Sex, Book Lies, and TV

Allison Janney as Margaret Scully reading Lolita in Masters of Sex.

Allison Janney as Margaret Scully reading Lolita in Masters of Sex.

It is St. Louis, 1958. A woman, middle-aged, married, upper-middle class, is in bed, reading. Her husband walks in. She puts the book aside. The book is Lolita. This is a shot from the first episode, “Parallax”, of the new, second, season of Showtime’s Masters of Sex, 25:48 in.

The shot is slightly odd, though. It is clear that the Lolita is a thick, single, hardbound volume in the green Olympia Press dust jacket. Only one Lolita matches that description: The single-volume hardcover issued by Steimatzky in Israel most probably in 1959 (A28.1, Israeli printing, variant a). So, why is the woman, Allison Janney as Margaret Scully, a university provost’s wife in 1958, reading a foreign edition of a book that was released in the U.S. by Putnam on 15 September 1958? How did she get a hold of it a year before it was issued? Did someone send it to her from Israel? Had she recently visited Israel? Is there a backstory here?

Probably not. The only backstory that makes sense is one that the show’s prop master would tell us. Take a close look at the still from the episode. The jacket is in remarkably good shape. Makes sense for 1958 or 1959. But not for today, 55 years later, for a prop master to have found a dj in such fine condition. Also, that dj has some small, illegible printing in the lower left-hand corner of its back cover. A real Steimatzky dj is blank on its back. So it’s not a real Steimatzky dj.

Another detail. The top of the hardcover binding peeking out from the top of the dj reveals a volume quarter-bound in black cloth and white paper. Ah, that’s the Putnam edition. So, what we have is a marriage of an almost Steimatzky dj with a Putnam hardbound binding. The prop master seems to have scrambled to come up with the prop that the script called for. He found a Putnam copy, but without the dj. He needed a dj so that the camera could pick up the title easily. (There is no title or other writing on the Putnam binding.) Somewhere he found a copy or photo of one of the Olympia Press issues, covers and spine, and had a facsimile dj made to fit the slightly larger Putnam binding. But I still can’t figure out what that writing is on the bottom-left of the back cover.

So much for nitpicking popular period-piece television.

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  1. Jay Livingston’s avatar

    I noticed the dust jacket too, even before reading your comment. But how difficult would it have been for the props master to enter “Lolita dust jacket” in Google Images and then copy and print the original? Surely that’s easier than finding a rare Israeli dust jacket. And it would look like new.

    Reply

    1. admin’s avatar

      That’s essentially what I said: The props master found an image and printed it. But I am now having second thoughts about exactly what Allison Janney is holding. It looks a bit more like a non-Steimatzky Olympia press dust jacket than a Steimatzky one. And, after looking at the front cover’s boarder, it looks like the dj has been trimmed. And, again, the book looks a little bit too small in Janney’s hand to be of a Putnam size, 21.5 X 14.6 cm.; it looks closer to Olympia size, 17.8 X 11.2 cm. or so. In any case, why is she reading a non-American edition? A mystery of “Masters of Sex”.

      Reply

    2. James’s avatar

      She doesn’t have to be reading an actual copy of Lolita of course – the book itself could be anything…. Unless Allison Janney of the ‘Method’ school, she would be quite happy to appear to be reading Lolita but not actually reading it 🙂

      Reply

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