Pulp Fiction and Midwood Books
This perspective and history is by Lynn Munroe
Please visit http://www.lynn-munroe-books.com
Harry Shorten came from the Midwood section of Brooklyn NY. With his partner, artist Al Fagaly, Shorten made his fortune with a comic strip called THERE OUGHTA BE A LAW. Shorten thought up the ideas and Fagaly would do the drawings. Looking around for somewhere to invest all the money he was making from his cartoon, Shorten decided to become a paperback book publisher. He looked at the success of Beacon Books, a series of slick cheap throwaway melodramas and sexy romances with flashy girlie art covers marketed to men and published by Universal Distributing. Shorten figured he could do the same, and at 505 8th Avenue in Manhattan, in 1957, he started a paperback book line named for his old neighborhood. The first batch of Midwood Books were either THERE OUGHTA BE A LAW paperbacks or unnumbered experimental forays in the Beacon style. By Midwood 7 in 1958, the authors and artists we recognize as Midwood Books were in place. Midwood 7 is by Loren Beauchamp and has a cover by Rudy Nappi, Midwood 8 is by Sheldon Lord and has a cover by Paul Rader. Shorten was getting his early manuscripts from the Scott Meredith Literary Agency, where Meredith’s band of employees and clients were soon churning out a book a month for Nightstand Books, too. And he was getting his cover paintings from the Balcourt Art Service, the same agency that supplied many of the covers for Beacon.
Although nobody at Midwood knew it then, most of the books were by the same writers turning out the Nightstands. For example, Loren Beauchamp (Robert Silverberg) would become Don Elliott a year later at Nightstand, Sheldon Lord (Lawrence Block) would become Andrew Shaw. Some of the writers, like Alan Marshall and Clyde Allison and Al James, used the same name for both.
Amazingly, just 5 men wrote almost all of the first 40 numbered Midwoods. This hard-working group (Beauchamp, Lord, Marshall, Orrie Hitt and Don Holliday) carried and established Midwood until Shorten was able to build his own stable of regulars – names like March Hastings, Dallas Mayo, Kimberly Kemp, Joan Ellis, Jason Hytes and Sloane Britain.
For a book publisher, Shorten may not have known much about literature or good books (he was kind of the polar opposite of other New York publishers like Random House’s Bennett Cerf, who was a silent partner at Bantam Books), but he understood what the average American slob liked. His books are bright, colorful, flashy and above all eye-catching. That’s why cover artists like Nappi, Rader and Robert Maguire were so important to Shorten’s success. The covers sold the books. Midwoods were not great literature, but they were usually great fun. PG-rated sex scenes popped up every few pages full of innuendo and veiled references to “throbbing manhood” and ‘dark triangles”. Somehow, although romance books and soap opera were usually the province of women fans, Midwoods and Beacons were marketed to men. It was those covers. Many different collectors have told me that Midwoods are among their “guilty pleasures”.
Even their lesbian titles, while obviously enjoyed by many female readers then and to this day, were often actually written by men using female pen names like Barbara Brooks, Jill Emerson and Kimberly Kemp; then edited by men and marketed to men. Unlike some other paperback houses, all of Midwood’s early books dealt only with aspects of human sexuality. Midwood novels run the gamut from engaging to mundane. Shorten’s only interest was a profitable product. To that end he enlisted a team of friends and professionals to staff the offices at Midwood. His first editor was a brilliant, doomed writer named Elaine Williams. His right hand man, art director and later editor was Marshall Dugger. Shorten didn’t know much about books, but he was savvy enough to bring in people who did. He also enlisted eager young writers like Julie Ellis and Gilbert Fox.
Shorten, Dugger and Williams are no longer with us, but to learn more about Midwood I interviewed Julie Ellis and Gil Fox.
Many of the Midwood writers were never heard from again, while others became bona fide best-selling authors. This select group includes Silverberg & Block, Donald E. Westlake, and Julie Ellis. Now a successful writer of historical fiction living in New York with her husband and children, Julie Ellis once wrote books for Midwood as Joan Ellis.
