Bobby Seale and The Seven Year Itch

No, those two items aren’t related, as far as we know, but they will both be covered in this blog entry.

Item One: Readers of a certain age will remember the heyday of the Black Panther Party, co-founded by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton in 1966 in Oakland, California. After the demise of the Party in the late 1970s Bobby had to find other work. Among other things, he wrote a cookbook: Barbeque’n With Bobby (1987). We sold a copy of this book online to a British university, and it remains perhaps the most unusual title we have had.

Item Two: We’ve just finished reading The Seven Year Itch by George Axelrod; it was performed on Broadway in 1952 and made into the 1955 movie with Marilyn Monroe. One interesting note on public morality in the 1950’s is reflected in a crucial plot change. New York theater performed the play as written (middle aged man alone in the city consumates affair [offstage] before coming to his senses and joining his family at the seashore). This was changed for the movie (middle-aged man fantasizes about affair; comes to senses and joins family before it is too late.)

In the play, the main character Richard works for a publisher of “25-cent paperbacks”. At the time small paperbacks were not sold through traditional bookstores but through other outlets such as drugstores that sold magazines. They started out with a cover prices of 25 cents; which became 35 cents for some titles in the late 1950s. We now refer to these products of 1939-1960 as “vintage paperbacks” and charge a premium for them.

Paperback publishers were often conservative in their original choice of titles, preferring to repackage well-known classics in the public domain and other titles that had demonstrated lasting power. But the publishers also soon started publishing “paperback originals”, which tended to be sleazy or sensational. The challenge was to make the classic titles also look contemporary. This often involved racy cover art and revised titles. This practice is parodied in the play:

“RICHARD: [My boss] wants to change The Scarlet Letter to I Was an Adultress. I know it all seems a little odd to you—but my boss understands the twenty-five-cent book field. Both my boss and I want to publish worthwhile books. Books like yours. Like The Scarlet Letter. But you must remember that you and Nathaniel Hawthorne are competing in every drugstore with Mickey Spillane [at that time one of the best-selling authors in America].”

A literate audience in 1952 probably found this to be hilarious.