Hill-Billy in High Heels! (and not much else) (Hamilton & Co paperback, 1951)
Although I am descended from a long line of farmers and coal miners and spent the first 18 years of my life in a semi-rural area, I feel I am now a fairly civilised, urbane fellow. I don’t eat with my fingers (if anyone is looking), I wear shoes (most of the time), and my grammar is impeccable (well, impeccable-ish).
But I do have a passing familiarity with hillbillies, rednecks and other “sons of the soil” (as Dr. Hibbert would say), both in real life and popular culture. That’s one reason why the cover of the 1951 UK paperback edition of Hill-Billy in High Heels! appeals to me. The other reasons? Sexy pinup art, complete with iconic “tattered dress”; British emulation of U.S. pop culture; interesting and amusing cover text. A veritable smorgasbord of analysis-worthy elements!
Hamilton & Co. (sometimes designated as “Hamilton & Co [Stafford]”) was a British publisher of popular literature from (at least) the mid-1940s through the Fifties (a number of companies have used permutations of this name, so I can’t be any more precise than that). The Wikipedia entry on Gordon Landsborough categorises their output as “science fiction, crime, and romance,” although other genres—like Westerns and adventure—seem to have been added later. Another source indicates they were the publisher of the Panther Books line of genre paperbacks, and Hamilton & Co also issued magazines such as “True Gangster Stories,” “Futuristic Stories,” and “True Life Stories.”
[As an aside, a fair number of British faux-“American” genre paperbacks were reprinted in the USA—as previously discussed here —and Hill-Billy in High Heels! was issued at least twice in actual Hillybillyland, as Hill Billy in High Heels (no hyphen or exclamation point but retaining the space between “Hill” and “Billy”) by Stallion Books (#201) and Uni Books (#65). A new cover painting was used, one that more closely matched the realistic style then popular on American paperbacks (the same art was re-purposed for the unrelated Beacon Books’ Call Her Wanton, in 1957). ]
Although “house names” (authorial attribution controlled by a publisher, as opposed to a nom de plume or “pen name” used by a writer to disguise his/her true identity) were not unknown in the U.S.A. (especially in series fiction, such as “Nancy Drew,” “Doc Savage,” “Hardy Boys,” etc.), it appears UK genre publishers were particularly enamoured of this practice.
The putative author of Hill-Billy in High Heels! is “Jeff Bogar,” a byline utilised by at least four different writers (Harry Hossent, Ronald Wills Thomas, Leslie T. Barnard, and Stephen Francis). The surname “Bogar,” while it evokes “Humphrey Bogart” and thus has a hard-boiled connotation, is actually rather common and there are even real people named “Jeff Bogar” (but none of them wrote this novel).
The text on the cover of Hill-Billy in High Heels! attempts to “brand” Jeff Bogar, identifying this novel as “Fifth of a Series of Real Life Yarns” and—apparently—citing two of these previous works (Cop Hater and Ruthless Killer). An amusing alternative interpretation of this text would suggest Jeff Bogar is a “Cop Hater” and “Ruthless Killer”! After all, Hill-Billy in High Heels! is the fifth of a series, and yet only two previous titles are listed, so how are we to know these are book titles rather than pejorative adjectival descriptions of writer Jeff Bogar’s anti-social personality? I suppose printing “Jeff Bogar, author of “Cop Hater” and “Ruthless Killer” would have taken up too much space, although since Bogar is already credited once on the cover, the tag-line across the bottom could have read “By the Author of Cop Hater—Ruthless Killer” and everyone (well, me at least) would have been satisfied.
Although this edition has no other tag-lines (the U.S. paperback versions added the phrase “She was sixteen…and true to the code of the hills…ripe for love!”), some mention should be made of a couple of typographical elements. The exclamation point after the title—omitted, as mentioned earlier, on the U.S. editions—adds a sense of urgency and excitement to Hill-Billy in High Heels! Somewhat surprisingly, not too many novels or motion pictures utilised exclamation points (or question marks, for that matter) in their actual titles (tag-lines, of course, were loaded with such punctuation), although there were a few. Dames Spell Trouble!, Don’t Make Me Kill! , I Like My Women Tough!, and You Don’t Say! (Some Dame!! by Nat Karta even used two exclamation points!!) are more or less contemporary to Hill-Billy in High Heels!. Yet those are all hard-boiled crime titles that seem to lend themselves more to exclamatory emphasis than Bogar’s rural melodrama. Hill-Billy in High Heels! simply isn’t dramatic enough to warrant an exclamation point.
