Part One

[1]

Of the great American outsider artists who gave shape and form to what today is known as “fetish art,” perhaps the most neglected is Gene Bilbrew. Part of Bilbrew’s obscurity is due to the shadowy culture in which he operated, a culture that prided itself—in line with the underworld element that funded it—on not keeping records. Part of it is due to the fact that Bilbrew was a black man in America—clearly, a black man who never got his due.

Extending to the present day, even among art and comic historians of his own race, there is a peculiar denial or perhaps willful unawareness of Bilbrew’s unconventional legacy, likely due to Bilbrew’s material catering to a sexual minority. The Encyclopedia of Black Comics, compiled by an Eisner award-winning university professor and said to focus on “people of African descent who have published significant works in the United States or have worked across various aspects of the comics industry”[2] refutes or excludes any mention of Bilbrew’s existence. Ironically, while Bilbrew’s work has never been brought up in connection to an Eisner award, Bilbrew did work for Will Eisner in his lifetime, all the while choking down Eisner’s portrayal of racial stereotypes, especially regarding black people.

Was Bilbrew the first black career fetish artist in history? Yes. Was he the only black fetish artist operating in the 1950s or ’60s? No. At one point, Bilbrew introduced his friend, Bill Alexander, to the genre, although Alexander only marginally became a fetish artist.

No telling of Bilbrew’s story can leave out mention of fellow fetish art pioneer, Eric Stanton. Both came into their own as fetish artists at roughly the same time in the 1950s and ’60s, feeding and reacting off each other over the years as they evolved. In some ways, it was a healthy competition; in other ways, not. Marked by a highly spontaneous, often erratic style—less controlled and precise than that of Stanton—Bilbrew’s art pushed the boundaries of acceptability in his day, plunging into taboo narratives of trans culture and realms of sadomasochism with total abandon. Bilbrew’s work contained more nudity than that of Stanton; also, more violence, which when combined with sexually deviant themes proved a highly risky combination in the legal landscape of the 1950s and ’60s.

In examining the life of Gene Bilbrew, there remains very little to draw on: Bilbrew gave no interviews in his lifetime, left no surviving family, and, other than his art, departed from this world without leaving a trace. As for what is known of the artist, nearly all of it has come through the historical introductions written by fetish art publisher J.B. Rund, who reprinted seven volumes of Bilbrew’s golden age work as part of the Bizarre Comix series in the 1970s and ’80s. Bizarre Comix, as Rund informed me, was packaged through Star Distributors Inc., where William “Bill” Alexander was art director for a number of years. This gave Rund an opportunity to ask Alexander about his childhood friend and one-time studio mate.

To the best of his memory, Alexander recalled that Bilbrew’s first art-related project was in contributing the storyline for a comic Alexander illustratedreputed to feature the first black superhero character—The Bronze Bomber, which ran in the African-American newspaper Los Angeles Sentinel. Later Bilbrew created a Hercules comic strip for a health (or fitness) magazine, according to Alexander.

The Los Angeles Sentinel (1934-2005) has been digitized and made available online through various sources. (For convenience I used the New York Public Library.) Sadly, a careful search between the years 1934 and 1960 reveals no evidence of The Bronze Bomber—in fact, most if not all comics in that periodical were syndicated through “Continental Features,” which served many black-interest newspapers. This is not to suggest that everything Alexander said was untrue; memory can be unreliable. In fact, Alexander did contribute art to the Sentinel (as we can see):

both the line art style and the pseudonym (“Wm. Alex”) is consistent with work he would later contribute to the Miltone record label.[3]

But let’s start from the beginning. Here are the facts:[4]

Eugene “Gene” Webster Bilbrew was born June 29, 1923 in the Central-Alameda area of Los Angeles, in a neighborhood historically known for producing notable jazz musicians.[5] The middle child of three, his younger sister was named Ruth, and his older sister was named Frances Muriel. His parents were outsiders to that city. Omri Watson Bilbrew hailed from Texas, while Bilbrew’s mother, Carrie, was born in Oklahoma. They met and married in Los Angeles in 1914,[6] with their first child, Frances, born in 1921. Omri supported his family through custodial work.

Alexander suggested that he and Bilbrew went to high school together.[7] Bilbrew was smallish and slightly built, and to compensate he needed to make noise to be seen. Possessed of an outgoing personality and a rebellious spirit, he became the class clown and challenged rules—a trait that would be a source of irritation to future patrons when he emerged as an artist. While still a teen, he fathered a child from whom he became estranged. He completed three years of high school. In his young adult life, he worked in the restaurant industry.[8]

At age 19, in the spring of 1943, Bilbrew was unemployed. His World War II draft card (image 3, 3-b) provides significant details of his physical appearance: 5′ 5″, 135 pounds; his complexion marked off as “light brown.” For reasons that remain unclear, Bilbrew was discharged from the US Army after only four months.[9]

In their formative years, Bilbrew and Alexander bonded over their common love of jazz, and they attended live shows together. One outstanding event featured Duke Ellington, and it had a profound effect on Bilbrew, even inspiring a zoot suit style of dress.[10] According to Alexander, Bilbrew had little interest in drawing and art at this point and solely envisioned himself in the spotlight as an entertainer. It wasn’t long before Bilbrew made this happen.

