Black Mask Library

Theodore A. Tinsley: An Introduction

[This introduction is set to appear in a new collection of
Ted Tinsley’s stories, Jerry Tracy: Celebrity Reporter,

available from Open Road Media and MysteriousPress.com.]

By Boris Dralyuk


Ted Tinsley was a superman of the pulps, who never shed his Clark Kent-like attire.  He was the most ordinary looking of fellows, and he neither cared nor did anything about it.  In fact, he seems to have taken a certain pride in putting the lie to the romantic image of “Author” writ large.  He knew that image well, as he demonstrates in a hilarious piece for the May 1934 issue of Writer’s Digest, titled “But Mister... You Don’t Look Like An Author.”  When he prods a “dazzlingly beautiful girl, a graduate of Bryn Mawr – oh, all right! – she’s a suetty blonde, quite bosomy in black satin and she really works in Gimbel’s basement,” about an author’s proper mien, the lady responds:
 
“I – I dunno... I always kinda thought... Well, somehow, kinda flashy and handsome in a dissolute way. Grey at the temples, sorta. Puffy eyes, kinda deep an’ full of – uh – glamour. The kinda eyes that makes a goil feel like a frightened little boid watchin’ a soipent... A tweed suit all rumpled an’ baggy and – uh – interestin’. And-oh yeah-smoking a pipe... Kinda fatherly an’ awful sympathetic; but bold eyes like I said – make a goil breathe deep an’ feel that she might hafta –”
 
          Needless to say, by this point Tinsley’s lost her.  Our man, as the editor’s note to the article tells us, “looks like an investment banker.  Put him behind J.P. Morgan’s desk, and all the moneyed widows and orphans in the country would just naturally flock to him.”  No one would suspect a J.P. Morgan banker of writing riproaring yarns for Black Mask Magazine and countless other pulps; Tinsley, a veteran of the Great War, liked to defy expectations, and to fly under the radar.
 
          In fact, the prim-and-proper banker look – the cleanly parted hair, the neat mustache – was a kind of front.  Some of Tinsley’s most memorable series characters also defy expectations, and employ similar fronts.  As he wrote in a letter to Will Murray in the late 1970s, his characters “were what Ezra Pound called ‘Personae,’ actually Masks.”  For starters, there was that obvious master of disguise, The Shadow; Tinsley wrote twenty-seven Shadow tales, beginning with 1936’s “Partners of Peril,” the first one not penned by series creator Walter B. Gibson.  But Tinsley’s own characters don subtler camouflage.  The war-hardened gangbuster Major John Tattersall Lacy, who took on Manhattan’s wiliest racketeers in various pulps from 1932 to 1939, “was clean-shaven except for a trim, sandy mustache that imperfectly concealed a scar that curved like a small white crescent from his upper lip past his nostril.”  His pioneering female hardboiled detective Carrie Cashin, who debuted in the November 1937 issue of Crime Busters, uses another kind of front:  She knows full well that her clients aren’t likely to trust a “frail” with rough cases, so she partners up with a big lug named Aleck Burton and forms the Cash and Carry Detective Agency.  She puts Aleck in the front office and has him play boss, for appearance’s sake.
 
          And then there’s Jerry Tracy, who is as unlikely a crime solver as a J.P. Morgan banker is an author.  Tracy is a gossip columnist (read Walter Winchell) on the staff of the New York Daily Planet (read Daily Mirror), who has a heart that’s unusually marshmallowy for his profession.  Outwardly cynical, he’s a man of ideals.  Physically unimposing, he packs a mean punch and can handle a Remington pistol as skillfully as he can a Remington typewriter.  Like Clark Kent, a later employee of the Daily Planet – and like Tinsley himself – Tracy is a man hiding in plain sight.
 
Black Mask
 
Ted Tinsley and Jerry Tracy entered the Black Mask stable in October 1932, with a story titled “Party from Detroit.”  Although he was a born New Yorker, Tinsley’s dour and somewhat milksoppy appearance had fooled a few colleagues into thinking that the fellow knew nothing of the Big Apple’s nightlife – or of its underbelly.  In his rather fanciful memoir, The Pulp Jungle (1967), Frank Gruber wrote, “I don’t believe Ted Tinsley was ever inside a nightclub himself.  He was an extremely conservative man, a plodding hard-working writer, not given to frivolous things.”  The trouble was that, as Tinsley asserted in a letter to Murray, “I had small association with [Gruber], knew little of his professional or social life – and vice-versa – his knowledge of me amounted to considerably less than zero.”  Gruber had simply fallen for the disguise.
 
