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The Sensational World of Drug Paperbacks

The following is an excerpt from Stephen J. Gertz's new book, Dope Menace: The Sensational World of Drug Paperbacks (Feral House, 2008).


In 1952, Congressman Ezekiel C. Gathings (D-Arkansas) convened a House Select Committee to investigate the proliferation of literature he considered a pox on contemporary American society, taking particular aim at paperback books which he believed were specifically marketed to the above demographic group.

Attacking "the so-called pocket-size books, which originally started out as cheap reprints of standard works, [but which] have largely degenerated into media for the dissemination of appeals to sensuality, immorality, filth, perversion, and degeneracy," the Committee devoted much of its attention to paperbacks that contained the use of illegal drugs as thematic material.

Welcome to that world, a universe of paperback books -- mass-market-sized, larger digest and trade-paper format -- that because of their dramatically high print runs and broad distribution into multi-various retail outlets, exposed Americans to drugs and drug use in a far more influential manner than hardcover volumes, which were released in small print runs and distributed through bookstores only. And paperbacks were the only medium to do so in a lasting, material way: Film depictions of drug use and trafficking had been banned by Hollywood's Production Code (a.k.a. The Hays Code) in 1930, radio was by nature evanescent, and newspapers generally disposed of within 24 hours. As such, drug-themed paperback books provide the richest, most direct record of American pop culture's fascination, repulsion, fears, realities, perceptions, fantasies, paranoia, facts, hopes, follies and fallacies regarding psychoactive drugs during the beginning, rise and crest of what has been characterized as "America's Second Drug Epidemic."

This did not occur in a vacuum. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, when drug smuggling routes had been re-established -- having been completely disrupted during the war with narcotics distribution and use in the U.S. declining to their lowest levels in the century -- and addiction to heroin and use of marijuana began to return with slow, steady drive, another phenomenon became manifest: the saturation of the marketplace with mass-market paperbacks, which began in 1939 with a hugely successful experiment by Pocket Books that yielded over 1.5 million copies sold of 34 reprint titles at 25 cents each.

By the early 1950s many social critics and latter-day Catos were becoming alarmed. Other publishers had entered the field, and many reprints and new, original paperbacks were not of the finest literary quality. "Some of these books [are] filled with sordid, filthy statements based upon sexual deviations and perversions" Gathings reported. Further, the Gathings Committee stated, "other paper-bound books dwell at length on narcotics and in such a way as to present inducements for susceptible readers to become addicts out of sheer curiosity. As an example of how this subject is handled by current books, one need only read Marijuana Girl by N.R. de Mexico (Universal Publishing & Distributing Corp.). A more appropriate title would be: A Manual of Instructions for Potential Drug Addicts. It even has a glossary of the jargon used by dope peddlers and their customers. The noble motives ascribed to the author on the back cover, and quoted below, are not manifest in the book he wrote.

"Quotes below are on the back cover of Marijuana Girl, the book in question:

"This extraordinarily valid book does more than reaffirm the reputation of the author as a literary stylist and a shrewd, blunt commentator on our social scene. It tells the real story behind the lurid newspaper headlines -- the crime investigations -- the reports, official and unofficial -- all screaming of the spread of dope addiction among children today!"

"Even the evil effects of drug addiction are made to appear not so very unattractive by artful manipulation of the imagination. While the analysis of this book has been directed chiefly to its narcotic phase, that should not be construed as implying that it is not replete with lewdness and vulgarity."

Uh oh. Sex and drugs, the marriage of which has traditionally aroused the ire and righteous indignation of concerned citizen-moralists. And aroused the fascination and curiosity, if not fetishistic fervor, of the general public. Popular culture is Dionysian in nature: of the appetites, instincts and senses. The public bought these books in numbers that will astound.

What prompted Congressman Gathings to approach then Speaker of the House, Sam Rayburn, to approve $25,000 of our taxes for his wacky witch hunt?

"Every time I went into the drugstore to get cigars there would be a long line at the bookstand looking at the lewd coversI thought, what is this country coming to if we are distributing this type of thing to the youth of the land?" the Congressman declared.

The books were not, of course, aimed at the youth of our fair nation. They were, to the contrary, directed to a group "made up mostly of people who used to read only magazines, who [were] intimidated by the forbidding air of a bookstore, and [could] afford perhaps a small fraction of the price of most new hard-cover books. They [bought] and read on the move, picking books off a rack or newsstand to read while commuting or traveling or during a frenzied day of changing diapers and making meals. They [were] impulse buyers who [picked] books at the point of sale, and after reading them [threw] them away or [passed] them on to someone else."

That said, while Gathings may have been another in a long line of congressional gasbags and something of a crackpot, he wasn't crazy. At a time when there only an estimated 1500 bookstores scattered throughout the United States, paperbacks were distributed into 80,000-100,000 retail outlets nationwide including drugstores, newsstands, bus depots, train stations, airports, grocery stores, supermarkets, corner candy store/luncheonettes -- in short, any place that sold magazines (paperback publishers had a completely different business model than hardcover publishing; it was the periodicals business); paperbacks of any nature, including those dealing with drugs, were most certainly seen by youngsters. I was surely not the only kid during the 1950s who would wander into the neighborhood candy store/lunch counter and peruse the comics and paperbacks rack, and I was certainly not the only one who was soon chased out with the admonition: "Whad'ya think this is, a library? Scram!" And, too, many drug paperbacks did in fact contain mixed messages, indeed some so mixed that the writers appear to have been typing within Cuisinarts.

Gathings' fears about drug-themed paperbacks and their influence upon culture were not without substance, and though insinuations toward censorship were most certainly misguided, the democratization of drug use in paperback literature did pose challenges.

The paperback was the Internet of its time. "The inexpensive book, more than any other modern instruments of mass communication, is today an outpost of freedom in our democratic culture," a contemporary observer wrote. And, when you add drugs -- and sex -- to the equation, like the Internet the paperback becomes a satanic tool, opening a biblical sinkhole into which society will inevitably fall. "The nature of any censorshipis often a function of the anxieties generated by the medium or the milieu which the medium serves," Harper's magazine noted at the time.

The books were quite threatening to sober-minded, solid citizens. "The volume of their sales, the manner of their distribution, their modest price and ready accessibility to the public, the provocative nature of some of their jackets and blurbs, and the existence of a national organization that had already sharpened its teeth on comic books and magazines [Citizens For Decent Literature -- led by that paragon of moral and ethical virtue, Charles H. Keating, Jr., who, though famed at the time for his moral zeal, would win greater fame in the late 1980s for his role as Public Enemy #1, the top free-booting buccaneer in the U.S. savings and loan industry debacle] all these contributed to the outbreak of censorship aimed at literature in this form," wrote Lockhart and McClure. While we can now enjoy many of these books for their camp, kitschy quality, writing that is often gloriously lousy, and with postmodern irony be amused by their outlandish assertions and misinformation, at the time high-lit. paperbacks were a dangerous, trans gressive medium. There is no denying the perversely seductive quality to so many of them.

In 1953, an unknown writer just shy of his fortieth birthday had his first book published. Issued by a new, small paperback publisher, it sold 113,170 copies in its first year. The book was Junkie, written by William S. Burroughs under the pseudonym "William Lee." Given the sales figure, one might reasonably conclude that this was a fabulous success, a best-seller, an amazing accomplishment for a first-time novelist. It was, to the contrary, merely a respectable number, in fact somewhat below average, many if not most paperbacks selling in the 200,000-copy range.

Junkie was published by Ace Books, a paperback house established in 1952 to surf the huge wave of paperback's popularity to the bank. Ace was owned by A.A. Wyn who, as most paperback publishers of the era, had strong credentials in the pulp magazine business before launching the imprint. His nephew, Carl Solomon, recently a patient at New York State Psychiatric Institute, was a staff editor (along with writer Donald A. Wollheim). Soon, a friend and fellow patient of Solomon's from the mental hospital, Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, approached him with a few manuscripts written by friends who couldn't get the time of day from mainstream publishers. Acting as Burroughs' "secret literary agent," Ginsberg negotiated a contract granting Burroughs an $800 advance against an initial printing of 100,000 copies, 100,000--250,000-copy print runs typical at the time for all paperbacks. Burroughs likely received the industry standard for royalties: 1¢ per book for the first 150,000 copies sold, 1.5¢ over 150,000, though this figure was for 25¢ books; at 35¢, Junkie may have earned Burroughs a small fraction more.

Burroughs shared royalties with Maurice Helbrant, an ex-Federal Bureau of Narcotics agent whose 1941 book Narcotics Agent was reprinted with Burroughs' Junkie as an Ace Double-Book, the two inversely bound together, each with its own lurid cover. Publisher Wyn took no chances: Burroughs' harsh, uncompromising and unapologetic, outlaw romantic, almost positive viewpoint on heroin would be mitigated by Helbrant's tough anti-dope stance.

