Pattern for Panic, by Richard S. Prather (Berkley, 1958), with a cover illustration by Paul Rader.
It was 110 years ago today, on October 5, 1906, that future painter and paperback cover artist Isaac Paul Rader was born in the fast-growing New York City borough of Brooklyn. His family was of Ukrainian-Russian stock, his father, Samuel, a carpenter who would go on to practice his woodworking skills in the early American automobile industry. Although the boy’s mother referred to him as Izzy, others took to calling him Paul, which became the credit under which he is still best remembered—Paul Rader, a name that’s now usually followed by some flattering identifier such as “brilliant American artist” or “virtuosic illustrator.”
According to Southern California bookseller and books historian Lynn Monroe, who has spent years researching this artist’s life and career (and compiling lists of his diverse works), it was after Rader’s family relocated to Toledo, Ohio, that young Paul’s interest in painting grew evident. “Very early on,” Monroe writes, “he showed a gift for realistic portraiture, and at age 16 he became one of the youngest artists in America to have an art museum exhibit of his paintings. The Toledo Museum of Art, a few blocks from the Rader home, was his first showcase.” The teenager’s devotion to his education in creativity was sufficiently great, that when his parents moved to Detroit, Michigan (in order that his father could take up a job with the Ford Motor Company, crafting the wood panels for station wagons), Paul remained behind. “I believe he was still studying at the Toledo Institute of Art,” says his daughter, Elaine Rader, a Georgia jewelry maker, “so I would think he stayed in order to finish up his classes and he may have had some commissions to do, as well. I believe he lived with his sister during that time.”
Eventually, though, Paul did move to the Motor City. He “set up a studio in his parent’s attic,” Monroe recalls, and “may have attended classes at Wayne State University, but he did not graduate. He no longer had any time for college; he was getting work. Rader became a successful portrait painter in Detroit, painting many well-to-do local residents including judges and lawyers. Supposedly, there once were Rader portraits hanging in the Michigan State Capitol building [in Lansing], but if that is true they are no longer there.”
(Right) A Paul Rader self-portrait (image courtesy of Elaine Rader).
Hoping to further refine his talents, Paul Rader left for Europe, where he spent a year studying painting, at least partly in Paris. He subsequently returned to the States in 1931, wed a woman from a Philadelphia family, and promptly moved with her to the City of Brotherly Love. But the couple’s love for each other did not endure; they divorced in 1940, and Rader, then in his mid-20s, decamped to New York City, where he’d heard there were bright opportunities for aspiring brushstroke geniuses. Unfortunately, he arrived in Manhattan just as the United States was turning its focus toward World War II. Rader is said to have taken on welding jobs to make ends meet until the fighting ended in 1945, and full-time artists were again in demand. He then resumed taking portrait commissions, but also began moving into commercial illustration, doing work for advertising clients and accepting assignments from magazines such as Redbook, American Weekly, and Family Circle. Rader probably needed more regularity in his work and pay schedule by that point in his life, for in 1942 he’d walked down the aisle for a second time, marrying the former Edith Radley, and in 1954 the couple welcomed the birth of their first and only child, the aforementioned Elaine.
By the late 1950s, Rader’s portfolio of work was swelling. He had created illustrations for men’s publications such as Bachelor and the Esquire-wannable Swank, and he was in growing demand as a paperback-cover artist, being hired by publishers such as Gold Medal, Ace, and especially Midwood. Monroe writes of that period:
Coming from his background in advertising and illustration, Rader tried to make his covers fashionable. But Midwood did not want their covers to be fashionable, just eye-catching and beautiful. [Rader’s agents at the Balcourt Art Service] described the kinds of covers he supplied by genres, like “Westerns” or “science fiction” or “sexy,” and Rader quickly became one of the greatest of the “sexy cover” artists of that era. “He had the ability to create a desirable woman on canvas,” Edith Rader said. And it was this ability that led to his success at Midwood. Rader’s work was not like the gloomy or abstract covers painted by some of his contemporaries. “His idols were [George] Petty and [Alberto] Vargas. Paul loved George Petty’s formula for turning each woman he painted beautiful. But Petty’s girls were sometimes anatomically impossible; if those legs were real they would be 9 feet tall. Paul was more of a realist.”Again according to Monroe, Rader’s first illustration to grace a paperback novel appeared on the front of Girl Running, a 1956 Signet Books release by Adam Knight (a pseudonym used by Lawrence Lariar) and the seventh entry in a series starring New York private investigator Stone Conacher. Rader is said to have entered the Midwood line with Carla, a lightly erotic 1958 tale set in Buffalo, New York. It was credited to “Sheldon Lord,” but was actually the first novel published by a guy who would become more than a little famous as a crime-fictionist: Lawrence Block.
Over the next decade and a half, until his retirement in 1970—when publishers were forsaking hand-drawn cover imagery in favor of photographic fronts—Paul Rader delivered hundreds more covers for paperback books, staking out a prominent position in a field already ripe with such gifted painters as Robert McGinnis, Mitchell Hooks, Ernest Chiriacka (aka Darcy), Harry Bennett, Rudy Nappi, and Robert K. Abbett. He created fronts for yarns both semi-literary and manifestly sexual, including Three Day Pass—to Kill, by J.W. Burke and Edward Grace (1958); Virgin’s Summer, by Alan Marshall (1960); Liza’s Apartment, by Joan Ellis (1961); Teacher’s Pet, by Mark Clements (1963); Awake to Love, by John Nemec (1967); Reluctant Nympho, by Joan Ellis (1968); Two for the Road, by Gerald Kramer (1970); and the tantalizingly titled Nympho Librarian, by Les Tucker (1970). As prolific as he was, Rader might have seemed even more so, because his paintings were frequently employed by publishers to decorate more than one title. (You’ll find examples of such reuses in this “Isaac Paul Rader Checklist.”)
“His quick, realistic take on such fantasy subjects as dreamy blondes and sultry redheads distinguishes him from the pack,” says Monroe. Rader, whose favorite model was evidently his second wife, Edith—painted the women on his book jackets with an obvious love for their curves and crevasses; and though he didn’t exaggerate the length of their limbs to the same eye-catching degree as Petty or McGinnis, he rarely failed to give his subjects’ breasts a bit of useful buoyancy and their lower backs enough sweep to carry a bobsled across their derrières. The works were intended principally for a male audience or, on numerous occasions, for lesbian readers; yet the supple femmes decorating those fronts were so beautifully rendered, they might have been appreciated, too, by younger, less priggish women who happened to encounter them on their boyfriend’s or husband’s nightstands. “Many of the books Rader did covers for are collected today not for the book at all but only for the cover,” Monroe notes. “His sexy Midwoods are each little tiny pocketsize works of art, … elevating the paperback cover to classic pin-up status.”
It’s been 30 years since Paul Rader died, on June 7, 1986, at age 79. Although his reputation within the art world—and among fiction readers—waned for a spell, he has finally won icon status among folks who find delight in pawing through or collecting vintage paperback façades. He was certainly one of the finest practitioners in his field, well deserving of tribute. And a tribute is precisely what I have in mind. From now until the end of October, I’ll be posting some of my favorite Rader book fronts in Killer Covers, new ones every day.
Rader’s artwork for a May 1968 Midwood release, The Boss’s Couch, by Jim Conroy. Click here to see the published novel.