Sometime in 1932, a six-foot tall, chain smoking woman, in need of a job to support her three-year-old son and crippled mother, walked into the office of legendary Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright. The woman was a freelance fashion design illustrator with no knowledge of who H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Otis Adelbert Kline, Seabury Quinn, Jack Williamson, Robert Bloch and dozens of other writers were. She had simply looked through the telephone book to find the name of a publishing company where she might find employment. During this initial meeting the woman, Margaret Brundage, displayed a painting of an Oriental female done in pastel chalk to Farnsworth Wright that caught his eye.
—Stephen D. Korshack, “Queen of the Pulps” in The Alluring Art of Margaret Brundage 11
In 1932, Margaret Brundage (née Margaret Hedda Johnson) was a single mother; her husband Myron “Slim” Brundage was an alcoholic who had abandoned the marriage and the care of their son Kerlynn (born in 1927). Her first pulp cover would be for the Spring 1932 issue of Oriental Stories, and her first cover for Weird Tales would be for the September 1932 issue. Over the next 13 years she would produce 66 covers for Weird Tales, more than any other artist, and those during the height of the magazine’s golden years—when Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft were still alive, and C. L. Moore would make her sensational debut.
Pulp authors vied for their story to be featured on the cover; it often meant extra pay as well esteem. Pulp fans argued in the letter pages about the propensity for nudes, and began spreading the rumors that Brundage (originally signed only as M. Brundage; her gender was not revealed until a couple of years later) was using her non-existent daughters to model the bondage shots. Sometimes the covers had real effects on the authors lives, as one anecdote might show:
“You said you’d like to read some of my stuff, and so I—I brought a copy of this magazine that’s just come out…It’s—it’s got a yarn of mine in it. I—I thought you might like to look at it.”
My eyes bulged. I’d never looked at a magazine like that before! That cover! A big, handsome man, except for his very short hair, was standing there with a big, green snake wrapped around him. A blonde girl sat on the ground staring at him. She was something! All she had on was a wispy scarf that didn’t quite cover her up front. Between her legs was another wisp of cloth fastened to a red and gold belt.
“It’s—it’s ‘The Devil in Iron.’”
—Novalyne Price Ellis, One Who Walked Alone 58
The Alluring Art of Margaret Brundage is not quite a biography, however. It is primarily a collection of obscure but critical sources and essays on her life and work: memoirs and interviews normally only found in moldering and expensive fanzines, as well as new essays that expand on her life before and after Weird Tales. On top of that, the book includes a full gallery of her pulp art, and numerous photos of her life and art you won’t find anywhere else, all reproduced without the clipping or muddying of color typical of a lot of pulp art books. It is a gorgeous production from start to finish—and an enlightening one, as Brundage herself is a fascinating subject.
Arguably the best part of the book is J. David Spurlock’s “The Secret Life of Margaret Brundage.” Most of the interviews and memoirs you could track down with time; this is new, and fantastic. A glimpse at Margaret Brundage before she was the Queen of the Pulps. Her fascinating encounter with a young Walt Disney in 1917 has to be read to be believed:
Margaret (walks toward the freshman, mumbling under her breath): If I were a man, they would give me a title; Editor, Art Director, something. One day women will win the right to vote. We’ll see some changes then.
(Approaching freshman, extends her hand): Dizzy, is it?
Walter: Oh… it’s Disney, Walter Disney.
Margaret: Sorry, I’m Margaret Johnson.
Walter: Are you the art director?
Margaret: Well, sort of. They have me doing the work but (raising her voice), I GUESS I’M NOT MAN ENOUGH FOR THE TITLE. So tell me about yourself. Do you have any experience?
—J. David Spurlock, The Alluring Art of Margaret Brundage 128-129
Did it happen exactly that way? Hard to tell. But it gives the flavor of the young fiery woman who would get mixed up with the Bohemian scene in Chicago, and eventually marry (and divorce) labor agitator “Slim” Brundage. Her life in the 1940s and beyond is filled in by examining her work with Bronzeville “the epicenter of the Chicago black renaissance”; Margaret Brundage did not have the same racial prejudices as many in the period.
