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Saturday, 16 December 2017

George Bronson-Howard - Author, Playwright, Movie Director, Scriptwriter

I came across George Bronson-Howard in some early issues of The Popular Magazine. I read a couple of stories about the diplomatic agent, Norroy. They’re well-written stories. The pace is best described as genteel, and the evil-doers much more gentlemanly than you’d expect, but they’re redeemed by the characterization and settings. A partial description of Norroy in his first adventure should give you the flavor of the writing: His clothes were just a little too much the mode of the day, and one indefinably regretted that a man of his intelligence should spend the thought necessary for such ultra-fashionable attire.

Looking for more information about him, I didn’t find anything online except the dates of his birth in 1884 and death in 1922. A little digging unearthed a few interesting facts, I got sucked in and before I knew it I had accumulated a few pages of material on him. To do his life justice would need a book, this article is a start.

George (Fitzalan) Bronson-Howard (c. 1916)
George (Fitzalan) Bronson-Howard (c. 1916)


George Bronson-Howard was born George Howard in Baltimore, Maryland on Jan 7, 1884. I cannot identify his parents from birth records; Who’s Who in 1912 gives their names as William Warrington F. B. and Ann (Spese) Howard, with their address being The Relay House, Maryland. There is an interesting account of his childhood in a newspaper article:

Born in Howard County, Maryland, Jan 7, 1884, he was the son of a Baltimore merchant and insurance broker, who had a Confederate blockade runner for a father and an officer in the British Army for grandfather.

His elementary education was in a private school in London and the public schools of Baltimore and the City College there. At 14 when by amazing precocity he was ready to enter John Hopkins University, his mother died and his grief-stricken father committed suicide two weeks later. The promising youth was now facing life with four brothers and sisters to worry about.

The mention of private schools in London is probably fiction. What seems to be true is that he went to work at the age of fourteen.

His first job was as messenger in the Weather Bureau at Washington. While thus employed, he submitted successfully to the first of a series of civil service examinations.

During the next seven years young Howard busied himself as reporter on the Baltimore American, clerk in the office of the Secretary of the Navy, stenographer at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, reporter on the Brooklyn Citizen, press representative for one of the Frohman theatres and for one of George W. Lederer's productions. A reporter on the New York Herald, clerk in the Bureau of Navigation at Washington, clerk in the office of the Collector of Customs at Manila, assistant to the Collector of Customs at Iloilo, on the Island of Panay.

He was also a newspaper correspondent at Manila, a member of the Philippine constabulary, contributor of fiction stories to various newspapers and magazines, employee of the Imperial Chinese Customs Service at Canton, agent of the Imperial Chinese Government in Shantung Province, war correspondent for the London Chronicle with the Russian Army in Manchuria and a reporter in San Francisco.

While this may sound exaggerated, most of it is true – he was a government employee, moving around till he found a department that would send him abroad. He worked as a journalist in the Philippines, came back to Baltimore to work as a reporter where he became acquainted with H.L. Mencken. Then he went to Manchuria to cover the Russo-Japanese war.

While in the Philippines, he started selling fiction. At the time the major fiction markets were the slick magazines – The Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s and their ilk, and a few pulp magazines selling adventure fiction – Munsey’s Argosy, All-Story and Street and Smith’s Popular Magazine. Bronson-Howard made his first sale to Argosy in 1903. The Making of Hazelton, published in the July issue, is the story of a journalist who doesn’t think twice about impersonating another man to unearth a family’s secret scandal.  But his true success was to come with his next sale, to the Popular Magazine.

Launched in 1903 as a magazine targeting boys, under the editorship of Charles Agnew Maclean Popular had grown into a first-class adventure fiction magazine. The January 1905 issue featured the first serial instalment of Ayesha, Sir Rider Haggard’s sequel to She (short for She-who-must-be-obeyed). It also featured Bronson-Howard’s first story in the Popular. The Ruling of the Fourth Estate was a story of newspaper life and municipal corruption in San Francisco, the city where Bronson-Howard had landed after his sojourn in the Philippines.

His first story about Yorke Norroy was in the April 1905 issue of Popular. It’s an interesting story of the genesis of the country of Panama. Norroy is a secret agent, working for the government, but without the protection afforded a diplomat. On the surface, he seems to be a fashionable dandy without a complicated thought in his head, but he’s an intelligent man of action. I think there was an element of wish-fulfilment in these stories – Norroy is a member of one of the first families of Baltimore who, forced by circumstances to earn a living, ends up as a secret agent living a life of mystery with an unlimited expense account.

The readers must have liked it, because a Norroy story was printed in each of the next six issues. The next 2 years saw him having one or two stories every month in the magazines. The first seven stories in the Norroy series were collected in book form in 1907 – Norroy, Diplomatic Agent. The success of the book made him financially independent for some time, and he branched out into the theater – writing plays alone and as a collaborator.

