In 1925, the world was introduced to a young graphic artist who, up until that time, had remained somewhat obscure. Initially primarily a portrait painter, Francis Cugat was discovered in Chicago by conductor Cleofonte Camanini who connected the artist to numerous opera stars for whom he designed personalized posters.
From there, exactly how he came to the attention of publisher Maxwell Perkins isn’t really known, but in Cugat’s long career which eventually gravitated to film work, he designed only one book cover, and it is among the most recognizable in history.
Perkins asked him to sketch some ideas for a forthcoming novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, tentatively titled Among Ash Heaps and Millionaires. Taking what little bit of information Perkins could give him about the incomplete book, Cugat came back with sketches that included bleak landscapes and various iterations of eyes in a wide expanse of sky.
The publisher then shared the sketches with Fitzgerald who apparently liked them a lot. In fact, after missing a deadline, the writer sent a letter to his publisher in which he wrote, “For Christ’s sake don’t give anyone that jacket you’re saving for me, I’ve written it into the book.”
The 1925 book, which ended up with the title The Great Gatsby, though not initially very commercially successful, has become one of the most critically acclaimed works of the twentieth century and, some would say, is in the running for the label of the Great American Novel. You probably read it in high school. I did. And my son who is a junior just did.
I can honestly say I don’t remember the book particularly well, but I do recall the voice of my junior year English teacher, Mr. K., as he discussed the imagery of the enormous eyes peering, bespectacled, from a faded billboard advertising the practice of T. J. Eckleburg, keeping God-like watch over the unfolding tragedy of Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan, and mimicking the way Daisy’s disembodied face haunted the men who loved her.
I also remember that Mr. K.’s voice was particularly deep and soothing and that even though I adored his class, it was sometimes difficult to stay awake in that period, which immediately followed lunch. So, I have to assume that one of the reasons the imagery stuck with me as the rest of the novel and almost everything else I read that year faded in my memory like a long neglected and weathered billboard, is because of the eyes on the front cover. Not to judge the book by them or anything, but it turns out covers really do matter.
That’s why I am so excited to introduce to you the cover art for my newest book, coming out in just a couple of weeks. It wasn’t designed before the book was finished, but I think it does capture it really well and I couldn’t be happier with how it turned out.
Fitzgerald must have felt much the same way. The final cover didn’t have universal appeal. Ernest Hemingway, for one, thought it was garish. The Great Gatsby has been published with a few different covers over the years, including one featuring Leonardo Dicaprio, but the original always seems to make a comeback, and it is certainly the most recognized.
Whether the cover of my newest novel will ever become an iconic image remains to be seen. It probably depends on whether the book, in years to come, will be studied in English classes and will be in contention for becoming the Great American Novel. I don’t know that my aspirations are quite that high. But it does, I think, have a pretty nice cover.