Interview: Rafael DeSoto

Rafael DeSoto was born in 1906 in Barta Rolta, a small town in Spain on the border of Portugal. He came to the United States to study architecture at Columbia University in New York. The depression forced him to quit school and support himself by drawing. He studied anatomy under George Bridgeman at the Arts Students League and eventually went to Pratt Institute and higher degrees.

But Mr. DeSoto will tell you that he picked up his real training in his first two years as a dry brush illustrator for Street & Smith’s western, mystery and adventure pulps. By 1934 he had done his first magazine cover for one of their “less advanced” pulps, Top notch. He was soon Street & Smith’s most versatile cover illustrator, doing covers for Western Story, Doc Savage, The Shadow—in time over two hundred other titles.

Because he could work more than twice as fast as anyone else in the business (he could knock out two to three covers a week) and because he was an innovative illustrator in demand by every publisher, Mr. DeSoto holds the record for doing covers in the ’30s and ’40s.

In time, Popular Publications, one of the great pulp publishing houses and the publishers of Black Mask in the ’40s, dominated his time. But no one owned him.

He did covers for Argosy, Adventure, Cosmopolitan, Redbook, and The Saturday Evening Post. In the fifties he worked for the paperback houses. “All of ’em,” he tells us, including Dell, Ace, Signet.

Rafael DeSoto also did some notable advertising work. He did a series of illustrations for the first Frigidaire campaign. He also did White Owl and Canadian Club advertisements.

Mr. DeSoto, who now teaches anatomy and composition at Farmingdale College on Long Island, feels that the magazine illustration of the pulp era is as close as commercial work has ever come to a fine art in America.

“In the old days everything was done for impact,” he said. “Nowadays it’s all design. The old drawings that jump off the page at you, the illustrated initials, the fine line work-that is an art that is almost lost and I wish that they would revive it.”

We here at Black Mask are reviving it. This is the first interview Mr. DeSoto has granted to the press. Usually he lets his covers speak for themselves.


Keith Alan Deutsch: Were you reading the pulps? What made you try out for them? For westerns?

Rafael DeSoto: I used to see them on the stands. Constantly. There seemed to be hundreds of them. And naturally I used to buy them. They were fascinating. I read them. And soon enough I pursued them. It was the depression. I had never done any work. Somehow I prepared a quick western for a sample and went to good old Street & Smith. The Art Director was Mr. James. The assistant Art Director was Harry Laury.

When I was in the waiting room and looked at all the beautiful paintings hanging around I got cold feet. When my time for an interview came I left my painting outside, I wouldn’t show it be cause I knew how bad it was.

So the inevitable happens and the Art Director says, “I can’t give you any work until I see something you’ve done.” So I went back out and brought my painting in to him. He looked at it a while and said; “You know, this is the most Spanish cowboy I ever saw.”

So I went to the library and I studied about Western life. About heels and boots and chaps and ten gallon hats and six gun holsters and so forth. I will say the second drawing I made was a little better. He hired me to do dry brush Illustrations. Dry brush is when you get your brush filled up with ink, but you dry it up a little and work with it. You can get very fine lines and sometimes double lines as you go along. You get very nice effects. It’s not used too much nowadays.

So he started me on dry brush drawings and I learned more doing those things than at any point in my career. I learned about composing a story. I learned about composition. After a while they became easy. It was those two years that prepared me for my later illustration. After those first years I got so busy doing covers I had much more work than I could do.”

Deutsch: When did you start doing Black Mask covers?

DeSoto: Well I wasn’t doing them at first. That was the top magazine. First I did mostly Street & Smith titles. I did The Shadow. After I started on the important magazines, I always thought that I should do something different with Black Mask. To make it stand out. So I decided to work with very dark backgrounds. So I decided to put jet black backgrounds around the shadows right into the black. Only the light part would show.

When I brought the first one into Mr. Steeger, the publisher of Popular Publications, he hit the top. “Golly, that’s good.” he said. “That’s what I want.”

Naturally I had reduced the whole scene into a close up because it is hard to work, to get too many things into the backgrounds. I think they were very effective. Harry Steeger knew what he wanted. If he liked something, he bought it. If not you couldn’t sell it to him. nIt really brings back memories. I had a lot of fun doing those things.

Now Terrell, who was the editor of Black Mask at that time, always thought that I was a little meek about drawing the gun. He’d tell me, “The gun is very important. Make it look big. Make it look like a cannon, And give it some flesh contact between the villain and the girl. Not exactly hurting her. Maybe his hand across her mouth. Some physical contact to show that the girl is in danger. Without being hurt. She’s not screaming because she’s hurt, but because she’s scared.” And I played on those things.

Deutsch: How did you meet Mr. Steeger?

DeSoto: I just went there. He was the publisher. He either liked it or he didn’t. I approached the Art Director and he brought me to the editors and the publisher. The very first example I brought to Popular Publications they bought. Left me without a sample. Before I went to Popular I was working for Dell doing western and detective covers.

Street & Smith bought my first cover for $60. I remember I would get up early in the morning to go out and see if my cover was on the stands yet. In a short time my price was up to $150 and then $250. I could do two or more a week. Pulps were very much in demand, very much in style. With no TV you had to read then. Every month Mr. Steeger called me in and told me I shouldn’t do anybody else’s covers. Four years after Street & Smith had started me I was straight Popular, I worked for them for ten years. But he couldn’t stop me from doing whatever titles I wanted to do outside.

Deutsch: What about horror covers? I noticed among the many cover paintings you showed me one with a mummy in it. Popular Publications had quite a few horror titles. Did you work any of them?

DeSoto: Yes, of course. I have one in my studio of a man that was half metal and half flesh. And nobody could shoot him down. I still have the cover. His arm and one of his eyes and part of his face is metal.”

Deutsch: Did they tell you to use girls with most of their clothing missing for the horror titles?

DeSoto: Ah, yes. Even in detective covers they would tell me to reveal as much as possible. I don’t know how they published some of them. I used to rip them up, you know. Show half the breast. The legs. Just enough to cover what you couldn’t show. Yes, I was told.

One time I did this spicy detective cover, I was told to show a lot of leg, so I decided to show a woman sitting down and putting her stockings on. I did a rough sketch and thought I really had it. I ended up showing it to Mr. Steeger and he wouldn’t have it. “It is not what you’ve exposed,” he said to me. “You could even reveal more thigh. You’ve drawn it wrong. That’s all. Looks like she’s taking her stockings off. Can’t have that. Study someone putting ’em on. It is OK if the lady is almost naked if she’s putting her clothes on. But it’s no good, even if she’s hardly removed anything, to show a woman getting undressed on a cover.” Sure enough, I had my wife practice taking her stockings off and there was a difference. I redid the painting and Mr. Steeger loved it.

There was a lot of censorship in those days, but there were rules like that and an awful lot of pretty raw stuff went through. And when pocketbooks first started in the early ’40s, well most of that stuff was even stronger. I didn’t even read the books after I did a few. All you had to do was show a half-naked woman and a bed. That was a whole other era.

Deutsch: What about the demise of the pulps?

DeSoto: I saw the writing on the wall in the early ’40s. There was the war, a paper shortage, but most of all it was the pocketbooks. So I went into pocketbooks, I did a slew of them in the ’40s and ’50s. Until ten years ago I was still doing ’em. And I also did a lot of work for Magazine Management after the pulps died. After the war most pulp artists went to the men’s adventure books like Stag and Men’s Adventure and war stories. I used to do both the covers and the inside illustrations. Duotones, mostly blues. The men’s books never used straight line drawings.

Deutsch: This is the age of pocketbooks. The most exciting area of publishing today.

DeSoto: Yes. I agree. They try everything now.

Deutsch: You don’t see many line drawings nowadays though, do you?

DeSoto: Well pocketbooks didn’t have them to begin with.

Deutsch: Do you think that’s a mistake?

DeSoto: Yes. Very much.

Deutsch: Some pocketbooks do have illustrations, notably Ace’s science fiction and Tarzan books. But not too many or too much. The appeal of the pulps depended quite a bit on their covers and line drawings. Dramatic, vivid illustrations. Sort of a cross between comic books and fiction.