One of the other Midwood writers got me in touch with Julie, who I found to be an absolute sweetheart. She was very kind and patient with me as I pestered her, not about the books she is so well regarded for today, but the books she wrote as a youngster for Harry Shorten.
LM: What pen names did you use?
Julie Ellis: I was Joan Ellis and Linda Michaels for Midwood. I was Jill Monte for Beacon and Domino, and Susan Richard at Paperback Library. My daughter is Susan, my son Richard. Susan Marvin became Susan Marino for one book when an editor at Avon wanted an Italian name on a book. I was Allison Lord and Jeffrey Lord. And I did some paperback originals under my own name before going hardcover/softcover with Simon & Schuster in 1975.
LM: I found some of your books at my local used bookstore in the romance section.
Ellis: I’ve never written paperback romances. Today the term “romance novels” is being widely expanded. I’ve done multigenerational novels, historicals, and romantic suspense.
LM: Do you remember who wrote as March Hastings? Who was Sloane Britain? Amy Harris? Laura Duchamp? Randy Salem?
Ellis: March Hastings was Sally Singer. I think she was Laura Duchamp too. Her brother Ron Singer was a Midwood writer too, lots of pen names. I would see them at the Christmas parties. The Midwood staff would be there, and writers like Gil Fox and Morris Hershman (Arnold English) and Mike Avallone….
Sloane Britain’s real name was Elaine Williams. She died too young. Amy Harris?? I think Amy Harris might have been Lou Ellen Davis?
I did not know Randy Salem.
LM: Can you put me in touch with Sally Singer?
Ellis: My Christmas card to Sally was returned, so I gather she's moved on. If I hear from her--which happens at intervals--I'll tell her about your project. However, she's a very private person and I doubt she'd cooperate.
(ed. note: Later, Sally Singer did not answer my phone message requests for an interview.)
LM: Some of my favorite Joan Ellis books have covers by Paul Rader. Did you know him?
Ellis: No, I don’t remember ever meeting him. I don’t think he came to any of the parties. I never knew any of the artists; I just dealt with Harry Shorten and Marshall Dugger. I wrote a number of books for them in the sixties. One time I walked into Harry’s office and he held up a painting of a blonde eating an ice cream cone and he said, “I now own this cover art. Write me a book to go with it.” So I did. (ed. note: the book is TALK OF THE TOWN, Midwood 32-396).
(I am happy to report that my interview with Julie Ellis led to an invitation from my friend Gary Lovisi for Julie to be a guest at the 2003 New York Paperback Show, where hopefully much more will be learned about her days as a paperback writer.).
Midwood collector Robert Rutherford told me that 3 different Midwood regulars – Paul V. Russo, Dallas Mayo and Kimberly Kemp – were all pen names of the same man, Gilbert Fox. Fox is now retired and living in Northern California. I drove up to visit him one day last year.
Gil Fox was born in Connecticut in 1917. He grew up in Bridgeport and Harrison NY and studied musicology at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, where he is still remembered as the author of the college fight song. He was a bombardier in World War II. At college he met and married a Southern beauty who was bisexual. Her lesbian adventures would influence Fox’s writing for the rest of his life.
The Foxes moved to Greenwich Village, where Gil became friends with John Alexander Scott Coutts III, the artist known as John Willie.
(He also had a friend named George White, who gave LSD to kids for the CIA, but that’s a different story, outside the scope of this article, one you can look up on the Internet or at your local library.) And he became friends with Harry Shorten.
Later, when Shorten started his own publishing company, he thought of his friend Gil Fox. Fox’s first book for Shorten was A TOUCH OF DEPRAVITY as Paul V. Russo (Midwood 67). Soon Fox was turning in so many manuscripts they had to use other pen names so they wouldn’t have 3 Paul V. Russo books appear in the same month. Gil Fox’s books are always professionally told, with style and speed, the same themes reappearing again and again like a film director’s obsessions. He was the Midwood lesbian version of a Howard Hawks. Fox would go on to write over 100 Midwoods.
