I recently picked up a first (and only) edition of Felix Riesenberg’s 1933 novel, Mother Sea, and was intrigued to see that it came from Claude Kendall, the same publisher that issued some of Tiffany Thayer’s most notorious over-the-top pot-boilers (including Thirteen Men and Thirteen Women).
Doing a bit of Googling, I quickly learned two things about Mr. Kendall: first, that he was murdered in a New York City hotel room in 1937, a murder that has never been solved (courtesy of The Passing Tramp); and second, that while the literary standards of his firm may not have been the highest, their book covers are among the most memorable of their period. Here is a little sample for your guilty pleasures:
Uncle Sham, by Kanhaya Lal Gauba (1929)
This scathing satire of American life, subtitled “Being the Strange Tale of a Civilisation Run Amok,” which viewed the country from the perspective of the most virulent and self-righteous visitor, was a reaction to Katherine Mayo’s 1927 book, Mother India. The New Yorker’s reviewer called it “the best comic volume of the year.”
Lo!, by Charles Fort (1931)
Depending on whose side you take, Charles Fort was either a “satirist hugely skeptical of human beings” or “a patron of cranks.” Either way, he was well-regarded by some people and still is today. He’s got his own society (the International Fortean Organization) and a magazine (Fortean Times) devoted to the phenomena he studied. Lo! comes with an introduction by Tiffany Thayer, illustrations by Alexander King (viz. my pan of his memoir, Mine Enemy Grows Older), and cover plugs by Theodore Dreiser, Booth Tarkington, and John Cowper Powys.
Smoking Altars, by Gladys St. John Loe (1936)
Murder mysteries were a specialty for Claude Kendall, preferably set in exotic locations. This one takes place on a plantation in Kenya. Lionel Houser’s Lake of Fire was set in Burma, The Surrender of Helen in the South Seas, and Death Rides the Air Line on the then-novel mode of transportation. Murder in Bermuda, written by Kendall’s financial backer, Willoughby Sharp (who added his name on the books starting in 1934), is self-explanatory.
Pasha the Persian, by Margaret Linden, with illustrations by Milt Gross (1936)
Illustrated by the legendary cartoonist, Milt Gross, this might have been meant by Ms. Linden to be a children’s story, but Gross’ wild drawings put this solidly in the American tradition of tall tales, and might have been Gross’ attempt to out-do his compatriot George Herriman’s KrazyKat.
Twisted Clay, by Frank Walford (1934)
Fetching a whopping $2,000 on Amazon, this novel of a demented teen-aged lesbian, in the words of James Doig, “has the distinction of being one of the more bizarre thrillers published in the 1930s, which is saying something given the excruciating excesses of R.R. Ryan, Harry Keeler, J.U. Nicolson amongst others.” It was banned for decades in Walford’s native Australia, although from the looks of it, Walford might have been plowing the same row as Kendall fave Tiffany Thayer. You can read more about the book on Wormwoodiana, the Tartarus Press blog. Kendall also published another early classic of lesbiana, G. Sheila Donisthorpe’s Loveliest of Friends.
Claude Kendall’s house was, in a way, the Grove Press of its time. Kendall did attempt to gain U. S. publication rights for Ulysses, although it might have been as much for its scandalous reputation as its literary merit. He did release the first U. S. edition of Octave Mirbeau’s S&M classic, Torture Garden.
On the other hand, while Beth Brown’s two novels, For Men Only and Man and Wife, had historical settings (New Orleans of the 1890s), I suspect their attraction had more to do with their subjects (a madame and a prostitute, respectively). And the fact that the Kendall catalogue is rich with such obvious works of fine writing as Dark Dame, Six Lost Women, and Secret Ways tips the scales, I’m afraid, on the side of trash. On the bright side, one can honestly say that there is a larger audience of connoisseurs of fine trash now than there ever was, so I welcome them to dive into the vintage dumpsters of Claude Kendall (and Wiloughby Sharp) and see what treasures they can find.