J. Edward Leithead – Author, Dime novel historian

[J. Edward Leithead wrote over 200 stories for the pulps from 1922 to 1950. In this article, originally published in True West, Feb 1967 (also republished in Pulp Vault 14), he reminisces about writing for the western pulps, starting with Western Story in the 1920s to the end in the 1950s. He also wrote many articles on the dime novels which appeared in the fanzine Dime Novel Roundup.]

Author J. Edward Leithead c. 1926
Author J. Edward Leithead c. 1926

THE GRANDPAPPY of the All-Western pulp magazines was Street & Smith’s Western Story Magazine. For many years, following the long reign of Beadle & Adams as top publishers of “black-and-white” dime novels (with woodcut illustration, that is, no coloring except some hand-painted booklet type novels), Street & Smith and Frank Tousey published dime and nickel novels and story-papers, at first, like the Beadle output, with black-and-white illustrated covers. Then a change-over to color covers gave the nickel thrillers new life. One of Street & Smith’s most successful publications was The Buffalo Bill Stories, which ran 591 issues, beginning in 1901.
When No. 591 was reached, about September 7, 1912, that ended the series called Buffalo Bill Stories, but the following week, September 14, Street & Smith launched a weekly titled New Buffalo Bill Weekly. The stories were reprints from The Buffalo Bill Stories, some with titles changed but not a new story in the whole series, which ended with No. 364, August 30, 1919.
With No. 357, New Buffalo Bill Weekly changed its title to Western Story Library and began printing the volume and number in addition to the whole number—Vol. 7, No. 1, Whole No. 357, July 12, 1919, indicating that some important change was in prospect.
Vol. 7, No. 9 started Western Story Magazine on its long career, issued under the date of September, 1919, at first a monthly, then a bi-monthly, later a weekly.
I have explained this in detail since Western Story was really an outgrowth of the once very popular Buffalo Bill Stories, which was tied in with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, then still touring the U. S. A. and Europe. So that the transition would not seem too abrupt (for the publishers were trying something new), Western Story, for three issues, ran reprints of Buffalo Bill Stories (No. 190, “Buffalo Bill After the Bandits”; 191, “Buffalo Bill’s Red Trailer”; 192, “Buffalo Bill in the Hole- in-the-Wall”), with additional stories not about him. Thereafter, Cody did not show up again.
It wasn’t long before periodicals imitative of Western Story came into being. Of course, Street & Smith, in their established pulp fiction magazines, Popular and People’s, had run Western shorts and serials by Dane Coolidge, B. M. Bower (Sinclair), H. Bedford-Jones (his were usually early frontier of the Boone and Kenton period and good), and other authors of Westerns.
The Ridgway Company’s Adventure, Arthur Sullivant Hoffman, Editor, had been running historical Westerns by Hugh Pendexter since 1917, and other Western stuff by Alan LeMay and Wilbur C. Tuttle (humorous Piperock tales and straight Western adventure like the Hashknife Hartley and Sleepy Stevens stories) etc.
Short Stories(owned by Doubleday and edited by Harry E. Maule—now book editor for Random House and I heard from him not so long ago—with Dorothy McIlwraith as associate) published Westerns occasionally, especially serials by Clarence E. Mulford and Wm. MacLeod Raine.
Argosy (by Frank Munsey and Bob Davis editor) ran Western serials by Chas. Alden Seltzer and George Washington Ogden, and occasional shorts by other Western writers, and even Munsey’s ran a Pendexter serial, “The Roaring Towns” and a corking good serial, “The Owner of the Lazy D, ” by a writer who was to do about a dozen such Westerns, equally good, Wm. Patterson White (whom people sometimes confused with Stewart Edward White—anyway, both were top-notchers).
BUT Western Story Magazine in its September, 1919 issue was the first all-Western. Its early issues mixed a few reprints from other sources with new yarns, and the publishers offered a year’s free subscription for the best letters (three, I think) sent them about the new type magazine. I was one of the lucky winners. My letter was printed and I went to the big red brick building at 78-89 Seventh Avenue, New York and met the editor, Frank E. Blackwell. He had formerly edited all of Street & Smith’s nickel weeklies, always six new issues a week, and sometimes seven or eight, if one was declining in circulation and a new one was trying out.
