1950s Pulp Fiction Covers

Paul Revere by NC Wyeth 1922

Paul Revere by NC Wyeth 1922

My Dad had high hopes when he was in school. He was inspired to be an illustrator by the works of NC Wyeth, Rockwell Kent, Arthur Rackham and other artists who were at the time considered great illustrators and great artists in their own rights.

When he graduated from Pratt after serving in WWII (see earlier posts pre 1960) he was excited to join the ranks of the great illustrators. He was determined to only take work that was painting or drawing.

After pounding the pavement for months trying to find work in New York City, he realized that he didn’t know anything practical about the illustration business. So to learn how to survive in NYC as an illustrator, he joined the Gail Phillips Illustration Studio in November 1947 (he’d apprenticed at another studio earlier that year but quit after three months when he’d learned all he could there).

At Gail Phillips he rented space and worked for commission on jobs that came through the owning business. It was tough to make any money there, but he put in the hours and learned everything he needed.

He went on to work at two more studios – the last one run by an agent where he could work independently but still use the facilities, including the photo studio where he hired models and did his own reference photographs. He had several models that he worked with over the years – women with the contemporary look that was in demand at the time.

Outdoor Life Magazine cover 1951 by Bernard Safran

This is my handsome Uncle Charlie posing for my Dad for the cover of Outdoor Life.

He eventually gave up the commercial studio space to work from home in order to save money.

He also needed a full time agent devoted to getting him paying work. So my mother managed to get fired from her illustration job at a publishing company, and became his agent, (figuring they’d make more money selling his art).

She went out 5 days a week to all the publishers in NYC with my Dad’s portfolio and smiled and chatted her way into getting him work.

Because she was friendly and didn’t take offense at rude behavior it was an easier job for her than it would be for my father – and since it wasn’t her work she was less inclined to take editor’s changes and criticisms personally; she could bring these comments back to my father and smooth the waters. She got him all sorts of illustration jobs including an entire children’s bible, full page work for magazines like Boy’s Life, and covers and interiors for literary books.

Bernie Safran in reference photo of cowboy

Bernie Safran in reference photo of cowboy. Here he’s using his childhood cap gun that was a beautiful replica of Tom Mix’s ivory handled silver gun.

But what he is perhaps best known for today by collectors are his pulp fiction covers.

For financial reasons, my mother became his model for many of the source photos he needed. He had already been using himself for most of the male figures he painted – occasionally calling on his handsome brother in law for a modelling job now and then.

My mother was also the set dresser and photographer’s assistant during these sessions. Props were bought when necessary like my Dad’s cowboy hat, but usually my parents used scarves of my mother’s and brooms or whatever they had at hand to represent the size and weight of whatever object had to be painted.

Bernie Safran with professional model in reference photo for Pulp Fiction cover

Bernie Safran with professional model in reference photo for Pulp Fiction cover

My Dad also kept a large image file on hand – clippings on all sorts of topics that he could use as reference material. I loved going through all those files when I was a kid – especially the one on horses that he kept for doing Westerns. (The files had to be trashed in the 80s due to mildew damage.)

He painted more than 40 pulp fiction covers during this time. It was relatively easy money – and he was good at it.

Croyden Publishing gave him the most jobs. He was able to capture just the right amount of sleeze but still keep it in the parameters of the current laws. For example, when he had to paint a woman with her shirt being ripped off, there were absolute limits to what could show and how it could be shown.

Indiscretions of A French Model by Bernard Safran, Croyden Publishing Co. oil on canvas board, 1953

My Dad was only paid $100.00 for this cover. You can see him in the foreground – the other guys were probably also himself, painted with different faces.
Indiscretions of A French Model by Bernard Safran, Croyden Publishing Co. oil on canvas board, 1953.

The publishing companies tried their best to work around these prohibitions and made my father revise some of the covers multiple times. They regularly demanded other changes too – in gestures (again circumventing the codes), in colors (fuschia is the most eye catching color on book stands) and in content.

Dealing with these myriad problems and changes gave my father an invaluable base of knowledge and self confidence to go forward – though the endless revisions drove him mad at the time.

He only made between $100 to $250 a cover. He knew the covers were trashy and not his best work, but he needed the money.

There are some covers where you can see he put a lot of effort in, and others that he obviously didn’t give a damn.

Backroad Motel, cover by Bernard Safran

My father is very clearly the guy in the green jacket (clearly to me) and probably the guy in the back too with some imaginative adjustments. The woman very likely was my mother foxed up.

But interestingly enough, his pulp covers of the 1950s are currently his hottest sellers at auction today…

…which I do find kind of sad given that his later works are so magnificent…

However, I say its all good. The more people who know the name Bernard Safran the better.