Fairy Tales of Violence, Lust, Romance and Magic

Miss Bianca illustrated by Williams

Miss Bianca and Bernard illustrated by Garth Williams. In my personal opinion, Garth Williams is the only artist that can do Miss Bianca right.

As soon as I learned to read as a little girl, I loved fantasy stories – especially ones about animals like the books about Miss Bianca  and Doctor Dolittle. And naturally I had books of fairy tales as a kid that my mother read to me with the classic stories like Cinderella and Snow White.

My first book of fairy tales (that was mine alone) was the Tasha Tudor Book of Fairy Tales which was very pretty and rather tame. I loved the pictures and remember that I had a treasured box of jigsaw puzzles of some of the same illustrations.Tasha Tudor's Fairy Tales

I didn’t start to read fairy tales to myself until I was around age 10. We had a gold bound book of Andersen’s Fairy Tales with colorful but unpleasant pictures by Arthur Szyk, and the incredibly beautiful Golden Book of Fairy Tales – both of which had dark and disturbing stories in them. These books weren’t the sanitized versions kids know today with happy princesses and lots of love and singing – they were full of violence, sadness and suffering – though the good and virtuous (and beautiful) usually won over the evil in the end.

The Cat that Walked by Himself by Rudyard Kipling

One of my all time favorite stories about animals – the Cat That Walked by Himself by Rudyard Kipling – illustrated by the author.

I remember my 12th birthday very clearly because of the gift my sister gave me that year. We had my birthday dinner in the dining room on the big pull out antique table that had been my paternal grandmother’s; one that we usually only used for company or for Seders. My sister was working at the time at a bookstore in the Village of Bronxville. The gift she gave me came from that store – it was a copy of the Blue Fairy Book by Andrew Lang. The book was a facsimile edition from Dover Publishing full of beautiful Victorian illustrations that were elaborate and romantic and pulled me completely in. I remember the joy of opening that present and finding this wonderful book inside.  I eagerly devoured all 390 pages.

I loved the book so much that soon after, I saved up my allowance and asked her to order in a copy of the next book in the series – the Red Fairy Book.

Illustration from The Blue Fairy Book by Andrew Lang

One of many beautiful illustrations from the Blue Fairy Book edited by Andrew Lang

The following January, we left NY and moved to the remote farmhouse in New Brunswick, Canada. I had only the books that our family owned to read (though admittedly it was a very good selection and I went through almost every book eventually), and some wonderful classic horse stories that my cousin kindly lent me to help me get through the adjustment of life in the country that first spring.

I read my Red and Blue Fairy Books repeatedly that year and knew that Dover had the entire 12 books in the series in print. So my 13 year old self wrote to Dover Publishing and asked if I could buy more of their Fairy books, and they sent me their catalog all the way from New York City.

The frontpiece from the Wood Beyond the World by William Morris, Dover Publishing

One of the adult fairy tales I bought from Dover Publishing, The Wood Beyond the World by William Morris. This is the front piece from the book originally published by Morris’ own Kelmscott Press.

I’d save up my money and when I had enough, I’d go to the post office in town with my mother and get a money order in the right amount and send it off in the mail, and magically a beautiful treasure of a book would arrive a few weeks later. I ended up owning the entire series when I was a teenager – all in all hundreds of fairy and folk tales from all over the world and many many enchanting illustrations.

As I grew older I turned to more grown up books. From Dover I was able to order the facsimile editions of the King Arthur books and the Robin Hood book written and illustrated by Howard Pyle – cementing a passion for all things Arthurian and Medieval. (see my post Going Medieval on this blog)

Sir Gawaine by Howard Pyle

What could be more romantic than this? Sir Gawaine on his quest, from the Story of King Arthur and His Knights written and illustrated by Howard Pyle, Dover facsimile of the original.