DeSoto: Yes, that’s right. That is an art that has almost died and I wish that they would revive it. You see, many readers love the stories, but they haven’t the imagination to visualize the scenes. To picture it. We learned how to approach a situation so that it was not confusing. And so it has impact. Just like the stories.

Deutsch: What procedures were used in planning a cover?

DeSoto: Well, this is what happened. As a rule they had the stories written. I used to read them to pick up a scene for the cover. Not every story was suitable so I asked the editor to give me a little leeway to change things around. So I used to give my own version of what the story was to be. Then I gave them pencil sketches; maybe one or two, and I’d do the covers from them. In time they were asking their authors to do their stories from my covers! Reversed the procedure.

Deutsch: How did you make the paintings from the sketches?

DeSoto: Well I proceeded to take photographs, I built my own studio and took my own photographs. I posed the models. These things have to be done fast. I took many many photos and then I laid ’em out on the table and chose the best for the best parts of a few and made a composite. Always had to distort something. For effect or to make room for the titles. I used to arrange for those in my sketch but they didn’t always fit. Everything was planned out from the beginning. Once the photo was drawn I used to sketch in my dark tones and from the dark tones work out to the light. I never presented color sketches or let anyone see my photos.

All my early works was oils. Then I went to casein. An awful lot of my work was casein. Later work was acrylic. Everything was done for impact.

Deutsch: Who were some other illustrators you admired?

DeSoto: Nick Eggenhoffer was a great dry brush illustrator at Street & Smith when I was just starting. His best work was westerns. I remember a great cover man. Scott. W. Scott. Also Walter Baumhofer. He did an awful lot of Doc Savage covers. Harris. R.G. Harris. Arthur Bowker, I remember he did fine work.

Deutsch: What about Virgil Finlay?

DeSoto: Ah, yes. He was a great genius in line work. We used to call him the Salvador Dali of pulp. Fantastic illustrator, but his cover work wasn’t very good. He was a poor colorist.

Deutsch: Black Mask was something special?

DeSoto: Ah yes. Of all of them it was the best. I worked very hard to make it distinctive. After a while I got the dark backgrounds and I worked all close up as I explained to you. Look at the gun on your cover. It looks like a cannon. I went to a place where they made props for the theater and I had them build me a .45, exactly authentic to the last detail, out of wood. And he painted it so you couldn’t tell the difference. Due to the shape of the handle, the grip of the hand was different from any other revolver with a .45. And I did sketches of hands holding it in all positions.

And one thing I hated to see was a gun not being held right. It looks like an amateur shooting. If an amateur is going to shoot, he’s not a gangster. He’s not a criminal. One thing you’ve got to say about my Black Mask covers. My villains can shoot!

The Policies of Popular Publications

The Policies of Battle Aces, Gang World, Detective Action Stories and Western Rangers Outlined in an Interview with Harry Steeger

Harry Steeger

Harry Steeger

The new magazine group started by Harry Steeger, former editor of the Dell magazines’ War Birds and Sky Riders, and Harold S. Goldsmith, former managing editor of the Magazine Publishers group, has brought forth four new titles which are now on the newsstands.

“Battle Aces, our air book, will run mostly war stuff,” Mr. Steeger explains. “The air market is flooded with the usual type of story; we want something with an original idea. The very much overworked plots about the yellow flier turning hero, dog-fights in which squadrons of planes meet squadrons of the enemy, are out. The motive of the story should have something to do with the air; something that makes it essentially and definitely a flying story. In other words, that there would be no story without aviation. But, on the other hand, it is not necessary for the action to take place predominantly in the air.”

The feature story of the first issue is “The Squadron of the Living Dead” by Steuart M. Emery. This gets away from the ordinary by an intricate plot in which the Germans are planning to invade Allied territory by going underneath the Vosges Mountains by drying out a lost river, an action in which their air forces are to play a very prominent part. Two Yank heroes of the Tombstone Squadron are instrumental in wrecking the German scheme.

“One Green Flare,” by O.B. Myers, concerns a Yank who gets shot down behind the German lines and has one green flare which he fires to let his comrades know he is safe. He lands on a secret German drome and the Germans think he fired the flare to let the Yanks know the location of the drome. The Germans bind him to the tarmac, in the dramatic climax of the story, where he is all but killed by his own people’s bombs—but Mr. Myers manages to get his hero safely out of the predicament. The principal feature of this story is in the suspense created by the situation of the hero being almost killed by his own comrades.

“Gang World will feature a general type of story dealing with tough and ready characters in conflict with each other and the law,” announced Mr. Steeger. “Its stories will be realistic, packed with strong action, gun fighting, moll-interest and having a punch that will give this magazine the stamp of originality.”

“Death to Double Crossers,” by William H. Steuber, is the feature novelette of the first issue. A man in prison writes to a gang leader that another fellow in jail with him has the dope on money hidden away. He wants the gang leader to get him out of jail and split the profits. Intrigue and doublecrossing as to who will get him out follow. Finally the gang set the jail on fire, and dressed as firemen get him out during the confusion.

“Lead Command,” by Don Kehoe, a writer who occasionally appears in The Saturday Evening Post, has a revenge motive. One brother is a ventriloquist and knife thrower in vaudeville; the other brother a gangster in love with a gang leader’s “moll.” The gang leader has the second brother killed. The ventriloquist steals the girl and goes single-handed after the gang. He gets into many tight corners but always manages to work out through ventriloquism.

“The feature story of the first issue, ‘The Key to Room 537,’ by Erle Stanley Gardner, is an excellent criterion of what we want for our Detective Action,” said Mr. Steeger. “It is a true mystery and action type. A young man is coming home late at night, gives a girl a lift. He finds jewels and a labeled key to an office in his car after she leaves; fear that he will get into trouble through their possession causes him to attempt their return. He enters the room and finds a corpse at a desk with a bullet hole through the head. He leaves hurriedly, forgetting the jewels. A ticket has been put on his car for parking. He telephones the police and says his car was stolen; for a couple of days the police believe him. Then he gets a telegram stating ‘I will call for jewels.’ When he sees the girl she demands, ‘What do you mean by stealing the confession and jewels?’ Gangsters come in; there is gun fighting; both the girl and he are tied and gagged and taken to a car. She escapes from the car and he gets taken to the police, where he finally proves that the deceased was a suicide.

“It is a very intricate story, and can not be made entirely clear in such a brief outline,” Mr. Steeger smiled, “but what I want to lay stress upon is the unusual situation of this entirely innocent young man getting himself deeper and deeper into this mystery, where something is happening every minute, in his efforts to extricate himself.

“As our title suggests, we will feature this action type of detective story, although we occasionally will use the deductive type as exemplified by ‘Mystery of the Strange Explosions,’ by Frank V.W. Mason, in which the president of a steel company is found murdered on a lonely country road in an automobile. The solution follows the lines of the conventional detective story.”

“In Western Rangers,” Mr. Steeger continued, “we will use stories featuring gun fighting, battles from ambush, bandits running wild, action stories that will make the blood tingle and the imagination run wild.”

The lead story of the first issue is “The Red Ranger,” by J. Allan Dunn, featuring a Texas Ranger who runs up against a bunch of Mexican smugglers and eventually saves the captured American girl from their clutches.

Western Rangers will permit a certain amount of woman interest, provided the action story is not overshadowed by it; it should be incidental rather than essential to the plot.

As these magazines are all monthlies, serials will not be used, but novelettes of around 15,000 words, and shorts from 3,000 to 5,000 words are in demand. Rates are to be approximately one cent a word and up on acceptance. The Popular Publications, Inc., are located in the News Building, 220 East 42nd Street, New York.

Authored by August Lenniger; from Writer’s Digest (September 1930).

Curt Siodmak: The Black Mask Interview

On the set of I Walked with a Zombie, Curt Siodmak Remembers His Horror Movie Days

He lives in a small village called Three Rivers, halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, at the foothills of the Sequoias. The house is situated on top of a hill and sheltered from encroachment of neighbors by fifty acres of grazing land, which is studded with trees. Through the huge glass windows of the redwood house, which was built by the famous architect Neutra. Snowcapped mountains stretch in a circle. Once a jeep came down the fire trail at night. Siodmak wanted to move. Too many people, he complained. In day time he feeds his cows, the horse, two ravens which knock at six at his window asking for food. At night a score of racoons show up punctually. There are bobcats, and also a talkative mountain lion, who walks back and forth at late hours, answering in his own language when talked to. This is a hermit’s life, and one wouldn’t be surprised to see the Frankenstein monster lumber down the mountainside.

