In the world of illustration the name Walter Baumhofer resonates with a respectful gravitas. His cover paintings from the golden era of pulp magazines are among the genre’s most iconic images. A creative ambition elevated his reputation beyond the low-paying pulps and into the higher-paying slick magazine industry. His story illustrations appeared in the top national circulation magazines. The design and execution of his work reflected an impressive combination of sensational brushwork with a theatrical flair for composing striking scenes of rugged heroes, steadfast women, and intriguing villains. Although today he is most renowned as a pulp artist, the actual number of years he worked in that field is but one chapter in his long creative life.
Walter Martin Baumhofer was born November 1, 1904, in Brooklyn, NY, to his German immigrant parents who’d come to America in 1890. At age 13, Baumhofer attended Brooklyn’s Commercial High School, an all-boy school with a reputation for academic excellence. Many families wanted their children to attend, which meant his freshman class was crowded with more than 300 pupils, yet he was elected Class President, and was Valedictorian at his graduation. Such popular acclaim reflects the natural star quality of his outstanding personality.
According to the artist, “I was lucky enough to attend the only high school in NYC with a really good art teacher, who hauled me up in front of the class and told me I could draw if I tried. He was right. He opened up a new world for me. I sometimes wonder what I’d be doing if I hadn’t been given that early encouragement.” Baumhofer illustrated the school newsletters and yearbooks. In 1921 he joined a citywide student poster competition for a community pageant to celebrate post-war cultural diversity. He won first prize, the St. Gauden’s Medal, and a scholarship to the School of Art at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. His poster was printed and displayed in shop windows throughout the city.
In the summer of 1922, as a 17-year-old full of the irrepressible gumption of youth, he submitted unsolicited cover illustrations to his favorite magazine, Adventure. His work was rejected, which he faced with a cheerful enthusiasm typical of his character, and was proud of corresponding with a professional magazine editor about how best to improve his work.
From 1923 to 1925 he attended Pratt, where he received excellent art training. Along with the teaching staff, the school also conducted seminars, lectures, and critiques with visiting giants of illustration such as Norman Rockwell, Dean Cornwell, Franklin Booth, Pruett Carter, and Charles Dana Gibson. In his senior year the charismatic student was again elected Class President.
After graduation Baumhofer worked as a freelance commercial artist. His first client was his “old” acquaintance, the art editor at Adventure, who hired him to draw pen-and-ink story illustrations for the Christmas issue. According to the artist, “This was rather like having a gold nugget fall right into your pocket.” He went on to contribute over 700 pen-and-ink story illustrations to the pulps. By 1928 he had moved up the pay scale from a pen-and-ink artist to one of the top cover artists.
On June 28, 1930, he married the artist and former Pratt classmate, Alureda Leach (1903-1993). Although the Great Depression had arrived, both artists were able to find work, but as time went on industries were devastated, which reduced advertising budgets, which reduced publishing, and subsequently jobs for illustrators. By 1932 it was nearly impossible to make ends meet. According to the artist, “During the Depression my wife and I were living in the Village and down to one month’s rent. Like any sensible young squirt, instead of paying the landlord, I took a chance and invested $30 to hire a model and paint a rather more detailed speculative cover for [pulp fiction publishers] Street & Smith. They were crazy about it. The general reaction from the top brass was overwhelming, and they hired me to paint covers of Doc Savage and Pete Rice. That pretty much ended the Depression for me.”
One striking quality in Baumhofer’s work is the authenticity of his details. If he envisioned a scene that needed a Thompson machine gun, he would find one and make careful studies. In his pursuit of the genuine the artist visited hospitals, banquet halls, castles, ships, zoos, and prisons to make reference snapshots and sketches. Although pulp covers were mainly designed for high impact, the detail in Baumhofer’s work was an outgrowth of his sincere visual curiosity.
