Confessions of a pulpeteer – Jack Smalley article about his days as a pulp author and editor – part 1

[Jack Smalley was the editor of Battle Stories, a pulp published by Fawcett from the late 1920s to the early 1930s. This memoir appeared in Westways magazine, June 1974 with the title: Amazing Confessions of a Pulpeteer. It was later reprinted in Murania PressBlood and Thunder prozine in 2014. I read it first in an issue of Westways that came into my hands accidentally, when i bought a lot of magazines and this issue was in it. The first part is an anecdotal history of the Fawcett Publications empire.]

I thought that my species, the pulp writers of the Twenties and Thirties, had become extinct long ago. You can look in vain for the pulp paper magazines that were our habitat—Western Story Magazine, Triple-X, Ranch Romances, Battle Stories, All Detective, Adventure, All Story, Love Story, Amazing Stories, Black Mask, Air Stories, Wings, Battle Aces, Doc Savage, The Shadow, Spicy Stories and all those others.

In the mid-Thirties, when the drought of the great Depression killed off the pulp magazines, I deserted fiction and embraced the truth of advertising. I was convinced that the pulpeteer was doomed to extinction.

Now, it seems, the pulpeteers simply rode off in another direction.

I stopped at a newsstand recently and picked up a pulp paperback by a writer new to me—Louis L’Amour. The cover attracted my eye, and reminded me of the magazines of my youth. There was a cowboy standing off a ring of badmen and supporting a swooning beauty who resembled either Betty Blythe or Raquel Welch, depending on your generation.

Instead of paying two bits, however, or even the dime of the Depression pulps, the price of the paperback was sixty cents.

And this was no flash in the gold miner’s pan, either; inside was a list of thirty-five paperback Westerns by L’Amour, billed as “America’s Fastest Selling Western Writer.” Skimming through the paperback with a pulpeteer’s eye, the moment of truth came on page 117: “His left forearm came up, his gun barrel lay across it, and he fired again. Fired into the widening crimson blot on the front of Neerland’s shirt. He saw the big man start to fall, and he swung his gun on Cooley, who traded shots with him…”

Ah, that’s something like it! That’s the way they wrote in the pulp magazine days, with lots of action and the smell of gunpowder.

I looked further and saw a couple of Max Brand’s Westerns on the shelf: Silvertip’s Trap and beside it his classic Destry Rides Again. As a pulp magazine editor I had tried to buy some Max Brands through his agent, Ernst and Ernst, but Street & Smith had him sewed up. Max Brand titles still sell at the rate of 20, 000 paperbacks a month, although Western Story bought his last pulp story in 1937.

When I first went to work for Fawcett Publications in 1924 as a manuscript reader on Triple-X, climbing the stairs to the second floor over the Robbinsdale Bank in a suburb of Minneapolis, I arrived with some misgivings. If Captain Billy Fawcett wanted me to work on his Whiz Bang, I told myself, I would stick to police reporting on the Minneapolis Star. My girl’s parents would never let her marry me if they learned that I worked on that magazine.

Billy Fawcett, a stocky, good-humored ex-artillery captain, shook hands and shooed me into the office of his brother, Captain Roscoe Fawcett, a dark, handsome fighter pilot in the army air corps. He offered me $150 per month, enough to get married on. So began an association that lasted, with an interlude when I was fired and rehired, from 1924 to 1936.

Whiz Bang was launched two years before I joined the company. I had read a copy while at the University of Minnesota, and it was pretty racy stuff. There was a color cover by Tom Foley, who did cartoons for the Minneapolis Star. A judge was holding a pretty girl on his lap. The caption: “Young lady, if you don’t put up bail I’m going to hold you for thirty days.”

Cover of Captain Billy's Whiz Bang, March 1936 issue
Cover of Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang, March 1936 issue

Whiz Bang was the Playboy of its day, but now its sins seem comically insipid. It was printed on sixty-four pages of pulp paper—the term comes from wood macerated to a soupy pulp in sulphuric acid—and it consisted of euphemistic jokes and cartoons and doggerel verse celebrating unrequited love.

After collecting jokes, limericks and cartoons, Billy had gone around to his friends, offering to sell a half interest in his magazine for $500, the amount needed to print 10, 000 copies.

There were no takers.

Finally, a small print shop agreed to produce 5, 000 copies on credit. Billy peddled these to cigar stands and hotels in Minneapolis and St. Paul, to be sold on consignment for twenty-five cents per copy; Billy would collect fifteen cents on each copy sold. Before he got back home, some stands were on the phone asking for a reorder. The forms were put back on the press again and again, and still the dealers clamored for copies.

On a monthly sale of 450, 000 copies, Billy cleared nearly a dime apiece, for an income of $45, 000. He put together his own distributing company, further increasing his profits; and he demanded a cash advance before he would ship copies to a dealer. Billy was a smart poker player, and he now began shoving some of his winnings back into new magazines.

Contributors to Whiz Bang included a high percentage of con men who sent in their jokes and jingles from dozens of jailhouses. They cashed the three dollars paid for each accepted joke and came to regard Billy as both friend and benefactor. They wrote long letters of their lurid wrongdoings to prove that they were really innocent victims of society, and Billy got the idea of publishing their stories. He thought of the perfect title: True Confessions.

True Confessions magazine published by Fawcett Publications, Robbinsdale, Minnesota Image courtesy the Robbinsdale Historical Society
True Confessions magazine published by Fawcett Publications, Robbinsdale, Minnesota
Image courtesy the Robbinsdale Historical Society

Its pages were crawling with the confessions of convicts, murderers, train robbers and jaded ladies, stitched together with tearful tales of unwed mothers and the serial life story of seductive Evelyn Nesbit Thaw, whose husband shot her lover.

I was put to work on the third of the string, named Triple-X, which was to contain three types of stories —Western, detective and adventure.

Handed a stack of manuscripts by the editor, John Jensen, I was told to read them carefully and write a synopsis and brief critique of each one. I was struggling along on my first story when Jensen came by. “Don’t read every word,” he said, smiling. “Just run your eye down the middle of the page. Do it fast. Don’t look at the edges; a few words down the middle tell you all you need to know.”

The method proved astonishingly effective. This was no way to read Plato, but it served with pulp fiction, and it was easier than covering the police beat for the Minneapolis Star.

The pulps were beginning to flower in all hues and colors. The largest of the pulp magazine publishing houses was Street & Smith, which produced the highly successful weekly Western Story Magazine among their other titles. We all envied them their top writer, Max Brand. His name on the cover helped sell a half million copies a week. Triple-X tried to buy some Max Brands, without success.

Brand’s real name was Frederick Faust; he was a big, powerful, good- looking man with astounding energy and talent, who began a pulp writing career in 1917. It ended thirty million words later when, as a war correspondent for Harper’s Magazine, he was killed by shrapnel on the night of May 11, 1944, in Italy.

At last the writer felt the sting of death in battle that he had described so many times. In Destry, the story of the vengeance of a man railroaded to prison, is a passage typical of Max Brand: “The white face was lighted, the nostrils flared; the eyes of Destry gleamed with fire….” Then one of the villains drew his gun. “He was dead in the middle of a curse, for out of the flap of his coat Destry had drawn a revolver, long barreled, gleaming blue; a fire spat from its mouth.”

Just like the movie moguls had their stable of stars, the pulp publishers relied on at least one big name and a few additional regulars to attract readers.

Triple-X pulp magazine published by Fawcett Publications, December 1926 issue
Triple-X pulp magazine published by Fawcett Publications, December 1926 issue

Triple-X regarded H. Bedford- Jones as its drawing card. He too is credited with over 100 books, and hundreds of short stories and novelets.

Both Faust and Bedford-Jones were paid an average of five cents per word and each wrote under many pen names; but the latter wrote at least a third of his books in French, and his works included many historical “costume” novels which did not match the Western romances in popularity. He died in 1949 and, except among those who were pulp-adventure fans, his name is seldom mentioned today.

True to style, he never bothered to correct or rewrite a story, for a pulpeteer could not afford to waste time polishing a manuscript. What came out of the typewriter was what was published.

Henry lived in Ann Arbor in a huge Tudor-style English home, writing in a tower reached by circular stairs. Four electric typewriters stood about the room—in one might be a Western for Triple-X, in another a serial in French destined for his publisher in Paris, the third empty and a detective story in the fourth. Henry would leave one typewriter for another whenever he was bogged down. If he got up fairly early in the morning he could turn out a complete Western novelet of 25, 000 words by breakfast the next day.

Though he did not revise his manuscripts, they needed no editing when they reached me. He authored a book, This Fiction Business, in 1929, and sent me a copy inscribed “to Jack Smalley, who will agree with all the hard words said about editors by H. Bedford-Jones.” In it he wrote, “When you are learning to write, you want to learn to write—time enough later to learn revision and polishing. To advise a young writer to ‘ceaselessly polish, revise, polish again’ is venerable and absolute bosh. Anatole France laid down half a dozen rules; I kept them by me a year or two, but the manuscripts on which I used them did not sell very readily, and I discarded his advice. What the young writer needs is little re-writing and a very great deal of writing.”

Once Bedford-Jones wanted to write an entire issue of Triple-X: the novelet, first installment of a serial, two shorter novelets and a half dozen short stories. He wanted to show that it could be done. I turned down the proposal because of the technical problem of manuscript inventories and commitments to other writers.

In the detective pulp field, Dell featured Erle Stanley Gardner, a latecomer forced into fiction by the Depression. I had met Erle in Minneapolis, when he sold me a couple of detective yarns set in Chinatown. He hailed from Ventura, where he was an attorney; and he explained that there were Chinatowns in the area, and he happened to have represented an Oriental in a criminal case, which made his reputation with them.

Erle’s client had been picked up in Chinatown on a charge of conducting a gambling place, and had been thrown into jail. Erle got him out on bail and had him plead not guilty. When the trial came Erle arrived with the defendant and six other Chinese. At the critical moment he demanded that the prosecuting attorney’s chief witness pick out the defendant from among the seven Chinese present. He picked three wrong men in succession and was laughed off the stand.

“They tested my honesty a few times after that, but I satisfied them and I got all their business,” said Erle. “Things are awful slow now, so I decided to write about some of my experiences, mostly around Chinatown.”

A paragraph in “Fingers of Fong” shows how closely Erle drew on fact, when he wrote that his detective, Dick Sprague, “suspected that certain pit- falls which developed had been shrewdly designed to test his honesty. Then had come the proposition out of a clear sky. He would give up his little private detective agency and work exclusively for the On Leong Tong.”

A year later he wrote a novelet, “The Case of the Velvet Claws,” introducing a new hero named Perry Mason.

To be continued next week…


  1. It's funny that Jack Smalley begins his memoir by stating that you can look in vain for the pulp magazines…

    This was in 1974 and he did not know about Pulpcon where each year I found thousands of pulp titles for sale in the dealer's room. I knew some old time pulp collectors who had enormous collections of the back issues and eventually I joined them.

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