Frank Tousey, Publisher (Frank had died long before 1919 and his brother Sinclair was running the business, with Luis Senarens, author of many thrillers himself, as editor) also issued at least six new nickel thrillers each week, which were generally spoken of as Tousey’s “Big Six. ” But in 1919 all this had changed due to the growing popularity of the movies. Street & Smith had only three weeklies going, New Tip Top (Frank Merriwell, Jr. ), New Buffalo Bill and Nick Carter Stories and thick paperbacks selling for fifteen cents. Buffalo Bill bowed out in Western Story and about the same time Nick Carter Stories became Detective Story Magazine. What happened to Frank Tousey’s publications is a more complicated story and too long to tell here.
I didn’t sell Frank Blackwell a story at that first meeting, but I did later on, you bet. And Western Story grew. Some of the illustrations on the very early issues were from covers of a Street & Smith nickel thriller, Rough Rider Weekly, featuring a cowboy who had been a sergeant with Roosevelt’s Rough Rid- res. The artist was Stacy Burch, who had done numerous early Tip Top Weekly (Frank and Dick Merriwell) covers, also. There were covers, too, by an artist named Wood or Woods. I don’t recall his first name or his initials, but his stuff was good. He was an old-timer.
During the roaring twenties, the pulp Westerns, following the example of the very successful Western Story, increased in number as the demand increased. Street & Smith boosted Western Story to twice-a-month. They also reprinted Western Story serials in a line of hard-cover books under the name “Chelsea House. ” A lot of these sold for 75 cents. There was an even better looking edition of some titles which sold for $2. 00. This book line was big enough for Street & Smith to issue catalogues.
DOUBLEDAY came up with a publication featuring the real old-time West. It was called The Frontier. Its stories and articles were the kind I liked the best of all—and do yet: cavalry and Indians, Indians and settlers, engagements at frontier forts, wagontrain fights, the whole panorama of the Old West, lots of Indian stuff well done by good writers, excellent covers, well- drawn headings—not just cowboy, gunman and rustler yarns, though some of those were used, too. I remember J. E. Grinstead’s fine yarns about the Oklahoma boomers. I don’t think this magazine lasted longer than a couple of years, and I’ve never understood why it didn’t.
Doubleday tried again with West, more cowboy than Indian stuff, in fact, little of Indians, but with Old West flavor, and put Ned Collier in charge. I forget who was editor of The Frontier, whose trademark was a Kentucky long rifle. I might add here that I constantly argued with editors to publish Indian stuff, as I always liked Indians from the time I read Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales and Edward E. Ellis’ Indian stories. I argued that they couldn’t present a true picture of the West and leave out Indians. They replied that the Indian was “dead” as a fiction character for readers of those times.
But I never let up and sometimes I won my point. Collier, by the way, was one editor who fully agreed with me. He kept West running smoothly for many years, until the pulp Westerns began to fail. Ned bought the title from Doubleday and tried to run it on his own, and he was successful for a time. Stories by J. E. Grinstead, Indian frontier stories about an old mountain man and scout, “Santa Fe, ” by W. H. B. Kent, and Old Bat Jennison stories by George Bruce Marquis kept the magazine going for awhile, but it finally folded.
Ned Collier was originally an associate editor for the Clayton Magazines where I first knew him in 1924. I joined the Clayton outfit myself in 1923 and was probably the youngest writer on the staff. Ray Nafziger was the next youngest. W. Bert Foster was the veteran of dime- novel days and story-papers, the Munsey periodicals, and the Edward Stratemeyer Syndicate, which produced scores of popular juveniles from about 1903 on. Howard Garis and his wife, Lillian C. Garis, and Harry St. George Rathborne were among the Syndicate writers. Foster wrote a great number of “The Buffalo Bill Stories, ” 136 of them, and other nickel thrillers for Street & Smith. When I met him in the Clayton office (rather, in his apartment the first time, where he lived with his second wife, Myrtle (Juliette Corey Foster, also a writer) Bert had been writing for Ace-High—stories of his well-known cowboy characters, “Two-gun” Homer Stillson and his pardner, “Poke” Fellows. The latter, as “Poke” Carew, first saw life as the bronco buster in The Buffalo Bill Stories No. 353. It was one of the most pleasant moments of my life, that meeting with a writer whose stories I had so enjoyed as a boy and young man.
