Monday, March 14, 2016

"Kitten on a Trampoline"

John D MacDonald wrote or edited seventy-nine books in his thirty-year career, many of them paperback originals, all eventually having paperback editions, and all featuring covers illustrated by the great and near-great popular artists of the era. Names such as Mitchell Hooks, Victor Kalin, Robert Maguire and Barye Phillips are well known to those of us who study and prize illustration art from the last century, and the work these artists did for John D MacDonald books is among their best. Many were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to illustrate multiple titles, and multiple editions of the same title, but there is one artist whose name towers above the others when counting the sheer number of both titles and illustrations done for JDM’s work: Robert McGinnis.

Beginning in May 1959 with his cover art for the first edition of Deadly Welcome, McGinnis went on to illustrate 48 different JDM books with 63 unique paintings. The only other illustrator to come close to that number was William Schmidt, who provided 41 illustrations for 39 different titles, and almost all of them for the final physical editions the titles have seen so far. McGinnis, like MacDonald, was a workhorse, responsible for around 1,200 paperback covers, over 40 movie posters, and scores of magazine illustrations. His style is instantly identifiable, marked by a peerless esthetic, unique, perfect composition, an intuitive sense of color and, of course, his women: beautiful, sexy and unobtainable. (The only other illustrator who could give him a run for his money when illustrating these kinds of women is Maguire.) And although he is known more famously as the main illustrator of the Carter Brown and Mike Shayne detective series, he did covers for fifteen of the twenty-one Travis McGee novels, with first edition credit on three of them (Indigo, Lavender and Tan) and first paperback edition credit for two that originally were published in hardcover (Lemon and Turquoise.) His depiction of McGee on his cover for Turquoise is a fan favorite, although the Travis McGee in my mind looks more like John McDermott’s original illustration.

There are scores of sites on the internet featuring the artwork of McGinnis. Google his name and you’ll come up with over 300,000 hits. Most, if not all of his paperback work is reproduced on various sites (none officially) and his movie posters are equally well displayed. More obscure is the work he did for magazines, primarily illustrating short stories and novellas by famous and not-so-famous authors of the day. His work appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, Good Housekeeping, The Ladies' Home Journal and Argosy, among others, and only a few of these have been scanned for sharing on the web. One of the reasons for this is that he began his career in the late 1950’s when both fiction and its accompanying artwork in magazines was on the wane. There is one illustration, however, that is widely shared and well known by aficionados, both for its artistry and sheer audacity. That is the two-page spread he did for John D MacDonald’s short story “Kitten on a Trampoline.” Published in the April 8, 1961 issue of the bedsheet-sized The Saturday Evening Post, the illustration nearly jumps off the page at the reader with its multi-pane depiction of a bouncing beauty in various mid-air poses. It is representational McGinnis, beautiful to look at, and even if his depiction of the character is overly glamorized, it certainly must have inspired many a buyer of this particular issue to read MacDonald’s short story.

“Kitten on a Trampoline” is MacDonald doing mainstream fiction, with no crime, no bad guys, and without even a tough guy protagonist. He takes a fairly preposterous premise and makes it work, placing the action in his own backyard, depicting a world that must have been as foreign to him as that of, say, a marina in Fort Lauderdale.

The story is told in the first person by protagonist Paul Fox, a twenty-five year old traveling rep for the Owens Drug Company. He’s a typically MacDonaldean best-of-the-best, the company’s most successful rep, pulling down $20,000 a year (that would be nearly $160,000 today), working 90-hours a week, unencumbered by wife or family, living life “on a dead run.” And there are costs.

But I was chronically hoarse from giving my spiel to doctors and druggists, and I tried not to notice that I was going through three packs of cigarettes a day, or notice the persistent tremor in my hands or the deepening frown wrinkled between my brows. I hadn't been sleeping well of late, and I was bothered by nervous indigestion. My weight was down, and my temper was too easily lost. But you have to keep pushing and churning if you are going to get anywhere in this world.

Paul’s territory is the entire southern half of Florida and his company is based in Tampa. The story opens with him driving with breakneck urgency up from Naples to attend a four o’clock meeting at headquarters. At a stoplight in Sarasota he notices a movement far off from the side of the road in a roped-off parking lot. A crowd of people are surrounding a trampoline, watching a young woman jumping.

I saw the girl burst up into the air, higher than their heads. With her body straight out, she made a turn so slow and so elegant it seemed that I was watching it in slow motion, and then fell back out of sight and reappeared again in a slight variation of the first turn. I knew that the girl in the sunlight was the most astonishingly beautiful thing I had ever seen... I suddenly had the horrible realization that I was close to breaking into tears. I now know it was a clue to the extent of my nervous exhaustion. Something so precious had occurred that I couldn't even put a name to it. And here I was, running away from it.

