January 6-12, 2005
Jim Warren Meets Vampirella
He built a multimillion dollar empire out of monster magazines, plastic skulls and dirt from Count Dracula's estate, only to lose it to real-life terrors. But now, Jim Warren is ready to rise again, along with the woman who inspired it all.
"What would you say if I told you I could solve all of your problems?" The man asking the question is Jim Warren, and from the stern look on his face, he's completely serious.
"I can do it, you know," the 74-year-old continues. "Tomorrow, you could have no financial problems. You won't have to worry about reporting to a job or paying bills. No taxes, either. Your children will be taken care of. What would you say to that?"
I'm braced for a business proposition. If anyone knows about launching a successful venture, it'd be Warren.
In 1958, Warren took $9,000 and turned it into a magazine with the improbable title Famous Monsters of Filmland. The magazine was full of black-and-white photos of classic movie monsters (Dracula, The Wolf Man, Frankenstein's monster), pun-filled news bites, and creepy makeup tips. Famous Monsters was a powerful mind-virus, infecting key members of the baby boomer generation guys like Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Stephen King, Joe Dante, Gene Simmons and Alice Cooper before spreading outward. Maybe you're a fan, too.
Warren, who grew up as a middle-class kid in East Oak Lane, has enjoyed one of the strangest publishing careers in history. Famous Monsters and its companion products and horror magazines made Warren millions and propelled him to the high life in 1960s and 1970s Manhattan celebrity-packed parties, European jaunts, a house in the Hamptons only to have it vanish in the 1980s through a strange set of circumstances. Now, 20 years later, he's back with another business proposition, and it seems aimed at me.
"So, do you want me to solve all of your problems?"
Sure, I say.
"Fine," he replies. "Tomorrow, I'm going to come over to your house and put a bullet in your head."
Every time I sat down to talk to Jim Warren, he would have a printed artifact on hand to propel the conversation. This was no accident. Warren is a methodical guy; a big fan of lists and notes and files. During one afternoon session, I caught a glimpse of a note he had written to himself. Tell Duane about this? it said. To my dismay, the sentence was crossed out.
One of the first artifacts Warren showed me was a photo of a pretty young brunette wearing bobby socks and penny loafers. She was posed with a puppy on a set of cement steps.
"This is Gloria," Warren says. "We were crazy about each other."
He met Gloria Reif in Atlantic City in the summer of 1944 he was 14, she was only 12. "I fell instantly and permanently in love with her," says Warren. "Gloria was stunning, with beautiful long black hair that swirled around her face, thick bangs falling over her pretty forehead. We spent our teenaged years together, very much in love."
But Jim Warren (he dropped the surname "Taubman" when he turned 21; "Warren" is his middle name) had other passions, too. At first, he was dedicated to art. As a young boy, he'd been mesmerized by Will Eisner's legendary The Spirit comics that ran in the Sunday newspapers, which he would spread out in his house on North Park Avenue and savor. He spent hours re-drawing his favorite characters on pieces of shirt cardboard from the dry cleaners. Through his years at Central High School, Warren drew a comic strip for the high school newspaper called Lou Sleef in which he'd hide secret messages to Reif.
Warren changed gears when he entered Penn, channeling his art jones into architecture studies. That was halted by the Korean War; afterward, Warren returned to Philly to set up his one-man advertising boutique. With no wife or kids to worry about he and Gloria had gone their separate ways right before Penn Warren was free to pour everything into his work. He designed and wrote ads featuring Caloric appliances, which impressed executives at the Philly-based national manufacturer so much that the company hired the 23-year-old as its in-house advertising man for $120 a week. There, Warren met and palled around with fellow employee Thacher Longstreth and enjoyed a downtown Philly bachelor's life, 1950s-style: supper clubs, martinis, jazz clubs on Sansom Street. Around that time, Warren became mesmerized by a new magazine from a young Chicago publisher named Hugh Hefner.
"I studied how Hefner crafted Playboy to make the public like what he liked," Warren explains. "And he managed to tap into the young readership who shared his vision."
Warren decided to quit Caloric and try publishing his own magazine. "I went to the bank and applied for a business loan," Warren says, "and they looked at me, this guy with no collateral, no equipment, no nothing."