THE MELLOW TONES

Timed with his premature discharge from military duty, Bilbrew’s first vocal group was formed in the summer of 1943, first spelled in print as “The Mellow Tones.” A flattering review of the group appeared in the California Eagle that fall:

May I take time and space here to give credit to this aggregation of scintillating rhythm whose talent speaks for itself. Ranging in ages between nineteen and twenty, these five young fellows Hal McEwen, Ruben Saunders, Gene Bilbrew, Walter Johnson, and accompanist Evon Morgan have definitely come a long way in the two short months they have been organized.[11]

The Mellow Tones performed at jamboree hops,[12] church and charity events, and opened for Earl “Fatha” Hines.[13] One individual taking notice was aspiring entertainer Ormonde Wilson Jr., a tenor in a notable swing choir named “The Plantation Boys.” Tall and suavely handsome, Ormonde Wilson had the look of a front man. By the time Wilson joined the Mellow Tones, circa 1945, only two original members remained: Reuben Sanders and first baritone Gene Bilbrew.[15]

NAME CHANGES

As it turned out, finding the right group name proved a challenge. “The Mellow Tones” was misspelled in the press,[16] and if this wasn’t dispiriting enough, evidently more than one group in the country carried the same name.[17] The “Basin Street Boys” moniker was attributed to notable musician Steve Gibson [18]—said to be the older stepbrother of Ormonde Wilson[19]—who had used it for his combo in the 1930s. Wilson would borrow it to give The Mellow Tones a more marketable handle. By 1946, the group’s lineup included Wilson, Arthur Rainwater, “son of an Indian chief” [20]—who later changed his name to “the more musician-like moniker of Artie Waters” [21]—Reuben Sanders, and Gene Bilbrew.

That year, Bilbrew adopted a name change of his own: to that of “Price”—the married name of his sister Frances [21] Aside from it being—as with Artie Waters—a “more musician-like moniker,” we can speculate that a reason for Bilbrew’s name change may have been that he was trying to distinguish or distance himself from his famous aunt [22] an overtly religious singer, gospel group organizer, and radio personality at the time receiving considerable coverage in the press, A. C. Bilbrew [23]Although it might have been an easy step in launching his singing career, it’s interesting that he never exploited this contact[24]

For the many who have wondered why they have never seen photos of Bilbrew? As it turns out, they have—all over the Internet. Gene Price, founding member of the Basin Street Boys = Gene Bilbrew.

In 1946, at least for part of the year, Price was still being identified as “Gene Bilbrew.” Examine the image that appeared in the trade publication The Cash Box. The magazine is dated 1947, but the group photo harked back to early 1946 in which Bilbrew is clearly identified by name (“Left to right…”)

At about 5′ 5″ and slightly built, he was the smallest of the group, with Reuben Sanders a close second. Other physical details—eyebrows, impish smile—help us to identify him, once and for all, in other lineup photos.

And so, long-time fans and collectors of his unique art have reason to smile: Gene Bilbrew now has a face.

GLORY DAYS OF THE BASIN STREET BOYS

For a short time Bilbrew was living the dream. He had aspired to become a professional singer, and he became one. An April 1946 tabloid article laid it out:

Having changed their name to the Basin Street Boys because of a similarity in name with another singing combination … [the] talented young Hollywood singing quartet bid fair to prove one of the hits of Hollywood Gang revue which is embarking on a tour of the South this month…

The Basin Street Boys … have since been featured with Earl Hines, Duke Ellington, and have played at the Apollo theatre and the El Grotto in Chicago. They have a unique and pleasant styling of swing tunes and ballads. Three of the boys are native sons of California and all have excellent musical backgrounds. Just recently they made several sides for Exclusive Records, one of them, “I Sold My Heart to the Junk Man,” is expected to become a best seller.

Upon their return from the tour they are tentatively signed to make a film short at a major movie studio.[25]

Although “I Sold My Heart to The Junkman” failed to burn up the pop charts, it was a long-running jukebox favorite and popular in live performance[26]—recognizable enough that it became a calling card in booking engagements. Between 1946 and 1947, the peak years of the group, the Basin Street Boys appeared on radio, recorded eight records (sixteen sides) for Leon René’s Los Angeles-based Exclusive Records[27] and played club and theater circuits across the country, most heavily in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

REALITY CHECK

“I Sold My Heart to The Junkman” was written by brothers Leon and Otis René, and, in truth, the Basin Street Boys were only hired hands. (Years later, the song would achieve greater fame as recorded by Patti LaBelle & The Bluebelles, among others.) In the end, Bilbrew and company saw little money,[28] and the struggle to stay alive began. “Ain’t Got No Loot,” a song written by Bilbrew and Wilson in 1947,[29] would be accurate.

Ain’t got no loot

My pocket’s so dry

Feel like I want to cry…

Ain’t got no loot

I’m busted out flat

What do you think of that

Ain’t got no gold

That jive you hold

I’m just a bankrupted cat...

In 1947, flirting with changes and ways to freshen things up, the group briefly added an unnamed fifth member.[30] Failing to find commercial success, the Basin Street Boys began to fracture in 1948 and finally disbanded that fall. By October, Bilbrew was singing with the Roy Porter orchestra,[31] but little was heard of “Gene Price” after that. Ormonde Wilson, not ready to throw in the towel, took a stab at reinventing the group with all new members. The California Eagle reported: “The Basin Street Boys, formerly a co-operative group, is now under the complete leadership of Ormonde Wilson….”[32] He renamed it “Ormonde Wilson and The Basin Street Boys.”[33] The following year, Wilson and his combo played in Delaware with the byline: “Remember their hit tune ‘I Sold My Heart to the Junkman?’”

