DEAR FRIEND: The Rascals, Rogues and Roues Who Made American Junk Mail, Chapter 28: Inside The Johnson Box

By Ray Schultz

On May 2, 1941, Frank Johnson submitted six direct mail letters and a cover memo to Francis DeWitt Pratt, the circulation manager of Time Inc. Although he later called Pratt “a very bad judge of good copy,” the young copywriter wanted something from him.

“Here is a try at getting everything in one letter, the whole approached from the Rich, Beautiful Prose–or Archibald Mac Leish–angle, and ending on a note of Auchincloss,” Johnson wrote, describing his first letter:

 Dear Subscriber:

A Panzer Division raising dust clouds along the north coast of Africa…a brawny riveter earning overtime in the Newport News shipyards…a half-scared, half-thrilled youth on his first solo flight over Pensacola…the members of a Congressional Committee in Washington scrawling endless figures on foolscap as they struggle with the stiffest tax bill in U.S. history–

He went on to Number 2. “Probably a reaction from Number 1, and pretty frivolous for a sales talk. However, you’re supposed to gather that I can do these, too.”

Dear Subscriber:

Want to add two or three years to your LIFE?

Here are the years:

1941 1942 1943

He moved onto to Number 3, which he described as “The middle way. I like it.” It started by saying, simply, LIFE takes no bets…

The next one he described as “same idea, cut down to a page.” Johnson added that with one exception, these letters are purposely not serious in tone. This is because it’s 1941: and headlines, radio, and corner store talk are all pretty damn gloomy.

What did he want? “I shall burn joss sticks and paper prayers the week-end long, because I really want that job,” Johnson wrote. “More important, I’m now pretty sure I can handle it.” Pratt must have agreed, for Johnson was named circulation promotion manager of Life for a salary of $75 a week.

Born in 1912 in Cambridge, Ohio, Johnson graduated from Ohio State with a degree in economics in 1934, then headed for New York. His first job there was as a claims adjuster for Liberty Mutual, but he quit when a woman whose claim he was investigating threw a poker at his head. Then he got himself hired by Time Inc as a CBOB (college boy-office boy) for $20 a week. “I remember walking in the door of Time and thinking, ‘Hey, I’m home,'” he said.

The CBOBs— liberal arts graduates from good schools–earned the business by sneaking a look at the internal mail they delivered, including that of founder Henry Luce, whose red pencils Johnson picked up as part of his job.

Expected as a CBOB to “get up or out,” Johnson moved up into the circulation department in 1938. Time Inc., built on direct mail, had several great writers and circulation experts on staff, like Bill Baring-Gould and Nick Samstag. Johnson, who was passionate about Kipling, Thurber and Twain, was soon accepted as one of them.

“Everybody there talked my language,” Johnson said. “We were all the same types. Super literate. We talked too much, and we drank too much. I could drink two martinis and come back to work and not go to sleep.”

Johnson wrote his first direct mail letter for Life in 1940, describing a contraption that sounded just like the Internet, provided by his daughter Judy Thoms:

Dear Subscriber:

Here is an artist’s approximation of a multiperimicrotelicona-rayoscope.

The one pictured is the only machine of its kind extant.

It was designed and built by a Prof. Dr. Zanathope Johnson, whom you can see.

For thirty years he secluded himself in a great hilltop-laboratory, planning, experimenting, building–for he was making a machine which would see everything of interest, all over the World!

In 1941, Pearl Harbor was attacked and Time proclaimed in a direct mail letter that now the news is happening to us. Draftable despite his poor eyesight, Johnson entered the Army Air Force, and was sent to Wright Field in Ohio, where he put out the Air Surgeon’s Bulletin. Johnson would ruefully say, “I’m the guy who lost the war. I never got out of the country.”

After the war, Johnson returned to Time Inc., which had kept him on partial salary during his service hitch. Given postwar inflation, “It was a good time to write direct mail because you just kept saying ‘Buy now, or the price is going to double pretty soon,” he said.

In an interview in 1999, Johnson examined several letters from that period to determine authorship. One was the Cold War piece known simply as “The Crumple Letter,” from the fall of 1949. It was crumpled, as if someone had rolled it up in a ball.

Dear American:

This is the way this letter might look (after it had been fished out of the wastebasket and somewhat smoothed) if I had sent it to Andrei Vishinsky or Maurice Thorez or Ana Pauker.

For this is an invitation to subscribe to TIME–and Communists have as little respect for honest journalism as they have opportunity to read it.”

 “I think I had something to do with that,” Johnson said. “We had one that was burnt on the edges, too. And we had a hell of a time with that. In the first place, we had a hard time setting it on fire. Finally, it took blowtorches. And the blowtorches tended to set the whole damned file on fire. People complained when they opened it because soot would fall out [of the envelope]. But boy, it was fun to do.”

Then there was the 1951 letter for Life addressed to all the Johnsons in the United States (an amazing feat given that Time could not yet deduplicate its subscriber lists). Johnson wrote:

Dear Reader Johnson:

You’re one in a million. And you and 999,000 other Johnsons in the U.S. can proudly boast a flourishing family tree.

“Time Inc. was making money like crazy, so we never asked what anything would cost,” Johnson said. “We used to look back at what we had done and say, ‘My God, we were damned fools.'”

Johnson wrote in hand on a yellow legal pad, using a soft-lead Eberhard wingtip pencil. “I was the world’s slowest,” he said. “I’ve been known to stare at blank paper for days before I wrote a word. I’d write ‘Dear Subscriber,’ then scratch that out and write “Dear Reader,” then scratch that our and try ‘Subscriber’ again.”

When not writing himself, Johnson hired and trained writers. One of his finds was Bill Jayme, a war veteran and Princeton graduate who was “terribly articulate and very insulting to practically everybody,” as Johnson put it.

Jayme quickly made an impression with one of his first letters, “Cool Friday,” celebrating the 15th anniversary of Life magazine:

It was a cool Friday in November.

Plymouth offered their newest model for $510—in an ad that also reminded you that you could tune in on Major Bowes’ Original Amateur Hour any Thursday from 9 to 10.

Loyalists and Rebels were fighting in the outskirts of Madrid—while many U.S. citizens were preparing to celebrate two Thanksgivings. Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne were at the Shubert, ambling through “Idiot’s Delight”—and a few doors down the street, a pillow-padded Helen Hayes was appearing as “Victoria Regina.”

Jayme later said the piece originated “out of my brain. Life was having a birthday, and we needed a letter to use as a hook to get people to subscribe. I went down to the public library and sat there with a lot of bums in the reading room, with my head sunk in this viewer, and rolled these scrolls about what was going on, like the price of the car, taking notes on the ads—sort of setting the scene.”

“It was leisurely, something you can read aloud after dinner,” he said. “It conveyed warmth and it conveyed charm. We tried to reward the reader for his reading time.”

In 1954, Johnson himself  started moonlighting for American Heritage, a start-up run by former LIFE editors Joe Parton, Oliver Jensen and Joe Thorndyke, and soon was involved in all aspects of their direct  mail operation. For instance, he wrote to his bosses that “I am still as skeptical as a virgin on a troop ship” about a plan to use the Changing Times list.”

In a 1956 letter, Johnson observed that The ability to read intelligently is not a common attribute. It is a delicate subject, for with it go a lot of implications about education and culture and background–things we traditionally soft-pedal in this country, especially if we suspect we’ve acquired ’em.

It was during this period that Johnson invented what is called the Johnson Box, although he later denied ownership. But friends said he did deserve credit. The purpose of the box, Jayme said, was to summarize the letter, “just as 19th century English writers like Dickens would say at the top, ‘Chapter 10, in which Mr. McGruder discovers Emily in a Compromising Position with the Director’s Son.'”

