It was still hot in Los Angeles, the Santa Ana winds were blowing in from the desert. I went up to the studio and opened the windows. The smell of the restaurant downstairs drifted up, the traffic moved slowly on the boulevard and I stood there watching the lights change for a long time.
What this town needs is a good map, one with every location from Raymond Chandler’s books, one that shows everything from the Sternwood Mansion and Gieger’s bookshop to Union Station and the spot where Romanoff’s used to be, from Puma Point to the Lido Pier where no one is really positive about who killed Carmen’s chauffer.
I called up an old friend, Ben Olins, he works at a place that makes maps and guidebooks. His voice was relaxed and cool. “Herb Lester Associates.”
“Hello Ben, what this town needs is a good map, one with every location from Raymond Chandler’s books, one that shows everything from the Stern”–
He cut me off, “Yeah, sounds good. How much is this going to cost me?”
“I get $50 a day plus expenses.”
“You don’t put up much of a fight”
“There’s not a lot of money in this business if you’re honest.”
“Are you honest?”
“No.” I lied.
“What about a design that looks like one of those Dell Mapback books from the 1940s?” Ben was on the right track, as usual. He was talking about a series of cheap paperbacks that had a map on the back cover that showed the locations from the story. They had a nice quality to them and the style was a perfect fit for this new map.
“I’ll send you something in a few days.” I hung up.
I went home and started re-reading Chandler’s novels, and making a list of every location in every book. Some were actual buildings that were still standing, others were long-gone, some spots were real places but had fake names; private-eye Philip Marlowe’s office building on Hollywood and Cahuenga is still there, Florian’s Nightclub was a fictional joint down on Central Avenue, Bay City stands in for Santa Monica. I watched every movie made from the novels and also made a list of important locations from Chandler’s life.
I was going to need some help on this job. Someone was going to have to write the text for the back of the map, someone who knows these mean streets but who is not themselves mean, a writer who is not tarnished or afraid. A complete man and a common man, yet maybe someone who is not a man at all. A writer who writes with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.
“Kim Cooper.” She answered her own telephone.
“What this town needs is a good map, one with every location from Raymond Chandler’s books, one that shows everything from the Stern” –
She cut me off, “Yeah, sounds good. Is there any money in it?”
“I think my client can cover your expenses, maybe enough for a couple of gimlets.” She laughed into the phone. “Send me your list of locations and I’ll see what I can do.”
Kim is a historian and novelist, she and her husband Richard Schave run a nice little racket called Esotouric taking people around the city on bus tours of historic and literary locations. She knows some things about Raymond Chandler that nobody else does. She knows that Mike Mazurki, the actor who played Moose Malloy used to run a restaurant in the Elks Building across from MacArthur Park. Jack Smith also knew that, but he’s dead.
The map doesn’t include everything, no map could. We probably missed one or two important spots, we left off some of the joints that are only memories; drive-ins with gaudy neon and the false fronts behind them, sleazy hamburger joints that could poison a toad. Los Angeles has changed a lot since Chandler’s day when it was just a big dry sunny place with ugly houses and no style, when people slept on porches and lots offering at eleven hundred dollars had no takers.
But you can still make the drive down Wilshire all the way to the ocean, you can still poke around the alleys and side streets of Hollywood, and the eucalyptus trees still give off a tomcat smell in warm weather. You can’t get a drink at Victor’s any more but Musso’s is still open. Park out back, only tourists and suckers go in the front door.
I was doing the usual double-play with the morning e-mail, inbox to desktop to trash, when I saw her note. She had a story, a novel. It was her first and she needed help. I didn’t believe her, but I kept reading.
She said her name was Kim Cooper, and she runs a nice little outfit called Esotouric that gives bus tours around the city to tourists who are interested in true-life crimes, celebrity deaths, and literary hot spots. I read about her in the papers and bookmarked the company in case I ever had visitors in town and needed something to do that didn’t involve a theme park.
Her mystery novel used Raymond Chandler as one of the main characters. The familiar name Chandler made it seem like she had written about a friend of mine. When someone writes a book about a friend, you’re supposed to do something about it, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon.
The words “first novel” worried me, but what worried me more were the words “self publishing.” Two words that usually mean trouble, the kind of trouble that starts with multiple sketches and ends in a kill fee and tears. I didn’t have an appetite for any of it. What I had was a drawing table, an airbrush and a bottle of pretty good rye in the bottom drawer of the file cabinet. I wrote her back, it was too early in the day to crack the office bottle.
I told her that I’d take a look at her manuscript and if I thought I could do something about, I’d do it. I warned her that I got a hundred dollars a day, plus expenses. She offered me a thousand, and a seat on her tour bus anytime I liked.
A couple of days later a yellow envelope that was too big for the mailman to shove through the slot was leaning against the studio door. It contained a few hundred typewritten pages, Ms. Cooper’s dreams all wrapped up with a thick rubber band. I took the envelope home, and started reading. Maybe it was the smell of the night-blooming jasmine from the open window or maybe it was the Old Forester, but after about forty pages I knew I was in. Yeah, I’ll design a cover for your book, I’ll even handle all the typography and the spine.
Her story was titled “The Kept Girl” and it mixed up fact and fiction, and was filled with crooked cops, con-men, oil wells, a crazy religious cult, dead bodies, and a lot of ice. It was set in the young but already tarnished city of Los Angeles in 1929.
She could write, and it was my job to give her a cover that did the story justice. I remembered a guy who went by the double-barrelled name E. McKnight-Kauffer. A while back, he designed some handsome covers for paperbacks and I figured he wasn’t going to care if I borrowed his style for this job. He wasn’t using it, he had been dead for fifty years.
A case like this requires a certain amount of finesse. A bunch of sketches could lead to an awful mess that neither Ms. Cooper or I could clean up, so I thought my best bet was to design the whole damn cover and show it to her finished, and see what she thought. In a couple of days, it was done, I sent it over and waited.
I got a reply in a few hours, a short e-mail, the kind of e-mail that makes an illustrator think of a Sunday school picnic. It read “I love it. It’s really everything I hoped you might do, and more. Thank you so much.”
Last week I get an email from Shanti Marlar, Creative Director at The Hollywood Reporter that says they have a cover that she thinks I’d be perfect for, it’s about Hitler, would I be interested? That’s the kind of e-mail you read twice.
Turns out the cover story is a book excerpt from the forthcoming ‘The Collaboration, Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler’ by Ben Urwand. It’s a shocking story about how Hitler actually affected the movies in America. Before World War II the US studios were very concerned about losing the German export market for their films and worked closely with the Nazis to gain approval on finished films and scripts. Shanti had seen a piece I did for The New York Times that was in the style of the Stenberg Bros. Russian film posters and thought a combination of Hitler’s face and Hollywood imagery in that avant-garde style would make a good cover.
Round 1 sketches
OK, so a cover illustration that features the worst human being in the history of the planet. I start by getting myself on a few NSA Hate-Group-Watch-Lists by Googling photos of Hitler and Nazi propaganda and begin working on sketches. I had my doubts about the Stenberg Bros. concept since they were busy in Russia in the late 1920s and we were talking Nazis and late 1930s, but the overall propaganda vibe seemed to work, and only Steven Heller would think I didn’t know my poster history. Shamelessly lifting one of Vladamir and Georgii’s most famous images that has a camera lens replacing the eye of a man, I worked up six designs and sent the sketches to Shanti, but I was thinking ‘This will never fly, Hitler’s not appearing on the cover of The Hollywood Reporter.
Round 2 sketches
Cool heads prevailed at The Reporter offices. Maybe it was actually seeing sketches of Hitler right next to their famous masthead, or maybe it was the recent dust-up over the Boston Bomber’s appearance on the cover of Rolling Stone, or maybe it was something else all together, Shanti and her editor decided we should try some other approaches. So the next day, I send over five ideas that utilized a combination of Nazi propaganda and 1930s Hollywood imagery with a fairly wide range of emotional impact. Nazis are tricky, even when you’re dealing with a scholarly piece of history an illustrator has to be careful.
The backlot water tower with a swastika replacing a studio logo was chosen. This idea seemed to strike the delicate balancing act required for the cover, Nazi imagery hasn’t lost it’s power to shock or offend, but it’s a tough book about some tough decisions made by studio heads in the turbulent years just before the war. Anyway, it’s online now and soon to be cluttering up the newsstand outside Book Soup.
Only 335 days until the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Faber and Faber in London called for a book jacket design for the updated “Story of the World Cup” by the legendary English football writer Brian Glanville. Art Director Alex Kirby asked for a vintage poster vibe that integrated the lettering into the image. This piece owes a lot to the great Joseph Binder.
I get a call from Farrar, Straus & Giroux to design a book jacket for a novel by Jonathan Rabb that is set in Berlin around 1930. The story centers around a detective and a murder at the Ufa movie studios; the legendary director Fritz Lang is a character in the book. The whole thing reeks of German-noir and Ludwig Hohlwein, and the art director is thinking about something with echoes of Lang’s Metropolis poster.
Fritz Lang movie posters
I send this sketch, everyone likes it, and we try three or four variations of the guy at the bottom. I like to handle all the typography on a project when I can, and on this jacket, for a little joke, I add a small logo that mimics the Ufa logo and uses the initials of the publisher, FSG.
The design is a wrap-around image that shows nighttime Berlin on the back cover. I send off the file and look forward to seeing the book on the shelves in the spring.
A couple of weeks go by, and I get another call informing me that the editors are uncomfortable with the lettering, and they’ve decided to go with this version that uses a straight deco-ish font.
I go downstairs and order a gimlet.
Last year I get a call from Random House in London for two Ernest Hemingway paperback covers for the Vintage series. They have a basic cover format using Gill Sans and Bodoni and they want me to create simple images that look like they fit the period of each book. Death in the Afternoon and The Old Man and The Sea. What could go wrong? I send two pencil sketches each, they pick the ones they like, I finish them up and send them off. Everybody's happy, I get paid and look forward to seeing the printed books.
Finished cover I sent for The Old Man and The Sea
A few months pass, and I think, "I wonder if those books are in the stores yet?" I'll check the UK Amazon site and take a look. They're listed...but something looks odd.
Finished covers issued by Random House
It seems like the art director or someone at RH thought the covers needed that little something extra to make them look "Vintage." I need a drink.