THE 5 EBONAIRES & ROSITA DAVIS

While Ormonde Wilson was chasing past glory in the fall of 1949, a group advertising itself as “formerly the Basin Street Boys”[34] appeared simultaneously in Pennsylvania. This combo called itself “The 5 Ebonaires.” Sharing the bill for an exclusive two week run in Hazleton, Pennsylvania was Roszetta F. Davis, better known as “Rosita Davis,” a Brooklynite who had previously toured with Duke Ellington.[35]

Was Bilbrew among the former Basin Street Boys making up The 5 Ebonaires? Evidence suggests that he was, because at the end of the booked two-week engagement, Bilbrew applied for a marriage license and on the 3rd of November 1949 married Rosita Davis. The surviving document shows the officiating Reverend even signing the document “Hazleton PA.” Bilbrew listed his occupation as “entertainer,” underscoring that he was still, at least marginally, in show business.

Rosita Davis kept her name and without much of a honeymoon, on November 8th, was back on the road with the Ebonaires,[36] which after various days morphed into “Three Ebonaires,”[37] then, in the month that followed, “Jay Johnson and the Ebonaires,”[38] with Davis still in tow; members of this last combination included Frank Smith, Max Cooper, Bill Arnold … but no Gene Price—the only one in fact associated with the Basin Street Boys (Jay Johnson had been part of the original Mellow Tones). Following a final (December ’49) engagement in Pennsylvania, Rosita Davis evidently put her performance career on hold.[39] By then, just as likely, Gene Bilbrew had renounced his.

And what of the marriage between Bilbrew and Davis? It seemed to survive, in one form or another, at least into the early ’50s. In 1951 and ’52, they shared an apartment and telephone number in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn.[40]

In late 1952, Davis again picked up her singing career, which may have signified a tipping point in their relationship. According to one tabloid report:

Roszetta Davis, former singer with the Duke Ellington aggregation, has signed an exclusive booking pact with the Shaw Artists Corporation, the agency announced on Monday...

Rosetta [sic], following her stint with Ellington, took over the mistress of ceremony duties at New York’s Club Savannah in Greenwich Village, where she built an enviable reputation as a handler of the microphone.

Returning to the singing end of show business, Roszetta has undergone an intensive six-month refresher period during which she studied with top vocal coaches.[41]

By 1953, Bilbrew was living in Manhattan, within walking distance of Times Square.[42]

Rosita Davis went on to have a minor career into the early ’60s, singing in nightclubs, [43] appearing on TV,[44] [45] and hosting an R&B radio show.[46] In time, she would be romantically linked to Sammy Davis Jr.[47] and give birth to a daughter.[48]

Cue the Basin Street Boys’ “This Is The End Of A Dream.”

Basin Street Boys
Basin Street Boys

PART TWO: Welcome to the Bizarre Underground

Whatever trauma Gene Bilbrew endured on the road with the Basin Street Boys—or with Rosita Davis—it was enough that he would never return to singing again. And this is where the real story of Bilbrew begins.

We might imagine Bilbrew contacting his old friend Alexander, bemoaning the end of his singing career. We might imagine Alexander suggesting, “Why not try art?”

Bilbrew may have contributed the storyline to The Bronze Bomber, whether or not it was published, and he may have contributed a Hercules comic,[49] at some point, to a health or fitness magazine—one that remains to be discovered.

As far as what we can verify, Bilbrew’s art career began in 1950, the same year he enrolled at Cartoonists & Illustrators school.[50] Jules Feiffer, Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist and one time assistant to Will Eisner, recalled:

Bilbrew started with Eisner, if flawed memory is correct, as a troubleshooting background artist, called to help on deadlines. Then when I was drafted in [January] 1951, Will had him take over Clifford [a comic that ran on the back page of The Spirit section]. It’s possible that I did the scripts for a couple of months, but no art. Gene and I got along well... He was young, eager, friendly, and I remember some good conversations, probably about comics. I had no further contact with him after my basic training in Fort Dix.[51]

Feiffer’s final Clifford was published December 31, 1950.[52] From this, we might infer that Bilbrew was with Eisner at least by the end of that year, as comics were drawn (according to Feiffer) six to eight weeks in advance. And how did Bilbrew get the job? Bilbrew reportedly told Eisner that he empathized with the Spirit’s black sidekick, Ebony White.[53] If this is true, Eisner may have hired Bilbrew out of white guilt, because the character was a hideous racial stereotype

Notoriously cheap (even proud of it[54]), Eisner paid Bilbrew what in his mind was the generous sum of $5.00 per each installment of Clifford,[55] which ran until 1952 when Eisner abandoned the 8-page syndicated version of The Spirit altogether.[56][57]

ART SCHOOL

Established in uptown Manhattan by co-founders Silas H. Rhodes and Burne Hogarth, Cartoonists and Illustrators School relocated to a four-story building on the corner of 23rd Street and Second Avenue in 1950[58], and it was here that Bilbrew enrolled, possibly with assistance from the GI Bill. Instructors included cartoonists Marvin Stein (who worked on Captain Valiant), Tom Gill (best known for the Lone Ranger comic book), Jerry Robinson (best known for his work on the Batman syndicated strip), and, of course, Burne Hogarth (best known for illustrating the syndicated strip, Tarzan).[69] Of all his instructors, it was the anatomy-obsessed Hogarth, for better or worse, who left the most enduring mark on Bilbrew’s style.[60]

Sharing Jerry Robinson’s cartooning class with Bilbrew by spring 1951 were Steve Ditko[61] and Eric Stanton (then known as “Ernie Stanten”).[62] One fateful day, as Stanton later recalled, he caught sight of an illustration on Bilbrew’s desk that made him pause: it featured a full-blown bondage fantasy—and right away this proved an ice-breaker.[63]

By then, for several years, Stanton had been working for Irving Klaw, the self-proclaimed Pin-Up King, who was also a pioneering merchant of fetish art. Not only did Stanton produce art for Klaw, he was practically his right-hand man, working the counter at Klaw’s brick-and-mortar store on 14th Street, as well as helping out with Klaw’s hush-hush bondage fantasy shoots on select weekends.[64]


No doubt Bilbrew mentioned Eisner to Stanton, and what he was being paid. No doubt Stanton mentioned that there were, perhaps, other opportunities available—less conventional ones. With a Klaw meeting arranged by Stanton, Bilbrew presented samples of his most “bizarre” art. Klaw’s response was encouraging, and Bilbrew recognized his destiny: reinventing himself as a renegade artist known as “Eneg” (“Gene” spelled backward).[65]

ENEG’S CHAPTER SERIALS

Chapter serials were unbound illustrated narratives printed on photo paper. They could be purchased in full or by single pages for the artwork. Pages were referred to as “chapters” or “episodes,” in the manner of Saturday matinee serial installments. Often each episode was designed around a single creative objective: how to ensure that a damsel (or damsels) ended up in the most imaginative “predicament” possible. This was the challenge of a damsel-in-distress narrative. The best chapter serials (e.g., Stanton’s Duchess of the Bastille) have single page narrative arcs (concluding in a predicament) that work within an overall (20/30 page) narrative arc.

After his preliminary bondage fantasy sketches for Klaw, Bilbrew embarked on his first chapter serial with Kamikaze-like intensity, even going so far as to drop out of school.[66] It was named Princess Elaine’s Terrible Fate and set in Roman times. According to Stanton, Klaw was against the idea of Bilbrew doing a period piece, but Bilbrew proceeded with it anyway.[67] The end result impressed Klaw as much as it horrified him. Klaw had imposed strict limitations on his artists—in keeping with obscenity standards: no nudity, no implied sex of any kind. And here was Bilbrew’s first serial full of phallic symbolism! Cocks everywhere! Klaw’s solution? Get Stanton to censor Bilbrew’s work, which infuriated Bilbrew, while Stanton felt batted back and forth. In effect, Stanton had “discovered” Eneg, so Klaw made him Stanton’s responsibility. Worst of all, it would not be the first time Klaw assigned such censorship/babysitting duties to Stanton, which of course made things uncomfortable for Stanton.[68]

Princess Elaine’s Terrible Fate, consisting of thirty episodes and likely produced between July and November of 1951,[69] clearly demonstrated Eneg’s natural talent and how quickly he developed as an artist. While earlier pages of the work appear somewhat uncertain and amateurish, by midway point Eneg was already executing ideas like a seasoned artist. His confident inking deserves special mention. Not bad for a person who just several years earlier had a completely different career.

Despite having produced more serials by then,[70] Stanton was always forthright about Bilbrew’s ability: “Listen, he was a better artist at the time than I was. Much better. Better craftsman.”[71]

Conversely, Bilbrew could be careless as an artist: misspelling words, disproportionately extending torsos and legs of his female figures, and winging his page designs erratically. His art, in some ways, underscored his impulsive nature, yet no one could deny that—at least in the subculture of the bizarre underground—a major player had arrived.

Among Eneg’s greatest hits for Klaw were: Prison for Women (1952), Captives of Madame La Bondage (1953), Island of Captive Girls (1953), Sorority Girls (1953), Ladies in Rubber (1954), Maid in France (1954), Insubordination College (1955), and Kidnapped Girl’s Sweet Revenge (1959[72]).

Sometime in the early ’50s, Bilbrew even introduced his friend Bill Alexander to Klaw. Alexander, taking the pseudonym “Ander,” then became a minor contributor to Klaw’s fetish art catalog.[73]

BILBREW/ENEG’S BIZARRE ART CAREER

In a relationship that lasted over a decade, Eneg would produce imaginative, often brilliantly executed chapter serials for Klaw, in addition to numbered illustrations and other Nutrix era booklet art (1959 – 1962[74]). But Bilbrew never felt any allegiance to Klaw. And quick as he could he reached out to other patrons. His first after Klaw was evidently Edward Mishkin, a man who would snap up anything he produced. (We can see one of Bilbrew’s earliest illustrations—likely one of his first fetish drawings ever—on the cover of a later Mishkin published work, Run Girl Run Hard.)

Edward Mishkin was an old-time bookie who fell into bookstore ownership/operation by 1946.[75] His area of interest was the lively entertainment playground—part misfit magnet, part tourist trap—known as Times Square. Mishkin was also a bold, underground book publisher/distributor, involved in sponsoring original work, as well as—more notoriously—pirating other people’s material. (Irving Klaw considered him a major thorn in his side,[76] although rumors of Mishkin’s connection to the underworld may have been enough for Klaw not to take aggressive action.)

