TOM MILLER

TOM MILLER

By Lynn Munroe

Paperback cover artist and painter Thomas John Miller was born in Midland, Ontario in Canada on July 26, 1913. He remained a Canadian citizen for most of his life. Tom's parents died when he was still a young man and he was raised by two aunts who lived down near the American border. The aunts left Tom alone, free to roam and experience the world, and he crisscrossed back and forth over the border as he grew up. Tom realized he had absolutely no one to rely on except himself. As a result, he became fiercely independent. He took care of himself. This independent nature remained with him all his life and he grew up to become a meticulous and independent artist, answering only to his own very high standards.  He never had an agent or manager, always represented himself.

Tom studied at The Ontario College of Art in Toronto. He served in the Canadian Army during World War II. Recognizing his prodigious artistic talents, the Army put him to work designing war bonds and creating propaganda art. He was also asked to paint portraits of “the big brass”. He later told his family that he knew he had an easy military service. While other young Canadians were marching off to battle, Tom's artistic talent ensured him a safe job painting portraits of the generals.

When the war ended, Tom went to work in Toronto. After a failed first childless marriage, Tom started dating a co-worker named Elizabeth Pike. Tom and Liz were married and when Tom decided to move to New York City and become a commercial artist, Liz went with him. He continued his studies at the Phoenix Art Institute in New York City and the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. Tom loved to do portraits, so he studied portrait art with a master of the craft, Archibald Barnes, the prominent British artist who was living in New York. His studies in portraiture paid off, and many of his best later book covers are actually portraits.

Tom joined the Society of Illustrators in 1952. His membership application gave a New Jersey address. Tom and Liz moved around a lot. At various times they lived in Brooklyn, Manhattan, Old Tappan NJ and Westport CT. They had a son named John. Tom went to work at a commercial art studio in New York City, doing point-of-purchase displays and billboard art. He did magazine advertisements and illustrations for Ladies Home Journal.

But his specialty became paperback book cover art. His first cover appeared at the end of 1959, and he contributed many fine covers over the next 22 years.

Tom and Liz Miller

Photo courtesy of the Miller family

Left: Sgt. Tom Miller of the Canadian Army gets his first exhibition in the United States, 1944. Later Tom would have exhibits of his own at the Lane Gallery in Poughkeepsie NY, the Fox Run Gallery in Ridgefield CT, the Kent Gallery in Kent CT, the Pemaquid Gallery in New Harbor ME, Chocolate Church in Bath ME; and at the Society of Illustrators in New York City.

Miller signature on a 1962 Monarch

Tom Miller created covers for Pyramid, Dell, Monarch, Beacon and other publishers. The checklist that follows shows more than 160 Miller covers. Tom was not happy with the sporadic assignments he got from Dell in the late 60s, almost always for nurse books or doctor books, so he sought out a new employer ready to make full use of his talents. Miller went to work for Fawcett in 1971; painting covers for both of their imprints, Crest and Gold Medal. Miller and Fawcett made a great combo throughout the 1970s. Tom was one of a group of top illustrators regularly contributing covers for Fawcett, a company owned in those days by CBS Inc.

Each new cover assignment would begin with a manuscript. Journalist Jay Malinoski described the arduous process in a 1998 newspaper article about Tom Miller:

“For the actual purpose of cover art, giving the reader an immediate visual interpretation of the content, Miller was given copies of the author's script by the publisher. After a careful study of the text, noting physical characteristics, costumes and mannerisms of the characters, Miller would create pencil roughs of possible ideas.

“He would then visit the publisher's art director and submit the roughs for approval. After the official nod was given, he would book the models and acquire the right costumes from a costume company.   

Fawcett Crest 2-2948-3

 

“ ‘Scheduling the models was probably the hardest part of the whole thing', said Miller. ‘You always had to schedule the models for the same time as the photo shoot, and then before the deadline of the drafts.'

“A number of black and white photos, sometimes more than 200, were taken of the models in full regalia. After the negatives came back, he began the task of choosing the perfect ones. He would then call the photographer's studio in New York for enlargements.

“After getting the proofs, he would make color sketches from opaque water colors and return them to the art director for approval. Then came the actual painting. The entire process took from between three to five weeks.”

“Portraits have always been a personal favorite”, Tom Miller told Jay Malinoski, “But to make a living in portraits, you have to be in the field. It's more of a hobby, though sometimes I'll do one as a request.”

Miller's training as a portrait artist shines through in two cover assignments for Fawcett Crest in 1971. The books are MARY by Vladimir Nabokov and HOW FAR TO BETHLEHEM by Norah Lofts.

Miller's MARY is beguiling and beautiful. All of the colors are muted and complimentary pastels. Brilliantly, the motif of the purple flowers in her hands reappears in a garland of flowers in her hair and in the design of the lacy costume she wears.  In the story, the character Mary is just a hazy dream, she never appears in the novel except in the narrator's nostalgic flashbacks as he recalls his lost love. Tom Miller makes her appropriately dreamy.

The Lofts book is the story of another Mary, the Mother of Jesus. The previous Crest paperback edition had cover art picturing a dismal camel. When Tom Miller read the story, he saw that it was not about places or animals or anything else. He saw it was all about Mary, and his painting is simply, brilliantly, a portrait of her. It is complex and arresting precisely because of its subtle simplicity. Miller's Mary is young, virginal, and beguiling. She is looking directly into your eyes.  Miller finds the very poor, simple young woman before she becomes one of the most iconic and most revered people in world history. And he does it all with the deep look in her eyes, the way she humbly gathers her cloak at her collar,  and a sense of “the bright blessed day, the dark sacred night.”

 He captures the entire essence of the story in one perfect image. I invite you to look into those eyes.

Tom Miller's Two Marys:

Although they tended to use him most often on historical romance, Miller painted all kinds of covers for Fawcett, including “plantation novels” in the then-popular MANDINGO genre, thrillers, stories of ancient times, mysteries and even a Western. He painted covers for some of their best authors, like Nabokov, Eudora Welty, Shirley Ann Grau, Joyce Carol Oates and Taylor Caldwell. He painted for paperbacks by such bestsellers as Helen MacInnes, Jack Higgins, John D. MacDonald and Julie Ellis. Norah Lofts and Jean Plaidy were both big sellers for Fawcett, and Miller painted nine covers for books by Lofts and ten for Plaidy. Tom Miller excelled at Fawcett. Some vintage books now seem dated or archaic, but Miller's covers are timeless.  During his lifetime, commercial illustration art often took a back seat to “fine art”. But in the intervening years, more and more collectors, writers, art critics and tastemakers have come to realize the tremendous impact of illustration art. As Hard Case Crime publisher Charles Ardai said recently in JUXTAPOZ magazine, “…the art world now recognizes that illustration is often performed by very gifted artists and is worthy of respect.”

Tom Miller's painting for HARD BLUE SKY (courtesy of Vicki Walker)

In days gone by there had been a feeling that all paperback covers had to have some color for the background, that white backgrounds were just empty space. Bantam changed all that in the 1960s with a series of covers by James Bama. Soon other publishers like Dell and Lancer were copying that look. Fawcett did some in the 1970s, and their best are by Tom Miller. Miller's training as a portrait painter paid off on these covers.

After a busy decade at Fawcett, Tom retired from commercial work in 1981 and moved to Damariscotta, Maine, where he painted portraits and landscapes. “He was an incredible artist. I told him once in Maine he could make a fortune dashing off quick portraits”, Tom's daughter-in-law Pam told me. “And he would not do it. He had to take his own time, slowly and quietly going over each painting until he was completely satisfied with it.”

Tom & Liz Miller with their granddaughters. Photo courtesy of Pamela Miller.

In 1990, Tom and Liz moved to Brevard, North Carolina. Late in his life, he decided to become an American citizen.  Tom Miller painted in his own studio in Brevard for the final years of his life. He died at the Ivy Hill Retirement Home there in September 2004.

Liz had an estate sale and sold his paintings. Their son John had died in 2002, and when Liz sold the house in Brevard she moved back to Connecticut to live with her daughter-in-law Pamela and her granddaughters.

Brevard resident Ann Host was one of the people who modeled for Tom Miller. “His was a superior talent”, Ann said. “I found him to be a most unassuming, delightful but quiet gentleman”.  The independent artist set his own path and was always meticulous about every single image, from his first painting to his last.

Tom Miller original art for Fawcett's DECISION AT DELPHI (courtesy of Evan Carter)

The Maybe File

Although Tom Miller left behind many paintings and proofs when he passed away in 2004, he didn't keep everything, and apparently never made a list of every one of his covers. When Jay Malinoski interviewed Miller in 1998, Tom told him he had painted 150 covers. There are around 160 on our checklist, with no reason to doubt there may be other as-yet-undiscovered Miller covers out there. Looking at all the Fawcett Crest covers of the 1970s, some unsigned covers remind me of Tom Miller's work. The problem is they were using several other artists who painted in a similar style at the same time. Attempts to attribute the books on our “maybe file” to other artists have proven futile so far. You can help if you recognize any of these as the work of a different artist. I think these might be the work of Tom Miller. I just have not been able to verify my hunches yet. Some of these covers seem like sure things, a couple of them are “could be Miller, might be someone else.” Hopefully, time will tell.

SUSPICIOUS CIRCUMSTANCES is probably a cover by Robert Maguire. The back cover credit says “Cover painting by Robert McGuire.” The artist's last name is spelled wrong, leading some to suspect it is an error, that maybe they meant to say “Robert McGinnis.” But Robert McGinnis says this is not one of his 1960 Dells. A couple other collectors have suggested that this doesn't look like a Maguire, but it does resemble a 1961 Dell called STEVE BENTLEY'S CALYPSO CAPER, cover art by Tom Miller. So there are two schools of thought about this cover. It could be Maguire – Gary Lovisi listed it on his Maguire checklist. Or maybe it is a Tom Miller cover with an editorial error on the artist credit. I LOVE Maguire covers, but I don't think this looks like one of them. And so I offer it here, with a look at a 1960 Maguire Dell and STEVE BENTLEY'S CALYPSO CAPER to compare it to.   

Cover by Robert Maguire

Cover by Tom Miller

THE RICH CROWD reminds me of SATURDAY GAMES, which also features a nude woman posing beside a swimming pool. In both paintings the model's feet are held in exactly the same pose.  The faces are also a match – looking down in profile, eyes closed. THE RICH CROWD was painted four years before SATURDAY GAMES. I suspect that when Tom Miller read the SATURDAY GAMES manuscript with a scene of a woman standing nude before some enraptured men at poolside; he remembered THE RICH CROWD and decided to improve on it. In my opinion he succeeded.

A ROSE FOR VIRTUE is on my maybe file only because there is no visible signature. Everything about it is reminiscent of Miller's similar covers for Norah Lofts.

Miller used this idea - a beautiful woman lost in reverie, holding a small bouquet in one hand and touching the flowers with other hand - on his cover for MARY. I think THE OPTIMIST'S DAUGHTER is certainly an unsigned Tom Miller cover.

It is very hard to say which of the Fawcett artists painted MARRIAGES AND INFIDELITIES. It could be Charles Gehm. But it might be Tom Miller. The pose of the young couple holding each other is certainly in his style.

Fawcett Crest M2058 – MAGGIE – HER MARRIAGE by Taylor Caldwell, 5th Crest edition, 1974.

MAGGIE – HER MARRIAGE was a paperback original, Gold Medal 288 in 1953. It was reprinted with a new cover as Crest K706 in 1964.  That cover art was recycled on d930, R1186 and T1548. M2058 featured this new unsigned cover which was then re-used on P2420 in 1975, and 2-3119-4 in 1977.  This cover art was still in use on 2-4195-0 in 1981.

Tom Miller is one of the artists who might have painted MAGGIE. But there is something about the faces of the models that prevents me from adding this book to my Miller checklist.

If Tom Miller is the cover artist for THE VENETIAN AFFAIR, then it is one of his most reprinted covers. It appeared on many paperback editions and a large print hardcover too. It certainly reminds us of his similar action covers for Crest, even of his other Helen MacInnes titles. But there is no signature to be found. And the two figures might be a different artist; for example, the woman's raised hand looks out of proportion, like the hand of a large man.

Tom Miller is on a short list of artists who might have painted A BOOK OF RUTH. Like the women on MARY and THE OPTIMIST'S DAUGHTER, Ruth is holding a flower, but instead of holding to her chest she holds it to the man's chest. It still elicits a similar intimate effect.

A LAMP FOR NIGHTFALL by Erskine Caldwell

This one didn't make the Miller checklist because one of my trusted “Miller experts” doesn't think it could be his. What do you think?

When I saw this edition of THE EXPLORER by Frances Parkinson Keyes, it immediately reminded me of the work of Tom Miller. Can't find his signature on it anywhere, but I suspect this one might be one of his.


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