An afternoon on the South Side.
The above photos show the Regal Cinema in Chicago one afternoon during the spring of 1941 as locals flock to see The Philadelphia Story, starring Katherine Hepburn, James Stewart, and Cary Grant. The shots were made by Farm Security Administration photographer Edwin Rosskam, who had been tasked with documenting life in Chicago's black belt, which is where racist housing practices forced African Americans to live. Most of Rosskam's photos made abundantly clear that the underclass status forced upon blacks by redlining—the utilization of mortgage and insurance practices to hem them into tightly packed areas—led to less than desirable conditions, but many of his shots showed joyous moments and bustling civic life. These images of people decked out for a matinee are examples. They're part of the Office of War Information Collection maintained by the Library of Congress.
Despite my reputation the odds are very much against you.
Above is a cover for 50-50 Girl by Thomas Stone for Chicago's Merit Books, published in 1952. The title refers not to the odds of getting the lead character in bed, but the fact that she's forced to share her favors with two men. It isn't a consensual agreement, technically, because she gives herself to man number two—a rich playboy—as the price of freeing her sister from her former manager, an amoral hustler named Eddie. The author Thomas Stone was actually none other than Florence Stonebraker, the brain behind more than eighty novels. Which is quite a feat, considering she didn't get published until she was forty-one. We have plenty from her in the website but our favorite is this one.
Hello, ma'am. I'm from the ACME home security company and I'm selling new and improved shorter door chains.
The Fabulous Clipjoint is the 1947 debut novel by Fredric Brown, published originally as Dead Man's Indemnity in Mystery Book Magazine in April 1946. This edition came from Popular Library in 1948. The basic idea here is a hapless alcoholic is murdered in Chicago and his son and brother decide to find the killer or killers. As their investigation unfolds, the son learns his father wasn't hapless at all, but rather had lived a full life that included adventures in Spain and Mexico, winning a duel, romantic entanglements, and more. None of it has to do with why he died. It merely serves to awaken his son to the possibilities of life, and helps convince him to run off to join a carnival. A clipjoint, literally speaking, is a nightclub or strip bar where customers are promised everything, delivered little, and cheated down to their last dime. The clipjoint of The Fabulous Clipjoint is figurative. It's the city of Chicago, perhaps even the entirety of life itself. As a metaphor it's grand, but the novel is less so. It's competent, but Brown would do better later in his career. The cover art here featuring the world's most useless security chain is by Ed Grant, and fits nicely into our collection of women confronting trouble at their doors. See that here.
I could stop coloring it, I guess. But then I'd be a brunette again, and that's worse than dying young.
Above, an uncredited cover for Blondes Die Young by Bill Peters. The author is aka William P. McGivern, and the book is hard boiled action in Chicago's jazz clubs and dope dens, as the sleuth protagonist Bill Canalli tries to track down the culprit who murdered his girlfriend. Who by the way has barely cooled to room temperature before slick Bill beds another woman, but what's a hard boiled guy to do? Anything to get to the bottom—of the case. The hero's treatment of this woman will raise some eyebrows in this day and age, but this is still an involving tale and we like that it doesn't get too moralistic about the drugs angle. And we got it for four bucks, which is an absolute steal. It was written in 1952 originally, with this Popular Library paperback edition appearing in 1953.
This nice pin-up style sticker was painted by legendary illustrator Rolf Armstrong for Kist Soda around 1930. Kist was created in 1922 by Citrus Products Company of Chicago, and was soon being manufactured in orange, ginger ale, lemon, and grape flavors. By the time Armstrong was brought in Kist had been licensed by the Quality Beverage Company, also based in Chicago. There's a bit of conflicting information online concerning the whos and whens, as always, but we just wanted to show you this very rare and pretty piece of Armstrong memorabilia.
Pam Grier was the undisputed ruler of the blaxploitation realm.
The arc of Pam Grier's blaxploitation career is interesting. To us it seems pretty clear that once her studio American International realized they had a true star on their hands the projects they cultivated for her moved toward the cinematic center and became tame and uninspiring. We noted this when we talked about 1975's Friday Foster a while back. Sheba Baby, which was made the same year and premiered in the U.S. today, suffers from the same problem. It's too cute and too palatable, too eager to please in its attempt to draw in mainstream audiences. Grier loses her grit. She plays Sheba Shayne, whose father is harassed by organized crime hoods and needs help to fight their plot to take over his business. Grier leaves her Chicago detective agency and heads down south to Louisville, Kentucky to kick ass and take names. The hoods are black men from around the way, but the real villain is a white guy on a yacht in the river. He's archetypal. He could just as well be a white guy in a mansion on a hill, or in a penthouse uptown. Whoever and wherever he is, he's going down hard and it's going to hurt.