Why did Ace -- as well as a host of other paperback publishers -- issue paperback titles with drug themes?

They sold. Big time. Is was estimated that 243,000,000 copies of 830 titles were sold in 1952, and yet while of those 830 titles only a small percentage were drug- themed, their sales could not be ignored. In 1965, a paperback publisher, noting what would seem to be the obvious, commented: "We have noticed a consistent sales trendthe public's readiness to buy books on the same subject," no matter what the subject. A large number of Americans loved reading about drugs. This was commented upon earlier in 1958, when it was observed that while in the 20th century a great number of people, dulled, exasperated or frustrated by modern life, were drawn to drug use, "even greater numbers of people who lack the courage [or interest] to take them enjoy reading books about people who do." Thus the large body of work within this "curious branch of literature."

Reprints and paperback originals had, since the end of WWII, often featured marijuana, invariably as a demonic drug that drove its users to mayhem and murder; numerous dope noir crime novels with marijuana as the culprit were released. But after the Kevauver Crime Committee Hearings of 1950--51 and the O'Conor Committee Crime Hearings exposed organized crime's illegal narcotics trafficking "as a frightening menace to the youth of America," the media went into a frenzy. Immediately, newspapers and magazines were all over the issue. Oh, it was bad news indeed! "Life magazine ran a twelve-page picture story, giving great prominence to slink-eyed, hopped-up hoodlums leaning against corner telephone poles, or killing time between heroin shots by shootings craps in dark alleyways," it was reported. Newsweek ran a story in its November 20, 1950 issue on "Narcotics And Youth;" in its January 29, 1951 issue Newsweek followed up with "New York Wakes Up To Find 15,000 Teen-Age Dope Addicts," its cover heralding the tale with the banner headline: "New York's Teen-Age Dope Fiends." In its August 13, 1951 issue, Newsweek further reported on "Heroin And Adolescents." The July 14, 1951 issue of Science News Letter discussed "Child Dope Addicts." In September 1951, Reader's Digest got into the act by reprinting a dope-terror story, "A Short -- and Horrible -- Life." The very next month, Reader's Digest ran "Facts About Our Teen-Age Drug Addicts."

These are but a few; 1951 was one hell of a year for heroin in general and high school junkies in particular. "Murder, rape and kidnapping speedily went out of style as first-choice plot material," a contemporary journalist reported. From the early through late 1950s there was no shortage of paperback books featuring thrill-seeking juvenile delinquents on dope or teen-aged innocents lured onto the needle or marijuana by criminal low-lifes or bad-news boyfriends. And oh, the consequences! In 1953, religious publishing house Zondervan would issue the paperback The Inside Story of Narcotics by Jim Vaus. Hell was just around the corner, Lucifer furtively leaning against a lamppost, passing out free samples.

The teenage drug problem of the 1950s was utter nonsense. "It simply doesn't exist," wrote John Gerrity in the February 1952 issue of Harper's. "The Federal Narcotics Bureau, which knew the true facts, abandoned an earlier effort to quell the frenetic alarms, fearful that -- as one official put it -- 'we'd get our brains beaten out.'" The gross distortion of reality was so egregious -- were these people on drugs? -- that Federal Bureau of Narcotics Commissioner, Henry J. Anslinger (a man not known for understatements in public pronouncements on illegal drugs) felt compelled to speak up and set the record straight, as it were.

"Why would a business man -- and drug peddlers are business men -- desert a proven market for the hazards of an unproven one, like teen-age high school students?" he told an interviewer at the time. "Shortly after the Kefauver expose," he continued, "the New York City Mayor's office announced that there were 90,000 addicts in the metropolitan area, with many of these being in high schools.

"Another source claimed that among 15,000 parochial and Yeshiva school students they found not one addict. The city authorities began to revise their estimates when we asked them to explain why peddlers have singled out public school students and ignored parochial school students," Anslinger said.

The simple reality at the time was that "if the average high school student, or anyone else for that matter, wants a marijuana cigarette or a shot of heroin, he will have to prowl the dens of the city for months before he can make a contact. The chances are he won't succeed at all," Gerrity reported, based upon his discussions with FBN officials.

