Saturday, June 2, 2018

VICTOR LIVOTI: Illustration's Best Kept Secret

IT'S hard to believe that a 20th Century illustrator who produced hundreds of stunning paperback covers and an almost equal amount of advertising art could fall so quickly into relative obscurity. But that's the unfortunate legacy of Victor Livoti, a supremely talented realist painter who passed away in 2009 with barely a hint of the kind of fanfare he deserved for being not only one of the most prolific practitioners in illustration, but also one of the absolute best.

Livoti's lack of public recognition is partly of his own accord: he never signed his paintings and he never exhibited them, and even his date of birth had been kept unawares until his obituary was posted (b. 1923). But what shouldn't be left unaware is his significant and substantial body of work, which represents some of the most attractive book cover art in all of publishing.

After serving in the U.S. Army in WWII, Livoti took up studies at the National Academy School and at the Art Students League in New York City. He worked in advertising after that and then in the 1960's he started producing book covers for nearly all of the major paperback houses in the US; Avon, Ballantine, Bantam, Berkley, Charter, Dell, Fawcett, Harlequin, Jove, Pinnacle, Signet, St. Martin's, Warner and Zebra.

Livoti's style, now firmly established, was adhered to formal realism, yet marked by strong contrasts and a full range of values. Livoti was also pioneering the use of montage illustration as beguiling cover art. His art began boosting some of the biggest names in novel writing too, names like Desmond Bagley, Barbara Taylor Bradford, James Carroll, Leslie Charteris, Len Deighton, John Dunning, Howard Fast, John Fowles, Paul Gallico, Ben Haas, Robin Hardy, Burt Hirscheld, Jack Hoffenberg, Victoria Holt, Evan Hunter, John Jakes, James Jones, Frank Kane, Herbert Kastle, Elmore Leonard, Robert Ludlum, Erich Segal, Irwin Shaw, Wilbur Smith, Ross Thomas and Dan Wakefield. As far as authors go it doesn't get much better than that unless you want to add James Baldwin to the list, whom Livoti also provided a cover for.
Below is a loose but select chronology from my own book collection of Livoti's cover art so we can follow his amazing career path to its culmination in the 1990's. Also included is some brief information about each author that is represented.

Maid in Paris
and Nurse Nolan's Private Duty are the earliest paperbacks I've been able to obtain with Livoti's cover art. Both were published in 1966 by Dell. Maid in Paris is much sought after by vintage paperback collectors for its exceptional GGA ("Good Girl Art").

Frank Kane (1912- 1968) wrote twenty-nine novels featuring his private investigator Johnny Liddell, and they proved so popular that even CBS approached him about adapting his character into a TV series. That didn't quite work out but it did lead to him writing scripts for other TV shows like The InvestigatorsMike Hammer and Special Agent 7. Before television he worked in radio writing scripts for The Shadow, Gang Busters, Call the Police and Nick Carter, Master Detective. Kane left this world too soon at only 56 years old, but the mark he left on the world of P.I. fiction is indelible.

Indiana native and lifelong resident Elizabeth Adeline McElfresh (1918- 2015) specialized in medical novels. She wrote fifty-six of them in all, some under the pseudonyms Jennifer Blair, John Cleveland, Jane Scott and Elizabeth Wesley. For more than thirty years she was a society editor at the Vincennes Sun-Commercial newspaper before switching careers to become a public relations director at the Good Samaritan Hospital in Vincennes. The PR job would appear to be destiny calling.

Here are two Livoti covers with matching styles and palettes, both painted in 1967. Livoti would eventually tighten up his style to appear even more photo-realistic, but there's certainly no discounting the exceptional quality of these earlier works.

Derek Marlowe (1938-1996) was an English playwright, screenwriter, painter and novelist, with nine novels to his credit. His debut, A Dandy in Aspic (Dell, 1967), was only a modest bestseller but today it's become highly regarded by spy fiction fans. It was filmed almost immediately upon publication by director Anthony Mann, who died unexpectedly during production.