Somehow, Warren convinced the loan officer to buck bank policy and float the 26-year-old a line of credit: $9,000. The result was After Hours, a Playboy knockoff that Warren today calls "awful." By the fourth issue, Warren had made contact with Forrest J. "Forry" Ackerman, aka "4E," aka "Dr. Acula," an L.A.-based literary agent who was trying to place his science fiction writer clients in the magazine. In After Hours No. 4, Ackerman, who is credited with coining the phrase "sci-fi," contributed the text to a spicy photo spread called "Girls From Science-Fiction Movies."
As that issue started to appear on newsstands in late 1957, a Philadelphia district attorney candidate who was trailing in the polls noticed that another city's DA gleaned tons of press by fighting obscene materials. Suddenly, our DA candidate vowed to do the same thing and found a handy target in a certain East Oak Lane publisher. After Hours was held up as a men's mag version of Tropic of Cancer, even though the raciest pic in the issue was a topless shot of Bettie Page.
"I still remember the Inquirer headline," says Warren. ""Porn Merchant with Million-Dollar Business Arrested.' Never mind that I had about $45 in my bank account at the time."
Here's another Jim Warren artifact: a black-and-white photograph of kids wearing monster masks, posed on the stoop of an inner-city row home.
"This was taken by Diane Arbus," Warren says proudly. At the time it was taken, Arbus was a struggling photographer who was living in Greenwich Village and desperate for assignments. A friend introduced her to Warren, who promised her $50 if she'd take a photo of kids dressing up like monsters for a magazine he was publishing. Arbus went on to great acclaim in later years; then again, so did the magazine.
That magazine, of course, was Famous Monsters of Filmland. In the wake of the After Hours debacle, Warren was looking for another publishing project. He had been noticing a weird social trend: A Philly TV station had scored a deal to show 1930s Universal horror movies late at night, and young kids were bugging their parents to let them stay up to watch. The show was called Shock Theater and was hosted by a Philadelphia actor named John Zacherle. Horror historian David J. Skal has called Shock Theater "the inaugural event in Monster Culture, a phenomenon of horror-movie hoopla that began in the late '50s and continued into the mid-'60s."
Late in 1957, Warren remembered that Ackerman had a vast collection of movie stills. Why not take a bunch of those, whip up some accompanying stories, and do a one-shot magazine to cash in on the burgeoning monster mania? "I called up Forry and told him that he was about to become the editor of a magazine called Famous Monsters of Filmland," recalls Warren.
"And Forry said, "Do I have to put my name on it?'"
It was the furthest thing from a sure hit; at least After Hours was modeled after a proven success. But a monster magazine? Another loan officer had to be browbeaten to extend Warren another $9,000 line of credit. Nobody wanted to advertise in it. Distributors bitched about placement what was this, a movie magazine or a comic book? The first issue was such a homegrown effort, Warren himself appeared on the front cover. He pulled a rubber Frankenstein's monster mask over his head, donned a black tux, whipped an ascot around his neck, and convinced his then-girlfriend to pose with him. It was the goofiest idea in the world kind of a parody of Playboy, filtered through the old Universal monster movies. And, oh yeah the magazine's on-sale date happened to coincide with the worst snowstorm of 1958.
Despite all of this, the first issue was an immediate smash. A kid would buy a copy, have it confiscated by a parent or teacher, then run out and buy another copy. Director Joe Dante (Gremlins, Looney Tunes: Back in Action) estimates that he bought eight copies of the first issue alone. It is unknown how many parents and educators unwittingly boosted FM's newsstand sales.
A 10-year-old Steven Spielberg in Scottsdale, Ariz., read Famous Monsters then begged his mother, Leah, to pressure-cook 30 cans of pitted cherries in her kitchen. The idea was that the explosion of red slime would drape the cabinets and the walls, and ooze and drip in cool ways that could be captured on Super 8 film. (His mother actually agreed to do it.)
Stephen King has been a longtime fan of Famous Monsters. "Ask anyone who has been associated with the fantasy-horror-science fiction field in the last 30 years about this magazine, and you'll get a laugh, a flash of the eyes and a stream of bright memories I guarantee it," wrote King in his memoir, On Writing.