Norroy, Diplomatic Agent - the first book in the Yorke Norroy series, published 1907
Norroy, Diplomatic Agent - the first book in the Yorke Norroy series, published 1907

The same year saw him married for the first time. From a newspaper report of the marriage: Love at first sight in Baltimore on Monday, a narrow escape from a burning house in that city that night, elopement and marriage in the Little Church Around the Corner, New York, the next day and departure for a European tour on Saturday—these are the experiences which last week befell Miss Dos skinner of Norfolk, now Mrs. George Bronson Howard.

Mrs. Bronson Howard - the first wife - nee Dos Skinner
Mrs. Bronson Howard - the first wife - nee Dos Skinner
Mrs. Howard left Norfolk two weeks ago to visit friends in Baltimore, named Shaffer. She met Mr. Howard, who is a magazine writer. Monday morning, and it was a case of love at first sight. He proposed and was accepted. That night the residence of the Shaffers caught fire and was completely destroyed, Miss Skinner escaping with only her street attire.

"Next day she announced that she was going to Hartford, Conn. to visit friends there, and was accompanied to the railway station by one of her friends. There she met Mr. Howard, through an agreement made the day before, and each pretending surprise, also expressed themselves delighted at the prospect of a trip to New York together. Arriving at the metropolis, they hastened to the famous Little Church Around the Corner and were wedded. After a hasty selection of a trousseau, Mr. and Mrs. Howard returned to Philadelphia and left Saturday for Southampton. They will visit London and Paris during their honeymoon. The couple, on their return from Europe, will reside In New York.

The romance was short lived. The couple quarreled bitterly and separated on their honeymoon. Bronson-Howard came back to New York and his wife came back two weeks later. She filed for divorce in January, 1908 and obtained it in February. During the proceedings, she charged that “her literary man pounded out twenty thousand words a day during their honeymoon, repulsed her with the exclamation “I got to make a deadline!,” went to bed at night with his shoes on, started to dress in the morning by putting his hat on and used her beauty lotions…”. In 1907, he wrote 22 stories for the magazines.

After returning he continued writing stories for the magazines – from 1908, he worked mainly on plays with Wilson Mizner; his fiction output that year dropped to about half of the previous year. It remained at that level in 1909, and dropped to a single story in 1910. The reason? Possibly drug addiction. From a biography of the Mizner brothers, The Legendary Mizners by Alva Johnston: The original bond between Mizner and Bronson-Howard was their taste for the opium pipe. A third party at their “campfire” was a literary critic who wore a monocle and Oriental robes, put in his spare time catching the Encyclopaedia Britannica in errors, and later became one of the top murder-mystery writers in the country (It’s likely this is referring to Willard Huntington Wright, the author of the Philo Vance stories). The old belief was that hitting the pipe was bad for the chuckleheaded multitude but excellent for Tiffany intellects like those of Mizner, Bronson-Howard, and the man with the monocle. This tradition was supported by the examples of Coleridge, Rossetti, Crabbe, and other inspired hopheads; De Quincey had exclaimed, “O just, subtile, and mighty opium!;” Baudelaire had glorified the paradises of opium and hashish. Sherlock Holmes was a more recent testimonial to the affinity between genius and dope. Opium-smoking is bad for the nerves, however, and it was responsible for some of Bronson-Howard’s worst literary efforts. “

“Mizner, Bronson-Howard, and the monocled encyclopedia-hater adopted a young Argentinian beauty called Teddie Gerard, who is said to have been the “chef’ or “cooker” in charge of the complicated chore of heating, bubbling, and stirring opium pills to prepare them for smoking. According to eminent Broadway chroniclers, the three men coached the girl, corrected her diction, cultivated her personality, and started her on a stage career. The three Pygmalions were left at the post. Their protegee soared to greatness on Broadway, became La Belle Theodora in Paris and Teddie the Great in London, and compiled a list of adorers that included a Russian grand duke, a Hungarian prince, a couple of titled Britishers, a New York real-estate baron, and the heir of one of America’s large fortunes.

In 1909, she started appearing in plays, and in 1910 as she started touring with a stage company, this happened:
“Bronson-Howard was distracted when she first showed signs of forsaking the little poppy-steeped home on Forty-fourth Street. Later on, he sat down to his avenging typewriter and wrote the customary invective against her, but at the moment he contented himself with merely stealing back a diamond ring he had given her and threatening her life with a bowie knife that had an eight-inch blade.”

No wonder his fiction output dropped to a single story in 1910. This incident of threatening Teddie Gerard was to lead to another major sequence of events in his life; entangling him with the justice system. From a newspaper article: “George Bronson Howard, the playwright, was paroled indefinitely by Magistrate Corrigan in Jefferson Market court yesterday, on the charge of forcibly taking a diamond ring from Mrs. Theresa Raymond, known behind the footlights as Theresa Gerard. She has left this jurisdiction for Reno, Nev., the headquarters of a divorce Colony. The magistrate intimated that when she came back the case against Bronson Howard would be pushed. And meantime the Court has instructed the police to hold the diamond ring, valued at $740 which the dramatist claims to be his.”

