had a] similar style, but [there was] no one better than Zuckerberg.
Joe Bowler and Coby Whitmore. I used to look in the large window of the Charles E. Cooper Studio, which was east of the Art Students League, and admire these excellent illustrators.
Frank McCarthy, who was with Fredman-Chaite Studios, along Bob Peak; and I believe Bernie Fuchs was there as well.

Before this group there was Dean Cornwell, who was a huge influence on [my teacher] Frank J. Reilly.
Harold von Schmidt. I used his son for some of my Western paintings, including this one.
Tom Lovell—an incredible artist, none better.
N.C. Wyeth, also marvelous.
Frederic Remington.

19th-century artists:
Frederic Leighton and Jules Joseph Lefebvre—it was these artists I was studying when I had the [New York Metropolitan Museum of Art] open its vault. I was with Reilly at this time.
Also William-Adolphe Bouguereau. Maybe among the very best artists of all time.

Monday, June 18, 2018

The Lesser Look: “Quarry in the Middle”

Part of a month-long celebration of Ron Lesser’s artistic legacy.

Quarry in the Middle, by Max Allan Collins (Hard Case Crime, 2009). This is the eighth entry in Collins’ series featuring a randy, peripatetic hit man known only as Quarry.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

The Lesser Look: “The Trouble with Lazy Ethel”

Part of a month-long celebration of Ron Lesser’s artistic legacy.

The Trouble with Lazy Ethel (Ballantine, 1970), by Lincoln, Nebraska-born aviator-turned-author Ernest K. Gann.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

The Lesser Look: “Dead Heat”

Part of a month-long celebration of Ron Lesser’s artistic legacy.

Dead Heat, by Richard S. Prather (Pocket, 1967). Part of Prather’s long-running Shell Scott private-eye series.

Friday, June 15, 2018

The Lesser Look: “Tomorrow Is Murder”

Part of a month-long celebration of Ron Lesser’s artistic legacy.

Tomorrow Is Murder, by “Carter Brown,” aka Alan Geoffrey Yates (Signet, 1968). This is one of Brown’s dozen novels starring “ravishingly beautiful” but slightly ditzy gumshoe Mavis Seidlitz.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

The Lesser Look: “The April Robin Murders”

Part of a month-long celebration of Ron Lesser’s artistic legacy.

The April Robin Murders, by Craig Rice and Ed McBain (Dell, 1965). This was Rice’s final novel, left unfinished at the time of her death in 1957, at age 49. The book was ultimately completed by Evan Hunter under his “Ed McBain” alias.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The Lesser Look: “The Quick Red Fox”

Part of a month-long celebration of Ron Lesser’s artistic legacy.

The Quick Red Fox, by John D. MacDonald (Fawcett Gold Medal, 1964). This is the fourth entry in MacDonald’s Travis McGee series. The main cover art is by Ron Lesser, but the inset portrait of McGee was done by John McDermott.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The Lesser Look: “Heller with a Gun”

Part of a month-long celebration of Ron Lesser’s artistic legacy.

Heller with a Gun, by Louis L’Amour (Fawcett Gold Medal, 1969). This novel served as the basis for Heller in Pink Tights, a 1960 Western film starring Sophia Loren and Anthony Quinn.

Monday, June 11, 2018

The Lesser Look: “Target for Their Dark Desire”

Part of a month-long celebration of Ron Lesser’s artistic legacy.

Target for Their Dark Desire, by “Carter Brown,” aka Alan Geoffrey Yates (Signet, 1966). This is one of Brown’s many novels starring Al Wheeler, a sheriff’s homicide investigator who operates in fictional Pine County, California, near Los Angeles.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

The Lesser Look: “Beware the Curves”

Part of a month-long celebration of Ron Lesser’s artistic legacy.

Beware the Curves, by “A.A. Fair,” aka Erle Stanley Gardner (Pocket, 1966). This is the 15th book in Gardner’s series featuring mismatched Los Angeles private eyes Bertha Cool and Donald Lam. Ron Lesser created the cover for at least one other Cool and Lam novel, Bats Fly at Dusk.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

The Lesser Look: “The Third Spectre”

Part of a month-long celebration of Ron Lesser’s artistic legacy.

The Third Spectre, by “Dan Ross,” one of several pseudonyms used by Canadian writer W.E.D. Ross (Macfadden, 1967).

Friday, June 8, 2018

The Lesser Look: “Of All the Bloody Cheek”

Part of a month-long celebration of Ron Lesser’s artistic legacy.

Of All the Bloody Cheek, by Frank McAuliffe (Ballantine, 1965). This was the first volume in McAuliffe’s series starring master of disguise and hit man Augustus Mandrell.

READ MORE: Detectives Beyond Borders blogger Peter Rozovsky has composed a number of interesting posts about McAuliffe and Mandrell, all of which can be found here.