Margaret Brundage, Grand Mistress of the Weird Tales Cover

During the 1930s, getting your story illustrated on the cover of Weird Tales by Margaret Brundage was a prize coveted by most of the magazine’s contributors, and Howard was certainly no exception. There is little doubt that he would purposefully insert a scene of a nude or nearly nude damsel in distress, often writhing at the business end of a whip, to give his story an edge in the race for the cover painting.  Other authors were also on the bandwagon  and  frequently hastily added or modified a scene just to catch the attention of editor Farnsworth Wright, who personally selected the scene for the cover illustration.

Howard was fan of Brundage’s work and she of his. Reportedly, she was deeply saddened upon learning of his sudden death. In these two short letters to Oriental Stories and Weird Tales, Howard expresses his admiration for her work.

Brundage did a fine job in the cover illustration for the current Oriental Stories. I have only had time to read “Jungle Girl” so far. It is needless to praise Miller; his stories speak for themselves. I used to read his earlier work in the American Boy, and never dreamed that some day I’d have the honor of seeing my name in a magazine alongside his. I have only a single kick to make about “Jungle Girl” and that isn’t to be taken as a criticism of the story’s merit or the author’s style. But Lord Bolton’s end, while dramatic and gratifyingly gory, was a bit too sudden and painless to satisfy me. He was too ornery to deserve an easy finish. I’d like to have let him kick and howl a while with a tulwar through his lower abdomen.

To Oriental Stories, ca. Spring 1932.

Enthusiasm impels me to pause from burning spines off cactus for my drouth-bedeviled goats long enough to give three slightly dust-choked cheers for the April cover illustration. The color combination is vivid and attractive, the lady is luscious, and altogether I think it’s the best thing Mrs. Brundage has done since she illustrated my “Black Colossus.” And that’s no depreciation of the covers done between these master-pictures. I must also express my appreciation to Mr. Napoli, who has done a splendid job of illustrating my serial [The Hour of the Dragon]. I hope the readers have liked the yarn as well as I liked writing it.

 To Weird Tales, ca. May 1936.

Margaret Brundage was born Margaret Hedda Johnson in Chicago, Illinois on December 9, 1900.  At age eight, her father died and her mother and grandmother were left to raise her. She was of Swedish and Irish ancestry and was raised as a Christian Scientist.

She attended McKinley High School in Chicago, where she was editor and art director of the school’s newspaper. Walt Disney was one of her classmates and drew cartoons for the school paper. She graduated, but Disney dropped out and tried unsuccessfully to join the Army (he was too young).  She then studied fashion design at the Art Institute of Chicago from 1921 – 1923, and Disney was once again her classmate. This time, he graduated but she didn’t. Brundage later said that her failure to graduate was due to her poor lettering skills. She soon found work as a freelance fashion illustrator for newspapers and the local fashion industry. 

In 1927, she married Myron “Slim” Brundage, a former hobo, who had an alcohol problem, dabbled in radical politics and was generally an oddball.  A house painter by trade, he didn’t work very often, leaving his wife as the primary breadwinner. Two years after they were married, she gave birth to their only child, a son named Kerlynn. She continued working off and on in the fashion field, but longed to make the leap from black and white illustration to color. During the depths of the Great Depression, Brundage was having trouble finding work and ol’ Slim wasn’t any help. So with a son and invalid mother to support, she decided to call on Chicago based periodical publishers. She hit pay-dirt when Popular Fiction Publishing Company, publisher of Weird Tales and Oriental Stories took note of her work.

Brundage got her chance to illustrate in color and did her first cover art, which appeared on the cover of the Spring 1932 issue of Oriental Stories (later known as The Magic Carpet Magazine). Soon she was doing covers for Weird Tales – the first one appeared on the September 1932 issue – and between June 1933 and August 1936 she drew 39 consecutive covers for the magazine, nine of them depicting Conan stories. Brundage did a total of 66 original Weird Tales covers (several of these were reprinted in the waning years of the magazine). She was paid $90 for each cover she did and those racy covers are credited with saving the magazine during the dark days of the Depression.

Her art usually featured “damsels in distress” in various states of undress, often with bits of gossamer fabric strategically placed. Her partially nude flagellation scenes were especially shocking and controversial. She considered the cover of the September 1933 issue of Weird Tales her most risque. The scene depicted is from a Conan yarn, “The Slithering Shadow,” and risque may be an understatement. Little wonder her covers were extremely popular with the male readers of Weird Tales.

Signing her work “M. Brundage,” readers believed she was man. In October 1934 Farnsworth Wright unwisely revealed that the “M” stood for Margaret, and suddenly his office was flooded with complaints.  It seems it was okay for a man to draw those nude women trapped in sexually vulnerable situations, but if a woman did, that was simply outrageous!

Our old friend L. Sprague de Camp often claimed in print that Brundage used her daughters as models; a myth that stills persists today. De Camp even wrote this passage in his 1975 biography of H. P. Lovecraft titled Lovecraft: A Biography.

From 1933 to 1938, Mrs. Margaret Brundage had a near-monopoly on painting cover illustrations for Weird Tales.Mrs. Brundage earned the title “Queen of the Pulps” with her pictures of naked heroines being tortured, raped, and disemboweled, Mrs. Brundage used her own daughters as models … Weird Tales never designated one of Lovecraft’s stories as the subject for a cover picture. Perhaps because there were practically no women in Lovecraft’s tales to be personated by the shapely Misses Brundage.

This was published after Chicago based pulp authority Bob Weinberg had set de Camp straight in a letter published in Savage Tales #5  (July 1974). He had personally interviewed Brundage and knew she did have not have daughters. In reality Brundage relied on her imagination, a personal library of clippings, and an occasional female friend. Her layabout husband served as a model for any masculine characters. She was also skilled in the art of anatomy and even taught a class at a local art school on the subject for several years.

Her status as premier cover artist for the magazine ended after 1938, when the Weird Tales offices moved from Chicago to New York and the magazine was bought by a syndicate. The great distance to the New York Weird Tales offices was one of the reasons for this change. While Wright was willing to accept her work, her chalk pastels smudged in postal transit – when the offices were in Chicago, she was able to hand deliver them. Another factor that caused Brundage’s nude paintings to disappear from the covers of Weird Tales was a decency standard imposed by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia that affected pulp magazines sold throughout New York City. In LaGuardia’s opinion, the lurid and violent covers were imperiling the morals of the citizenry. Virgil Finlay, who was primarily an interior artist, stepped-up and assumed the bulk of her cover duties. However, between 1940 and 1945, she did manage to do a handful of covers for The Unique Magazine, all of them considerably toned down in comparison to her 1933-1938 Weird Tales covers. Her last original cover was for the January 1945 issue.

In 1939, after suffering twelve years of her less-than-stable husband’s excessive drinking and neglect, she was granted a divorce. But her joy was short lived as her mother died in 1940. Tragedy struck again in 1972 when her only child passed away.

Brundage continued to draw after her long term stint at Weird Tales, often appearing at science fiction conventions and local art fairs. Unfortunately she was taken advantage of by dishonest Weird Tales fans at these events where some of her original period works were stolen. Needless to say, she never fully recovered financially from the loss of a steady paycheck from Weird Tales and her later years were spent in relative poverty. Still, she worked diligently at her craft until her death on April 9, 1976.

Acclaimed for her portrayals of the female form and her use of color and background, Brundage has been criticized for her shortcomings in depicting male heroes. But I suspect those critics are few and far between. She was a top pulp artist of her day and infused her work with a life all its own, bringing a style and aplomb to the covers of Weird Tales that was unmatched by any of her contemporaries or successors. Indeed, Margaret Brundage set the high standards for the portrayal of “women in peril” that still inspire the illustrators of today.