Wednesday, 17 August 2011


Last Sunday (14 August) I appeared on Radio 4's Open Book (you can link to that here, for at least a few more days, it's the last segment of a very good show) discussing Ira Levin's career with presenter Dreda Say Mitchell. This tied in with the re-issue of Levin's four best-known novels, A Kiss Before Dying, Rosemary's Baby, The Stepford Wives, and The Boys From Brazil; they were all made into successful films, with the last three all remembered well today. Although we delved into many of the things that made Levin successful, I found over the course of re-reading (and, in the cases of A Kiss Before Dying and Boys From Brazil, reading for the first time) and researching Levin that his career raised a multitude of issues.

As a crime writer herself, Dreda was particularly interested in Levin as a 'genre' writer, and I called him a 'genre dilettante', not in a pejorative sense but in the sense of someone whose most successful books address mainstream issues in a mainstream way, with genre elements giving the story its punch. This was only partly true, because it applies to Rosemary's Baby, Stepford, and the much overlooked Sliver, but for example A Kiss Before Dying is a straight-forward suspense novel which draws its most compelling thrills from the difficulty of a fortune-hunting boy resolving his rich girlfriend's pregnancy. This is Dreiser's American Tragedy done as a thriller, and I am convinced that Levin was influenced heavily by the 1951 film adaptation, A Place In The Sun, with Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift. It is as if he mixed that classic plot with elements of Old Woman, a script of his which had placed second in a CBS competition, and been produced on the US Steel Hour. In that teleplay a young man plots to kill his rich 103 year old aunt, enlisting the help of her nurse. And it would not surprise me if Levin conceived the story as a play or screenplay.

That's because Kiss, the novel, is structured as a three-act play—and it points to one of the keys to Levin's success; he might well be seen as a playwright who, with one notable exception, did his best work on the page. It's one of the reasons his books translate well into film—though the films, even the good ones like Polanski's Rosemary's Baby, usually lack some of the ambiguity of the novels, often as a result of mis-casting or playing roles too broadly.

In Kiss, published in 1953, the first act details Dottie's fate: we know what is going to happen but Levin drags it out beautifully, telling the story from Burt Corliss' point of view. In the second act, Dottie's sister Ellen plays Nancy Drew to solve the mystery from the first act, but it ends in a fiendish twist that would play perfectly onstage. The third act, which starts to strain credibility, as Burt pursues the third sister, Marion, the bland Gordon Gant takes centre stage. It climaxes, inevitably, in melodrama which would be difficult to stage, but ends with the kind of curtain-down brilliance that characterises Levin's best novels. I'm sure Kiss would have been Levin's first successful play, had he been able to work out the climax for the stage. As it was it won him a best first-novel Edgar, but I don't think that was the way he wanted to go – he would not publish another novel for 14 years. He wrote one crime story, 'Sylvia' for Manhunt in 1954, and it was adapted for Alfred Hitchcock's television show four years later, but he would not revisit the crime genre for another quarter century.

The film version of Kiss simply loses the third act, hoping to keep the punch of the second but giving it a 'happy' ending. The film might be better if Jeffrey Hunter, as Gordon 'Grant'--a less geeky name than Gant—played the Robert Wagner role, but as Burton Corliss Wagner is good. Yet his character is overplayed as a mama's boy—in the film Mary Astor looks desperate as his mother, with whom he lives on campus, unlike in the book where he's on his own, a war veteran, and seemingly more mature. Kiss would be remade in 1991, again keeping the two-act, two sister structure, with Matt Dillon very effective in the Burt role, and Sean Young playing both sisters (now twins). Her performance reflects the difficulty of adapting to a new era, because Levin's novel is so rooted in the 50s ethos of paying a guilty price for illicit sex. Still any sex with Sean Young is probably by definition illicit.

Levin spent the 14 years between Kiss and Rosemary writing plays. He was lucky, or unlucky enough to have a huge hit with his first, No Time For Sergeants, which he adapted from a novel by Mac Hyman, and which made a star of Andy Griffith. He also adapted it for the US Steel Hour, and a film, and it became an unsuccessful TV series. But in the decade following that hit, Levin wrote five more plays, four of which ran for a week or less, and the fifth, Critic's Choice, with Henry Fonda, ran a moderately successful three months.