It was for Mishkin (and partner Moe Shapiro) that Bilbrew/Eneg invented new aliases: “Gilbert,” “Van Rod,” and “Bondy/J. Bondy.” The material produced under the alias “Gilbert” focused on transvestism, while the “Van Rod” and “Bondy” pseudonyms were used interchangeably for wildly over-the-top sexploitation material full of kinky antics. Bilbrew’s most referenced work as Van Rod is likely The Whip Artist, which featured 48 full-page illustrations—later sold in installments through the mail order company, Gargoyle Sales Corp.

As for other Bilbrew work of merit produced for Mishkin (published in book form), standouts include the sci-fi inspired High Heels in the Heavens and the noir-inspired Madame Adista, both containing topless nudity—highly risky in the context of a fetish narrative at the time and something Klaw would never permit.


Bilbrew continued to produce material for Mishkin into the late fifties, after which Mishkin was famously arrested, brought to trial, and convicted (unjustly) of obscenity. Through a series of legal appeals, Mishkin was able to stave off his three-year prison sentence until 1966, at which time the decision was conclusively upheld by the US Supreme Court.

Stand-out Bilbrew artwork adorning Mishkin-published books—which helped convict him in 1960—includes Dangerous Years, Satin Satellite, Catanis, and I’ll Try Anything Twice.

LEONARD BURTMAN

It may have been through Mishkin that Bilbrew met, arguably, his most important ’50s patron: Leonard Burtman (a.k.a. Leonard Burton. While a Burtman publication named Exotica appeared in late 1954, it wasn’t until the following year that Burtman launched his breakthrough venture: a “bizarre” fashion-oriented magazine accentuated by high vamp style named Exotique, for which he tapped Bilbrew as primary artist.

This publication was inspired by John Willie’s Bizarre and another more obscure UK publication named Fad and Fancies—while also adopting the aesthetic of Charles Guyette, the originator of bizarre (i.e., fetish) style in America, still then a costumer of theatrical/burlesque fashion, who earlier had been a mail-order pioneer, much like Irving Klaw.

As per the publication’s intended audience, Exotique needed an elegant, somewhat feminine touch, and Bilbrew’s then delicate, stylized, long-limbed ladies seemed a perfect match for the magazine. Bilbrew was so at home with the material, in fact, that by issue #2 he was signing his real name to cover art, underscoring what he believed was the legitimacy of the enterprise and his earnest participation.

Burmel Publishing Co.—Burtman’s magazine publishing imprint—would also branch out to issue illustrated novelettes, photo-fiction (narrative booklets made up only of photos, no words) and other bizarre-related one shot specialty publications; while Burtman and business partner Benedict Himmel also fabricated hit-and-run (or sham) imprints through which they published what was then more risky or “borderline” material featuring Bilbrew work.

Bilbrew produced thirty-one of the thirty-six Exotique magazine covers, many of them memorable—in addition to the bulk of the magazine’s interior art—before Burmel was brought down by federal authorities on trumped-up charges of obscenity.

In the latter half of the 1950s—Bilbrew’s creative peak—his art also graced the covers of competing, if lesser ’50s magazines, Ultra, Extatique, Hum, and Fantasia. Bilbrew even contributed several covers to the UK magazine Fads and Fancies, which at one point was distributed in the US by Burtman/Himmel.

It might be noted that Bilbrew also has the distinction of being the first artist to draw Bettie Page (albeit somewhat primitively). His 1951 dust jacket art[77] for the book, Drawing, Painting, and Sculpture from Live Models even predates her arrival at Irving Klaw’s studio.

BILBREW IN THE TUMULTUOUS ’60s

Intimations of decline, suggesting personal difficulties (likely connected with substance abuse problems), began to appear circa 1962 in work produced for Satellite Publishing Co., an entity controlled by another bookie-turned-bookstore-owner/operator, Stanley Malkin. Malkin had originally tapped Stanton as creative director of his publishing venture, though they would have an early falling out. Bilbrew, brought on board by Stanton as back-up artist, ended up taking over primary duties.

Malkin’s signature magazine was named Bound, and early on Stanton and Bilbrew teamed up on covers, both signing the art. The most telling collaboration appears on issue #1, suggesting the competitive, occasionally prickly relationship they shared.

In 1962, following his departure from Satellite, Stanton upended Bilbrew’s position with Leonard Burtman at a time when Bilbrew seemed unchallenged as art director for an assortment of full-sized magazines produced under Burtman’s newest corporate entity, Selbee Associates Inc. Why Burtman made the switch from Bilbrew—the artist who, after all, was essentially the Burmel house artist—to Stanton remains unknown, although we can speculate that it may have been a question of Bilbrew’s emerging instability.

To compound matters, in 1963 Stanton clearly surpassed Bilbrew technically as an artist, while previously the two had been neck-in-neck, playing out their destiny as the Lennon and McCartney of bizarre art. Stanton’s high-level work for Burtman’s digest-sized publications, in particular, must have thrown Bilbrew for a loop. If Bilbrew was graced with more God-given talent (as he evidently was), then how did this bastard—Stanton—manage to outstrip him even while Stanton suffered from substance abuse problems of his own?

More uncertainty followed that year as Stanley Malkin launched his new line of sexploitation paperback imprints and hired Stanton and Bilbrew as cover artists. Here again, there were indications that Bilbrew was personally struggling. Bilbrew’s line—the Nitey-Nite imprint—was discontinued after four books, as Stanton’s line, First Nite (a.k.a. First Niter), took off.