There is something owlish in Siodmak’s appearance, in his large glasses and bald head, but also something authoritative since he is used to directing pictures or giving lectures at colleges and universities. His latest one was a course in Modern Science Fiction. The Window Into the Future for the University of Santa Cruz. Sitting in his book-lined office, one wall covered with paintings of the Dutch school, Siodmak faces a wall and not the mountain view when he is working at his typewriter. He doesn’t want to be distracted by the beauty around him.

You knew Val Lewton, the producer of The Cat People, Bedlam, I Walked With A Zombie, Isle Of The Dead, The Leopard Man, The Curse Of The Cat People, The Body Snatchers?

Yes. I met him in circumstances perfect for a horror picture. My agent made an appointment for me to see him at RKO studios. He sat on Stage 2, watching the shooting of Cat People. The stage was huge, cavernous, the biggest one in Hollywood. In a corner a living room set was built, the rest was dark. Lewton was a big man, an eternal pipe in his mouth. He sat on a chair too small for him. A commotion was going on the set, a noise which had the overtones of panic.

“Lolita got loose,” he said between two puffs from his pipe. Lolita was the black panther used in the film. Simone Simon, the French star, convincingly turned into that black cat and committed murder. Lewton seemed to get pleasure out of scaring me, knowing I didn’t appreciate a black panther roaming a dark set. He had a streak of sadism in him. He told me later that in school he cherished a game: you put your hand on a wooden desk and the boy next to you tries to stab your hand with a pocket knife. The trick was to withdraw the hand the very last moment possible. Once he nailed a friend’s hand on the desk top with dire consequences. I guess that that frame of mind helped him to become a famous horror motion picture producer. “Just sit quiet and Lolita won’t bother you,” he said. “But she might eat you.” I whispered. There, between his spread fat legs a dark cat’s head appeared. The round head turned upwards, the ears folded back, a huge mouth opened, and I looked into a red canyon framed by long white teeth. I heard a growl, deep and menacing. Lewton froze into a statue. I turned into a slab of marble. “She growls.” I managed to say. “She purrs'” he insisted, but his ruddy complexion had become white. He slowly lifted his hands over his head and signaled like a semaphore. Presently the trainer came along, waving a huge lollipop. The panther slid out from under Lewton’s chair. She took a last look at Lewton’s fat thighs, undecided if she should take a bite out of them or lick the lollipop. Her sweet tooth made the decision for her. The trainer gave her the lollipop, picked her up, and threw the two hundred pounds of cat over his shoulder. That’s how I met Val Lewton. In style!

You wrote I Walked With A Zombie for him.

Yes. We discussed that idea after I regained my composure. But in his office. I couldn’t concentrate on the dark set. After I told Lewton my approach to the film, he promised to leave me alone. I hate interference by producers. They pay me to put my ideas on paper, not theirs. I found out that he was a frustrated writer. He had ideas that didn’t fit my conception. But he had great taste and culture and intelligence, a fact that showed in his pictures. He created the intelligent Lewton horror films. He tried a novel approach to horror pictures, and succeeded. He put recognizable people into fantastic stories. Now, don’t confuse Science fiction with Science fantasy. I never wrote about people from other stars, wearing antennas, or having shapes unknown to us on earth. All I did in my science fiction novels is selecting an idea which I believe will happen in the near future. I project that idea on people of today. How would we react, if, as in my novel The Third Ear, people could read each other’s thoughts, or in Hauser’s Memory, if we could transfer memory from one person to another… a young man also having the memory of an old one, who has lived his life. Or in my latest novel City in the Sky which Putnam’s published in May, if we would build a huge satellite in space as big as a city. What kind of people would live there and how would they act? The astronauts didn’t change their attitude and returned unchanged, they were space mechanics when they left the earth for the moon, and our expectations that humanity would improve with that exploit didn’t happen.

Then you had freedom to do what you liked when you worked for Lewton?

No. Val changed part of the story and some dialogue, working closely with another writer. But when an idea is good it cannot be completely destroyed. The original idea will always shine through, despite the efforts of the producers and directors to put their stamp on it. My novel Donovan’s Brain was made three times into a motion picture. Every time the producers and writers improved on it and every time the film fell apart. John Huston is for me the most intelligent film maker. He understands stories and has appreciation for them. He took The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett, broke it down in camera angles, telescoping it, since a motion picture is never a full sized novel but an extended short story. Why tamper with a book that is a classic? We writers are craftsmen. When we finish, come the geniuses, producers, directors and actors. They think they can do better in a week of rewrite than the original author who might have spent a couple of years on the book.

You seem to be bitter.

No. I know the game and it doesn’t faze me. I had an imaginary altar in my office at the studios and when things became annoying, I just went there in my mind and prayed.


I prayed to Pegasus and said “my weekly check. My weekly check.” That brought me down to earth. After all I was working for money.

Then you are a cynic.

Maybe I am. But I am not enamored with my work. As soon us I am through with it, I think of the next one. When I sold Donovan’s Brain to Republic Studios for very little money since I was flat broke, Herbert Yates, the studio head, called me in. He said. “Siodmak, you’re crazy. A scientist like Dr. Cory in your novel doesn’t live in a little house in the desert. He lives in castle! And there and there is a great part for Vera.” She was the girl, an ice skater from Czechoslovakia, whom he later married. “And the title is The Lady and the Monster. That’s there I quit. Then Allan Dowling bought the rights from Republic. I was assigned to write and direct. They didn’t like my screenplay which was the novel just broken down. They wrote a new one, in a week! In it God destroys the brain with a thunderbolt. That’s where I left the projection room. A third time the story was done in England. It was called The Brain. In it an actress stripped and they infused a cancer cure. You know, I still have to see one of those versions completely. I never sat through one of them.

You contradict yourself. You said you don’t care what happens to your stories when you finish them and still you are up-tight about them.

Of course one cares. A writer is always on the defense. And that’s for a valid reason. Writers are often alcoholics. Hemmingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, O’Neill. You name them. They suffer that the words which they need to express an emotion, often do not exist. An idea can be expressed only approximately, since the number of words in any language is limited. There is only one example of infinity for me, that is color-there is an infinity of shading of red, or blue, – of any color. The trouble is to mix them as the eye of the mind sees them. The painters also suffer from the inability to put on canvas what their inner eyes see. The same happens to writers, only worse. They have a limited vocabulary to choose from, no more words than there are in a dictionary. Writers like Vladimir Nabokov invent words—you can’t find them in the Webster. I guess he stays sober.

I see 35 of your screenplays registered by the Academy of Arts and Sciences.

That’s about half of the pictures I wrote. Some I also directed. I worked in Europe a great part of my life in Germany. France, Italy, Switzerland, Sweden, even behind the Iron Curtain, in Czechoslovakia, during the golden time of their picture making until the Communists stopped it.

A horror story?

No. A ski film: you can’t show horror pictures in those countries. They don’t accept them. They are thin skinned about blood on the screen. Like the Nazis were.

Why should that be?

Bad conscience, I guess. I put, with the help of a song writer and musician Frankenstein into music. A musical for Broadway. It is called The Song of Frankenstein.

That’s amusing. What happened to it?

We never finished. Michael Butler, the producer of Hair, came out with a jazz version of Frankenstein. Since he was riding high at that time, we lost faith. Also it is almost impossible to get the million together which such a show would cost. But it had an excellent idea.

Can you tell me the idea?

Sure. Human beings are monsters. But why is the monster called a monster? It is only a couple of days old. Nobody has hurt it. Why should it be mean and vicious? The monster was the only human thing in your play.

That makes sense. Have you given up the idea of finishing the show?

No. I want to go back to it. I hate unfinished things in my life. I don’t think I ever abandoned a project. It would haunt me to know that a book has not been completed. Or a story has been left unfinished. I don’t care so much if I find a publisher. But my projects have to be complete.

Did you know Boris Karloff?