          Even a brief dip into the Tracy stories demonstrates that – even if Tinsley wasn’t a nightly visitor to the 21 Club – he sure knew the scene.  No one but Damon Runyon himself had trapped the lightning of Broadway’s glitter and grit in the bottle of finely honed, punchy prose as well as Tinsley in the Tracy tales:
 
“‘Lo, Bum!”
            The flippant greeting was Jerry’s cynical trade-mark along every roaring alley that radiated from the Main Stem. Jerry was the Main Stem. Once a day he dished up his hot column of copyrighted chat for the Planet, consisting of leers, winks, a sprinkle of dirt, a bit of phoney mystery stuff such as: “What prominent chip-shot will be found in a vacant lot next Thursday, according to torpedo wireless? Somebody Stole My Gal is a swell tune—on the radio. . . .”
 
          “‘Lo, Bum!” indeed.  But Jerry’s no bum, and nowhere near as low as the man who inspired his character – Walter Winchell.  Unlike Winchell, Tracy is a “queer mixture of public executioner and good time Charley [who] withheld a dozen dirty items for every one he printed.”  The real Winchell was a lot closer to the slyly nefarious J. J. Hunsecker of Sweet Smell of Success (1957), penned by Clifford Odets and brought to reptilian life by Burt Lancaster.
 
          No, as much as he’d like to claim otherwise, Jerry has a heart of gold.  He and his trusty palooka Butch would go to the ends of the earth – OK, as far as Penn Station – to help a dame or a kid out of a jam, or to spare an old Southern coot’s feelings, as he does in Tinsley’s second Black Mask offering, “South Wind” (November 1932).  When Major Geo’ge Fenn – a down-at-heels patriarch from Thunder Run, No’th Ca’lina – calls on Jerry to find his long-lost granddaughter Alice Anne Fenn, the columnist quickly recognizes the innocent girl in the high school graduation picture as “Lola Carfax,” a nasty little actress on the make.  With the help of Butch and Veronica Mulligan – a jaded but supremely ethical Vassar grad on the Planet’s staff – Jerry teaches “Lola” a lesson and makes a hero out of Alice Fenn in order to let the Major down gently.  He sends him packing for Thunder Run with a tidy sum from the Alice Fenn “estate.”  When Veronica confronts Jerry about shelling out his own money for the Major, our man replies in his typical half-sweet, half-cynical, and exuberantly colorful manner:
 
“I went to the proper window for it.  Carfax.  I pumped her for every nickel she had.”
“Are you lying, you ----?”
“Stop snuffling and show sense.  Do I dig for ten grand of hard-earned Tracy jack because some old bozo comes drifting in to put the bee on me?  Grow up, baby; you’re living in a big town.”
 
          Jerry toes the line between hard and soft with perfect balance, while Veronica takes the plunge to the downy side.  It turns out she’s had enough of the “big town” and is headed down south with the major: “‘Jerry. . . .  Hey, hardboiled . . .’  Her eyes were soft.  ‘Any time you get sick of this crooked game, come on down to Thunder Run.  I’d be awful glad to see you. . . . Anytime. . . .’”  But Jerry has work to do – twenty-three more stories’ worth, to be exact.
 
          It’s no wonder that these snappy, good-hearted tales appealed to Cap. Joseph T. Shaw, the great Black Mask editor who brought Tinsley aboard and included “South Wind” in his Hard-Boiled Omnibus (1946).  It’s also no wonder that Jerry Tracy attracted Hollywood’s attention.  Three of these highly cinematic Black Mask stories served as bases for successful b-pictures: “Five Spot” (November 1935) was filmed as Panic on the Air (1936); “Body Snatcher” (February 1936) was adapted as Alibi for Murder (1936); and “Manhattan Whirligig” (April 1937) became Manhattan Shakedown (1937).  A fourth film, Murder Is News (1937), was apparently based on a Tracy story written directly for the screen.
 
          What sets the Tracy tales apart from most other Black Mask series is Tinsley’s brilliantly evocative depiction of the “Main Stem” and the sprawling metropolis around it, and the color and liveliness of his prose.  The stories are rich with excitement, local color, and the author’s wit, by turns sharp and gentle.  Jerry Tracy has stood the test of time, and is a refreshing hero for our era, which is beset with its own unscrupulous Winchells and conniving celebrity fakes.
 
Black Mask
 
Theodore Adrian Tinsley was born on October 27, 1894, in Manhattan, New York to Francis B. Tinsley, a coal yard owner who had emigrated from England, and his wife Gertrude.  The family was a large one, with Ted being the first of six children.  The Tinsleys made their home in a spacious private brownstone at 159 East 116th Street, which belonged to Gertrude’s parents, Theodore A. and Alice M. Theban.  Both Theodore and Alice Theban were native New Yorkers born in 1839, he to a French mother and German father, and she to an English father and Irish mother.
 
          This well-heeled family made a double contribution to the pulps.  Ted’s younger brother, Francis Xavier Theban Tinsley (1899-1965) – known as Frank – would become an important illustrator and cover artist.  The brothers had something else in common:  They both served their country in the final year of the Great War.  Ted Tinsley registered for the draft on June 5, 1917, at the age of twenty-two, and is described in the report as a tall young man of medium build with black hair and brown eyes.  He joined the Second Anti-aircraft Machine Gun Battery in Meuse-Argonne, France.

          Back in the States, Ted tried to put his excellent education to good use.  In 1916, shortly before he was drafted, he had graduated with an A.B. in English from the City College of New York.  He worked for a while as a teacher and (you guessed it) insurance salesman, while his brother Frank, who’s served as a draftsman in the War Department’s design section, struck out as a freelance artist, eventually finding more-or-less steady employ as an illustrator for Fiction House’s Action Stories.  As Will Murray reports in his introduction to The Crimes of The Scarlet Ace: The Complete Stories of Major Lacy & Amusement, Inc. (Altus Press, 2012), this is how Ted got his own start in the trade, selling his first story, “Cross Words at the Circle K," "a Western inspired by the crossword craze then sweeping the nation,” to the fledgling pulp in 1925.  Writing late in life in latter to Murray, Tinsley peered into his “cloudy 1940 crystal ball” and described his career choice as follows: “I was a Liberal Arts graduate of CCNY, with a background of Latin, Greek and English literature … I found writing fiction to be easy and profitable for me.”
 
          In the 1930s, Tinsley married an Alabaman named Mary Ethel White, who was then an editor of Breezy Stories.  Mary Tinsley became her husband’s constant companion and supporter.
 
          Tinsley’s career in the pulps spanned just under two decades, ending in the lean years of WWII, when paper could no longer be spared for the likes of John Lacy and Jerry Tracy.  In 1945, Tinsley headed to Washington DC, following in the footsteps of his eccentric friend, the pulpster Norvell Page.  He first took a post in the writers’ division of the Office of War Information.  As he wrote to Murray, Page and he knocked out “government public relations stuff (tactfully called ‘Information’ by the bureaucrats).”  The war soon ended, and so did his stint writing “Information” – or, as Tinsley put it, “then came the Bomb and bang! went the OWI.”  He stayed in DC and took a post at the Veterans Administration, where he wrote speeches for Gen. Omar N. Bradley, radio material for UFO regulars Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, and “a million or so ‘routine’ messages of condolence, praise, congratulations, special events and the like for the White House (in connection with the VA) from FDR down, to A.D. 1960.”  That was the year he retired.  In his introduction to The Scarlet Ace, Murray quotes the VA’s citation commemorating Tinsley’s departure:
 
For his writing genius, for his good nature, for his sound judgment, for his constant willingness, for his refreshing wit, for his dependability, for his other attributes that have endeared him to us over the past 15 years. There is only one Theodore Adrian Tinsley and we shall miss him.
 
          Mary Ethel was a native of Auburn, Alabama, and after Tinsley’s retirement, the couple moved to her hometown.  It wasn’t New York, and not quite Thunder Run, No’th Ca’lina, but it suited the couple just fine.  Ted Tinsley died of lung cancer on March 3, 1979, at the age of eighty-four.  Writing to Murray in 1979, Mary Tinsley left a powerful and moving portrait of her husband in his final agonizing year, when cobalt treatments had left him weak and helpless: “How he has remained so cheerful and considerate is almost hard to understand except that he is a man of great faith, is widely, widely read and has a truly philosophical mind.

          Ted Tinsley’s daughter, Dr. Adrian Tinsley, had by that time built a career that surely made her father proud.  In 1969, she filed a dissertation on the plays of Eugene O’Neill at Cornell University, taught and served as an administrator at a number of institutions and, in 1989, was named the first woman president of Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts.  Times had changed, and unlike Carrie Cashin, she needed no Aleck Burton for a front.

 

Black Mask

 

Works Consulted and Further Reading

 

Goulart, Ron. The Dime Detectives. New York: Mysterious Press, 1988.

Gruber, Frank. The Pulp Jungle. Los Angeles, CA: Sherbourne Press, 1967.

Murray, Will. “Introduction.” The Crimes of The Scarlet Ace: The Complete Stories of Major Lacy & Amusement, Inc. Boston, MA: Altus Press, 2012.

—. “Theodore Tinsley – Maxwell Grant’s Shadow.” In The Duende History of The Shadow Magazine
, edited by Will Murray, et al. Greenwood, MA: Odyssey Publications Inc., 1980.

Tinsley, Theodore A. “But Mister... You Don’t Look Like An Author.” Writer’s Digest (May 1934).