Getting asked to paint the cover of the first U.S. paperback edition of The Magus had to have been a source of pride for Livoti. Dell published their edition of John Fowles's landmark novel in January, 1967. It was then reprinted many times with the lovely lady-in-repose before Fowles revised his text and the book was given a new look by noted British artist Tom Adams.

Click to Enlarge

This is one of Livoti's first montage illustrations, a brilliant mashup of the fashion industry, produced for the cover of Dell's paperback edition of The Beautiful People, by New York Times reporter Marilyn Bender. Note the omission of the clippings from the final cover product.

Dell published their edition in 1968 after Bender's non-fiction book had already become a pop sensation in hardcover. The hardcover was subtitled: "A candid examination of a cultural phenomenon-- the marriage of fashion and society in the 60's." Dell's tagline pushed the limits of exaggeration by proclaiming: "Who they are and what they really do behind the golden doors of their scandal-ridden world." A not entirely inaccurate description, as it were, but what it reflects mostly is the kind of aggressive marketing strategy that paperback publishers engaged in routinely.

Famed designer/artist Paul Bacon produced the dustjacket art on the hardcover edition of Colonel Blessington (1968), and he certainly has a lion's share of admirers, but I prefer Livoti's oddly juxtaposed illustration on Dell's 1970 paperback version instead.

Pamela Frankau (1908- 1967) wrote more than thirty novels in her all too brief lifetime, her first when she was but 19. She also wrote dozens of short stories, articles, and plays for both stage and radio and even an autobiography when she was still in her twenties. Colonel Blessington was the last thing she ever wrote. It was published posthumously with the help of Frankau's cousin Diana Raymond, who had to merge eleven manuscripts together to form a publishable whole. An audio tape recording made by Frankau and notes taken from hours of talks also contributed to Raymond's eventual success. The end result reads like modern day Shakespeare, but swift and suspenseful and themed by obsessive relationships, enigmas, riddles, disguises and flavorful gothic trappings. You will have to suspend your disbelief as you go along but the clues to the shocking denouement are all there even from the beginning.

Brian Glanville's The Olympian (Dell, 1970), and Peter Kortner's Jim For Sale (Dell, 1973), both  share the same pair of models even though there's a three year gap between each book. I've always wondered if Livoti was able to paint these back to back, or years apart, as each deadline neared?

Englishman Brian Glanville (1931- ) is a novelist, television writer, journalist and sports correspondent, with an experts bias towards European football (soccer). He's written more than twenty-one novels and too many non-fiction books to even mention. Notable Sports Illustrated columnist and personality Dr. Z (Paul Zimmerman) called Glanville "The greatest football writer of all time."

Before becoming a novelist, Peter Kortner (1935- 1991) worked in television as a producer, story editor and writer, with credits on Playhouse 90, Studio One, The DuPont Show of the Week, General Electric Theater, Hazel and The Farmer's Daughter. His career choices were probably influenced by his Austrian father Fritz Kortner, and his German mother Johanna Hofer, who were both distinguished actors and between the pair they amassed 147 film credits.

From 1969 to 1973, Livoti produced seven paperback covers for Avon's popular novelist Jack Hoffenberg. As on A Hero for Regis, each book has a descending montage situated on the left side. These were, in essence, prototypes of what eventually would become Livoti's predominate illustration template, the wraparound montage.

Jack Hoffenberg was born in 1906 and attended the University of Maryland and then the Maryland Institute College of Art, where he learned to sculpt under famed sculptor Reuben Kramer. After serving in the WWII as a major Hoffenberg opened up his own successful advertising agency in Baltimore. In the 1950's he relocated to Southern California and it was there at age 53 that he began to write fiction. He completed ten novels, each one epic in length and meticulously researched for period accuracy, before being struck down in 1977 by an unfortunate illness.