Hinting at greater difficulties, in 1964 Bilbrew appears to have abandoned the fetish art scene altogether, that year producing virtually no art; only to resurface a full year later, in ’65, with the sexploitation imprints attributed to the Sturman brothers, based in Cleveland, Ohio.[78]

At this point, with rare exceptions, Bilbrew’s once elegant fetish art devolved into what’s today affectionately categorized as “vintage sleaze,” and the material Bilbrew produced for Sturman’s Satan Press line was the pinnacle of that.

Bilbrew returned to work for Stanley Malkin[79] and Leonard Burtman, contributing artwork here and there, but things would never be the same.

BILBREW IN THE XXX ’70s

The end of the sexploitation/softcore era hit fetish artists hard. Fetish art was never overtly about sex and now with the arrival of hardcore porn, both Bilbrew and Stanton found themselves further marginalized. What’s more, as several major US court decisions[80] now made it “safe” to produce fetish art, there seemed a horde of new artists—inspired by Bilbrew and Stanton—willing to work for peanuts. Bill Ward, former artist of glamour girls and mild sexploitation gag comics, was among them; sometime in 1972 he became the leading artist for Leonard Burtman.

Stanton reacted by starting his own niche mail order business, which relied on private commissions, while Bilbrew spiraled into further decline, taking any sleazy art job he could get. Bilbrew’s main patron at the time was Edward Mishkin who had served his time in prison and was now back to running his adult bookshops, at this point clearly in league with the mob.[81] Wholesale Book Corp. was now his central brick-and-mortar store while Candor Books Inc.[82] served as his main mail order business. By then, Mishkin was publishing his “Mutrix” booklets, derived from the remnants of Irving Klaw’s decimated “Nutrix” business, which Mishkin had purchased from Paula Klaw c. 1970.[83] More and more, Mishkin churned out transvestite-themed material, which seemed to be most in demand at the time.

Bilbrew worked for various other mob-controlled publishers/packagers, like Hilbarth Inc./Tortura Press, Ltd.,[84] even Star Distributors (Cathay Library, Spade Classics) where his friend Bill Alexander was art director, but it wasn’t long before Bilbrew, struggling to keep it together, found himself living in the back of one of Mishkin’s stores.

Publisher J.B. Rund recollected seeing Bilbrew’s living quarters at the adult shop known as Wholesale Book Corp:

You’re in a big room with books on the floor, remainders … and in the back of the room there was this addition—a plywood room. It had three sides with the back obviously the back of the room. It had a padlock on it and painted on the door was “Gene Bilbrew, Art Director.” What was in that room? I don’t know. It was pretty small; it may have been just a bed… This was on 21st Street. ‘Cause he [Mishkin/Wholesale Book Corp.] subsequently moved around the corner to 20th Street and Broadway—902 Broadway.[85]

Rund also shared an interesting account of Bilbrew’s passing:

At the local Flea Market, I met someone by the name of Jeffrey Goodman, who wrote a lot of porno in the ’70s. Among others, he wrote many of the Bizarre Library and Dr. Lamb paperbacks. He also wrote for Mishkin, mainly transvestite stuff and one or two of the Dream Books. He told me that Bilbrew actually died on the premises of Mishkin’s Wholesale Books [902 Broadway] and that his body was moved to the back of one of the Times Square Bookshops. This information came directly from Mishkin’s lips. As to the Why, well, obviously, Mishkin certainly didn’t want the police sniffing around his main place of business. According to Goodman, there was a huge safe with lots of $$ in it.[86]

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, Bilbrew’s death date was May 23, 1974. He was 50 years old.

What did Bilbrew die of? Was it a heroin overdose as rumored on the Internet? No one knows. More than likely his body just gave out after years of abuse. As Stanton later recalled, “Eneg got so involved in drug and alcohol his work began to deteriorate… When he died Eddy Mishkin was putting him up in the backroom of one of his stores. He was doing drawings there and he died there.”[87]

If Bilbrew’s body was moved by Mishkin to another store rather than simply discarded, then we can assume that it was removed by the City of New York. Was he disposed of as an indigent? Were his remains taken to Potter’s Field where he was buried in a nameless grave?

To date, no grave marker for Gene Bilbrew has been identified. At the time of his death, he received no memorial or obituary in any publication of merit. After all, he was a racial minority working within a genre minority, considered a pornographer, his artwork beneath “respectability.”

In 1975, drawing from memory, Stanton produced a septum-ringed caricature (right) of a middle-aged Bilbrew for the cover of the Bizarre Comix series published by Bélier Press. Stanton’s image was likely closer to how Bilbrew appeared in real life just around the time when the artist—perhaps with a premonition of his own death—produced a romanticized, youthful, curiously detailed illustration of himself (below).[88]

We might imagine that this was how Bilbrew—former vocal group singer, pioneering artist of bizarre art—wanted to be remembered.


Vintage fetish art historian, Richard Pérez Seves is the author of Eric Stanton & the History of the Bizarre Underground and the curator/author of Charles Guyette: Godfather of American Fetish Art, as well as two novels about bohemia. His work has been translated into Italian, Korean, and Turkish. Among other things, he has contributed to the New York Times.


[1] © Richard Pérez Seves

[2] Encyclopedia of Black Comics by Sheena C. Howard: The book description on Amazon.com: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1682751015

[3] William Alexander discography: https://www.discogs.com/artist/2678518-William-Alexander-3

[4] Verified using the 1930 and 1940 US Federal Census Reports, along with Bilbrew’s surviving military records.