In one letter, Johnson stuffed these headlines into the famous box:

SECRETARY OF WAR’S SON HANGED FOR MUTINY

“MUSHROOM CLOUD” KILLS 30,000 OFF U.S. COAST

ENEMY TROOPS INVADE VERMONT

ELDER STATESMAN WEDS EX-MURDER SUSPECT

In an interview in 1999, Johnson offered his secrets of direct mail success.

“All you’re trying to do with any letter is to keep somebody from throwing it out,” he said. “You tell funny stories, you put in funny pictures, you do any goddamned thing you can to keep them reading. One of my rules is never end a sentence at the bottom of a page, so you had to turn the page. I’m teaching you a lot of tricks.”

Johnson added that he always put in “a couple of indented paragraphs on pages two and three that told a funny story or said something outrageous, so that if you were beginning to skim through the letter, they would catch your attention.” He admonished, “I don’t believe exclamation marks.”

Follow-up letters were another challenge. “You send a four-page letter and you don’t get anything, then you follow it up with something quite different–shorter, different pictures. ‘As you recall, we wrote you two weeks ago,’ or words to that effect. What’s exciting, of course, is when you a write a piece of direct mail and mail it and it works.”

As for graphics, he advised, “Get a cute little girl and a cute puppy, and figure out how to run them both, and you’ve got a winner there.”

Chapter 29: Gifts From Foreign Lands

On That Day So Still So Burning: The Poetry Of Nelson Algren

Book Review: Never A Lovely So Real—The Live and Work of Nelson Algren by Colin Asher, W.W. Norton & Company 2019

By Ray Schultz

Nelson Algren was seen by some as the bard of the dispossessed and by others as the bard of the stumblebum. The operative word was bard. Algren was a poet who wrote novels, not a novelist who wrote poetry, one critic observed. And he penned several American classics, the very titles of which have entered our language, like A Walk On The Wild Side and The Man With The Golden Arm.

Algren died in 1981 at age 72. Since then, there have been three pretty good biographies of him. The latest, Never A Lovely So Real, by Colin Asher, has been hailed as the definitive treatment. But will it supplant Bettina Drew’s 1989 effort: Nelson Algren—A Life On The Wild Side?

Asher gives Algren his due in a robust book providing new visibility into Algren’s life and work. And he lets us in on at least a few things that were not widely known. One is the fact that Algren, a “gut radical,” as I heard a friend describe him, was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1953, and that the FBI’s surveillance of him and the cancellation of his passport hurt his morale and ability to write more than many people realized. Some friends may have thought that Algren was having a breakdown over gambling losses and his marital woes when he seemed to attempt suicide, falling into a frozen lake in Gary, Indiana.

The basic biographical details are, of course, known to Algren fans. The former Nelson Algren Abraham, who grew up on the South Side of Chicago and bummed around the country in boxcars during the Depression, broke through in 1942 with his novel Never Come Morning.

Never Come Morning, tells the story of Bruno Lefty Bicek, a would-be boxer who allows the entire membership of the Baldheads Athletic Club to gang-rape his girlfriend Steffi in an alley under the El. Bruno kills a Greek youth who wants to join in, saying the fun Is “for whites only,” and in the end must pay for this crime. In telling this grim tale, Algren moved beyond the leftist clichés of the era and replaced them with prose so moody and powerful that the Nation identified Never Come Morning as the work of a depressed man.  Ernest Hemingway admired the novel, and wrote, “You should not read it if you cannot take a punch.” Never Come Morning went on to sell a million copies in paperback.

Algren served as an Army medic in Europe in World War II, but never did the war novel people expected. Instead, living in a $10-a-month flat at Wabansia and Bosworth in Chicago, he wrote a post-war novel–about a card dealer who comes home with a Purple Heart and a morphine habit: The Man With the Golden Arm. It is a vast artistic advance over his prior work, filed with pre-Beat argot, bedroom farce and stunning interior monologue.

The poetry and humor are present in the first two paragraphs, which Asher quotes in full:

The captain never drank. Yet, toward nightall in that smoke-colore season between Inian summer and December’s first true snow, he would sometimes feel half drunken. He would hang his coat neatly over the back of his chair in the leaden station-house twilight, say he was beat from lack of sleep an lay his head across his arms upon the query-room desk.

Yet it wasn’t work that wearied him so and his sleep was harrassed by more than a smoke-colored rain. The city had filled him with the guilt of others; he was numbed by his charge sheet’s accuations. For twenty years, upon the same scarred desk, he had been recording larcency and arson, sodomy and simony, boosting, hijacking and shootings in sudden affray; blckmail and terrorism, incest and pauperism, embezzlement and horse theft, tampering and procuring, abduction and quackery, adultery and mackery. Till the finger of guilt, pointing so sternly for so long across the query-room blotter, had grown bored with it all at last and turned, capriciouly, to touc the ribers of the dark gray muscle behind the captan’s light gray eyes. So that though by daylight he remained the pursuer there had come nights, this windless first week of December, when he had dreamed he was being pursued.

Unfortunately, writers who quote this opening always leave out the paragraphs that follow:

Long ago some station-house stray had nicknamed him Record Head, to honor the retentiveness of his memory for forgotten misdemenors. Now drawing close to the pension years, he was referred to as Captain Bednar only officially.

The pair of strays standing before him had already been filed, beside their prints, in both his records and his head.

“Ain’t nothing on my record but drunk ‘n fightin’,” the smshednosed vet with the bufalo-colores eyes was reminding the captain. “All I do is deal, drink ‘n fight.”

The captain studied the faded suntans above the army brogans. “What kind of discharge you get, Dealer?” 

“The right kind. And the Purple Heart.”

“Who do you fight with?”

“My wife, that’s all.”

“Hell, that’s no crime.”

He turned from the wayward veteran to the wayward 4F, the tortoise-shell glsses separating the outthrust ears: “I ain’t seen you since the night you played cowboy at old man Gold’s, misfit. How come you can’t get along with Sargeant Kvorka? Don’t you like him?”

These paragraphs establish the friendship between the card dealer Frankie Machine and his half-Jewish mascot Sparrow Saltskin, known as the punk, and the continuing presence of the police in both their lives.

The novel was said to be the first to depict drug addiction, and the first to use the phrase that an addict has a monkey on his back. But its real strength is in is the cast of characters—Blind Pig (or Piggy-O), Molly (or Molly-O), Drunkie John,  Antek the Owner and the drug dealer Nifty Louie. “Algren makes his living grotesques so terribly human that their faces, voices, shames, follies, and deaths can linger in your mind with a strange midnight dignity,” Carl Sandburg wrote.

Thanks, in part, to these virtues, The Man with the Golden Arm was a bestseller, and it won for Algren the first National Book Award. Riding a wave of acclaim the successful author penned Chicago City on the Make, a prose poem that contained the line, Every day is D-Day under the El. The slim volume is now considered a classic.

Next, Algren wrote a book-length essay on being a writer in a time of the hydrogen bomb, originally to be titled A Walk On The Wild Side.. It showed that Algren saw himself as “a multifaceted writer of the old school—and axiomatically a social critic—rather than simply novelist,” Bettina Drew writes. But Doubleday, unwilling to be labeled a “Red” publishing house, refused to publish it. And the manuscript was lost for 40 years.

Meanwhile, Algren had started a novel called Entrapment, based on the story of his onetime lover Margo (identified by Asher as Paula Bays, in what he considers a scoop), a woman who kicks a heroin habit. He was prepared to spend years on it, working from the inside out, building it in layers. Then he made a wrong turn: To earn an advance, he started revising his first novel Somebody In Boots under contract to Doubleday, and it evolved into the semi-comic work we know as A Walk On The Wild Side, a book that reportedly has influenced everyone from Lou Reed to Dan Dellllo. But it was the wrong book: Algren should have been working on Entrapment.