Howard was incensed at the magistrate’s behavior – when the original charge was dropped, he remained in prison on another charge of carrying concealed weapons, initiated by the magistrate. He had to be bailed out by Mizner and to complete his humiliation, even after the charges of theft were dropped by Teddie Gerard, he still had to deal with the charge of carrying a concealed weapon – this almost put him in jail again as the police got a warrant for his arrest.

From 1911 to 1914, he wrote 35 articles/stories for the magazines, most of the fiction appearing in the Popular, and a series of articles about Broadway in the Smart Set in 1913. A series of his stories about Francois Villon, originally published in The Century magazine, were made into four films in 1914. This series is notable today for being one of the earliest surviving appearances of Lon Chaney, the Man of a Thousand Faces.
Ad for the Francois Villon movie serial authored by George Bronson-Howard
Ad for the Francois Villon movie serial authored by George Bronson-Howard

He must have been brooding over his treatment by the judge all this while; in 1915, he wrote a novel, God’s Man, and skewered the judge in it. From the Mizner biography - “When he wrote the novel “God’s Man” to square accounts with the disrespectful Magistrate, he christened his villain Cornigan and on one page spelled it “Corrigan” to make sure that nobody would misunderstand. The Magistrate sued the publisher for two hundred thousand dollars. Several witnesses told of hearing Bronson-Howard say he had written the book to get even with the judge. One testified that the writer had refreshed his inspiration by smoking opium. “You mustn’t say ‘opium,’” interposed Justice Goff, who presided at the trial. “That’s a conclusion. Say he was smoking ‘a substance.’” The witness then described how Bronson-Howard manipulated “a substance” over an alcohol lamp, inhaled the smoke from a bamboo pipe with a porcelain bowl, and soon began to look funny.”
With all this going on, his fiction output for the magazines dropped to three stories in 1915 and 1916. He decided to move to California and get a fresh start away from New York. He spent some time touring Southern California in his Hupmobile. Then he lost the libel case “The jury returned a verdict of thirty-five thousand dollars in favor of Corrigan, but a higher court reversed it on a technicality, and the case was never retried.” It was safer for him to remain based on the West Coast, and that’s what he did.

In 1916, he wrote a series of original stories for a serial called “The Social Pirates”. The serial ended up having 15 two-reel episodes, it must have been successful. Unusually for the time, the protagonists are a pair of women. In a reversal of the usual progression from print to screen, the stories were rewritten by Hugh C Weir and syndicated in newspapers.

Ad for The Social Pirates movie serial authored by George Bronson-Howard
Ad for The Social Pirates movie serial authored by George Bronson-Howard

1917 saw the appearance of the Norroy stories in film, with Bronson-Howard directing eight 2-reel episodes. No stories appeared in any magazines this year, he was busy with the movies. He got married for the second time, this time to a Ziegfeld Follies chorus girl – Zitelka Dolores.

Ad for The Perils of the Secret Service, movie serial, authored by George Bronson-Howard
Ad for The Perils of the Secret Service, movie serial, authored by George Bronson-Howard


1918 saw five stories of Yorke Norroy in the Popular, impressive considering he joined up in the British Ambulance Corps in World War 1. These stories were later made into a movie serial (The Further Adventures of Yorke Norroy) in 1922. The last Norroy serial in Popular, The Devil’s Chaplain, was printed in 1920. The good news that year was that the verdict in the libel suit was overturned.

Bronson Howard claimed to have been injured in the war, and became depressed as a result. No stories in 1921, six more in 1922. On November 20, 1922, Bronson-Howard committed suicide by inhaling gas.

He had obtained a long tube which he had attached to the jet, stuffed up all the cracks in the window with paper, and then turned on the gas and went into a closet of his bedroom, carrying one end of the tube with him. Friends found him there shortly before noon. He had been dead for several hours.

He had remained up until 2:30 o'clock in the morning with J.C. Dubois, engaged on a scenario. He had asked Dubois about gas and how It worked; how long It took to kill a man and was it painful or not. It is believed that Howard's suicide was caused by despondency over his physical condition and over his lack of money. He left no explanatory note.

Howard was gassed while serving with the British army and drugs which he was forced to take had sapped his vitality. He seemed to have lost all Initiative.

Stories bearing his name continued appearing in 1923 and 1924. His wife sold the movie rights to some of his stories after his death, and the last movies to be made from his books were produced in 1928 and 1929.  

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this research on a short but fascinating life of a popular fiction author. I collect POPULAR MAGAZINE and have read a couple stories by Bronson-Howard. I'll have to give him another try.

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