[5] “…for sheer numbers, no school in Los Angeles turned out more renowned musicians than Jefferson High School in the Central-Alameda neighborhood. Don Cherry, Dexter Gordon, Art Farmer, Ernie Royal, Jackie Kelso, Ginger Smock, Bill Douglass, O.C. Smith, Roy Ayers, and Horace Tapscott are just a few of the gifted musicians…” : Los Angeles' Citywide Historic Context Statement, p. 167: http://preservation.lacity.org...

[6] California Department of Public Health, courtesy of www.vitalsearch-worldwide.com. Digital Images.

[7] This according to J.B. Rund. If this is so, it was Thomas Jefferson High School, located at 1319 East 41st Street; Bilbrew’s house, at age 15, was located at 1226 1/2 East 52 Street.

[8] Waiter, according to military papers.

[9] U.S., Department of Veterans Affairs BIRLS Death File: Enlistment Date: 18 May 1943; Release Date: 27 Aug 1943. Bilbrew’s military record is incomplete.

[10] Bizarre Comix v. 2, 1975, Belier Press.

[11] Jessie Mae Brown, "What's Doing In The Younger Set,” The California Eagle, 30 Sept. 1943.

[12] The California Eagle, 30 Sept. 1943: "The Mellow Tones, a fast-rising quartet, lent their talents to the Jr NAACP jamboree dance last Saturday night at the Alpha. The mellow cats came on solidly with the ever popular "Coming in on a Wing and a Prayer," and "Straighten Up and Fly Right."

[13] Detroit Free Press, 24 thru 27 Nov 1944.

[14] The California Eagle, 9 June 1938.

[15] California Eagle, 19 December 1946: “Gene Price, first baritone with ‘The Basin Street Boys….’”

[16] (e.g., “Mellow-Tones,” “Mello-Tones”). By early 1946, it appeared as “The Mellotones”: Los Angeles Sentinel, 6 Jun 1946.

[17] Arkansas State Press (Little Rock, Arkansas), 31 May 1946.

[18] Gibson would achieve enduring fame with the Red Caps. Gibson and his original Basin Street Boys migrated to Lost Angeles in 1937: Jay Warner, American Singing Groups: A History from 1940s to Today (Milwaukee: Hal Leonard, 2006), 12.

[19] The Billboard, April 9, 1949, p. 46: full notice reads: “Ormonde Wilson, leader of the disbanded Basin Street Boys, responsible for the "I Sold My Heart to the Junk Man" record click last year, joined his step-brother, Steve Gibson in the latter's Five Red Caps, currently at Chubby's in nearby Collingswood, N. J.”

[20] The Pittsburgh Courier, 15 March 1947.

[21] Ibid.

[22] “Price” was the name of his brother-in-law, Ernest B. Price who married Frances Muriel in 1939.

[23] “A. C. Bilbrew” was so highly considered that would eventually have a library named after her: http://www.colapublib.org/hist...

[24] She was later to become Kitty White, a notable jazz singer: http://articles.latimes.com/2009/sep/03/local/me-passings3.S1

[25] The Pittsburgh Courier, 20 April 1946.

[26] Hal Leonard, American Singing Groups: A History from 1940s to Today, 13.

[27] They also shared a record (two sides) with Judy Carol: http://doowopheaven.blogspot.c...

[28] In 1946 and '47, Gene Bilbrew and Ormonde Wilson copyrighted their own songs ("Voot Nay Ion The Vot Nay" and "Ain't Got No Loot"), but it didn't seem to matter. The songs failed to chart.

[29] https://archive.org/details/catalogofcopyrig315libr?q=%22Ormonde+Wilson%22

[30] Herald and News (Klamath Falls, Oregon) 9 May 1947.

[31] The California Eagle, Oct. 14 1948, “Gene Price Now On His Own As Featured Act”

[32] The California Eagle, October, but the actual day of has been unfortunately cropped off in the scan of the newspaper.

[33] The first example of Ormonde putting his name first appears in the Pottstown Mercury (Pottstown, PA.) 18 September 1948.

[34] The Plain Speaker (Hazleton, Pa.) 17 Oct. 1949.

[35] Standard Sentinel (Hazleton, Pa.) 21 Oct. 1949; also see: Wilmington Morning News (Wilmington, Delaware), 6 Dec 1944.

[36] The Berkshire Eagle (Pittsfield, Mass), 8 Nov. 1949.

[37] The Berkshire Eagle (Pittsfield, Mass), 11 Nov. 1949.

[38] The Bristol Daily Courier (Bristol, PA), 16 Dec. 1949.

[39] The Bristol Daily Courier (Bristol, PA), 17 Dec. 1949.

[40] The phone number was ULstr 2-5350; the address 464 Flushing Ave, Brooklyn. In 1951, it was listed in the Brooklyn telephone directory under Bilbrew's name; in 1952, listed under "Roszetta Davis." See: (1951) https://archive.org/details/br... and (1952) https://archive.org/details/brooklynnewyorkc1952newy

[41] The New York Age (New York, NY) 27 Dec 1952.

[42] His address: 112 W45 Street: 1953. U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995.

[43] The Journal News (White Plains, NY), 21 December 1962.

[44] The New York Age (New York, New York), 11 Sep 1954.

[45] The Jack Parr Show: The Freehold Transcript and The Monmouth Inquirer, 20 Oct 1960.

[46] The New York Age (New York, New York), 09 Oct 1954.