Doubleday declined to publish A Walk On the Wild Side, seeing it as too salacious. Algren found another publisher, but while the novel sold well and was later made into a movie, it was ferociously reviewed and Algren was headed for a personal and professional decline. He stopped writing novels and morphed into the slightly clownish figure we later knew, who wrote travel books, lampooned other writers, lost money at the track and had his dentures broken while living for a time in Saigon.

Factual Errors

Asher recounts all of this with sympathy. But I have several issues with his reporting, some petty, some not.

For one, in describing Algren’s first meeting with the French author and feminist Simone de Bouvoir in 1947 (an acquaintance that instantly blossomed into a romance), Asher writes that Algren “boarded the El on a Friday evening and rode it toward the Loop—beneath Milwaukee Avenue, through the narrow tunnel under the Chicago River, and then south under State Street.”

Actually, the subway under Milwaukee Avenue didn’t open until 1951, and it runs under Dearborn Street in the Loop, not State Street. In 1947, Algren would have had to take the El (or “L,” as the system is branded) the long way around from his neighborhood.

Asher also writes that when living in Sag Harbor, Long Island at the end of his life, Algren “he slipped into the frigid Atlantic and swam a little, but not a lot.” Sag Harbor is located on a bay, not the ocean. And the writer Pete Hamill’s name is misspelled in the citations. The errors add up, and at some point it reads like a badly sourced Wikipedia entry.

Worse, Asher reports that St. Louis was seething when Algren arrived with some tough-guy friends in the autumn of 1955. “A six year-old boy named Bobby Greenlease had been kidnapped and murdered the month before by a man with mafia connections, and three people had been killed since.”

That is wildly inaccurate. Bobby Greenlease was kidnapped and murdered by Carl Austin Hall and Bonnie Heady in September 1953. The couple died in the Missouri state gas chamber exactly two months later.

Entrapment

Then there are a couple of serious omissions about Algren’s career. One is any real account of Entrapment, the novel Algren abandoned after his personal collapse. Asher mostly mentions this unfinished novel in passing, referring to it as “picaresque.”

Picaresque?

Going by the fragments published in the 2009 book “Entrapment And Other Stories,” the novel was gong to start like this: “Now remember this if you can,’ the ancient one-eyed jackal warned Real High Daddy, `you can always treat a woman too good. But you can never treat her too bad.”

From there, Entrapment would have moved into sections written in different voices, a technique Algren used to telling effect in the short story, The Lightless Room, about a boxer killed in the ring, and as Faulkner had done in As I Lay Dying. For example, there is Baby’s recollection of how Daddy got her onto “junk:” 

I was still that simple I didn’t know what he meant.

I found out in due course. In that same room right under the roof where you had to battle for every breath.

On that day so still so burning.

In his own meditations after the woman has left him, the male character thinks that Here in his own patch between billboard and trolley everyone tried, their whole lives long, to be somebody they never were. Somebody they’d read about, somebody they’d heard about, somebody they never could be. Somebody like George Raft, somebody like Frank Costello, someone like Myrna Loy. It was a world full of big shots, fake shots that fooled nobody except the big shots themselves.

Drew devoted an entire chapter of her book to Entrapment, saying that based on the portions available “this would have been a significant work.” Editor William Targ agreed Algren “seemed to reach the deep-down essence of the blackest lower depths: drugs, pimping, prostitution, at their most grim level…It would have been an extraordinary achievement…it could have been his magnum opus.”

Yet the National Book award winner and bestselling author couldn’t get a contract for it.

It’s our loss. Drew writes that “Entrapment, conceived in the spirit of Never Come Morning and The Man with the Golden Arm, would never be finished, and the naturalistic writer in the tradition of Wright and Sandburg and Dreiser was gone.”

I’ve always thought that Algren is trivialized by people who insist on quoting his line: Never eat a place called Mom’s, never play cards with a man called Doc and never sleep with someone whose troubles are worse than your own. Algren was a serious artist, who deserves to be remembered for more than that.

Asher seems to agree. But then Asher does something similar, using perhaps the worst line in Chicago City on the Make, likening Chicago to a woman with a broken nose, for the title of his own book.

That’s not his only misstep. Asher also writes that Algren was not great at titles.

Huh? What about The Man With the Golden Arm, The Neon Wilderness, A Walk On The Wild Side, The Devil’s Stocking, Chicago: City On The Make and Native Son (the title he wanted for his first novel until someone stupidly changed it)? Algren’s sometime friend Richard Wright used Native Son, although it’s not clear who got it from whom.

Algren’s Posthumous Career

Finally, there’s Algren’s posthumous career. Algren published only nine proper books during his lifetime. After he died, Algren fans were treated to this quartet of significant works:

1983—The Devil’s Stocking

1994—The Texas Stories

1996 – Nonconformity (the essay formerly known as A Walk on The Wild Side).

2009— Entrapment and Other Stories

The Devil’s Stocking, Algren’s first novel in 25 years, was based on the murder case of boxer Ruben Hurricane Carter, with several characters and situations added, including vivid accounts of the houses of ill repute around Times Square.

Asher states that Algren’s prose had flattened out, and that the poetry was gone. I disagree. While it may not rival The Man With The Golden Arm, the Devil’s Stocking has its own rhythm and poetry. Take its description of the future prostitute Dovey Jean Dawkins:

Once a teacher, calling her by her first name with an accent of sympathy, wakened in the child a feeling of great love. For she had great love in her.

Nobody needed it. Nobody wanted it. Love was a drag on the market.

The man still had it, and Asher does correctly note that The Devil’s Stocking was Algren’s best book in years.

If only Algren had completed Entrapment and the proposed short story collection, Love In An Iron Rain. But as Studs Terkel said in a brief conversation I had with him in 1982, Algren did what he did. He made his statement.

So has Bettina Drew. Her biography is still the one to beat.

Tips From A Century Ago: Write Clearly and Don’t Plagiarize

Planning on starting an email newsletter? Here are some tips on how—from 100 years ago.

That’s when the House Organ Association held a convention in 1918. It was co-sponsored by the Direct Mail Advertising Association, now known as the Data & Marketing Association.

Old-timers remember house organs–they were the magazines companies published to keep their customers informed. They served the same purpose as email newsletters. Here are some lessons from that October 1918 event, held in the closing weeks of World War I:

Don’t lift content from other publications. The prevailing attitude in 1918 was: “Why waste time rewriting or pay for stuff when there was plenty of it going the rounds for the mere trouble of taking it?”

Don’t steal artwork, another widespread practice. “It doesn’t make a tinker’s darn difference how much gray matter, sweat, time, ink, experience, execution and money was involved if a certain design or illustrated ‘looks good’ or is “just the thing” to illustrate some new fangled clock whose alarm tickles your toes—Use It! Trace it or photography it direct—but use it!” the speaker said.

Make sure that articles are relevant and engaging—they weren’t in most house organs. “Most are over-weighted with ponderous lectures by men who know their own departments, but unfortunately do not know how to WRITE,” a speaker complained.

The conference was organized into tracks like House Organs for Salesmen, House Organs for Dealers, and House Organs for Customers. The most crowded session was the one titled, “Why House Organs are essential in War time.” (It was because editors “have steadily made use of articles designed to aid in the organization of the country for war”).

Wisdom from the ancients.

 

We Work At The Jollity Building

By Ray Schultz

Work recently took me to a WeWork facility in midtown Manhattan, where an upstart with no standing can rent a few feet of space and establish a New York presence. I waited in the shared space or Hot Desk area, where prices start at $450 a month; the coffee and wi-fi are thrown in. People lounged around with their laptops and smartphones, as they would in a Starbucks. Then there are the offices in back, which start at $450 but probably average out at around $2,500—my interview subject, from a foreign company, was located there. It made me wonder if the founders of this outfit ever read The Telephone Booth Indian, A.J. Liebling’s masterpiece on the Jollity Building, circa 1942. It seems to be built on the same business model.