So the success of Rosemary's Baby (1967) came as something of a surprise, but Levin appeared to draw on the theatre again, where a single issue can become the hook on which to hang a play. Again, Levinm also drew on his own previous work, a short story, 'Underground Gourmet', published in Ladies Home Journal in 1954. It tells of a woman renowned for her devil's food cake, who gets a visit from the Devil, who wants to check it out. Of course there's nothing new, per se, about the devil as a character, as Dr Faustus might remind us, and 'The Devil And Daniel Webster' is a classic American tale. The dramatic structure is not as pronounced as it was in Kiss, but it's still there: set-up, mystery, reveal—and the horror of the situation comes from the way it builds out of its perverting of the basic family unit. As with Kiss, Levin is up to date with the social mores, and the issue of marriage and childbirth is again the hook—the 'choice' of having a child being crucial, as opposed to the accidental pregnancy which drives Kiss. But you can also see the devil worshippers, despite their age, as a metaphor for the sexual licentiouness opened up by the Swinging Sixties and the birth control pill. In many ways, Guy Woodhouse is simply an extension of Burt Corliss, again using his wife for success; what's shocking when you watch the original film of Kiss is how much the young Joanne Woodward, playing Dottie, looks like Mia Farrow as Rosemary. Probably the biggest problem with the film of Rosemary's Baby is John Cassavetes' performance as Guy, which is overladen with menace from the start. Of course, in Levin's world, marriage is an institution laden with menace.

Which becomes clear in The Stepford Wives (1972). Having written a thriller and a horror novel, Levin published his most straightforward genre book, This Perfect Day, in 1970. It was a outright sf dystopian novel, very much in the Brave New World mode, and it made none of the impact of Rosemary. It's not a patch on some of the masters of pulpy sf and their own dystopian worlds—Tom Disch's 334, for example, makes better parallels with widersociety, as did Orwell's 1984, and Levin doesn't have the issue hooks of his previous (or indeed his next) book.

Stepford Wives was a return to form. It has a social mores hook, to the extent its title has become a sort of all-purpose shorthand for suburban housewivery, robotic Barbie Doll wives, and the male desire for pneumatic playthings rather than women. It's an examination of what exactly is meant by the women's liberation slogan 'our bodies, ourselves'. Because the point is that the Stepford husbands' club has a charity which supposedly provides 'toys for needy children', and that's pretty much what they consider their wives bodies should be for, and it's as good a definition of the Playboy philosophy as any. It's no coincidence that Joanna's friend Ruthann does children's books. Levin's hook once more is the family, and specifically the relationship of the sexes within it: 1950s mores gave way to the sexual licence of the pill, which in itself is an sf idea. What often goes unnoticed, and is one of the best features of Bryan Forbes' film version, is the unearthly science-fictional quality of the supermarket--the human reduced to robotic action. Again the novel is more subtle than the film: you can read its ending without considering the idea of killing wives and replacing them with robots: you can take Joanna's pleas to be allowed to go to psychiatry and change her ways as literal, as well as metaphoric. The film version never gets the horror elements of the story down. Casting is a problem: Katharine Ross looks like an almost a perfect Stepford Wife before she arrives in town, while Paula Prentiss is so engaging that she makes a perfect argument for having one. On the other hand, I'm not sure Forbes was making a statement by casting his wife, Nanette Newman, alongside the likes of Prentiss and Tina Louise. Even so, the less said about the 2004 remake, which starred Nicole Kidman, and apparently is intended as a comedy, the better.

The Boys From Brazil was published in 1976, and its influences seem even more apparent than those of Kiss. I don't mean this in a negative way, either: Rosemary's Baby spawned works like The Omen and The Exorcist, and we think no less of them for that. The 1970s was the time when the world started to realise those Nazis not brought to justice would soon be dying off, and this realisation was intensified by the growth of what has been called the 'Holocaust Industry', when the events of the Hitler era began to dominate discussion instead of being left out of the discussion. In any case, the most obvious influences would be the best-selling Odessa File or Marathon Man, which were both turned into successful films. The connection is emphasized by casting: Laurence Olivier, so memorable as the Mengele figure in Marathon Man, plays the Simon Wisenthal character in the film of Boys, with Gregory Peck in one of his best roles as Mengele. But this is Rosemary's Baby meets The Odessa File; instead of Satan, we are seeing the spawn of the next best thing. I missed making that point more clearly when discussing the absence of father-figures with Dreda on Open Book; there is the strict father of the murdered sisters in Kiss, but otherwise your father figures are Satan and Hitler—the Stepford guys are husbands, but not obviously fathers.

I will confess I never read Boys first time around; coming to it now, with my awareness of Levin's theatrical talent, I was impressed by some of the subtle foreshadowing, even to the uise of visual images—as when one of the young sons stands in a hallway with multiple mirrors reflecting duplicate images of himself, a nice metaphor for the cloning which has not yet been revealed. The structure is not quite theatrical—at least not unless you used a revolving stage—but each scene seems structured that way; the climax with 'Wisenthal' and Mengele is set up and plays like theatre, and as with Rosemary's Baby, whose climax with the Japanese satanist photographer I discussed on Open Book, Boys offers an equally chilling coda, which makes the argument between the Wisenthal figure and the Meyer Kahane figure take on added significance. As happens in theatre, Levin manages to anchor his play in the current debate (I once raised the point that perhaps 'serious' theatre's role had been prempted by issue-oriented made-for-TV movies).