The importance of blaxploitation is that it centered stories on the black experience—family, neighborhood, crime, racism, and the predations of America's two-tiered policing and court systems. This focus on core black issues existed even in films that represented alternate realities, such as horror and martial arts blaxploitation. The eventual sanitization of the genre was due to pressure from two directions at once: from the mainstream to avoid alienating white audiences, and from the black counterculture to avoid caricatured portrayals of blacks. Caught between these two forces, the center of blaxploitation shifted. Meanwhile, inside the subculture, initial euphoria at seeing black stories onscreen evolved into annoyance that the control and profits belonged almost exclusively to white men. It seemed like a plantation system on celluloid, and helped take the bloom off the rose. 1976 and 1977 would remain strong years for the genre, but by 1978 blaxploitation, as it was generally agreed to exist, would all but disappear. Sheba Baby is an important film in the pantheon, but in watching it you also see the genre losing its bite.
Hallucinatory southwestern noir takes readers to a land of saints and sinners.
It's said that a good book teaches you how to read it. The author instructs while building the story. Dorothy B. Hughes' 1946 crime novel Ride the Pink Horse, which was the source material for the 1947 film noir starring Robert Montgomery, falls into that category. In the story a man wanders around the southwestern U.S. town of Santa Fe, New Mexico, searching for someone he calls the Sen, which is short for the Senator. We suspect the shortening of his title is designed to make it a heterograph with “sin,” because this Illinois senator-turned-crime boss rather sinfully hired out the murder of his wife then shorted the murderer part of his fee. That's why the main character, named Sailor, is adrift in this town. He's followed the Sen there from Chicago to get his money. He plans to find him, confront him, collect payment, then scurry away to Mexico.
But this comes out in trickles. Initially Sailor merely criss-crosses the town, unable to find a hotel room because it's fiesta weekend, with crowds everywhere and processions filling the streets. He sleeps under the canopy of a merry-go-round which features a pink horse. As he keeps going in circles around town more characters emerge—the cop who's trying to solve murder of the senator's wife, the carousel owner who appeals to Sailor's sense of honor, the girl who recalls an innocence he can barely remember, and the beautiful Iris Towers, the focus of his wishes for a better life.
Hughes loves symbolic names: there's the Sen, as we already mentioned; there's Iris Towers, dressed in ivory colors and pale of skin; and there's the girl Pila, whose name is the Spanish word for a laundry trough, a place of cleansing. The book is composed of encounters rather than events, hallucinatory meanderings punctuated by tense verbal standoffs. Each tête-à-tête clarifies matters a bit more for the reader. Did Sailor really kill the Sen's wife? Did he ever intend to? Was she ever to be the actual target? Were others involved?
When Sailor goes from seeing the town's Mexican and Native American inhabitants as something other than sub-human, maybe, we think, he isn't irredeemable. But even if he grows in some ways his hatred continues to drive him. He thinks the Sen is vermin. He wonders how such an abomination can even walk upon the Earth. When he follows the Sen into the cathedral this thought passes through his mind: He didn’t know why the dim perfumed cathedral didn’t belch the Sen out of its holy portals.
Hughes is a good writer, a unique stylist, and she gives Ride the Pink Horse the disorienting feeling of taking place in purgatory. It's a fever dream, an acid trip across a constantly shifting landscape, literary rather than pulp in approach, as much Faulkner as it is Chandler, with nothing quite solid or real apart from Sailor's hatred, which is so intense it seems as if it will consume him and leave nothing behind but a cinder. Sailor's racism is appalling, but he's not supposed to be a good man. This town filled with people that frighten and confuse him could be his salvation or his doom. He's the one who has to decide whether to step back from the precipice. Every wise character sees that he's headed for destruction. But the future isn't set. He has a chance for redemption—small, but real. Top marks for this one.
Geez, everyone's a damn critic. I mean, look around. I play the blues for a reason.
Chicago based author William Attaway's Blood on the Forge is another of those highly serious literary novels that got the good-girl-art cover treatment. Numerous previously published authors were repackaged in this way during the 1950s. We're talking everyone from George Orwell to Aristarchus of Samos. This Popular Library edition is from the heyday of the makeover era—1953—but the book first appeared in 1941. It's about African American sharecroppers during the early twentieth century leaving their agrarian existence in Kentucky and heading to West Virginia, where they seek better lives and something closer to equality (the rear cover says Pennsylvania, but that happens much later in the story). This era is known historically as the Great Migration, when a lot of blacks got the hell out of the South and the increasingly vicious Jim Crow culture that thrived after slavery. The characters in Blood on the Forge find, like most real life migrants did, that the North is also unfair and difficult.
The cover art isn't as much of a stretch as it often is with these pulped up versions. The guitar player is Melody Moss, a major character, and the woman is Anna, who in the narrative is a Mexican girl of fourteen, but is depicted as well above the age of consent here. It's a pretty nice piece of art, though by an unknown (Ray Johnson? Owen Kampen?). As for the actual fiction, it was neglected for decades but it's now considered a literary classic and Attaway is recognized as an important figure of the Black Chicago Renaissance. Fitting, because Attaway was a real Renaissance man. He stopped writing novels after Blood on the Forge and moved into music and writing screenplays for radio, films, and TV. In 1957 he published the Calypso Song Book, a compendium of tunes he had collected. He also wrote for Harry Belafonte, including the classic "Banana Boat Song (Day O).” By the end of his career he had penned over 500 songs. You have to be impressed.
Ana Bertha Lepe flaunts the LPGA's dress code.
Mexican actress and former Miss Mexico pageant winner Ana Bertha Lepe makes jaws drop on the links with her skintight shorts and excellent form, and we hear she came in well under par. Lepe starred in numerous Spanish language films, including Rebelde sin casa, aka Rebel without a House, and Una chica de Chicago. By the way, we're unsure if Lepe would actually be violating the LPGA dress code, which calls for the bottom area to be completely covered at all times. Her bottom area is covered—with a coat of paint. We're also unsure when the photo was made. If we had to guess we'd say around 1958.
Okay, he's taken the bait. We'll let him get close, then you distract him by puking on his coat, and I'll take him down.
City Streets was written by Gene Harvey, aka Jack Hanley, who we last saw authoring 1942's Leg Artist. Harvey was a literary vet who authored such memorable lite-sleaze epics as She Couldn't Be Good, A Girl Called Joy, and Stag Stripper. City Streets is from 1954 and apparently his various publishers liked it so much they issued it four times—Venus Books put it out in 1950 as Cutie, Exotic Novels released it as Passion's Slave the same year in an illustrated format, Original Novels published it as what you see above, and finally Star Novels published it, also as City Streets, in 1955. These companies were closely related, but that's still a lot of mileage from one book. It explores the trials and tribulations of beautiful young Dru, “a bad girl of the slums,” who's gotten her education from the school of hard knocks—i.e. from Chicago's south side. The cover art on this is by Rafael DeSoto, who cleverly hid his signature in the gutter. It's a really beautiful effort from him, certainly one of his best. We've featured him often, so just click his keywords below if you want to see more. |
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1935—Four Gangsters Gunned Down in New Jersey
In Newark, New Jersey, the organized crime figures Dutch Schultz, Abe Landau, Otto Berman, and Bernard "Lulu" Rosencrantz are fatally shot at the Palace Chophouse restaurant. Schultz, who was the target, lingers in the hospital for about a day before dying
. The killings are committed by a group of professional gunmen known as Murder, Inc., and the event becomes known as the Chophouse Massacre.
1950—Al Jolson Dies
Vaudeville and screen performer Al Jolson dies of a heart attack in San Francisco after a trip to Korea to entertain troops causes lung problems. Jolson is best known for his film The Jazz Singer, and for his performances in blackface make-up, which were not considered offensive at the time, but have now come to be seen as a form of racial bigotry.
1926—Houdini Fatally Punched in Stomach
After a performance in Montreal, Hungarian-born magician and escape artist Harry Houdini is approached by a university student named J. Gordon Whitehead, who asks if it is true that Houdini can endure any blow to the stomach. Before Houdini is ready Whitehead strikes him several times, causing internal injuries that lead to the magician's death.
1973—Kidnappers Cut Off Getty's Ear
After holding Jean Paul Getty III for more than three months, kidnappers cut off his ear and mail it to a newspaper in Rome. Because of a postal strike it doesn't arrive until November 8. Along with the ear is a lock of hair and ransom note that says: "This is Paul’s ear. If we don’t get some money within 10 days, then the other ear will arrive. In other words, he will arrive in little bits." Getty's grandfather, billionaire oilman Jean Paul Getty, at first refused to pay the 3.2 million dollar ransom, then negotiated it down to 2.8 million, and finally agreed to pay as long as his grandson repaid the sum at 4% interest.
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