Spurlock gives some of the extra details missing from the interviews and memoirs, filling in some of the context. It is not a blow-by-blow, cover-by-cover essay—there might be a market for such a thing, but the focus is on Brundage’s life beyond the pulp scene, which many researchers have overlooked or ignored, and for that it is welcomed and invaluable.
There isn’t much of Lovecraft in the book, but then there wouldn’t be. Lovecraft seldom included women or nudes in his fiction, much less bondage, and never had a story of his feature on the cover of Weird Tales during his lifetime. More than that, Lovecraft has been noted as a general critic of Brundage’s artwork:
As for the covers—I never yet saw one that was worth the coloured inks expended on it. Of course the luscious & irrelevant nudes are rabble-catchers & nothing else but—an attempt by Wright to attract two publics instead of one.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lee McBride White, 28 Oct 1935, Letters to J. Vernon Shea Etc. 362
About the Conan tales—I don’t know that they contain any more sex than is necessary in a delineation of the life of a lusty bygone age. Good old Two-Gun didn’t seem to me to overstress eroticism nearly as much as other cash-seeking pulpists—even if he did now & then feel in duty bound to play up to a Brundage cover-design.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Willis Conover, 14 Aug 1936, Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 382
About WT covers—they are really too trivial to get angry about. If they weren’t totally irrelevant and unrepresentative nudes, they’d probably be something equally awkward and trivial, even though less irrelevant. The “art” of the pulps is even worse than its fiction, if such be possible. Rankin, Utpatel, and Finlay are the only real illustrators of WT who are worth anything. I have no objection to the nude in art—in fact, the human figure is as worthy a type of subject-matter as any other object of beauty in the visible world. But I don’t see what the hell Mrs. Brundage’s undressed ladies have to do with weird fiction!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Willis Conover, 1 Sep 1936, Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 391-392
Lovecraft wasn’t alone in his criticism. Clark Ashton Smith was not trained as an artist, but had his own self-taught style in drawing, painting, and later sculpture noted:
Glad you liked “Ilalotha,” a story in wich I seem to have slipped something over on the PTA. The issue containing it, I hear, was removed from the stands in Philadelphia because of the Brundage cover. Query: why does Brundage try to make all her women look like wet-nurses? It’s a funny, not to say tiresome, complex.
—Clark Ashton Smith to R. H. Barlow, 9 Sep 1937, Selected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith 313
This was an oblique reference to something that comes up in one of Brundage’s interviews in the book:
E&O: Where you ever asked to start covering your nudes a bit?
Brundage: I was never asked to, no. One funny thing did happen. One of the authors—well, Weird Tales asked me to make larger and larger breasts—larger than I would have liked to—well, one cover, one of the authors wrote in and said that things were getting a little bit out of line. And even for an old expert like him, the size of the breastwork was getting a little too large.
—Etchings & Odysseys Interview with Margaret Brundage, The Alluring Art of Margaret Brundage 32
We don’t know who wrote in, whether it was Smith or Lovecraft or someone else. Brundage is quite frank in her interviews about the details of her work for Weird Tales, and frank too about her sense of loss at the death of Robert E. Howard, whose stories she would illustrate for many of the covers. If you consider his Conan tales as extensions of the Cthulhu Mythos, her covers form some of the first Mythos art in color. For her work on Weird Tales alone, Brundage will probably long be remembered, emulated, parodied, and subject to homage. Her October 1933 “Bat Woman” cover for Hugh Davidson’s “The Vampire Master” has long been a favorite hallmark of her Weird Tales work, and is paid tribute to even today by artists like Abigail Larson.
Margaret Brundage as an artist and as a human being was more than 70-odd pulp covers. A lot more.
The Alluring Art of Margaret Brundage was published in 2013 by Vanguard Publishing, and is available in a paperback, hardcover, and deluxe hardcover editions.