After Boys, Levin would take another 15 year hiatus before publishing his next novel. But in 1978 Deathtrap opened on Broadway, where it was an immediate success and one of the longest-running plays in history. Again, I see a major influence, Anthony Shaffer's Sleuth, which dates to 1972, and again the connection was made by movie casting: Michael Caine plays the hairdresser in Sleuth, and the old writer in Deathtrap.

Deathtrap is also, in one sense, another re-writing of Old Woman, but from a wider perspective once again examines the American marriage and its reaction to new mores, in this case gay liberation. The 1982 movie, directed by Sidney Lumet, is a good piece of filmed theatre, and certainly the most true to Levin of any of his filmed works.

Two more plays followed, and then another decade's break before Levin published Sliver, which is sort of Rosemary's Baby (in the sense of the hunt for New York housing setting off the plot) meets A Kiss Before Dying. You might also take it as Levin's metaphoric commentary on the taking of sexual mores that one step further, to observation (via video and TV), which is after all a sort of commercialised electronic peeping tomism. The film of Sliver is entertaining, if unconvincing—ironic that Tom Berenger would go on to play in Someone To Watch Over Me, and I wonder where the producers of that one got that idea.

I haven't read Son Of Rosemary (1997), Levin's last novel, and I don't intend to now; I suspect it has not been reissued for a reason.

What's unusual about Levin is not so much his relatively small output, especially from such a successful writer, but the way that output is divided. One novel in 1953, a 14 year gap, then four in nine years, then a 15 year gap, then two in six years. Seven novels in 45 years. In between, he wrote six plays in 12 years; only one of which, an adaptation, was a hit. Then came back with his most successful play after another decade, and followed quickly with two more that came and went. It is as if Levin could put on his commercial hat for books, become a genre dilettante, use the techniques of theatre to great effect, but when he was actually writing for the theatre his focus became less precise, unless the material was structured for him at source (Sergeants) or by genre (Deathtrap). This in no way diminshes his genius, it simply makes one wonder why it only seemed to come out when it was channelled into work unfairly labelled 'genre'.


It has always been possible to divide espionage novels between what might be called the covert and overt. The first group deals with individuals caught in the webs of bureaucracy and betrayal, and often features little action; when they do it is often anti-climactic, small actions with larger impact, which require great sacrifice on the part of otherwise ordinary people. It has its antecedents in detective fiction—but its heroes tend to be along the lines of the anonymous Continental Op, or the lonely private dick, rather than the Poirots or Wimseys of classic who-dun-its.

The second group deals in action, in the efforts of people who are increasingly above the ordinary, who often hold the fate of the world in their firm grip. This group has its antecedents in the adventure novels of empire, and in American terms in westerns, and would of course include James Bond. Since the fall of the iron curtain, and the removal of a stable (and relatively equal) enemy from the spy genre, this second style of novel has predominated—this has coincided happily with the swing in movie-making toward ever-increasing reliance on special effects. There's another essay to be written on the ripple effects of asymmetrical conflict.

Matthew Dunn's first novel, Spartan, comes down very much in the second camp, and comes down with a bang. He has delivered a thriller with fast action, a great villain, several twists and turns, and enough ambiguity to escape the many of the obvious pitfalls of genre cliché. But to my mind he is trying to do something different, which is to force his hero, Will Cochrane, the eponymous agent code-named Spartan by MI6, into a world of conscience, where moral dilemmas inform his action hero. That Dunn is a former MI6 operative, who ran agents himself, is significant, because the most interesting part of the novel is its set-up, and Will's relationships with the people he runs. Normally, these are the kind of pawns set up for betrayal in either sort of spy thriller, but Will, for reasons that go deep into his family past (his father was a CIA agent) attempts what might be seen as a kinder, gentler approach to the business.

This is fascinating stuff because he is pitted against an Iranian mastermind, Meggido, who always seems one step ahead. In fact, Meggido turns out to be the most interesting character in the book, and it is a shame he is forced to remain off-stage for so long. But if the duel between these two is the root of the book's strength it is also its weakness, because it is a battle of super-hero against super-villain, which for all its twists and turns is apparently resolved by a simple quick-draw showdown. I say apparently, because Dunn adds a last twist, which forces Will to finally abandon his effort a being a kinder, gentler spy. Not that he actually was: for the all the talk of saving innocent life, Will calmly butchers four allied agents guilty of nothing more than being in the wrong place at the same time as his crew. It is a very English sort of morality.