And I fell in love with the language and romance of The Boy’s King Arthur by Sidney Lanier (based on the 15th century texts of Sir Thomas Malory) and  illustrated by NC Wyeth –  a tough read but worth it. I especially loved the fights between knights when they smote each other upon their brain pans.

I got so interested in my teens with medieval tales that I read the Mabinogion and and the Joinville and Villehardouin Chronicles of the Crusades. I also read excerpts from my parent’s copy of the Golden Bough.

Around 14, I discovered my mother’s 1941 edition of the Arabian Nights – A Complete and Unabridged Selection translated by Richard F Burton. I already had the magnificent version of the Arabian Nights illustrated by Maxfield Parrish which was more aimed at children (albeit children with advanced reading abilities).

This book however was for adults and was full of the original stories that were erotic and exotic tales of love, lust and violence.

Arabian Nights by Burton illustrated by Steele Savage

The Tale of Nur Al-Din Ali and His Son Badr Al-Din Hasan, from the Arabian Nights by Richard F Burton and illustrated by Steele Savage.

Definitely a new take on the traditional tales I’d been reading up til then… it was eye opening. I thought it especially wonderful that the most beautiful women were described as having navels that you could fit a giant ruby in or an ounce of oil…

I guess all that reading of folk and fairy tales and tales of medieval romance, explains why today I so love the book series A Song of Ice and Fire by George RR Martin, and the subsequent TV series Game of Thrones.

Bran's Dream by Serena Malyon

The Things I Do For Love, Bran’s Dream, by my daughter Serena Malyon who is a professional illustrator (www.serenamalyon.com),  inspired by A Song of Ice and Fire/A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin.

It has all the pageantry, romance, violence, horses, magic, princes and princesses and good versus evil as the old stuff I grew up reading. Its the best grown up version of a fairy tale I’ve read, and the best way to escape the hum drum of everyday.

Kip from the Golden Book of Fairy Tales

Scary fairy tales: this is the story of Kip – an enchanted cat (that happens to look a lot like my little cat). The princess is dragged to the woods by a huge horrible man, where he cuts off her feet – Kip bravely finds the feet and puts them back on the girl and takes her home. From the Golden Book of Fairy Tales, illustrated by Adrienne Ségur

I think that the old tales were told to help children in particular, learn to cope with the very real fears of life and to give guidance on being a good person. Today, the world is still a dark and scary place and as a kid and teenager I found the stories comforting and an escape from the realities of the very real fear of nuclear war, murderers (and worse), and of course the tension of my father’s mental illness. It was reassuring to know that although there were terrifying things out there, there were good people out there too – heroic people who could change the world.

I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all – even if it is just fantasy.

Personal Opinion Here:  I firmly believe that everyone – especially children – need real art in their lives – it stimulates the imagination and gives a richness to life. The kind of illustrations I grew up with are rare these days in books and I think that’s an awful shame. Do your children (and yourself) a favor and buy beautiful and beautifully written books.



Painting the President, and geography blunders

There’s sometimes a delicate balancing act that an artist has to manage when working for a demanding client – to keep the client happy and also produce work that is artistically good. And it can be particularly delicate when working for a powerful art director or editor who might have a strong opinion about how the final work should look. The artist knows that he/she is on the payroll to do whatever the client wants, but sometimes its just too difficult – too stomach churning to do what the client demands because the idea is so artistically bad. Usually the artist can make diplomatic suggestions to improve the quality of the commissioned art. But in some cases the artist has to give in and just do the job…

The artist, in this case, was my father.  The assignment was a big one – Time’s Man of the Year for 1960. My Dad personally liked the Time executive who gave him the prestigious assignment and also presented the cover concept to him. But the concept was, in my father’s opinion, bad. My Dad, however, felt obliged to do what he was asked to do, and not interfere.

louis XIV cardIt was December 29, 1959 and Jim Keogh, Senior Editor of Time Magazine, took my Dad to lunch at Rockefeller Center to the Cafe Louis XIV. It was one of the restaurants that frequently catered dinners and luncheons to the Time offices when my father worked there.

