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Celebrating Illustration, Design, Cartoon and Comic Art of the Mid-20th Century

Marilyn Conover Interview, Part 4

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Marilyn Conover was a very successful illustrator during the '60s and '70s. About four years ago, when she was 84, I interviewed her over the phone. Her frank, forthright and often intensely negative recollections of her career startled me. In all the interviews I'd conducted to that point (and since) I'd never encountered anything like it. My intention this week is not to cast a pall over a time many of us hold up as the last great era in illustration, but rather to honestly share a different perspective of someone who lived and worked in those times. For better or for worse here is Marilyn Conover; unvarnished, unsentimental, and unapologetic. ~ Leif


LP: Can you recall what year it was when you and your husband [Hendrick Conover] moved to New York?

MC: '61.

LP: Ok, so that's around the same time you got the Reader's Digest job that I have...

Conover01

MC: Oh, it's in there some place. Yes! I remember I was doing one of the illustrations on a packing box in my studio. So yeah, that was '61, '62.

LP: Marilyn, I'm glad I found you and I really, really appreciate you taking the time to tell me all these details...

MC: Well bless your heart. They were a wonderful bunch; Joyce Ballantyne was a darling, Gil Elvgren was a darling, I mean we used to be up at their houses all the time. He was a sweetheart but they all drank like crazy.

Elvgren15

MC: Oh my god... but generous - at thirty five he was taking everybody in the studio to lunches at one of the jazzy restaurants all the time. I mean he lived like a little chubby king and he had these little chubby hands of his and he'd paint these beautiful girls!

LP: (Laughing) Wow!

Elvgren16

MC: And you say his originals are now going for two hundred -- I hope to god his two boys reaped some reward from that - no, I bet they belong to the, uh...

LP: Brown & Bigelow? The calendar company?

MC: Oh my god. And his kids are probably just making an average living. And they [Elvgren's originals] sell for up to three hundred thousand?

LP: Yeah, he's one of the most collected pin-up artists in the world now. There are several giant, heavy coffee table books of his pin-ups now, and every year they reprint them on all kinds of calendars and other merchandise.

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MC: And that crappy work to look at?! To be buying and hanging those paintings?! Where would you put them? In your bar? In your bathroom?!

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LP: Well, there's a lot of interest and affection in a nostalgic way for that era. I mean that's part of the reason I like it. I admire the quality of the work that was done back then.

Elvgren13.detail

MC: What is the point of your obsession? I mean what are you doing with it? Just to do it?

LP: I do it because I discovered there were all these people like yourself who came before me in this profession who did amazing work but are largely forgotten and I just didn't think that was right. I thought it was a shame that people like myself who were graduating out of art school had never heard of Al Parker or Joe Bowler or any of these artists.

MC: Joe Bowler was another guy who did just incredible work.

LP: Oh yeah.

MC:I knew him as well, in New York.

(Below, Joe Bowler illustration, Saturday Evening Post, 1962)
Bowler11

LP: Yeah, well, so I figured, if I hadn't heard of these guys then I knew for a fact most of my peers wouldn't have heard of them either and... I wanted to correct that. I wanted to make sure that all the people like you and all these others -

MC: Well what are you gonna do, write a book?

LP: No, no, I write about it every day on the internet, on my blog.

MC: Well good luck honey. And what do you do for a living? You're an illustrator?

LP: I'm an illustrator, yeah. I do finished illustration and storyboards. Now I do mostly storyboards because there's not that huge of a market for finished illustration anymore.

MC: No there isn't. There isn't. You look in your magazines and you don't see illustration anymore.

LP: No. No, most of us who are able to make a pretty good living at it now do what's broadly called "concept art." Every sort of artwork you can imagine for the preparatory stage of something else, whether it's an ad or a movie or a video game... all that stuff has to be visualized before they do the final version of it.

MC: I see. Well bless your heart. Well good luck with all you're doing and um... I don't think I could be of much help anymore. I think I told you everything. Unless you have something very specific you can call me. But I don't want to go back there. Ugh. You have no idea how funny I feel physically right now. Ugh.

Conover03detail

LP: Really? I'm sorry...

MC: No! Isn't that funny? Because it brought up those difficult years - I mean for me. It was the pressure - I mean, with all those competitors, you had to be good. You had to be. And the cream of it was, at that time illustrators were working for Time magazine, doing covers and that I was very proud of. I was separated by then and worked alone so much that when my first cover - you wouldn't even know him - the energy czar from the '60s - it was my first Time cover. And I even got called by one of the older illustrators to tell me what he thought of the integrity of the painting and "blah, blah, blah," you know.