At first glance I thought my copy of Gary Blumberg's Hit Woman had been marked up by a red crayon, but a closer look at Livoti's cover art reveals otherwise: note the red lipstick tube lying on the table. In Livoti's preliminary sketch, an oil on board approximately 12 x 17 inches, the tube was yet to be added.

Hit Woman was published by Dell in 1975. The tagline on the back reads: "The novel that drags The Godfather kicking and screaming into the 1970's."  Blumberg also wrote a series of mafioso inspired men's adventure novels under the pseudonym Michael Bradley, headlined as Adrano For Hire.


John Edgar Colwell Hearne (1926- 1994), a Canadian born, Jamaican educated journalist, wrote three thrillers about an imaginary Jamaican secret service agency in collaboration with his friend and fellow journalist Morris Cargill. They were each published under their pen-name John Morris, but Livoti's cover art with its streaking B52 Bomber and pistol-toting beauty only emboldened the second book in the series, The Candywine Development, which Dell published in paperback in 1974.


To date, James Grady (1949- ) has written sixteen novels, with four of them being espionage thrillers in his bestselling series, The Condor. The first book, Six Days of the Condor (Dell, 1975) was filmed as Three Days of the Condor, but the film varies from the book in several aspects and yet they're both great in their own way. The highlight in the film is the fight scene in Faye Dunaway's apartment between Robert Redford and Hank Garrett of Car 54 fame; it's both exciting and realistic. The paperback's many highlights starts with Livoti's dramatic "bullet holes in the glass" cover art.

Livoti's scene-specific illustration on The Cry of the Halidon (Dell, 1975) makes you want to read the novel, so you can find out just how this handsome couple ended up alongside the banks of a pouring river, and armed for bear.

Robert Ludlum (1927- 2001) used the pseudonym Jonathan Ryder only twice in his career. Under his own byline he wrote twenty-five novels, and it is estimated that there may be as many as 400 million copies of his books still lying around. He also wrote the bestselling Jason Bourne spy series which to date have spawned four successful films. Those films, and the use of his name on books written by others, have helped his estate build an estimated one billion dollars in net worth.

Livoti produced several excellent covers for novelist Elmore Leonard (1925- 2013) including this moneyed one for The Hunted, which Dell published in 1977.

Back in the 1980's I attended an Elmore Leonard book signing at the Tattered Cover in Denver. The Edgar Award winner spoke openly about his personal writing philosophies, which at the time were undocumented. In 2001 he made them officially known in a New York Times essay titled "Ten Rules for Good Writing." That became the basis of a very slim, overpriced, handsomely illustrated book in 2007.

Here are those rules in their base form:
  1. Never open a book with weather.
  2. Avoid prologues.
  3. Never use a verb other than said to carry dialogue.
  4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said"... he admonished gravely.
  5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
  6. Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."
  7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
  8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
  10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.               
And Leonard's one rule that sums up all 10: "If it sounds like writing, I'll rewrite it."

Savage Summer was written by Patricia Colbert Robinson and Nancy Stevenson under their pseudonym Margaret Duval. The two best friends also wrote two other mysteries but Livoti produced the cover art only on this one, which Dell published in paperback in 1976. It's a perfect fit though for the novel's rather strange, sexually charged atmosphere---and no, those aren't manikins posed behind the dune!

Patricia Robinson (1929- 2001) was a distinguished Charleston, South Carolina, author, poet, actress and playwright, with over fifteen plays to her credit. Of her seven novels, mostly mysteries, four were written unaccompanied, and all are set in or around her beloved home town of Charleston.

Ferdinan B. "Nancy" Stevenson (1922- 1998) was the first woman to hold statewide elected office in South Carolina, as Lieutenant Governor (1979- 1983). She campaigned under the slogan "not one of the good old boys!" In office she became an advocate for accountability and helped initiate a toll-free hotline so citizens could get in touch with state agencies. Her political career was nearly derailed when it was learned that she had co-written a lurid novel about island vacationers being manipulated by a ritualistic, bald-headed tribe of weirdos. The novel of course was Savage Summer. Her opponent, State Representative Horace Smith, tried to raise questions about her supposed lack of morals because the novel contained sexual material and references to certain South Carolinian's as "culture-starved, tater-popin', egg-suckin' rednecks." Mrs. Stevenson won election by 176,867 votes to Mr. Smith's 154,396. Apparently, South Carolinian's like their novels just as raunchy as the rest of us.