"I cut my pointy teeth on Famous Monsters of Filmland," says Jan Strnad, a former Disney screenwriter and horror novelist. "Later, in college, my first professional sales were comics scripts to Warren's Creepy and Eerie magazines. The $45 he paid for a story exactly equaled my monthly rent."
Famous Monsters was genius because it targeted kids who had just made a huge developmental leap from little children who were terrified of the monster under the bed to little terrors who thought Dracula, Frankenstein and The Wolf Man were totally cool. Boys went from begging mommy to tuck them in at night to begging mommy to buy red food coloring and light corn syrup, because that made the most realistic-looking blood.
"Forry and I had a curse or a blessing: We both knew how to talk to 10-year-olds," Warren explains. "There are probably some psychiatrists who'd say we peaked at 10 and it's a case of retarded development. But more important, I genuinely liked our readers. They thought like I did."
Famous Monsters fans are more familiar with the magazine's punning frontman Ackerman. For years, people assumed Ackerman was the editor, while Warren was merely the money man. This was not the case. "For almost every single issue," says Warren, "I acted as editor, publisher and art director." Every issue was laid out on Warren's queen-sized bed, first in his bedroom at his parents' house in East Oak Lane, and then whatever bed he happened to be occupying in Manhattan once he moved the editorial offices to New York City. (His business operations always remained in Philadelphia, however.) The ritual was the same: Warren would gather notepads, file folders, black-and-white movie stills, commissioned artwork, memos, layout ideas, as well as pens, pencils, paper clips, ruler, Scotch tape, masking tape, aspirin, coffee, chocolate bars, peanuts and potato chips.
You have to see a copy of Famous Monsters of Filmland to believe it. It's like reading a magazine from a planet ruled by 10-year-olds. Take issue No. 36, December 1965, cover price 50 cents, with an illustration of The Mummy by Vic Prezio. The top cover line:
"At Last! The Famous HOUSE of WAX "Face of Fire' Revealed Inside!"
Which is something we've all been waiting to see, right?
Inside a yellow circle is the promise:
"Your 50 cents REFUNDED See Page 97."
Inside was a coupon good for 50 cents off "any merchandise advertised in this magazine." (We'll get to that in a minute.)
The magazine itself is full of photos Warren believed that the mix should be 75 percent graphic, 25 percent editorial, since kids were going to look at the photos first, anyway. But the text creeps up on you, too, and that's what eventually earned the loyalty of an estimated 3 million kids a year. Famous Monsters was written in another language, governed not by grammar rules but puns. "You Axed For It" was a popular photo request feature; the letters column was called "Fang Mail." Ackerman himself hailed from "Horrorwood, Karloffornia." In FM-speak, you didn't reminisce; you "strolled down Mummery lane." Kids who ordinarily couldn't give two hoots about English class discovered the sheer delight of messing around with words.
Then there were the ads. This is the other side of the peculiar genius of Jim Warren. After advertisers turned up their noses at FM, Warren decided that he would generate his own advertisements. Thus the Captain Company was born. "I went back to the same idea of "If I like it, then they'll like it,'" says Warren. He scoured the country for items befitting a journal called Famous Monsters, and he found them: Venus's fly traps that "actually eat insects and bits of meat!" (Only $1, plus 25 cents for postage and handling). "Human Skull! Unbelievably Real! Deepest Eye Sockets!" (Only $1.25, plus 25 cents for postage and handling). "ANTS Real Ones, too In Their Own ANT FARM!" ($2.98, we pay postage). Not to mention countless 16 mm horror movies, projectors, rubber masks, books, plastic monster models, iron-ons, records and of course, back issues of your favorite Warren magazines.
By 1959, this unique marriage of a 10-year-old sensibility and a 40-year-old businessman's savvy would make the 29-year-old Warren a lot of money.
My favorite set of Jim Warren artifacts came via Federal Express. By the time they'd arrived, we'd spent a lot of time together, so he trusted me enough to loan me some rare copies of a particular Warren title. "If you lose these, I know some Italian gentlemen who will find you," he warned.