Mostly occupied by hustlers who tried to make a buck or two by “promoting” people (i.e., swindling them), the Jollity Building had a similar sliding fee structure to We Work’s (in 1942 dollars). At the bottom rung were the Telephone Booth Indians, who simply hung out in in the lobby for free and used the telephone booths; often they could not afford the price of coffee and a pastrami sandwich, but they lived in perpetual hope of making a score.

Upstairs, there were spaces for rent on a monthly basis. But you had to see Morty, the rental agent, who refers to the renters as “heels.” Liebling writes:

Morty usually reserves the appellation heel for the people who rent the forty-eight cubicles, each furnished with a desk and two chairs, on the third floor of the Jollity Building. These cubicles are formed by partitions of wood and frosted glass which do not quite reach the ceiling. Sufficient air to maintain human life is supposed to circulate over the partitions. The offices rent for $10.00 and $12.00 a month, payable in advance. “Twelve and a half dollars with air, ten dollars without air,” Morty says facetiously. “Very often the heels who rent them take the air without telling me.” Sometimes a Telephone Booth Indian acquires enough capital to rent a cubicle. He thus rises in the social scale and becomes a heel. A cubicle has three advantages over a telephone booth. One is that you cannot get a desk into a telephone booth. Another is that you can play pinochle in a cubicle. Another is that a heel gets his name on the directory in the lobby, and the white letters have a bold, legitimate look.

The vertical social structure of the Jollity Building is subject to continual shifts. Not only do Indians become heels, but a heel occasionally accumulates forty or fifty dollars with which to pay a month’s rent on one of the larger offices, all of them unfurnished on the fourth, fifth, or sixth floor. He then becomes a tenant. Morty always views such progress with suspicion, because it involves signing a lease, and once a heel has signed a lease, you cannot put him out without serving a dispossess notice and waiting ten days. A tenant, in Morty’s opinion, is just a heel who is planning to get ten days’ free rent. “Any time a heel acts prosperous enough to rent an office,” Morty says, “you know he’s getting ready to take you.” A dispossessed tenant often reappears in the Jollity Building as an Indian. It is a life cycle.

One of the few legitimate tenants is Hy Sky, a sign painter who serves the heels in setting up their usually unsuccessful scams. He laughs when painting the signs because he knows he “will receive the only dollar that is likely to change hands in the transaction—the dollar he gets for painting the sign,” Liebling wrote. Often, Hy Sky would call Morty to say, ““Morty, pop up here and see the character I got here! He is the most phoniest character I seen in several years.”

The name Jollity Building was fictional, but it was based on a real place, or a composite of such places. Of course, two big differences between Jollity and We Work (beyond the clientele) is that you had to buy your own coffee at a counter in the old building’s basement, and We Work doesn’t have a dance palace on the bottom floor.

 

Drinking In The New Neon Wilderness

By Ray Schultz

Poor Nelson Algren. A new bar, the Neon Wilderness, has opened in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood. But it can’t be like the ones Algren hung out in when he lived there, nor can it reflect the ethos behind the name.

 The Neon Wilderness is the title of Algren’s 1947 short story collection. His third book, it mostly focused on the desperate lives of the people who inhabited the area around Milwaukee Ave. and Division.

Among its 24 stories was “The Captain has bad dreams, or who put the sodium amytal in the hill & hill?”, a harrowing yet often funny account of a police lineup. This scene prefigured a similar one in The Man with the Golden Arm, Algren’s 1949 novel, which won the first National Book Award and was the basis of the movie starring Frank Sinatra (that Algren hated).

Algren turned another story in the volume, “The Face on the Barroom Floor,” into the climactic episode of A Walk On the Wild Side, his 1956 novel and the seed of yet another bad movie. And one of the earlier pieces in the collection, “A Bottle Of Milk for Mother,” was the foundation of Never Come Morning, Algren’s 1942 novel that sold over one million copies in paperback.

Perhaps the best story is “Design For Departure,” a novella unto itself, which described how a damaged woman lived in that era before gentrification—“in one of those great city caverns which are halfway between a rooming house and a cheap hotel. Every door has a number; and no one knows anyone else and nobody keeps the hallway clean because nobody rents the hall.

“The beds are rented by week or by night. They are rented along with the air and the hours. There is just so much warmth, just so much air…” (But where would she live now?)

Algren, who died in 1981, never saw much money from any of this, and what little he did see he lost at the track; His world view can perhaps be summed up by this line from Chicago: City On The Make, his 1951 prose poem: “Every day is D-day under the El.”

 

Runyon Ala Carte

By Ray Schultz

Now this may not qualify as a Ph.D. thesis, but it’s time someone did a study on the presence of food in Damon Runyon’s stories. Did you ever notice how many of these classic Broadway tales involve eating in some form? Take Butch Minds the Baby.

One evening along about seven o’clock I am sitting in Mindy’s restaurant putting on the gefilte fish, which is a dish I am very fond of, when in come three parties from Brooklyn wearing caps as follows: Harry the Horse, Little Isadore, and Spanish John.

The narrator, a not-particularly warm hearted character who deals with types like these in a friendly but guarded way, never gets to finish his meal. He says:

“It is a nice night.”

“What is nice about it?” asks Harry the Horse, who is a thin man with a sharp face and sharp eyes.

Well, now that it is put up to me in this way, I can see there is nothing so nice about the night, at that, so I try to think of something else jolly to say, while Little Isadore keeps spearing at my gefilte fish with his fingers, and Spanish john nabs one of my potatoes.

In Breach of Promise, the narrator is in Mindy’s enjoying some cold borscht, “a most refreshing matter in hot weather, such as is going on at the time” when he is approached by the same three characters, and “some of my cold borscht goes down the wrong way, and I almost choke to death.”

Not to worry: They seem quite friendly, and in fact Harry the Horse pounds me on the back to keep me from choking, and while he pounds so hard that he almost caves in my spine, I consider it a most courteous action.

In Tobias the Terrible, the narrator is partaking heartily of some Hungarian goulash which comes very nice in Mindy’s, what with the chef being personally somewhat Hungarian himself. In Broadway Complex, he is eating a sturgeon sandwich, which is wonderful brain food.

Mindy’s of course, is the fictional version of the real-life Lindy’s, which Runyon described like this in his Hearst newspaper column:

Breakfast in the old Lindy’s on Broadway near Fiftieth around 1 p.m. is a big deal. It assembles the sporting, theatrical, and musical Broadwayfarers, boxers, bookmakers, actors, agents, ticket brokers, radio fellows, song writers, orchestra leaders, newspapermen, and cops most of them still sleep-groggy but shaved and talcumed and lacking only their java to make them ready for the day.

Mindy’s is not the only place that the narrator eats. On Tuesdays, I always go to Bobby’s Chop House to get myself a beef stew, the beef stews in Bobby’s being very nourishing, indeed, and quite reasonable, he says in Gentleman, the King! And in Undertaker Song, he enjoys a small portion of baked beans and brown bread in the dining car on a train to Boston.

Food is used as a prop in these stories to set up the premise and establish the narrator as someone who (like Runyon himself) sits endlessly in restaurants, picking up gossip and stories. And perhaps it is designed to intrigue out-of-town magazine readers, few of whom would ever set foot in Manhattan or its dining spots.

Typically, the meal leads to some kind of episode. In Butch Minds the Baby, the narrator accompanies the thugs on a safecracking job with a baby in tow. In Broadway Complex, there is a ruckus right there in Mindy’s: Annoyed by a character named Cecil Earl, Nathan Detroit reaches out and picks up an order for ham and eggs, Southern style, that Charley, the waiter, just puts in front of Upstate Red, and taps Cecil on the onion with same.

He goes on:

It is unfortunate for Cecil that Nathan Detroit does not remove the ham and eggs, Southern style, from the platter before tapping Cecil with the order, because it is a very hard platter, and Cecil is knocked as stiff a plank, and maybe stiffer, and it becomes necessary to summon old Doctor Mogg to bring him back to life.