Milton Lesser (1928- 2008) wrote an incredible amount of science fiction under his own name and various pseudonyms before legally adopting the name Stephen Marlowe. His best writing was as Marlowe though, including the WWII thriller The Valkyrie Encounter (Jove, 1978), and a slew of novels starring his globe-trekking private investigator Chester Drumm. Those early Drumm novels, published mostly as Gold Medal originals, had cover art supplied by famed illustrators Ernest "Darcy" Chiriaka, Robert McGinnis, Barye Phillips and Stanley Zuckerberg. Now Victor Livoti can be added to that distinguished list of providers.

If you've never read The Edgar Award winning crime writer Ross Thomas you should, and Chinaman's Chance (Avon, 1979) is as good a place to start as any unless you happen to run across The Fools In Town Are On Our Side (1970), which some folks argue is Thomas's best novel. That paperback, also published by Avon, has a great cover illustration by Norm Eastman, but Livoti's character specific montage on this paperback is just as righteous.

Wilbur Smith rarely needs an introduction, even casual readers seem to know his name and brand. Born in 1933 in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), Smith was raised on his father's African cattle ranch. His tough, hardworking father didn't approve of books as entertainment but his mother did and she helped instill in her son a passion for literature. Smith's English Master at boarding school was also a key motivator for the boy. Their combined influence resulted in Smith writing thirty-eight bestselling novels including this one, Hungry As The Sea (Signet, 1981), a terrific maritime adventure covering the Antarctic and America. This paperback also boasts one of my favorite cover paintings by Livoti, a gem of a montage that is as efficacious as it is seductive.

Robert Leckie (1920- 2001) wrote more than forty non-fiction books on US military history, spanning the French and Indian War to Desert Storm. His 1957 memoir, Helmet For My Pillow, formed the basis of the 2010 HBO series The Pacific. He also wrote five historical novels, among them The Bloodborn (Signet, 1981), and its direct companion Forged In Blood (Signet, 1982). Livoti's matching wraparound montages appear to be relatively accurate in their period detail, which no doubt pleased the history stickler Leckie.

How can anyone resist these peepers? Certainly not me. I bought this copy of Will Holt's A Woman of Fortune (Signet, 1981) with Livoti's enticing cover art as soon as saw it in a used bookstore. And had I known about it when it was first published I would have an even better copy preserved for posterity.

Will Holt (1929- 2015) wrote only one other novel besides this, the storm ravaged melodrama Savage Snow (1980). He worked primarily as a musical playwright but he was also an accomplished singer/songwriter and a key figure in the American Folk Music scene of the 1950's and 60's. The hit songs Lemon Tree, and Raspberries, Strawberries, were both his, but they were championed by other performers (Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul and Mary, and The Seekers). Holt's son Courtney has said that his father's music influenced a lot of people: "Dad always worked behind the scenes inspiring other people, which I think is really cool." It looks to me like Courtney's Dad inspired Mr. Livoti too.

Larry Collin's spy novel Fall From Grace (Signet, 1986) is a tough book to recommend even though I consider it a real page turner. The story takes place in 1944 and follows a courageous young Englishwoman and a French resistance fighter who become embroiled in a complicated plot to deceive Germany into believing that the D-Day invasion will take place at Calais instead of Normandy. In reality they're merely pawns in a dangerous game of deceit and double-deceit involving both British Intelligence and the Gestapo. Of course it all ends badly, contradicting my belief that our heroes would somehow, someway, persevere. Livoti's captivating stepback montage did manage to lift my spirits though, and for that I'm forever grateful.