The Clayton outfit hadn’t been in business very long when I sent them a yarn and had it snapped up with an invitation to come again. Harold Hersey was then the editor, and the publisher, Wm. M. Clayton, was an Englishman and former newspaper publisher. At the moment they had only Forest and Stream and Ace-High Magazine. The office was then at 80 Lafayette Street, New York.
Both editor and publisher thought Ace-High ought to be doing better than it was just then. Clayton jokingly remarked that they got so many returns he thought someone must be printing Ace-High somewhere out West. Ace-High had top-grade artist Jerry Delano to do most of the covers, the headings for the Westerns in the book and also the prizefight stories. The content of the magazine, as advertised above the title in the masthead, was “Western, Adventure and Sport Stories. ” It was a bi-monthly and remained so until near its unhappy end, when it became a monthly.
At the time I came in, with Foster and Nafziger already there, it ran serials or complete novels by Foster under his own name or the pseudonym “John Boyd Clark”; humorous stories of the Hooker Bros. of Canyon Lobo by Nafziger; and prizefight stories by Paul L. Anderson, a graduate of Lehigh University, my father’s old Alma Mater.
Clayton, Hersey and Bina Flynn, associate editor of Ace-High, had got their heads together (I suspect the veteran Foster was at the conference, also) and decided that what was wrong with Ace- High was the “variety” business. People were devouring Westerns and more Westerns. So one more writer of Westerns—me—was welcome, and they removed the comma so that the line in the masthead read, “Western Adventure and Sport Stories. ” Those prizefight stories of Anderson’s were quite popular. Ace- High soon had its Circulation Department smiling again.
Then one day the editor showed me the dummy of a new publication, Ranch Romances—Western romance with considerable action. Bina Flynn was to be editor, and to help her she was to have a newcomer, Fanny Louise Ellsworth. Foster, Nafziger and I were all to contribute something regularly. It was a new type of story for us, except the action part—we were well grounded in that.
Ranch Romancesstarted as a two-a- month, and Hersey and Clayton (and Bina, too) hadn’t guessed wrong, for it went over with a bang. Men read it as well as women on account of the action in the formula. Charles L. Wrenn, a veteran illustrator from Street & Smith (whom I was extra pleased to know, along with Foster, because of his work for the nickel thrillers, particularly Buffalo Bills and Diamond Dicks), took over the doing of the covers. He did the great majority of them, and some of the story headings. Delano helped out when he wasn’t doing Ace-High stuff.
Then Clayton thought up Cowboy Stories, “An Illustrated Western Magazine, ” and Nick Eggenhofer came in as illustrator to help Delano with this newest magazine’s covers and headings. Between them they did some fine work.
Cowboy Storiesalso was a bull’s-eye, and I was hauled off Ace-High and Ranch Romances for a time to write novelettes for it. Other writers who got in on this one were W. D. Hoffman and Forbes Parkhill. Thinking back, it was a serial in Ace-High, titled “Gun Gospel, ” which started Hoffman on a long assignment with Clayton.
I got a series started in Cowboy Stories about a stock detective—“Tapadera (Tappy for short) Thompson”; “The Peacemaker of Pintado Basin”; “The Cattle Raider of the Jicarilla”; etc. I already had two characters, “Larry Ordway” and his pardner, “Old Bill Randle, ” established in Ace-High in novelettes and serials. The original character, Ordway, had showed up first in Western Story in “A Buckskin Bargain. ” Larry and Old Bill have since appeared in the paperbacks of Avon and Ace.
‘T’HE THREE MAGAZINES, Ace-High, Ranch Romances, and Cowboy Stories by now were really booming. Clayton decided that a blue triangle, with the names of these magazines on the three sides, should be put on each issue of his periodicals as the Clayton trademark. Charlie Wrenn made a model of a cowboy on a bucking bronc, the stand on which the man and horse were pinwheeling being a triangle with the three magazine titles on the sides. The figures were cast in a metal resembling bronze, and many of the writers and illustrators received a model for Christmas. I got one, and another recipient I might mention was Major Gordon W. Lillie, “Pawnee Bill, ” who had been conducting a “question and answer” department on things Western in the back pages of Cowboy Stories.
A serial, “The Man from Medicine Lodge” ran in Cowboy with the byline, Major G. W. Lillie, but the author was Culpepper Chunn, who unfortunately died before finishing the serial, leaving no notes that anyone could find about how he intended winding up the yam (which had a mystery running throughout).
The editor had already started running the story when word came of Chunn’s death, and I was asked if I’d try to complete the serial. I did and they liked it well enough to boost my rate. After I got acquainted with Pawnee Bill (you may be sure I was a follower of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West—there’s nothing to equal it these days—and my son is named William Cody), Major Lillie invited me to his Buffalo Ranch near Pawnee, Oklahoma.
The three Clayton Westerns and Forest and Stream were doing so well that the boss added more titles, The Adventure Trail (almost anywhere but the American West), Cluesand several more I’ve forgotten, since I didn’t write for them.
Rangeland Love Story Magazine and Western Love Storieswere launched as companion magazines to Ranch, but Rangeland Love was the only one that gave Ranch, the old standby, any real competition. It was issued monthly. I wrote for both.
The offices were moved uptown. I remember hoping at the time that Clayton, a really good guy, wasn’t spreading himself too thin. I was surprised one day to receive a letter from Street & Smith, offering a $25.00 bonus to let them have first look at any Westerns I wrote. If they bought the yarn it would be at a good rate; if they didn’t I kept the $25. 00, and I would receive the same amount on the next one sent for their consideration, whether or not they rejected it. This shows how, in those booming “Wild West times, ” publishers were keeping an eye on one another’s product and the boys doing the stories and pictures.
I had already replied, thanking Street & Smith for the offer and stating that I was tied up with the Clayton outfit for a long period (ten years, in fact) when the boss himself summoned me to the office. He said he’d just got wind of the fact that Street & Smith were trying to swipe his authors. I assured him he had no cause to worry about me, and he was mightily pleased, saying, “I don’t believe you can write more than I’ll buy. ”
All those who had received letters like mine expressed the same feeling of loyalty. We all liked Bill Clayton a lot, so that when trouble did finally come we were ready and willing to back him up.
Hersey resigned and went to be editorial director of McFadden Publications, and later on started a string of his own magazines, one of which was Outlaws of the West. New editors and associate editors came in—Henry McComas, Ned Collier, Dave Redstone and others. Bina Flynn, who was married, had moved with her family from New York to Globe, Arizona, and Fanny Ellsworth had succeeded her as editor of Ranch Romances.
Fanny was the girl who made Ranch really pay off. For that matter, all three Westerns were whizzing along to rising circulations. Ace-High Novels, a monthly, was briefly added to the list, and I recall that it was in this mag that one of Ernest Haycox’s early novels, “The Feudists, ” appeared. Everyone—or nearly everyone—saw that here was a new writer bursting with talent.
MUCH was happening, too, outside the Clayton offices. The “Thrilling” group of publications owned by Ned Pines, with Leo Margulies as editorial director, came magically to life, and these monthlies and two-a-months were due for a long run—Thrilling Western, Thrilling Ranch, Popular Western, Texas Rangers, Rio Kid Western. I had novelettes or shorts in all of these at various times.
Dell Publishing Company came up with one, Western Romances (to which I sold novelettes after Clayton folded), and Periodical House, Aaron A. Wynn, owner, published Romance Roundup, Western Trails, Western Aces, All-Novel Western, and Red Seal Western. Wynn paid particular attention to his covers and story headings.
Fiction House, Inc. started Lariat Story Magazine with Walt Coburn as a featured writer, and this company also made a success of Frontier Stories, built along the lines of The Frontier, which Doubleday had dropped. There were only Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter issues of Frontier Stories, always with hell-for- leather covers, frontiersmen or soldiers fighting Indians, lots of wagontrain stuff and frontier forts. “Last Stand Stockade” is a very good example. It bothers me that I can’t remember the name of the artist who did most of these covers. It wasn’t Remington Schuyler, P. V. E. Ivory, Monaghan, none of those. The stories were first-class, too, and Frontier Stories was, I believe, among the last to fall.
