Pulp magazines are odd and ephemeral things. The legacies of their publishers and creators are equally so.
The pulps produced dozens of long lasting characters, thousands of interesting writers, two crackpot religions
and left vestiges of itself scattered around the publishing industry. On rare occasions, the publishers managed
to transcend the industry. Frank Munsey, the industry’s creator-- and one time fifth richest person in America --
was dismissed with the unfortunate epitaph “rest in trust” and forgotten quickly after his death. Today if
Munsey’s name is remembered at all, it is for the suburb founded on land he once owned but seldom visited.
When last spotted, Bernarr Macfadden was jumping out of airplanes, an 80 year old relic who had outlived both
his fame and his fortune. Joseph Delacorte left behind a band shell in Central Park. His Dell imprint now is only
found on the spines of crossword puzzles and the stray paperback. Ditto Fawcett, Street & Smith, Ace and
Avon—all musty trademarks owned by faceless conglomerates peddling paperback escape.
One old pulp empire continues fairly much intact, although under a new name. It is no longer in the publishing
business and has outlived its founder by more than forty years. At this point it has spent more time in operation
as a charity than it ever did as a seller of cheap sensation. The name has appeared under artworks on loan to
museums and on small brass plates detailing the funding of various endowments. In the worlds of paperbacks,
magazines and comic books it was known as
For decades New York society has known it as the Hillman Periodical Trust or the Hillman Family Foundation,
words usually following “A Gift From.” Today it is called the Rita & Alex Hillman Family Foundation, the core
activity of which is putting nursing students through school, over 1200 so far. All of its current funds can be
traced back to profits from the sale of silly little magazines produced from the late 1930s until 1961. Like its
founder, Hillman Publications transcended its medium. It has made humanity its business. As pulp magazine
legacies go, it doesn’t get any better than that.
|Empire of a Public Citizen:
A History of Alex Hillman’s Publishing Ventures
by Mark Lax (2010)
More words have been used to describe Alex Hillman’s art collection than the man himself or his businesses.
That probably would have suited Alex Hillman. Alex Hillman was not Alex Hillman’s favorite subject. Although he
was no slouch when it came to promoting his business, most of the information we have on his specific motives
There were no gum cards for businessmen back then. There was no fandom involved in any of his ventures at
the time. Even with the proliferation of pulp magazine histories, the rise comic book fandom and increased
interest in the paperback field, very little has been done to document this publisher. Part of the problem is that
it is hard to see the forest for the trees with Hillman Publications. If you approach it from a perspective with a
bias towards any specific type of publication, then it appears that Hillman Publications dabbled in many different
things. They were never a big paperback publisher. The firm seems to have bypassed the boom in that field,
getting out just as it got hot. In comic books, it has been designated a Golden Age publisher, even though it
continued putting out titles through the early 1950s. In form and style, however, Hillman never left the Golden
Age, retaining the same anthology presentation and original size until the end. Even in pulp magazines,
Hillman’s firm is hard to pin down. It is not so much a pulp magazine publisher as it is a slick magazine publisher
which issued titles in pulp genres. The firm has been dismissed as an imitator of Macfaddden’s, despite being
far more diversified.
Hillman Publications was a firm middleweight, a big small business. Most firms Hillman’s size specialized. Hillman
Publications was a multi-line publisher almost from the start. It went for the broad middle of any market that it
played in. When you look at the number of titles the firm put out, they seem small, products of a bit player.
When you look at the longevity of the magazines Hillman Publications produced (and where possible, circulation
figures) the method to their madness becomes clear. Their objective was not to put out as many products as
they could, but rather to put out products which sold very well. They had longstanding hits in several printing
One of the strengths of Hillman Publications, as a business, was that they
were also a magazine distributor. This isn’t a portion of the business that
leaves much in the way of historical mementos or elicits fan interest, but it
is the reason that they weren’t quite as scattershot as other publishers.
Although they did their share of innovating, this publisher wasn’t operating
on pure guesswork. They could spot trends very quickly.