[47] Jet magazine, 7 Oct 1954, 46.

[48] The New York Age (New York, NY) 26 Mar 1955. Also: Daily News 1 May 1960.

[49] Bilbrew did produce a comic named “Hampered Hercules” c. 1961 for Satellite Publishing Co. Could this be what Alexander was thinking about?

[50] Beth Kleber, archivist for the School of Visual Arts, in an email to the author: 25 April 2018 “…he was at SVA (then C&I) in 1950 (don't know if he started in summer or fall). Our registrar doesn't have any information beyond that.”

[51] Jules Feiffer in an email to the author: 29 July 2012.

[52] Jules Feiffer in an email to the author: 27 April 2018. The final Clifford comic drawn by Feiffer, dated Dec. 31 1950, also appears as part of Clifford collection published by Fantagraphics Books in 1988.

[53] Rund, Bizarre Comix v. 2, 1975, introduction.

[54] Bob Andelman, Will Eisner: A Spirited Life (Milwaukie, M Press, 2005), 100.

[55] Rund, Bizarre Comix v. 2, 1975, introduction.

[56] Andelman, Will Eisner: A Spirited Life, 103.

[57] A recently covered installment of Clifford, bears the pub. date of June 29, 1952.

[58] http://www.svaarchives.org/timeline.html

[59] Ibid.

[60] Even into the 1970s we can see Hogarth’s overemphasis on muscularity in Bilbrew’s depiction of women (giving rise to the Internet rumor that Bilbrew sometimes used Times Square transsexuals as models).

[61] “Yes, Gene was one of the students”: 24 Sept. 2012 Steve Ditko hand-written note to the author.

[62] Richard Pérez Seves, Eric Stanton & the History of the Bizarre Underground (Atglen, Schiffer, 2018), 37, 38.

[62] Rund, Bizarre Comix v. 2, 1975, introduction.

[63] Pérez Seves, Eric Stanton & the History of the Bizarre Underground, 35, 44.

[64] Rund, Bizarre Comix v. 2, 1975, introduction.

[65] Ibid.

[66] Ibid.

[67] Pérez Seves, Eric Stanton & the History of the Bizarre Underground, 45.

[68] Rund, Bizarre Comix v. 2, 1975, introduction.

[69] Nine chapter serials by the end of 1951: Battling Women, Fighting Femmes, Juanita Lady Wrestler, Dawn's Fighting Adventures, Dawn Battles the Amazons, Jill Undercover Girl, Poor Pamela, Diana's Ordeal, Perils of Diana.

[70] R.Q. Harmon, “A Conversation with Eric Stanton,” Bondage Life v. 1 n. 3, August 1978, 26.

[71] These are completion dates, although Klaw sold chapter/episode installments earlier.

[72] Alexander, as “Ander,” is associated with four titles: Peggy’s Distress on the Planet Venus (1952/53), Castle of Terror (1952/53), Belle of the Plains (1953), and Return Visit to Fetterland (1959: a Nutrix booklet).

[73] These dates represent Eneg’s Nutrix booklet art, although the Nutrix era as a whole extended from 1958-1964.

[74] Harmony Book Shop 112 West 49th St., shows Mishkin on the paperwork: #4770, 19 Feb. 1946.

[75] Pérez Seves, Eric Stanton & the History of the Bizarre Underground, 72.

[76] This was evidently an alternate dust jacket cover: a clever way of repackaging a mainstream art book for the “adult” market. The most common dust jacket cover features a B&W photo of a nude model.

[77] Crescent, Mercury, Chevron, Satan Press among the imprints. Also see: http://www.vintagesleaze.com/catalogs-evs-crescent.htm

[78] Much of his artwork for Malkin would have a strangely stiff or wooden quality.

[79] The major decision that, more or less, paved the way for the rest was “Massachusetts vs. Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure”: (a.k.a. “the U.S. Supreme Court’s Fanny Hill decision”), Robert V. Bienvenu II, The Development of Sadomasochism as a Cultural Style in the Twentieth-Century United States (PhD diss., Indiana University, 1998), 205; also, Stephen J. Gertz, “West Coast Blue,” Sin-a-rama (Los Angeles: Feral House, 2005), 27.

[80] “DeCurtis helped organized crime get its hooks into Mishkin’s Wholesale Books…”: R. Thomas Collins Jr., Newswalker: A Story for Sweeney, 107; also see “Mobsters Skim New York City Sex Industry Profits,” The New York Times, 27 July 1977.

[81] “Candor Books Inc.…”: the mail order business was established in late 1970, according to a 1971 Candor Books Inc. bulletin/supplement. It shared a Madison Square Station P.O. box, recalling Gargoyle Sales Corp.

[82] Paula Klaw offered to sell the surviving printing plates of her late brother’s Nutrix booklets to Edward Mishkin…: source is J.B. Rund, who heard it directly from Paula Klaw and Edward Mishkin, whose shops Rund used to frequent in the 1970s. The “M” of Mutrix alluded to the “M” of Mishkin.

[83] most often producing artwork that hinged on pandering, grindhouse-style violence.

[84] J.B. Rund interview by author: August 17, 2013.

[85] “At the local Flea Market, I met someone by the name of Jeffrey Goodman…”: J.B. Rund email to the author, 10 August 2013.

[82] Eric Kroll, The Art of Eric Stanton: For The Man Who Knows His Place, 8, 9.

[88] For the Mutrix booklet, Catfight.