I had a novelette, “The Lady and the Longriders, ” in what was nearly the last issue of Lariat Story. Frontier Stories had kept pace but went down with the rest. Jack O’Sullivan was editing the stuff then; he had bought another story from me, “A Cowtown Street Runs Red, ” for Lariat, but, although he paid for it, the story was never published on account of the shutdown.
Popular Publications, Inc. had a long list of Westerns—Dime Western, .44 Western, Mavericks, Rangeland Romances, several others whose titles I can’t recall. When Clayton failed, they bid for Ace-High, called it Ace-High Western, and carried it along until they, too, fell like a house of cards. There were two editors I knew at Popular Publications— Rogers Terrill and Harry Widmer. They were joined later by Mike Tilden, one of the best-known Western editors. This company started Pioneer Storiesand Indian Stories, but neither was successful, much to my—and their—disappointment. Some of the top writers of that magazine chain were Walt Coburn, Tom Blackburn, and Joe Chadwick.
Street & Smith got out a line of ten- centers, one of which was Pete Rice Magazine. Before Pete showed up, The Shadow by Lester Dent and Nick Carter Magazine by Richard Wormser had got a good start. Pete Rice was a sheriff, but I forget who wrote the series, and it didn’t last more than a year if that long. It presented a too modern West, airplanes, etc. I think Walter Baumhofer did the covers, which were excellent.
I BELIEVE I have covered most of the Western magazines which made the big time. Stacks of them appeared regularly on all newsstands and just as regularly were bought up. News dealers told me often that customers who bought Westerns bought them by the dozen and no other kind. However, there were plenty of readers for airplane stories after Lindbergh’s flight to Paris, to buy up issues of Wings, Air Trailsand Battle Birds, and more readers to keep the detective magazines circulating. All pulp publishers had a detective title and some had more than one.
When the Depression struck, it was some time before the magazine groups began to feel it much. The reason was that people—men, anyway, though Ranch had an enormous tally of women readers, too—could afford twenty or twenty-five cents for a magazine which gave hours of entertainment when they couldn’t afford anything more expensive. Then, one day in the Thirties, Bill Clayton had bad news for his staff. The magazines—except for Ranch Romances—weren’t making money. Ranchwas really carrying the load. He asked us to play along with him, to accept promissory notes temporarily and, if given time, things might take a turn for the better. I don’t remember that there was a single dissenting voice; but Clayton’s luck didn’t change. To cut it short, he had to declare bankruptcy.
Other publishing houses bid for some of the Clayton titles: Popular Publication got Ace-High, reduced the price to 10c and made a good thing of it; Street & Smith got Cowboy Stories and Clues; Warner Publications (owned by Eltinge Warner) got Ranch Romances. The same writing staff which had made Ranch hold up in spite of everything went along with the magazine and Fanny Ellsworth, still a young woman and a smart editor who could please both women and men readers, to new quarters on Madison Avenue.
The writing staff included Ray Nafziger, using the pseudonym “Robert Dale Denver, ” Frank C. Robertson, L. P. Holmes, Wm. Freeman Hough, E. B. Mann, Austin Corcoran and Myrtle Juliette Corey Foster (she was then W. Bert Foster’s widow—Bert died in the early 1930s—and Corcoran, a genuine Western rancher, collaborated with Myrtle on feature novels), Marie De Nervaud and myself.
Occasionally I used the pseudonym “George R. MacFarland” for my novels in Ranch, but mostly I used my own name. Other pseudonyms I used at various times were “L. J. Edwards, ” “James Buell Hartley, ” and “Wilson L. Covert” (my brothers name in reverse).
Mentioning Bert Foster reminds me that a new and top writer joined the Clayton staff sometime before Bert died —William Colt MacDonald, who wrote lots of good stuff for Ace-High and Cowboy Stories.
Along with Ranch, Warner Publications also bought Forest and Stream from Clayton, and Warner was already publishing a top-grade detective magazine, Black Mask, whose featured writers were Dashiell Hammett, Carroll John Daly, Erie Stanley Gardner and others. Joe Shaw was editor.
