Design and illustration by Steven Brower

Today’s history lesson from the AIGA Design Archives is a personal one.

In 1992 I was asked to design the cover for a new edition of the novel Sylvia, by Howard Fast, who was blacklisted during the McCarthy Era. As a result, the book was published under the pseudonym E.V. Cunningham for decades. In 1950, Fast was imprisoned for three monthsfor contempt of Congress for refusing to disclose the names of contributors to a fund for a home for orphans of American veterans of the Spanish Civil War (one of the contributors was Eleanor Roosevelt). At the time, Fast was a popular novelist and television writer; “Spartacus” was one of his best-known works.

First published in 1960, Sylvia is the tale of private detective Alan Macklin, who’s hired by a wealthy businessman to investigate the mysterious past of his fiancé. Macklin’s journey leads him out West, and eventually across the border into Mexico. For the cover, I decided to paint a portrait of the fictional fiancé, Sylvia, using a black censorship bar from that same era as a double entendre, alluding both to Sylvia’s illicit past and the history of the book. Quick history lesson: censorship bars were frequently used by magazine editors in the ’50s and ’60s in order to conceal a celebrity’s identity (enough) while still titillating readers with lurid details and salacious photographs.

For Men Only, September 1966
For Men Only, September 1966

In 1992 I had a Macintosh IIcx with a black-and-white monitor. I hooked it up to a Canon color copier (this was before the advent of affordable ink jet color printers). I played with the settings on the copier to get the desired graininess, and scanned the print as art. I then got to work on a portrait inspired by publicity photos of the beautiful ’30s and ’40s film star, Hedy Lamarr, who had the right mixture of allure and mystery. Interesting historical side note: At the time, I was unaware that Lamarr was an inventor, and held the patent for something called a “frequency-hopped spread spectrum invention,” a secret communications system she developed with avant garde composer George Anthei. This system was first used by the U.S. military in 1962 during the blockade of Cuba, and eventually led to the technology used in cordless telephones and WiFi internet connections.

I also based my cover art on Mexican Ciné posters and billboards, as a good part of the story takes place south of the border.

In those pre-Google days, I had no idea that my cover was just one in a long line of Sylvias, and that I had become part of a decades-long dialogue with other cover artists. Years later, I was surprised to find a few other similar Sylvias, as well as the actress Carroll Baker as blond Sylvia from the 1965 film of the same name. Blond or brunette, she may be elusive in the novel, but clearly the compulsion to illustrate her face hasn’t eluded designers.