Another curious textual aspect to the cover of Hill-Billy in High Heels! is the obviously hand-scrawled “(150,000 SALE)” addendum beneath the first instance of Bogar’s name. Such a claim—if true—indicates this must be a subsequent printing of the novel, with the cover hastily updated to ballyhoo the book’s popularity. Similar statements were not unknown on American paperbacks, although appearing mostly on legitimate best-sellers. UK genre publishers often promoted their “star” authors in this way, although the significance of the numbers is not always clear (and their validity is questionable): numerous novels by Hank Janson bear “One Million Sale,” “Half Million Sale,” “Over Eight Million Sale,” even “13 Million Sale” on their covers, but it’s not known whether these reflect the copies sold of that title or a Janson-cumulative sales total (to that date). Ben Sarto’s books also sometimes had “Million Sale” on the covers, and I Don’t Get It (by “Spike Gordon”) had one of the clearest such tag-lines on its cover, “Total Sales of This Outstanding Author Now Total 75,000 Copies.” One would imagine “150,000 Sale” refers to Bogar-authored titles rather than Hill-Billy in High Heels! but, as noted, since this data was clearly added after the cover art/text were complete (and in a not-very professional manner), there is still some ambiguity.
The cover art itself is attractive and well-executed. Although unsigned, this resembles the work of J. Pollack (not to be confused with Jackson Pollock), a prolific cover artist whose work is not quite as “realistic” as that of famous UK paperback cover artist Reginald Heade (or even H.W. Perl), but who is still a more than competent stylist (indeed, “stylised” in a good description of Pollack’s work). The most unusual aspect of the cover is its bucolic setting, rather rare on British genre paperbacks of the post-WWII era. There were plenty of images of sexy women, but few of these scantily-clad ladies were depicted standing in the woods near a rustic cabin.
The cover art does more or less accurately reflect the genre of the novel, which (on the back cover of the U.S. edition published by Stallion Books) is described as “A delightfully unusual novel of backwoods feudin’ and sinnin’ that reminds one of Tobacco Road.”
The reference to Tobacco Road is telling, since Erskine Caldwell’s 1932 novel was a highly-successful, early example of hillbilly literature (Caldwell later returned to the topic with God’s Little Acre). Two years later, Al Capp’s comic strip “Li’l Abner” debuted, and put a humourous spin on the topic, also giving us many fine examples of what the Stallion back cover refers to as “a half-clad backwoods beauty.” Almost invariably, hillbilly pop culture contained images of lovely, buxom, healthy young women wearing off-the-shoulder blouses and the ubiquitous “tattered skirt” (or dress or britches). Think “Daisy Mae” from “L’il Abner,” Elly Mae Clampett (“The Beverly Hillbillies,” although she usually wore jeans), Daisy Duke (“Dukes of Hazzard,” inventor of the cut-off jeans shorts that bear her name), “Babe, Darling of the Hills” (a distaff L’il Abner, drawn by Boody Rogers), and so on. No matter that every other character in hillbilly pop culture is mentally and/or physically deficient, there has got to be at least one piece of eye candy in the clan.
[A minor digression—Google searches of “tattered britches/skirt/dress” indicate that “britches” is probably the oldest phrase of the 3, and usually appears in reference to poor people, most often urban dwellers. Tattered dress/skirt is more sartorially apt when talking about hillbilly babes, although I suppose Miss Havisham’s costume would qualify, and there was even a (non-hillbilly) feature film released in 1957 entitled The Tattered Dress. What I also found interesting is that “tattered” dresses are a real “thing” now, both as costumes and (it seems) “normal” fashionable dress for the younger set.
I thought I recalled a Robert Benchley article about the presence of a “tattered britches outfit” in a Hollywood jungle film, but several hours’ research failed to turn up that quote (on the positive side, it did allow me to revisit Benchley’s wonderful writing). In any case, it is something of a trope in films and other pop culture examples to have women who are fugitives, castaways, involved in natural or manmade disasters, and/or are otherwise subjected to costume-abusing suitations sporting tattered outfits. This seems logical enough, given what they’ve been through (plus, it exposes more of their bodies, a selling point).
Pop culture hillbilly women, on the other hand, apparently wear tattered dresses because they live in poverty and can’t afford new outfits. Oh, and because it exposes more of their bodies. This particular novel’s title tosses in the seeming contradiction of a “hill-billy” woman in the standard tattered dress who is also wearing incongruous “high heels.” Perhaps the mention of “high heels” is just to identify the titular character as female (also…alliteration!), rather than a suggestion of upward social mobility. Based on the back cover description of the plot of Bogar’s novel, the book isn’t about a “hillbilly” who becomes rich and famous and moves to the big city where she wears high-heeled shoes. ]
While relatively widespread in the USA from the late-Thirties onward, the “hillbilly” or “white trash” genre—focused on the allegedly outré antics of residents of Appalachia and the Ozarks in the USA—would have been considered “exotica” in the UK. The cover of Hill-billy in High Heels! combines a familiar, exploitative image of a sexy woman wearing not overmuch clothing, a non-standard (for UK paperbacks) exotic setting, a catchy and alliterative title, and claims it was all written by a “Cop Hater” and “Ruthless Killer” (alright, I deliberately misunderstood that last one)! The combination seems hard to resist—no wonder it had “150,000 sale.”