Sometimes, the narrator does not consume the food being described. In The Bloodhounds of Broadway, steaks and hamburgers are fed to a pair of dogs who solve a crime. In Situation Wanted, he says: One night in in the summer of 1936 I am passing in front of Mindy’s restaurant on Broadway when the night manager suddenly opens the door and throws a character in a brown suit at me…

…Naturally, I am greatly vexed, and I am thinking of stepping into Mindy’s and asking the night manager how dare he hurl missiles of this nature at me, when I remember that the night manager does not care for me either, and in fact he hates me from head to foot, and does not permit me in Mindy’s except on Fridays, because of course he does not have the heart to keep me from enjoying my chicken soup with matzoth dumplings once a week.

This fondness for Jewish cuisine has convinced writer Adam Gopnik that the narrator is Jewish—“the steady run of gefilte fish is in there to type him, as corned beef and cabbage might an Irishman,” he writes. But I’ve always assumed the narrator is Runyon himself. He seems to be a person brought up elsewhere (in Runyon’s case, Colorado) who deems Jewish people and Jewish things among the attractions of the Big Town.

Anyway, the narrator is careful to distance himself from Jewish characters, as he does from just about everybody. In Dancing Dan’s Christmas, he is drinking and singing Christmas carols in Good-Time Charley Bernstein’s speakeasy on Christmas Eve, but personally I always think Good Time Charley Bernstein is a little out of line trying to sing a Jewish hymn on such an occasion, and it almost causes words between us. And he falls easily into using Jewish stereotypes (along with Italian- and African-American stereotypes). For example, there is his description of Izzy Cheesecake, who is called Izzy Cheesecake because he is all the time eating cheesecake around delicatessen joints, although of course this is nothing against him, as cheesecake is very popular in some circles, and goes very good with java.

He adds that this Izzy Cheesecake has another name, which is Morris something, and he is slightly Jewish, and has a large beezer, and is considered a handy man in many respects. 

Runyon himself was a prodigious eater of Ashkenazic favorites, typically ordering the following for breakfast at the dairy restaurant Ratner’s, according to biographer Ed Weiner: “Half a grapefruit, a big bowl of vegetables and sour cream, a big slab of boiled white fish, a bowl of kasha, an order of blintzes, a big piece of coffee cake and coffee as fast as you can refill my cup.”

All that said, Runyon’s two food masterpieces are Lonely Heart and A Piece of Pie. In the first, Nicely-Nicely Jones is gorged by his new wife, the Widow Crumb, as she prepares to murder him for insurance, as she has done with several prior husbands. On his first night at the widow’s farm, the new groom is stuffed with round steak hammered flat and fried in a pan, with thick cream gravy, and hot biscuits, and corn on the cob, and turnip greens, and cottage-fried potatoes, and lettuce with hot bacon grease poured over it, and apple pie, and coffee, and I do not know what all else, and Nicely-Nicely almost founders himself.

A Piece of Pie is about an eating contest upstairs at Mindy’s, in which a woman named Violette Shumberger out-eats a championship eater from Boston named Joel Duffle. In this much bet-upon event, they split: Two quarts of ripe olives, twelve bunches of celery, four pounds of shelled nuts, twelve dozen cherry-stone clams, two gallons of Philadelphia pepper-pot soup, two five-pound striped bass (the heads and tails not to count in the eating), a 22-pound roast turkey, two pounds of mashed potatoes with brown gravy, two dozen ears of corn on the cob, two quarts of lima beans, twelve bunches of asparagus cooked in butter, ten pounds of stewed new peas, six pounds of mixed green salad with vinegar and oil dressing, and a pumpkin pie, two feet across and not less than three inches deep. In case of a tie, they are to eat it off immediately of ham and eggs only.

Except for hot dog-eating contests at Coney Island, this type of Olympic-scale gluttony is no longer in style.

Most of Runyon’s classic stories appeared in the early 1930s, during the Depression and Prohibition. Biographers say that his fiction output dried up after that as he concentrated on his column and on getting the existing stories produced as movies, but he wrote at least a few war-era stories, like A Light in France, in which a scamp named Blond Maurice turns up eating blintzes in Mindy’s after it was assumed he had been placed in quicklime by parties who do not wish him well.

…At first I think I am seeing a ghost, but, of course, I know that ghosts never come in Mindy’s, and if they do, they never eat cheese blintzes, so I realize that it is nobody but Maury himself.

Finally, there is Blonde Mink, one of the last two stories Runyon wrote, which starts this way:

Now of course there are many different ways of cooking tripe but personally I prefer it stewed with tomatoes and mushrooms and a bit of garlic, and in fact I am partaking of a portion in this form in Mindy’s restaurant on Broadway when a personality by the name of Julie the Starker sits down and says to me like this:

“Tripe,” he says. “With garlic,” he says. “Why, this is according to the recipe of the late Slats Slavin who obtains it from his old Aunt Margaret in Troy. Waiter,” he says, “bring me an order of this delicious concoction only with more garlic. It is getting colder outside and a guy needs garlic in his system to thicken his blood.”

All this proves that Runyon’s appetite never quit. Neither did his ear, nor the humor and polish he brought to these very entertaining gems, all delivered in the present tense in an argot he alone mastered.

Note: The illustration is the cover of a paperback edition published in 1946. The original hardcover collection, which did not have a food theme, appeared in 1944. 

Sam Exits The Stage

By Ray Schultz

There were rumors months ago that Sam Shepard was ill. I suspected it was liver trouble caused by his reputed alcohol consumption. But it wasn’t: He died of Lou Gehrig’s disease, a malady caused by genetics. It was nothing he did to himself.

And I was saddened in several ways—for one, over the suffering he must have endured with that illness. As a Shepard character says of a deceased singer, “He was going out, and he knew it.” Then there was the loss of this figure who was on the cultural stage for over 50 years, whose work I and many other people enjoyed. Finally, it reminded me of the passing of time.

The first Sam Shepard play I saw was Forensic and the Navigators, at Theater Genesis, upstairs from Saint Mark’s Church on the Bowery. It was a snowy Saturday night in January 1968. The playwright Lanford Wilson showed up wearing jeans and sneakers.

The play started in darkness, with the cast singing a spiritual: “We’re gonna be born again, oh Lord.” Soon the two guys in the cast were being instructed on the proper way to prepare Rice Krispies—you could hear the cereal snapping, crackling and popping. Shepard’s future wife Olan Johnson gave a lively performance. It ended with exterminators arriving. The small room filled up with steam and colored lights flashing through it. .

I have no idea whether Shepard ever took LSD, but this play was trippy. And it was funny—all that blather about the myth of the west obscured just how funny he was. In this way, Forensic and the Navigators was in line with the other one-acters he seemed to jot off, like Chicago and Icarus’ Mother. 

You have to remember the time. The Fillmore East was a block or two down 2nd Ave., and the East Village Other had its office there. You could get the best Danishes in the city in Ratner’s, the old dairy restaurant.

Shepard was a figure in the neighborhood. You’d see him at the luncheonette on 10th, buying a container of tea to take a rehearsal. And he was at the acid-drenched party at St. Mark’s church on New Year’s Eve 1969, dressed in full hippie regalia.

The first Western-themed play that I recall was The Unseen Hand, which was presented on a double bill with Forensic and the Navigators downtown in the spring of 1970. It was a futuristic play in which some cowboys are projected into a bleak Mars-like landscape. A character plaintively asks, “There’s no more trains?”

It was a fine companion piece to Forensic and the Navigators. But the new Western direction wasn’t clear at the time. What was obvious was that Shepard wanted to be more than a playwright: There he was in the lobby, playing drums with the Holy Modal Rounders.

I didn’t get it: would Pinter or Beckett do this? But I later realized that Shepard had a rock ‘n roll sensibility, not a trait I admired in a playwright. It came out in The Melodrama Play (a bad play), The Tooth of Crime (a great play) and Cowboy Mouth, the piece he wrote and performed in with Patti Smith.

