Frisco Beat: William Worley

WorleyMy article on collecting San Francisco mysteries wraps up with a sequence from William Worley’s 1948 novel My Dead Wife, which captures in an evocative thumbnail moment the appeal of that hobby:

I ran uphill a dozen paces to the parapet and looked in the opposite direction towards Montgomery, where the street dropped steeply by concrete steps. No one there. Nothing. A hundred blank doorways, a thousand shadows, a million hiding places for murder.

And that has lead Lester Hardy to surf into Up and Down These Mean Streets, bringing with him more info on Worley — who was born April 22, 1915 in Glendale, California — died May 27, 1988 in San Francisco — in the interim enlisted in the Army in 1942 — a founding member of the Mystery Writers of America in 1945 — My Dead Wife in 1948 — the story “Mayhem on the Menu” in Detective Tales, November 1949 — with other members of the NorCal branch of the MWA contributed a chapter to the 1951 round robin novel The Marble Forest by “Theo Durrant” — taught English in Lowell High School in San Francisco from at least 1956 on.

And in his Tenth Grade Honors English class is where Lester encountered Worley:

“I entered Lowell in the fall of 1967 and graduated in June, 1970. In my English class Mr. Worley spoke of certain psychological elements common to the fiction published in pulp magazines, and it was my distinct impression that he had published short stories in the genre he referred to — this might easily have been before he entered the armed forces.

“It was very clear that after My Dead Wife, he published multiple mysteries under a pseudonym. And it seems to me there’s a pretty good chance he set at least some of those novels in San Francisco.

“Worley, as befits a mystery writer, was a real character himself, straight from Central Casting. He was a rather gaunt chain-smoker who rolled his own — the fingers of his right hand were permanently stained brown from the tobacco, and his skin had the distinctive, weathered texture of a lifelong smoker. He spoke to us about the ways in which an author’s psyche is unconsciously revealed in his or her fiction, and stated that was the reason he published under a pseudonym.

“That’s all very polite. The guy was flat-out weird.”

Lester tells me that a fellow student stopped into Worley’s office at 8 a.m. to find him taking a shot from a bottle of Scotch he kept in his desk — and that he seemed genuinely obsessed with the idea that a writer’s unconscious processes could be discerned in creative writing, hence Worley’s suggestion that he published under pennames later on.

Years after leaving Lowell, Lester says he bumped into another student from that time who clued him in to the moment that got Worley fixated on the idea: the writer went to a party where the father of a Lowell student — a psychoanalyst — spent most of the time expounding on the mindset of the author of My Dead Wife!

What’s more, the analyst wasn’t just some garden-variety shrink off the street. He was Dr. Meyer Zeligs.

Locally, Zeligs apparently was involved on the therapeutic side of things in the famous Cable Car Nympho case from 1964.

More importantly, he did a book in 1967 on Alger Hiss — his notes and papers for that project currently held at Harvard.

During one party, he apparently scarred Worley for life.

Lester wants to discover the crime novels Worley hinted at writing under assumed names, so he couldn’t be analyzed on the sly by Zeligs and company. If, in fact, these novels exist — who knows, Zeligs might have frozen his creative juices forever over those rounds of cocktails.

So, no more crime novels — or quite a few, in disguise?

Anyone with info, vague leads, or further anecdotes of Worley in the English classroom or at cocktail parties, feel free to pop them in.

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