Sunday, October 4, 2009
It’s one of the stories I remember best from my early education. During the spring of my seventh-grade year (or maybe it was eighth grade), a group of boys from my class decided to take advantage of a maintenance truck that had been parked idly beneath the high windows of the girl’s gymnasium locker. While others were busy in class, they scampered to the top of that vehicle and slowly lifted their wide eyes above the windowsill. I don’t know how long they remained unseen, but once discovered, their presence set off shrieks that threatened to shatter glass throughout that level of the school. Even before the young ladies caught bare-assed and red-faced could formally complain (along with their mothers) about such indignities, our very proper female principal had identified the guilty parties and called them on the carpet. I don’t remember what disciplinary actions followed, but I do recall thanking my lucky stars that I had not been invited to take part in this pubescent prank. At the least, it saved me from having to endure the ugly looks--and I do mean cut-off-your-balls ugly--that those embarrassed misses shot at the offenders each time they passed in the echoing hallways.
It was from that incident that I learned the meaning of “Peeping Tom.” However, the term goes much farther back in history, to the legend of Lady Godiva. According to the tale, Godiva was the wife of an 11th-century Anglo-Saxon nobleman who had recently imposed onerous taxes on the residents of Coventry, in England’s West Midlands region. Sympathizing with the locals, she asked her hubby to roll back the levies. Finally wearying of her repeated entreaties, he agreed to do so--but only if she would ride a horse naked through the town streets. Godiva took him up on the dare, but first ordered that townspeople remain inside and shutter their windows. Everyone obeyed, it’s said, except for a tailor who couldn’t resist a glimpse of the noblewoman’s beauty as she rode by concealed only by her cascading hair. The story has it that Godiva’s husband made good on his promise, while the reckless voyeur--thereafter known as Peeping Tom--was struck blind for his transgression.
Usually voyeurism doesn’t result in one losing his or her eyesight. (Thank goodness.) But it can lead to legal action. Only this last summer, for instance, a video circulated on the Internet showing Erin Andrews, a 31-year-old ESPN sideline reporter, curling her long blond hair and putting on makeup while standing nude in front of a hotel mirror. The quality of the image wasn’t great, but that’s partly because it was shot without the subject’s knowledge, through a modified hotel room keyhole. When Andrews learned of this footage, she complained of invasion of privacy, and ESPN made an effort to strike the video from numerous Web sites. Just last week, 48-year-old Michael David Barrett was arrested in Chicago for stalking the ESPN “siren” and shooting eight videos of her through hotel keyholes in Nashville, Tennessee, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
The Andrews saga sent me back to my collection of vintage paperback jackets. Believe it or not, the 20th century produced a whole genre of “Peeping Tom covers.” Some decorated cheap books designed for “adult reading,” including a number by the prolific Orrie Hitt (The Peeper, I Prowl by Night, Too Hot to Handle, The Love Season, Peeping Tom, etc.). Others fronted works by Clifton Adams (Whom Gods Destroy), Harold Q. Masur (Bury Me Deep), and Stephen Ransome (Some Must Watch). A couple of specimens were added in more recent years by Hard Case Crime (House Dick, by E. Howard Hunt, and The Last Quarry, by Max Allan Collins)--obvious odes to the genre, conceived by publisher Charles Ardai and his team of talented artists.
Within this genre of book covers, there seem to be three varieties. The first offers glimpses of titillating action through keyholes--the sort of action Ms. Andrews’ stalker was undoubtedly hoping to capture. Jay de Bekker’s Keyhole Peeper (Beacon, 1955)--shown at the top of this post--is a splendid example. “De Beeker” was in fact a pseudonym used by pulp novelist Prentice Winchell (1895-1976), who also published as “Spencer Dean” and, perhaps most memorably, as “Stewart Sterling.” For more than two decades, from the early 1940s through the mid-’60s, Winchell wrote New York City-based series featuring fire marshal Ben Pedley (Five Alarm Funeral), department store troubleshooter Don Cadee (The Scent of Fear), and Manhattan hotel security chief Gil Vine (Dead Right, aka The Hotel Murders). The author evidently had a particular interest in hotel sleuthing; in 1954, he and co-author Dev Collans published I Was a Hotel Detective, a non-fiction work described as “a startling exposé of life in a big-city hotel.” Keyhole Peeper appears not to be a Vine book, but instead a standalone novel. “A house detective spills his guts,” announces its front-cover teaser. “Behind every door lay a temptation!” Another description of the story’s plot reads: “It was not easy for Holcumbe to make the grade as house detective. Day and night he had to cope with party girls, hustlers, con men ... but toughest of all was his battle with himself.”
At least, if we’re to judge from the jacket of Keyhole Peeper, he didn’t lack for entertainment during the course of that battle.
The second sort of Peeping Tom cover involves windows through which males catch furtive, often hungry ganders at women in various stages of undress. There are many of these, though few are quite as distinctive as the front of Bantam’s 1949 edition of Dead Ringer, by Fredric Brown (an entry in his Ed and Am Hunter private-eye series), shown below. One of my personal favorites in this subgenre, though, is the jacket from Frances Loren’s Bachelor Girl (Beacon, 1963), which was painted by Robert Maguire. It’s unusual in that the person treated to a surreptitious sighting of supple feminine flesh through glass is the reader, rather than some character in the book.
Finally come the jackets, such as that on Max Collier’s 1962 novel, Thorn of Evil (illustrated by Paul Rader), in which men avail themselves of salacious perspectives from elsewhere than behind glass. And get away with it--unlike my young classmates in school.
All I can say, before you scroll down any further, is “enjoy the view.” Just click on the covers to bring up enlargements.
(Incidentally, I owe credit to the Web site Vintage Paperbacks: Good Girl Art, where I discovered several of the jackets featured in this post. Thanks, as well, to critic and Rap Sheet contributor Dick Adler, who sent me one or two other of the covers.)
READ MORE: “Too Hot to Handle by Orrie Hitt (Beacon, 1959),” by Michael Hemmingson (Those Sexy Vintage Sleaze Books).