Saturday 29 September 2018

J. Edward Leithead - Author, Dime novel historian

[J. Edward Leithead wrote over 200 stories for the pulps from 1922 to 1950. In this article, originally published in True West, Feb 1967 (also republished in Pulp Vault 14), he reminisces about writing for the western pulps, starting with Western Story in the 1920s to the end in the 1950s. He also wrote many articles on the dime novels which appeared in the fanzine Dime Novel Roundup.]

Author J. Edward Leithead c. 1926
Author J. Edward Leithead c. 1926

Saturday 22 September 2018

Artist Robert G. Harris - article in Arizona Highways

From 1934-37, Robert G. Harris painted more than 70 covers for pulp magazines. Almost two-thirds of those were for Street and Smith's Wild West Weekly, and a few more western covers for the Thrilling magazine group. David Saunders' Pulp Artists site has a nice biographical article on him here.

This article by Amy Abrams about his work in Arizona Highways magazine has some great photos of the artist at work, and him and his wife posing for covers. A couple of his cover paintings featured in the article below:

Thrilling Ranch Stories, July 1935 cover by R.G. Harris

Cover for Complete Stories, April 1936 by R.G. Harris His wife was the model who posed for the woman on the cover
Cover for Complete Stories, April 1936 by R.G. Harris
His wife was the model who posed for the woman on the cover

If anyone knows where the third photo in the article was used for a cover or interior, leave a note in the comments and let us know.

Saturday 15 September 2018

Confessions of a pulpeteer - Jack Smalley article about his days as a pulp author and editor - part 2

Part 1 appeared the previous week.

A discovery I made early in life was that pulp publishers were a daring breed, ready to plunge into new fields at the drop of an idea and gamble thousands on what might turn out to be a flop. Life was exciting in the Twenties and readers wanted to share in the excitement.

When Charles Lindbergh flew the Atlantic in 1927 the publishers rushed into print with tales of flying adventures. Jack Kelly, publisher of Fiction House which included such pulps as Lariat, Action Stories and Northwest Stories, launched Air Stories and Wings in such a hurry that he wired me to write a novelet over the weekend and wire him the title so he could make cover plates. He had been featuring my Western stories, but a true pulpeteer can write about anything. All he needs is a glance into a reference book or a copy of National Geographic for local color.

None of the publishers cared if the staff contributed to rival magazines. Billy Fawcett paid his staff one cent per word, on the undeniable assumption that fellow editors would be influenced to buy. A rejected manuscript could be sold elsewhere, so we usually rejected each other’s stories and got two cents a word from other publishers. I used the name “John Winburn” on stories I sold to Fawcett.

Even second and third string writers did well in those days. My salary as managing editor was $750 per month plus bonuses, Fiction House paid me $1, 000 for serials of 50, 000 words in five installments, and I was also writing stories for Triple-X, Adventure, Short Stories, Argosy, Liberty, Lariat and many others. The motto of the flapper age was “spend it,” yet we still found money to put into the zooming stock market. As we added more and more magazines to the Fawcett list and the staff grew until we moved into a large building in Minneapolis, it seemed as though the world of the pulps would live forever, and forever shower down gold.

Times were so prosperous that Roscoe Fawcett decided we should move into the upper crust of the slick women’s magazines, such as McClure's or the Ladies' Home Journal, and change True Confessions to Fawcett's Magazine. I had become editor of Triple-X and didn’t pay much attention to the plan. I sympathized with Roscoe, who had left the elite corps of the air force and his comrades to find himself involved with junk magazines, filled with thinly veiled ads for contraceptives, cures for gland disorders, and porno marriage manuals.

Fawcett's Magazine hit the stands with a dull thud. Although it contained articles and stories by leading slick-paper writers, nobody bought.

Even Whiz Bang profits could not make up the losses. We were still in the Robbinsdale offices, and all of us could see the glum faces of the creditors from the printing, engraving and paper companies as they climbed wearily up the stairs enveloped in an atmosphere of doom. When I was called into the front office I expected to be fired along with most of the staff of Fawcett's.

I was told that Fawcett's was being discontinued and we would have to cut staff and expenses to the bone. Asked for suggestions, I proposed that Fawcett's be changed back to True Confessions and to fill the magazine with stories of sex.

