During my career I have had the good fortune of having three books, as well as one children’s coloring book, of my Elvis art published. All of these publications were exciting to see in print, but one in particular stands out in my mind because of who acted as art director for the project.
Let me back up to explain how I got to the point of working with this particular art director in the first place. Some years ago, while browsing my local bookstore I came across a book of art by Frank Frazetta. Impressed, I made a mental note of the publisher, Bantam books. I ran my thoughts of sending samples of my Elvis art to the publisher by Mr. Scarborough, the storeowner. He advised me that if I were to do that, I had better address it to an individual. Bantam books received so many inquiries that they generally went unnoticed. Mr. Scarborough disappeared into his office for a moment, then came back with the name of the Vice President at Bantam — Stan Reisner. So off I went, name in hand, to see what would happen if I took a chance.
I put several 5×7 photographs of my Elvis art together with a letter and put in the mail. This was 1978, so there was no such thing as a quick email with some photo attachments. I got to wait for Mr. Reisner to receive the letter, and then I got to wait for his response. Finally, the call came, from Reisner himself. It was an unusual call, short and sweet, cut and dry.
Reisner said he “liked my art, wanted to do a book,” that he’d “be coming to see me and if I had enough good art, he would do a book.” If not, he wouldn’t. Needless to say, I was amazed at the opportunity. In the spring of ’79 he called to tell me he would be coming with his art director who’d be going through my art. The afternoon they arrived they came in, sat down on the couch, and Mr. Reisner pulled out a cigar that looked like it was a foot long. This was a long time before smoking became taboo, so no one gave any thought to it except for how long the cigar was. As Reisner sat and smoked his art director, Len Leone, silently combed through my artwork with a discerning eye.
He was impressed, but not by my paintings. “Anyone can paint, but to take a pencil and do this — this is talent. This is special,” he said as he looked over my pencil drawings. So, he eliminated anything with color, choosing only my graphite pieces. When I asked Mr. Reisner how long it would take to publish the book after their visit, he told me there was lots to do and it could take up to a couple of years. The book was released in August of that same year.
My part in the book was done; I had handed over my drawings to Leone’s careful hands and it was my turn again to wait and see what they would do with my art. Then, much sooner than I expected, the day came that I received a proof of the cover. I was astounded by the creativity of the design. There was so much white space; I had done this quite often when drawing but here they had transferred the concept to the cover design.
If I knew then what I know now I would not have been so surprised by such a creative presentation. The art director, Leonard P. Leone Sr. (1924-2013) was a genius. Mr. Leone was the Art Director at Bantam Books from 1955 to 1984. His innovations and the use of top illustrators helped to propel Bantam to become a giant and #1 in the paperback book world. His art direction changed the face of paperback books. He was instrumental in bringing all manner of new approaches to paperback book design and new approaches to make them an art form in and of themselves. Among his many ideas were the use of the white cover and foil embossing, “Step–back” covers (a double-page illustration when you open the cover) and multiple color covers for the same title were just a couple more. Go to a used bookstore and pull out any Bantam Book from the ’50s through mid–’80s and they will each have the distinction of being designed by Len and his small art staff. It is nearly impossible to find a book from this time period untouched by his artistic genius.
According to Lynn Munroe Books:
In 1965, Bantam art director Len Leone revolutionized the paperback publishing industry with THE TEMPLE OF GOLD by William Goldman. Before this book any blank white space on a mass market paperback cover was considered wasted space. Every inch of each cover had to be filled with color or text. Bantam started experimenting with white backgrounds, first with Mitchell Hooks, then James Bama. The concept really took off with THE TEMPLE OF GOLD. It was stark and riveting, with one figure in hyper-realistic detail and nothing else except a blank white background.
If being impressed with the cover wasn’t enough, I was again elated to see the final book. I was thrilled by his choice in lettering and paper and completely delighted when I realized he had taken one of my “doodle” sketches of Elvis’ lips and made it into a three-page fold out in the middle of the book. To top it all off, Leone did an intro to the book expressing his thoughts upon first seeing my art in person. He closed by saying “Betty Harper is an accomplished artist thanks to the impetus created by Elvis Presley… and Elvis Presley owes something to the art and energy of Betty Harper — Immortality.”
To be able to turn my artwork over to such a talent was a privilege.