And it emerged when he accompanied Bob Dylan on a tour. I wondered why a talent like Shepard had to cozy up to a rock star. But his onscreen presence in the resulting documentary led to his getting a role in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, in which he was a quiet, haunting figure. And he was off on his movie career.

In between, Shepard wrote some of his best plays, like Buried Child and True West, for San Francisco’s Magic Theater. I can quote lines from memory (forgive me if I get them wrong). In Buried Child, a character says, “I was thrown out of Arizona. I don’t want to be thrown out of Illinois.”

In True West, in which two adult brothers battle it out, exchange roles and are pulled apart by their mother as they grapple on the floor, one rejects a dinner plate showing the capital of Montana. In effect, he says, “I don’t want to see Montana when I’m eating. When I’m eating, I’m here.”

We saw the original production of that classic, starring John Malkovich and Gary Sinese.

Shepard had a certain integrity as a writer. But at some point, I feared that he had lost his sense of humor. He made a film with Wim Wenders called Paris, Texas, a slow-moving work that was symbolized for me by the guitar going, “boiiiinnng!”

Later, Shepard and Wenders made a movie called Don’t Come Knocking, in which he played a Western movie star who escapes the set. It was savaged by the critics, but I kind of liked it. His mother, portrayed by Eva Marie Saint, keeps a scrapbook of his DWI arrests. It had a little of that old anarchic spirit.

Contrary to reports that Shepard hated New York, he was often in the city. Andrea and I would go to a Moroccan place called Orlin on St. Mark’s Place at midnight to write headlines and eat pasta with potatoes and pesto.

Shepard would sometimes be there, eating by himself, reading a book. Maybe he’d have a drink with his meal Nobody treated him like a celebrity. He looked like a man who could survive and enjoy life on his own. Maybe that’s the Western spirit they’re always talking about.

How Does A Gentleman Know a Cad?

By Ray Schultz

Ernest Hemingway committed suicide in 1961, and many people believed he had lost it as a writer by that time. First, there had been his 1950 novel, Across the River and Into the Trees. It was savaged by critics as self-parody; only Tennessee Williams thought it was among his poetic best.

Hemingway recovered in 1952 with The Old Man and the Sea, a short novel published to universal acclaim; it won him a Pulitzer and helped him snare the Nobel Prize for Literature. I especially love the scenes in which the boy brings food and coffee to the old man. But a certain revisionism soon crept in. Some critics deplored what they saw as the heavy handed symbolism of the old man carrying the mast of his boat, like Christ carrying his cross. I never bought that academic line. But it was the last book published in Hemingway’s lifetime, and readers wondered what he had been doing.

What he had been doing was working. In 1964, three years after his death, his widow Mary published A Moveable Feast, his memoir about his youthful days in Paris. I first read it at age 19, while working in a Navy photo lab. Here’s how it opens:

Then there was the bad weather. It would come in one day when the fall was over. We would have to shut the windows in the night against the rain and the cold wind would strip the leaves from the trees in the Place Contrescarpe. The leaves lay sodden in the rain and the wind drove the rain against the big green autobus at the terminal and the Café des Amateurs was crowded and the windows misted over from the heat and the smoke inside.

Imagine opening a book with the word “then,” a word Jonathan Franzen says a writer should never use. But who needs Franzen’s advice? A Moveable Feast contained some of the best prose Hemingway ever wrote, on a level with that of his short stories. I read on, enjoying paragraphs like this one, in which he enters a cafe:

It was a pleasant café, warm and clean and friendly, and I hung up my old waterproof on the coat rack to dry and put my worn and weathered felt hat on the tack above the bench and ordered a café au lait. The waiter brought it, and I took out a notebook from the pocket of the coat and a pencil and started to write. I was writing about up in Michigan and since it was a wild, cold, blowing day it was that sort of day in the story. I had already seen the end of fall come through boyhood, youth and young manhood, and in one place you could write about it better than in another. That was called transplanting yourself, I thought, and it could be as necessary with people as with other sorts of growing things. But in the story the boys were drinking and this made me thirsty and I ordered a rum St. James. This tasted wonderful on the cold day and I kept on writing, feeling very well and feeling the good Martinique rum warm me all through my body and my spirit.

Thirty or 40 years before the movie, that section transported me to the fantasy world depicted in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. Obviously, it did the same for Allen and millions of other people.

Then there was this little scene about hunger, which Hemingway believed heightened his perception of the Cezanne paintings in the Louvre. Hemingway had just visited Shakespeare’s bookstore, where he all but admitted he was broke, and was handed a letter from a German publisher, containing 600 francs, a nice piece of change in those days.

Hemingway is angry at himself: You God-damn complainer. You dirty phone saint and martyr, I said to myself. You quit journalism of your own accord.

But now he has money. So, he writes, Hunger is healthy and the pictures do look better when you are hungry. Eating is wonderful too and do you know where you are going to eat right now?

 Lipp’s is where you are going to eat and drink too.

 It was a quick walk to Lipp’s and every place I passed that my stomach noticed as quickly as my eyes or my nose made the walk an added pleasure. There were few people in the brassiere and when I sat down on a bench against the wall with the mirror in back and a table in front and the waiter asked if I wanted beer I asked for a distingue, the big glass mug that held a liter, and for potato salad.

 The beer was very cold and wonderful to drink. The pommes a’ I’huile were firm and marinated and the olive oil delicious. I ground black pepper over the potatoes and moistened the bread in the olive oil. After the first heavy draft of beer I drank and ate very slowly. When the pommes a I’huile were gone I ordered another serving and a cervelas. This was a sausage like a heavy, wide frankfurter split in two and covered with a special mustard sauce.

I share these quotes merely to give you a sample of Hemingway’s writing—I offer no critical commentary. But admit it: Wouldn’t you want to be there?

But let’s get down to cases. This book also has its detractors. Gore Vidal, a writer I admire very much, hated “the spontaneity of his cruelty. The way he treated Fitzgerald, described in A Moveable Feast. The way he condescended to Ford Maddox Ford, one of the best novelists in our language.”

Vidal was right about the cruelty, and he would have known–look at some of the portraits in his own memoir Palimpsest . But those chapters were so funny. And both Ford and Fitzgerald  were fair game- they were world-renowned authors. Consider this exchange between Hemingway and Ford Maddox Ford as they drink at an outdoor table. Ford had just “cut” a man he identified as the writer Belloc. “Did you see me cut him?” he asks in a boastful way. Young Hemingway challenges him about it.

“A gentleman,” Ford explained, “will always cut a cad.”

 I took a quick drink of brandy.

 “Would he cut a bounder?” I asked.

 “It would be impossible for a gentleman to know a bounder.”

 “Then you can only cut someone you have known on terms of equality?” I pursued.

“Naturally.”

“How would you ever meet a cad?”

 “You might not know it, or the fellow could have become a cad.”

 “What is a cad?” I asked. “Isn’t he someone that one has to thrash within an inch of his life?”

 “Not necessarily,” Ford said.

 “Is Ezra (Pound) a gentleman?”

 “Or course not,” Ford said. “He’s an American”

Oh, how delicious.

And Fitzgerald? I revere him as an author, but the man had his tics, and Hemingway captured them. Take this scene, in which the two are traveling in Fitzgerald’s car, which has no roof, from Lyon to Paris, and are drenched in the rain, drinking wine all the way. Fitzgerald is convinced he has caught a fatal congestion, and they check into a hotel, and are dressed in their pajamas in the room while their clothes are being dried. Hemingway is reading a crime serial in a French newspaper.

On this evening in the hotel I was delighted that he was being so calm. I had mixed the lemonade and whisky and given it to him with two aspirins and he had swallowed the aspirins without protest and with admirable calm and was sipping his drink. His eyes were open now and were looking far away. I was reading the crime in the inside of the paper and was quite happy, too happy it seemed.

