Saturday, March 06, 2010

James Avati (with a cameo by J.D. Salinger)

From 1949 to 1989, James Avati (1912-2005) painted the covers for more than 600 paperback books, illustrating the work of a wide swath of novelists: John O’Hara, Erskine Caldwell, James T. Farrell, Alberto Moravia, Richard Yates (Avati painted the first paperback cover for “Revolutionary Road” in 1962), Christopher Isherwood, Gore Vidal, James Michener, Mickey Spillane (Avati hated the Mike Hammer books)--so many writers, some still famous, many now obscure, that it would take a book to list the artist’s credits.
Thankfully, there is just such a volume, “The Paperback Art of James Avati” by Piet Schreuders and Kenneth Fulton (Donald M. Grant, 2005). For anyone interested in the American publishing business in mid/late 20th century, this is a must. Generously illustrated, the book not only shows Avati’s incredible gift for capturing the theme of a novel and the sense of its characters, it provides a glimpse into the changes in marketing of mass publishing to accommodate evolving tastes in the general reading public. Stanley Meltzoff, Avati’s friend and fellow artist, once observed: “Norman Rockwell painted us as we would like to see ourselves at our best. Avati is the flip side of Rockwell. He is a Naturalist painting us with suspenders down.”
Avati majored in architecture at Princeton, and after three years of Army service in World War ll settled in Red Bank, New Jersey to become a painter. To make a living he began to take assignments from New American Library/Signet (he would paint 221 covers just for NAL). Working from a studio in Red Bank, Avati used many locals as his models, giving his work a natural look, perfect for his realistic style. Recalling Avati’s 1949 painting for Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy,” Marc Jaffe once said it was the best paperback cover he’d ever seen, an opinion from a man who’d seen a lot of covers in his career (Jaffe eventually headed Ballantine Books).
The cover in question shows a desolate young woman, a letter held by her left side, her right hand gently touching her stomach, a subtle touch by Avati to suggest that the woman is pregnant and the letter has brought bad news, probably from the cad who abandoned her. Jaffe was right: it is a great cover.
In 1951, Avati accepted the job to paint the paperback cover to J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye.” Author and artist had a basic disagreement: Salinger did not want Holden Caulfield to be identifiable since Holden is never described in the novel, which is told—as we all know from our high school reading—in the first person. Here is how Avati described his thinking during the mild contretemps in a letter to Victor Weybright, NAL’s editor-in-chief:
“Let us show him (Holden) coming down Broadway to Forty-Second Street expressing his pained reaction to people who LIKE movies, etc. He is very much a definable personality, a foil to the crowd. And the crowd in its varied normality and the theater background, exciting, suggestive, provides lures which will attract a very broad audience of readers.”
And so it did, slowly at first, then building in popularity. Avati’s cover lasted through 27 printings before Salinger went over to Bantam, which still publishes his four books. None of his books has been illustrated since Avati’s cover. Avati , by the way, hated the white box NAL put on the cover (“This unusual book may shock you, will make you laugh, and may break your heart—but you will never forget it!”).
Avati moved to Petaluma (about 25 miles north of the Bay Area) in 1989, where he painted, took long walks and made many friends. Avati once said that standing before his easel, he would think: “You gotta do the best you can; no more foolin’ around; you gotta be really serious about this. Do the best you can.”
Jim Avati followed his own advice. The evidence is in those 600-plus paintings.


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