The facts did not dissuade paperback publishers from issuing sensationalistic volumes on teen dopers, nor did the reality break through the public's belief in the legend, nor Congress.' In 1956, Merchants of Misery would be published, a wild teens-on-dope/anti-dope peddler non-fiction paperback from Pacific Press Publishing Association, a Seventh-Day Adventist venture dating back to the '30s whose entire raison d'etre appears to have been issuing anti-dope educational titles. Here, the evil peddlers are thinly disguised Italians so stereotyped it's all the author can do to restrain himself from using the phrase "wop-greaseballs." Anti-drug laws, with penalties that had been increasing in severity since the 1930s, reached a draconian apogee in the same year with the passage of the Boggs Act which mandated the death penalty for selling heroin to minors. In the same year, renowned drug researcher Lawrence Kolb would write "Let's Stop This Narcotics Hysteria!" in the July 28th issue of The Saturday Evening Post, and the July 8th issue of the New York Times Magazine would run "To Dispel the Nightmare of Narcotics," to no avail. Once accepted into popular culture, a myth has stubborn staying power against which reason wages a Don Quixote-like struggle.

That said, "the first stirrings of a renewed heroin wave in the United States" began to become manifest, though it would be, for the most part, confined to the ghettos and barrios of the major cities, not yet in middle-class white communities. The finest novel on the contemporary black inner-city drug experience remains ex-junkie/convict Clarence L. Cooper's gritty The Scene.

The movie industry's self-censorship on drug-themed films would end in 1955 with the release of Otto Preminger's film adaptation of Nelson Algren's The Man With The Golden Arm (1955). A paperback reprint of the 1949 first edition appeared in 1951 with a stylishly lurid cover by the renowned Stanley Melztoff with his wife, Alice, as model for Molly-O, the sympathetic woman in junkie card dealer/drummer Frankie Machine's life. With the release of the film, the book was reprinted in paperback again but with a cover reproducing the film's opening title motif by the great film-title designer, Saul Bass.

Competition within the paperbacks business was fierce; all these imprints -- there were close to one hundred paperback publishers by 195837 -- jockeying for retail rack space. It was imperative to "capture the darting eye and interest of the man in motion." How to do it? Jacket illustration and "skyline," the blurb above the title.

Drug paperbacks, in addition to their value as touchstones of attitudes about drugs in American popular culture, also provide a vivid history of pop graphic design during the period under review and, significantly, provide us with the pop-kulch iconography of the American drug experience. Until the late 1950s, when paperback cover illustration began to shift with the times and publishers and distributors felt pressure to tone down appearances, many if not most paperback covers were sensationally -- deliciously -- lurid. With a "girl on the jacket but no jacket on the girl," illustrations were invariably characterized as a mix of sex and sadism, and there were so many drug paperbacks with gorgeous babes on their stylish covers that one might conclude that drug use was almost exclusive to women, which it was most certainly not; males have always been the prime consumers of illegal substances. Many paperbacks from the 1940s and 1950s, including those drug-themed, are now avidly collected by connoisseurs of "Good Girl Art," a genre dripping with postmodern irony as the girls depicted are anything but, thumbing their noses at conventional mores and standards of female behavior.

Yet for all the contemporary hue and cry over paperback book-cover design, the illustrations were, and remain, quite artful. "Our sexy covers are given a fine-arts treatment," publishers declared at the time. And so they were, with a hip, lurid-chic panache by commercial artists of great skill and verve. Illustrators Rudolph Belarski and Tom Dunn were graduates of Pratt Art Institute; Raphael M. Desoto, Lou Marchetti, Rudolph Nappi and Robert Maguire studied at the Art Students League of New York; the great Stanley Meltzoff studied art and art history at the National Academy, the Art Students League and the Institute of Fine Arts in New York and elsewhere, and was an in-demand illustrator for many popular magazines before beginning his career as a book illustrator; examples of their covers are found within this volume. Some were on staff on salary, others were busy freelancers earning an average of $200-$300 per cover illustration. Their work and that of many other talents, formally trained or autodidactic, had to grab eyeballs and mindshare in a crowded marketplace. Once picked up by reason of their compelling artwork, the books had to glue to the emotional centers of the brain and stick to the hands so the volumes would not be returned to the display rack, unsold.

So wild were the covers that the U.S. Army, a huge buyer of paperbacks distributed by its Special Services division facilities to troops through soldier reading programs, became alarmed. In a letter to John O'Conner of the American Book Publisher's Council, Major General William E. Bergin stated that "in searching for books for this purpose, a sincere effort is made to find books which meet public library standards, standards which are satisfactory to the families of young men in service and to all authorities charged with the welfare of those men." Many paperbacks were being rejected simply because of the "growing tendency of publishers to use cover pictures and descriptive material which have a distinctly lurid and sensationalistic character," the General complained. The Army wanted its troops to be all that they could be but not become sex-crazed dope fiends. Bad for morale, Sir, yes Sir.

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