Their books, his cov­ers

Paul Ba­con, who de­signed iconic book jack­ets in­clud­ing “Catch-22,” has died.

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Elaine Woo elaine.woo@latimes.com Twit­ter: @ewooLATimes

Paul Ba­con’s name may be un­fa­mil­iar, but any­one who has browsed the best­seller racks over the last 60 years knows his work. If a book cover is a can­vas, Ba­con was its Matisse or Dali, who used min­i­mal im­agery and bold let­ter­ing to sell such iconic nov­els as Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22,” Ken Ke­sey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Com­plaint.”

“He made a ca­reer out of dress­ing the most pop­u­lar books of a par­tic­u­lar age and you know those books in your mind’s eyes be­cause of those jack­ets,” said Steven Heller, a New York-based his­to­rian of il­lus­tra­tion.

Heller, for many years art di­rec­tor of the New York Times Book Re­view, de­scribed Ba­con as per­haps the in­ven­tor of the best­seller jacket and the style that be­came known as the “Big Book Look.”

Ba­con, who de­signed more than 6,000 book jack­ets and was also a jazz singer, mu­si­cian and noted de­signer of record al­bum cov­ers for Th­elo­nious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie and other jazz mas­ters, died June 8 af­ter a stroke in Fishkill, N.Y., said his son, Pre­ston. He was 91.

Book cov­ers at mid-20th cen­tury were dom­i­nated by re­al­is­tic il­lus­tra­tions and tame ty­pog­ra­phy, but Ba­con’s stark, dra­matic work for “Com­pul­sion,” a non­fic­tion novel based on the Leopold-Loeb mur­der case, up­ended the pre­vail­ing aes­thet­ics.

The only pic­to­rial el­e­ment Ba­con drew for “Com­pul­sion” was two small, red fig­ures run­ning off the edge of an empty block of space to­ward the ti­tle, which he ren­dered in large, black, roughly drawn letters across the top of the cover. “A novel by Meyer Levin” ap­peared in smaller letters across the bot­tom. There was no other em­bel­lish­ment.

“Com­pul­sion” was a block­buster and its star­tling cover be­came a tem­plate for a chang­ing in­dus­try.

His cover for 1961’s” Catch-22” was sim­i­lar in style to “Com­pul­sion,” but with a more an­tic air pro­vided by the cutout of pro­tag­o­nist John Yos­sar­ian in his air­man’s cap danc­ing off the au­thor’s boldly let­tered name. Ba­con tossed out nearly a dozen sketches, he said in a 2002 in­ter­view for Print mag­a­zine, be­fore com­ing up with “the lit­tle guy that I tore out of a piece of pa­per, rep­re­sent­ing Yos­sar­ian in full f light from ev­ery­thing.”

The nov­el­ist, for whom Ba­con de­signed five jack­ets, in­clud­ing the one for “Catch-22” se­quel “Clos­ing Time,” once called his work “orig­i­nal, sur­pris­ing and won­der­ful.”

His sig­na­ture style — the prom­i­nent let­ter­ing and smaller, ab­stract im­age that cap­tured a book’s essence — caught on.

“Paul Ba­con un­der­stood how to make a selling jacket, he knew how to ... di­rect your eye to the cru­cial bit of in­for­ma­tion,” said Peter Mendelsund, an art di­rec­tor for Knopf and au­thor of “What We See When We Read.” “But he still made his jack­ets per­sonal, invit­ing and with this lovely hand­made qual­ity.”

Ba­con was born in Ossin­ing, N.Y., on Christ­mas Day in 1923 and spent the De­pres­sion years mov­ing around the Eastern Seaboard with his fam­ily. He be­gan to draw as a child and grad­u­ated from Arts High School in Ne­wark, N.J., in 1940. He served in the Marine Corps dur­ing World War II.

He mar­ried Max­ine Shirey in 1951; she died in 2004. Be­sides his son, he is sur­vived by a sis­ter, a brother and two grand­chil­dren.

Af­ter the war, he re­turned to New York and found a job in a de­sign stu­dio. In his spare time he pur­sued his other pas­sion, jazz.

He played a ka­zoo-like in­stru­ment made from a comb wrapped in cel­lo­phane. He also wrote re­views for the Record Changer, a mag­a­zine founded by Bill Grauer and Or­rin Keep­news, who would go on to start the River­side jazz la­bel. Ba­con be­came River­side’s chief de­signer in its early years.

He later cre­ated hun­dreds of al­bum cov­ers for Blue Note Records and was friends with many of the la­bel’s artists, par­tic­u­larly Monk. “The High Priest of Be-bop,” Ba­con’s 1949 es­say about the icon­o­clas­tic pi­anist-com­poser, is still cited for its in­sights.

Yet, as Ba­con said in the Print in­ter­view, “If I was born to do some­thing, it was to de­sign book jack­ets.”

His first cover came about by ac­ci­dent af­ter a friend’s fa­ther asked him to il­lus­trate a 1950 book about search­ing for chim­panzees in Africa called “Chimp on My Shoul­der.” The pub­lisher, E.P. Dut­ton, was im­pressed enough to have Ba­con de­sign the jacket too.

Over the next decades, he worked for all the ma­jor pub­lish­ing houses. Some­times he set­tled on all type, which he found was the per­fect so­lu­tion for the sala­cious “Portnoy’s Com­plaint.” That ap­proach was also the key to the cov­ers of Kurt Von­negut’s “Slaugh­ter­house-Five,” Wil­liam Sty­ron’s “So­phie’s Choice” and E.J. Kahn’s “The Big Drink: The Story of Coca-Cola,” which fea­tured the ti­tle and au­thor’s name in black, green and red let­ter­ing squeezed into the shape of a Coke bot­tle.

His jacket for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” was one of his fa­vorites, a pas­tiche of hand-torn letters in shades of pink, red and yel­low.

Ba­con “read ev­ery book he de­signed cov­ers for,” said pub­lisher Bruce McPher­son, who met the artist on a New York City bus 36 years ago. Ba­con was read­ing a man­u­script. “Not all de­sign­ers do that, but he wanted to fig­ure out what sort of book it was and how to sell it.”

The de­signer rarely had con­tact with the au­thors, whose sug­ges­tions were gen­er­ally not help­ful. Among the few he spoke to was Nor­man Mailer, who had an idea for the cover of his 1965 novel “An Amer­i­can Dream.”

As Ba­con re­called in a 2012 in­ter­view for the web­site Out of Print, the pug­na­cious writer com­pli­mented his work, then said, “How would you feel about adding some­thing to it?” It was a pho­to­graph of his girl­friend, and Mailer said he didn’t care if Ba­con made it as small as a postage stamp.

That was ex­actly how Ba­con treated it and, he ac­knowl­edged, “it didn’t do a bit of harm.”

Hank O’Neal

IN­FLU­EN­TIAL ARTIST Paul Ba­con reads “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” which he de­signed. His 1949 es­say on Th­elo­nious Monk re­mains inf lu­en­tial.

‘CATCH-22’ Ba­con used prom­i­nent let­ter­ing

and a smaller, ab­stract im­age.

‘ZEN’ Ba­con’s style be­came known as

the “Big Book Look.”

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