Of course. I wrote many pictures for him. He was a very tall man and very soft spoken and gentle. His pleasure was reading stories to children, gentle stories. He was highly intelligent and not conceited. I once wrote a screenplay for him at Universal Studios called Black Friday. He thought he wasn’t a good enough actor for the lead and took a secondary part, suggesting Stanley Ridges, a very good stage actor to play the part. Lon Chaney, Jr., was a friend of mine. I never met senior. Lon was a very patient man and a pro, who suffered from having such a famous father. You know it took almost six hours to put the Wolfman’s mask on his face, the claws, the hair, and two hours to take it all off. He could eat only liquid food through a straw when he wore that mask. Jack Pierce, the famous make-up man, devised the Wolfman’s mask. He also designed the Monster in Frankenstein.

How did you get into the horror business?

I always wrote science fiction stories. There is a magazine, Amazing Stories, Volume 1, 1926, which already had one of my stories; when I was still in school in Germany my stories were already published over here. I still have a copy of “The Eggs From Tanganyika”, which was the title of that piece. That story was the pattern of my future work. The idea was simple: Explorers find giant eggs in the Gobi desert. They take them to New York. The eggs hatch and giant flies emerge from them. They fly in the stratosphere and swoop down to pick up a human to devour him. The conclusion is that since they are so immense, they propagate only in small numbers like elephants and not like flies.

Then your stories had a scientific basis?

Yes. My science fiction books have. Whenever I start a novel, I call the most outstanding scientist in that field, asking him to supervise the technical part of the novel. I’ve had no refusals so far.

Because you are well known?

I don’t think I’m that well known. But most scientists are as bored with their jobs as other professionals. They dread the repetitious lab work. To work with a writer is a welcome diversion. You know, I believe that every human being is a frustrated writer. When you have a pencil you believe you can write. People who own a violin wouldn’t think of playing it without taking lessons. Everybody thinks he has a novel hidden in himself. But he doesn’t bring it out.


Laziness. Boston University collects my manuscripts. They want papers of contemporary writers. I just sent the pages off which I messed up with my last novel City in the Sky. The package came to 35 pounds of paper! About 2,000 pages, cut down to 220 printed ones! That should scare everybody. Nobody works as hard as a writer. Do you get paid talking to me?

I have to make a living.

So do most of the people if you don’t marry rich or inherit wealth. But when you have a job like directing a picture or having an assignment in a studio, you have to be there on time. When a writer gets up in the morning, who asks him to work? His work, like that of a sculptor or printer, is speculative. It might be worth nothing in currency or it might make him rich. So-called creative artists need an immense self-discipline which few people have.

You still didn’t tell me how you got into the horror business.

Hollywood at the time, I mean the ’40s, didn’t only typecast the actors but also the writers. I wrote the story and screenplay of The Return of the Invisible Man for a young Vincent Price at Universal. The picture made money and I was in the groove. Of course Donovan’s Brain helped a little. From then on I wrote many horror pictures for U., but also musicals like Frisco Sal for Susan Forster, and Shady Lady for Ginnie Sims, but the horror made the money for the company.

But you originated the Wolf Man.

A producer, Jack Gross at Universal, wanted to do a werewolf story. I gave the Wolfman his character-a human being that wants to die since he knows that he will change into a wolf and kill when the moon is full.

Even a man who is kind at heart and says his prayers at night might become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the moon shines full and bright.

I made that ditty up. Now people believe it is part of European Folklore.

Those pictures scared me when I was a kid. I didn’t dare get out of bed in the dark, afraid of the monsters hiding in the room.

You see, I did a lot for the American family life. I scared the little kids so much that they stayed in bed and the parents could play bridge. But these stories also have a deep atavistic meaning. They appeal to our hidden basic instincts which we remember subconsciously since the time our forefathers lives in caves. Man wanted to identify himself with the strongest animal he feared. The wolf was the most dangerous animal in Europe at that time. So, there was the Tigerman in India, the Snakeman in the Pacific. The fairytales are in my opinion the fear of winter. Little Red Riding Hood is swallowed by the bad wolf-the winter-the young hunter, spring, frees her and kills the winter with its cold and hunger. Sleeping Beauty has the same theme: the bad witch-winter-poisons her. Spring, the young prince kills the witch, Sleeping Beauty coughs up the poisoned apple, comes back to life and the thorns start blooming with a million roses. Very poetic!

What is your next plan? Another book?

No. I want to go on a lecture tour, to meet young people and to get a new lease on life which a writer needs after having been under house arrest while writing a novel. Or work for magazines like Black Mask, which I like for its literary background and its appreciation for classical stories. But I don’t know. Maybe I am going to do a motion picture in Morocco. There is a chance that the Moroccan company likes my screenplay I treasure and which I wrote ten years ago. I had a deal with the Egyptians but the 1967 war broke out and the film didn’t materialize. I like to direct. It is fun working with people, and seeing on the screen what has been a written work. We live in a visual age. But films have a very limited life. How is your Latin?

My Latin? Why? Not so good.

Non lettera scritta sed lettera impressa manet. Not the written word remains, only the printed one. A film is like the written words. They die with the time—but a published book or a printed story might last forever. You collect for Black Mask classic stories or stories of known writers. If those stories were on film, the film would have aged. But the printed words don’t seem to die.

Authored by Keith Alan Deutsch.

Author’s Introduction to the 1982 Edition of Solomon’s Vineyard

Jonathan Latimer is seventy-five years old. He lives in La Jolla, California. He has been a newspaper reporter, a writer of mystery novels, a screen writer and a TV writer. He is also a survivor of the golden age of the hardboiled detective paperback: the Thirties and Forties. After some prior correspondence, this interview was received by Maurice Neville, Santa Barbara rare book dealer and publisher, and his colleague, James Pepper.

JL: Let me get this straight. You’re actually serious about putting out a new edition of Solomon’s Vineyard?

A: Yes, we are.

JL: And you want me to write an introduction?

A: Yes.

JL: Don’t you two realize the book is an antique, more than forty years old?

Q: So don’t you think it’s about time it saw the light of day again?

JL: You honestly believe it’s worth reprinting?

A: We think it’s possibly the best book you ever wrote.

JL: Well, thanks. You know, I’m beginning to like you guys.

Q: Then you’ll do our introduction?

JL: No.

Q: No?! Why not?

JL: Because that sets up a no-win situation. I praise the book, I’m boasting. I knock it, then why am I writing an introduction?

Q: But you wouldn’t actually knock it, would you?

JL: I suppose not, I went through it the other day and I have to admit it’s held up damn well. Better than the Bill Crane books.

Q: Which brings up something we’d like to ask. The Lady in the Morgue. The Dead Don’t Care and the other Crane books were tremendously successful. Best seller lists, slick magazine sales, movie sales… what made you suddenly switch to Solomon’s Vineyard and a new detective?

JL: Crane drank too much.

Q: No, seriously…?

JL: Change of pace. The Crane books were light-hearted, not to be taken too seriously. Booze, babes and bullets. So I decided to go for something closer to reality.

Q: You consider a cult leader once a year killing and then violating a virgin from among his followers reality?

JL: Do you consider the Manson killings reality?

A: You’ve got a point there.

JL: Well, point or not, I enjoyed writing the book.

Q: Why was it called Solomon’s Vineyard in England and The Fifth Grave in the United States?

JL: The British editor used my title, but when Mystery Book Magazine published it in New York the editor called it The Fifth Grave.

Q: You didn’t object?

JL: I thought his title was better.

Q: Was he the one who expurgated it for Popular Library?

JL: I don’t know who did that, or why. Nothing in it, really, that would make a nun blush.

Q: Did the editor point out the likeness to Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. Your detective trying to find the killer of his partner?

JL: No. I didn’t know I’d lifted the idea until somebody mentioned it years later.

Q: Did Dashiell Hammett ever bring up the similarity?

JL: I never knew him.

Q: You’re supposed to have said he was too dumb to operate a self-service elevator. How could you if you didn’t know him?

JL: I said he was too drunk. Only time I ever saw him was one morning around 3 A.M, at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. He was being lugged across the lobby by an assistant manager and two bellhops. They wrestled him into the night elevator and ran him upstairs where I suppose they put him to bed. Hell of a fine writer, though, drunk or sober.

Q: Another quote that must come back to haunt you: your saying that Raymond Chandler had a heart of ice.

JL: I don’t remember saying that, but one time I did think it.

Q: When was that?

JL: Right after he and his wife, Cissy, moved from Hollywood to La Jolla. He asked me over one afternoon to look at his new house. I got there around five and was trying to decide whether to ask for Scotch or a Martini when a maid wheeled in a cart. On it were assorted cups and pots and plates of little cakes. My choice was tea with milk, or tea with lemon! That’s when I got the heart-of-ice thought.

Q: You weren’t friendly after that?

JL: Oh, sure. But whenever I went to his house I had a couple of solid belts first.

Q: What do you think of his books?

JL: Classics! He created a turf for himself out of old Los Angeles that to this day I can still hear
and see and smell and feel. And he wrote sentences and paragraphs that shot off sparks like a Fourth of July rocket.

Q: Did you encounter any other writers of the hardboiled school in your early Hollywood days?

JL: James Cain. He was at RKO Studios while I was there, but he never spoke to me. Actually, he never spoke to anybody.

Q: Who else?

JL: Horace McCoy. I was an early drum beater for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and his other books. We both worked for Paramount just before World War II. He looked tough, but he was really a very modest, very gentle guy. Spoke to me every time he saw me.

Q: Any others?

JL: A whole bunch over the years. But none were in the same league as the four I’ve named.

Q: We seem to have wandered pretty far afield from Solomon’s Vineyard. How did you get the idea for the book?

JL: I was sent by my paper, the Chicago Herald-Examiner, to Benton Harbor, Michigan. A bank cashier who’d appropriated both the contents of the vault and the president’s wife was on trial there. Walking around town during recesses, I kept noticing a cluster of large buildings on a vine-covered hill two or three miles away. A religious colony, I was told, but people I talked with seemed oddly secretive about it. So late one afternoon, after I’d filed the days story, I drove out to look around. I left my car half way up the hill
and started on foot towards the top. It was near dusk by then, crickets starting to chirp, birds making soft going-to-bed sounds, but half a hundred white-robed men and women were still cultivating the adjoining vineyards. At the hill’s top, white buildings squared off a deserted rectangle of grass. I walked into this and suddenly found myself in a zone of very cold air, It was silent in the zone, no insects, no birds, no anything, but there was an odor: fetid, feral, pervasive, like the odor around the big cat cages at a zoo.

Q: Did you discover what caused all this?

JL: No, because I was terrified. I felt I was being watched by someone or something powerful and dangerous and evil.

Q: What did you do?

JL: I got out of there… and never went back.

Q: And Solomon’s Vineyard was a fictional way of exorcising that terror?

JL: If it was, it didn’t work. After fifty years I still dream about the place and wake up with ice along my spine.

Q: That’s very interesting. And wouldn’t you say, after all you’ve told us, that you can write our introduction now?

JL: I’d say I just had.

Jonathan Latimer
November 15,1981

Interview with Lurton Blassingame

1977—We visited the offices of Mr. Lurton Blassingame recently at 60 E. 4294 St. in the old Lincoln Building near Grand Central Station. Mr. Blassingame has been a literary agent and confidante to authors since the ’20s. During the early ’30s when the pulp magazine was as vital an entertainment medium as radio or the movies—if not more influential—he wrote articles for Writer’s Digest giving advice on the various fiction markets. Eventually his advertisements for his literary agency appeared more frequently than his articles and he has remained influential in publishing for almost half a century.

Mr. Blassingame, distinguished looking and articulate, remembers all the popular writers of the ’30s and ’40s. In fact, he wrote his master’s thesis at Columbia on the history of pulp fiction.

“Back in those old pulp days,” he recalled, “what counted was telling a well constructed story and telling as many of them as possible. You had to be prolific to survive.” He told me anecdotes about various pulp authors and editors. Because I edited, in 1974, the last issue of Black Mask, the great pulp magazine that introduced the hardboiled detective to American literature through the earliest work of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Erle Stanley Gardner and their followers, I was particularly interested to hear stories about Captain Shaw, that magazine’s greatest editor. Famous for Perry Mason, Gardner wrote more books that sold more than two million copies than any other writer. Captain Shaw prided himself and the magazine for presenting stories told in the real language of real men who had worked and traveled in America. He wrote many an editorial congratulating his authors (and particularly Gardner) for the authenticity of their language.

Mr. Blassingame was charmed by the Captain but found him a naive fellow who let a lot of risqué dialogue slip through because he didn’t know the meaning of the lingo. Mr. Blassingame relates that Ted Tinsley, a regular contributor, delighted in slipping whorehouse argot past the good Captain and that many a trick got turned without Shaw being the wiser.

I asked Mr. Blassingame why the pulps died. “The 25-cent novel had a lot to do with it,” he told me. “It was generally thicker than a pulp. And it seemed to offer better writing. In general there were better authors represented in the 25-cent novel. Originally the size of these novels was only a bit smaller in height and width than the pulps and then they came out as ‘pocket books’ for their own racks. At first it was genre fiction, mostly detective, that dominated the 25-cent novel, and suddenly the paperback industry of the early ’50s was born.”

But the 25-cent novel was only the first competition. “The advent of television gave the pulps the final blow,” Mr. Blassingame commented. “You had to exert a certain effort to read. You could just sit back and watch television. I had friends who would always ask me to bring them some western pulps cause they knew I could get them for free through my business. By the early ’50s none of those friends were asking for Western pulps any more. They were watching the ‘Lone Ranger’ on television.”

I asked him how he explained the popularity of the paperback book in the face of the terrible power of the TV tube.

“Well, you’re right,” he said, they’re selling more paperbacks than ever in history. Of course our population has grown considerably in the last twenty to thirty years and there is less illiteracy too.”

I recalled a story I had heard of how literary agent Scott Meredith had called all his major magazine fiction authors in the late ’40s or early ’50s to tell them that the 10,000 to 25,000 word short story was now a dead market and that they should extend all their stories to at least 100,000 words or give up writing. The age of the fast paperback novel was about to dawn. Why did paperback become entrenched so fast? For one thing, he said, there was the blending of books with TV so that both mediums sold each other. “And you get to read stories about things you can’t get or can’t get enough of on television, like science fiction.

“One of my clients, Frank Herbert, has a book, Children of Dune (Berkley, $1.95) on three bestseller lists including the New York Times and Publisher’s Weekly. Over one million copies of that book are in print and two million copies of the Dune trilogy have been sold since 1965.”

Now that’s what I call mass marketing. I was surprised and delighted. I had come to interview Mr. Blassingame about pulp writing and he had proven to me that the old pulp tradition was as vital a part of popular culture as I have always felt. Interestingly, Mr. Blassingame is also the agent for Robert Heinlein, the classic science fiction author whose Stranger in a Strange Land was a national sensation in the ’60s and the first pure science fiction novel to make the bestseller lists.

Authored by Keith Alan Deutsch. Reprinted by permission of the author. Reprinted from Cover One #0, 1977.

W.T. Ballard: An Interview

I first made contact with W.T. Ballard early in 1976. I was researching an article on the detective pulp magazines for which Ballard wrote extensively during the thirties and forties, and his response to my questions was generous, informative and entertaining. Since I’d been a fan and collector of his work for some years, I felt that the next logical step should be a piece dedicated to the man himself. This interview is the result.

Willis Todhunter Ballard was born in Cleveland in 1903. His career as a professional writer began in 1927 and since then he has produced 95 novels, about fifty movie and TV scripts and more than one thousand short stories and novelettes which have appeared in the pulps as well as such “slicks” as The Saturday Evening Post, Esquire, This Week and McCall’s. His most recent work has been primarily in the western field. He is past vice-president of The Western Writers of America and his novel, Gold in California, won that organization’s award as Best Historical Novel for 1965. His latest book is Sheriff of Tombstone (Doubleday, 1977) and he’s presently at work on a new one, also a western.

His importance to the mystery field is that he was one of the original contributors to Black Mask, that famous detective pulp which, during the thirties under the editorship of Joe Shaw, pioneered the then-revolutionary American hard-boiled detective form.

Ballard, along with Chandler, Hammett and Erle Stanley Gardner, was one of that magazine’s most popular contributors among contemporary readers. His series starring Bill Lennox, troubleshooter for General Consolidated Studios, set the tone and laid the ground rules for countless Hollywood-milieu mysteries to follow.

