Bellem Lettres: The secret life of a pulpster

And no, that isn’t a spelling mistake. Read on and find out why. While pursuing some research, I came across five letters from Robert Leslie Bellem, the creator of Dan Turner, Hollywood Detective and prodigious producer of pervy passion plots for the pulps. These letters have little personal stuff but quite a bit about the writing life. At the time these letters were written, Bellem was roughly in the middle of his 26 year stint in the pulp. He regularly contributed stories to the girly pulps – Saucy Movie Tales, Saucy Detective and the Trojan Group’s Spicies. (About whose author guidelines we read a couple weeks ago.)

Robert Leslie Bellem, creator of Dan Turner, Hollywood Detective

From 1935 to 1946, Bellem never did less than 30 stories a year, and usually above 40. Two to three stories every month. In 1943, his annus mirabilis, he produced 87 original stories. Three stories every two weeks. The sort of workload that would drive a lesser man insane. Bellem? He found time to write chatty letters.

In 1938, when he was writing these letters, he wrote 52 original stories. One a week.

The letters are addressed to Larry Sternig, Minneapolis writer and later agent whose stories appeared in the same magazines that Bellem was ruling over.

The first letter reveals a host of hitherto unknown Bellem pseudonyms. Bolded for your convenience.

In letter number two, Bellem denies reusing plots. At least consciously. Who knew what his subconscious was capable of?

Letter three talks about the sad state of the smut pulp market and the business of reprints.

Letter four he asks for new plot outlines, if any were lying around. Also mentions S J Perelman’s New Yorker article Somewhere a Roscoe, the glorious article that established Dan Turner as an icon of popular culture.

The last and final letter offers a little hope and prayer for 1939. Little did Bellem know what was coming his way. World War 2 and a boom in the low priced smut pulps.

Enough from me. Read on.

Oct. 20th 1937

Dear Larry:

A million thanks for the magazines. Did you have that extra copy of Paris Nights, or were you forced to shell out hard money for it? If the latter, please let me know and I’ll remit. Ditto for ADVENTURES book.

Yeah; most of my pseudonyms were wished on me by various editors. Frinstance, Mann himself. He tags me “Jon Ashe,” for the cover and lead story of Saucy Movie which you so kindly sent me. In GAY FRENCH LIFE I’m Walter Bronson as well as Bellem. (Bronson being one of my regular aliases.) In MIDNIGHT GAYETIES I find myself Bellem and Artie Montgomery, which has a lavanar smell. I’ll have to do something about that.

As to my other noms-de-Corona—well, I’s a slew of ’em. I’m Farnham Black and Hamilton Washburn in PARIS NIGHTS. In the Merwil (D-M) string, I’ve got so many names I can’t remember all of them. But they include Roger James, Rene Barard(sic), Tinto Marino, Luli Delmar, Gerard Lamour, Roberta B. Lewis, Frank Roberts, Leslie(sic) Roberts, Francois Milland, Esme Condon — oh, hell! I’m tried looking through my files for earlier ones.

But really my best-know pen names are those which appear regularly in the SPICE group: Jerome Severs Perry and Ellery Watson Calder. If you read SPICY string with any regularity, you’ll see those names appearing again and again. Plus, on occasion, Harcourt Weems and several others which are used very rarely now.

So you see, I’m a multum-in-parvo guy.

This six-feet-four of Kruger person puts me to blush. On due consideration, I think I’ll stay the hell away from Milwaukee— especially when I’m accompanied by the light of my life. Having had her 15 years (we were married when she was 16) I’ll take no chances…!

So you have offspring, actual and potential. My congratulations. My own tastes run to the contrary, in which I am cordially seconded by the other party most interested. Hence, we have thus far escaped (sometimes by a whisker) the responsibilities of parenthood. It is a condition we may regret in our declining semesters; but thus far we are quite content.