Larry Collins (1929- 2005) was a Yale graduate who co-authored four books with French writer Dominique Lapierre. Their first was the famous Is Paris Burning?, which was filmed in 1966. Fall From Grace was also filmed, but only for television (1994), however, it did boast a strong international cast which included, among others, Michael York, James Fox, Richard Anconina, Patsy Kensit and Tara Fitzgerald.

The front corner of the medical melodrama Mere Mortals (Dell, 1990) was die cast to cleverly conform to the shape of a hospital building. Livoti's stepback illustration can be glimpsed just underneath. Of interest here is the gray-haired fellow near the top, who Livoti repurposed from Chinaman's Chance, though I'm pretty sure the rest of the elements are new to this montage.

Neil Ravin is an endocrinologist and the author of five novels about hospitals. His books have been mostly well received and some are even beloved by readers. It might be safe to say that Dr. Ravin has a good "readside" manner.

Bantam published Dream Weavers in 1992 in both trade softcover and mass-market paperback formats. The design for each was identical. The flower drawing is credited to the Japanese publishing entity Kyoto Shoin, Inc., but the beautiful stepback illustration is all Livoti.

Montreal born Philip Shelby (1950- ) wrote nine novels, all family sagas or thrillers, before relocating to California to write screenplays for Hollywood. His film credits now include Survivor (2015), a political thriller starring Pierce Bronson and Milla Jovovich, and Mechanic: Resurrection (2016), a big-budgeted, Jason Statham action-thriller. 

Retired Army officer Robert Vaughan has been writing books for almost sixty years. He sold his first novel at age 19, and his output now exceeds 500 books. That's an astonishing fact if you stop and think about it (and to think I struggle just to get a paragraph written on my blog). Vaughan writes westerns primarily, but he's also written novels in most every other genre except perhaps the fantastics, and under a variety of pseudonyms. His epic, scholarly and quite entertaining fiction series The American Chronicles, with its volumes published between 1992 and 1996, may in fact be the last set of actual cover art that Victor Livoti produced before retiring himself. Oddly enough, Volume One's cover art was erroneously credited to "George Busch", which sounds like an inside joke because George H. Bush was then President of the United States. In Volume Two the spelling was amended to read "George Bush." After that each volume was properly credited to either "Vic Lavoti" or "Vic Livoti", so even though there really was an illustrator named George Bush who worked for Bantam at that time, in all honesty I'm thinking these gaffes were nothing more than just editorial oversight of which every publisher was guilty of from time to time.

The American Chronicles volumes are as follows:
1. Dawn of the Century  (Bantam, Februrary, 1992)
2. Over There  (Bantam, June, 1992)
3. The Lost Generation  (Bantam, September, 1992)
4. Hard Times  (Bantam, March, 1993)
5. Portals of Hell  (Bantam, December, 1993)
6. The Iron Curtain  (Bantam, May, 1994)
7. The Cold War  (Bantam, January, 1995)
8. The New Frontier  (Bantam, November, 1995)
The ninth and last book in the series is titled Flower Children and it was published in 1996 by Bantam, but the cover art was supplied by Bob Larkin (pictured below). Why Livoti didn't provide for V. 9 is not known, but Bob, the consummate illustrator, certainly met the art director's expectations by replicating the same basic montage composition that was used on all of the previous volumes.

Cover by Bob Larkin

I'm still searching for paperbacks published after 1995 that have covers by Victor Livoti, but so far I haven't found any. My goal is to collect his very last cover, and of course I'm still searching for his first cover too, which sometimes feels like an arduous if not impossible task. But the "hunt" is really what makes collecting fun, and it never wanes unless you get reined in by your spouse, or you happen to develop hoarder's remorse.

[Originally posted in January of 2017. © Revised in June 2018.]

1 comment:

Jeffersen said...

I accidentally deleted a comment from "anonymous" that said Livoti worked exclusively for Harlequin at the end of his career, and his last cover for them may have been done during 1999-2000. That's good to know. I'll start digging around for Harlequins published at that time.