As the book pushes forward relentlessly, Spartan begins to push Will out of the picture. Still, I wonder what's really going on in MI6. Picture this: Will wanders into Albany, New York, fresh from shootouts, capture, chases through the snow, killings, and narrowly missing Meggido, and although he judges the airport too dangerous, hops the Amtrack to New York City. Why wouldn't the FBI think of that? In the meantime, however, he has gone shopping in Albany's finest stores, and what essentials has he found? Some 'men's Chanel Platinum Egoiste eau de toilette' (no agent leaves home without it--otherwise the bad guys wouldn't be able to smell you coming!), a Hugo Boss suit, and 'matching brogues'. I don't know about you, but I've never met a man who matched his shoes and suits, much less a secret agent! On the other hand, Hugo Boss designed some swell matching outfits for the SS, and Coco Chanel was a Nazi fan, so maybe there's just a natural affinity! Will then 'secretes' a silenced H&K MK23, three clips, a cell phone, and two thousand bucks into his new suit. Either Hugo Boss is tailoring for the loose fit these days or Spartan bought a few sizes too big. We're used to the catalogues of equipment in this kind of thriller, and indeed Dunn gives us a few (as an aside: the nadir of this style might be the Chris Ryan-style BONA, or Boys-Own Novel with Acronyms, you can find my essay on Ryan and Allan Hollinghurst here).

I make this criticism somewhat tongue-in-unscented-cheek, but there are other problems with having your super-villain such a remarkable character. In order to get some understanding, you have to inevitably bring him together with Will, which means he has to leave Will alive for his own egotistical reasons, which means you get a very long 'Blofield' scene, in which Meggido keeps Will alive just a little longer in order to reveal the details of his plot to take over the world. Again, Dunn provides us with another well-placed twist that explains, but does not really manage to subvert, the convention within which he's operating.

There is one further problem with the spy thriller conventions, and that is dialogue. Far too often, characters need to explain things to the audience, so they wind up telling each other what they obviously already know. Spartan gets a lot of this, particularly because Will's peculiar morality means he's beset with doubts, never a good thing in this business, and he's acting in ways people in the demimonde don't really expect. So we are often getting people explaining Will to himself, mainly telling him how super, or how sensitive, or how super-sensitive he is. And finally, there is the arch-villain kind of line: 'you are lying to me in a futile attempt to justify your father's actions.'

In the end, the super hero triumphs, but pays a price. But because he is a super hero, he moves on. Dunn has produced a compelling, if uneven, first thriller, and given Britain the new James Bond, eau de toilette and all, that Daniel Craig could not.

Spartan by Matthew Dunn Swordfish, £12.99, ISBN 9780857820198

Saturday, 13 August 2011


NOTE: this essay appeared first at Football Diner, to which you can link here...

The sad passing of John Mackey at age 69 attracted a lot of attention, but not nearly as much as it deserved. Just as he had done while he was alive, breaking barriers and extending boundaries, Mackey's death came just at the moment when it seemed the NFL's owners might begin to move to end their lockout of the players, who had decertified the union Mackey was instrumental in building. Make no mistake, the dropping of the anti-trust suit filed by individual players against the league was a major factor in getting the deal done; that the Players' Association will be re-certified has never really been in doubt.

Mackey was the first president of the NLPA, and his commitment to its cause could be traced back to his having a contract thrust in front of him and being told to sign. Mackey, a minister's son from Long Island, who'd followed another Long Islander, Jim Brown, to Syracuse University, where he was a student as well as a football player, didn't sign that contract, and never forgot the insult to both his dignity and his intelligence. His great legacy with the NFLPA was to overturn the Rozelle Rule, helping to create a more viable form of free agency, and winning compensation for those players whose movement had been restrained by the rule.

But more attention should have been paid to the way Mackey died, suffering from the dementia which had become noticeable in his public appearances years earlier, and which had led his wife Sylvia to petition Paul Tagliabue on his behalf, which led to the creation of the 88 plan, named after Mackey's number, which was the first step toward starting to take care of those whose lives have been harmed indelibly by playing pro football. That these moves will be expanded and intensified as part of the current settlement is a credit to both sides in the negotiation, but also a tribute to the Mackeys.

Mackey's legacy on the field is an odd one, because he was universally recognised for a breakthrough that wasn't exclusively his, yet at the same time one very strange devaluing of his legacy went unnoticed. Let me explain.

Don Shula's quote to the Baltimore Sun was used to define Mackey's greatness as the prototype tight end. 'Previous to John, tight ends were big strong guys like (Mike) Ditka and (Jerry) Kramer who could block and catch short passes over the middle. Mackey gave us a tight end who weighed 230, ran a 4.6 40 and could catch the bomb. It was a weapon other teams didn't have.'