Gil is a cantankerous old guy, and I had a hell of an afternoon with him. When a fellow researcher who is writing a book about the adult book world asked me for Fox’s address, I warned him Fox could be volatile. After interviewing Fox, he called me back to say “I’m thinking of changing the title of my book to CRABBY OLD MEN”.
LM: Was A TOUCH OF DEPRAVITY, your first Midwood, also your first book as a writer?
Gil Fox: We will not talk about my first book! That subject is taboo.
LM: OK… I notice in addition to the Midwoods there is a Kozy Book called THE TROUBLE WITH RED HEADS by Dallas Mayo.
Fox: That was a one shot. I did it as a favor for a friend of my wife. Next question.
LM: Aaahh…. You wrote a lot of books for Midwood. Did you write for them exclusively?
Fox: No, I also wrote books for Stanley Malkin, aka Stanley Malcolm. He owned a bookstore on Times Square. It was Mafia-connected. He paid cash, no records, no receipts. He was semi-literate but he appreciated writers. His books have imprints like After Hours and First Niter. They always changed my title to some awful title, and they made up their own house names. (Fox showed me a couple of his books, an After Hours title called LESBIAN SLAVES by Violet Loring and CASTAWAYS by Peter Willow, First Niter 232. Another book is ALL AT ONCE by Leda Starr, Unique UB136. Fox’s original title for this was CORA VALDEZ, and he had crossed off the publisher’s title with black magic marker and written CORA VALDEZ over it. Other books had the offending titles ripped off, Fox’s titles handwritten on the first page.)
Fox: Later on I wrote for Barney Rossett. I wrote a couple for Grove Press that he published as Venus Library. On one of them he accidentally put my real name on the copyright page (The books are BIZARRE VOYAGE by Anthony Bell, Venus Library V1112T, and FANCHON’S BOOK by Zane Pella, Venus Library V1072T. Fox never signs his real name on his books, but he signed FANCHON’S BOOK on the copyright page.) I also wrote some books for one of the Midwood writers, Ron Singer. They had an office set up at Christopher and Hudson in the Village, with typewriters, and you could go in there and write for money. One day after working for them I happened to be in the Lion’s Head Bar when the riot broke out. The Lion’s Head was a gathering place for gay men and dirty book writers.
More recently I’ve written for Blue Moon and Masquerade. Some of my stuff is still pretty hot.
LM: So you knew Harry Shorten before Midwood –
Fox: Harry Shorten had no knowledge of books whatsoever. He had some money from his cartoons, wanted to start a business, used the money to start Midwood. I don’t think Harry ever read a book in his whole life. He did not recognize intelligent writing in books. He would slap a hot cover on anything. For some reason Harry loved me. He would hit me on the back and call me “his most prolific author.” How Harry operated: one day we came back from lunch and Harry picks the title WHEN LIGHTS ARE LOW out of the air and says “Your next book for Midwood will be WHEN LIGHTS ARE LOW.” That was it, no meaning at all, no story. So, you know, I went home and wrote WHEN LIGHTS ARE LOW
LM: How much did Midwood pay in those days?
Fox: When I met Harry Shorten I was writing to make a buck at a dollar a page. But Midwood paid $500. per manuscript. Later it was $1000. each. We got paid royalties early on, then they stopped.
LM: Tell me about Shorten’s staff, and the other writers.
Fox: His first editor was Elaine Williams, who wrote as Sloane Britain. Her family refused to accept the fact that she was a lesbian, and she committed suicide. Marshall Dugger was Harry’s right hand man, his art director, and a drunk. Every once in a while Harry would have to go out and get Dugger out of trouble someplace. The next editor was a guy named John Plunkett. I don’t know why, but Plunkett was jealous of my success, jealous of my friendship with Harry. Plunkett cornered me at Midwood one day, and he said, “You think you are so hot. Well I’m going to write a better book than all of yours”. I said, “I didn’t realize this work was a competition.” Plunkett was furious I was the best. Now Plunkett came from Jackson Heights, so he took that for his pen name, Jason Hytes. And he started writing books for Harry. And you know what, one of them, SEX BEFORE SIX, well hell, that was pretty damn good. As good as mine. As an insider, Plunkett knew that Harry never read his own company’s books. So he sold the same book to Harry four different times. He would rewrite the first page and change the characters’ names and change a few details, and he got paid for it four times.
LM: Did you know Sally Singer?
Fox: Oh yes, I knew the Singer family. There was Sally, who wrote as March Hastings, and her girlfriend, Pat Perdue, who wrote as Randy Salem. And there was her brother, Ron Singer, and his boyfriend, what the hell was HIS name?
(I later contacted Ron Singer, who told me he is no longer communicating with his sister. Ron was reluctant to discuss his Midwood output (a response I got more often than not from the Midwood writers), but he did identify THE PATH BETWEEN by Jay Warren (Midwood 72), and TALL BLONDE & EVIL as Greg Hamilton (Midwood F366) as examples of his work for Shorten.)
LM: Who else? Did you know Orrie Hitt?
Fox: Orrie Hitt wrote absolute drivel! Have you ever tried to read an Orrie Hitt book?
LM: How about Joan Ellis?
Fox: Julie Ellis. Julie was not a “dirty book writer”, didn’t belong in our business, too much class. She had much greater success, all of it richly deserved, after Midwood.
LM: I notice that the Paul Russo books have male and female characters while the Dallas Mayo and Kimberly Kemp books are almost all lesbian stories.
Fox: My theme in my books is the domination of one woman over another, told from the submissive’s viewpoint. The first page is important. This is where the reader realizes this is the character’s viewpoint, not the author’s. So the pen names were interchangeable.
LM: I thought Dallas Mayo was a man, Kimberly Kemp a lesbian –
Fox: For me, Dallas Mayo was always a woman. Dallas, like Claire Trevor in STAGECOACH. And Kimberly Kemp might be an Englishman. I wanted them to go either way. My books became so popular that they published one by Paul V. Dallas. I was not Paul V. Dallas! That was an imposter.
LM: Many of your books have classic cover paintings by Paul Rader. Did you know Paul Rader?
Fox: Never met him. I would hear his name at Midwood but I never saw him there. Later on most of my books had photo covers.
Fox continued his Midwood output throughout the sixties. Along around 1970 there were sweeping changes in the content of “adult paperbacks” in America as a direct result of certain decisions made by the Supreme Court about what constituted pornography. What were tame paperbacks in the sixties became something else in the seventies. At the same time, for unrelated reasons, Paul Rader stopped supplying Midwood covers. The books used photo covers and then ugly, plain printed covers. The authors all changed, except for a couple who had no trouble shifting gears and writing porn - Jason Hytes and Dallas Mayo. The editors changed and the business changed.
Fox: The adult book business collapsed when the Mafia came in and took over the bookstores and said they would only sell books by their own publishers. And they started printing and selling absolute garbage. Harry never had any involvement with the Mafia. Later, he owed money to American Art Enterprises (Cameo Books) for paper stock, and he couldn’t pay. He was forced to turn over the Midwood stock to them.
LM: That explains why I find American Art books from the 80’s that turn out to be reprints of 70’s Midwood titles……Gil, what was your formula for writing so many books?
Fox: I would watch old movies and imagine the man and woman as two women and re-imagine it as a lesbian scene. I’d pull a whole scene from the Late Show and write it down and put it in a box. Then I’d pull ideas from the box when writing a book.
After interviewing Fox I sold some of his books on the Internet. I heard from Gil Fox fans from all over the world. His stories are still read, and enjoyed, by lovers of such books to this day. In a business peopled with hacks and talentless scribes, Fox was a cut above the pack.
Early Midwoods all say “A Tower Publication”. After 1964 there are many other types of books in the mix, “Tower Books”, not just the “sexy” stuff but science fiction and non-fiction and historical adventure and mystery. Tower eventually evolved into Belmont-Tower, and Midwood eventually started turning out what can only be described as pornography. But that’s another story.
For a guy who never read a book, Harry Shorten left behind a rich legacy for vintage paperback collectors.