I shall most certainly wade through the Milwaukee effusions in each of the magazines you send; and I’ll see that Mrs. Bellem does likewise. And by the way—you’ll see some yarns in the same mags, bylined Frank E. Marks (Sai: Marks was writing for Saucy Movie Tales that Sternig was also writing for. Frank Eleazer Marks. Born: 1881 in Camden, NJ. Died: 1959 in Pasadena, California). He is a Pasadenan and a friend of mine. I just wanted to let you know Pasadena has its quota of typewriter destroyers. In fact, the office adjoining my own, here in the central building, is occupied by Scott Littleton (Sai: Full name Covington Henry Scott Littleton, born 1896, died 1973. Son of the dentist who invented the drill.), a contract writer for Liberty. A grand guy; former DA detective. His Liberty stuff is tops, I think.

Frank E. Marks in Saucy Movie Tales

And if you ever run across a stray love pulp yarn under the byline Blanche and Robert Bellem, you’ll know that the blonde has been collaborating with me again. We’ve done several such outpourings for Love Story, Thrilling Love etcetera; And it may happen again… who knows?

Duty calls. I must get to work on a detective opus. My best regards—and Mrs. Bellem’s—to you and your lady fair. Drop me a line when you feel like it; I’m always glad to hear from you. Good luck to your allies and darn your tall Kruger. He dwarfs me and i feel punctured.

Bob Bellem

Aug 10th 1938

Dear Larry:

The syndicate now rests in the lapse of the gods; my friend took it up to San Francisco and submitted it to Western Newspaper Union, who thought highly of it and sent it on to the Chicago office. Will keep you au courant of developments; Meanwhile the market is closed—thank God. I did a hell of a lot of work on it, not only in reading a mess of scripts, but in editing and revising the few yarns which were accepted—as well as banging out two of the stories myself when the deadline leered at us. No, Marks didn’t land anything with me, I had to reject several from some other friends of mine, too. Which just about broke my heart, no fooling!

Set of proofs of the stuff that was accepted; And it’s not a complete set, two of the 2000 word yarns being missing out of the batch. However, here’s what i have got—you are welcome to them. If i can procure another set i’ll send them to you. Meanwhile this will give you some idea of how we pounded the junk into shape. Excuse typographical errors—these proofs were pulled before being corrected.

I am astounded that Serdaly (Sai: Franz J. Serdahely, author, public relations man and editor) severed himself from his Texas sheet (Sai: The Raymondsville Chronicle). Has he landed anything at home, as yet? My best regards to him; glad he escaped without scars.

The fiction business is slow these days, my ladies. What I mean, slow! Stiles hasn’t made a sale for me in a coon’s age. I peddled a few to Red Circle (No, Torture-Feature <Sai: published in Detective Short Stories October 1938> wasn’t a reprint. Maybe I did something like it for Dan Turner, perhaps—or maybe I’m beginning to repeat myself these days! Which wouldn’t be unlikely, since I’ve written and had published more than 1200 short stories and novelettes.) And I think I landed another sport yarn with Margulies—at least he’s held it long enough!!! Other than that nothing but the same old seven a month to Armer, damn it. And somehow I haven’t felt like extending myself this hot weather. Sort of coasting, I guess you’d call it.

Hope all’s well with all of youse—and your families. As to the 2 snapshots: I turned them over to Dan Turner for unscrambling, and his report is enclosed.

Plotlessly yours

PS: I mean that “plotlessly”, damn it! You got any old ones to give away to a pore starvin’ writer whose alleged brain has backfired on him?

Oct 18 ’38

Dear Larry:

I wish you had offended me. I mean, i wish that were the reason for my not writing you ere this, but the sad truth is, I’ve been damned desperately ill. Spent the whole month of September in bed with what came My teen year being pneumonia, coupled with a nasty case of intestinal flu and other internal disorders. Wound up by losing 17 pounds and being packed off to the desert for a month or more of recuperation. Six solid weeks went by, in fact before I even touched this maroon Corona; the thing almost rusted to pieces from disuse!

But now I’m up and around again, thanks to a hardy constitution and the bracing desert air and sunshine. In the past few days i’ve batted out three stories, i received a check for one of them, and have high hopes for the others. Now i’ve got to put on the pressure if i hope to catch up with my schedule!

