At Age 94, This Local Artist Is Pittsburgh's Link to Pulp Fiction's Heyday

Mar 22, 2018

At 17, it looked like Gloria Stoll Karn's -- known then just as Gloria Stoll -- dreams of being an artist were through.

It was 1941, and she had recently graduated from New York’s High School of Music and Art, but her father had died a couple of years earlier, and Stoll had taken a job with the New York Life Insurance Company to help support her widowed mother. The job was dull, but it paid the bills. And now her accumulated artwork from school was cluttering their Queens apartment.

One night, Stoll tried to stuff it all down the building’s incinerator. But the bundles were too big, so she just left it stacked there on the floor for the janitor.

The next morning, the janitor knocked on her door. 

Artist Gloria Stoll Karn at her home in Ohio Township.
Credit Bill O'Driscoll / 90.5 WESA

He’d found Stoll’s artwork, but instead of burning it, he’d taken it upstairs to the apartment of Rafael DeSoto, who was also an artist. DeSoto made his living illustrating pulp magazines and liked what he saw, so he invited Stoll up to talk.

“I was up there so fast, and it was very exciting for me,” she said.

In a twist straight out of a pulp magazine, this series of coincidences led Stoll to a career in illustration. As one of the few women–let alone teenagers–in the field in the 1940s, she’d go on to create more than 100 full-color covers for romance and mystery magazines. And more than 75 years after she began illustrating for the pulps, Ohio Township resident Gloria Stoll Karn, now age 94, is seeing that artwork honored with a solo exhibition at The Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass.

In the decades before World War II, pulp magazines were immensely popular: These monthly, typically 120-page collections of short fiction included titles specializing in romance, detective stories, adventure tales and science fiction. They were printed on cheap pulp paper and sold for a dime (later 15 cents). 

David Saunders, a New York-based illustration historian, said that their popularity peaked in the 1930s, with half a dozen publishers shipping more than 100 titles to newsstands monthly, and readership in the millions.

Despite their low cost, pulps were generously illustrated. 

Karn was one of hundreds of artists who freelanced for them, but one of only a handful of women to do so. DeSoto, her artist-neighbor, introduced her to his publisher, and she began doing inside illustrations of pulp romances, typically in pen and ink. Eventually, she graduated to covers for pulps with titles like Thrilling Love and–her biggest outlet–Rangeland Romances, specializing in stories from the prairie.

A 1940s cover image for the magazine "All Story Love" drawn by Pittsburgh artist Gloria Stoll Karn.
Credit Art by Gloria Stoll Karn / Image courtesy of the Norman Rockwell Museum

Karn worked from home. She painted the covers in oils, and sometimes used models. Often they were her own high school friends, or occasionally models from an agency. 

“I love to do hands and hair, and I had one cover of a silhouette of a girl on a telephone and the prominent thing was her hand on the telephone,” recalls Karn. “And I remember I got my mother to pose for this hand on the telephone.”

But the life of a 1940s pulp artist wasn’t as glamorous as one might imagine. Karn delivered her paintings to the publisher by hand; the works usually went unsigned; and the pay, if enough to make a living, was pretty modest.

Still, said Karn, “It was really an exciting way to make a living for a young teenage woman.”

In retrospect, Karn's work in the pulps stands out in several ways. One is her gender.

“There really might have been only two or three female pulp illustrators at the time,” said Stephanie Plunkett, chief curator at the Rockwell Museum, which is exhibiting Gloria Stoll Karn: Pulp Romance. “If you were working at all in illustration, if you were a woman, you might have been doing some educational publishing work, maybe children’s picture books. But certainly not something as racy and kind of cutting-edge as the pulps.”

But the quality of Karn’s work is also notable, Plunkett said. 

“Her figures are beautiful, they’re very expressive,” she said. “In order to distinguish itself on a newsstand, a magazine had to have a really striking cover, and she was really good at creating those.”

Plunkett cites one image of a young woman about to get hit by a snowball. The character’s look is joyful enough that it earned the cover of the museum’s catalog for the exhibit and use in the video above.

“Gloria Stoll Karn’s work is exceptional, because it always just cries out her very, very pleasant spirit,” said Saunders, the illustration historian, who knows Karn personally and has written about her career. “There’s a cuteness in all of her work, which I totally attribute to just her spiritual energy as a person.”

But perhaps what distinguishes her covers most as a body of work is her range. Saunders, whose father was himself a legendary pulp illustrator, said that pulp artists almost universally specialized in one or another genre, doing virtually all romances, for instance, or just mysteries. But Karn, who Saunders notes spent her whole career in the precise 13-to-30 age range of the pulps’ intended readership, virtually split her time between the two. She was hired as often to create images of clean-cut cowboys wooing blonde prairie lasses as for depictions of revolver-wielding molls and hard-bitten gumshoes in fedoras.

“There was nobody else I can think of who did half detective things and half romance things,” said Saunders.

Karn recently sat down with WESA to look at some of the covers, which she keeps in big binders at her ranch house in the North Hills, where she’s lived for 70 years. She raised her three children there, nestled on the edge of the woods, with big windows and walls lined with artwork—much of it her own post-pulps paintings—and bookshelves.

Her favorites among the romance covers include one of a cowboy passionately kissing a young woman in the kitchen, so distracted that the toast is burning beside them. (Karn, a city girl, said she borrowed much of her Western iconography from the movies.)

The detective covers, for publications including Dime Mystery Magazine and Black Mask, feature images like a young woman looking at a calendar reading “Friday 13” while ducking a knife that’s whizzing past her head. In another, a buxom woman in a tight pink evening gown points a revolver at someone while preparing to climb out a window onto a rope ladder. 

Pulp covers, unlike the black-and-white illustrations inside, didn’t usually illustrate particular stories, said Karn, but rather gave a feel of the publication as a whole. Some of the more outlandish, even supernatural, cover images depict a woman who seems to be turning into a snake, and another shows a girl whose face is transforming, by stages, into a skull.

Asked about her wildly divergent subject matter, Karn laughingly attributed it to her “shadow side.”

“I guess I like to think I’m not the only one with two sides to my personality,” she said.

In 1948, while still in her mid-20s, the pulp artist married Fred Karn, a chemist, and the couple moved to Pittsburgh. Karn tried to continue illustrating for the pulps, but found that shipping her painted canvases to New York where all the publishers were was too much trouble. 

Karn raised three children, but continued making art as well. She later moved into abstract painting, as well as religious subjects, and during her seven decades in Pittsburgh her work has been exhibited at venues including the Carnegie Museum of Art, the Hoyt Art Center and local churches.

Karn's work for the pulps, meanwhile, has in some ways outlived the genre itself. Pulp magazines took a hit in the 1940s, with wartime paper shortages, and in the 1950s were largely put out of business as television consumed more of Americans’ leisure time.

But as the Rockwell Museum show demonstrates, Karn's work is still in demand. An Associated Press story about the exhibition was even picked up by a newspaper in India.

“I can’t believe that at 94 my name is still floating around out there,” said Karn.

Gloria Stoll Karn: Pulp Romance continues at The Norman Rockwell Museum through June 10.