“I don’t care what you do with it,” said Roscoe with disgust. “I don’t want to know about it.”

“We haven’t the money to buy manuscripts,” said Billy. “But go ahead. I’m making you assistant managing editor.”

I had sold one of these first- person love stories to Smart Set, titled “A Model of Virtue.” All you needed to sell a story to the pulps was a good title and an arresting lead paragraph. I can still remember my opening sentence for “A Model of Virtue”: “The first time I posed in the nude I fainted and almost spoiled everything.” I decided to write the stories for the revived True Confessions. But what to do for the photographic illustrations?

I hurried downtown to Finkelstein & Rubin, a distributor of motion pictures for the Midwest, and said I wanted to buy some old stills used to advertise films. I was sent to their ad layout man, A1 Allard. We went through hundreds of photos from dusty files, most of them long forgotten. From these I picked enough illustrations for the stories.

Working at top speed, I ground out stories to fit the stills. The printer and paper house had agreed to extend credit. With sexy titles on the cover and stories to match, True Confessions was revived and soon selling a quarter million copies. I was given the full title of managing editor and a raise; life among the pulps was good again.

True Confessions, April 1926 - First issue after the change in title from Fawcett's Magazine
True Confessions, April 1926 - First issue after the change in title from Fawcett's Magazine

I was looking for someone to replace me on True Confessions when a tall young woman climbed the stairs and told me she wanted to become a magazine editor. Her name, she said, was Hazel Berge and she was a schoolteacher in a small Minnesota town; she felt that life held more excitement than teaching. Something told me to hire this totally inexperienced editor on the spot. In a few months she was the entire staff of True Confessions, except for one secretary, and had a number of steady writers in her stable.

Hazel established an advice to the lovelorn department, “Dear Priscilla.” One day Priscilla arrived from Des Moines, where she had been employed in the society department of the Des Moines Tribune. “I wish to establish that any letters sent to my department belong to me,” said Priscilla. Hazel and I agreed, wondering what was coming. She showed us a sheaf of ruled notebook paper, covered with fine script written in green ink. “It’s an answer to one of my departments in which we posed the problem of a needy young mother who was urged by a rich friend to give her daughter to her for adoption. Here are about ten pages telling why the poor mother should keep her daughter. It’s signed G. Bernard Shaw.”

Love, said Shaw, was the most important thing in life.

“You can have it, Priscilla,” said Hazel. “Send me a copy and we’ll use what we have room for.” I wondered what a collector would pay for an original Shaw manuscript. After Priscilla had left, I told Hazel that her secretary seemed unaware of the value of a Shaw original, and probably never read anything of Shaw’s.

“That’s why I like her,” said Hazel, in that calm, even voice of hers. “She’s exactly like my readers. They never heard of Shaw, either.”

In later years, after I left Fawcett’s, Hazel went to New York and became editor of Photoplay and later of Dell’s romance magazines.

We had begun to add movie magazines—eventually Fawcett’s provided five movie magazines in the golden age of picture shows—plus a do-it- yourself magazine I named Modern Mechanix, and Startling Detective Adventures, a true detective magazine of actual cases. We were bustling along, and Billy took his wife Annette to Europe. Roscoe and I went to Louisville to see the manager of the C. T. Dearing Printing Company, which held large contracts with us, and later we stopped at French Lick to get in some golf. At the end of nine holes Roscoe said that he didn’t feel well. We went back to the hotel and Roscoe tried the mineral waters but, like all other cures, the waters gave him no relief. He went to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester and was operated on for cancer.

Although Roscoe had given me full rein editorially as managing editor, I now found myself also assistant general manager and completely responsible for the company. Billy cabled from Paris the description of a magazine I was to launch at once, to be named Mystic Magazine. The collapse of the stock market had caused great uncertainty, but Billy was optimistic. Annette had been to a fortune-teller and was convinced that women were eager to have their horoscopes read, the future predicted, the spirit world investigated and loved ones communicated with through mediums.

