Friday, August 21, 2015

Friday Finds: “Flamingo Road”

Another in our growing line of vintage book covers we love.

Flamingo Road, by Robert Wilder (Bantam, 1957).
Illustration by Stanley Zuckerberg.

As Kenneth F. Kister observes in Florida on the Boil, his 2007 guide to novels and short stories based in the Sunshine State: “Robert Wilder (1901-74), a bestselling novelist from the 1940s through the 1960s, is regrettably no longer in favor with the reading public, though much of his fiction remains as fresh and cogent as that produced by some of today’s most popular storytellers.” Wilder was born in Richmond, Virginia, but spent a great deal of his childhood in the east Florida town of Daytona Beach. In addition to his modern novels (or at least they were modern at the time he first penned them), Wilder concocted “several historical novels that,” Kister says, “trace the state’s progress from the pioneering days of the 19th century to its emergence as a tourist and retirement mecca in the 20th century.” Among Wilder’s better-known works are God Has a Long Face (1940), Written on the Wind (1946), Bright Feather (1948), Walk with Evil (1957), and Wind from the Carolinas (1964).

Let us forget 1942’s Flamingo Road, either.

Kister’s plot synopsis of that “epic soap opera” calls it “the haunting story of pre-World War II love, lust, greed, and corruption in the mythical Florida city of Truro, reputedly modeled on DeLand, seat of Volusia County located northeast of Orlando. Readers quickly get to know the main players: Handsome but morally irresolute Field Carlisle; lovely Lane Ballou, a saintly prostitute who craves respectability and in particular a residence on upscale Flamingo Road; unscrupulous, nasty, ‘elephantine’ Sheriff Titus Semple, the local political Svengali; bosomy Lute-Mae Sanders, whose hospitable brothel does a booming business servicing some of Florida’s finest gentlemen; and Dan Curtis, Lane’s sugar daddy.” A commenter for the Goodreads site remarked that Wilder does “an excellent job” of “plot[ting] the political actions taken throughout the book” and that “the characters are very well done. The depiction of each character is a highlight of Wilder’s work.” Kister adds that the author’s easy prose style “is distinguished by realistic dialogue and pitch-perfect figures of speech, as in ‘If Lute-Mae Sanders ever opened her mouth, honey, this county and most of the state would split open like a dropped watermelon.”

(Right) Flamingo Road, 1942 edition

Together with his wife, Sally, Wilder adapted Flamingo Road into a stage play during the mid-1940s (the script from which, I believe, was subsequently used as the basis for a 1956 episode of the American TV anthology series Lux Video Theatre). He then put together the screenplay for the 1949 film version of his soapy tale, which showcased Joan Crawford in the Lane Ballou role (though she’s called “Lane Bellamy” in that movie) and featured Casablanca’s Sydney Greenstreet as Sheriff Semple. Seven years after Wilder’s demise, Flamingo Road inspired an NBC prime-time melodrama of the same name, starring Howard Duff, Mark Harmon, and the lovely Morgan Fairchild. (You can watch the opening title sequence from that series here.)

There have been many published versions of Flamingo Road, but my favorite is undoubtedly the one atop this post. The over-the-shoulder artistic perspective is outstanding, and the brunette shown with a telephone receiver pressed to her right ear and a lit cigarette dangling from between her red-painted fingernails--the very picture of a gossiper--is ideal for this story about secrets kept and secrets shared. Credit this cover painting to Long Island, New York-reared Stanley Zuckerberg, who also produced illustrations for works by James M. Cain, Patricia Highsmith, Norman Mailer, Irwin Shaw, and Georges Simenon. He also created one of my favorite façade paintings for the 1963 edition of John D. Macdonald’s The Drowner (shown here). You can enjoy more of Zuckerberg’s work here.

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