Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Stanley’s Style: How a Realist Made His Mark

The Long Escape, by David Dodge (Dell, 1950).
Cover illustration by Robert Stanley.

(Editor’s note: This piece comes from Randal S. Brandt, a librarian at the University of California, Berkeley’s Bancroft Library. Brandt is also the creator of two critically lauded Web sites: Golden Gate Mysteries, an annotated bibliography of crime fiction set in the San Francisco Bay Area; and A David Dodge Companion, which chronicles the life and works of mystery/thriller writer David Dodge.)

In the 1950s, Robert Stanley was one of the most prolific paperback cover artists employed by the Dell Publishing Company. When Dell began bringing out paperback reprints in 1943 (many in “map back” editions), the publishers originally opted for a surrealistic approach to cover illustrations, with staff artist Gerald Gregg employing a distinctive airbrush technique to render various Daliesque conceits—floating objects and fragmented body parts—and creating an instantly recognizable look. But that look changed dramatically around 1951, when the staff of the Dell art department moved to New York City from Racine, Wisconsin, where Dell’s partner, the Western Printing and Lithographing Company—one of the largest U.S. commercial printers—was located. Art director Walter Brooks engineered a shift towards romantic realism and Stanley, one of the company’s leading realist artists, became the most popular Dell cover creator.

(Right) Thrilling Western magazine, April 1939

Robert Carter Stanley Jr. was born on March 28, 1918—a century ago today—in Wichita, Kansas, the only child of Robert C. and Minnie Stanley. When he was in high school, his family relocated to Kansas City, Missouri, and, following graduation, he attended college at the Kansas City Art Institute. In 1937 he began working as a staff artist at The Kansas City Journal-Post, simultaneously selling freelance line drawings to The Kansas City Star and The Kansas City Times. In 1938 he moved to New York to establish a freelance art studio.

Stanley struggled in marketing his work to the pulp publishers, so he accepted a staff job at Standard Magazines, doing layout and graphic work. In 1939, he finally sold his first painting to the pulps, and his earliest cover appeared on the April 1939 issue of Thrilling Western. In 1940, he sold a few more covers to Mystery Magazine, Western Story, and Wild West Weekly, but steady work eluded him.

At the age of 22, in January 1941, Stanley enlisted in the National Guard Cavalry. During his service in World War II, he met Rhoda Rosenzweig. A classically trained ballerina, the redheaded Rhoda had been born on May 12, 1921, in Brooklyn, New York, the daughter of Julius and Florence Rosenzweig, a pair of Jewish immigrants from Austria. Stanley and Rhoda married in 1942 and had one child, Barbara, who entered their lives in 1944.

After the war, the Stanleys relocated to Westport, Connecticut, where he resumed his efforts to become a freelance illustrator—this time finding greater success. At first, Robert Stanley sold interior story illustrations to Argosy magazine, but soon his paintings were also gracing the fronts of pulp magazines such as Adventure, All Mystery, All Western, Big Book Western, Dime Detective, Dime Mystery, .44 Western, New Detective, New Western, Fifteen Sports Stories, Fifteen Western Tales, Star Western, Western Action, and Western Story. He also painted covers for the digest magazines Zane Grey’s Western and Spur Western Novels. In the 1950s he began collecting assignments from paperback publishers, including Bantam, Beacon, Eagle, Lancer, Lion Books, Popular Library, and Pyramid Books.

But it was his work for Dell that really put Robert Stanley’s career on the map (so to speak).

Stanley’s first published cover, for Clarence Budington Kelland’s Double Treasure (Dell 335), appeared in September 1949 and contains several of the elements that became typical of his work: men engaged in violent action and a beautiful, seductive woman. Stanley primarily painted fronts for mysteries and Westerns, and his illustrations are notable for their sexy, realistic, and action-packed images of men fighting, cowboys riding, and women either threatening or being threatened. His covers were a major ingredient of the Dell “look” of the 1950s. Most of Stanley’s paperback fronts are immediately recognizable, since he almost always enlisted himself and Rhoda as models. His men tend to appear serious, usually with tight jaws and unblinking eyes, and they are typically fully clothed—the cover for B.M. Bower’s Pirates of the Range (Dell 466, 1950) being a particular exception. His women are portrayed as alluring, menacing, terrified, and occasionally semi-nude.

Robert Stanley was responsible for painting history’s only altered Dell cover, introducing Erle Stanley Gardner’s Fools Die on Friday—the lawyer-turned-author’s 11th Bertha Cool/Donald Lam mystery. That artwork appears in two different versions (to be seen here). William H. Lyles, in his 1983 history of the publishing house, Putting Dell on the Map (Greenwood Press), explained the substitution: “The first Dell edition of Fools Die on Friday (#542, 1951) features a view of a woman zipping up her dress in response to private detective Donald Lam ordering her out of his room. The suggestion is implicitly post-coital and rushed. The revised cover (#1542, 1953) has no such suggestion; Stanley painted over the revealed undergarments and the blurb was changed to a bland statement. The incident in the novel is considerably more innocent than either cover suggests. No sex is implied in the incident, and both blurbs distort the actual dialogue. Either the hardcover publisher (Morrow) or the author (Erle Stanley Gardner) may have objected to the first version.”

The March 1951 issue of The Westerner (the house organ of the Western Printing and Lithographing Company) profiled Stanley during a visit he made with Rhoda to Western’s printing plant in Poughkeepsie, New York, providing details of his artistic methods:
Bob Stanley, an artist who furnishes Western with oil paintings which are used on the covers of the Dell 10-cent and 25-cent books, came to Poughkeepsie with Rhoda, his wife, to go through the plant and incidentally to see a window display in which they were featured.

Rhoda, who before her marriage to Bob, was a ballet dancer, at one time lived in Poughkeepsie, and although she can’t remember the city, she feels a closeness to Western because of its location and because of Bob’s connections with the Company.

Rhoda and Bob work as a team. We furnish Bob with a rough sketch of what we want. From this he makes a color sketch. After this has been approved, Rhoda plans and makes a photograph which Bob uses as a model from which he can paint the final picture. When Bob is the model, Rhoda takes the picture, and vice versa. When they appear together, the modern camera with the delayed-action shutter is used. Other models are their seven-year-old daughter, Barbara, who combines the talents of her parents by painting and studying ballet, and Rhoda’s father, Julius Rosenzweig, who also is brought into the picture at times.

Bob has a yearning to paint landscapes. As it stands now, though, we keep him so busy (he does about six covers a month for us), he hasn’t found time to go off on his own. Perhaps some day he will be able to have a one-man show.

From 1949 to 1962, Stanley executed 242 covers for Dell, including some of the publisher’s most iconic books, such as Dashiell Hammett’s Nightmare Town (Dell 379, 1950), Anthony Boucher’s Rocket to the Morgue (Dell 591, 1952), and David Dodge’s The Long Escape (Dell 406, 1950). In addition, his self-portrait—as Brett Halliday’s private eye Michael Shayne—appeared on 28 Dell covers painted by Robert McGinnis (an example is shown here).

In the 1970s, Robert Stanley and Rhoda divorced. Stanley went on to wed again, moving with his new wife to Big Pine Key, Florida. He passed away on August 12, 1996, at age 78. Rhoda also remarried but stayed in Westport, where she died at 91, on June 24, 2012.

1 comment:

Robert Deis (aka "SubtropicBob") said...

Great post and I had not seen that bio. Thanks! It does omit the fact that Robert Stanley painted scores of cover and interior illustrations for men's adventure magazines in the 1950s and 1960s.