from Her Life to Live, by Oriana Atkinson
(Popular Library, 1951)
Forty years ago, two-bit babes like Eyzie (no doubt pronounced "easy") were a dime a dozen.
You'd find them in drugstores, newsstands, smoke shops and wherever else paperbacks were sold, flaunting their wanton wares from the covers of 25-cent sizzlers like Hoboes and Harlots, Shack Baby, and Hitch-Hike Hussy.
Turgid. Torrid. Tawdry. Lurid Loreleis of literature didn't come any cheaper than this.
But Eyzie and her scarlet sisterhood have moved up in the world. Once the scourge of publishers' row, these down-and-dirty dames now name their own prices.
Four decades ago, when her story first rolled off the press, Eyzie's exploits could be had for a quarter. Today a mint-condition copy of her checkered past--if you're lucky enough to find one--will set you back as much as $30. Not bad for a gal who once was reduced to performing a "barbaric" dance in a backwoods cellar--a ribald routine dutifully captured by the paperback's cover artist, right down to the slobbering moonshiner gleefully ripping off her gown.
Sorry, ladies, but up until 25 years ago, the paperback universe was a man's world. It was a literary landscape populated by such colorful characters as Hot Dames on a Cold Slab, Keyhole Peeper, and Swamp Brat, a pulp-ridden paradise where Song of the Whip rang through the air over places like Shabby Street and Rapture Alley.
Aimed at male readers seeking spice during the relatively sexless post-WWII-Eisenhower era (a period roughly bookended by Esquire's Vargas girl on one end and a Penthouse Pet on the other), raunchy relics like these promised readers thick slices of life in the raw, heavy on the onions.
Three decades later, their lascivious legacy lives on as nostalgic baby boomers pay top dollar to relive the paperback sins of their fathers.
"It's the `forbidden fruit' syndrome," says dealer Blake Shira, owner of Lost Dutchman Comics. Now dealing and collecting vintage paperbacks for nearly twenty years, the 38-year-old Shira still remembers the days when tantalizing titles like Hill Hellion, Gutter Gang, and Trailer Tramp ruled the racks. "Back then, grown-ups were always telling you, `Leave that alone! Go read a comic book, go play with your baseball cards but stay away from those paperbacks. They're too sleazy!'"
Browsing through Shira's inventory of softcover salaciousness--a collection of 15,000 titles roughly spanning a 25-year period beginning in 1940--the casual observer is inclined to agree.
Pick a book--any book--and you're almost certain to be assaulted with the cover image of a sultry siren en deshabille languishing amidst some of the most overheated copy ever to come out of a typewriter.
"She dared enter a lesbian world," shrieks the tag line from Strange Sisters. Meanwhile, over on the cover of Confessions of a Psychiatrist, the peignoir-clad pretty writhing on the couch apparently has good reason to shrink away from her addled analyst--"Every Boudoir Was His Office--Every Patient His Plaything."
Not even nonfiction was immune from the hothouse art direction of the era. In an effort to inject some sex into the then-new UFO frenzy, the cover art for 1951's Behind the Flying Saucers suggests that should the nation ever be threatened by extraterrestrial invasion, American women would immediately respond by running through the streets in their sheerest negligees.
"Actually, these covers are much, much more suggestive than anything you'll find inside the books," reports Shira. "If you ever read one of these things, they're extremely tame by today's standards. Today, you can find much racier stuff in any grocery store."
Even by yesterday's standards, some paperbacks didn't deliver anything much hotter than the reading material then routinely found in any high school English-lit class. Just ask the long-ago suckers who plunked down a quarter for The Art of Love. A racy-sounding romp penned by "A French Casanova," the book was actually a retitled version of Cyrano de Bergerac. Not to be outdone, another publisher attempted to transform Mark Twain into an early-day Harold Robbins by rechristening Twain's Puddin'head Wilson as The Unnatural Son.
Not surprisingly, these deceptive curios are now in collector's circles. Still, neither title comes close to fetching the kind of price that a top-grade copy of Reform School Girl can bring.
According to the most recent edition of The Paperback Price Guide, a mint-condition copy of the 1948 delinquency potboiler ("A shameful path led her there--A scarlet secret kept her there!") is worth up to $35O. That's nearly twice the value of what is generally regarded as America's first mass-market paperback: a 1939 Pocket Book edition of Pearl Buck's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Good Earth. If Shira's inventory is any indication, paperback readers of the past were much less interested in The Good Earth than The Life Lousy. Sex, sadism and salaciousness were many paperback houses' stock-in-trade, and woe to the publisher who couldn't figure out how to incorporate a skull, a corpse and/or the suggestion of spice into the cover design of even the most high-minded writing. ("What did this man want?" asks the cover of Sinclair Lewis' Babbitt as a middle-aged man ogles a young woman of dubious virtue.)