Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Scandalizing the ’Burbs

The cover of Adultery in Suburbia (1964). See the back here.

Once upon a time, the term suburb referred to those areas on the outskirts of cities where mostly poor people found lodgings and very little work. After World War II, however, as servicemen streamed back to the United States to start families and score their representative chunks of the “American Dream,” and as house-building funds became available through President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s G.I. Bill and the Federal Housing Authority, suburban residential areas began to grow like fat tree rings around the nation’s metropolises. Ideally, those new “bedroom communities” would offer all the peacefulness and privacy of older rural environments, but also easier access to urban services, shopping centers, and business offices than were common to farm lands. The model for the middle-class, 20th-century suburban family was the Cleavers, stars of the 1957-1963 TV sitcom Leave It to Beaver.

But as suburbs were firmly established, it became clear they could suffer from the very same downsides as the cities with which they were associated: crime, crowding, poverty, social and racial tensions, and inadequate public works. People couldn’t outrun the problems of living together, no matter how many picket fences they put up or how many martinis were mixed by pipe-smoking dads for convivial weekly bridge groups.

Scandal inflicted the ’burbs, as well. Housewives, bored with baking brownies, seduced or were seduced by milkmen, door-to-door salesmen, and their more handsome neighbors. Husbands weary of driving home over many miles, only to find that their growing children no longer greeted them as warmly as they once had and that their stay-at-home spouses didn’t understand the work pressures they were under, found succor in the silky arms of divorcées down the street. Teenagers who were supposed to be studying or helping little old ladies across busy thoroughfares instead sneaked cigarettes outside school gymnasiums or popped bra hooks in Chevys parked at closed Dairy Queens. And those pool parties … well, who knew how many of the seven deadly sins might be committed twixt the diving board and the lemonade-sticky lounge chairs?

The perceived safety and privacy of the ’burbs could actually engender atypical societal behaviors. “There is a strong tendency in the suburban environment for certain social attitudes to retrogress,” wrote Robert Brooks in his 1967 “exposé,” Adultery in Suburbia. “A situation that highlights this particular type of throwback and negation of the usual and more normal sexual covetousness a man feels for his wife is the organized wife-swapping arrangements that have recently come into public views.”

In other words, humans didn’t lose their faults, just because they lost their urban addresses. They only hoped their indiscretions would escape notice. But no such luck. As the 1960s firmly set in, with its carnal freedoms and curiosity about drugs, suburbs fell under suspicion of harboring secrets and scandals. This was due in part to overactive imaginations, but also to authors such as John Updike, who made his name partly as a “chronicler of adultery,” writing books like Couples (1968) that exposed lustful dalliances beyond the city limits. Licentiousness was a familiar component of cities; the suburbs were fertile new territory in which to explore improprieties.

If there was any “constellation prize” (as young Beaver Cleaver would have phrased it) to be had from all of this, it was the birth of a titillating, if sometimes fairly ridiculous genre of suburban sin fiction. Contributing greatly to that field was prolific American pulpmeister Orrie Hitt (1916-1975), one of whose books, Never Cheat Alone (1960), is displayed above, with other examples embedded below. Hitt’s been pretty much forgotten over the last three decades, but he once made a name for himself turning out provocative paperbacks such as I Prowl by Night, Shabby Street, and more.

He was hardly alone, though, in quickening the pulses of readers intrigued by the illicit adventures of folks living on the urban outskirts. At the top of this post, you’ll find my favorite book cover from this genre, the one attached to Adultery in Suburbia, a 1964 novel by “Matthew Bradley,” which was apparently a pen name used by Peter T. Scott (who also churned out unauthorized Tarzan novels as “Barton Werper”). Credit for that Gold Star edition’s “good-girl art” belongs to Bernard Barton, a mid-20th-century illustrator who, on top of creating erotic novel jackets (another of which can be enjoyed here), developed crime story fronts for such publishers as Ace Books. Unlike some more explicitly painted erotic concoctions, Barton’s Adultery in Suburbia front leaves little to the imagination, yet shows nothing particularly objectionable (although I’m sure it would send more conservative readers into a lather over both its display of partial nudity and its cover teaser: “Her illness was nymphomania, but there were others in town far more disturbed.”).

There are a number of artists behind the 75 covers showcased below, including: Raymond Johnson (Love in Suburbia, Cancel These Vows, Suburbia: Jungle of Sex); Tom Miller (Crack-up in Suburbia); Harry Barton (Her Young Lover, Helena’s House, The Damned and the Innocent); Robert Maguire (Sexurbia County, The Fires Within); Robert McGinnis (Oh Careless Love, The Lion House); Al Rossi (The Empty Bed, Suburbia After Dark, The Sex Rebels, Weekday Widows); Ernest “Darcy” Chiriacka (Make Mine Love, Sex Nest, The Night It Happened, The Third Lust); Gino Forte (The Big Bedroom), Fred Fixler (The Passion Hunters); Paul Rader (Spring Fever, Daytime in Suburbia), and Al Brule (Dial “M” for Man, Sex Is a Woman).

One other note about these book jackets: The Big Bedroom (1959) carries the byline “Edward Ronns.” That was just a pseudonym frequently used by Edward S. Aarons, a writer who is probably best remembered for penning the Sam Durell spy novels (Assignment: Burma Girl, Assignment: Maria Tirana, etc.).

Click on any of the covers to open an enlargement.

Incidentally, if you know of additional examples of suburban sin fiction, don’t hesitate to cite titles, authors, and Internet-reference locations in the Comments section of this post.


Frank Loose said...

One title that comes to mind is: 5:45 to Suburbia, by Vin Packer (you can find a listing and book cover at Amazon)

Curt Purcell said...

Passion Hunters and Part-Timers. I'm sure I've read more, but those came to mind right away.

Corey Wilde said...

Just my luck, I moved to the wrong 'burb.