“My life is not particularly interesting,” Ballard wrote me when agreeing to this interview. “As Dash Hammett used to say, there are two types of people in the world. Those who make news and those who write about them.”

What follows is proof positive that W.T. Ballard is as self-effacing as he is important to the development of the American detective story.


First, the traditional question: How did you come to be a professional writer?

As a child when I was asked what I wanted to do I said I would live in a library and write books. At age twelve I “sold” my first offering to Hunter Trader Trapper the saga of a twelve-year-old on vacation at a Canadian trout stream with my family. I received in return for it ten copies of the issue in which the masterpiece appeared. However, the progress to writer was hit or miss for a long time. My father owned an electrical engineering office. They also published a magazine electrically oriented, on which I worked. When I got out of college I was taken into the office to be taught the business, whether or not I liked it. They sat me at a drawing board. I was not a particularly good draftsman. A whole set of handbooks told me precisely what generators were required in any given situation. Thoroughly bored, I looked for another outlet.

Through a friend I found a job with a small group of local newspapers, the Brush-Moore chain in the Midwest. It was a constant hassle. In eight months I was fired at least eight times. Besides arguments with the printers I had them with the old battle-axe who ran the front office. She had been secretary to the Brush boys’ father and considered that she owned the company more than the boys did. It became a routine. She would call me in and fire me, but before I could clear out my desk one or other brother would show up from Europe and rehire me. This went on until one time no one appeared and I stayed fired.

About that time the stock market crashed in ’29 and we were sunk in the Depression. Dad was forced to close his business and I was out of that job too. I couldn’t find anything in the East and decided it was a good time to go to California where at least it was warm for sleeping on park benches. I got there on Armistice Day with twenty-six dollars. On the way west I broke out with an infection in the lymph glands and spent three weeks in an Albuquerque, New Mexico, hospital, which cost me most of what money I had.

I walked down Hollywood Boulevard like any tourist. There was a big parade in downtown L.A. and the Hollywood streets were all but empty, most businesses closed. But a cigar store newsstand was opened and I stopped to gawk in the window. I had been writing and submitting copy to New York without much success, but there before me was a copy of Detective Dragnet featuring a story I had written months earlier. I didn’t take much notice. I had been paid long before and the money was spent. I wandered on and was crossing Cherokee Street when a voice called, “Tod. Tod Ballard….” I looked down the side street and coming toward me I saw Major Harry Warner.

Warner. I had known him in Cleveland where his family was making movie trailers for Community Chest and other local organizations. They came from Youngstown where the old man was a tailor, a really sweet guy, and when I was with the Brush outfit I had handled some publicity for them as a favor. That was my only connection with them. The Major wanted to know what I was doing in Hollywood, a question I was beginning to ask myself. I hated to admit that I was out of a job and nearly broke, that I had no real hope of finding work in a strange town. Then I remembered the magazine in the window. I lied gracefully. “I’m freelancing, working for magazines… here, I’ll show you….” I led him back to the cigar store, went in, bought the Detective Dragnet, took it out and presented it to him.

Why the Major was impressed by a dime pulp I’ll never know, but he was. The meeting culminated in his offering me a job writing for the studio at seventy-five bucks a week. A bonanza at that time. He and his brothers had just taken over First National Studios from Commodore (Commy) Blackton who had gone broke in New York real estate. I lasted with Warners for eight months, learning a lot about screenwriting from a couple of wise old-timers, before I forgot to watch my back. I made a derogatory crack about Jack Warner, turned my head to find him at my shoulder, and the pink ticket beat me back to my office.

From there I went to Columbia, an eye-opening experience. Sam Cohan, who owned the studio with his brother, had worked out a crummy deal. A Hungarian, he had brought eight of his relatives over to this country, with no intention of personally supporting them. Instead he set up an ingenious company, gave each relative a share in the stock and titular title of producer to make pictures as independents. Then he would buy these productions and divide any profit with each contributing relative.

The snag was that the first man he made a “producer” spent more money on his pictures than he could hope to realize from their “sale.” I was hired to recoup the losses, to bring in new films for a very low budget of ten thousand dollars each. We were in the bottom of the Depression but the job still wasn’t easy. I had to write the script, direct, produce the picture and even move the sets and scenery… it was before the days of powerful unions. The camera was housed in a heavy concrete booth mounted on piano casters, the sound table in the same booth. When you needed to move the apparatus everyone, grips, juicers, stagehands, actors including stars, put their shoulders to the booth and wrestled it into the new position.

Most of our shooting was done inside. We couldn’t afford to go out. The studio was located on Gower Avenue, known locally as Gower Gulch because of the preponderance of westerns being made on the lots that lined the street and the horde of unemployed actors who gathered outside the gates. When we needed a couple of extras we opened the window and yelled, then stood out of the stampede.

The job lasted six months and exhausted me. I never cared for studio work. I hated having my scripts torn apart by producers, directors, even the actors who had any clout. I returned to freelancing and made a living, but barely.

How did you come to write for Black Mask?

I caught The Maltese Falcon on radio. My uncle, with whom I was living, was head of the West Coast Customs Bureau and would come home at night worn out, collapse in his favorite chair, turn the radio up full and go to sleep. I wrote in a small study off the living room and could not escape hearing every sound from the box. I had learned to tune it out of my consciousness, but this night excerpts of dialogue forced themselves through to me. Dialogue the way I had always wanted to write it. I had been trying to please Dorothy Hubbard at Detective Story Magazine, a lady who favored the Mary Roberts Rinehart and Agatha Christie styles and types of material. This was something else again. I went to the living room and listened. What I heard was an ad, a teaser for a movie playing at Warner Brothers’ downtown theater. I caught a streetcar down and saw the show.

This was not the later Bogie version, but an earlier one starring Ricardo Cortez, who took his stage name from a cigar and acted like it. But I had no interest in the acting. It was the dialogue that enthralled me: Hammett’s ear for words that sounded the way I thought criminals and detectives should talk. It rang true, the way I wanted mine to do.

The ad gave a credit to Black Mask Magazine, which was the first I had heard of the publication. I left the theater, walked to the corner, bought a copy of the then current issue and read it on the ride back. I felt that I was coming home. The story I most remember was written by a boy from Oregon whose family, I later learned, owned the biggest whorehouse in the state. His work sounded authentic.

Bill Lennox was the first hard-boiled series character who worked exclusively against a movie industry setting. Can you tell us something of how you went about creating the series?

The heroes of most of the Black Mask stories were newspaper crime reporters, which I thought could get monotonous. I scratched my head for an alternative and came up with the idea of a troubleshooter working for a studio. I could use my experience in the movie world for realistic background.

By the time I got back to my uncle’s house around midnight I had worked out the basic framework in my mind. A friend, Jim Lawson, was head of the foreign department at Universal. Poor Jim. Every time Junior Laemmle or his sister Rose Mary got into trouble, which was often, Jim had to get out of a warm bed, go to Lincoln Heights jail and bail them out. I couldn’t use the name Lawson so I went through the L’s in the phone book and came by Lennox. I then needed a name for the head of the studio and wanted something that sounded Jewish but not obviously so. The phone book yielded me Spurk; there was only one of those. Much later I learned Spurk was a lady and not at all Jewish, but she sufficed well for me. Just after midnight I began the first Lennox story. It ran ten thousand words and I finished at five in the morning. At seven-thirty I took my uncle to work, mailed the manuscript and went home to bed.

I had been nickel and dimeing along, selling an occasional story to Street & Smith, Short Stories, Argosy, and so on for a quarter of a cent to a cent per word, supporting my parents and an aunt, long since regretting losing the regular salary from Columbia and having quit my job, much as I had hated it. Along with writing I was looking for another spot, with no luck.

A week after I mailed the story to Black Mask I received a letter from Joe Shaw. He wanted some changes made, but he sent along a check with the letter, an unheard of generosity and compassion among editors at the time. The major change he asked for was that Bill Lennox not carry a gun as other fictional detectives did, even newspaper reporters. That reporters went armed seemed odd to me, and that a troubleshooter should go naked seemed odder, but it was not a time to argue with an editor. No one with sense argued with Shaw. So Lennox went without a gun.

Joe Shaw was a strong guiding force where many of his writers were concerned. Did you have any memorable experiences in your relationship with him as an editor?

