This dramatic and lurid oil painting was created by Rudy Nappi as the original cover for the now-infamous Jane Manning novel Reefer Girl, published by Detective House in New York under the Cameo Books imprint in 1953. The cover slug describes the work as “The frank, biting story of a young girl of the slums, and how she was caught in the toils of evil.” Apparently, Reefer Girl was so biting and out of bounds for 1950s Middle America that when the book went into a second edition in 1956 both the title and cover image were changed. The book’s second life under the title Young Sinners featured a more subdued take on drug culture by Rudolph Belarski, showing a teenage basement party rather than the lone underworld beauty seen here. Reefer Girl is unquestionably one of the most iconic and cult classic paperbacks ever published in America. In the 1950s, few subjects were more taboo than drugs and drug use, and when depicted in art and literature, drugs were shown as a gateway to depravity, promiscuity, insanity and death. Even when presented in the guise of a morality tale, only the most counter-culture pulps, paperbacks and men’s magazines were willing to tackle the topic of drug use, and to present a beautiful woman sitting alone in her bedroom smoking marijuana was unheard of. A fantastically rendered, moody view, this painting has tremendous appeal both as a standout example of paperback pulp art, and also for its iconic view of American bohemia.
A slight variation of this image by Rudy Nappi crossed the auction block in 2010 and is far and away the auction record for the artist, even though, at auction it was noted that the work being offered was not the original cover for Reefer Girl. In the variation, the signature appears in a different place, the neon sign in the window is substantially different and the verso notes that the painting was considered as a cover for a Pyramid Book titled Tavern Girl, but not used. That Nappi reimagined this piece for another proposed book cover shows the power the image had at the time of its creation, and continues to hold to this day. This is a tremendously important iconic pop culture artifact and the original cover illustration for one of the most famous subversive drug culture titles of all time.