FANNY ELLSWORTH continued to be highly successful with Ranch Romances (Rangeland Love and Western Love Stories were dropped by Warner Publications). I wrote for Ranch, and still had time for some other publications— Leo Margulies’ Thrilling group and later Aaron Wyn’s chain of Westerns. Frank Gruber had been working for Wyn, but heard the call to Hollywood, where he certainly made good. He let me know he was going, in fact invited me to lunch before his departure for California, and when I visited Periodical House offices later I was pleasantly surprised to find Ned Collier and Ruth Dreyer, former Clayton editors, there. Collier was about to launch a new magazine, Super-Western. I was in time to write him a feature novel, “Steel Rails Westward, ” about the Union Pacific, railroad builders, buffalo hunters, cavalry and Indians which I’ve always thought one of my best yarns. This was about 1940. I was to continue selling a novelette under my own name and a short under a pseudonym to Wyn’s Western Trails and Western Aces (each published alternate months) for the next seven years— twenty-four stories a year. I still contributed to Ranch, featured novels and novelettes, and now and then a story to Margulies. He had taken on as an associate editor James B. Hendryx, Jr., son of the Hendryx who wrote the Corporal (later Sergeant) Downey of the Royal Mounted Police stories which, with other stories of the Yukon, were published in book form by G. P. Putnam following magazine serialization. Young Hendryx happened to be the editor who took my yarns for the Thrilling group, though I had sold some to them earlier when he wasn’t there.
Naturally, there were many artists who did headings for my stuff. Two of the best known were Jerry Delano and Nick Eggenhofer, but at the Wyn offices, on the art staff, was a young fellow, “Doc” W. Kremer, whose headings were so very good that I asked Ruth Dreyer, who had moved up to editor when Ned Collier resigned to write a book, to let Bill Kremer do more of my stories. She did, and also gave me some original pen and inks which had illustrated stories of mine. These double-page spreads by Kremer had a flint-hard reality which made them outstanding.
When Ruth Dreyer became editor, Don Wollheim was associate. I got along fine with both of them—and Aaron Wyn, the boss, too—and when Wollheim left Wyn to edit paperback books for Avon, he bought one of my six-part Larry Ord-way-Old Bill Randle serials for an Avon paperback. It sold two editions. Next Wollheim put out a collection of novelettes for Avon and I was in that (all the time I was still working for Ruth Dreyer and Leo Margulies); then Wollheim came back to Wyn’s outfit, and as Wyn had started a line of paperbacks, the Ace books, Wollheim immediately used more of my longer stories for these paperbacks, of which he was made editor.
While Don Wollheim was editor at Avon Publications, they decided to bring out a Wild Bill Hickok Western, and I was to do a lead story about Hickok in each issue. I was very enthusiastic and finished the first Wild Bill novel feeling I’d done a pretty fair job. Wollheim and his Avon associates liked it—the title was “Two for Law and Order”—but the times were considered too bad to launch the magazine. So, while I was paid for the novel promptly, it has never been published.
I sold my last western yarn, “Boy from the Home Town, ” to Leading Western in 1950. This outfit also published Fighting Western and a third whose title I can’t recall, and neither can I remember the names of the publisher and editor, though I sold stories to all three magazines. The office was located on Lexington Avenue, New York.
The market was falling steadily, however. Television was knocking out what remained after the Depression. I had seen it happen before—the movies knocking out dime and nickel novels—but, like many another writer and illustrator, I didn’t want to believe that the present slump was the “handwriting on the wall” for Western fiction. For forty years people couldn’t get enough of it—and then bam! it was over.

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  1. I have the issue of TRUE WEST where this memoir appeared and have always thought it was one of the best pieces about the western pulps. Leithead just about covers every important western title.

    He's right about the impact of television but economics also played a big part. It just was not possible any longer to publish a 130 page magazine in the 7 by 10 inch pulp format for a quarter. Instead the paperbacks and digest sized magazines took over. They were a lot cheaper to produce and sell.

    As Leithead says, for 40 years people couldn't get enough of it and then bam, it was over. Still hard to believe that we now live in an age where there are practically no fiction magazines except a few digests like the SF magazines and EQMM and AHMM. The literary quarterlies or little magazines still publish many short stories but no genre fiction to speak of.

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