Those rare copies were of Help! magazine, which Warren had been dying to do ever since seeing the first copy of Mad magazine. Help! was edited by comics legend Harvey Kurtzman, the man who had created Mad for publisher William Gaines. The assistant editor at Help! was a young Gloria Steinem, who had great success booking celebs on the cover, including Woody Allen, Elaine May and Mike Nichols, Jonathan Winters, Sid Caesar, Mort Sahl. (Later, a young Terry Gilliam would join the staff as an associate editor.) But unlike Mad -- and unlike FM, for that matter Help! was geared to adults. It was meant to be the humor magazine for the Camelot generation, and for a while, there was nothing like it.
"They're not timely," Warren warned me. "The humor is very 1960."
This is true; there were plenty of jokes I didn't quite get somebody needs to tell me about Jack La Rue. But Help! was also way ahead of its time. Its running photo skits, called fumetti, with real photographs and word balloons, could have served as the blueprint for Saturday Night Live sketches. And in retrospect, Spy magazine seems to have ripped its photo-driven "Separated at Birth" and "Party Poop" formats right from the early pages of Help! Underground comics didn't exist until years later, but underground cartoonists Robert Crumb and Art Spiegelman contributed early pieces to Help!
The cover shoots were legendary, too. Often celebrities like Sid Caesar or Mort Sahl would agree to stay for only 30 minutes to be photographed, but they ended up drinking the day away with Warren and his small staff. "Jackie Gleason was terrific. He had a drink in his hand during the entire three-hour shoot."
Warren would often collide with the unlikeliest celebrities. One houseguest in his Manhattan penthouse was famed crime-scene photographer Weegee (real name: Usher Fellig). "I took him to dinner one night at the Stage Delicatessen," Warren recalls. "He ordered two sandwiches, two platters, four desserts and another sandwich and cheesecake to go. He then told me he was being evicted from his apartment. I told him, "Sleep in my apartment until you find a new place.' One week stretched into six months. The man was never without a cigar even in bed. I loved him."
"It was an amazing time to be running a magazine in New York," Warren says. "You could work 18 hours and party a few more hours. The sexual revolution had broken open in the early 1960s. I was 29 years old and I had more fun than anybody I know. Work to me was not work. It was a love affair, and I worked in spurts. I did two or three magazines at a time, then took a month or two off. And during that month or two, I'd hop on the Concorde, fly to Paris or London. Not to mention the fun in New York." Years later, Steinem would tell Rolling Stone, "Watch out for [Jim]. He's laid everything except the Atlantic Cable."
The end of Help! came after only a few years the readership wasn't as strong as Warren would have liked, and he ended up taking a $50,000 bath on the venture but signs of the end came early, back in 1961. Kurtzman wanted to run a full-page photo of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann with a word balloon and caption: "Ever get the feeling that the whole world's against you?"
Warren was horrified and begged Kurtzman to reconsider.
"It's OK, Jim," Kurtzman argued. "It's in good taste."
"Harvey," Warren said, "nothing about 6 million Jews dying is in good taste."
Harvey ran the photo and balloon anyway, and it permanently iced the relationship. "I never forgave him for running that and I never forgave myself for letting him run it."
In 1964, Warren Publications released their first comics: Creepy and Eerie, two influential horror anthologies that launched the careers of dozens of artists and writers and inspired countless others. Horror in comic books was discouraged ever since a congressional panel attacked 1950s classics like Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, aiming to protect children from visions of eyeball gouging and rat impaling. (Killjoys.) As a result, there were strict rules about horror content in comics.
Which was fine with Warren. Instead, he launched his horror comics as full-sized magazines. They, too, were instant successes. "When I was growing up, reading monster magazines was our way to rebel," says horror fan Pam Gearheart, 58, of Woolstock, Iowa. "We didn't have sex, drugs or rock 'n' roll yet, but we had Eerie and Creepy and our parents were worried about our interest in all this morbid stuff. What kid can resist worrying their parents?"
In the early 1970s, Warren launched a new anthology horror comic, only with a different kind of host. Forget that geriatric Uncle Creepy and doughboy Eerie; here was a new breed of horror host, someone who dripped blood and sex in equal measure. Here, from the planet Drakulon, was the shocking and alluring Vampirella, a bloodsucking hottie with a pet bat and a barely there costume. Sales spiked like a wooden stake.