Well, yes and no. You could argue Ditka and Kramer in 1961 (and Fred Arbanas in 1962 in the AFL) were the first wave of tight ends—previously you had two ends, who might play in line or split, and now you had a designated 'tight' end and a designated 'split' end, as well as a 'flanker' who was evolving from a running back like Lenny Moore or Bobby Mitchell into an end like Gary Collins or Boyd Dowler.

But neither Ditka nor Kramer were really that much bigger than Mackey, and though neither was as fast, it wasn't like they were catching quickies over the middle. In Ditka's 1961 rookie season with the Bears he caught 56 passes for 1,076 yards (19.2 yards per catch) and 12 touchdowns. That's a lot of YAC if he was running short patterns. You could argue he broke tackles or outran slower linebackers, but remember too, these were George Halas' Bears, and Billy Wade was the QB. He never matched those numbers again, and the grind of blocking slowed him down as a receiver. Kramer was no burner either, but between 1961-64 he averaged between 15 and 16.8 yards per catch. Arbanas, over the entire course of his career (1962-70) averaged 15.7.

You can argue Mackey added a deep dimension to the passing game, and may have forced the designated strong safety to cover tight ends. His rookie season he caught 35 passes for 726 yards (20.7 ypc) and seven scores. In the next three seasons he would average 18.5, 20.4, and 16.6 yards per catch, but after 1967 injuries slowed him down too; he had only one more eason with an average higher than 14.3.

But there was another contemporary of Mackey's, making his debut in the same season, 1963, who also provided his team with a downfield passing threat. Although he's remembered primarily for one pass he didn't catch, over the course of his career Jackie Smith averaged 16.5 yards per catch, and his 1967 season was spectacular: 56 catches 1,205 yards, 21.5 yards per catch, 9 touchdowns. Even though Smith's in the Hall of Fame, he's not looked at as a mould-breaker the way Mackey is, though I think he ought to be.

Which is not to imply he was Mackey's equal as a tight end. Smith wasn't quite the devastating blocker Mackey, Ditka or Kramer were. It's reflected in their legacies: Mackey, Ditka, and Smith all played in five Pro Bowls, but Mackey was first-team All-Pro three times, Ditka twice, Kramer once, and Smith not once at all (although I'd argue he should have been in 1967). If you were picking the best tight end in football, it probably would be Ditka in 61, Kramer in 62, Mackey in 63, Ditka in 64, Mackey in 65-66, Smith in 67, Mackey again in 68 and in 69 either Jerry Smith or Bob Trumpy.

The NFL recognised this. Mackey was named the tight end on the all-decade team for the Sixties, and when the 50th Anniversary All-Star team was chosen, he was the tight end on that squad too.

But then something strange happened. 25 years later, when the Pro Football Hall of Fame chose the 75th anniversary team, Mackey had disappeared. And not because Kellen Winslow was chosen at tight end, which was understandable: Winslow was a bigger, faster version of Mackey, though probably not the blocker Mackey was. But they chose two tight ends, and the other was Mike Ditka.

I'm not putting Ditka down, but I wonder just how someone could dominate their decade at their position the way Mackey did and then not just fall off the map, but be replaced by one of the men he clearly outplayed over the course of their careers? Perhaps it's because Ditka can retained a high profile as a coach and TV personality, helping his legend grow, or more likely it's because Mackey's work with the union had soured some of the voters on him. We will never know the answer to that one. But Mackey's legacy on the field is as a pioneer of the tight end position, and probably one of the two best of the twentieth century. His legacy off the field is just as impressive, and it remains to be completed.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011


My obituary of Newton Thornburg is in today's Independent, you can link to it here. He's a strange contradiction in terms: he went off in totally different directions after his biggest successes, yet in the end went back to the same basic elements for all his best works. Sometimes those two strands conflate: Beautiful Kate (a lousy title, by the way) was both another riff on his theme of disfunctional families and romantic triangles, while at the same time approaching it in ways that made it hard to push either as crime or mainstream.

Thornburg wasn't high profile; in fact despite the delay I believe this was the first obituary to make it into national press in this country or the USA. In researching it, I was helped immensely by Bob Cornwell's excellent interview with Thornburg in Tangled Web, to which you can link here; Bob was also helpful with other details and his own take on Thornburg. I also got to quote my friends Michael Goldfarb and George Pelecanos in the piece, which may be their first joint appearance.

I'm not kidding when I mention the similarities in his best work: he returned to themes over and over. Spurred on by the assignment to write his obit, I decided to catch up, and starting reading Eve's Men (another less-than-perfect title), and even though it's been some years since my last Thornburg, it seemed very familiar indeed.

This is not to demean him. Cutter And Bone remains a pantheon work, like the film Cutter's Way it is one of those rare works that seems both just as good AND just as important as it did when it came out. I remember being bowled over by Beautiful Kate when I read it; as I recall on a visit back to my parents in the late Seventies, the kind of setting made for appreciating Thornburg's concerns. To Die In California is the other key book to check out, but start with Cutter And Bone and see if you aren't totally taken by it.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011


My obit of Bubba Smith, football player, pitchman, and actor, is in today's Guardian, you can link to it here. As usual with obits of American sportsmen, some things get lost in the translation (for example, Bubba was only once All-Pro, and played only twice in the Pro Bowl, signs he was nowhere near as dominant in the NFL as he'd been in college). But others, like Police Academy, appear to be universal. Where ripping a beer can in half to demonstrate it's 'easy-opening' falls, albeit somewhere in between, is beyond me.

If you're thinking of a more recent equivalent as a pro football player, it would probably be Too Tall Jones, but the guy he most reminded me of was his predecessor on the Colts, Big Daddy Lipscomb. Like Daddy, Bubba was both strong and fast, but he often played 'high', standing up, and as Jerry Kramer once pointed out, didn't use his hands all that effectively, the way guys like Deacon Jones did. His NFL career was cut short by injury, and in his case the injury was particularly freakish: chasing a runner to the sidelines, Bubba got tangled in the first down chains and sticks--the doctors described the knee injury as the worst they'd ever seen, but Bubba returned the next season. The Colts promptly traded him to Oakland for Raymond Chester, which was a hard deal to turn down; Al Davis got two seasons out of him before he ended his career with nearly-hometown Houston.

In Kill Bubba Kill, Smith claimed Super Bowl III was a 'fix', but offered no evidence for his theory and no on took him seriously. He did claim he went to Don Shula and offered to play over the center and disrupt the Jets' blocking schemes, but Shula turned him down. Maybe he thought he could do what he'd done in the 'Game of the Century', where he injured Notre Dame center George Goedekke early in the game, then sacked Terry Hanratty and put him out too. One of the things people forget about that game is that the Irish, trailing 10-0 on the road, already without their best runner, lost their quarterback, and still held State scoreless the rest of the way and rallied to tie the game.

I suppose Army-Notre Dame inn 1946, another meeting of unbeatens that ended in a tie, might have a stronger case to be the game of the century; played at Yankee Stadium in New York it must be the only college game which featured four Heisman Trophy winners. There have been lots of matchups of the top two teams, but when ND is in the mix it added a national dimension that was important in the days before TV destroyed regional conferences, rivalries, and made them less important.

Allan Barra has a fine essay on the game in his book Big Play, and reprised it in a post about Bubba, and I used it to refresh my memory. I was trying to think of another team that boasted as many black stars but generally I came up with teams in the early 60s with two or three--like Minnesota with QB Sandy Stephens and T Bobby Bell, or Ernie Davis-John Mackey-John Brown Syracuse. I seem to recall that Bubba didn't follow his brother to USC because he would have put the Trojans over their black quota. But State had Jimmy Raye (the current NFL coach) at QB, Gene Washington at end, Clint Jones at halfback, and, on D, Bubba, Jess Phillips, Mad Dog Thornton, and, at rover, George Webster (number 90 left), who went on to make the all-time AFL team, and died a few years ago after losing an appeal to get his disability from the NFL increased even as his limbs were being amputated. Webster may have been the most ferocious hitter in a game full of them.

Notre Dame had their first-ever black player, Alan Page, who went on to the best pro career. The second best probably belonged to linebacker Jim Lynch, whose days with the Chiefs were played in the shadow of Bell and Willie Lanier; they are arguably the best trio of linebackers ever fielded. The third-best pro career was probablyRocky Blier's improbable success with the Steelers after returning from the Vietnam War. Oddly, neither Hanratty nor his star receiver, Jim Seymour, ever did much in the pros. The team also boasted defensive linemen Kevin Hardy and Pete Duranko, backs Larry Conjar and Nick Eddy (injured the week before the big game), and a number of other players who played in the pros.

Ara Parseghian has been accused to 'settling' for a tie, but as Barra shows, he made an effort to move the ball in the final minute and a half, after Duffy Daugherty had punted it away (and nearly recovered the fumbled punt). With the wind at his back and with a killer D, Duffy did what any coach would do, playing to stop ND and maybe get the ball back for a field goal with the wind. Ara had Coley O'Brien, a second-string QB without Hanratty's big arm, throwing into the wind; a Hail Mary was probably out of the question, but there is no question the Irish did try to move the ball.

Where Paraseghian's bad rap comes from, I believe, is first of all Bear Bryant's disgust at not leap-frogging the two teams in the polls with his undefeated Alabama, and second, Parseghian's running-up scores (especially against USC) in order to cement Notre Dame's number one. There's no doubt in my mind that tying State in Lansing without Eddy (and after losing Hanratty) was enough for Notre Dame to edge State in the polls. Barra thinks voters were punishing Alabama for being segregated, but the point runs deeper than that: they played in a segregated conference, and when they met northern teams in bowl games they were, in effect, home games in warm conditions that favoured them. Bryant was not a segregationist--he wanted the best football players--and the story is he tanked a meeting with USC and Sam the Bam Cunningham in order to persuade the SEC to integrate. And Daughtery famously said 'I got out of coaching when Bear started recruiting black kids' (a line cut from my piece).

I can't actually claim to have watched much of the Police Academy movies, but Bubba's 'easy-opening can' commercial was always one of my favourites. I do have a memory of another Miller Lite commerical in which Bubba and Dick Butkus are camping, and one of them starts stretching before retiring to their tent. When the other asks what he's doing, he says, there's bears in these woods and I want to be ready to run. The other laughs and says you can't outrun a bear! Comes the reply: I don't have to ourun the BEAR. I may be conflating a story and/or old joke with the commercial, but there's no sign of it on You Tube. If you remember it, let me know. It is odd how most of the football players turned successful actors: Bubba, Butkus, Merlin Olson, Jack Youngblood, Fred Dryer, Woody Strode--were linemen--and think of Alex Karras, Howie Long, John Matusak, and others who had shorter careers. Jim Brown, Bernie Casey, OJ Simpson, Ed Marinaro, even Mark Harmon might be considered the exceptions.

Saturday, 6 August 2011


My obit of Alex Steinweiss, who was not only the father of record album cover design, but actually invented the cardboard record sleeve, is in today's Guardian. Coincidentally, I had done the obit of Neil Fujita, who was the heir to Steinweiss' pioneering at Columbia, for the same paper back in November; you can link to that here. You can really see the progression from one man to the other; Steinweiss' influence on Fujita is huge, but Fujita moves far more into both fine art and into use of the performers' images. It's also interesting to me that both men basically retired early to pursue painting, which I think was the way working on the canvas of the record cover made irresistible.

Monday, 1 August 2011


A fantastic exhibition has just closed at New York's Society of Illustrators. I mean fantastic in both senses of the word, for its subject matter and its quality, in the latter case even though I didn't get to see Pulp Art: The Robert Lesser Collection. But as I did, you can view part of it at the Society of Illustrators website here, and because some of Lesser's collection has been donated to the wonderful New Britain Museum of American Art, you can find out more at their website here. Best of all, a link from the NBMAA's site linked to this Robert Lesser collection gallery, often showing the original art and the magazine covers side by side, which shows the full range of pulp art—everything from Argosy to Zeppelin Stories, with bug-eyed monsters, costumed heroes, and flying aces in between. In that slide show I found the painting by Richard Lillis pictured to the right; years ago I bought a poster of it at the now-defunct Gallery Pierre Boogaerts on the Rue Vieille du Temple in Paris, and it has hung in my offices ever since. has adorned my offices for years. For which magazine it was painted, or if it was ever used, is something no one knows; perhaps it languished unused and then was disposed of with other original art which the pulp publishers tended not to value.

But they should have. Even with my limited viewing, a couple of paintings stood out. One was a cover by J Allen St John for a 1933 issue of Weird Tales featuring Jack Williamson's Golden Blood, which looked so good I went and ordered a copy of the 1964 Lancer paperback edition, whose cover is a homage by Ed Emshwiller, who's a very different kind of artist. I'm pretty sure I've never read it, either! Back in 1999, when I reviewed Lesser's seminal book Pulp Art for Headpress, along with Frank Frazetta's Icon; I pointed out that St John was a major influence on Frazetta, who took some of the impressionist quality out and put more dynamism in, but St John influenced almost everyone working in the fantasy/adventure field.

So I was familiar with St. John, but the painting that really floored me was a cover by someone I didn't know, Hubert Roberts. It's from the April 29, 1939 issue of Wild West Weekly and shows ominously dark birds perched in the bare branches of a tree. But as you follow the line of the lowest branch, you're led to the head of a man hanging from a rope wrapped around the limb. It's both dramatic and chilling, remarkably subtle for the pulps, one of the best pulp covers I've ever seen.

When I discovered the show I also I stumbled upon a lovely blog entry by the artist AE Kieren, about hanging the work, and was floored to see his photo of 'The Pirate Of Wall Street' being hung. It's a remarkable painting done for a cover of Argosy in 1931 by Paul Stahr. I remembered writing a piece for the Financial Times some time ago which sold off the back of this picture (what secret master of the universe could resist it?) about an exhibition at Illustration House in Spring Street.

