Thursday, February 19, 2009

Presidents (and a Gangster) and the Pulps

Sooner or later, if you're reading any history on pulp fiction magazines you'll come across someone mentioning famous people who read pulp stories. Included are always a U.S. President or two. It's pretty well known that Dwight D. Eisenhower was a big pulp Western fan. But I didn't know of any others until recently.

I was recently reading The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope, by Jonathan Alter. I have not finished it for reasons I won't go into in this post. But something struck my fancy at the beginning of one of the chapters entitled "The Brain Trust." Alter writes:

"The origins of the 'Brain Trust' lie, strangely enough, in dime-store detective novels. In 1928, before becoming governor, Roosevelt was appointed to the National Crime Commission. His staff person, the one who did the actual work, was once again Louis Howe. Both men liked to read detective stories (later, as president, Roosevelt even launched a writing contest for a detective magazine)."

I've asked many people, including my online group full of experts, which magazine Roosevelt liked to read and no one seems to know. FDR was a hobbyist, we all know, who loved to build model ships, collect stamps, and even wrote some fiction. He was a man of many interests. In fact, he showed up on the cover of Hobbyist Magazine here.But whether he loved to read something like Detective Story is still a mystery. I love the idea of FDR sneaking a copy of Black Mask into his White House bedroom at night and reading it under the covers, like so many youngsters did during the Depression.

One of the pulp magazine experts did tell me that Harry Truman was a diehard Adventure fan. In the book Dear Bess, which is a compilation of letters Truman wrote to his wife, Truman mentions Adventure often and with great affection. Walker Martin wrote me and gave me the following info:

"The magazine was evidently a favorite and Truman mentions it for the first time in 1911 and it is still mentioned 30 years later in 1941. In one 1911 letter he says "Adventure is the only magazine printed on cheap paper that I can read." In 1912 he mentions how his mother got scared reading a story in the magazine. In another letter he complains about serials in ADVENTURE and how he hates waiting 30 days for the next installment.

In 1913 Truman relates "I bought an Adventure last night and entertained myself with bloodcurdling stories on the train so I'd feel nice and comfortable..." More than once he mentions how a story in another magazine was good enough to appear in ADVENTURE.

Truman's love for the magazine only backs up the editors often mentioned fact that ADVENTURE was read by a wide spectrum of professional people including doctors, businessmen, lawyers, and government workers. Not to mention military men and typical tropical tramps (or as Adventure termed them TTT)."

Thanks, Walker, for the info.

During all these posts, the reading habits of Al Capone came up. I had heard somewhere along the road that Capone loved to read gangster pulps. And there is the oft-told story, apparently true, of the banning of gangster pulp magazines from cities like Chicago in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The story goes this way: city leaders had grown concerned over the plethora of gangster pulps and the glorification of the criminal lifestyle that they portrayed, and subsequently they banned the sale of gangster pulps at stores in their jurisdiction. Shopkeepers, afraid to offend Capone by not selling pulps that featured him and his exploits, continued to sell the pulps - under the counter.

But now I find out that apparently Capone didn't read Gangster Stories. He read Westerns.

Of course, it's important to know that all of this is hearsay. Unless there's someone out there who can testify that he or she personally saw Al Capone read Western Story. But something tells me that Scarface wasn't a Western Story fan. He sounds more like a .44 Western or Ace-High reader. Texas Rangers? Doubtful. Or...maybe he read Wild West Weekly! Maybe he loved Sonny Tabor! I wonder what my grandfather would have thought about that.


ThePulp.Net said...

Hi, Laurie,

There's a Time magazine article from 1935 regarding ADVENTURE's 25th anniversary that mentions ADVENTURE having been a favorite of Theodore Roosevelt, too. (Or rather, they identify him as “Roosevelt I,” which I take for the earlier president.)

- William


The teddy bear and the pulp fiction. Great post.

Laurie Powers said...

Hey William:
Do you have a link to that TIME article? It sounds interesting.
Thanks for the tip on Teddy R. - it makes sense that he would have been an ADVENTURE fan.