These magazines featured ‘spicy’ or ‘saucy’ stories and features, often illustrated with black-and-white drawings and later photographs of women in the altogether—if not completely nude, then close enough. While these pulps were widely distributed, they were usually sold under the counter, and while not strictly “pornography” they were scandalous enough to cause concern to the businesses that sold such titles if they ran afoul of local decency ordinances.
A number of talented artists produced cover paintings for these girlie pulps, including Enoch Bolles (1883-1976), Earl Steffa Moran (1893-1984), Earle K. Bergey (1901-1952), George Quintana (19021957), and Billy DeVorss (1908-1985), but it’s possible the most prolific of them all was Peter Driben (1903-1968).
Driben was born October 22, 1903, in Boston, Massachusetts, the oldest of seven children. His parents were George and Anna Driben, and they lived at 21 Eden Street, sharing the house with George’s older brother Michael, and his wife and three kids. They were Russian Jews who had immigrated from Kiev in 1895 during a tragic pogrom. Michael owned a shoe shop, where Peter’s father was a sole layer.
In 1920, the shoe shop closed and Peter’s father was forced to become a junk peddler on the street. To contribute to the family income, Peter quit school and worked as a press feeder in the printing shop of a Yiddish newspaper, which also printed some of his earliest cartoons.
He won a scholarship to study at the local Vesper George School of Art. His family was not pleased. Tradition demanded that the oldest son help support the family, and art classes were anything but a sure path to prosperity. When Peter left for Paris after his studies at Vesper George to continue his training at the Sorbonne, his father reportedly disowned him.
While in Paris, he began sketching the city’s showgirls, so when he later returned to the U.S. it was only natural for him to begin painting pin-up cover art for the pulps. The earliest-known published example appeared on the February 1934 issue of Spicy Stories, one of the “spicy” fiction digests of the era.
Early work, c. 1930s. Mixed media. Photo courtesy of Heritage Auctions, HA.com
Early work, c. 1930s. Oil on board. Photo courtesy Heritage Auctions, HA.com
Spicy Stories, April 1934
In 1936, Driben moved to New York City and rented an apartment at 346 East 52nd Street, which also served as his modest art studio. He began working in advertising, producing store window display pieces for products such as Philco Radios, Weber Baking Company, and Cannon Bath Towels, while still continuing to paint pin-up art for pulp titles such as Snappy, Pep, New York Nights, French Night Life, Silk Stocking Stories, Gay Book, Movie Merry-GoRound, and Real Screen Fun.
Part of the secret to Driben’s success was that his flamboyant, large-format covers were reduced down to create a hyper-slick finished product, painted using bright primary oil colors that leaped off the stands. His flashy cover designs stood apart from his competitors, looking like nothing else on the racks. You couldn’t exactly call his paintings “good girl art” in the vein of a Vargas or Elvgren, as Driben’s girls were usually decked out in tight, trashy costumes, their voluptuous charms almost spilling out of their clothes. Even with no nudity, his cover girls were naughty—and nothing like the girl next door! The publishers couldn’t get enough of it.
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