So I dug up the FT article, and remembered I'd got Roger Reed's name wrong; in those days I was still phoning in my copy and the copy taker got his name as Robert. It's taken me 15 years to correct that error—though as I pointed out to him in my apology to him then, I did get it right in Headpress 20, when I mentioned his excellent essay which appeared in Lesser's Pulp Art.

THE ART OF PULP FICTION (Financial Times, 15 March 1996)

The body of a woman is being hoisted out of the water. Her red dress clings to her voluptuous figure. In the foreground, a swarthy man watches, submerged except for his head and one arm clinging to an anchor cable. His point of view becomes yours. Painted by Robert Stanley in 1951 for the cover of a paperback reissue of Dashiell Hammett's Blood Money (a combining of 'The Big Knockover' and '$106,000 Blood Money' into a novel), this is only one of many striking images on view in "Pulps and Paperbacks: Sensational Art from the 20s to the 50s", an exhibition at Illustration House in New York through March.

'"Go for the jugular" was their motto' explains Roger Reed, the organiser. 'You had to grab the attention of the browser at the newsstand.' If a curvy dame was good, a diagonal damsel in distress was better. 'Diagonals get your attention more than straight lines,' says Reed. 'A whole generation of B actresses developed their sultry poses based on that lean.' Sure enough, in Rudy Nappi's cover for Unfaithful, a Diana Dors-lookalike gives her come-on to a slick hepcat smiling through his cigarette.

'A gun was good, but a gun going off was better,' smiles Reed. The hard-boiled look was everything. Hardboiled meant being able to resist the allure of those diagonal sirens. George Gross was a master of the cheap femme fatale. His cover for A Girl Called Joy shows a woman on a doctor's examination table, diagonally, of course. Her blouse is open nearly to the waist, her skirt rides up to show her slip. Poor doctor. In contrast, Gross' cover for Harry Whittingham's Violent Night shows a woman in a similar pose, but without the threat. She is on a slab in the morgue. A hard-boiled cop in a raincoat is talking with the coroner. He's seen it all before. The scene is lit to make the corpse seem alluring, even in death. Needless to say, these magazines were aimed at men.

Part of their lesson was dames are dangerous. It's hard to miss the point in Gross' outre cover for Love Me And Die by Day Keene. A couple embrace passionately as a huge blue hand descends as if to crush them; love me and die, it's saying. The artwork reflected both the marketplace and the changing style of American detective stories. The covers remind you of Raymond Chandler saying Hammett had taken murder out of the parlour and put it back in the hands of people who really committed murders. Examples from Black Mask in 1932 and Scotland Yard Magazine in 1931 reflect the cool design of smart drawing rooms. Black Mask, originally edited by H.L. Mencken, may have thought of itself as upmarket, but soon magazines like Dime Detective boasted darker, more threatening scenes. Crime had been glamorous in the Roaring Twenties, but in the chaotic world of the Depression it became more threatening, and headed downmarket. This evolved into the noir style in the 40s, but by the late 1950s, the shadows were disappearing: lines are cleaner again, colours cooler. Once again crime is discreet, outside the mainstream of a seemingly peaceful society.

The artists churned this stuff out. There is a chilling echo of this in Rafael deSoto's cover of an artist frantically painting the portrait of a dead matron. The magazine cover itself shows him dipping his brush in her blood; the original oil has been painted over to lose that image. Amazingly, most of these paintings are large-scale oils, pained on canvas. This size was not demanded for reproduction. 'It was more a convention,' says Reed. 'But the attitude of the publishers and most of the artists was that this stuff was junk. Magazines sold original art for a dollar. The artists looked at it as a stepping stone to slick magazines, but they didn't think of it as art. It wasn't until later they started working on board, and in smaller scale.'

One man who did reach the slicks, and book illustration, was J. Allen St. John, who is featured with a cover for an Edgar Rice Burroughs-type adventure (man battles giant scorpion while armored woman is trapped in giant spider web, all rendered in delicate pastel tones). St. John's is the costliest work on display,but pride of place is given to an amazing cover by Paul Stahr. "The Pirate of Wall Street" cackles over his stock ticker, flintlock pistol in his red sash. With brush strokes bold as a pirate's slashing sword, this is Reed's particular favourite. 'We're only a few blocks north of Wall Street,' laughs Reed. 'I'm amazed this hasn't found a wall in some arbitrager's office yet.'

Illustration House 96 Spring Street New York 10012 (212) 966-9444

Pulp Art: The Robert Lesser Collection
Society Of Illustrators, 28 East 63rd Street
New York, NY 10065-7392, (212) 838-2560
2 June- 30 July 2011