This Politician’s Guns Speak Louder Than Words (Detective Fiction Weekly 21 Sept 1940)
Pulp magazine covers began to receive a lot of critical attention in the 1970s, not only for their nostalgia (or camp) value, but also for their legitimate artistic merit. The majority of covers—the prestige illustrating job—in the Golden Age of pulp magazines (the late 1920s through the late 1940s) were painted by extremely talented, experienced, and in many cases “trained” artists (that is to say, artists who attended art institutes or other professional schools). Furthermore, the wide range of subjects covered by the pulps meant there was room for artists specialising in everything from cheesecake to horror to aviation scenes to Westerns to historical adventure to hard-boiled detectives. It was not at all unusual for a pulp artist to have gone on to (or come from) a career in “fine” art, and/or to paint book covers, propaganda and advertising posters, pin-up calendars, and so on. There seems to have been little stigma attached to working for the pulps: they were seen as a respectable source of income during tough times, although certainly most artists would have preferred to be working in more lucrative markets such as the so-called “slicks,” or to be painting more “seriously.” Perhaps the best site I’ve found on pulp magazine illustrators is David Saunders’ “Field Guide to Wild American Pulp Artists” —http://www.pulpartists.com/index.html
Detective Fiction Weekly began publication in 1924 and was absorbed into another magazine in 1944 (returning in 1951 for a short run), going through various title and format changes. It is somewhat mind-boggling to realise this magazine was published weekly for 17 of those years: how much fiction saw print in those pages! Say what you will about the Depression, pulp magazines were a steady (if low-paying) market for writers for many years. There’s nothing like it today.
The covers of Detective Fiction Weekly followed a fairly consistent format from about 1928 through fall 1940: the blue masthead with an illustration below, often against a white or yellow background. Curiously, beginning with the issue after the one shown here, the magazine (with two brief exceptions) switched from this long-running format, discarding the cover painting and replacing it with a “badge” motif (listing the “main” feature stories), set against a montage of art or photos. This new (and boring) style was dropped in spring 1941 for another design (a smaller cover painting “framed” on one side by a text box), before full-cover paintings (under the masthead) returned late in the year.
The cover of Detective Fiction Weekly 21 September 1940 (volume 140 #1) was painted by Emmett Watson, a frequent contributor to the Munsey pulp magazine line. The cover is a tie-in with the featured story of the issue, “Death Elects a Governor,” by pulp stalwart Frank Gruber. The image of a middle-aged politician blasting away with two .45 automatics from the podium of a political convention (the placards in the foreground referring to various locales indicate the situation depicted is not just a political speech or other public event) is outrageously incongruous enough—who’s he shooting at? the delegates?—but if we deconstruct the art and text, even more is revealed.
First, although the title of Gruber’s story refers to the “election” of a governor (this could actually be a play on the word “elects” also meaning “chooses,” rather than an actual vote), a political convention is normally associated with the selection of a presidential candidate. Most of the other clues in the art and text also seem to refer, both obliquely and directly, to the 1940 presidential election. For example: the 1940 Democratic National Convention was held in Chicago, and the most prominent placards on the DFW cover (Lake County and Cook County) refer to Illinois locations (although this conflates the governor/president motif, since placards at a national convention would be for states, not counties). Furthermore, the tagline for Gruber’s story—“There is no third term when Death Elects a Governor”—is clearly meant to evoke Franklin D. Roosevelt’s controversial decision to run in 1940 for a third consecutive term as President of the United States.
Chicago (and Illinois more generally, especially the Chicago suburbs) became internationally famous during the Prohibition era as the home turf of gangsters such as Al Capone. In a curious coincidence (or was it?), the mayor of Chicago, Anton Cermak, was fatally wounded in 1933 while in the company of President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt. Although most assume the assassin was trying to kill FDR, some have suggested Cermak was the subject of a mob hit. This was only one in a long list of sordid stories of Chicago and Illinois politics which continued for many decades (and which persist even today—remember Rod Blagojevich?), but the Chicago politics/corruption linkage was already well known to readers when this magazine was published in 1940.
The cover itself is not a literal representation of Gruber’s story (which deals with a disbarred lawyer who becomes involved in a political murder); artist Watson adds some clever details, such as the aghast Grady Sutton-esque politician cowering behind the gun-toting governor, and the pseudonymous radio network IDs on the microphones (“MBC” is perhaps meant to combine the Mutual Broadcasting System and NBC, while “OBS” = “CBS”). The central figure doesn’t facially resemble Franklin D. Roosevelt—instead, he is an almost dead ringer for Henry Horner, governor of Illinois from 1933 until his death in October 1940 (see a photo of Horner here: http://www.illinoisancestors.org/governors/horner_henry.jpg). However, his top hat-and-tails ensemble was standard formal attire for many politicians in the 1920s and 1930s, and numerous photographs exist of FDR wearing (or waving) a top hat.
Were all of these signifiers obvious to readers in 1940? Perhaps. Certainly, in the early fall of an election year, there was a heightened awareness of all things political, so even if a reader didn’t pick up on the nuances, the image of a two-gun politician was not only highly entertaining, but also topically relevant. Bingo! Another newsstand sale for Detective Fiction Weekly.