He immediately turns around and joins the crowd of observers.

It was like a wild strange dance she was improvising as she went along, with a complete grace and total control in spite of the tremendous height she was achieving. She was young, she had a burnished tan and she was sweetly and strongly constructed. Her hair was a tousled brown-red mass. She wore a sleeveless yellow-print blouse and little chocolate-colored shorts. I could see her face clearly only at the apex of those leaps when she was turning slowly. It was one of those wide-cheeked Slavic faces of a totally deceptive placidity. She had a dreaming look, a contentment, a half smile. She drifted and spun in a better world than any of us could know.

When she finishes and dismounts, Paul complements her, but the girl is disinterested and dismissive. He offers to buy her a soda and she accepts by stating "I'm thirsty" in a so-what tone of voice spoken "with a faraway spice of accent." She grudgingly tells him her name is Wanda Markava, and he asks her to wait while he calls the office to tell them he won't be able to make it to the meeting. He follows her on her long walk home and at one point asks her if she was a member of a gymnastic team. She answers by doing a few flips on the grass and haughtily tells him that she is with the circus.

I felt like thumping myself in the head. This was Sarasota. It explained some of the strangeness of her. These were the most clannish people in the world.

She tells him she is with Rossoni and Markava, a small but well respected circus, and that she is a flier, on the rings since she was five, and considered a most promising prospect. Once home he meets the extended family, watches Wanda and her uncle practice for a while on the swings, and is eventually invited to dinner among the hectic extended family.

It was the most confusing house I've ever been in. There seemed to be four or five tiny living rooms, each with its own group. In one room three old ladies were gabbling at each other in a foreign tongue while they sewed sequins to heavy new material with a dazzling speed. People were singing, some were arguing, some were cooking and some were eating. Two television sets and a radio were going with the volume turned high. I estimate I met about one out of every four of them, and usually it was only the first name. They all had muscles, vitality and violent opinions. The children seemed able to run up the walls and across the ceiling, but I suspect that was an illusion.

It's not clear what exactly attracts Paul to Wanda besides her good looks -- certainly not her temperament or personality --  but he is smitten, and after he is driven home that night the Markava's find him the next morning again watching a practice session on the rings. Wanda asks, "How many meeting can you miss?"

“Kitten on a Trampoline” was one of nine works of short fiction MacDonald published in 1961, the most he had produced since 1956. The year before saw only one novella (the excellent “The Trap of Solid Gold”) and the year after he produced only two short stories. Of course, these three years also saw the publication of no fewer than eight novels, so it’s pretty obvious where his focus lay. All but three of these short stories were mainstream, non-crime-related tales and most were published in the big slicks of the day. Nineteen sixty-one was one of the last big years of short fiction for the author, eclipsed only by 1964 when he produced eleven, and he never really focused on this form in any serious manner again.

As of this writing, Robert McGinnis is still alive, and at age 90 still working, God bless him. (He provided the illustration for only one additional JDM magazine work, a 1967 condensation of the novel The Last One Left that was published in Argosy.) As far as I can tell, he and MacDonald never met or corresponded with each other, and I have no information on what MacDonald may have thought of his work. However, in 1981 when JDM bibliographer Walter Shine was compiling a list of cover artists of the numerous different editions of MacDonald’s paperbacks, he wrote to McGinnis to ask for his help in identifying some that were unattributed. McGinnis responded “with alacrity” and ended his written response with the following request: “Thank John for me for the opportunity he created for an illustrator.”

“Kitten on a Trampoline” appeared only once and has never been anthologized or republished.


  1. Nice to see McGinnis's "Kitten" get some recognition. In the book, The Art of Robert E. McGinnis (Titan, 2014; still in print, folks) that Bob McGinnis and I jointly authored, Kitten gets a good bit of attention. What's especially interesting is that McGinnis did the painting three times, and our book displays the first two, never-seen, versions. The first version has only one girl; in the second try he adopted the Muybridge-like stop-motion view that makes this piece so remarkable. With each iteration the background was progressively simplified. Personally, I like the second version best; the published version is too stark & monochromatic for my tastes. In the book, McGinnis talks about the model, Olga Nicholas, and how much she contributed to the success of the painting.

    1. That's fascinating Art. I just ordered a copy of your book. How on earth did you find this post so fast? Are you a JDM fan?

  2. Steve, As a McGinnis collector I was compelled to collect every JDM edition he covered. Of course I've read many of them. Bill Crider's blog provides a reliable link to here. Enjoy the book!

  3. I collect THE SAT EVE POST and have this issue; I'll have to read the story which sounds very interesting.

    1. It's a good story, Walker, and nothing can compare with seeing that two-page illustration on the very large pages of the SEP.