The fiction business has been slow, according to all accounts from my various writing friends; So maybe I chose the right time to go out of production. My friend Maurice Beam, formerly of Florida, now resident of Santa Ana, California, has sold only two yarns in three months. One was a pulp sale. The other—which amazed hell out of me—was to the SEP!! Bean was more surprised than I, be it said. The story was a fireman yarn on which I’d helped him with the lead; and his agent had gall enough to try the Post…And they answered with the check! Which spurs me towards recovery so that I can try a similar stunt.

Marks hasn’t written anything in months. Saucy Movie Tales and Saucy Detective to which he used to sell four or five every month, went out of biz as you know and the Merwil string did a ditto el foldo. That wiped out Mark’s markets, so he decided to lay off until times got better. After all, he has a good job (city chemist of Pasadena) and owns his own home, so he can afford to stay out of the fiction market for a time.

I might add that the Merwil (D-M to you) magazines have been making sporadic appearances all summer, being now edited by Gloria Grey vice Miss Glasberg. Unfortunately Miss Gray has no editorial budget and has been using nothing but three and four year old reprints as well as old illustrations. I was up in San Bernardino yesterday, looking at the newsstands while there; And I found several of my hoary (no pun intended) efforts in the sexy books. Alas, I can’t collect for them a second time. Not that I ever sold them all rights (I always retain everything but the first serial rights) but as you know, Merwil and Trojan are sister outfits; and if i were to try to put on the pressure on Merwil for additional payment on the reprinted stuff, I might get in Dutch with Armer and his string.

To be truthful, even Armer is using some reprint material. Not only in Candid, Private and Romantic detective, but in the Spicy string as well. Doing a bit of rewriting in his own office to disguise the yarns a little, and running them under new bylines; which is why you’ll see a lot of unfamiliar auctorial real names in the current spices. Again, I might howl for payment on these; But I daren’t—nor do I want to because Armer’s been mighty decent to me this many years. And during my illness he volunteered several advances, covering stories i should have delivered but wasn’t able to. These advances kept my financial head above water, so who am i to give the hand that feeds me?

Glad you liked that yarn in Popular Sports. Margulis, after retaining a couple of sport stories of mine for more than eight weeks, eventually returned them. I learned from another source that he has been doing this to many writers. Keep stories a helluva long time, and if business warrants buying them, he sends a check; but if business looks bad in prospect—bingo, the old rejection slip. Three different author friends have told me he has done this to them recently, so there you are. Meanwhile I’ve sent the stories out to other markets, and I’m holding my left ventricle.

A writer acquaintance down here in 29 Palms, Tom Hopkins (Sai: Tom Johnson Hopkins, 1889-1977), who does westerns, is fuming and stewing because the Fiction House outfit has been reprinting a mess of his old stuff without paying him. Another outfit pitchin’ $10 apiece for 10 old stories, which they said they’d revise and reprint under pseudonyms.  And while he is against such reprint outfits in theory, knowing that every reprinted story robs him out of a possible new sale, he was financially embarrassed at the time and accepted the ten dollars each because he had to. Such is life when you earn your sore throat via the typewriter route.

Miss Glasberg spent several weeks here on the coast after being fired by Merwil. She and her husband visited Belle and me several times; We went out to a lot of places together. Incidentally, we all went and called on Jack Woodford—who’s a hell of a swell guy. Woodford wanted me to have lunch with him at MGM studio the following week, but I immediately took a nose dive into influenza and had to break the rate; lost some possible A1 contacts thereby. Woe is muh! I now learn through Fierst that Woodford’s daughter, Louella, was taken ill around the same time I was. Streptococcic infection of the throat; almost died. We all have our troubles…

Nov 3, 38

Dear Larry:

Just a note. A while back you said the Allies had a pile of plots and hinted they might sell some. I’m back in production now and might possibly have need of some ready made detective, weird mystery, adventure and sports outlines. Depends on whether said plots happen to hit me as usable.

