Tom Miller and Me
My love affair with the paperback cover art of Tom Miller is such that I can still recall exactly where I was the first time I ever noticed Tom Miller's artist credit on a vintage paperback. I was standing in one of the meeting rooms of the Grosnevor Hotel, adjoining Victoria Station in London. I was there attending the First British Paperback Fair as the guest of Mr. Peter Chapman, who in those days put on the show with Mr. Maurice Flanagan of Zardoz Books. One of the young Brits there shared my love of flashy and outrageous American paperback cover art, and he handed me a copy of Monarch 189, CAMPUS DOLL by Edwin West. And I still remember seeing that book 24 years later. In the mail order book catalog I was sending out in those pre-internet days, I later wrote that my first glimpse of CAMPUS DOLL had caused me to fall to the floor and spin about like Curly of the Three Stooges. And while that was not actually literally true, I did feel something like that inside.
I was already after this book because I knew Edwin West was a pseudonym of one of my favorite authors, Donald E. Westlake. But here also was this colorful eye-arresting cover. Monarch usually gave artist credit on the copyright page, and when I opened CAMPUS DOLL it said “cover painting by Tom Miller.” Well. I didn't know Tom Miller, but it was love at first site.
You might guess I love CAMPUS DOLL for the curvy busty blonde in the sexy black underwear, and of course I do, but that's not all there is to it. Most Monarchs - and all similar vintage era covers - have sexy dolls in various states of undress. But that's just the jumping off point here. The entire effect of all the bright color choices, the doll standing by a bed in front of an impossibly bright white window, the light that seems so bright you think somehow you are in that football stadium in the background on a sunny fall Saturday afternoon, everything clicks together. Cross-references flooded my mind as a deep emotional pull carried me back to some Saturday games, some campus doll in my past. For me, Tom Miller's CAMPUS DOLL captures and sums up an entire era of similar college covers. It reminded me of Andrew Shaw's CAMPUS TRAMP, which is set at the same fictitious campus, Clifton College in mid-Ohio, where CAMPUS DOLL takes place. Looking back now I realize that other covers that later grabbed me the same way – like Charles Copeland's THE DEAN'S WIFE (Beacon B601F) and Paul Rader's CAMPUS KITTENS (Midwood 32-417) – all elicited that same nostalgic pull.
And so, all those years after it had been painted, CAMPUS DOLL was still very relevant for this book collector. And I believe that immediacy is still real all these years later. In the September 2013 issue of ELLE magazine there is a piece on page 222 about the choices made by the photographer and designers for a cover story on fashion model Kate Upton. Among the collection of things that made up the photo shoot: “photographer Carter Smith was intrigued by the femmes fatales of antique murder mysteries”. And there, above the caption “Inspiration board: sexy midcentury vixens”, is Tom Miller's CAMPUS DOLL. There's also a photo of Kate Upton standing next to a bed in a bright white window, our Campus Doll come to life. I'm too old to spin on the floor anymore, but I wanted to.
Two images from ELLE Magazine September 2013
I was always a fan of Tom Miller's covers over the years, later finding some very appealing Dells from the same early 60s era. When I did the Harry Whittington checklist I collected all his Ashley Carter “plantation novels” with vivid colorful cover art signed “Miller”. Then one day a couple years ago I was in a used bookstore in Thousand Oaks, California, and I picked up a 1976 Fawcett Crest with cover art that stirred something deep inside. It was that old CAMPUS DOLL feeling, although I didn't realize it yet. The book was called SATURDAY GAMES by Brown Meggs, and the cover knocked my socks off. It was all done in subtle shades of tan and brown, even the sky. Poolside in Pasadena late at night, a nude woman stands with her back to us, toweling off, one hand raised like a Greek statue. Three men stare at her from the other side of the pool.
I bought the book.
Maddeningly, there was no artist signature on the cover. I collect Fawcett Crest covers by artist Morgan Kane, and I wondered if this was a Kane I had missed in my book hunting travels. I contacted a friend in New York, Brian Emrich, a collector with a keen eye for cover art who had often helped me identify artists in the past. I showed Brian SATURDAY GAMES and he told me it looked like the work of Tom Miller, who “did a lot of covers for Fawcett Crest at that time.”
Tom Miller. There was that name again. Brian proved true, SATURDAY GAMES is indeed a Tom Miller cover. In fact it's a signed Tom Miller cover, the signature is so far down at the bottom of the image it was cropped off my copy. I later located a different copy with that Miller signature at the bottom.
When I read SATURDAY GAMES, I realized how vividly Miller's cover had captured a moment from the story. Each one of the three men pictured is a major character (and murder suspect) in this frothy slice of Seventies Southern California good life from author Brown Meggs. Brown Meggs by the way is a fascinating fellow himself. He worked at Capitol Records in Hollywood, where he was known as “the man who signed the Beatles”. He also wrote four novels, two of which are mid-70s Fawcett Crests. I'm not sure who did the cover for THE MATTER OF PARADISE, (Fawcett Crest 2-2942-4), but SATURDAY GAMES has a Miller cover I can't forget.
With an insider's viewpoint of Pasadena, SATURDAY GAMES is about three Cal Tech scientists, and their insurance agent buddy, who meet to play tennis every Saturday morning. All four of them are in love with the lead scientist's desirable wife (the woman with the towel on the cover). When she turns up dead one Saturday morning, it's up to the Pasadena police force's epicurean sleuth Anson Freres to solve the murder. But he's trying to create a memorable luncheon for his girlfriend, so the story revolves around whether or not our gourmet detective can solve the crime without spoiling his lunch plans.
SATURDAY GAMES is very much of its era and reading it in the 21st century offers new slants that I'm sure Mr. Meggs never envisioned. It's kind of like an episode of THE BIG BANG THEORY that has gone terribly terribly wrong and something very bad has happened to Penny. There are few reading pleasures more enjoyable for this reader than finding a book where the cover artist has captured everything magically, summed everything up all in one image. Tom Miller was really good at that, and after I learned SATURDAY GAMES was his work, I decided to learn more about him.
And there was nothing available at all. Everybody I talked to in the paperback collecting world and in the world of illustration all said almost the same words: “Oh, Tom Miller, yes. I love his stuff and I know absolutely nothing about him.” I went to work trying to learn his story. Nobody could tell me if he was alive or dead. And looking him up online proved challenging because his name is so common. In the course of my investigation I have found six different artists named Tom Miller. For a day I thought our Tom Miller was a well-known Black artist from Chicago. After a year or so, I caught a break. A man in North Carolina bought a Tom Miller painting at an antique mall. It seemed to be a paperback cover, but he couldn't identify the book. So he posted it online on Flickr and asked for help. I contacted him and agreed to find his book in exchange for whatever info he had on Tom Miller. I found THE ADVENTURER, Fawcett Gold Medal 1-4452-6, and he sent me a newspaper article he had found about Tom Miller. I located the author of that article, Jay Malinoski, and information from Jay led me to Brevard, Nor th Carolina and the Miller family. And now, to add a new but long overdue chapter to the history of midcentury American paperback illustration, we know a little more about the story of the life of Tom Miller.
THE LADY WITH THE TOWEL
Looking at all the paintings by one artist over a period of years, certain themes and techniques appear again and again. Miller was able to convey sexuality and nudity without breaking any of the rules. He captured this using a beautiful nude holding a towel or sheet up to discreetly cover up any full frontal nudity. We see this – or something like it - on at least seven different Tom Miller cover paintings: