Collecting Charles Willeford

by Don Herron


This article originally appeared in the June 1998 issue of Firsts, the Book Collector’s Magazine — worth picking up because it features reproductions of the covers of every Willeford first edition to that date. For anyone new to Willeford, it provides a quick overview — and this version features the original wording as opposed to the slightly edited wording in the print appearance.

The collectable Charles Willeford didn’t exist before 1984, when his breakthrough novel Miami Blues kicked off the mad scramble for his backlist. Despite the fact that seventeen books had seen publication since his first title in 1948, no one seemed to have heard of him. Sure, his novel Cockfighter had been filmed, with Warren Oates in the starring role, and with Willeford himself acting in a supporting part. It was one of the few Roger Corman productions that actually lost money. The collectable Willeford we know now was the sixty-five-year-old pro who sat down and wrote an instant classic named Miami Blues. Until then, you could have found any of his paperback original novels from the 1950s or 1960s for five or six bucks, or less.

When Miami homicide inspector Hoke Moseley met the “blithe psychopath” Freddy Frenger, Junior, fresh out of San Quentin, things changed on the Willeford collecting scene. In the first pages of Miami Blues Freddy, informed by the warden that he is an incorrigible career criminal who would do well to start a fresh rap sheet in another state, mugs three men in San Francisco and takes their wallets. He needs plane fare to Miami, which he’s heard is the crime capitol of America and surely the place for him. On the jet he practices forging signatures on the stolen credit cards. Getting bored with this, Freddy looks over the wallets and experiences one of those definitive Willeford moments as he finds himself “wondering about their owners. One wallet was eelskin, another was imitation ostrich, and the third was a plain cowhide billfold filled with color snapshots of very plain children. Why would any man want to carry around photographs of ugly children in his wallet?”

Landing in Miami, Freddy immediately breaks the finger of a Hare Krishna in the airport when the beggar pushes a pin into the new leather jacket Freddy has purchased with one of his stolen credit cards. Walking away, Freddy can’t believe how thoughtless that act was; while he couldn’t see it, he’d know a pinhole marred his new jacket forever.

Behind him on the floor, the Krishna goes into shock and dies.

Hoke Moseley, Willeford’s beleaguered, toothless cop, gets the assignment of investigating the finger-breaking murder, if you can even call a finger breaking a murder. The Krishna definitely is dead, though. And page by page, chapter by chapter, he gets closer to Freddy, who is busy wrecking a savage one-man crime wave on a city that thought it knew crime. The moment when Hoke has his badge and gun — as well as his set of false teeth — stolen is only one of many highpoints in this violent and hilarious hard-boiled novel.

Readers began to wonder if the books listed opposite the title page were as much fun as Miami Blues (described recently by a fellow in desperate search for a simile as “crime fiction that vibrates with a dark humor like a chuckle rumbling across a metal autopsy table”). The attitude was cold. The violence, when it erupted, was intense. Perhaps best of all, the situations in which the characters found themselves were absurdly funny. And that was true from Willeford’s first book on. Once enough people discovered this, the hunt for the earlier titles began. When Willeford followed up with three more terrific novels featuring Hoke — New Hope for the Dead, Sideswipe and The Way We Die Now — aficionados of the hard-boiled realized they had another writer they needed on their shelves.

By chance I happened to get in on collecting Willeford at Ground Zero: 1984, when he came out on the Dashiell Hammett Tour I operate in San Francisco and introduced himself. At that time, many of his titles, available in new paperbacks in recent years, had not been reprinted. The first edition was the only edition. If you wanted to read Honey Gal or The Burnt Orange Heresy, you had to find the firsts. Even today, nine of the books that appeared before Miami Blues have yet to see reprints in America. Anyone who only wants to read, not collect, the complete Willeford nevertheless will be forced to track down a few firsts.

I don’t catch first edition fever that often anymore, and I cannot say for certain that if all of Willeford’s backlist had been in print in new editions when I heard about him that I wouldn’t have been content to read those and forget about getting the firsts. Remembering the intensity of the quest, however, I doubt it.

His publication history in the assembled first editions turned out to be as surprising and sometimes as delightfully absurd as his writing. In Willeford’s case the original editions seem to offer an ironic commentary on his career. How could a writer, now so respected within the crime genre, have been so completely unknown to so many people who are passionate about his work today? Perhaps because his early novels came out from obscure paperback houses, occasionally with his name misspelled and usually with his chosen title replaced with something more garish. The Woman Chaser instead of The Director. Lust Is a Woman instead of Made in Miami. No, stylish new trade paperbacks with solemn covers and the original title and the author’s name spelled correctly just wouldn’t be as much fun, as authentic. For me, the nice reprints somehow just don’t seem to be truly Willefordian. The real Willeford saga is inseparable from those early chapbooks and paperback originals, building up to eventual hardcover publication and the milestone Miami Blues, followed by signed, limited deluxe editions in the final years of his life.

Willeford said his first literary ambitions surfaced as a teenager, when he decided he should become a poet. Born in 1919 in Arkansas, both his parents had died by the time he was eight. He was living with his grandmother in Los Angeles until age twelve, when he realized she could no longer afford to support both of them during the Great Depression. At that point Willeford went out as a road kid, riding the rails, until he lied about his age and joined the Army at the age of sixteen — experiences he would recount decades later in his autobiography. Ultimately, he put in a full twenty years in the Army and Army Air Corps.

Willeford’s initial publications appeared under the imprint of the Alicat Bookshop Press out of Yonkers, New York. Oscar Baradinsky opened his bookstore in 1936 and began publishing the “Outcast” series of chapbooks in 1945, starting with Henry Miller’s Obscenity and the Law of Reflection. He released further booklets, priced at one dollar each, by Anaïs Nin, Djuna Barnes and others, stopping in 1950 when cost increases would have forced him to raise the price. Baradinsky refused to charge more, preferring to end the series. In all he released eighteen titles, with print runs between five hundred and a thousand copies. These booklets are very attractive, each one different in size and format, color and paper stock.

Although it is not really a separate book publication, I usually start a Willeford bibliography with The Outcast Poets from 1947. Number 8 in the Outcast Series of Chapbooks, this release consists of five poems by Willeford, plus poems by P. K. Thomajan, Robert Anthony, Miriam Allen deFord and F. H. Kaler, printed on loose pages gathered in a large decorated envelope (as usual with Alicat, the color, paper stock or format varies from poet to poet within the set). The impulse to class this item as a book is supported by the fact that today some booksellers offer the Willeford sheaf separate from the others. I have seen just his poems, with the leaf of short biographies of the five poets photocopied (without even a photocopy of the decorated envelope), priced higher than Miami Blues. If you spend that kind of money, you ought to get in return the whole packet, with all five poets in envelope, and not a photocopied item in the lot.

In 1948 Alicat released Proletarian Laughter in a print run of one thousand copies. The twelfth Outcast chapbook and the true first book by Charles Willeford, it contains a preface by the author and eighteen poems interlaced with seven prose “Schematics.” The prose sections are incredibly brutal, based on Willeford’s experiences as a tank platoon commander with Patton’s Third Army in World War II (he was highly decorated for bravery during the Battle of the Bulge). Fans who are predominantly attracted to Willeford for hard-boiled prose and feel they may be able to take a pass on his poetry should not miss this book. The “Schematics” are as ultra-tough as anything he ever wrote: “‘Look,’ Charley said. Then he took a short run and jumped on the headless German. Out of the Germans neck came a grunt. It sounded like ‘Oouaa.’ It was really eerie sounding. We couldn’t figure out what made a guy without a head make such a noise.”

The Alicat Willeford’s typically suffer some aging to the paper, but I have seen many nice copies over the years, preserved no doubt because the entire Outcast series has long been collected by enthusiasts of Miller, Nin, and the Avante Garde. Fellow Willeford collector David Meeker told me he learned from Baradinsky’s widow that when she mailed copies of Proletarian Laughter out, she wrapped them in a plastic cover, similar to the protective Mylar sheets in use today. I have yet to see that extra marker of a true first, direct from the publisher, but I suppose a copy in the original wrap might be located by the profoundly lucky.

Until Willeford created Hoke Moseley, Proletarian Laughter was the only title of his with some small collector’s cachet, since you had to have a copy to complete an Alicat set. I recall Willeford telling me, with something like awe in his tone, “Proletarian Laughter, you know, that book sells now for twenty bucks!” While he happened to own many first editions, including copies inscribed to him by various writers, Willeford never seemed to grasp full tilt collecting. I’m confident he’d be pleased to know that collectors prize his books highly enough to pay large money for them, and I’m sure that the current prices would appall him.

High Priest of California, his first published novel, appeared in 1953 as half of Royal Giant number 20, bound under one cover with Talbot Mundy’s adventure novel Full Moon. You can see Willeford’s name on the spine and back wraps, but on the pictorial front wraps it appears in small black type against a dark background, close to being invisible. While all paperbacks of that era are subject to browning and other ravages time has made on the paper stock and the glue, this particular edition seems harder hit than most. I’ve heard of copies in respectable collectors condition, but I’ve never seen one. My own has tattered and frayed edges, severe browning, and may be said to be better than nothing. Royalty statements from Universal Publishing and Distributing Corporation, the parent company of Royal, reported 151,000 copies distributed, some 55,000 sold, and the rest returned. My feeling is that it would be easier to locate fifty fine copies out of the one thousand copy print run on Proletarian Laughter than to find five fine copies out of the 55,000 firsts of High Priest. But I may be overly optimistic about those odds.

This novel concerns the efforts of used car salesman Russell Haxby to lay Alyce Vitale, a woman he has met in a dance hall in San Francisco. Of course, she’s hiding her punch drunk ex-boxer husband in a locked bedroom in her apartment, and would rather visit her mother’s grave than kiss Haxby, but then he’s not busy at the moment, and is curious to see how the game will turn out. In brief, High Priest introduces the Horrors of Dating, Willeford-style — a theme that will recur again and again in his work, reaching a peak in the posthumously published The Shark-Infested Custard.

Pick-up saw print in 1955 from Beacon Books, another imprint of Universal Publishing, and was reissued in 1959 and again in 1967, making it the most successful of Willeford’s paperback originals. Last year it was selected for inclusion in the Library of Americas prestigious two-volume collection of noir. Certainly it stands among his best books, the tour de force story of a doomed love affair between a failed painter who works as a short order cook at a dining counter, and the woman who one day walks into his life. My favorite teaser for Pick-up remains the cover blurb for the 1967 edition: “Any guy with the price of a drink could have her for the night. . . . Why did one man want her for a lifetime?”

Death Takes a Bride was Willeford’s title for his next novel, but Beacon decided Wild Wives was better, which is kind of maddening, because there is only one wild wife in the book. Willeford claimed this one sold 150,000 copies, which gives collectors distressed by the usual poor condition of the Royal Giant of High Priest of California an option: in this 1956 Beacon edition High Priest is reprinted, and the book is bulked out by the first appearance of Wild Wives. So you have a simultaneous second edition and a first edition between one cover, which shows up in much better condition than the Royal printing. Wild Wives is Willeford’s only Private Eye novel, set in San Francisco, and begins as a young woman takes P.I. Jacob Blake by surprise in his office and blasts him with a squirt gun. Reading Willeford, you have to be ready for anything.

The Black Mass of Brother Springer was the next title he tried, but Beacon changed that to Honey Gal before publication in 1958. In an essay that year for Writer’s Digest, Willeford ruminated on why “the title you stew over will be changed more often than not. There are many reasons. A strong protest from the illustrator, for instance, claiming that your title detracts from his four-color layout of a girl tied to a tree being whipped by six gorillas is enough to change your title.” After only five years, he was a hardened veteran of the paperback original jungle, and knew how it worked. Honey Gal doesn’t really cut it as the title for what some people feel is Willeford’s best existentialist novel, an absurdist look at segregation in the South. This novel and the three preceding it are all essential Willeford, in my opinion.

His next novel, however, was cranked out as Willeford grudgingly decided to try to use the paperback original market for the purpose it was designed for: making a fast buck. Lust Is a Woman, also released by Beacon in 1958, has many good elements, but it is among his weakest books. Trying to be helpful, the publisher at Beacon had suggested that Willeford write more in the style of the prolific Orrie Hitt, author of Swamp Hoyden, and even sent along some Hitt novels to use as models. Ralph Tone, a college student working in Miami on vacation, and the vacationing secretary Maria Dugan fall into the sphere of pornographer Donald McKay, as Willeford tries to sleaze it up. I suspect his basic self-respect as a writer sabotaged this attempt at pot-boiling. I don’t know if he developed an aversion to Beacon for pushing him toward the sleaze market, or if he got mad because they spelled his name as “Williford” on the cover, but this would be his last book with that company.

Willeford told me he wrote 1960’s The Woman Chaser, from Newsstand Library, in roughly a month to pay his tuition in grad school. This novel returns to his usual level, as he has his used car salesman (now named Richard Hudson) move to L.A. and decide to become a movie director. Of course it isn’t so simple, and Willeford gives us another existential romp, another essential book.

When I compiled the first Willeford bibliography, published in his story collection Everybody’s Metamorphosis, I didn’t know about his next published novel, The Whip Hand, issued by Fawcett Gold Medal in 1961 under the sole by-line of W. Franklin Sanders. In his files Willeford had a manuscript of this novel entitled Deliver Me from Dallas! by W. Franklin Sanders and Charles Willeford, but he told me it had never been published. This collaboration was written in 1951, and Willeford in a letter once said it was his first novel. But when they sent it out, it was rejected all around, even by Gold Medal. The published version is a rewrite of that original manuscript, and until better evidence surfaces, I am of the opinion that Willeford never knew that Deliver Me from Dallas! appeared under another title from Gold Medal. It is a solid crime novel about a kidnapping and murder, a former cop on the run versus a ragtag gang of crooks — but the original draft is definitely better than the rewrite by Sanders.

Willeford’s Understudy for Love appeared later in 1961 from Newsstand Library. A reporter for a Florida paper is assigned to write an article on a woman who killed her two children and then committed suicide. I consider this novel possibly the weakest Willeford. It has very few of his best elements. No sociopaths. The violence is offstage. The hero is sympathetic. But a plus is that the story is told more from the point of view of the way Willeford really thought, instead of having the POV transfigured by a psychotic screen. If you want a look at the real Willeford, it is a must, but his psychos make for better art.

No Experience Necessary killed another publisher with Willeford in 1962. An editor at Newsstand Library added two chapters — the first and the eighth — to Willeford’s novel about an old guy who falls in with a gang of crooks planning a supermarket robbery. Years later he would salvage most of this book as the Pop Sinkiewicz half of the third Hoke Moseley novel, Sideswipe. One of my favorite moments as a Willeford collector came when I told him in 1985 that I had landed a copy of this book, and he replied, “I’m sorry you had to pay eleven bucks for a copy of No Experience Necessary.” He seemed to feel real pity for me as I scrambled around, looking for his backlist.

His next publisher, at Chicago Paperback House, died out from under him. Shortly after releasing Cockfighter late in 1962, the guy was hit by a car and killed, the line failed, and 24,046 copies of what Willeford thought was his best novel to date were left in inventory, and remaindered. Consequently, you can find very nice copies of this paperback, as they’ve emerged from various stashes over the years. In 1972 Willeford got a chance to revise this novel for a second edition in hardcover, and it attracted enough attention to be made into a film produced by Roger Corman, directed by Monte Hellman, in 1974. Since Willeford acts in the film, it is a must-see for anyone interested in his work. In capsule, Cockfighter is the story of Frank Mansfield and his quest to win the Cockfighter of the Year award, and you can’t help but appreciate Willeford naming Frank’s pal Omar Baradinsky, in tribute to his first publisher.

Belmont Books published Willeford’s first collection of short stories, The Machine in Ward Eleven in June, 1963, another paperback original, and that effectively ended his first period as an active writer. By then he had gotten a job teaching college, realizing he just was not fast enough to survive as a writer for paperbacks, where his usual advance had been $500.

For several years Willeford recouped his writing energy, meanwhile producing only one small saddle-stapled chapbook of poetry, which he self-published in 1967. Poontang and Other Poems was issued in a press run of five hundred copies. I’ve seen three binding variants, priority unknown: gray pebbled wraps cut even with the text pages, gray pebbled wraps with about a one-quarter inch overlap of the text pages, and green pebbled wraps with the one-quarter inch overlap. Given the low number of copies and the fact that it was distributed largely to non-collectors in Florida, where the climate is not kind to books, I figure this is one of the two rarest Willeford titles. When it turns up signed, though, it usually bears the inscription, “I hope you like Poontang.”

In 1971 Willeford returned to print, and this time with almost back-to-back hardcovers. The Burnt Orange Heresy, one of his finest novels, appeared from Crown, and under the pseudonym Will Charles, a Western called The Hombre from Sonora came out from Lenox Hill Press, a Crown subsidiary. Willeford said he wrote Hombre as an experiment, to get back into novels, and that he used the penname because Crown did not want to release two books under his own name in one calendar year. Heresy, concerning art criticism and murder, is a tightly written, highly intelligent work — an absolute must-read for anyone interested in Willeford. Hombre, however, is the tough one for collectors. Apparently almost the entire print run sold to libraries, so copies in genuinely collectable condition are rare — possibly as rare as Poontang. Between those two, it is a coin toss to guess which one is harder to find. My own copy of Hombre is ex-library with all the flaws, but I keep an eye out for a better copy, with small hope of finding one.

The revised edition of Cockfighter appeared from Crown in 1972, and then Willeford wrote a novel he figured was his masterpiece: The Shark-Infested Custard. Every publisher who saw it rejected it, and Willeford, discouraged, once more gave up on fiction, although it seems he started working on his autobiography in this period. He self-published a short and very funny book concerning his hemorrhoid operation, A Guide for the Undehemorrhoided, in hardcover in 1977. The press run was approximately one thousand copies, and he signed quite a few over the years. I’ve seen so many of these I have difficulty thinking of them as rare, but then if there are more than a thousand serious Willeford collectors at large, I guess someone has to lose out.

Off the Wall, a largely non-fiction account of the Son of Sam murder spree, brought Willeford back into print from Pegasus Rex Press in 1980. Willeford estimated he had to fictionalize perhaps five percent of the book, to make more of a complete story out of it. Like Lust Is a Woman, it was a book he wrote for money — the fee was paid in advance. I look on it as his way of stepping back into the fray, starting up new novels, with the next one to appear in print being Miami Blues, published in March of 1984 by St. Martin’s Press.

The buzz started fast off Miami Blues, and St. Martin’s asked for a sequel, which Willeford gave to them in 1985 as New Hope for the Dead. A quieter book than the first Hoke, it grows on you as the vehicle by which Willeford turned what he had planned as a lone novel into an incredibly successful series. The next year Random House brought out his memoir of joining the peacetime Army at age sixteen under the title Something About a Soldier, which many people like better than his fiction. And St. Martin’s wanted another Hoke. After almost forty years as a writer, Willeford suddenly was in demand.

Sideswipe, the third Hoke Moseley, came out in 1987. A masterpiece, as good or better than Miami Blues, it cinched his reputation. The Hoke series in brightly colored paperbacks from Ballantine began to get a big push, several of his early novels saw reprint, and that year Dennis McMillan published two limited signed editions. First out was New Forms of Ugly, a touched-up version of Willeford’s 1964 Master’s thesis on the Immobilized Man in Modern Fiction. If you want to know what Willeford was up to in his fiction, you need to read this book. Of course, this hardcover edition was limited to exactly 350 signed and numbered copies and, thus far, has not been reprinted, so you might face some obstacles finding one to read. Next up from McMillan was Kiss Your Ass Good-Bye, a self-contained fragment from Willeford’s long novel The Shark-Infested Custard. Kiss Your Ass Good-Bye was a title Willeford had considered for the novel he finally called Miami Blues, and McMillan felt it was so rude, it definitely should appear on a book over Willeford’s name. This hardcover edition consists of 400 signed and numbered copies, with forty-two overrun copies without the signed and numbered limitation sheet tipped in.

The fourth Hoke, The Way We Die Now, came out from Random House early in 1988, as Willeford finally made the big time, earning a six figure advance. A few copies reached him in advance of publication and he signed about five, for his wife Betsy and for friends in Miami. Then, on Palm Sunday, Willeford had a heart attack, the latest in a series of health problems that plagued his final years, and died. Collectors of signed states may take refuge in the ninety-nine copies produced by Ultra-Marine Publishing, an edition with sewn signatures from Random House bound in quarter-leather, with limitation sheets signed earlier by Willeford. Unfortunately for collectors of true firsts, this edition appeared somewhat after the trade hardcover. For the ordinary reader, this novel maintains the hard-boiled high set by Miami Blues and Sideswipe. A great book to go out on.

Dennis McMillan had a second Willeford story collection in the works, and Everybody’s Metamorphosis appeared posthumously later that same year. The printed notice in this book gives a July, 1988 publication date for an edition of 400 signed and numbered hardcover copies, numbers 1-26 of which are bound in full goatskin morocco. Usually, as in the case of the Ultra-Marine edition of The Way We Die Now, binding delays hold up the leather-bound states, but the way it worked out in this case, the morocco copies were ready two months ahead of the regular hardbacks. Published in August, 1988, the A state of this book consists of twenty-six signed and numbered copies in full leather, plus five more, signed but not numbered. The limited hardcover appeared in October, consisting of 374 signed and numbered copies, plus five more signed but not numbered, with an overrun of thirty-six unsigned and unnumbered copies.

I Was Looking for a Street, Willeford’s memoir of being on the road as a teenager, definitely one of his best books, also appeared posthumously in 1988. Another volume of autobiography, Cockfighter Journal: The Story of a Shooting — Willeford’s account of the filming of his movie Cockfighter, based on a journal he kept at the time — saw print in a limited edition in 1989 from Maurice Neville. Willeford’s friend, novelist James Lee Burke, provided the introduction. Burke also signed the limitation notice on all copies, consisting of thirty copies bound in leather, twenty-six of these lettered A to Z, plus author and publisher copies and two presentation copies; with 300 numbered and thirty-five presentation copies in boards; and twelve unbound copies in plain white wrappers.

Two other Willeford firsts have appeared since then. In 1991 A Charles Willeford Omnibus from MacDonald in London collected the three novels Pick-up, The Burnt Orange Heresy and Cockfighter under one cover, and in 1993 the long 1970s novel The Shark-Infested Custard finally saw print from Underwood-Miller out of Novato, California.

The range and variety of Charles Willeford’s first editions provide a stunning challenge for collectors. Personally, I can state that the hunt is exciting and fun — almost as much fun as actually reading the books. And should you find all the firsts, Willeford has stories, articles and reviews that have appeared in a staggering number of publications. Knowing what the true Willeford collector is up against, I’m really glad I got in early, and I wish you luck.