 “You’re a cold one, aren’t you?” Scott asked and looking a him I saw that I had been wrong in my prescription, if not in my diagnosis and that the whisky was working against us.

 “How do you mean, Scott?”

 “You can sit there and read that dirty French rag of a paper and it doesn’t mean a thing to you that I am dying.”

 “Do you want me to call a doctor?”

 “No. I don’t want a dirty French provincial doctor.”

“What do you want?”

 “I want my temperature taken. Then I want my clothes dried and for us to get on an express train for Paris and to go to the American hospital at Neuilly.”

That doesn’t happen. Fitzgerald who had just published The Great Gatsby, is finally persuaded by Hemingway that he is well (“I’ve always had remarkable recuperative powers”), and they get dressed and go down for dinner, where Scott passes out.

I’m sorry, but I still laugh when I read it.

By today’s standards, one may quibble with the portrait of Gertrude Stein: Hemingway wrote that he broke with her after walking in on an intimate scene between Stein and her partner. It’s a distasteful, stereotypical anecdote, if you will, but I believe there had to be more to it. There was growing professional tension between Stein and Hemingway. And Stein had plenty of nasty things to say about Hemingway, both his writing and masculinity, long before he wrote that account.

Hemingway also ridiculed an apparently gay writer who sat down with him, uninvited, while he was writing in a café. Well, nobody said Hemingway was a saint. Later, if you believe Kenneth Tynan, Hemingway had a friendly encounter with Tennessee Williams at a bar in Key West; they exchanged the names of doctors.

But back to A Moveable Feast. How did the physically declining writer achieve that level of prose? Biographers report that in 1956, when stopping at the Ritz Hotel in Paris, Hemingway was told that a trunk had been found that he’d stored there in 1927. To his delight, it contained his notebooks from that time.

Did Hemingway merely rearrange anecdotes written 30 years earlier that he discovered in the notebooks? Or did he truly write A Moveable Feast? in the 1950s based on information in the notebooks? That’s not clear, but I hope it’s the latter. Either way, he was preparing the book for publication, as he was The Dangerous Summer, on a bullfighting rivalry. Sitting there unpublished, not quite ready in his view, were three full-length books: Islands in the Stream, The Garden of Eden, and True At First Light (later repackaged as Under Kilimanjaro).

What had he been doing, indeed.

So yes, I’m a Hemingway fan. Do I also worship the macho man who reveled in what H.L. Mencken called “the armed pursuit of the lower fauna?” No, I compartmentalize that, just as I plan to compartmentalize the news, just out, that Hemingway signed on as a Soviet spy in the 1940s, although he never gave them anything. One must forgive him. just as one forgives John Dos Passos and James Gould Cozzens for being conservatives—it’s the work that’s important. Even Picasso was a Communist for a time. But who thinks about that when viewing his paintings?

Forget all the Life magazine hoopla. To see what kind of man Hemingway was, one must turn to Nelson Algren. In 1955, five years after he won the first National Book Award for his novel, The Man With The Golden Arm, Algren was in crisis. He was losing his beach house in Gary, Indiana, his passport had been seized because of his support for the Rosenbergs, his brief marriage (his second to the same woman) had ended, he regularly lost money gambling and his confidence as a writer had been shaken. Passing through Miami, he took a steamer to Havana; you didn’t need a passport to go to Cuba then. He called the Hemingways, and Mary Hemingway invited him out to their farm, Finca Vigia. Hemingway had been an early booster of Algren’s work, but they had never met. So Algren visited Hemingway, who was bed-ridden from injuries sustained in his 1953 plane crashes in Africa. To Algren, Hemingway looked more intellectual than he’d imagined. Algren, who had seen Disney’s The African Lion in Miami, insisted on showing the great hunter how big cats stalked prey. They talked about boxing, and Hemingway invited Algren for Christmas dinner the next day. Algren’s biographer, Bettina Drew, notes that Christmas at the Hemingways’ was just where he belonged…knowing he was accepted and respected for his writing, for what he was. The party was significant for Nelson because of the emotional affinity, far deeper than words, stirred by Hemingway.

Algren spent time alone with Hemingway prior to the dinner. Then, he reported, “Hemingway got out of bed painfully. He was fully dressed. There were guests waiting.” Algren recorded this scene in a remarkable 1965 book, titled Notes From A Sea diary: Hemingway All the Way, in which he wrote about his time as a passenger on a tramp steamer in the Pacific, in the form of a diary, and combined that with reflections on Hemingway and a counter attack against Hemingway’s critics. Here’s what he had to say about Hemingway and his guests:

He sat among them gravely serious. He carried an air of tranquility. He didn’t throw a punch at anybody. He didn’t stagger. He didn’t brag. He listened, perceived, and he liked having company. What he brought to a table of many guests was the feeling that everyone understood one another. I remember hearing Spanish spoken, and French, and of understanding not a word of what was said: and of knowing, when I spoke English, that some of the guests didn’t understand me. But because of Hemingway’s presence everything seemed understood.

His beautiful and moving writing aside, that’s how I think of Ernest Hemingway.

Riding the Rails

By Ray Schultz

Spare me your three-word tweets: I yearn for the day when publishers sent four-page direct mail letters. They were worth reading whether you responded or not.

Take this stirring note written by the copywriter Frank Johnson. It’s for a book on railroads offered by American Heritage magazine.

The letter is dated Dec. 30, 1974, but readers probably didn’t get it until the calendar year 1975. If I’m reading it correctly, in fact, the book wasn’t available until that summer.

Hmnn, I wonder if the volume was even written when the letter went out: The single-spaced missive almost serves as an outline or proposal. Did American Heritage plan to go forward only when it had sufficient orders? (Hardly an uncommon practice in those days).

It’s hard to know now. In Frank Johnson’s files, the piece is identified only as RR letter – final, 11/13. And there’s no information on response. But one thing’s for sure: This letter is a richly enjoyable piece of Americana. And it could only have been written by someone who grew up in Ohio, listening to those railroad whistles. Here’s Frank Johnson at his absolute best.

 December 30, 1974

If you’re old enough and lucky enough, you can remember lying in bed as a child and hearing, far off, the whistle of a steam locomotive as it pounded through the night. The wail was hoarse, mournful, inimitable. And once upon a time it was a siren song for any youngster.

You could imagine the engineer, red bandana around his neck, eyes riveted on the gleaming rails ahead, wind-blown and ruddy in the glow from the open fire door. You envied – oh, how you envied – the impossibly glamorous travelers in the spruce train behind, eating five-course feasts in the spotless dining car, ice tinkling in their wine buckets. Or snug in their berths behind swaying green curtains in the long Pullmans, each car lettered with its name. “Someday,” you told yourself, “”Someday ….” It was magic.

Someday, lackaday. Such high-style overland travel is almost gone, as someone has said, with the wind. But as all of us who remember can tell all of us who were a bit too young, railroads were once magic carpets for Americans. The miraculous iron horse changed our modes of life more radically than any mechanical device before or since, from steel plows to airplanes.

Railroads are obviously an important part of the American experience That’s one reason why our editors are now at work on a first-rate, expertly written and illustrated history of the subject.

But I’m inviting you to look at the completed book for ore reasons than its “importance.” As you already now a proper history of railroads is bound to include invention, skullduggery, wild economics, outrageous politics, dashing adventures, and a motley cast of characters. A great history of American railroads, I think you’ll agree, should also include a touch of the magic you – or your parents, and theirs – once felt.

And that touch will be evident in our forthcoming AMERICAN HERITAGE HISTORY OF RAILROADS IN AMERICA. Here I’d like to tell you about the book, make some heady claims, and offer to prove them by sending you a copy late this summer, on approval, and at a good bargain.

To get the magic as well as the facts of that important, colorful story into one illustrated book calls for someone who has an intimate knowledge of America’s history, and more than a bit of railroading experience. Ideally, this historian should also have ready access to the archives of railroad pictures and art; and the ability to write with precision, economy, and wit.

Not by happenstance, our author with all those qualifications built in is Oliver Jensen. For two decades he has been the editor of the world’s biggest and best-known history magazine, American Heritage. All his life he has been railroad buff. And he founded and is chairman of the Valley Railroad of Essex, Connecticut. It features antique steam engines and restored wooden coaches.

He starts with the achievement of the wonderful 19th-century “locomotive engine”: For the first time, you could move across the land without using leg power of some sort! That thought simply hadn’t occurred to right-thinking people since the world began. Even the idea of an “engine” was new in 1830, when The Best Friend of Charleston, the first practical U.S-built locomotive, began to haul goods and people. (So new that six months later, The Best Friend’s unsuspecting fireman, annoyed by the hissing safety valve, sat on it to gain a few quiet moments … his and the boiler’s last.)

But wonder turned to love, and to avarice, in short order “Railroad fever” brought a mania for wildcat railroad enterprises … and a push of rails to the new western states. “West” in the 1830’s an ‘40’s meant Ohio Indiana, Illinois. And access to their rich lands quickly emptied New England’s hardscrabble farms of ambitious young men, and built the first railroad city: Chicago.

Early on, you’ll come across familiar names in new roles. For example, that foxy young railroad lawyer, Abraham Lincoln of the Illinois Central; U.S. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, espousing the virtues of a southern route for the projected transcontinental railroad; Peter Cooper, racing a horse with his Tom Thumb engine; John Quincy Adams, escaping injury in the firs train wreck; and Andrew Carnegie as a young train dispatcher.

A B.&O. train was stopped by John Brown’s men during the bloody raid at Harpers Ferry. Once released, the conductor wired the first news of Brown’s threatened rail blockade – and U.S. Marines were rushed to the rescue, by train. From the Civil War on, railroads were to be part and parcel of all military strategies.

But not even war could stop the drive west. Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act on July 1, 1862, chartering two companies to complete the first Atlantic-to-Pacific rail link. “The Great Highway of Nations between OCCIDENT and ORIENT,” as the ads had it, was completed just seven years later. What rousing stories there are to tell about railroading in the 1860’s: The stolen “General” and the great locomotive chase, Promontory Point and the golden spike, the real emergency that tested the first air brake ….

RAILROADS IN AMERICA will put you on scene at these historic occasions, with fine reproductions of wartime Brady and Gardner photos; with paintings and sketches made by artists who followed the Irish and Chinese track layers into the Rockies; with a moving picture essay of Lincoln’s funeral train; with enticing posters (“83 hours, coast to coast!”), and photos of spidery trestles and tangled wrecks.

The whole saga of our railroads is one of the most picturesque – and best-pictured – in America’s history. So the 300-and-more carefully chosen illustrations in the book are remarkably evocative windows to the past.

You’ll see how the notorious railroad robber barons o the late 19th century were often viciously lampooned by press cartoonists. And you can understand why they were so cordially hated: Among other tyrannies, U.S .cavalrymen were used to break a strike that had been called because the Pullman Company cut its workers’ wages, but not the rents fro the Pullman-owned tenements. There were reasons aplenty by the turn of the century for America’s biggest business to become our most stringently regulated one as well.

But of course railroads were also an economic force that simply coined capital, built cities, populated our plains, made a national market, and cud take you anywhere in the U.S.A. – Key West, Death Valley, Pike’s Peak – in posh style. So by and large, although there was plenty to complain about, there was more to love America’s passion for railroads continued well into the 1930’s.

A chapter looks at the great “name” trains, such as The 20thCentury Limited, The Overland Limited, The Santa Fe Chief – and the music and literature and art they inspired. Another shows you the workmen: the lordly engineer; the fireman, with his giraffe-necked oil can; the busy conductor, turnip watch in hand; the lantern-swinging brakemen; the sledge-hammering trackmen, called gandy dancers ….

Then a couple of spectacular chapters lead you through the crowded bell-echoing palaces we once had for depots, up the long red carpets, and aboard sinfully luxurious cars – with pump organs to sing around, plush an inlaid-rosewood décor barbers, shoe shines, and blue stories in the men’s lounges, already blue with the smoke of fine havanas. And the dining cars, the menus, the service! Wait till you see these pictures.

An 1870’s guidebook advised the rail traveler to “sit and read, play games, and indulge in social conversation and glee.” And so we did. But the “glee,” and the boarding stocks, and the dragon-like locomotives that grew from big to huge to gargantuan – such excitements, obscured some problems. By World War I, seven major “combinations” controlled the country’s key rail systems. Like their steam engines, they were massive, impressive, and doomed.

World War II gave the monsters a brief, busy respite from the attacks of the subsidized competition and the dry rot of rigid managements and archaic laws and too-soft featherbeds for labor. Then came the years of “last trips” and abandonments, of rust and recrimination and nostalgia. The pictures here are exceptional.

And the last chapter, if not a “happy” ending, is a most hopeful one for all of us who wish this once-lovely way to go would get going again. What’s the most fuel-efficient, prettiest device for moving tons of goods and crowds of people across the U.S.A.?

Listen for that whistle. It’s beginning to sound again.

Meanwhile, I can promise you a wonderful trip through history with THE AMERICAN HERITAGE HISTORY OF RAILROADS IN AMERICA. To see an early copy of the $27.50-retail book, with an option on the lowest price we can offer, $19.95, return the enclosed form promptly. There’s also a most elegant, and slipcased, de luxe edition. See the form.

Of course we’ll guarantee the special price, regardless of inflation; and the book is fully returnable if it doesn’t whistle your tune.* But I’m sure it will. And thank you!

Sincerely,

Paul Gottlieb

President

*Speaking of steam whistles and tunes. SONGS AND SOUNDS OF THE GREAT DAYS OF STEAM is both title and description of a rousing stereo record we’ll have available for buyers of the book. The enclosed folder describes it.

 

 

 

 

We’re Back

By Ray Schultz

Finally. After weeks of technological buffoonery, I’m happy to announce that the TellAllmarketing Blog is back up.

After a fashion. My old blog simply died one day—you could no longer access it. And it was beyond my technical skill to figure out why.

So I engaged WordPress, and created this new version, which looks a little like the old one. Granted, I’ve got questions to answer going forward—like what to do with the dead site. Do I repost the 700 or so items that had piled up, starting in 2010?

I’ve decided not to. I don’t want to be like the Nelson Algren character who saved old racing forms “against a day when age would lend them some value; as age had in no wise increased his own.”

But I have recycled some oldies for the record, like my interviews with Art Spiegelman and Charles Ludlam.

The question might be asked: Just what is the TellAllmrketing Blog about?

In theory, it’s about marketing. But it also delves into the history of marketing, especially the direct mail medium.

It may be true that those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it. But there’s a more positive reason to study it—to get an idea of our heritage, and how our forebears solved their problems.

The blog also contains appreciations of writers I admire. I’m no literary critic— these pieces are an excuse for sharing long quotes by the authors. In the end, it’s all about writing.

This isn’t the first time the blog has gone dark. It tends to suffer when I’m working on a deadline.

Deadlines? Yes. I write content for cutting-edge firms like Aimia and IBM, doing everything from blogs to white papers.

I’ve also been writing books. I’ve finished one on boxing, titled The Man With the Brass Jaw, about the great Cuban journeyman Angel Robinson Garcia. And I’m writing a commissioned biography of a leader in the distance-selling business, a direct marketing legend whose name you will recognize when it’s published.

In the interim, please forgive the typos, missing headlines and other errors that pop up on the blog. It’s clear I have hardly mastered this process.

But enough of all that. It’s Memorial Day. Let’s remember our departed heroes and return to work on Tuesday. Have a great weekend.