Keogh was very excited to tell my father about an upcoming and important assignment and impressed upon my father that it was top secret. But once in the restaurant he spoke up and told my father that he’d be doing the 1960 Man of the Year cover of Dwight D Eisenhower, the 34th President of the United States of America.

Usually it was Otto Fuerbringer, the Managing Editor, who ultimately signed off on cover concepts with my father. But this time Jim Keogh was acting on his own while Fuerbringer was out of the country on business.

Time Inc and Kennedy

There don’t seem to be too many pictures around of the men my father worked with so I’m including this one taken at the Time Life Building. It includes from the left: John K Jessup (of Life Magazine), Henry Luce (owner of Time Magazine), Otto Fuerbringer the Managing Editor of Time (touching his chin), presidential candidate Senator John Kennedy (whom my father painted at least twice for Time). To the right behind Kennedy it looks like its  Jim Keogh the Senior Editor my father worked with on the Eisenhower cover. Photo by Margaret Norton, August 5, 1960

Normally my father suggested ideas for the background art and discussed it with senior editorial, and then when it was approved, the research department would prepare source information for him to work from. Keogh was relatively new to his job at this time and had been relying on my Dad to pull together cover concepts for him for a while (particularly the difficult ones). In doing so he had given my father a lot of creative freedom – even okaying covers without preliminary sketches, so my Dad felt obliged to go along with Keogh on this one – especially since Keogh was so proud of the idea.

Keogh insisted that the earth should be seen from space behind Eisenhower with Washington DC and Europe visible. So after lunch Keogh had the chief researcher Nancy Faber take my father down to the Rand McNally store to buy an expensive globe for him to work from.

betty and barby and globe

Me on the left and my big sister on the right. Is that the fancy Rand McNally globe from the story?? The Eisenhower earth? could be…

Keogh also insisted that a needle and thread be bound around a giant rock (over Washington, DC) and then strung across the Atlantic and pinned to Bonn, Paris and London… I guess it symbolized the stability the US government represented to Europe during the Cold War.

It was an important portrait so Time sent my Dad to Washington to an Eisenhower press conference at the White House so he could see the man in person and meet him – this was both to give my father the best reference material possible and to give him a perk for a job well done.

Eisenhower and Thomas Gates

Thomas Gates takes the oath of office as Secretary of Defense (2nd from the right) with President Eisenhower in the center.

While he was at the White House he also met Thomas Gates the Secretary of Defense, and according to his notes: “all the other military brass”.

The magazine put my father up in the Time suite at the Sheraton Hotel.

When my father delivered the finished painting all the editors thought it was great – even the Managing editor Ray Alexander came along and complimented him on the head.

Eisenhower cover by Bernard Safran

President Eisenhower by Bernard Safran for Time Magazine’s 1960 Man of the Year. image source Time Archives

When it was published my Dad went in for proofs of the painting for his files, and Nancy Faber told him that she’d nearly lost her job because he’d forgotten to put Austria on the map. While he was talking to Nancy, the Associate Editor, Champ Clark  stopped by to say how good the Man of the Year cover was and Nancy said “Some knucklehead left Austria out.”

Otto Fuerbringer was just back from a trip to China and asked my father into his office. He talked casually about how much he loved Chinese food and how much weight he’d put on on the trip.

My Dad wrote about this conversation in his journal: “Then he (Otto) said that his daughter had liked the cover but wanted to know why I had put a rock in it.” and My Dad answered,  “Ask Keogh, not me!”

My Dad was distressed by this fallout because he’d known the idea was bad from the beginning and that he hadn’t done his “part in opposing it”.  He also felt very bad about leaving out an entire country from the map.

Being not so great at geography and borders, I can easily understand the mistake myself…

The portrait of President Dwight D Eisenhower, 34th President of the United States of America by Bernard Safran is part of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery collection in Washington, DC