Conover11

MC: So one day I just got on the train from Westport and went in to New York and walked all around Grand Central Station and saw my painting on every newsstand. I just thought, "I'll be damned." And I didn't really feel anything... because of all the difficulties I'd been through. And I looked around and I just thought, "well, there it is, that's that." And I just got on the train and went back home.

LP: Wow... that was William Simon.

MC: How'd you know?

LP: I just looked it up on the internet. I just typed your name into Google Image Search and one of the first images that came up was that Time magazine cover.

MC: You mean you can see the picture?

LP: Yeah, I'm looking at it right now. It's got a bright orange background...

MC: And there was also one when Patty Hearst went missing - I did the Patty Hearst...

LP: Oh, well I'll search for that one as well.

Conover13

MC: ...and then the other one was the gal who wrote... oh my god, she wrote one of the big books at the time... oh well, it doesn't make any difference.

[Marilyn was thinking of Colleen McCullough, author of The Thornbirds. I was unable to locate a scan or photo of that cover ~ L]

MC: Well, honey, if you need anything specific, if you think I can help, I'd be happy to. Ok?

LP: Thank you so much, Marilyn. You have a great day.

MC: Ok, you too, bye bye.

* The original paintings from Marilyn Conover's three Time magazine covers were donated by the publisher to the Smithsonian Portrait Gallery.

Thanks to Heritage Auctions for allowing me to use some of the Gil Elvgren scans from their site in today's post.

Marilyn Conover Interview, Part 3

Monday, April 21, 2014

Marilyn Conover was a very successful illustrator during the '60s and '70s. About four years ago, when she was 84, I interviewed her over the phone. Her frank, forthright and often intensely negative recollections of her career startled me. In all the interviews I'd conducted to that point (and since) I'd never encountered anything like it. My intention this week is not to cast a pall over a time many of us hold up as the last great era in illustration, but rather to honestly share a different perspective of someone who lived and worked in those times. For better or for worse here is Marilyn Conover; unvarnished, unsentimental, and unapologetic. ~ Leif


LP: Did you ever hear of another female illustrator in New York named Barbara Bradley?

MC: No.

(below; sample illustration by Barbara Bradley, c. 1960)
Bradley27.jpg

LP: She was at the Cooper Studio.

MC: [Long pause] Yeah. My husband was a rep at the Cooper Studio. No, I didn't know her but I know a lot of the big guys were at the Cooper Studio.

LP: The reason I ask is because Barbara told me how, the day she went there with her portfolio hoping to get a job, Charles Cooper just took one look at her and said, "Oh, I don't need any more women illustrators." It wasn't even about the work - just that she was a woman.

Bradley45.jpg

MC: Oh. Oohhhh. No, [art rep] Joe Mendola grabbed me. Boy, Joe just snapped me up. I never in my life - that's very sad to hear, that Cooper would say that to her.

LP: Yeah, well he actually did hire her that same day, but that was his initial reaction.

MC: Never, in my entire career of illustration, did a man - the only person who ever gave me trouble was a woman - a woman - at J. Walter Thompson in Chicago.

Conover16

MC: It was time to go home to my kids and she made me truck up to her office on Michigan Avenue for some silly little correction. See, in that time they were just beginning to feel very important, like they could lord it over somebody. "I want to see you now."

Conover16detail

MC: But I never, ever had a man do anything like that to me - or put me down. Never.

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LP: Well that's really good to hear.

MC: Well I was a pro, honey, and I always made sure when I did a job I did it right and I did it well - and that's the stress of the competition in that business.

Conover17detail01

LP: I have to tell you, Marilyn, you sound like you're still a real firecracker. [she laughs] You sound like you take no crap.

MC: No, I don't.[chuckling] But I never did. That's why I listen to these women and their 'glass ceiling' and I guess they do have that in lots of businesses... but I never ran into that.

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MC: I had a darling, lovely relationship with the guys I worked with. They were very respectful of me. Because if you do your job beautifully, they'll respect you.

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LP: Yeah.

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MC: I mean I got into every studio I tried to get into. Kling studios, Beilefeld before that (although that was spot illustrations and so on and you were treated like you were part of the herd).

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LP: Now, can you tell me just one more thing? Why did you decide to go to New York? Why didn't you just stick to Chicago?

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MC: First we moved to Boston and I... my husband was making a mess of his illustrations. I was always doing them over. We were living in a darling little house in Rockport at the time and I was doing all his work for this Boston studio and I said, "Hendrick, go to New York and get an art representative job." I wanted to be where the best was being done.

Conover12detail

MC: Why rot in some little town when you're thirty-something and if I could do it well and it was being accepted then let's move there and I'll get a New York rep. And the first guy I got was Joe Mendola.



