Ernest Hemingway hated the cover to A Farewell to Arms when it was published in 1929. A man, an angel, and a flowering tree in a circular design of gold and red on a blue background.
The cover was done by Cleon, the pen name of Cleonike Damianakes Wilkins. She did three Hemingway covers, a book each for F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and a couple for Conrad Aiken.
“The Cleon drawing,” Hemingway said, “has a lousy and completely unattractive decadence i.e. large misplaced breasts.”
His dislike may have been triggered by the cover artist’s mistake on his previous novel The Sun Also Rises. The blurb at bottom left claimed Hemingway had also written In Our Times, rather than In Our Time. Hemingway was a man who held grudges.
Cleon was 34-years-old when A Farewell to Arms came out. Her style was a typically arch Art Deco take on classical poses (togas, wreaths) filtered through the sensibilities of the Pre-Raphaelite era and rattled about in a chrome cocktail shaker. There’s a slight touch of Walter Crane to some of her figures. Her work is more solid that you’d expect from the period: even the females have muscled legs and abs.
Hemingway’s publisher argued that the covers gave his books a classical dignity and hinted at the cultural despair at their heart. Hemingway disagreed. Cleon never designed another cover for him.
In Her Time
She carried on working until abstraction became fashionable and pushed her out of the spotlight. Cleon’s later life is a bit cloudy but she went through a few husbands and died in California, some time in 1979. She got paid $50 for The Sun Also Rises cover, about $700 in 2016 money.
Her work was striking, very much of its time but with nods to a classical tradition that seemed to be slipping away even as the pen dipped into the ink pot.
These days Cleon is remembered, if at all, for her Lost Generation connection. A strange fate for an artist who preferred Hollywood to Paris, and classicism to the scalpel-cut modernism of early Hemingway. A lesson to artists everywhere.
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