Mystic Magazine issue 

I dropped everything and flew to New York, and at the offices of the American Society for Psychical Research I was fortunate in finding a young writer named R. T. M. Scott II. I soon had him settled in a house and we rushed into print with everything we could assemble in fortune telling, ESP, astrology, handwriting, sorcery, witchcraft, palmistry, crystal balls and even an exclusive message from A. Conan Doyle in the spirit world. The author of Sherlock Holmes had promised to communicate, and Mystic Magazine was happy to get an exclusive. I put a reasonable amount of sex on the cover (“Is Your Sweetheart True?”), scantily-clad nymphs inside, and even a message from Rudy Valentino, but to no avail. Mystic laid an egg. Those who had twenty-five cents to spend were thinking in terms of a plate of beans and a cup of coffee.

Annette’s fortune-teller was wrong. Dead wrong.

It seemed to me that the pulps were showing signs of aging.

Styles were changing, too.

Destry Rides Again, published as “Twelve Peers” in Western Story in 1929 under one of Frederick Faust’s many pen names, was a well constructed story of character, in which the hero grows tired of violence and vengeance and puts away his gun while his enemies are allowed to escape.

Samuel Dashiell Hammett, writing the goriest pulp stories that ever appeared in Black Mask, had always been a master of violence and death. “The Dain Curse” had the streets running in blood. Dash got so pressed for some other way of saying that the gun blazed, he invented some neat substitutes, such as “a bullet kissed a hole in the doorframe,” or “the machine gun settled down to the business of grinding out metal like the busy little death factory it was.” Hammett had strung together several stories around the same characters and the same setting for what became three books; but in “The Maltese Falcon” he conformed to the standard pulp serial of five installments, 10, 000 words each. It started in the September 1929 issue of Black Mask Magazine and concluded in January 1930. You could see that he was now building around characters rather than bullets. He and the pulps had grown up. Sam Spade, allowed by Hammett to wear his own first name, created a new breed and a new realism that had outgrown the pulp magazines. His last long story, “The Thin Man,” was sold to Redbook before appearing in hard cover. Five books, seventy-four short stories and novelets, plus the five-part Falcon serial —a small output as pulpeteers go, yet he exerted a tremendous influence on all of us who were writing fiction in those days. Even Hemingway regarded Hammett as the master.

Time was running out for the pulps. In August 1932, I sent a memo to Billy at Breezy Point showing the declining sales of Triple- X and Battle Stories, which were no longer showing a profit. As millions became unemployed, they stopped spending a quarter for a magazine that provided only a few hours of entertainment. Billy approved my decision to kill them off.

Battle Stories April 1932 issue
Battle Stories April 1932 issue

Even that giant of the pulps, Western Story, was dying. By 1937 it was able to pay only a half cent a word. They paid Max Brand $112 for a story of 2, 200 words. He turned to Hollywood and soon was making $2, 000 a week, writing complete shooting scripts for his characters, Dr. Kildare and Dr. Gillespie.

Of all the magazines I wrote for, only Argosy survives. Copies of the magazines are scarce. Pulp paper turns brown and brittle, as if the very substance of the fiction printed on it was doomed to self-destruct and disappear. A few private collections of pulp magazines exist, such as the one given by George Hess to the University of Minnesota where it is preserved for posterity.

Said Professor Harris McClaskey of the university library: “In the past, much of the popular culture of a society disappeared because no one considered it worth saving. Not surprisingly, much of pulp literature never even made it into libraries.”

When I was fired in 1933, I joined the pulpeteers’ migration to Hollywood along with Max Brand and H. Bedford-Jones, for writers were welcome in films. However, Roscoe rehired me to run the five “fan” magazines owned by Fawcett’s, and I took over a floor in the Professional Building on Hollywood Boulevard.

By 1936 even the movie magazines were suffering. Roscoe Fawcett said good-bye to me and went back to Rochester.

My career in magazines was over. Roy Durstine, president of Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn, summoned me to New York and hired me to open the advertising agency’s first West Coast office.

It was fun while it lasted.

Dashiell Hammett’s close and dear friend, playwright Lillian Heilman, summed up the pulp story in her memoir, An Unfinished Woman: “I am not clear about this time in Hammett’s life, but it always sounded rather nice and 1920’s Bohemian, and the girl on Pine Street and the other on Grant Street, and the good San Francisco food in cheap restaurants, and dago red wine, and fame in the pulp magazine field, then and maybe now a world of its own.”