Warren carefully crafted Vampi from her trademark thigh-high boots up. First, he enlisted Ackerman to write her debut story, then tapped legendary artist Frank Frazetta to bring her to life. He even had a model in mind. When Warren was first musing over the idea of a female heroine, he started to idly sketch a face. Looking down, he realized whom he had drawn. It was Gloria Reif, his high school girlfriend, whom he hadn't spoken to in more than 20 years.
"There was no way I could keep the memory of that first love out of my head," he says. Warren dug through old photos until he found one of Reif, age 16, sitting on her front step. "That was who Vampirella would look like." Warren never mentioned the inspiration to his writer or artist; he couldn't bring himself to call Reif, either.
Meanwhile, life at Warren Publishing was never dull. One day, Warren was sitting in his Manhattan office when his phone rang. "The FBI is here to see you," his secretary said.
OK, Warren thought, Which wiseass artist is trying to pull a fast one? "Sure, show them in," he replied, then reclined back in his chair, awaiting the punch line.
But there was no punch line. There were two FBI agents out there, and they were not happy. Seems they caught one of Warren's employees trying to smuggle in something from a foreign country. "It was dirt from Dracula's castle," Warren explains. "I had sent an airline stewardess friend over to Transylvania to dig up and crate a couple pounds of dirt from the estate of Vlad the Impaler." A small scoop of the dirt was placed in tiny metal coffins which were hooked to necklaces another genius Captain Company item. "Wear Dirt from Dracula's Castle Around Your Neck!" Says Warren, "After some careful explanation, the G-men decided to let me go with a warning."
Warren also loved screwing with his employees' heads to make a point or to simply amuse himself. Once, Warren was telling Bill DuBay, his new editor at Creepy and Eerie, that you had to be gentle and soul-affirming when reviewing a prospective artist's work.
"They're sensitive creatures," Warren explained. "Look, there's an artist stopping by in a half hour. I'll show you how it's done."
Soon, the artist arrived and carefully laid his portfolio on Warren's desk.
"What?" screamed Warren. "This is absolute shit! This is the worst crap I've ever seen in my life!"
DuBay turned pale, convinced his new boss had lost his mind. (Later, Warren revealed that it had been a setup.) "Jim was pretty hard back then," recalled DuBay years later in Comic Book Artist magazine. "He put me through some pretty serious basic training in every aspect of his magazines."
Once, Rolling Stone asked Warren about his decision to hire a black art director, Billy Graham, at a time when most of the comics industry was lily-white. "What!?" screamed Warren. "Is Billy black? I didn't know that. Get him in here! Billy, are you black? You're fired!"
A few years later, Warren installed one of the few female editors in the industry, Louise Jones. "I have confidence in you," he told Jones. "If you're doing a bad job, I'll fire you. Just don't go overboard and bring in women writers and artists to make up for the last 100 years."
A few months later, after Warren noticed an increasing number of female bylines, he screamed, "You're doing it!"
Jones looked at him and replied, "Maybe."
"I should strangle you!" But Jones was so talented, Warren recalls, he let her do what she wanted. Says Jones, now Louise Simonson and a Marvel comics editor, "He could be the most charming man on earth or the most utter pain-in-the-neck."
Warren is a complex guy, a rare blend of savvy businessman and suffering artist. "Some might call that schizophrenia," he jokes. Newsweek dubbed him a "monster merchandiser par excellence." DuBay dubbed him a "sadistic drill instructor." Gloria Steinem once compared Jim Warren to Sammy Glick, the hustler from Budd Schulberg's What Makes Sammy Run? Warren takes exception to that description, and besides, he knows all about Schulberg. "We were neighbors, out on the Hamptons," Warren says.
Yes, those Hamptons. By the 1970s, the Warren Empire had grown to the point where the Jewish kid from East Oak Lane was splitting the year between his Manhattan penthouse and his West Hamptons beach house, complete with a replica Sopwith Camel parked out front. Warren was famous for his summer birthday parties, complete with hot dogs, cocktails and a fireworks display staged by the famed Grucci family, that Newsday called "summer's flashiest event." Warren's adopted family Warren Publishing staffers, along with scads of show-business friends he'd made over the years, including Howard Cosell and Mel Brooks showed up every year to drink and make merry. The surprises never stopped. One year, on a whim, he hired a bagpipe band to serenade his guests.