Hillman Publications was a big player in digests and had strong positions in
mass market slick magazines, two areas which glean little historical
attention. Digests are viewed by pulp magazine experts and paperback
historians as a weigh station between the pulps and the paperbacks, a
transient form. Weigh station or not, digests were what the firm was built up
from. Many slick publishers occasionally took dives into genre magazines,
which can be viewed as rich boys slumming for some quick cash. With
Hillman Publications, the opposite was true. The mass market slicks were
the result of a long slog up the publishing food chain, a testament to the
nimble firm’s focus and success.
Even in the areas where there is historical interest, Hillman seems to have
picked the wrong horse as far as current fans are concerned. The firm
only had one superhero comic. That’s where the interest in such things is.
Perhaps forgotten is the title’s longevity or that this one comic outsold
some publishers’ entire lines. Hillman was also big in westerns—in digests,
in comics and in paperback—a genre with little luster today. In pulps it
stuck to True Crime and Romance Confessions titles, two genres which
are dismissed to the point of not being cataloged, despite the fact that they
were the industry’s bread and butter.
Dismissing the bread and butter of a medium seems absurd, as does
dismissing a publisher with such a long track record in what was pulp
fiction. Moreover, Hillman Publications had a certain flair to its offerings.
Unlike a lot of publishers, they didn’t try for a uniform look, even across
products which were in the same genre. Each project had its own little life
unto itself. Many times their execution was exemplary. When they hit, they
hit it out of the park. (As we shall see, they struck out a lot, too.) Other
people copied them, but they seldom cloned their own successes. It was a
very unique firm.
Alex Hillman was a very unique person. Hillman
Publications represents only a fraction of his
professional career. During his lifetime, his role as a
publisher was overshadowed by his reputation as a wily
investor—the type of investor other investors wanted
sitting on boards of directors. The histories of most
small businessmen is that they have a monomaniacal
focus, they work to the exclusion of all outside interests
and then, through pluck and luck, over time, either
succeed or fail. Their creation, their business, lives on,
a monument to a spent life. This is not the case with
Alex Hillman. Like his firm, Hillman was a very diversified
Alex Hillman eventually outgrew Hillman Publications. He
had a jaded enough eye to sell it out when he could get
the most money for it, and walked away to pursue other
interests. That’s a fairly rare event. This wasn’t an
internet firm started on a lark and then sold to fools with
a stock offering. This was a firm he built from nothing
and nurtured for 25 years. Of course it helps to have
other interests, of which Hillman had no shortage.
He was a public figure and occasionally a public
servant. Although he wasn’t a star like Donald Trump or
even Bernarr Macfadden, he was a very well known
character in New York society. Hillman was a hands-on
activist, both in politics and the arts. He was a
philanthropist with a specific niche for promoting
modern visual arts. Not only did Hillman’s art collection
wind up spending most of its time on loan to museums
for public view, Hillman commissioned two pieces of
|Pictured above is Alex Hillman (center male)
at the 1964 dedication of “Construction in
space in the 3rd and 4th dimension," a
bronze sculpture by Antoine Pevsner which
was installed at the University of Chicago.
(Archival Photographic Files, apf2-04968,
Special Collections Research Center,
University of Chicago Library.) Hillman also
donated a sculpture by Henry Moore to Yale
|Alex Hillman made many important contributions to the world outside of the area of publishing.
He is,also a very interesting and historically significant
pulp magazine publisher.
What follows is the story of his publishing career.
|We Don’t Know Everything!
Details as to Hillman’s early life were verified by direct sources, whom I would very much like to thank. I never met Alex Hillman and many of the
sources that I have are indirect, from court documents and statements given long after the events transcribed occurred. Alex Hillman was a cagey
businessman in a field where trade secrets and deals were kept close to the vest. There is a very good chance that I or some of my sources have screwed
up a detail here or there. Your comments, criticisms and corrections are very much invited. Please contact me at wunker(at)yahoo.com.