That is it exactly. It was a world of its own. 

Saturday 8 September 2018

Confessions of a pulpeteer - Jack Smalley article about his days as a pulp author and editor - part 1

[Jack Smalley was the editor of Battle Stories, a pulp published by Fawcett from the late 1920s to the early 1930s. This memoir appeared in Westways magazine, June 1974 with the title: Amazing Confessions of a Pulpeteer. It was later reprinted in Murania Press' Blood and Thunder prozine in 2014. I read it first in an issue of Westways that came into my hands accidentally, when i bought a lot of magazines and this issue was in it. The first part is an anecdotal history of the Fawcett Publications empire.]

I thought that my species, the pulp writers of the Twenties and Thirties, had become extinct long ago. You can look in vain for the pulp paper magazines that were our habitat—Western Story Magazine, Triple-X, Ranch Romances, Battle Stories, All Detective, Adventure, All Story, Love Story, Amazing Stories, Black Mask, Air Stories, Wings, Battle Aces, Doc Savage, The Shadow, Spicy Stories and all those others.

In the mid-Thirties, when the drought of the great Depression killed off the pulp magazines, I deserted fiction and embraced the truth of advertising. I was convinced that the pulpeteer was doomed to extinction.

Now, it seems, the pulpeteers simply rode off in another direction.

I stopped at a newsstand recently and picked up a pulp paperback by a writer new to me—Louis L’Amour. The cover attracted my eye, and reminded me of the magazines of my youth. There was a cowboy standing off a ring of badmen and supporting a swooning beauty who resembled either Betty Blythe or Raquel Welch, depending on your generation.

Instead of paying two bits, however, or even the dime of the Depression pulps, the price of the paperback was sixty cents.

And this was no flash in the gold miner’s pan, either; inside was a list of thirty-five paperback Westerns by L’Amour, billed as “America’s Fastest Selling Western Writer.” Skimming through the paperback with a pulpeteer’s eye, the moment of truth came on page 117: “His left forearm came up, his gun barrel lay across it, and he fired again. Fired into the widening crimson blot on the front of Neerland’s shirt. He saw the big man start to fall, and he swung his gun on Cooley, who traded shots with him...”

Ah, that’s something like it! That’s the way they wrote in the pulp magazine days, with lots of action and the smell of gunpowder.

I looked further and saw a couple of Max Brand’s Westerns on the shelf: Silvertip’s Trap and beside it his classic Destry Rides Again. As a pulp magazine editor I had tried to buy some Max Brands through his agent, Ernst and Ernst, but Street & Smith had him sewed up. Max Brand titles still sell at the rate of 20, 000 paperbacks a month, although Western Story bought his last pulp story in 1937.

When I first went to work for Fawcett Publications in 1924 as a manuscript reader on Triple-X, climbing the stairs to the second floor over the Robbinsdale Bank in a suburb of Minneapolis, I arrived with some misgivings. If Captain Billy Fawcett wanted me to work on his Whiz Bang, I told myself, I would stick to police reporting on the Minneapolis Star. My girl’s parents would never let her marry me if they learned that I worked on that magazine.

Billy Fawcett, a stocky, good-humored ex-artillery captain, shook hands and shooed me into the office of his brother, Captain Roscoe Fawcett, a dark, handsome fighter pilot in the army air corps. He offered me $150 per month, enough to get married on. So began an association that lasted, with an interlude when I was fired and rehired, from 1924 to 1936.

Whiz Bang was launched two years before I joined the company. I had read a copy while at the University of Minnesota, and it was pretty racy stuff. There was a color cover by Tom Foley, who did cartoons for the Minneapolis Star. A judge was holding a pretty girl on his lap. The caption: “Young lady, if you don’t put up bail I’m going to hold you for thirty days.”

Cover of Captain Billy's Whiz Bang, March 1936 issue
Cover of Captain Billy's Whiz Bang, March 1936 issue

Whiz Bang was the Playboy of its day, but now its sins seem comically insipid. It was printed on sixty-four pages of pulp paper—the term comes from wood macerated to a soupy pulp in sulphuric acid—and it consisted of euphemistic jokes and cartoons and doggerel verse celebrating unrequited love.

After collecting jokes, limericks and cartoons, Billy had gone around to his friends, offering to sell a half interest in his magazine for $500, the amount needed to print 10, 000 copies.

There were no takers.

Finally, a small print shop agreed to produce 5, 000 copies on credit. Billy peddled these to cigar stands and hotels in Minneapolis and St. Paul, to be sold on consignment for twenty-five cents per copy; Billy would collect fifteen cents on each copy sold. Before he got back home, some stands were on the phone asking for a reorder. The forms were put back on the press again and again, and still the dealers clamored for copies.

On a monthly sale of 450, 000 copies, Billy cleared nearly a dime apiece, for an income of $45, 000. He put together his own distributing company, further increasing his profits; and he demanded a cash advance before he would ship copies to a dealer. Billy was a smart poker player, and he now began shoving some of his winnings back into new magazines.

Contributors to Whiz Bang included a high percentage of con men who sent in their jokes and jingles from dozens of jailhouses. They cashed the three dollars paid for each accepted joke and came to regard Billy as both friend and benefactor. They wrote long letters of their lurid wrongdoings to prove that they were really innocent victims of society, and Billy got the idea of publishing their stories. He thought of the perfect title: True Confessions.

True Confessions magazine published by Fawcett Publications, Robbinsdale, Minnesota Image courtesy the Robbinsdale Historical Society
True Confessions magazine published by Fawcett Publications, Robbinsdale, Minnesota
Image courtesy the Robbinsdale Historical Society

Its pages were crawling with the confessions of convicts, murderers, train robbers and jaded ladies, stitched together with tearful tales of unwed mothers and the serial life story of seductive Evelyn Nesbit Thaw, whose husband shot her lover.

I was put to work on the third of the string, named Triple-X, which was to contain three types of stories —Western, detective and adventure.

Handed a stack of manuscripts by the editor, John Jensen, I was told to read them carefully and write a synopsis and brief critique of each one. I was struggling along on my first story when Jensen came by. “Don’t read every word,” he said, smiling. “Just run your eye down the middle of the page. Do it fast. Don’t look at the edges; a few words down the middle tell you all you need to know.”

The method proved astonishingly effective. This was no way to read Plato, but it served with pulp fiction, and it was easier than covering the police beat for the Minneapolis Star.

The pulps were beginning to flower in all hues and colors. The largest of the pulp magazine publishing houses was Street & Smith, which produced the highly successful weekly Western Story Magazine among their other titles. We all envied them their top writer, Max Brand. His name on the cover helped sell a half million copies a week. Triple-X tried to buy some Max Brands, without success.

Brand’s real name was Frederick Faust; he was a big, powerful, good- looking man with astounding energy and talent, who began a pulp writing career in 1917. It ended thirty million words later when, as a war correspondent for Harper's Magazine, he was killed by shrapnel on the night of May 11, 1944, in Italy.

At last the writer felt the sting of death in battle that he had described so many times. In Destry, the story of the vengeance of a man railroaded to prison, is a passage typical of Max Brand: “The white face was lighted, the nostrils flared; the eyes of Destry gleamed with fire....” Then one of the villains drew his gun. “He was dead in the middle of a curse, for out of the flap of his coat Destry had drawn a revolver, long barreled, gleaming blue; a fire spat from its mouth.”

Just like the movie moguls had their stable of stars, the pulp publishers relied on at least one big name and a few additional regulars to attract readers.

Triple-X pulp magazine published by Fawcett Publications, December 1926 issue
Triple-X pulp magazine published by Fawcett Publications, December 1926 issue

Triple-X regarded H. Bedford- Jones as its drawing card. He too is credited with over 100 books, and hundreds of short stories and novelets.

Both Faust and Bedford-Jones were paid an average of five cents per word and each wrote under many pen names; but the latter wrote at least a third of his books in French, and his works included many historical “costume” novels which did not match the Western romances in popularity. He died in 1949 and, except among those who were pulp-adventure fans, his name is seldom mentioned today.

True to style, he never bothered to correct or rewrite a story, for a pulpeteer could not afford to waste time polishing a manuscript. What came out of the typewriter was what was published.

