Guys and Molls | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian
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Guys and Molls

Bold, garish and steamy cover images from popular pulp-fiction magazines of the 1930s and '40s have made their way from newsstands to museum walls

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A blonde in a red strapless gown grasps the receiver of an emergency telephone, but her call to the cops has been interrupted. From behind her, a beefy brute with a scar on his cheek clamps a meaty hand over her mouth. His other hand presses a .45-caliber automatic against her neck.

What will become of the blonde beauty? Can the police trace her call in time? And what’s a dame doing out alone at night in a red strapless dress anyway? Newsstand passersby who saw this scene—painted by New York artist Rafael de Soto for the July 1946 cover of a pulp-fiction monthly called New Detective Magazine—could pick up a copy for pocket change and satisfy their curiosity in a story inside titled “She’s Too Dead for Me!”

Pulp-fiction magazines—or the pulps, as everyone called them—were monthly or biweekly collections of stories printed on the cheapest wood-pulp paper that could be run through a press without ripping. Their covers, however, were reproduced in color on more expensive coated stock because the gripping, often steamy artwork sold the magazines.

A good pulp cover told a story in a flash. Ahandsome flyboy hurtles through the air upside down, his mouth open in a scream, his fist clutching the ring of his parachute’s rip cord. Disembodied eyes stare at a furtive man in a pulleddown fedora as he pauses under a streetlight; his hands grip a newspaper with the bloodred headline “BODY FOUND.”

“The artists who painted these covers had to catch your eye in the depths of the Depression and make you reach for that last ten cents in your pocket,” says pulp-art collector Robert Lesser, referring to the usual cover price. “Bear in mind, a dime was real money back then. For a nickel, you could ride a subway or buy a large hot dog with sauerkraut.”

Lesser, 70, a New York City playwright and retired advertising- sign salesman, bought his first original pulp-cover painting in 1972. It was a riveting 1933 portrayal by artist George Rozen of radio and pulp-fiction staple the Shadow (p. 54). Cloaked in black against a vibrant yellow background, the “master of the night” is pictured clawing his way out of a captor’s net. Over the next 30 years, Lesser tracked down and acquired many more pulp paintings—some 160 in all. Through the end of August, visitors to the Brooklyn Museum of Art can see 125 of these works in an entertaining new exhibition, “Pulp Art: Vamps, Villains, and Victors from the Robert Lesser Collection.”

Descendants of the Victorian penny dreadfuls, the pulps enjoyed their heyday in the 1930s and ’40s. Their fans (mostly men) plunked down more than a million dollars a month in small change to follow the adventures of Doc Savage, the Shadow, the Mysterious Wu Fang, G-8 and His Battle Aces, or Captain Satan, King of Detectives. There were sciencefiction pulps, crime pulps, aerial-combat pulps, Westerns, jungle adventures and more. Americans were eager for cheap escapist entertainment during the Depression and the war years that followed, and the pulps delivered.

“My dad would buy a pulp magazine,” Lesser says, “and my sister and I would know to leave him alone. He’d joined the French Foreign Legion for the next few hours.”

Best-selling authors like Edgar Rice Burroughs, Zane Grey, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Erle Stanley Gardner and even 17-year-old Tennessee Williams got their start writing for pulp publishers clustered in midtown Manhattan. But literary writers were far outnumbered by fasttyping hacks who pounded out stories like “Blood on My Doorstep,” “Gunsmoke Gulch,” “Z is for Zombie” and “Huntress of the Hell-Pack” for a penny or less a word.

If the pay scale was any indication, pulp publishers valued painters more than writers. Pulp artists typically earned $50 to $100 for their 20-by-30-inch cover paintings, which they might finish in a day. Atop painter could get $300.

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