They Also Served: Harry Bennett

Illustrator
(1919-2012)

  

It’s a bit of a mystery, at least to me, why HARRY BENNETT isn’t better known among fans of vintage crime and detective paperbacks. His distinctive cover work has appeared on works by Dashiell Hammett, Frank Kane, Dolores Hitchens, Talmage Powell, Don Tracy, Agatha Christie, Erle Stanley Gardner,
Roy Huggins, Thomas B. Dewey, and others. While his work often featured the typical-for-the-era pairing of a manly detective and a sultry, seductive babe, I’ve always found Bennett’s work more intriguing and dramatic than some of his much more celebrated contemporaries.

Bennett’s earliest paperback covers, in particular, boasted a rougher, more impressionist style, such as his cover for Richard Stark’s The Hunter or the 1965 edition Thomas B. Dewey’s A Sad Song Singing.

But much of what I consider the “Bennett-style” consists of elegantly, even formally dressed couples posed against stark, unadorned backgrounds, offering subtly flirtatious, slyly dramatic and/or humorous scenarios, the prime example being all those easily identified covers he did for Frank Kane’s Johnny Liddell books  in the early sixties. Sure, his cover women were sexy and yes, there was ample flesh to be glimpsed, but for the most part bikini-clad meat-on-a-plate wasn’t Bennett’s style–he was aiming for something more. His couples always seemed somehow more sophisticated, more adult to me. And forget the interior of the books–there was a whole story being played out right on the cover, and plenty of mystery, too. Like, “Who are these people? And where did they go dressed like that? Why is she ignoring him now? Why is he ignoring him now?”

Fellow admirer J. Kingston Pierce, in a 2009 pieces on his highly recommended Killer Covers blog noted that “Other artists–among them Victor Kalin and the renowned Robert McGinnis–tried their hands at illustrating the Liddell novels, but it’s the Bennett fronts… that hold my eye best.”

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Harry Bennett was born in 1919 in New York, just months after his own father died of the 1918 flu epidemic. The family moved to Ridgefield, Conneticut soon after, and his mother held the family together by running a laundry business. By the time Harry enlisted in the Army in November, 1940, he had already begun working as a commercial artist for the Magazine Photo Engraving Corporation in neasrby Stamford. During the war he rose to the rank of Major and was awarded the Bronze Star for his efforts in the south Pacific.

Upon his return Stateside, the newly married Bennett attended the venerable School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the American Academy of Art,  before returning to Ridgefield where he resumed his commercial art work, doing advertising work for Buick, Pepsi-Cola, Keds and others, before branching out into the publishing field, where the lucrative paperback boom was in full swing, and the demand for cover artists who could crank them out was high.

Fortunately, Harry was not just good–he was fast, and his work soon drew the attention of publishers outside of the crime and detective genres. He did covers for Mary Stewart, John Brunner, Victoria Holt, Frank G. Slaughter, Charlotte Armstrong and even Dante, where a set of illustrations Bennett did for a 1966 collectors’ edition of Divine Comedy earned him both a bronze medal from the New York Society of Illustrators and a one-man exhibit at the New York Public Library. Not too shabby. Not too shabby at all.

In 1986, Bennett retired and headed west to Oregon, where he painted landscapes and reclining nudes, selling them in local galleries, and doing a bit of teaching on the side. In 2008 Bennett and his wife moved back East, to Maryland, near Baltimore to be closer to their family. Harry Bennett died four years later, in 2012.

    

WORKS INCLUDE

FURTHER INVESTIGATION

Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.

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