Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Poet of Apprehension

(Twenty years ago, I wrote a profile for Out Magazine about author Patricia Highsmith that appeared shortly after her death. Back then Highsmith was relatively unknown to the public at large. Her ground-breaking lesbian novel The Price of Salt had been written under a pseudonym. Some took me to task back then for allegedly "outing" her. But times change. Since then numerous books have been written about Highsmith, and her work is very much back in vogue. One of my favorites of her novels, The Blunderer, has just been reissued. And a film based on The Price of Salt called Carol is garnering rave reviews. I thought it might be fun to look back at my article, written before she was a household name again, and to revisit the peculiar genius of this now-legendary writer.)

“Sometimes I think that the artistic life is a long and lovely suicide, and I am sorry that is so." This quote, from Oscar Wilde's personal letters, was used by Patricia Highsmith in a foreword to one of her twenty-one extraordinary novels. It might as well have been her epitaph (she died of leukemia at age 74 in Switzerland on February 4, 1995), for the statement sums up so simply the eerie melancholy that colored her lifework. 

From her first novel, Strangers on a Train (immortalized, if bowdlerized, in Hitchcock's classic thriller), to her last, Small g: A Summer Idyll, about a bizarre gay bar in Zurich (published in London, just days after her death), Patricia Highsmith probed the dark depths of paranoia, delving into the minds of homicidal psychopaths and their victims. Very often, in her world, crime did pay. Her short stories were horrifying, frequently grotesque: A rat devours the nose of a small child; a snail lover is smothered to death by millions of his slimy pets; a man saddled with a deformed baby strangles an innocent passerby in a sudden act of revenge. 

One treads gingerly in Highsmith's troubled universe, never knowing what waits around the corner. Graham Greene called her "the poet of apprehension." But she was also haunted by her own demons. Pegged early on as a suspense writer, Highsmith transcended the genre, gaining cult status even as she was ignored by most American literary critics. Those who did pay attention compared her to Henry James, Dostoyevsky and Poe. Immensely popular in Europe, her books were filmed by Wim Wenders, Rene Clement, and Claude Miller, and garnered numerous awards. But she never caught on with the American public, no doubt because she didn't portray them in flattering terms and had little patience with middle-class conceptions of good versus evil. To her, justice was a man-made conceit. 

Novelist and director Michael Tolkin (The Player) says, "She was one of the best writers in the world. I have never read a review of her work where there wasn't some hedging on the part of the critic, a slightly superior tone because she was a girl or writing in this genre. But she was a great writer, the last turn of the dial to unlock my novels. I don't think I could have written The Player without her." 

Few people, know, however, that Patricia Highsmith, by all accounts a passionate, yet very private lesbian, was also an important figure in gay literature. In 1952, fresh from her success with Strangers on a Train, she wrote the groundbreaking novel The Price of Salt. Perhaps fearful of being branded a "lesbian author" as she had been a "mystery writer," Highsmith wrote under the pseudonym Claire Morgan. Or perhaps she could not reconcile her lesbianism with her public profile. 

For decades this heartfelt romance, one of the first lesbian novels with a happy ending, was required reading for young women (and many men) eager to overcome their isolation and loneliness. Reissued several times, most notably by Naiad Press, the book is still in print. Eventually, Naiad publisher Barbara Grier convinced Highsmith to use her own name on the book. "I worshiped that book," Grier says, recalling the thrill of discovering it in 1952 in a department store in Kansas City. "It was a very upbeat, pro-lesbian book, which in itself was a miracle." 

Highsmith's representative Anne Elisabeth-Suter estimates The Price of Salt has sold hundreds of thousands of copies worldwide, so its impact cannot be ignored. But none of her major obituaries mentioned it, except for a personal piece by Tolkin in the Los Angeles Times. In fact, the original New York Times' obituary did Highsmith another disservice by erroneously calling her "Ms. Ripley," confusing the author with her more diabolical creation, Tom Ripley, an engaging American psychopath, living abroad, who continually gets away with murder. 

No doubt Highsmith, master of irony, was laughing in her grave. She often said that Ripley, not she, had written the first of the five books in which he appears. That novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley, was developed as a project for Paramount Pictures by Sydney Pollack and William Horberg. "Highsmith was one of the great postwar novelists," Horberg says. "Her books are impossible to put down. The Talented Mr. Ripley is a profound love story. Ripley loves Dickie Greenleaf but can't have him, so tragically, he destroys him." The novel was made into the classic Rene Clement film Plein Soleil, aka Purple Noon, starring Alain Delon. 