In 1935 he began to sell story illustrations to Liberty Magazine. By the summer of 1936 he had more than enough higher-paying assignments from general interest magazines to continue working for the pulps. Two years later, he joined the American Artists Agency, owned by Celia Mendelsohn and her brother Sidney Mendelsohn. They represented top artists, such as Tom Lovell, John Clymer, Walter Beach Humphrey, R. G. Harris, and Ernest Chiriacka. The Mendelsohn’s provided a vital middle ground between the conflicting needs of independent artists and corporate clients. Over the next three decades their agency sold over 700 Baumhofer illustrations to slick magazines and national brand name advertisers.
By 1942 he had achieved his childhood dream: he was now a celebrated commercial artist. Although he was a player in the big league of illustration, he had to compete for jobs with the best in the business. The only difference between him and artists like Al Dorne, Dean Cornwell, and Norman Rockwell, was they were more experienced, more accomplished, more celebrated, and commanded high prices. Nevertheless, he held his own and established a significant reputation. Baumhofer joined the Society of Illustrators and rubbed elbows with the most celebrated artists and, perhaps even more importantly, the most powerful art directors in the industry.
During the month of December 1943 the artist had a one-man show at the Society of Illustrators. According to the artist, “Over a hundred people attended, and the punch was marvelous. I particularly remember Otto Soglow being there, and Arthur ‘Brownie’ Brown. It was a smashing success, if I do say so myself.”
During WWII, the Society of Illustrators organized a program with the U.S.O. to mobilize 400 volunteer artists to visit hospitals and draw portraits of wounded servicemen. The project was a miraculous and heartwarming success. Doctors reported that patients experienced improved self-esteem after posing for a portrait by a professional artist. A free photostatic reproduction of each drawing was mailed to the serviceman’s grateful family, something that also did wonders for war-time morale. Proud to serve on this project, Baumhofer drew hundreds of portraits during his visits to recovery wards in NYC hospitals. The Red Cross estimated that U.S.O. artists drew over four million portraits of recovering WWII servicemen.
In 1950 Baumhofer earned $18,000 (equivalent of over $177,000 today) with the American Artists Agency, his highest annual income. The artist playfully attributed his success in this field to the fact that he “finally learned to do a pretty girl.”
During the Eisenhower years the novelty of television attracted more advertisers than the publishers could, so the budgets at magazines declined. When the top illustrators were forced to accept lower fees, there was barely enough room for all 12 of the founding fathers of the Famous Artists School.
By 1959 Baumhofer was producing less work for slick magazines and more work for men’s adventure magazines. According to the artist, “Magazines lost something when they switched from illustrators to photographers. In the old days, the magazines were escape reading, but nowadays people’s escape reading is television.” In a 1963 letter, Celia Mendelsohn wrote, “Dear Walter, All I can say is this is the worst year we have ever had in the history of our business, and I have never worked harder. I’m sorry, but I'm going nuts in this business.”
Traditional narrative painting had grown out of fashion, replaced by photography and the graphic style of Pop Art, so Baumhofer’s art career in popular culture publishing was over. Undaunted, the artist kept busy painting portraits, landscapes, and scenes of the Old West for exhibition in fine art galleries.
In 1980 he was thrilled to be “re-discovered” by fans of pulp magazines. He was the guest of honor at conventions and was interviewed for fanzines. In his last interview he said, “These works represent my whole life. They bring back so many memories of times long past, of models, assignments, stories, editors, and long hours of work, of days when illustration was alive and vigorous. Those were good, exciting times. I’ve always felt fortunate in that I’ve been able to do something I really enjoyed all my life.”
Walter Baumhofer died at the age of 82 on September 23, 1987. Although he has been gone a good many years, his art has captured for all time an inspiring glimmer of his colorful, larger-than-life personality. As an active member of the Society of Illustrators, whose one-man-show was a high point in his life, we can be sure Walter Baumhofer would be delighted with the honor of his induction to the Hall of Fame.
Author, Walter Baumhofer, The Illustrated Press
© Society of Illustrators