Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Designing Fiction: A Richard Himmel Paperback Primer

Did one of America’s most famous interior designers have a side-hustle writing tawdry paperbacks at the advent of the new medium? Today we take a peek behind the curtain and present you with the untold story of author Richard Himmel.

Richard was born in Chicago in 1920 and called the city home for nearly all his life. The young man loved the written word and attended University of Chicago to study writing under the tutelage of his mentor Thorton Wilder, the writer of Our Town

“He always intended to become an English teacher. He was a voracious reader,” Richard’s son John Himmel told Paperback Warrior. “In his library, he had first editions, including a D.H. Lawrence collection. He was always drawn toward the literary arts.”

Richard’s plans to teach writing were sidelined by World War 2. When the time came to serve, he enlisted in the U.S. Army. However, an illness prevented him from being shipped overseas into the fields of battle. “The Army realized early on that he was a pretty smart boy, and he was assigned to General Patton’s staff,” John explained. “He wrote pamphlets and brochures for all sorts of things such as identifying Japanese aircraft as well as a primer on the Japanese language.”

After the war, he returned to Chicago with the intention of becoming an English teacher. While waiting for this to occur, he took a job at his sister’s housewares store in the northern suburb of Winnetka. “He began taking on decorating jobs and his career was made,” John said.

Richard’s knack for colors and spacing eventually made him one of the most sought-after interior designers in the United States with high-profile clients including boxer Mohammed Ali and Hugh Heffner’s Playboy Club. However, as his business was growing and becoming established, he never lost his love of the written word. 

Around 1950, a new outfit called Fawcett Gold Medal had plans to revolutionize the publishing industry by releasing all-new novels directly to the paperback format with salacious painted covers. For the past decade, paperbacks had just been reprints of successful hardcover literary works. The idea of releasing original material in a 25 cent paperback filled an important hole in the book market for readers after the pulp magazines had disappeared. Paperback originals were poised to be the next big thing, and publishing houses like Fawcett Gold Medal needed talented authors who could write compelling prose quickly.

At the time, Richard – and all of America – had become infatuated with the prose of Mickey Spillane and wrote a book called I’ll Find You about a hardboiled Chicago lawyer named Johnny Maguire who functions as a private eye for his clients. Richard submitted the manuscript to Fawcett Gold Medal, who released the book in 1950 as the imprint’s fifth paperback original. The book was an instant success and saw five printings through 1955 and a second life in 1962 when it was re-released as It’s Murder, Maguire

“He got a literary agent in New York named Sterling Lord, and they worked together to get his books published,” John said. This put Richard in good company as Lord represented some of the biggest names in 20th Century literature including Jack Kerouac, Ken Kesey, and Howard Fast. 

The second installment of the Johnny Maguire series was The Chinese Keyhole from 1951. It’s an odd sequel because there is no mention of Chicago whatsoever whereas the first novel was steeped in local Windy City sites and flavors. Another major change is that The Chinese Keyhole is a spy novel, not a hardboiled crime story. There’s a hasty explanation at the beginning of the book that Attorney Johnny Maguire was also an occasional spy for a shadowy U.S. intelligence agency. The paperback is great, but it was a weird and abrupt genre shift. My theory is that Richard wrote the book as a stand-alone spy thriller and his literary agent or publisher told him to edit the book to make it Johnny Maguire #2. Mickey Spillane taught the publishing world that there’s money to be made in series characters, and Himmel was apparently happy to oblige.

Later in 1951, Fawcett Gold Medal released the third Johnny Maguire novel, I Have Gloria Kirby and things went gangbusters. Over one million copies were sold firmly establishing Richard as one of the bestselling authors in the Fawcett Gold Medal stable. It was also a big year for Richard and his wife for another reason - the arrival of their son. They chose a familiar name for the boy: John Maguire Himmel. 

Throughout the 1950s, Richard was working during the day as an interior designer and at night as a successful writer pecking away at his typewriter with two fingers and a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. “Growing up, I still remember that sound, and I still have his typewriter” John said.

The success of the Johnny Maguire series opened the door for Richard to get his romantic and sexy mainstream novels published as well. The best of these books (The Sharp Edge, Beyond Desire) were also published by Fawcett Gold Medal while others found homes and multiple printings elsewhere. The Johnny Maguire series continued for five total installments through 1958’s The Rich and the Damned.

This was followed by a 19-year hiatus from writing and publishing. “There was a period in his life when he wasn’t really writing because his career as a designer took off,” John said. “He really didn’t have much time to write, but it was always in his mind. Eventually, he went back at it.”

Richard returned to publishing with three longer stand-alone thrillers between 1977 and 1981, each with page counts exceeding 300 pages. The novels were successful and moved the action to international settings, including Iraq, Cuba, and China. By this time, Richard was a high-profile member of Chicago society, and each subsequent paperback was greeted with increasing fanfare. John recalls the release party for his dad’s 1979 Cuba thriller, Lions at Night. Richard used a parking lot on a busy street corner of Chicago’s famed Magnificent Mile for the extravagant outdoor gala. “He rented actual lions and guys dressed in guerilla fatigues for a big-ass party there, and he sold a lot of books,” John said. “My dad was quite a showman.”

Richard’s final manuscript, a novel with a working title of The Uncircumcised Jew, failed to find a home. The book was submitted to publishers through his agent in the 1990s and just didn’t sell. Richard’s literary winning streak had ended. “I think he got a little bit discouraged,” John said. 

Aging and dealing with health issues, Richard’s career as a novelist ended, but he never fully retired from the decorating business. According to John, his father was sick for a long time at the end of his life. “He was a heavy smoker and obviously a workaholic. He also didn’t get much exercise.” Heart problems lead to his death in 2000 in Florida.

Today, Richard is mostly remembered as a visionary in the field of interior design. John took over the business and has continues in the field keeping the Himmel name alive as the go-to brand for upscale decorating clients. 

The Johnny Maguire series, one of the most successful side-jobs of the paperback original era, was almost lost to the ages until Lee Goldberg’s Cutting Edge Press started reprinting the books in 2019 as trade paperbacks and affordable ebooks. John is thrilled that his father’s literary work has found a new audience in a new century. “There was very little that he put his mind to that didn’t excel. My dad was a generic genius.”

Richard Himmel Bibliography:

1950 I’ll Find You / It’s Murder, Maguire (Johnny Maguire #1)

1950 Soul of Passion / Strange Desires / The Shame

1951 The Chinese Keyhole (Johnny Maguire #2) 

1951 I Have Gloria Kirby / The Name’s Maguire (Johnny Maguire #3)

1952 - The Sharp Edge 

1952 - Beyond Desire 

1954 Two Deaths Must Die (Johnny Maguire #4)

1955 Cry of the Flesh

1958 The Rich and the Damned (Johnny Maguire #5)

1977 The Twenty-Third Web

1979 Lions at Night

1982 Echo Chambers

Footnote  

Thanks to Paperback Confidential: Crime Writers of the Paperback Era by Brian Ritt for providing information used in this feature. 

No comments:

Post a Comment