I loved Shaw better the more I knew him. He was a curious bastard who wanted to write himself and couldn’t. He had been president of a highly successful manufacturing company before the First World War. How he got to Europe for that I don’t know, but Hoover used him to deliver relief in Belgium after the armistice, then sent him to Greece.

When he came home he had a manuscript that he took to Phil Cody at Warners Publications. He did not sell the story but he so impressed Phil that Cody hired him to edit Black Mask on the spot, and he made a fine editor. He could point the way for his writers, contribute much to helping work out their problems with sympathy and understanding, but he could not do the same for himself though writing was what he most wanted to do.

He wrote two books both of which Knopf published, not because they were worthy of publication but because Joe wrote them; he was that much appreciated. Both books were bad. I can’t remember both titles but one was Blood on the Curb. At his request I worked over it with him trying to point out where he had gone off base, but I was not the editor he was. It was an experience, believe me, trying to teach my “father” how to write.

As I said, I loved him. I sold him more copy than anyone else did, an average of ten stories a year, more than that including characters other than Lennox. Erle Gardner never forgave that I sold one story more to Black Mask than he did during a given period.

Through the years I have worked with the leading editors of the business. Ray Long, Fanny Ellsworth, Dorothy Hubbard, Erd Brandt, Ken McCormick, Ken Littaur, Ken White, you name them. But none of them offered the help, the assurance, the patience that Joe Shaw gave to his writers. It is too bad he has been so overlooked in the history of the craft.

Following that first Black Mask sale I wrote and sold seven more within three weeks, Joe buying everything I submitted until Phil Cody told him to quit Lennox for a while. At Joe’s suggestion I began a new series and wrote six Red Drake stories about a race course detective working for the state racing commission. When that wore thin I switched to several manuscripts on Don Tomasa, a Mexican adventurer working out of Tijuana.

Finally Shaw left Black Mask because Warner and Cody decided to cheapen the quality of the content. Fanny Ellsworth took over and I went along. It was a living. But although Fanny was a good editor it was never the same as with Joe. At the risk of sounding euphoric, there never was a relationship between editor and writer to equal my connection with Cap Shaw.

Your reminiscences of Raymond Chandler are quoted by Frank MacShane, in his biography of Chandler. Did you know Dashiell Hammett?

Yes, and quite well. Until the time he took off with Lillian Hellman. She saw to it that he was cut off from his old friends, even Horace McCoy who had been closest to him. McCoy had been a police reporter in El Paso, a genuine tough guy. He and Dash shared an apartment in San Francisco and at one time were virtually broke. Dash was, as many writers are, a compulsive gambler. Joe Shaw finally sent them a check for $250. Their funds were so low they didn’t even have a bank account and Dash took the check downstairs to the Chinese restaurant below their rooms to get it cashed. He did not show up for so long that McCoy became worried enough to go looking for Hammett. He arrived at the restaurant just in time to see Dash put the last dollar into the claw machine and lose again. The Chinese felt so bad about the loss that he unlocked the box and gave Dash a tin cigarette case from it. Thereafter McCoy called the tin piece Hammett’s $250 extravagance.

McCoy wrote They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Jane Fonda made a picture from the story a few years ago. He married some dame who owned a couple of apartment houses at Vine Street and Beverly Boulevard and I lost all track of him. He was a nice guy and a good writer.

Jumping to the other end of the spectrum, did you know Robert Leslie Bellem? He’s been called “the worst writer of the pulps,” yet I’ve always viewed his Dan Turner, Hollywood Detective series as superb private eye parody.

Yes, I knew Bob I suppose as well as anyone. I can’t give you the exact date of our meeting, sometime in the mid-1930s. Soon after that we took adjoining offices in an old corner building on Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena and worked there until I left for Wright Field during the Second World War, in 1942. During that period we collaborated a lot on Frank Armer’s Super Detective Stories and a number of other mags. Bob was always a good word man but had trouble with story, which was my field, and he did not work well under pressure. Frequently he would blow up, come apart and throw the thing in my lap. That was especially true when the longer pieces became popular. His best work was in short material. He was a pugnacious, small man but easy to collaborate with, never pretentious about his prose, and we edited each other without many battles.

After the end of the war I returned to the Coast and we again got together writing the Death Valley shows for Ronnie Regan and also a number of magazines. But that market was sinking, TV taking its place. TV was never my forte. It was too restrictive and I had not the patience to go around and around on endless story conferences with producers who didn’t know what they wanted but had to have an oar in. On the other hand Bob loved it and thrived on it. He was great at talking, but was never what they called a “talking writer.” He was one of the hardest workers in the field, kept as regular office hours as if he punched a time clock and stayed at his machine until he finished a predetermined number of pages a day. He had a delightful sense of humor that relied a lot on play on words. I recall one lunch-long game we played using the names of American Indian tribes, using the verbal sounds for different word meaning. An example: “Shawnee(ds) more action in this story,” Shaw being Cap Shaw. I guess we used up every tribe in the land.

Bob was also a mighty hypochondriac, forever taking pills, medicines, asthma inhalations, anything he could find. He fell into the clutches of the Beverly Hills “heart attack doctor,” a man who treated many writers and studio people, all of whom he diagnosed as having had or soon to have heart attacks, and some even did. Most did not. However, Bob decided he was a prime candidate and suffered realistically for a couple of years. I never took his complaints seriously-until the day he died of a heart attack in the new home he had worried himself to death building.

Incidentally, Bob was not nearly as bad a writer as you make him out. He looked over the markets, chose one he could handle fast and easily, and hewed to the line. And was highly successful in so doing. When he went into television, he was one of the most successful story editors in the trade. He was a generous man, even professionally. Always busy with his and our work, when Cleve F. Adams had a grave illness while in the middle of a detective book manuscript Bob suggested that the two of us finish it for him. We did that. Cleve was a father figure to the fiction writing group, much loved but a porcupine nevertheless. His comment on reading the finished copy: “It’s a beautiful… typing job.”

For all his popularity with private eye readers during the forties, surprisingly little is known about Adams.

I met Cleve in ’31. He and his wife, Vera, had a candy store in Culver City but he had always wanted to write, and broke in with the old Munsey magazines. With varying success he continued selling the pulps until he wrote his first book, Sabotage. That was an instant hit and on the strength of it he did seven or eight others. He was good, though hardly in a class with Ray Chandler. He had an exalted regard for his own ability and seldom discussed his work with anyone, including family. I knew him intimately until he died. His son phoned me at four o’clock that morning to tell me Cleve had had a heart attack. He was dead before I could drive over.

He and Glen Wichman and I founded the Fictioneers organization, selecting some twenty men as original members. It was an entirely social group with neither rules nor by-laws. Cleve ran it through the first years as secretary, the only office we had, sending out notices of where and when the next meeting would be held. We paid for cards and postage. I have no idea how many members there were for we kept no records and charged no dues, but I would say the number ran into the hundreds. Any writer, fixed or just passing through, was welcome if he cared to join and at times we had more members than the Authors’ League. However, our monthly dinners seldom turned out more than thirty or forty at one gathering. It held together until the war when a lot of the boys went into the services. Although several efforts were made to revive it after the war they were largely unsuccessful because most of us had moved into the slick markets and the book field, and had scattered.

One Black Mask writer who seems shrouded in obscurity is Raoul Whitfield, who just seemed to vanish at the height of his career.

He died in North Hollywood in the early forties. I don’t recall what he died of or what he was doing at the time.

Would you tell us something about the lifestyle of a pulp writer living in L.A. during the thirties and forties?

We all worked hard, played hard, lived modestly, drank but only a few to excess, gambled some when we had extra cash. Most of our friends were other writers. In the Depression when any of us got a check he climbed in his jalopy and made the rounds to see who was in worse straits than he and loaned up to half what he had just received.

More and more interest is being shown these days in the detective pulps and those who wrote for them. Are there any pulp writers who are generally ignored today whom you think deserve recognition?

Here are a few from memory. Norbert (Bert) Davis was one of the best with a light style and humor. He killed himself in the odd-forties. John K. (Johnny) Butler who wound up at the studios. Dwight Babcock. Carroll John Daly. Fred Nebel, who was very good.

What was your yearly average word output for the pulps?

My files are at the University of Oregon library, but a shotgun guess would be about or over a million words per year.

Would you tell us something about your work habits both then and now?

I tried to do about ten pages a day after that first Black Mask flush, sometimes more, sometimes less. I tried to work regularly, something every day even if I later threw it away. These days my wife, Phoebe, does the typing since I’m a lousy typist and in so doing edits the copy. I seldom objected to requests for rewrite but sometimes stood my ground. A late example is a western called Sheriff of Tombstone. Both my agent and my Doubleday editor, Harold Kuebler, held their noses at the first submission and Harold only accepted the altered copy grudgingly. Both let me know in no uncertain terms that they considered it a bad work. It has outsold all my more recent books and is rated second from the top of the list in Western Writers of America’s scoring for the last year.

How about the marketing of pulp fiction? I’ve heard that many of the magazines (such as Frank Armer’s) were closed to most freelancers. Was this a widespread practice?

How did we market pulp fiction? Like selling any other commodity. No magazine I remember was tightly closed to submissions, although a couple of them were written entirely by one or two men for long stretches. It was largely governed by how lazy the editors were, how much they were willing to read.

Frank Armer was no worse than others, but his editor’s were crooked. They were pulling old copy out of the files, slapping a current writer’s name on as author, and drawing checks to the new names, cashing them themselves at the bar on the corner. Bob Bellem and I combined to send them to Sing Sing for five years each. We discovered the ploy after I received a notice from the IRS that I had failed to report $35,000 paid me by Armer Publications. Since I had sold them no copy for that year I checked with Bob. He had sold to them but he was being charged with not reporting twice what he had been paid. We contacted Frank, then blew the whistle. Armer was an open market but Bob did have the edge by a large margin.

After a highly successful career in the detective magazines under your own name, much of your later work has been pseudonymous. Why the switch?

Frankly, the market for detective, especially from picture studios, became very slim and when I was forced into westerns I chose to use my middle name, Todhunter, to begin with. But unlike the detective publications the westerns would not absorb enough copy under a single byline to support me. Especially when I jumped to books. The houses would take only one a year and a name was tied up solely by one house. Therefore the shift to a long series of pseudonyms under which I could work for several houses at once. They didn’t like it. But the practice became common and they had to go along or do without sufficient submissions. Later, resales to paperback as they have reverted to me have been reissued under only one or two noms.

The private eye series starring Tony Costaine and Bert McCall, which you did for Gold Medal Books during the fifties and sixties under the pseudonym of Neil MacNeil, was unusual in that it featured two lead protagonists instead of one. I thought it was a good idea, well executed. What happened to the series?

I developed the idea and editor Dick Carrol was enthusiastic. Then he died and Knox Burger took over. Burger was wary of the MacNeil byline because he knew the real Neil MacNeil of Washington. D.C., and my use embarrassed him although it was an honest family name for me. Knox did his best to kill the series. However, the books were popular and went back into reprint over which Knox had no control. It dragged on until Knox felt it was safe and then did kill both the nom and the series. I had no recourse. Knox left the house soon afterward, but the series was gone.

I did two books for Fawcett on the Mafia under my wife’s initials, P.D. Ballard. We already had a couple of titles out under P.D. which were highly successful. Then the Mafia market collapsed, the old-time editor, Ralph Deigh, retired, a woman came in as managing editor and my boy who had replaced Knox was fired.

Is there a single work you look back on as the highlight of your career?

The single piece of my work that gave me much satisfaction is called Gold in California. It’s a good book. It sold over 30,000 copies, which is a huge sale for a western and I am proud of it. I like also a sort of sequel, same locale and time frame, called The Californian.

Do you prefer writing westerns over mysteries?

In a way, yes. Most crime fiction is phony. Hammett made it believable because he wrote about people he knew from his experience with the Pinkertons in Baltimore and San Francisco. He avoided the mistake Chandler and his imitators made and make in going psychological, with Little Sisters sucking their thumbs. Westerns are of course exaggerated but there are many classics, and the better recent books such as Elmer Kelton’s Time It Never Rained are as near factual and convincing as you can get. When I wrote my first western I knew practically nothing about the West and its history. Since then I have researched. Learned a lot and had a lot of fun doing it.

For nearly fifty years you’ve remained popular to a most precarious profession while other careers have come and gone. To what do you attribute this staying power? Would you share some of your views on the writing business with us?

My views on writing as a business? That it is not much different from any other. You have to keep swinging, rolling with the punches, keep alert and attuned to the changes that take place suddenly or gradually, but always constantly. Copy written in 1930 would not sell today because it is dated and shows it glaringly.

In Say Yes to Murder you describe the library of one character as containing books “kept by one who loved reading for the joy that only reading can afford.” What do you read for enjoyment?

What I read now is very little. I enjoy history but my eyes don’t take kindly to too much strain. I try to keep abreast of the current best sellers to sample the wind and let it go at that. Very few current mysteries, only an occasional John or Ross Macdonald, and neither of those men give me much pleasure.

What can you tell us of your current projects? Is there any chance of a new Lennox yarn or has Bill’s day come and gone?

Currently, I have done nothing since a major operation a year and a half ago. I have been long in regaining strength or enthusiasm. I have just begun another western… not a Bill Lennox who, I fear, has outlived his usefulness. We’ll let him rest in his own time frame.

W.T. Ballard: A Checklist

(Including Miscellaneous Reading Notes)

This checklist concerns itself only with Ballard’s crime and detective fiction. A complete listing of his novels may be found in the library reference work Contemporary Authors.

The best of Ballard’s novels, such as Say Yes to Murder, are highlighted by a crisp, clean prose style, vivid characterization, rapid plot development and a singular humaneness.

The Death Brokers is a prime example of his talent for introducing complex, fully dimensioned characters who get under your skin and make you care about them after only one page, involved in a twisty, imaginative story line. Originally packaged to cash in on the Mafia fad, which infested paperback publishing during the early seventies, the book stands on its own as a superb evocation of the all-pervasive fear, treachery and moral decay that is life in the Brotherhood.

Murder Las Vegas Style is neo-Black Mask; a beautifully written private eye novel that Raymond Chandler would have enjoyed. This one is highly recommended.

Many of Ballard’s books are set either completely or partially in Las Vegas and he always does a convincing job of portraying this fascinating, seldom utilized desert locale with its swinging casinos, its moral ambiguity and the uneasy alliance between gamblers and police.

A. The Bill Lennox Series

  1. Say Yes to Murder. Putnam, 1942. Penguin pb, 1945. Also published as The Demise of a Louse (as by John Shepherd). Belmont pb, 1962.
  2. Murder Can’t Stop. McKay. 1946. Graphic pb, 1950.
  3. Dealing Out Death. McKay, 1948. Graphic pb, 1954.
  4. Lights, Camera, Murder (as by John Shepherd). Belmont pb. 1960.

B. The Tony Costaine/Bert McCall Series (by Neil MacNeil)

  1. Death Takes an Option. Gold Medal pb, 1958.
  2. Third on a Seesaw. Gold Medal pb, 1959.
  3. Two Guns for Hire. Gold Medal pb, 1959.
  4. Hot Dam. Gold Medal pb, 1960.
  5. The Death Ride. Gold Medal pb, 1960.
  6. Mexican Stay Ride. Gold Medal pb, 1962.
  7. The Spy Catchers. Gold Medal pb, 1966.

C. The Lieutenant Max Hunter Series

  1. Pretty Miss Murder. Permabooks pb, 1962.
  2. The Seven Sisters. Permabooks pb, 1962.
  3. Three for the Money. Permabooks pb, 1963.

D. Non-Series Books

  1. Murder Picks the Jury (as by Harrison Hunt). Curl, 1947.
  2. Walk in Fear. Gold Medal pb, 1952.
  3. Murder Las Vegas Style. Tower pb, 1967. Unibooks pb, 1976.
  4. Brothers in Blood (as by P.D. Ballard). Gold Medal pb, 1972.
  5. The Kremlin File (as by Nick Carter). Award pb, 1973.
  6. The Death Brokers (as by P.D. Ballard). Gold Medal pb, 1973.

Authored by Stephen Mertz. Copyright © 1979 by Stephen Mertz. Reprinted from The Armchair Detective (Winter 1979). Reprinted by permission of the author.