And then it all came to an abrupt halt, and Warren was attacked by something right out of the pages of Creepy.
There are few artifacts to guide the next part of Warren's life story. Which is only appropriate, since hundreds of Jim Warren artifacts were stolen during this time.
It's unclear what it was, as Warren shies away from the specifics, but in the early '80s, Warren got sick. "Doctors were never able to tell me what I had," says Warren, "but it was some kind of immune deficiency." The energy and passion that kept Warren up late during marathon Famous Monsters editing sessions vanished. He stayed away from the office, which left his employees confused and rudderless. From the beginning of his career, when FM was being edited in his old bedroom in his parents' house and his company was named "Central Publishing Inc." after his high school, Warren had been a one-man corporation, driving all creative and business decisions. There was no Warren Publishing without Jim Warren.
The sickness seemed to spark a chain reaction: Warren Communications Corp. went bankrupt in 1983, leaving artwork and ownership rights in question. A company called Harris Publishing scooped up some debt and claimed rights to some of the Warren back catalog. Warren says that his financial advisers led him astray and even stole from him; millions of dollars disappeared. Other vultures picked the offices of Warren Publishing clean, swiping Warren's personal library of magazines, along with scores of framed artwork. "The end result was that I was left with no money, no home, no office, no assets and a debilitating sickness that brought me close to thoughts of ending my life," wrote Warren in a letter to Jon B. Cooke, editor of The Warren Companion, an excellent survey of Warren magazines and comics.
During one of his darkest moments, Warren revved up a chainsaw and tried to destroy his beach home and Sopwith Camel. By 1990, Warren had come full circle: He was living with his elderly mother in a high-rise apartment building in downtown Philly, with almost nothing to show for his 30-plus-year publishing career. "I was down and really out sick, weary and weighing 119 pounds," says Warren. "I came close to killing myself twice."
Then in 1993, something miraculous happened. Vampirella returned.
After Jimmy Taubman and Gloria Reif broke up after high school, Reif went to college to pursue a psychology degree. She got married to a man named Goldberg, became a mother, then a piano teacher, and finally a psychologist. She'd hear reports about her ex-boyfriend Jimmy now and again, how successful he was, but she never tried to reach him. The years blurred by; in the late 1980s, Reif became a widow. In 1993, a friend told her that Jimmy was back in town, in Philadelphia.
"So I called him," Gloria Goldberg says now.
"I walked in through that front door, and we kissed," Warren recalls. "She took me in, healed me and became my cheerleader. She saved me."
Eventually, the energy returned along with the will to fight to reclaim some of what he'd lost. He retained legal counsel and began to claw his way back. The suit with Harris Publishing dragged on over a period of years. Warren can't talk about the settlement. It's clear that while he lost the rights to the Vampirella character and Famous Monsters, he's recovered Creepy and Eerie. It's strange that Warren lost Vampirella, only to find Gloria again.
I knew this part of Warren's history before I first met him; I had expected to meet a broken man. But I've never met anyone as youthful and passionate as Warren. You can see it in his eyes; there's life there that no photograph seems to capture. I can see the same spark that must have been present when Warren talked a Philly loan officer into extending a $9,000 line of credit for a monster magazine for 10-year-olds.
I ask Warren about something he's hinted at: a return to publishing, in some form or another. He seems reluctant. I offer to turn off the tape recorder. Instead, Warren looks me square in the eye. There is a solemn expression on his face.
"Can you keep a secret?"
"Well, so can I." And then he laughs.
Eventually, some details emerge. There's a memoir he's working on with a ghostwriter part autobiography, part tell-all about the celebrities and personalities he encountered in New York City during the 1960s and 1970s. He's also actively fielding licensing requests for two of his creations, Creepy and Eerie, including possible reprints of classic stories from the magazines as well as movie adaptations. There is also a humor project in the spirit of Help! in the works and a "best of" Help! collection.
"I get a lot of offers from publishers who want to reprint stuff," Warren says. "I'm waiting for the right offer. DC Comics made a very generous offer. I'm considering that. But after a lifetime of running things myself, I'm a little cautious and afraid. Once you give it to them, you have to walk away. And that's always been tough for me."