What would be the price? Would youse guys be willing to submit a few of each kind on consignment, allowing me to select what I liked and return the others? And in that case, how much per plot? Mind you I’m not saying I guarantee to buy any of them; Depends on how I react to them. You might gather the clans and put it to a question.

Not much new with me. I’m feeling better now, thank God. In the past three weeks I have written six yarns for Armer and sold 5—haven’t yet heard from the sixth. Have also batted out two novelettes of the weird horror type come on which I’ve sent to an agent. I’d like to crash through into the Popular Publications string etc etc if possible, so I’m bending my efforts in that direction. If I fail, those stories can be shortened, sexed and sold to Armer.

Meanwhile the New Yorker carried a long and humorous article, in the issue of October 15th, about my Dan Turner Hollywood detective; and Wartels (Sai: Emanuel Wartels was the brother of Nat Wartels, head of Crown Publishing, a very successful business that published Jean Auel and Judith Krantz among others), president of Phoenix Press, which brought out my Blue Murder, had it called to his attention by Fierst. Result: he has ordered me to write a Dan Turner novel! I’ve already submitted the first seven chapters and an outline of the balance. If Wartels okays it, I’ll get a contract and a cash advance; then i’ll finish the book as a definite assignment and not on spec. Pray for me!

Blue Heat by RLB dustjacket

I had a note from my Los Angeles friend about that syndicate idea. He flew to New York recently and submitted it to one of the biggest syndicates; they’re considering it. Will let you know any further developments. If I have anything to say about it when—and if— it materializes, you Allies will get the call to write stuff for the thing.

All for now. Gotta get back to work.

Regards to Eleanor and all the gang

Feb 1, 39

Dear Larry:

This will ease my conscience regarding you, to whom I think I owe a letter, and to Bill Kruger, to whom I know damn well I owe one. Please consider this as to you both, and to the other allies; Or should I make a carbon copy and send it around? I’ve been so damn busy lately that my correspondence has been plenty neglected. And I’m banging this out at top speed —so excuse the errors, grammar & typographical.

Closed up the desert domicile at holiday time and haven’t gone back; too cold down there for me. We are in Pasadena as usual; 504 central building address until further note.

Frank showed me your letter, Larry, and I was interested to hear about those two sex mags you mentioned. We haven’t seen them here; we wouldn’t, because no straight-sex books are sold in LA county. Next time I go to the desert I will stop off at San Bernardino and look the stands over for ‘em. The titles smell like Joe Mann, seems to me. I’ve written Clyde Young in Philadelphia to see if he could get me any dope. We’ll let you know if I learned anything.

Lenniger is going to do a bang up job for me, I think. He’s already peddled a novelette of mine to Thrilling Detective—15,000 words—and got me an order for another one. I had a novelette in the current Secret Agent X (Syn group) but it stink (Sai: Program for Plunder in the March 1939 issue). Don’t see how I ever sold it! The Trojan market is in the doldrums at present. Buying just one yarn a week from me, at a cent a word. But at least that keeps me going.

Sold 4 to Gloria Grey of Stocking Parade recently. And by the way, Merwil is bringing out two new pulps: Fact Detective and Fact Spy. (Gahdamn this typewriter; the shift-lock is hawywire!). Fact Detective uses true crime stuff at a half cent word; wants pix with each script. Maybe you can hit it, youse guys. Better buy a copy first. (It’s now on sale). The slant is a bit different from what’s used in the old established true crime books.

Fact Spy uses true material on espionage; also some fiction now and then. I sold them a 6000 word fiction yarn for ½ cent last month. The two books are bimonthlies, alternating. Harold Hersey is supervising editor; remember him? The rate is lousy and a helluva lot of legwork is required before you can actually write the material, but anyhow it’s a market.

That about covers the news from this end. As you see, I’m back in harness and plugging away, and something tells me 39 will be better than 38 was.

Your faithful optimist
Bob Bellem

PS: Shade’s old title, Detective & Murder Mysteries, is now being issued by Double Action Group (Silberkleit). One cent market, pay on publication.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *