Never judge a book by its cover? True enough with many books, but more so in the postwar paperback arena, where even literary classics and cozies were packaged with racy covers that had absolutely nothing to do with the content.
Consider this a tale of two books: The one the that the eye-catching Robert Maguire cover art John Turner’s 1962 novel By-Line, Mona Knox would have you think it is, and then what it actually is. If you’ve browsed a post or two at this site, then it’s no secret that I happen to be a sucker for just about anything dealing with the 20th century paperback, pulp and pop culture’s ‘plucky’ girl detectives, female private eyes and snoopy girl reporters. When it comes to vintage books and magazines, I’m not a collector, only acquisitive, and usually indifferent to a book’s condition so long as it’s readable. After all, if you’re only spending a couple bucks per book instead of collector prices, and only interested in reading them, not necessarily keeping them, then there should be no complaining about a few stinkers hiding inside terrific covers.
“Sex exposes were her racket…but her own private life could never be printed”, the cover teases. Sure sounds spicy, and based on the art, it’d be fair to expect that Mona Knox might a scandal sheet reporter or perhaps whatever paparazzi were called back then. Times being what they were, you might expect that Mona Knox deftly employs her charms to get her scoops…maybe even getting in over her head doing so. Blackmail? Dirty pictures? Perhaps Mona digs up dirt on the wrong person who comes after her for revenge? Perhaps there’s some sort of murder mystery, with celebrity hot-sheet hotel hookups gone bad? Think ‘G.G. Fickling’s’ Honey West wielding a Speed Graphic camera instead of gun. That cover promises a sizzling retro-sleaze read, and with spinning rack paperbacks typically being slim things, no more than an evening’s guilty pleasure.
But By-Line, Mona Knox is actually pretty dreary tale, more retro soap opera than anything else. No complaints, just never judge a book by its cover.
So who is Mona Knox? Forget the Monroe-Mansfield clone in Maguire’s cover illustration and picture, instead, the stern and primly attired chief editor played by Joan Crawford in the 1959 film adaptation of the Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything. Mona’s a much-courted and much-feared syndicated New York gossip columnist who’s miserable in both her career and her marriage. She lives in the shadow of her famous (now deceased) mother, a Pulitzer Prize winning globetrotting reporter. But Mona’s biggest problem is her former matinee idol husband’s flagrant infidelities, which often end up in rivals’ gossip columns. So when Hollywood sends its latest sexpot newcomer on a New York press junket, Mona threatens the actress’ career and the studio’s big-budget release once Mister Knox is seen canoodling with said starlet in Manhattan’s hotspots.
If you’ve braved trashy postwar paperback originals, you’re probably numb to male writers diagnosing ‘fast girls’ and streetwalkers alike as ‘nymphomaniacs’, or blaming troubled marriages and roaming husbands on ‘frigid’ wives. In an extended and climactic scene, that’s precisely what we encounter in By-Line, Mona Knox, though written so vague that it’s a little difficult to be certain what, precisely, occurred. What’s clear is that Mrs. And Mister Knox have endured a loveless marriage since their honeymoon, when she was horrified to discover his beastly desires. Mona’s repelled by sex. Or, depending on how you interpret all the early 60’s euphemisms, she’s turned off by certain kinds of sex. Or, he craves certain kinds of sex that she considers repellant…or, I’m just not sure. Somebody wants to do some things and not others, but they finally do, though it may not be enough to save their broken marriage. Trust me: Its really weird.
Oddly enough, a hefty portion of the novel deals with Mona’s long-suffering assistant and her own romantic entanglements with a rival reporter. In fact, the book’s closing scenes deal with them, not Mona at all, with the couple planning to get married and she, of course, likely to give up her job. Yikes.
I prefer my ‘girl reporters’ chasing crooks, even if they wind up in groan-worthy damsel-in-distress scenes or muddle though incomprehensible red herring laden mysteries. By-Line, Mona Knox is really about a vindictive gossip columnist, a broken marriage, a scheming starlet and an overworked assistant falling in love with a rival reporter.
Side note: There actually was a real-life model and actress named Mona Knox, active right around this same time, and apparently better known for her romantic liaisons and frequent appearances in Dorothy Kilgallen’s and Walter Winchell’s gossip columns than for her screen roles, which were mostly bit parts and uncredited roles.
So: By-Line Mona Knox…not a mystery or even kitschy vintage sleaze, no matter what Robert Maguire’s cover art suggests. But what the heck, it is a darn good cover.