Born in Springfield, MA; son of Robert and Elizabeth Server. Education: Attended New York University Film School.
Home—Brooklyn, New York. Agent— Roslyn Targ, Roslyn Targ Literary Agency, Inc., 105 W. 13th St. 15E, New York, NY 10011.
Screenwriter: Words become Pictures, Main Street Press (Lawrenceville, NJ), 1987.
Sharks, P.R. Books (New York, NY), 1989.
Tigers, Portland House (Houston, TX), 1991.
Danger Is My Business: An Illustrated History of the Fabulous Pulp Magazines, Chronicle Books (San Francisco, CA), 1993.
Over My Dead Body: The Sensational Age of the American Paperback: 1945-1955, Chronicle Books (San Francisco, CA), 1994.
Sam Fuller: Film Is a Battleground, McFarland (Jefferson, NC), 1994.
The Golden Age of Ocean Liners, Smithmark (New York, NY), 1996.
(Editor, with Ed Gorman and Martin H. Greenberg) The Big Book of Noir, Carroll & Graf (New York, NY), 1998.
Asian Pop Cinema: Bombay to Tokyo, Chronicle Books (San Francisco, CA), 1999.
Robert Mitchum: "Baby, I Don't Care," St. Martin's (New York, NY), 2001.
Encyclopedia of Pulp Fiction Writers: The Essential Guide to More Than 200 Pulp Pioneers and Mass-Market Masters, Facts on File (New York, NY), 2002.
Ava Gardner: "Love Is Nothing," St. Martin's (New York, NY), 2006.
Contributor to The Fine Art of Murder, Carroll & Graf, 1993; author of "Interview with John Bright" in El Enemigo Publico (a Spanish translation of the screenplay to Public Enemy), Viridiana. Contributor to periodicals, including Film Comment, Films in Review, and Mystery Scene.
Lee Server is a versatile writer whose subjects include literary history, film criticism, and even animals. He is the author of Screenwriter: Words become Pictures, which features interviews with twelve Hollywood screenwriters from the 1930s to the 1950s, the animal books Sharks and Tigers, and Sam Fuller: Film Is a Battleground, a critical study of the director of the motion pictures Shock Corridor, The Naked Kiss, and The Big Red One.
Among Server's most widely reviewed publications are Over My Dead Body: The Sensational Age of the American Paperback: 1945-1955 and Danger Is My Business: An Illustrated History of the Fabulous Pulp Magazines, a chronicle of the rise and decline of the pulp, a type of periodical popular during the early to mid-twentieth century and named after the rough paper it was printed on. A precursor to paperback novels as well as comic books, the pulp was a popular medium for stories in many genres (including romance, adventure, horror, and science fiction) and Server presents nearly one hundred full-color pictures of the often bizarre and gruesome covers. In Newsday, reviewer April Bernard called Danger Is My Business "exceptionally well-designed," with "lurid cover illustrations reproduced in their full glory, along with priceless samples of the storytelling art."
"Top [pulp] writers could pound out two million to three million words a year, coming up with titles like ‘The Priestess of Shame’ and ‘When the Death Bat Flies,’" according to Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. Although many of these short stories and novellas were formulaic and forgettable, authors such as Tennessee Williams and Ray Bradbury published their first work in pulp magazines. The supernatural fiction of H.P. Lovecraft—who is considered by contemporary critics to be foremost among twentieth-century gothic horror writers—frequently appeared in the pulp magazine Weird Tales and is excerpted along with representative passages from other genres in Danger Is My Business. Appraising the volume, New York Times Book Review contributor Daniel Harris concluded that the world of pulps—"with temptresses slipping stilettos from their garter belts" and "nefarious aviators dodging the tracers of ace pilots"—was "a world frozen in mid-scream, and Mr. Server is to be congratulated for preserving these gloriously kitschy tableaux."
In the years following World War II, the market for "pop fiction" turned toward paperback books. The boom in inexpensive paperbacks, initially aimed at returning servicemen, is covered by Server in Over My Dead Body. Besides providing a history of the postwar paperback phenomenon, Server presents nearly one hundred full-color reproductions of paperback covers, many of which are characterized by lurid sex and violence and are "delightfully disgusting," in the words of Rebecca Ascher-Walsh in Entertainment Weekly.
Server informs readers in Over My Dead Body that paperbacks "catered to the former soldiers' supposed preference for sexy, violent stories, plainly written and not too long. The grim sordid tone of so many postwar paperbacks could also be ascribed to the veterans' tastes—readers who had been trained to kill were understandably inclined to have a darker than average viewpoint." Science-fiction visionary Philip K. Dick, as well as crime novelist Mickey Spillane—who, according to Server, penned "blood-and-sex-drenched mysteries of an unprecedented ferocity"—saw their first works published as paperbacks during this era. Two noted Beat novels, Junkie by William S. Burroughs and On the Road by Jack Kerouac, were paperback originals published in the 1950s.
Critics who reviewed Over My Dead Body appreciated Server's efforts to preserve the sensational era of early paperback fiction. "Server is best when describing the early subgenres which, then as now, blossomed from the seed of a single bestseller," stated a reviewer in Publishers Weekly, using as an example the "hillbilly fiction" that resulted from God's Little Acre, the popular novel by Erskine Caldwell set in the rural South. "If you remember when paperbacks cost only twenty-five cents and were known as pocket books because they really fit inside a pocket," commented Robert Armstrong in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, "Lee Server's illustrated history of the medium is sure to bring a smile and a nod of recognition."
Server later explored the pulp medium in his Encyclopedia of Pulp Fiction Writers: The Essential Guide to More Than 200 Pulp Pioneers and Mass-Market Masters. In the work, Server presents biographical and bibliographical information on authors of westerns, science fiction, horror tales, crime stories, and romances. He offers profiles of notable authors, including Raymond Chandler, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Ian Fleming, as well as lesser-known talents such as Baroness Emmuska Orczy, who wrote The Adventures of the Scarlet Pimpernel. "The biographies themselves make for engrossing reading," observed a contributor in Publishers Weekly. Library Journal critic Bobbie Wrinkle stated that the author demonstrates "how the writing has adjusted to changes in society and the marketplace, closely reflecting the predominant cultural mores."
Reviewing Sam Fuller in Booklist, Gordon Flagg described the B-movie director as "the most iconoclastic figure ever to flourish in Hollywood's studio system," and stated that Fuller "deserves a major critical biography." For Flagg, Server's "hodgepodge of interviews with Fuller and various collaborators, a film-by-film-rundown of his career, and other materials" fell short. However, Flagg did find the book worthwhile, praising the lengthy Fuller interview along with information regarding the director's novels, unfinished projects, and films yet to be released in the United States.
In Asian Pop Cinema: Bombay to Tokyo, Server offers another illustrated history similar in format to Danger Is My Business and Over My Dead Body, combining interviews, salient information, and graphics drawn from posters and movie stills. According to reviewer Jennifer Howard in the Washington Post Book World: "Server travels though the region country by country, pausing to deliver compact but usefully thorough mini-lessons on the history of the film industry in each place." The individual industries covered include Hong Kong, Korea, India, Japan, China, Taiwan, Southeast Asia, and the Philippines. Server also examines a range of Asian film genres, from animated films to sword epics, from gangster, erotic, horror, and fantasy movies to art-house classics. A Publishers Weekly writer found Asian Pop Cinema to be "a brisk education in Asian film culture."
Server's 2001 biography, Robert Mitchum: "Baby, I Don't Care," portrays the motion picture actor known for his tough-guy image as "the hell-raiser, the lout, the outlaw … the poet, the auto-didact, the lyric philosopher, the left-wing firebrand, far-right crank, depressed loner, harried husband." Born in 1914, his father an alcoholic railroad worker and his mother a woman with bohemian interests, Mitchum ran away from home at the age of fourteen and rode freight trains during the Great Depression. He worked at a variety of manual labor jobs, including that of a stevedore, a sheet metal worker, and even a stint on a Georgia chain gang, before he arrived in Hollywood in 1943 and decided to try his hand at acting. After his first appearance in a Hopalong Cassidy western, more roles quickly followed, but it was not until 1945 and the movie G.I. Joe that his star began to rise. Over the next fifty years, Mitchum appeared in over a hundred films, gaining not only worldwide popularity but also respect as an actor capable of powerful and sensitive portrayals, perhaps most notably as the mad preacher in The Night of the Hunter, and the equally obsessive ex-con in Cape Fear. At the same time, Mitchum became infamous for his personal life, which was filled with excessive drinking, drugs, carousing, infidelities, personal conflicts, and an open and often-expressed disdain for the industry that had brought him success.
Discussing Robert Mitchum in Book, reviewer Don McLeese described it as an "exhaustively researched, engagingly flippant biography." Server's study, according to McLeese, "begins as a love letter, yet ultimately becomes a work of considerable complexity, ambivalence and depth." McLeese credited Server with embracing the contradictions in Mitchum's life rather than trying to unravel them. Incidents such as Mitchum beating a co-star nearly unconscious, his lawsuit against Confidential Magazine, and the actor's 1948 arrest for marijuana, abound in Server's account, which also details Mitchum's increasing decline into alcoholism and hostility in his later years. Yet "Server is at his best describing Mitchum's fine acting," stated a reviewer in Publishers Weekly. The same critic concluded: "This is a well-researched, highly entertaining and revealing biography that contextualizes Mitchum in the broader world of industry and national economics, business and politics."
Server profiled another Hollywood legend in Ava Gardner: "Love Is Nothing," "a no-holds-barred view of a larger-than-life star," observed Booklist contributor Bill Ott. Gardner, an alluring beauty who appeared in such acclaimed films as Showboat, On the Beach, and Night of the Iguana, was equally famous for her disastrous marriages to actor Mickey Rooney, musician Artie Shaw, and singer Frank Sinatra. Born in 1922 in rural North Carolina, Gardner was discovered when an MGM talent scout spotted her photograph in a store window. She arrived in Hollywood in 1941, a raw talent who appeared in a number of unremarkable features before landing her breakout role as a femme fatale in the 1946 film The Killers. Gardner appeared in a host of films during the next decade, earning an Academy Award nomination for her work in Mogambo, before heading to Spain in 1957, weary from her failed romances and hard-drinking lifestyle. Gardner later moved to London, where she died in 1990.
"What made Gardner who she was?" asked Guardian contributor Carole Cadwalladr. "It's the great, unanswered question at the centre of this book. There is nothing in the early years to suggest her character to come and it is to Server's great credit that he doesn't attempt retroactively to invent it." Cadwalladr added, "It is as if her character wasn't so much revealed over time, as forged in the furnaces of Hollywood's industrial complex." In Ava Gardner, observed a Kirkus Reviews contributor, "Server writes with a contagious enthusiasm for his subject and a solid grasp of Hollywood history that Ava's fans and film buffs will enjoy." According to Peter Bogdanovich, writing in the New York Times Book Review, the biography "could be … characterized as an extended toast to her. For no matter how objective Server tries to appear in detailing the highs and lows of her 67 years—the three marriages, the numerous affairs, the binges, the nightlong cruising of low-life byways and bordellos, the mainly poor movies she was in—he cannot really hide his essential fondness for her. It is the kind of affection virtually every one of the more than 100 people he interviewed felt and spoke of with enthusiasm, the kind a reader too will find hard to resist."
Server once commented in CA: "After attending New York University, I spent a number of years traveling in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere, with lengthy residences in Thailand, India, and Greece. I lived a beachcomber existence on a modest income from writing travel articles and dozens of ‘erotic’ novels for low-end paperback houses. I eventually returned to the United States. Years of hack writing followed, during which I turned out reams of anything that would sell, from record reviews to recipes.
"Beginning with Screenwriter, I began to concentrate on more personal projects, reflecting my longtime interest in film and literature and various aspects of pop culture. Although the books involve much historical research—a great deal of it first-hand—I consider each one a creative project, the material shaped and the illustrations chosen for intended dramatic effects. It would be fair to say that the choice of subjects shows a certain predilection for art on the fringes of the culture. One review of Danger Is My Business called it ‘wrong-side-of-the-tracks Americana,’ and I would go along with that."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Server, Lee, Over My Dead Body: The Sensational Age of the Paperback: 1945-1955, Chronicle Books (San Francisco, CA), 1994.
Book, March, 2001, Don McLeese, review of Robert Mitchum: "Baby, I Don't Care."
Booklist, April 15, 2003, review of Encyclopedia of Pulp Fiction Writers: The Essential Guide to More Than 200 Pulp Pioneers and Mass-Market Masters, p. 1499; March 1, 2006, Bill Ott, review of Ava Gardner: "Love Is Nothing," p. 54.
Entertainment Weekly, June 3, 1994, Rebecca Ascher-Walsh, review of Over My Dead Body, p. 52; March 30, 2001, Gillian Flynn, "The Noir Star," p. 62.
Kirkus Reviews, February 1, 2006, review of Ava Gardner, p. 126.
Library Journal, February 1, 2003, Bobbie Wrinkle, review of Encyclopedia of Pulp Fiction Writers, p. 79.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 13, 1993, Kenneth Turan, review of Danger Is My Business.
Newsday, April 4, 1993, April Bernard, review of Danger Is My Business, p. 36.
New York Times Book Review, July 25, 1993, Daniel Harris, review of Danger Is My Business; April 23, 2006, Peter Bogdanovich, "Ava's Allure," review of Ava Gardner, p. 1.
People Weekly, April 9, 2001, Victoria Balfour, review of Robert Mitchum, p. 59.
Publishers Weekly, April 11, 1994, review of Over My Dead Boby, p. 61; February 15, 1999, review of Asian Pop Cinema; November 20, 2000, review of Robert Mitchum, p. 53; November 25, 2002, review of Encyclopedia of Pulp Fiction Writers, p. 56.
Spectator, April 29, 2006, Byron Rogers, "She Was Only a Farmer's Daughter …," review of Ava Gardner.
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), May 29, 1994, Robert Armstrong, review of Over My Dead Body.
Variety, May 22, 2006, Diane Garrett, "Screen Siren Surrendered to Passion," review of Ava Gardner, p. 51.
Washington Post, March 18, 2001, Louis Bayard, "Tough Guy," p. T4.
Washington Post Book World, June 7, 1999, Jennifer Howard, review of Asian Pop Cinema: Bombay to Tokyo.
Guardian Unlimited,http://books.guardian.co.uk/ (April 30, 2006), Carole Cadwalladr, "A Saint She Ain't," review of Ava Gardner.