Continued tomorrow

Marilyn Conover Interview; Part 2

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Marilyn Conover was a very successful illustrator during the '60s and '70s. About four years ago, when she was 84, I interviewed her over the phone. Her frank, forthright and often intensely negative recollections of her career startled me. In all the interviews I'd conducted to that point (and since) I'd never encountered anything like it. My intention this week is not to cast a pall over a time many of us hold up as the last great era in illustration, but rather to honestly share a different perspective of someone who lived and worked in those times. For better or for worse here is Marilyn Conover; unvarnished, unsentimental, and unapologetic. ~ Leif

Conover07

MC: I didn't have a baby when I started [in the illustration business] but my husband was never able to take care of us. Before there was that women's lib crap and all that stuff I was - are you married?

LP: I am, yeah. We have two teenage sons.

Conover09

MC: Did your wife work during their childhood?

LP: I was fortunate to make enough as an illustrator that she could stay home with the boys until they were ten or eleven years old.

MC: That is heaven. If I could have been able to do that - but I couldn't. The day they were born my husband came up to the hospital and gave me a comprehensive sketch to do. We were working together at that time. I did have a second child but - I mean, it is a devastating thing for a woman to be in that kind of competitive business. It was very competitive and I had to be the best or we sank. To do that and try and be there for your children is an impossibility.

Conover05

MC: I mean I was there and I did it but I look back with the most painful feeling about all the years I illustrated. Getting into New York and onto Time magazine and all that - it was nightmarish. A woman with no help. We split up after about seventeen years when the children were about twelve and nine and it's not a happy thing for me to talk about and I almost feel sick thinking about all those people.

Conover04

LP: Wow.

MC: I mean I loved them but... oh, another one (kind of a third rate one, but) Bob Abbett? Have you talked to him?

LP: I actually featured his work not too long ago, yeah.

(below, a 1964 Bob Abbett illustration from Reader's Digest Condensed Books)
Abbett08

MC: Well I don't know that I can add any more, darling. I really don't know that I want to go back anymore. I'm 84 and I've done it. If you have specific questions that I could answer factually, ok, but I don't want to start digging up or talking or reading or writing or anything about it. I really don't.

LP: Sure, I understand. But even so, I really appreciate that you took this time to tell me all of this. That's just great.

MC: Well, bless your heart. Oh! John Gannam! Do you know his work?

Gannam06.JPG
(above, 1949 ad art by John Gannam)

LP: Yeah, I've written about John Gannam as well, sure.

MC: Oooh man, he was great! The one's we loved the most were Al Parker and John Gannam - oh, and then Bernie Fuchs - he came along a little later.

(below, 1960 ad art by Bernie Fuchs)
Fuchs100

LP: Of course. Now, I have to ask you; was he a big influence on your work? Bernie Fuchs?

MC: to a degree, yes.

LP: What about Bob Peak?

MC: No, if anybody, Bernie Fuchs was everybody's saint. He was about two years younger than I.

Fuchs04.jpg
(above, 1960s story art by Bernie Fuchs)

LP: When you lived in Westport did you know him personally?

MC: No, at that time in Westport it was a very clique-y group.

Conover02

Who was the other one... oh, Bob Heindel. You know him? He was another one of that group of Bernie Fuchs' friends.

(below, Robert Heindel story illustration, 1967)
Heindel04

MC: By that time I was single and it was very new for a woman to be doing that type of work, illustration, in the '60s. So I didn't know Fuchs but I'll tell you who I did know... and I don't remember her last name, it was... Gloria something... and she was the wife of one of the artists and I loved her and she worked for me all the time as a model; the wife of one of the Westport artists and I know Bernie Fuchs used her a lot, too. And she used to say to me, "Marilyn every time I go to the library I bump into one of their wives. And every time I go to look through Albert Dorne's reference files one of the wives is there - and when I go to pick up photos from the photographer's, the wives are doing all the work. How the hell do you do it all?" And I said I just did it.

Conover06

MC: I mean their wives did all that stuff so they [the artists] could stay in their little ivory towers of talent and greatness and self-importance. And the men would all go to lunch together at the different places. I mean they never became as big as Andrew Wyeth or deKooning or any of the great artists - so these people had to keep instilling in themselves how important they were.

LP: Now, did you feel excluded from all that because you were a single woman?

Conover03

MC: No. Nooo. I didn't feel excluded. We were all just independent illustrators. We were all just too busy working.

Conover08

Continued tomorrow

Marilyn Conover Interview, Part 1

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A few years ago I tracked down and phoned Marilyn Conover, an artist whose impressive work I'd just then discovered. I was expecting to have another in what had become a series of pleasant strolls down memory lane with another remarkable illustrator of the mid-20th century. In fact, Marilyn Conover, 84 years old at the time we spoke, had virtually nothing good to say about her career during that 'golden age' of the commercial art business. Conover's candid recounting of a time I imagined would be filled with fond recollections of past accomplishments was actually so off-putting to her that she told me it was making her physically ill to discuss it with me. My intention this week is not to cast a pall over a time many of us hold up as the last great era in illustration, but rather to honestly share a different perspective of someone who lived and worked in those times. For better or for worse here is Marilyn Conover unvarnished, unsentimental, and unapologetic. ~ Leif

GE1967calendar12ArtistBio


LP: I found this series of illustrations you did for a story called "Here Come the Brides" by Geraldine Napier...

Conover01

MC: Oh God, that's early stuff. That was in... '61 or '62... I was in Westport CT when I did those and working for some goofy studio in Boston, I think. I went on to be represented in New York and did my best stuff... Time covers and illustrations for magazines... and then I went on to portraits from there.

LP: Well I'd love to know more about that - about your whole career, in fact.

MC: Well, I used to do all the beautiful girls standing by televisions and new refrigerators and all that. The magazines were crammed with gorgeous illustrations back then.

GE1967calendar12

LP: Yeah, I just love all the stuff you find in the magazines back then; Al Parker, Al Dorne... all the guys from the Famous Artists School...

MC: That Famous Artists School was a piece of crap. I mean those fellows didn't do the correcting [of student assignments].

FAS04a

It was right there in Westport, a few blocks away from me, and the only artists who did any of the correcting were guys who couldn't make it in the real illustration business anymore. And they were never allowed to handle the same person - the same student - more than once.

FAS04b

FAS04c

MC: It was started when a bunch of those gorgeous guys got smashed at a party and thought it'd be a great idea - and it was! - and they made money forever, I mean ten or twenty years. When I used to go get the train to New York I used to go by the plant every day but, I mean, that was just a sham to get money out of little people in Dubuque and everywhere else.

FAS05a

FAS05b

MC: I mean if I was an artist working there and I wanted to follow up with you and you wanted to follow up and ask me questions; if you wanted to contact a real artist, you couldn't do that because they didn't want you to develop a relationship with a real artist because that would circumvent the slobs that were running the thing. I mean I can't tell you how much I wouldn't use that 'school' as a beacon of any sort. And those guys in the beginning, I mean they invested in it and that was that.

Dorne159

LP: Can you tell me about the beginning of your career?

MC: I started out with Bielefeld Studios in Chicago...

Bielefeld01

... then with Kling Studios (that was a big studio).

Kling11

They had Tom Hall and Howie Forsberg - that was huge at that time in Chicago. Do those names ring a bell? Tom Hall?

Hall01.JPG

LP: Oh, absolutely. I've talked to Tom Hall's daughter as a matter of fact. So were you working in Chicago or was that long-distance work?

MC: I was born in Chicago. That's where I started. That's where I worked for my first 'name' studio and where my husband, who was also an illustrator and had been a Marine, worked for Gil Elvgren.

Elvgren10

LP: I'm sorry, did you just say your husband worked for Gil Elvgren?

MC: He was his apprentice, yes. Why?

LP: Marilyn, I don't know if you're aware of this but today Gil Elvgren's originals sell for as much as two or three hundred thousand dollars each.

Elvgren01

MC: Oh, we used to be in the studio when he was painting the damn things. You know, they were really beautifully done... what did you say; two or three hundred thousand each?

LP: Yeah.

MC: Oh my god... he was thirty five when Hendrick [Marilyn's husband] and I were twenty. We were just wide-eyed apprentices but...

Elvgren11

... you know who Dave Garroway was? He was the first one to do the Today Show out of Chicago - he was part of this whole party group we had with Gil and Joyce Ballentyne. She worked with Stevens-Gross with Gil Elvgren.

Ballantyne03

LP: Maybe you could explain something to me... were they all students of Haddon Sundblom? Because I know he had many apprentices and they all have sort of a similar style...

MC: Gil was. Oh yes, Haddon Sundblom invented the Coca-Cola Santa Claus. He made Santa Claus the big, jolly, chubby guy we all know today.

Sundblom07

MC: His son jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge or one of the bridges, I think. He was not too great a father.

LP: Oh my gosh!

MC: But... that's happened to a lot of great people. Y'know, it's making me sick. I don't want to think of those years anymore. They were the hardest years of my life.

Continued tomorrow
 

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