Henry lived in Ann Arbor in a huge Tudor-style English home, writing in a tower reached by circular stairs. Four electric typewriters stood about the room—in one might be a Western for Triple-X, in another a serial in French destined for his publisher in Paris, the third empty and a detective story in the fourth. Henry would leave one typewriter for another whenever he was bogged down. If he got up fairly early in the morning he could turn out a complete Western novelet of 25, 000 words by breakfast the next day.

Though he did not revise his manuscripts, they needed no editing when they reached me. He authored a book, This Fiction Business, in 1929, and sent me a copy inscribed “to Jack Smalley, who will agree with all the hard words said about editors by H. Bedford-Jones.” In it he wrote, “When you are learning to write, you want to learn to write—time enough later to learn revision and polishing. To advise a young writer to ‘ceaselessly polish, revise, polish again’ is venerable and absolute bosh. Anatole France laid down half a dozen rules; I kept them by me a year or two, but the manuscripts on which I used them did not sell very readily, and I discarded his advice. What the young writer needs is little re-writing and a very great deal of writing.”

Once Bedford-Jones wanted to write an entire issue of Triple-X: the novelet, first installment of a serial, two shorter novelets and a half dozen short stories. He wanted to show that it could be done. I turned down the proposal because of the technical problem of manuscript inventories and commitments to other writers.

In the detective pulp field, Dell featured Erle Stanley Gardner, a latecomer forced into fiction by the Depression. I had met Erle in Minneapolis, when he sold me a couple of detective yarns set in Chinatown. He hailed from Ventura, where he was an attorney; and he explained that there were Chinatowns in the area, and he happened to have represented an Oriental in a criminal case, which made his reputation with them.

Erle’s client had been picked up in Chinatown on a charge of conducting a gambling place, and had been thrown into jail. Erle got him out on bail and had him plead not guilty. When the trial came Erle arrived with the defendant and six other Chinese. At the critical moment he demanded that the prosecuting attorney’s chief witness pick out the defendant from among the seven Chinese present. He picked three wrong men in succession and was laughed off the stand.

“They tested my honesty a few times after that, but I satisfied them and I got all their business,” said Erle. “Things are awful slow now, so I decided to write about some of my experiences, mostly around Chinatown.”

A paragraph in “Fingers of Fong” shows how closely Erle drew on fact, when he wrote that his detective, Dick Sprague, “suspected that certain pit- falls which developed had been shrewdly designed to test his honesty. Then had come the proposition out of a clear sky. He would give up his little private detective agency and work exclusively for the On Leong Tong.”

A year later he wrote a novelet, “The Case of the Velvet Claws,” introducing a new hero named Perry Mason.

To be continued next week...

Saturday 1 September 2018

John Philip Falter - biographical article about the artist

John Philip Falter was a fine artist who did a few covers for the pulps, all western themed. He is better known for having done more than 100 covers for the Saturday Evening Post between 1943 and 1971.

His pulp covers (images taken from the FictionMags Index):

Western Story Magazine, November 7, 1931 cover by J.P. Falter
Western Story Magazine, November 7, 1931 cover by J.P. Falter

Western Story Magazine, December 5, 1931 cover by J.P. Falter
Western Story Magazine, December 5, 1931 cover by J.P. Falter
Action Stories, March 1932 cover by J.P. Falter
Action Stories, March 1932 cover by J.P. Falter

Action Novels, April 1932 cover by J.P. Falter
Action Novels, April 1932 cover by J.P. Falter

Action Novels, Aug/Sep 1932 cover by J.P. Falter
Action Novels, Aug/Sep 1932 cover by J.P. Falter

Street and Smith's Wild West Weekly, Aug 20. 1932 cover by J.P. Falter
Street and Smith's Wild West Weekly, Aug 20. 1932 cover by J.P. Falter
An excellent biographical article on him can be found in the History Nebraska society's journal, titled "THE ILLUSTRATOR'S PENCIL: John Falter from Nebraska to the Saturday Evening Post" by Deb Arenz: The article (and perhaps the artist himself) get the date of his first cover wrong, I found two earlier Western Story covers from 1931 which, coincidentally, i had submitted to the FictionMags Index about a year ago.

But it has some great photos of the artist at work, including the models he used for his pulp covers. There's also an entire museum dedicated to him in Fall City, Nebraska. If you can't visit it, the next best thing is the video here: