US Penguins 1945 – 1948

Where I left the story in my last post (US Penguins 1942 – 1945), Ian Ballantine had left the business to help found Bantam Books. For a period, Allen Lane sent Eunice Frost out to New York to work with Kurt Enoch, probably not just to help him out, but to keep an eye on him.

That was only ever a temporary measure – Eunice Frost was too valuable back at Head Office – but Lane had his eye on a longer term solution. He had made contact with Victor Weybright, an American with publishing experience who had been working at the American Embassy in London during the war.

Allen Lane needed someone to act as a balance to Kurt Enoch, whom he no longer fully trusted. Enoch had taken the business a long way away from the founding principles of Penguin, competing head-to-head with Pocket Books, Dell Books and others on their terms, rather than trying to change the market. US Penguins had adopted illustrated covers on US style glossy card and the standard size of other local competitors. And the quality of the list was arguably not consistent with Penguin’s UK positioning either.

A typical US Penguin from 1945

But Enoch had a personal stake in the capital of the US business and as he had organised the capital raising, some of the rest was held by his friends and associates. So both Allen Lane and Victor Weybright had to tread carefully at first.

Lane’s policy seems to have been one of constructive ambiguity – sending Weybright out more or less to negotiate his own way into the business. When he arrived, Enoch claimed not to have heard of him and was unwilling to meet him. After a two hour wait outside a closed door, there followed a week of talks mostly conducted through lawyers. The story is told from Weybright’s point of view in his autobiography, although this is highly self-serving and may not be entirely reliable.

But in the end an agreement was reached, which Weybright characterised as ‘absolute parity’ for the two men in terms of status within the organisation. Enoch would concentrate on production and distribution and Weybright on the publishing programme and public relations, an area where he considered Enoch’s abilities extremely limited. Perhaps surprisingly after such a difficult start, they formed an effective partnership that not only stayed together for many years, but was highly successful in a very competitive market. Enoch initially saw Weybright simply as a stooge for Allen Lane, but it was not long before the two of them were united in negotiating a break from Lane and from Penguin Books.

Robert Jonas designed a series of ‘peep-hole’ covers for Erskine Caldwell’s novels

It’s hard to know exactly when Weybright’s influence began to be seen in terms of the series itself. He arrived in August 1945, but probably had little effect on the books published in the following few months. They included notably ‘Trouble in July’ by Erskine Caldwell, an author not approved of by Lane, but who became enormously important for the business over the following years.

Weybright almost certainly though was influential in the major changes that took place from January 1946 and included a significant redesign in the look and feel of the books, as well as the launch of a non-fiction Pelican list. Both were important developments that had long-lasting effects, but I’ll leave discussion of the US Pelican list for another day.

In some ways the re-design was just another step in the gradual transition that had been going on for three to four years already, away from the UK Penguin style and towards fully illustrated covers. It introduced full colour printing and illustrations stretching right across the front cover, and perhaps even more symbolically, it abandoned the colour-coding that had been such a key part of the Penguin brand, in favour of a bizarre system of different shaped symbols to indicate genre. The changes could be seen as the final break with the sober traditions of Penguin in the UK.

But in another way the business was actually moving back towards some of the key Penguin attributes in the UK. In particular the size of the books changed back to the standard UK size, distinguishing them from most other US paperbacks. And although not immediately apparent (perhaps not even to Allen Lane), the nature of the list was changing to one that was maybe more in line with Penguin principles.

A more literary list?

From a list that throughout most of 1944 and 1945 had been dominated by crime novels and relatively light fiction, there were now indications of more serious literature. D.H. Lawrence and E.M. Forster appeared in the January 1946 list, Virginia Woolf, Jack London, Sherwood Anderson and John Steinbeck over the next few months, and then in July, three plays by Bernard Shaw were issued to mark Shaw’s 90th birthday. Weybright was diplomatically taking some of the best of Penguin’s output from the UK and mixing it with more specifically American titles.

There were still plenty of lighter novels, and several that were too racy for Allen Lane’s taste. Weybright records that Lane seemed annoyed by the fact that Erskine Caldwell’s ‘God’s Little Acre’ was a runaway success, supporting the business through a difficult time. But the proportion of crime stories certainly went down and there does seem to have been a serious attempt to position the series as rather more up-market and literary. Indeed I’d suggest that the 80 or so books published in 1946 and 1947 stand comparison with almost any run of 80 books appearing in the UK Penguin main series.

In September 1946 Lady Chatterley’s Lover appeared as volume 610 and it was followed in November by E.V. Rieu’s new translation of ‘The Odyssey’ published by Penguin in the UK. Early 1947 saw Henry James and Joseph Conrad added to the list followed by William Faulkner’s ‘Sanctuary’. Lane disapproved of Faulkner, but when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949, Weybright must have felt vindicated, as indeed when Lane later fought a court battle to publish Lady Chatterley in the UK.

Of course part of Allen Lane’s disapproval stemmed from the illustrated covers rather than the actual contents of the books. The covers were undoubtedly becoming more colourful and striking (regarded by Weybright as a necessity to compete in the US market), but Lane’s generalised slur on illustrated covers as nothing but ‘bosoms and bottoms’ would not have been a fair description of them, at least in 1946/1947.

Most of the covers were designed by Robert Jonas, often featuring stylised images evoking the spirit of the books rather than specific scenes from them. The Jonas covers are often described as having a distinctive style, but in fact several of the covers by other artists seem to me to be consistent with them, so it may be more of a house style influenced by Jonas rather than just the style of one artist.

Cover designs not by Robert Jonas

When Allen Lane visited New York in April 1947 it became clear that a split with the UK business was inevitable. The terms were negotiated in October of that year and by February 1948 the changes were under way. Penguins were to be re-branded as Signet Books, while Pelicans became Mentor Books – the overall business becoming the New American Library. For a period in early 1948 books were branded as ‘Penguin Signet’ but from August 1948 references to Penguin were dropped and the business was on its own.

Freed of UK constraints, the cover art took another turn. Robert Jonas was for a time Art Director, but from about November 1947 his stylised designs started to give way to a more brash style of which Allen Lane would certainly not have approved. Penguins had come a long way in a relatively short time.

Posted on July 13, 2019, in Vintage Paperbacks and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: