Frisco Beat: When They Renamed Monroe

Brian Wallace just sent me the link to an article about renaming San Francisco streets — with a little section about Monroe Street getting the new moniker of Dashiell Hammett Street.

The article writer doesn’t seem to be aware of the fact that I’m the one who pushed for Monroe Street as the lane to rename, because Lawrence Ferlinghetti wanted to mark Burritt Alley for the handle Dashiell Hammett Street.

Nope, not on my watch. Burritt is mentioned by name in The Maltese Falcon. Don’t dink with it.

(The reader is left to his or her own devices to figure out that the 1988 renaming of 12 streets in honor of authors and artists covers both Hammett Street and Jack Kerouac Street, the only ones of that group surveyed in this write-up. And there’s nothing about the sordid era when the street sign was damaged, replaced, and misspelled!)

Anyway, a nice enough newspaperesque tidbit.

But heed this trigger warning: Some renaming action involves racist history.

Jeez.

Tell me, not in San Francisco!

(Or, when will they want to rename the city itself? All that shocking colonial backstory. May I suggest Dashiell Hammett Burg?)

Posted in Dash, Frisco | Tagged , , , , |

Rediscovered: The Arkham Collector

The maelstrom of Arkham House ephemera collecting swept me up again, with John D. Haefele clinging onto the plunging raft by my side.

Some weeks that’s been all I could think about, bidding on items I didn’t have in the stash, figuring out this or that arcane permutation of the hobby. The other day Haefele and I (with strong input from Paul Dobish) determined that there exist — at least — some six variants of Item 92 from the list of Classic Era ephemera I surveyed for Firsts: The Book Collectors Magazine. Until we batted the info out, previously unknown variants, of course.

Now we know about them, but you don’t.

I’m sure the current burst of activity was inspired by Haefele stepping up with his recent survey of the Modern Era ephemera for Firsts — an essay in one issue (one of only a handful of historical presentations on modern Arkham yet done) and a list of the post-Classic Era ephemera items in the next. That sparked the dive back in.

Back into what?

Not just the hobby itself, but into a book-length expansion of the Classic List which Haefele and I have been talking about for years — I just noticed a reference to the project in a 2007 note. The plan at the moment is to show an image of every single item, in addition to the description.

Once we get that one done, then you’ll know what we know.

I think we have roughly 50 more Classic Era items as of now to add to the 100 tallied in Firsts. And the list will expand in other ways. Haefele has persuaded me that pure August Derleth brochures — Stanton & Lee — need to be inserted where they would appear. Ditto Hawk & Whippoorwill. Sure, I get it: August Derleth was Arkham House.

And Haefele talked me into adding issues of the in-house magazine The Arkham Collector to the list.

Don’t think I’m some pushover. The magazine was sold — it is not by definition ephemera. But what Haefele pointed out was that it took over many of the functions of the various brochures, listing projects underway. If you don’t have The Arkham Collector in the record, then you don’t have the full “history” usually recorded by the ephemera.

I recall that some collectors griped that certain books — Stan McNail’s Something Breathing or Donald Sidney-Fryer’s Songs and Sonnets Atlantean — seemed to leap into print from nowhere, without significant advance notice in the flyers. But they were mentioned as upcoming in The Collector. And the envelopes with new issues of the magazine also were loaded up with contemporaneous brochures and inserts.

The Arkham Collector won’t just be dropped directly into the numbering system for the ephemera. I’ll allow it in, but each of the ten issues total will be done via Roman numerals — I, II, III through X. Hey, it’ll look cool on the page.

And we ought to be upfront about other reasons why Haefele is pushing for The Arkham Collector to assume its proper place in history.

Secrets of the past, unveiled!

“Despite years of researching the ‘Derleth Papers,'” Haefele notes, “I’ve never uncovered any official explanation why Derleth started up the magazine — beyond the time and money considerations offered when he announced it.”  

Haefele reports: “I’ve always thought (rather, hoped) that I was the young fan who brought Derleth to the tipping point when he decided to publish The Arkham Collector, which he announced in Spring 1967.

“That’s because on October 20, 1966 I had written to him: ‘I think you could publish a monthly fan-zine in which news of new books printed or going out-of-print could be presented, along with reviews and amateur writings a minimum length. The fans could pay the fee of publication and postage.’

“Derleth’s reply was dutifully sent on October 24”:

Posted in Lit | Tagged , , , , , |

Rediscovered: More on Monahan

Keeping his eye on the centennial clock, noted book and pulp collector Kevin Cook returns to the Mean Streets. Here’s Kevin:

Pulp cover illustrator P.J. Monahan was born Patrick John Sullivan on January 4, 1882. When he was just a youngster his parents both died of influenza and he was raised by kind neighbors. He took on their surname of Monahan for his professional career.

The check with his signature shown here is for the cover painting for Francis Stevens’ brilliant novel of demonic possession “Serapion” (All-Story Weekly, June 19, 1920), published exactly 100 years ago. As you can see, he was paid the princely sum of $125.00 by the Frank A. Munsey Company for his efforts.

If you could eliminate the last four paragraphs on the last page, “Serapion” would be regarded as one of the greatest noir novels ever written. But of course that was not Stevens’ intent, and I question whether it would have seen print in 1920 with the total triumph of evil.

Although he painted some beautiful covers for “Polaris — of the Snows” (All-Story Weekly, December 18, 1915) and “Land of the Shadow People” (All-Story Weekly, June 26, 1920), novels written by Charles B. Stilson, Monahan is best remembered today for the 13 cover paintings he did for novels written by Edgar Rice Burroughs from 1913-1923, and the one he did for Johnston McCulley’s first Zorro story, “The Curse of Capistrano” (All-Story Weekly, August 9, 1919).

The cover illustration for ERB’s “Thuvia, Maid of Mars” (All-Story Weekly, April 8, 1916) was subsequently used as the dust jacket on the A.C. McClurg first edition of the novel in 1920. He also produced the dust jacket painting for ERB’s The Girl from Hollywood (The Macaulay Company, 1923). Monahan died young in 1931 as a result of injuries sustained in an automobile accident. 

A myth started on the internet has it that P.J. Monahan was nothing less than Edgar Rice Burroughs’ favorite Munsey artist. I checked out that idea, searching for concrete proof.

First, I contacted David Saunders whose pulp artist website probably has the best biographical information regarding Monahan. He stated that he believed that Burroughs had a “qualified preference” for Monahan, but put me in touch with Robert Barrett, the man Danton Burroughs asked to research, organize and index all of the carbon copies of his grandfather’s correspondence at ERB, Inc.

Barrett advised me that Burroughs never wrote a single letter regarding Monahan, although Munsey editor Bob Davis did gift Burroughs with the original Monahan cover painting for “Tarzan and the Golden Lion.” Apparently, a combination of the fact that Monahan painted 13 covers for Burroughs stories and the knowledge that ERB possessed that original gave rise to the idea that he was a favorite of ERB.

Also interesting to note is that Monahan’s pay rate for ERB covers increased after 1920 from $125.00 to $135.00 each. Plus, other contemporary artists like Modest Stein were only receiving $50.00 from Munsey for cover paintings, Burroughs or otherwise. By the 1930’s Munsey was paying $250.00 each for cover paintings. This information came from Bob Barrett, who has original checks for the ERB cover paintings.

Posted in Lit | Tagged , , , , , , , , |

Sinister Cinema: A Fistful of Fisher

Pulps in the Movies. On Sale Every Wednesday.

And does our resident pulp/film buff John Locke have a title for you today: I Wake Up Screaming.

Yeah, we all get that feeling, right? — now maybe more so than ever.

The pulps spotted, and this particular movie, give John a chance to cover a workhorse of the fiction mag scene in the person of:

Steve Fisher (1912-80) dropped out of high school and enlisted in the Navy, perfect preparation, as it turned out, to be a high-volume pulp writer. After returning to civilian life, he published in the neighborhood of 400 pulp stories, primarily from 1933-46.

He also expanded into slick-magazine stories and hardbound novels, which made him an object of envy in pulp-writing circles.

Ever ambitious, he soon tapped into Hollywood — and the big bucks. His novel I Wake Up Screaming was published in March 1941 and quickly snapped up by 20th Century-Fox for $7,500. The film premiered on Halloween later the same year.

In this shot from the film, police detective Ed Cornell (Laird Cregar) passes a newsstand. Near his left hand is a row of four pulps: Clues (March 1941), Black Mask (August 1941), Detective Fiction Weekly (September 21, 1940), and The Shadow (issue unidentified).

It’s probably not an accident that these pulps were selected. Primarily a crime-fiction writer, Fisher made his name in all four.

He appeared in Clues fourteen times from 1935-43. His Black Mask run was brief but memorable: nine stories from August 1937 through April 1939. He could be found frequently in DFW: twenty-four appearances from 1935-41.

But it was The Shadow that received the bulk of his sales, a staggering 130 stories. They began in 1935 and continued into 1943, long after his Hollywood success had been established. They were all back-of-the-book shorts, most featuring characters Sheridan Doome and The Kid, in alternating issues. The Doomes were published under the byline of Stephen Gould. After 1939, all of Fisher’s Shadow stories appeared under pennames.

None of the issues displayed in the shot feature Fisher stories, unless there’s one in The Shadow. This “Easter egg” (highly unlikely to be recognized by the audience) was worth a little effort — but not that much effort.

Bonus Fisher landing strip . . . Just below the pulps is another magazine Fisher appeared in from time to time: Liberty (July 5, 1941).

Posted in Film, Lit | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , |

Hammett: “Zigzags of Treachery”

Tom Krabacher let me know that Library of America with their “Story of the Week” recently spotlighted another Op yarn by Hammett — the excellent “Zigzags of Treachery.”

Free.

A little intro that’s pretty good (if you’ve been around, you know it all, but if you’re new, it might offer a discovery or two). A nice postcard image of Pacific Street in the era.

Posted in Dash, Frisco | Tagged , , , |

Two-Gun Bob: The Chastain Connection

The handsome devil above is Don Chastain, and the mere mention of his name sent Brian Leno off into a web of connections — no doubt prompted by all his ongoing work on the boxing scene known to Texas writer Robert E. Howard, covering pugilists such as Kid Dula, a.k.a. Cowboy Dula. The news is that Brian almost has slugged his way through a complete first draft.

Brian’s a pretty clean writer. A first draft isn’t that far away from a final draft.

Here’s Brian:

Your blog on Joe Memoli rang a bell (pardon the double pun) when Larry Belling mentioned actor Don Chastain.

Don was the son of Clyde Chastain, a tough boxer who took on Cowboy Dula at least twice. 

Chastain, in a bloody fight in November of 1930 took a decision from Dula. The Cowboy beat Chastain, also by decision, in May 1932.

Chastain was a pretty good fighter. Fought some big names in South Africa and for a time was managed by “Pa” Stribling, father of Young Stribling, who was a heck of a fighter and was tragically killed in an motorcycle accident.

I cover this stuff in my book, which will be finished (first draft) as soon as my current computer troubles are fixed.

Robert E. Howard saw Chastain fight, and he mentions in a letter to Lovecraft that he traveled to Fort Worth and saw Chastain take on Jack Doss — Doss shows up in REH’s autobiographical Post Oaks and Sand Roughs as the boxer Jack Goss. (Glenn Lord says it’s so and of course he’s right.)

Back to Clyde’s son. Don was nominated for an Emmy for a Gunsmoke episode — superior entry in the series too. He was in Fathom, which starred Raquel Welch. What a lucky guy!

Small world.

Posted in Boxing, Film, REH | Tagged , , , , , , |

Rediscovered: A Joe Memoli Postscript

Following on his longer memoir of Joe Memoli, Larry Belling added a few remarks:

Another memory after I moved to New York and got a job in the box office of a theatre downtown: 

After a show at the Astor Place Playhouse, I would occasionally grab a bite at the Italian restaurant next door. One night standing at the bar was a man who looked quite a lot like Joe Memoli. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I approached him and introduced myself.

When I mentioned Joe’s name, he literally spat. “That fucking prick!” he exclaimed. “Imagine getting sent up for something as stupid as counterfeiting!” He dismissed me with a look of contempt that I should admit to knowing him.

Later I asked the bartender who the guy was. “Larry Gallo” was the answer. He was a distant cousin of Joe’s, and brother to another Joe, Crazy Joe Gallo, who would be murdered ten years later at Umberto’s Clam House in Little Italy.

Also I received a clipping from, I believe, Life Magazine with a picture of Memoli attempting to rob the San Francisco-Oakland helicopter office. I never found out if he went back to jail. 

I’m surprised Memoli didn’t appear to get an obit in the Oakland Tribune.

Posted in Frisco | Tagged , |

Rediscovered: More on Joe Memoli

Who would have thought a casual mention made when I was working up an article on the boxer-poet Floyd Salas would lead to more about Joe Memoli on These Mean Streets — and now, years later, to even more.

Just got in the following memoirs from Larry Belling. Per norm with this sort of thing (or the net in general, I guess), I don’t know if the following is some of the truth, the whole truth — or something else entirely. There’s some autobiographical sprawl, but it’s heavy enough on mentions of Joe Memoli to pique interest. (I’m thinking, maybe Floyd ought to have taken Memoli up on the proposal to write his biography.)

“My dad fixed Joe Memoli’s radio and TV sets,” Larry said by way of preface, “and he took great interest in me and my work in the theatre. This is from my diary”:

One Saturday, when my father Les was in the back visiting the bathroom, (sitting on the throne, he called it), a large black car pulled up in front of the shop and a man got out. He was dressed in a black suit with a black shirt and a white tie. He wore a black fedora with a green feather in it. His eyes were dark holes and he had no upper lip. Having just seen Edward G. Robinson in “Public Enemy” I knew immediately that this guy must be some kind of gangster, and it was thrilling.

He opened the trunk of his car and took out a large table top model Zenith radio. I rushed out to help him and held open the door to the shop. “Thanks, kid,” he said plopping the radio on Les’s workbench. Les came out of the bathroom. “Oh, hello Joe, what seems to be the trouble.”

“It just doesn’t work,” said Joe Memoli, who I would learn was an Oakland restaurateur with an Italian joint downtown, and close relatives in the New York families.

Les plugged the radio in an electricity socket. “It smells funny,” he said, “but it’s not an electrical smell. Let’s open her up.” He fiddled with his screwdriver and loosened the back panel. “Whew! What a smell!” he exclaimed. As the back panel came off, a dead rat fell to the floor.

I can hear Joe’s whoop of laughter to this day. “No wonder the damned thing didn’t work,” he exclaimed. “Fix it up, Les and come to dinner at Memoli’s — everything on the house.” He flipped me a quarter and was gone.

Memoli’s was a typical spaghetti-and-meatballs-looking joint in downtown Oakland on Broadway at Eighth Street opposite the Simon Hardware store. The tablecloths were checkered red and white, a green, white and red Italian flag hung limply outside, and delicious smells of meatballs and spaghetti sauce wafted down the street.

Specialties of the house were veal and eggplant parmigiana, spaghetti with various sauces, lasagna, baked ziti, meatballs in red sauce, and Italian sausages. These were taste thrills we didn’t get at home and I was instantly hooked. I took an interest in how the dishes were prepared and Joe took a liking to me. The feeling was mutual. He showed me how he half cooked spaghetti so that he could serve it quickly al dente after it was ordered, unlike most joints that kept it on the boil. He let me grate the fresh parmesan — no pre-grated stuff for Joe.

On the walls were framed pictures including one in an impressive prime position — Joe with Frank Sinatra! Wow. Also Joe with some nasty looking wide-shouldered men; Joe with some nasty looking Italian politicians; Joe in a big chef’s hat with Dean Martin and some other nasty looking men; and Joe with a few nasty looking fat opera singers I didn’t recognize. The music of choice was Italian opera — Verdi, Puccini, Rossini. 

The Belling family went to Memoli’s infrequently — maybe once a year, but every time we did he insisted the food was free and he made me feel as if I were his special friend and never failed to give me a shot of sweet Italian anisette liquor. A few years later I was to be seen there frequently, sometimes when I didn’t even know it.

After Cal Berkeley Memoli came into my life when I got involved with producing a play in San Francisco. I later wrote:

I approached Joe Memoli and he was extremely interested in my ideas of a musical repertory theater in San Francisco. He indicated that he would be coming into some serious money in the near future and that I should pursue it. He sent his attorney, Preston Erickson, to have a look at it (and bless the deal), and Don and Anne, his friends who developed the Cannery (without giving me credit) had a look as well. I started talking to Art Conrad and other talents I had worked with on “Out of Order” about the idea and they were keen as could be, of course. Wow! A repertory musical theater. Great! I paid Joe back his investment in about eight weeks and he was thrilled. “Hey, let’s find another one,” he said magnanimously.

I bussed across the bridge often to schmooze Memoli about the project, and he told me he wouldn’t be ready to think about finance for some months in the future. So I needed an interim job — or a project. I was invited to co-produce a show in L.A. and so:

“Out of Order” lasted for about four months, almost every performance sold out. It had to close as a number of the performers had other engagements and it was not so profitable that it was worth recasting. Also the theater lessees, Tom Sternberg (later to be a movie producer with Francis Ford Coppola) and his partner were demanding hugely increased rents. In the last week, John Storace did a runner (he wanted more pay!) and I had to don a whole lot of padding to take over his roles, including Big Daddy in the Tennessee Williams sketch.

One night a semi-sleazy Hollywood promoter/agent type named Hal Martin saw the show and asked to see Barry and me. He was co-producing a musical revue in Hollywood and was looking for investment partners. The show was “Parade,” Jerry Herman’s first show, which had a 95-performance run a year previously at the Players Theater in New York with Dody Goodman and Charles Nelson Reilly.

The original producer was Larry Kasha, a former stage manager, (“L’I Abner”) who would be directing this production. Joe, Barry and I went down to LA to meet him and Hal Martin and discuss the show. The cast had been set, and quite a stellar one it was. Carole Cook, Michelle Lee, Don Chastain, Tucker Smith and Lee Goodman, all solid musical performers with regular if not starring film and television careers. The theater was the Hollywood Center Theater, a rather sleazy, run down 500 seater on Santa Monica Blvd. in Hollywood.

On our arrival in LA, Joe and I, without Barry, went to dinner at the famed Barney’s Beanery, in those days a grubby thin long room with wooden booths, checked linoleum tablecloths, and a huge inventory of beers from around the world. Joe had an altercation with another patron. Some pushing ensued, and I watched in horror as Joe let loose with a right cross which decked the guy. He got up. Joe’s uppercut floored him for the count. Joe threw some notes on the table and dragged me out before the cops could arrive. It was the closest I’d ever been to a fist fight. Joe was proud of his achievement. I was somewhat horrified.

Joe agreed to put in the required finance for the show and I signed on as stage manager. I got Dave Colyer to join me and we split duties on lights, sound and stage management. Dave and I took a small apartment at the somewhat sleazy Hollywood Center Motel next to the theater.

The show closed with a total loss of Joe’s money. He was most gracious about it. “Hey, we had a big hit with ‘Out of Order,'” he said. “Let’s remember that one!”

Back in San Francisco, I took a small apartment out near the Mint on Market Street. It was a typical San Francisco craftsman-type apartment with wood everywhere and little warmth, but it was great to be on my own. I hustled up a few jobs in clubs and small theaters. I tried unsuccessfully to get work at the Hungry I, the famous San Francisco nightspot, but I did manage to get in to see Mort Sahl, Nichols and May and Woody Allen.

During this time I actually ran the lights and follow spots in a strip club on Broadway where the women were big, bored, blonde and Scandinavian and the drunks plentiful and smelly.

I found myself getting on buses rather frequently and crossing the Bay Bridge headed towards Jack London Square and Joe Memoli’s restaurant. Joe had a regular cast of Oakland characters in the joint most nights. He wouldn’t listen when I volunteered to help out in the kitchen. “You’re in the theater now,” he said, as if that was some sort of elevated position that precluded getting one’s hands dirty

I’d help myself to a bite from the kitchen. Joe would ply me with anisette liquor. We’d smoke, putting out our cigarettes in the Golden Gate Casino ashtrays he had on every table.

One night, none of the regular guys were in the upstairs part of the restaurant. I was told they were downstairs in the basement and I trotted down to find out what was going on. Joe seemed a little surprised when I came into the low-ceilinged long room. There were six or seven men, most of whom I knew by sight, gathered around a table in the center, and they were playing with bits of paper. On closer observation I noticed that dollar bills had been bleached out so they were almost white.

“Hey, there’s a great idea,” I yelped. “Bleach out dollar bills and print $100s on top of them.” Nobody laughed. “You’re a riot, kid,” said one of them named Smitty, dryly.

One evening a few months later I had returned to my apartment near the Mint. There were three Oakland policemen awaiting me, and I was requested to take a short journey in their police car. They wouldn’t tell me what it was about, nor would they listen to my pleas of exhaustion. We drove over the Bay Bridge to Oakland in silence.

After a short wait at the Oakland police station a detective questioned me: “Why were you at Joe Memoli’s restaurant 21 times in the past three months?” 

“Gosh was I?” said I. “It didn’t seem that often. I was visiting my friend Joe and” (I fibbed) “helping out in the kitchen.” (I didn’t want to tell them I was not permitted to cook and I didn’t think talking about a musical repertory theatre at the old Globe Chinese Theater would interest them.) “Why?”

 “We’ve just arrested him as the leader of the biggest counterfeit ring ever broken in the State of California.” My mind flashed to those bleached out dollar bills, and Smitty’s acerbic reaction to my suggestion about printing $100s on them. In fact, that’s not what they were doing. They were printing $20s on stolen paper stock and aging them in washing machines at the laundry of Alameda County College. Police also recovered hundreds of fake $1 gold pieces — replicas of those which commemorated the 1904-05 Lewis and Clark Exposition at Portland, Oregon. They had been coined in Mexico.

Needless to say, I was sent home that night as my honest face required no polygraph. The fact that Memoli’s had been staked out for the previous five months was rather a shock! Did he really intend to finance our theater with counterfeit money?

Joe got four years at San Quentin where he was assigned to the laundry room, rather than to the kitchen where he would have been much more appropriate.

Posted in Boxing, Frisco | Tagged , , , |

Rediscovered: Raymond’s Factory Overture, Signed

Noted book and pulp collector Kevin Cook is back to show off another signed item from his shelves, to spotlight another of his favorite writers.

“Perhaps someone will be intrigued enough,” Kevin says, “to give Derek Raymond a try. It would certainly be worth their time. After Nisbet told me about Raymond at NoirCon I found a paperback edition of He Died with His Eyes Open and fairly inexpensive copies of the hardcover first editions of the next four novels in the series.

“Couldn’t locate any hardcover copies of that first book for a few years, though.

“Then one day scrolling through book listings on the internet I found a British dealer selling the book for ten pounds. It was a mint, unread, signed copy, and he obviously had no idea what the book was or who Raymond was. I bought it in a heartbeat of course.”

Jim Nisbet has pushed Raymond for years. My memory is that he knew him personally, which puts Nisbet one degree of separation from the notorious Kray Brothers — again, if memory serves, the Brit noir writer rubbed elbows with the Krays and lived in the same underworld.

Here’s Kevin with a formal statement:

Every time you read an essay, article or biography of Dashiell Hammett a paraphrase of the following statement will appear: Hammett had the perfect background for writing detective/crime fiction because he had previously been a Pinkerton’s Detective.         

What about the polar opposite of being a detective? Could a man with a criminal background also be a perfect choice to write crime fiction?         

Enter Derek Raymond.        

Born on this date in 1931 as Robert William Arthur Cook and known to his friends as Robin, Raymond rebelled against his privileged birth as a member of the British upper class and became a con man. After one con too many he had to leave the UK and ended up living in France.        

He had previously published books as Robin Cook, but now hid his identity behind the name Derek Raymond.

His autograph is from the first Raymond book, He Died with His Eyes Open (Martin Secker & Warburg Limited, 1984). That volume is also the first book of his acclaimed Factory Series where Raymond’s unnamed police officer works in the Bureau of Unexplained Deaths.        

Jim Nisbet, a noted noir author himself, has stated that Raymond was the world’s finest noir writer. He was speaking about pure noir: misery, corruption, hopelessness and death.
       

The greatest critical acclaim goes to the fourth book of the Factory series, I Was Dora Suarez, It would be a simplified analysis to describe this book as the British equivalent of Laura, the police officer falling in love with the dead murder victim, because Raymond’s vision is much darker than Vera Caspery’s, and there is no happy ending. 

Those last words are not really a spoiler because anyone who had already read the first three Factory novels would not expect the tone of black despair to change.

Posted in Lit | Tagged , , , , |

Cisco Beat: Santa Hits the Bank

Eighty-four years ago today, at his final age of 30, pulp writer Robert E. Howard shot himself in the head outside his home in Cross Plains, Texas.

To commemorate the somber anniversary we bring in lifelong REH fan Brian Leno. Part convention report, part book report, part REH history and all Texas history, Brian’s got a tale to tell you. In honor of Two-Gun Bob.

Here’s Brian:

It was raining hard in Cisco during the Summer of 2009 when my three road companions and I booked rooms in one of the local motels. The rooms were only necessary for sleeping, because we were planning on spending most of our time 23 miles away in Cross Plains.

Festivities were in full swing honoring Robert E. Howard that weekend in Cross Plains — the weekend closest to the date he killed himself. I had been twice before to view Howard’s home, once in 1967, and the last time in 2007.

This one was special however. One of my traveling companions was Donald Sidney-Fryer, an expert on the poetry of Clark Ashton Smith, Howard, and many others.

A high point came when we rescued DSF from participating in a mind-numbing reading — by rank amateurs — of Howard’s verse. Known as the Poetry Throwdown, this sophomoric event sometimes even degenerated into these would-be poets reciting their own lackluster rhymes. 

We hustled Donald back to the Cisco motel and the night was spent drinking beer and listening to an actual poet recite bits of Howard’s and Clark Ashton Smith’s poetry. An intellectual acrobat, DSF kept the interest alive with many excursions into the realms of writing, including comments on J. D. Salinger, pulp verse — he even dipped a toe into tales of a book he was writing on the history of ballet.

It was good times.

What wasn’t such good times, however, and something I didn’t know much about, was a bank robbery that had occurred in the little town of Cisco on December 23, 1927, over 80 years earlier.

The so-called Santa Claus Bank Robbery was a story I had heard about, of course, but the Kris Kringle business had conjured up images of a gang comprised of members of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and the Bowery Boys.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Recently I was fortunate enough to purchase The Santa Claus Bank Robbery (Tudor 1988), by A. C. Greene. This copy once belonged to the late Glenn Lord, for many years the literary agent for the Howard estate, so out of respect for this greatest Robert E. Howard scholar, I cracked it open and began to read.

It was a book that really was too good to put down, and that is a rarity. Once finished, hard to forget.

There were four bank robbers who stepped into the First National Bank in Cisco on December 23, 1927. Henry Helms, who ended up getting the electric chair. Louis Davis, who died during the intense manhunt following the robbery. Robert Hill, who was paroled eventually and lived the rest of his life under a different name.

The fourth member of the gang, Marshall Ratliff, was the only one of the robbers known by sight to the Cisco townspeople.

A woman named Midge Tellet, a friend to the robbers, was making a suit for her husband who was going to dress as Santa Claus for Christmas that year, and Marshall Ratliff borrowed it. Red coat, no pants, but she had a Santa hat and fake beard.

Ratliff apparently felt a jolly Santa getup would keep him from being recognized — and not draw too much attention.

Just not-thinking-it-through of the highest order.

Ratliff told his buddies to drop him off a few blocks before the bank.

By the time Ratliff got to the First National he had a mob of screeching kids tugging on his Santa coat, wanting to know if he had received their letters. Was he bringing them what they had asked for? Would he buy them some ice cream?

Ratliff probably figured taking the bank would be easier than getting the damn brats off his back.

He was wrong.

If you read the book, it appears that everything that could go haywire during the robbery did, including the fact that the crooks forgot to fill the getaway car with gas — and it was running on empty.

Anyway, Bad Santa Claus ended up in a jail cell in Eastland, just a few miles distant from Cisco. There Ratliff started acting like he was crazy, hoping to escape the electric chair.

But Ratliff soon found a chance for a jailbreak and ended up shooting Tom Jones, one of his jailers. The escape attempt failed.

A mob formed. After subduing the lone jailer left standing, they started climbing the stairway to Ratliff’s cell, laughing and yelling “Come on out, Santa Claus, we’re coming to get you!”

Greene’s writing, always decent throughout his book, takes on new life here, and it’s undoubtedly one of the most harrowing and terrifying passages I’ve read in many years.
After showing Ratliff a knife and threatening to feed him his own testicles for lunch, they burst into his cell, tearing his clothes off and dragging him down the stairway, laughing as his nakedness on full display for the sizable group of ladies that made up part of the mob.

They beat the hell out of him.

The first attempt to hang Ratliff failed. His body hit the ground with an audible thud.

But the second try, with a group of people grabbing the rope to pull Ratliff off his feet into the air, succeeded. Ratliff’s strangling body gave up the ghost.

His corpse was left to sway in the breeze — like a ghastly made-to-order scarecrow, to frighten would-be robbers away.

All of this happened within a short drive of Robert E. Howard. In a famous July 13, 1932 letter to H. P. Lovecraft, Howard goes into hyperbolic overdrive and describes that after a wild night of drinking with his pals, he was asked to join the “man-hunt” but refused, stating “we were in no shape to even lift a gun to our shoulders, much less confront a band of desperate outlaws.”

I have trouble believing that Howard wouldn’t have joined a posse if asked.

But after reading Greene’s book I’m glad he didn’t.

I’m really happy that the Texas writer was not part of the mob that hanged Ratliff, because there is a bit of mob mentality in all of us, and we can sympathize — even if just a little — with Ratliff, because if times get desperate enough who knows what any of us might be capable of doing.

Posted in REH | Tagged , , , , , |