Marilyn Conover was a very successful illustrator during the '60s and '70s. About four years ago, when she was 84, I interviewed her over the phone. Her frank, forthright and often intensely negative recollections of her career startled me. In all the interviews I'd conducted to that point (and since) I'd never encountered anything like it. My intention this week is not to cast a pall over a time many of us hold up as the last great era in illustration, but rather to honestly share a different perspective of someone who lived and worked in those times. For better or for worse here is Marilyn Conover; unvarnished, unsentimental, and unapologetic. ~ Leif
MC: I didn't have a baby when I started [in the illustration business] but my husband was never able to take care of us. Before there was that women's lib crap and all that stuff I was - are you married?
LP: I am, yeah. We have two teenage sons.
MC: Did your wife work during their childhood?
LP: I was fortunate to make enough as an illustrator that she could stay home with the boys until they were ten or eleven years old.
MC: That is heaven. If I could have been able to do that - but I couldn't. The day they were born my husband came up to the hospital and gave me a comprehensive sketch to do. We were working together at that time. I did have a second child but - I mean, it is a devastating thing for a woman to be in that kind of competitive business. It was very competitive and I had to be the best or we sank. To do that and try and be there for your children is an impossibility.
MC: I mean I was there and I did it but I look back with the most painful feeling about all the years I illustrated. Getting into New York and onto Time magazine and all that - it was nightmarish. A woman with no help. We split up after about seventeen years when the children were about twelve and nine and it's not a happy thing for me to talk about and I almost feel sick thinking about all those people.
MC: I mean I loved them but... oh, another one (kind of a third rate one, but) Bob Abbett? Have you talked to him?
LP: I actually featured his work not too long ago, yeah.
(below, a 1964 Bob Abbett illustration from Reader's Digest Condensed Books)
MC: Well I don't know that I can add any more, darling. I really don't know that I want to go back anymore. I'm 84 and I've done it. If you have specific questions that I could answer factually, ok, but I don't want to start digging up or talking or reading or writing or anything about it. I really don't.
LP: Sure, I understand. But even so, I really appreciate that you took this time to tell me all of this. That's just great.
MC: Well, bless your heart. Oh! John Gannam! Do you know his work?
(above, 1949 ad art by John Gannam)
LP: Yeah, I've written about John Gannam as well, sure.
MC: Oooh man, he was great! The one's we loved the most were Al Parker and John Gannam - oh, and then Bernie Fuchs - he came along a little later.
(below, 1960 ad art by Bernie Fuchs)
LP: Of course. Now, I have to ask you; was he a big influence on your work? Bernie Fuchs?
MC: to a degree, yes.
LP: What about Bob Peak?
MC: No, if anybody, Bernie Fuchs was everybody's saint. He was about two years younger than I.
(above, 1960s story art by Bernie Fuchs)
LP: When you lived in Westport did you know him personally?
MC: No, at that time in Westport it was a very clique-y group.
Who was the other one... oh, Bob Heindel. You know him? He was another one of that group of Bernie Fuchs' friends.
(below, Robert Heindel story illustration, 1967)
MC: By that time I was single and it was very new for a woman to be doing that type of work, illustration, in the '60s. So I didn't know Fuchs but I'll tell you who I did know... and I don't remember her last name, it was... Gloria something... and she was the wife of one of the artists and I loved her and she worked for me all the time as a model; the wife of one of the Westport artists and I know Bernie Fuchs used her a lot, too. And she used to say to me, "Marilyn every time I go to the library I bump into one of their wives. And every time I go to look through Albert Dorne's reference files one of the wives is there - and when I go to pick up photos from the photographer's, the wives are doing all the work. How the hell do you do it all?" And I said I just did it.
MC: I mean their wives did all that stuff so they [the artists] could stay in their little ivory towers of talent and greatness and self-importance. And the men would all go to lunch together at the different places. I mean they never became as big as Andrew Wyeth or deKooning or any of the great artists - so these people had to keep instilling in themselves how important they were.
LP: Now, did you feel excluded from all that because you were a single woman?
MC: No. Nooo. I didn't feel excluded. We were all just independent illustrators. We were all just too busy working.