For all their psychological intrigue, Highsmith saw her books merely as entertainments. Favoring emotions over style, she wrote in a spare, declarative tone that weaves a terrifying spell. The monotony of quotidian details lulls the reader into a false sense of security. Her protagonists are always cooking, drinking, or making their beds, so that when a murderer suddenly acts, the horror is infinitely more dramatic, raw. In The Boy Who Followed Ripley, one of her most affecting and disturbing novels, Highsmith grippingly depicts Ripley's growing affection for a handsome young man who has murdered his invalid father in Maine by pushing his wheelchair off a cliff. He turns to the notorious Ripley for support. Later, Ripley dresses in drag for a rendezvous at a gay bar and commits murder to save the boy's life. 

What was behind Highsmith's fascination with death and murder? One can only suspect it stems from her private obsessions. She was born Patricia Plangman in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1921. Her parents, commercial artists, had divorced before she was born. Patricia lived with her maternal grandmother until age six, when she moved with her mother to New York. Her mother remarried a man named Highsmith, who later adopted Patricia. Highsmith didn't meet her natural father until she was twelve. In interviews she hinted that her childhood was less than happy. Emotional turmoil was constant. 

A clue to her feelings may be gleaned from her early writings, odd little stories about homicidal children. She was inspired by a clinical text her family owned called The Human Mind by Dr. Karl Menninger, filled with vivid case studies about pyromaniacs, sadists, and kleptomaniacs. Highsmith used it throughout her career as a character bible. "The Terrapin," for example, concerns a lonely boy whose mother dresses him in children's clothes. Alienated from his peers, in particular a bully next door, the youth grows increasingly hysterical until he stabs his mother to death after she boils a turtle alive. One wonders, with a chill, if Highsmith's mother ever read that story. 

Highsmith attended Barnard College, where she edited the school literary magazine. There she met journalist Kate Kingsley Skattebol, who corresponded with Highsmith the rest of her life and remained a devoted friend. Skattebol recalls Highsmith as a droll, impish wit fond of practical jokes, scatological humor, and bawdy limericks. "Her writing talent was evident in college," she says. One of her earliest tales, "The Heroine," about a deranged nanny who sets fire to a house where she works, was rejected by the Barnard magazine, Skattebol says, because it was "too unpleasant." It later appeared in Harper's Bazaar and the short story collection Eleven, regaining notoriety decades later during the scandalous Swiss nanny murder trial. Some thought the alleged killer (later acquitted) might have been inspired by Highsmith's story. 

An early friend, Truman Capote, championed Highsmith, helping her to get into Yaddo, where she rewrote Strangers on a Train (it had been rejected by six publishers). Over the years, Highsmith also developed lasting friendships with writers Graham Greene, Gore Vidal, and Paul Bowles. When not writing fiction, Highsmith found odd jobs, writing scenarios for Superman comics, or toiling at Bloomingdale's over Christmas. She used that stint as background for The Price of Salt: Therese, the main character, whose dark features and shy, dreamy demeanor bear more than a passing resemblance to the young Highsmith, meets her love, Carol, at a New York department store. "Every adult has secrets," writes Highsmith at the novel's end. And throughout her life she seemed to enjoy harboring her own. "Pat was nothing if not unobvious," says Gary Fisketjon, her editor at Knopf, her last American publisher. "She was not particularly troubled by the fact that she was gay. She couldn't give a shit -- she was Texan until the fucking end." But she preferred leading a private life." 

Barbara Grier, who corresponded with her frequently, says Highsmith suffered acutely from "internalized homophobia," which was not surprising, she adds, considering the era in which she was raised. Highsmith's own attitude is put rather succinctly in a postscript to The Price of Salt, in which she states, "I like to avoid labels." An expatriate, Highsmith traveled constantly, moving first from New York to Mexico, then to Italy, England, and France, before finally settling near Locarno, in Switzerland.

Often cold and close-mouthed with reporters, Highsmith disliked publicity. "She hated to come out of her house," says her Swiss publisher Daniel Keel. On more than one occasion she walked out in the middle of interviews. But her sense of humor was well-known. Larry Ashmead, executive editor at HarperCollins, recalls Highsmith telling him how she once smuggled live snails into France by hiding them under her breasts. At the end, Highsmith lived alone with her beloved cat, Charlotte. She was, by most accounts, a loner who drank and smoked to excess. 

As a young woman, according to Fisketjon, Highsmith was a "staggeringly beautiful woman." But as she aged, her sturdy masculine features became more exaggerated, almost forbidding. Duncan Hannah, a New York artist, recalls meeting Highsmith at a book-signing. "She was like a Mandarin, almost Buddha-like," he says, "with a dilapidated, very still quality. Being under her gaze was like being under a microscope. It was spooky." 

Highsmith seems to have exorcized her demons with her final and most openly gay work, Small g: A Summer Idyll. Sweetly sentimental, with gothic undertones, this dark romance harks back to the young-adults-in-love theme of The Price of Salt, but lacks its focus. In fact, Small g was rejected by Knopf and poorly reviewed in England. But it has unmistakable Highsmith touches: a club-footed homophobe, a bisexual beauty, a dandy diagnosed as HIV positive, and a clever circus dog named LuLu who upstages everyone else. One wonders what Highsmith might have achieved had she brought her literary villains and herself "out" decades ago. But maybe, for her readers, it's better she didn't. For then we might not have experienced the full rewards of her strange, macabre genius.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Haunted Melody

"Queen of the Follies," Jessie Reed.

Seventy-five years ago, in a charity ward of Chicago’s Osteopathic Hospital, a once-celebrated beauty lay immobile under an oxygen tent, barely able to breathe. A painful throat infection made it impossible for her to talk. A fever clouded her mind. Pneumonia had set in, sapping all her strength. She was penniless, despite four high-profile marriages, and four notorious divorces. Even the whiffs of scandal surrounding her (including her part in a sensational murder) were lost in time. Back in the early 20s, as Jessie Reed, she had been the belle of Broadway, a household name, the highest paid showgirl of the Ziegfeld Follies. 

But now Jessie was completely alone, abandoned by her former agents and publicists, ignored by the playboys who once jockeyed to be by her side. The only friends she had left were her fellow showgirls, aging members of the Ziegfeld Club, who sent flowers, letters and donated money for her care. She’d been in the hospital a few weeks before and had recovered enough after numerous blood transfusions to go back to her cheap hotel room. But this time Jessie didn’t have any pluck left. She died on September 18, 1940, age 43. Her only relative was a 26-year-old daughter in San Antonio whom she had not seen in decades. 

The next day, papers all over the country trumpeted the news. There was an outpouring of sympathy for Jessie’s tragedy, but also a sense of shock since it seemed inconceivable that someone who had had it all — diamonds, the latest French fashions and more than one millionaire husband — could die without a nickel to her name and in such dire circumstances. Adela Rogers St John had dubbed her “the Queen of the Follies — the Champion.” But fate had been unkind, St John added, and she became “Bad Luck’s Baby.” How could this fall from grace have happened? Blame was laid all around, but Jessie’s once-lusted-after alabaster shoulders bore the brunt of it. She got what she deserved, some moralized, for having been such a scheming gold digger. But one couldn’t help but feel sympathy toward her. It was as if the American Dream itself had failed, for Jessie Reed’s rags-to-riches tale had seemed the archetypal stuff of dreams, or at least countless dime-store romances. 

All dolled-up for the Shuberts, 1918

I first heard of Jessie Reed while sifting through my mother’s papers after her death. It turned out my mother’s father, Leonard Minor Reno, was Jessie’s last husband. In fact, Jessie had been married to him for nearly six years, longer than any of her previous spouses. This fact had never been mentioned in my family. Both Jessie and my grandfather had died before I was born. And my mother, who was Leonard’s only child, had never met Jessie Reed. At the time my grandfather was considered a catch. He’d been a pilot in the Lafayette Flying Corps during the First World War, and was the son of a Chicago publisher. He was often referred to as “son of a millionaire,” but his father, Harry Otho Reno, founder of Furniture Age, had spent his fortune raising racehorses and probably owed more millions than he owned.

The Jessie Reed Story, as it were, begins in 1917, twenty years after her official birth, when she first sailed into New York as a bright-eyed, young ingenue on a steamer from Texas. She arrived like Venus rising out of the sea, for no one was quite sure who she was or where she was from, or who her parents were. Her roots were murky at best, and remain so. 

“I had nerve to burn and was willing to work,” Jessie later recalled in an article she wrote about her early days. And work she did, landing a spot that summer in The Passing Show of 1917, a Shubert spectacle at the Winter Garden. Jessie didn’t have much to do, except slide elegantly across the stage, dressed in one outlandish costume after another. Her flaming Titian-hued tresses created a sensation, as did her sultry good looks. Standing about five feet four, Jessie was not an imposing figure, although photos suggest callipygian curves and a buxom bust. But she exuded an animal magnetism and joie de vivre that leapt across the stage. “With her love of life and alluring and spectacular beauty, she had an irresistible appeal to men,” summed up Adela Rogers St. John. 

Baring what the public will bear. Cine-Mundial

What Jessie had that struck a nerve was raw, unaffected sex appeal. Burns Mantle, describing her in Theatre magazine, likened Jessie to “a jungle cat.” She was the “It Girl” before the term had been popularized. She epitomized a new look that cast aside the constraints and propriety of the past. She oozed sensuality. One admirer summed up her attributes with poetic precision: “Miss Reed is all in warm colors; her hair is old bronze, saturated with tropical sunlight; her teeth are rice-grains; her eyes are big and glowing, with ruby glints in their pupils; her ears are tiny and buttoned close in; her nose is all that a nose should be; and her lips are piquantly persuasive.”


Artist Harrison Fisher, who glorified the American Girl in his widely published illustrations, (above) was drawn to Jessie’s luscious auburn hair and perfect complexion. He hired her to model for him, and she became one of his favorite muses. Not long after, another Fisher took a shine to her: Bud Fisher, creator of Mutt & Jeff. A rich playboy, with a taste for showgirls, Bud wined and dined Jessie, squiring her from one fashionable soiree and nightclub to the next. Gossip columns were atwitter about their affair. Jessie announced they were engaged. 

"Jungle Cat," as captured by C. Smith Gardner

Knowing they were onto a good thing, the Shubert brothers featured Jessie in their sumptuous new Sigmund Romberg musical at the Winter Garden, Sinbad, starring Al Jolson. Some critics crowed that the show was de trop, with over-the-top Arabian Nights sets and costumes, but it ran for over a year. Jessie, in particular, was singled out for her charm and beauty. 

Broadway Cameo, 1918. Photo by Count Jean de Strelecki

The Shuberts next showcased Jessie in the Passing Show of 1918, which featured a reenactment of the bombing of London, complete with a dogfight between planes, and starred dancing sensations, Fred and Adele Astaire. Rumors spread that Fred fell head over heels in love with Jessie. He would wait backstage, hoping to catch a moment with her between numbers, but too shy and polite to ask her out. Jessie's costumes and those of the other fashion plates, were even more spectacular than before, setting a new threshold of theatrical opulence. 

All decked out: Jessie, top right, The Passing Show of 1918, White Studio

Edwardian Voguing; Jessie at left, The Passing Show of 1918, White Studio

One night the legendary producer Florenz Ziegfeld happened to stop into the show and spied Jessie in the chorus line. He sent her a note backstage, which Jessie recalled, she assumed was a pink slip from the Shuberts and didn’t bother to read until later. When she did open it, she was floored. Ziegfeld was offering her a lucrative contract to appear in Midnight Frolic, his hit revue on the New Amsterdam theater rooftop. She immediately accepted. Flo worked her into a skit with W. C. Fields. She had little acting experience but she held her own against the acerbic comic. 

Flo also made room for her in his latest, most extravagant edition of the Follies, that opened in the summer of 1919. In an “episode” designed by Ben Ali Haggin dubbed “Hail to the Thirteenth Folly,” Jessie debuted as “The New Folly,” surrounded by her “Twelve Sisters.” In one number she appeared as the incarnation of the Salvation Army. She also appeared in a skit with the great black comic Bert Williams and floated across stage dressed as an effervescent bottle of Sarsaparilla while Marilyn Miller sang “A Syncopated Cocktail.” 

Jessie as the Salvation Army, center, as "arranged" by Ben Ali Haggin

But it was in the grandest number of the second act that Jessie made her biggest splash. Ziegfeld commissioned Lady Duff Gordon to design a set of magnificent costumes for his top five showgirls to wear. Jessie appeared as “Barcarolle” in “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody,” written for the show by Irving Berlin and sung by tenor John Steel. The tune, which had debuted as a last minute addition in June in Atlantic City, became the signature hit of the show. It would later be immortalized as the elaborate Busby Berkeley staircase sequence in the Oscar winning film The Great Ziegfeld (1936). Berlin’s lyric “A pretty girl is like a melody that haunts you night and day” summed up the effect Jessie and the other showgirls had on male audience members even if there was a price to pay for such pulchritude. Lou Valentine in his bio of Lana Turner suggests that the troubled character Sheila Regan, played so memorably by Turner in Ziegfeld Girl (1941), was based in part on Jessie Reed. 

Ziegfeld Girl, by Edward Thayer Monroe

Jessie was paid $100 salary each week, the most any showgirl had ever been offered. Ziegfeld’s well-oiled publicity machine toiled overtime to promote her. She was sent to sit for Flo’s favorite photographers, Alfred Cheney Johnston and Edward Thayer Monroe. Jessie was touted as the Texan Cinderella, a beauty contest winner who just a year previous had been selling silk stockings at Levy’s Dry Goods store in Houston and was now the toast of the town. Doris Eaton, one of the last surviving Ziegfeld Club members (who died at 106 in 2010) recalled Jessie fondly. “I was still in the chorus then, so we had different dressing rooms," she told me, "but I do remember Jessie. She was one of the most liked of the show girls. You had to be extraordinarily beautiful to be chosen by Ziegfeld.”

Young Man on the Move: Florenz Ziegfeld, Chicago.

As the 1919 show played to record audiences, talk up and down Broadway was that Ziegfeld was having an affair with Jessie Reed. His wife Billie Burke (now better remembered as Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz) kept an anxious eye on both. Ziegfeld stars Eddie Cantor and Will Rogers were both fans, as was “Funny Girl” Fanny Brice who teased Jessie about her “fake English accent.” Jessie took it all in stride. She adored the attention but she was no fool. She’d been well-trained as a salesgirl in Houston, she told reporters, skilled at fending off unwanted advances. She joked that “For every heart on Broadway, there are two heels.” 

By 1920, Jessie Reed’s reputation as a gold digger, a word that only recently had come into vogue, was firmly in place. The type figured prominently in Anita Loos’s classic Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, first published in 1925. Jessie was more like the character Dorothy Shaw (played by Jane Russell in the movie) than Marilyn Monroe’s Lorelei Lee. No breathless airhead, she had a pragmatic streak and keen business sense. While Jessie may have been showered with jewels from her many admirers (one gave her a seven-carat diamond), she also worked full time. The life of a showgirl, even a headliner, was no cakewalk. 

Feather in her cap. Jessie at the height of her fame

As her popularity grew, Jessie asked and got a pay raise from her boss to $200 a week. She spent it all on clothes, the finer things in life, a fashionable apartment in Manhattan that she shared with some of her showgirl friends, and endless nights out on the town. New York was in the clutches of Prohibition but Jessie had a maid named Belinda who rumor had it doubled as a bootlegger so the well never ran dry. Jessie joked that as a child growing up by the bayou, all she had known was water, but once she had tasted Champagne, she had no use for water. She had many stage door johnnies to choose from, including, she boasted, an English earl and a handful of titled Europeans. But she preferred American boys because they usually played straight. Continental men, she argued, talked a great deal but rarely lived up to their promises. 

One of these stagestruck young Americans was “Dashing Dan” Caswell, who came from an affluent family in Ohio. His father had been a real estate developer, a partner and adopted son of Nelson Ambler, who’d built Ambler Estates in Cleveland. Dan often bragged that President McKinley was his godfather. Dan followed in his father’s footsteps by attending Williams College. In the fall of 1920, aboard the 20th Century, en route to Boston to present an engagement ring to a society deb his mother Elisabeth had picked out for him, Dan’s life changed dramatically. As he slipped from his berth to the bar, he spied Jessie Reed in a parlor car. She was on tour with the Follies. For Dan it was love at first sight, even though Jessie initially, he admitted, coldly brushed him off. He invited Jessie out to dinner in Boston that night, forgot all about his future fiancee and presented the large and expensive ring to Jessie. Unable to find a church in Boston that was free, they crossed over to Rhode Island and were married in Pawtucket the next day. 

At the time, Jessie had been engaged to Louis Grovat, a pilot from Long Island. In fact, the day Jessie married Caswell, a broken-hearted Grovat intended to fly up to Boston to see her with one of her best friends, Emily Drange, also of the Follies. Their plane, however, fell to the ground just after take-off. It was a telling omen for Jessie’s nuptials as her marriage with Caswell would quickly crash and burn. 

The news of Jessie’s whirlwind courtship hit the papers the next morning from coast to coast. Dashing Dan reportedly spent $37,000 on the wedding celebrations. No doubt Ziegfeld’s publicist saw a good angle and played it up. But the ploy backfired. Before the newlyweds got back to Boston, reporters were waiting for them back at their hotel with very pointed questions about Jessie’s shadowy past. It soon became evident that she wasn’t really “Jessie Reed” at all. She was someone else entirely, someone with a dark secret that she’d been hiding for years.  

Jessie's stormy past was a well-guarded secret

The problem was that Jessie hadn’t told Dan that she was a divorcee and had a nearly seven year old daughter back in Texas. She fibbed to the court clerk, saying it was her first marriage. She also fudged her birth year, perhaps because she didn’t want Dan to know she was older than he was. She also had neglected to mention that she was a key figure in a murder case back in Texas just a few years before. Jessie’s ex-husband, the blackface comedian Ollie Debrow, had shot and killed a man who had threatened to run off with her. 

It’s no wonder that Jessie had tried to put some distance between herself and her roots. Her troubled early life in Texas was a far cry from her elegant success on Broadway. In a short memoir she wrote in 1935, and published as a series of articles, Jessie talked about her difficult childhood, how her parents had died when she was young. An only child, she dropped out of school in 8th grade and scraped by doing odd jobs. Houston still had a frontier edge in the early 1900s, a rough-and-tumble oil town with a gun-happy citizenry. Jessie grew up amid some pretty tough characters. Her first crush, she said, was a boy named Red. One wonders if this was Red, a leader of a gang of hoodlums and petty thieves in Houston who was frequently in the news.  

Her ex-husband Oliver Debrow (born Durborrow) was equally notorious. He had a rap sheet as long as a player piano roll, having been arrested regularly for drunkenness, vagrancy and burglary. In 1908 he’d been caught breaking into Alkemeyer’s Dry Goods store. Ollie finally cleaned up his act when he teamed with his older brother William in vaudeville, touring in “tab shows,” a ragbag circuit of burlesque houses throughout the Deep South. Sporting blackface, suitcase shoes, suspenders and an oversize hat, Ollie was praised for his broad physical humor and quick timing. Some credit him for originating the phrase “hubba hubba.” He also wrote songs, including “Yodlin’ Blues” which was performed by Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith. 

First husband, Ollie Debrow, "hubba hubba" man

Reports on how Ollie first met Jessie varied. One columnist said she was a waitress in Houston when Ollie walked in and cajoled her into joining his troupe. Another pegged her as a laundress in a “whistle-stop” town on one of Ollie’s “tab” tours. Still another called her a “cracker girl” at Nabisco, which had just opened a plant in Houston. She may have been all those things. But Ollie would later state that he met her at the Princess Theater where she was a dancer in the chorus. She was only fourteen. Her name then, he said, was Jessie Rogers. Perhaps this was a stage name since on her wedding license her name is given as "Jessie May Richardson." They were married on March 11, 1912 at the First German Lutheran Evangelical Church. A handwritten entry in the church ledger confirms the spelling of her name and gives as their witness W. B. Kyle, an electrician who was out on bail having shot his roommate a few days earlier because he made advances on his wife. He was an ironic choice considering the shooting scandal that was soon to engulf Ollie and Jessie. 

Ollie and Jessie’s marriage started off happily enough. In November, 1913, they had a child, Annie Carroll Debrow [Note: here the birth certificate gives Jessie's name as "Jessie May Richards." It's still not clear which was her real name. Richards or Richardson. Adding to the confusion, her death certificate says Richard.] Ollie named their daughter after his half-sister Annie Carroll who had been shot a few years before by her boyfriend and become paralyzed. She had died earlier that year. Having a child didn’t slow down Jessie’s career on the stage. As Jessie Debrow, she traipsed across the South with Ollie, playing Waco, Galveston, Dallas, Beaumont, and Little Rock. In 1915 the Debrows performed at the Majestic in Birmingham, in Al and Gertrude Bernards’ Boys and Girls From Dixie musical revue. Annie stayed in San Antonio with Ollie’s half-sister Gertrude. 

By the summer of 1916, however, signs appeared that their partnership was unraveling. Jessie separated from Ollie and went to New Orleans. He went back to Birmingham. By fall, she was again in San Antonio, working in the chorus at the Star Theater, a popular picture house just off College Street. Ollie was in Houston but came down at the end of October to see her. 

Ollie was disturbed by rumors he’d heard that a tall, handsome 18-year-old chauffeur named Leslie Nash, who worked at a garage next door to the Star, had been hanging about backstage, flirting with Jessie. The manager had warned Nash to make himself scarce as only folks on the payroll were allowed backstage. But Nash persisted, becoming a nuisance. Ollie also learned that Nash was taking Jessie out for joy rides in his car. Jessie’s friend Eva Flippen, an actress, went along on a couple of these jaunts. Nothing indecent had transpired, she said. They were just innocent excursions. 

Late in the afternoon of Halloween, a few hours before curtain time, Ollie cornered Nash and demanded to know what his intentions were. They stopped into Hewgley’s bar and had a few drinks. Nash assured him he and Jessie were just friends. Ollie went back to the theater around 8:30 pm where he confronted Jessie in her dressing room. He later testified that she confessed then to having an affair with Nash and that she was going to leave him. Ollie stormed outside and called to Nash who was chatting with a young woman, Rose Falbo, and a young boy, both affiliated with the theater. When Nash turned to face him, Ollie pulled out a handgun and fired twice. Jessie, who was now in the wings, heard the gunshots and fainted. The bullets pierced Nash’s lungs and stomach. He collapsed, then died shortly after in the hospital. Debrow refused to comment except to say that “My wife and baby were all I had in the world, and I meant to keep them.”

The shooting was front page news in Texas. It also was fodder for papers as far away as Chicago and California. The New York Clipper, a theatrical journal, covered it in detail. Ollie was charged with murder in December, and a jury trial was ordered for the following year. In June 1917, Ollie was arraigned, pleading self-defense and just cause. He was defended by Carlos Bee, a sharp-witted state senator who would later serve in Congress. In his questioning of Debrow, Bee focused on the affair between the victim and his wife. Nash was painted as the villain, and by implication, so was Jessie. What should have been an open-and-shut case of first degree murder became more nuanced. The jury could not reach a verdict and the judge ordered a retrial. Just weeks later in July, Ollie was acquitted and walked out of the courtroom a free man. Carlos Bee had persuaded a group of Ollie’s peers that in Texas at least “the unwritten law” prevailed. 

Jessie hadn’t waited around to find out what the verdict would be. She had already fled Houston — and Ollie, who must have loomed as a threat to her if acquitted — before the verdict was read. She sued for divorce in absentia. The terms of Jessie’s separation gave her visitation rights, but her daughter remained with Gertrude in San Antonio. She never saw Annie again. 

All Jessie needed now was a new identity. She found it through her best friend Nora Flippen, Eva’s sister. Nora, who had been in vaudeville since she was eleven, married actor Ben H. Reed. But in 1914 they divorced. Nora kept her married name Reed and used it on the stage. Like Jessie, she had dreams of making it big on Broadway. The two hatched a scheme to pose as sisters. They booked tickets to New York and left Houston for good. 

Sister acts were popular in vaudeville at the time and it didn’t take long for “the Misses Reed” to get hired on Broadway. Both were cast in The Passing Show of 1917. Nora soon segued into films, appearing with Alice Brady, whom she resembled. She remained a close friend of Jessie’s for years. 

Ironically, the revelations of Jessie Reed’s stormy past did not hurt her career. If anything she became more popular and in demand. But the Caswells’ marriage was doomed from the start. Jessie still had a contract with Ziegfeld and continued to tour. Caswell carped that Jessie’s friends and admirers made him pick up the tab for their frequent all-night parties. When Dan brought Jessie to meet his mother in Cleveland, they were blackballed by his country club and ignored by family friends. His mother soon cut him off and he was forced to sell his fancy touring car to pay his mounting bills. 

Meanwhile Caswell was busy courting Jessie’s chum, fellow actress June Castleton, chasing her across New England even though she had lost her role in a play due to the controversy his advances had caused. Jessie sued Dan for divorce, citing adultery and cruelty. Dan countersued for “gross neglect of duty.” Jessie had tossed him out, he said, and refused to have anything to do with him. Dan was often seen waiting outside her stage door, well in his cups, often in tears. Jessie joked that she couldn’t understand why people called him “Dashing Dan,” since “The only thing I ever knew him to dash for was a drink and then dash out for more.” They divorced in January 1922. 

Jessie threw herself back into work. “I love home life as well as any woman in the world,” she wrote to Ziegfeld, “but for some unknown reason I am unhappy when I am away from the stage, and so long as it affects me in this way, I intend to continue my theatrical work.” She rejoined the Follies and also appeared in extra roles in movies, including the lavish "Enemies of Women" with Lionel Barrymore and another directed by Raoul Walsh for the Mayflower Corporation. She was now earning an extra $100 a week. 

Jessie, center rear, with her Follies friends, Brighton Beach, 1920s

Shortly after her second divorce, Jessie was linked to another blackface comedian, Lew Reed, one of the top cork stars of the day. But it was nothing more than a case of mistaken identity, since there were actually two Jessie Reeds in show business then. The other Jessie Reed, nee Hyman, was a “singing comedienne” in the Keith circuit. She had married Louis Herzberg, aka Lew Reed, in 1915. But by 1923, Lew wanted out, claiming his wife was sleeping around, naming several well-known agents and producers as correspondents, including Lou Tellegen, husband of Geraldine Ferrar. One ill-informed reporter tracked Jessie Hyman down to a club in Connecticut and queried her about her career at the Follies. Hyman, knowing any publicity is good publicity, didn’t let on that she, below, wasn’t the same Jessie Reed. 

Bee in her bonnet: the other Jessie Reed

Finally out of frustration, the real Jessie Reed of the Follies issued a statement to the press that she was not and never had been married to Lew Reed, and was already “happily divorced.” She had “neither the time nor the inclination,” she quipped, “to participate in any more divorces this season.” Nevertheless to this day Jessie is mistaken for this other Jessie Reed. 

Dan Caswell, still smarting from his divorce from Jessie, wed June Castleton, who immediately regretted it, due to his drinking binges, gambling, temper tantrums and roving eye. Desperate for cash, Dan wrote a kiss-and-tell memoir about his life with Jessie that was syndicated across the country, depicting Jessie as a ruthless femme fatale. But in the end, it made Dan look like an ungrateful spoiled brat who had taken advantage of her, not vice-versa. In 1923, in a last ditch stab at fame, Dan debuted a vaudeville act of his own that bombed so badly, due to nerves, that he did not even finish his routine. Dan’s alcoholism soon caught up with him. June divorced him. Then he entered a sanitarium after suffering a nervous breakdown, and died in 1925 in New York from typhoid fever. He did not live long enough to inherit the fortune his father had left him in trust. 

A string of pearls and husbands

By then Jessie had remarried. During a Follies tour to Chicago in 1924, reports surfaced that she was engaged to Russell Griswold Colt, heir to the gun-making firm and ex-husband of Ethel Barrymore. Colt allegedly gave her a large diamond solitaire that became the envy of the other showgirls. But Colt issued a statement denying it all and Jessie blamed an overzealous press agent. The very next day she was back in the papers, having run off with William Tandy Young, Jr, a handsome ad exec for an auto company from Indianapolis who was living in Chicago. The speed with which they got hitched shocked even the most jaded of observers since she had met Young at a restaurant called The Tent and then got married the next morning in Waukegan. Young defended his impetuous actions saying that he had met Jessie four years before at a seaside party out on Long Island in New York when he was a reporter for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle

Now styling herself as Jessica, Mrs. Young left the Follies for good and settled in a suburb of Indianapolis with William. Jessie claimed to enjoy the role of housewife and was tired of life in the fast lane. Less than three years later, however, she filed for divorce due to mental cruelty, complaining that Young didn’t take her out enough. She returned to Chicago. Young ended up doing well on his own. He became a Brigadier General in the Air Force in the Second World War, and later President of the Leo Burnett ad agency. He remarried a couple more times. He and his brother Collier Young, a film producer married to Ida Lupino and later Joan Fontaine, were often photographed out and about with the smart set in Hollywood and New York. William T. Young died in Palm Beach in 1981. There was no mention in his obituary of his three-year marriage to Jessie Reed.

Dog fight: Lafayette ace, Leonard Minor Reno, 4th husband

It didn’t take long for Jessie to find a new man in her life. “I don’t know whether I’ll get married again,” she told reporters. “I always do, so I suppose I will.” And indeed she did. This time she pulled another surprise by marrying flying ace Leonard Reno, who had been married to another Reed, Muriel, a few years before. No doubt Leonard admired Jessie because she could hold her own in a drinking competition. Little is known of their years together other than the fact that Jessie rescued him from jail, coming up with $7300 when he failed to pay his back alimony to Muriel Reed. Other than that, the Reno marriage was a quiet affair. She separated from Leonard in 1934, claiming cruelty and non-support. In a rare moment of candor, Jessie admitted to reporters that her husband had simply “thrown her out.” He countered it was the other way around: she had walked out and he hadn’t heard from her for a year. The judge sided with him. The divorce was finalized in 1935.

Jessie, the trouper, second from left, with former Follies stars, Chicago, 1930s

Jessie moved into a small residential hotel called the Buena Vista. It was a bargain at $5 a week. She still looked as good as ever. Jazz legend Eddie Condon reminisced in We Called It Jazz, that he was in Chicago around this time on tour when he recognized Jessie Reed in his hotel lobby. He knew who she was and was floored by her looks. He asked her to dinner. They had a brief, but by his account, highly memorable, fling. 

Heartthrob Eddie Condon, jazz legend

One bright spot during all this was Jessie’s daughter Annie Carroll Debrow, who had turned out to be a lovely young girl. Ollie’s sister Gertrude helped raise her. Annie entered a beauty tournament in Galveston as Miss San Antonio and got her picture in the papers. At 15 she was appearing as "Jessie Reed, Jr." in a Southern tour of "Rio Rita" and eloped with one of its actors, Elwood Brown. They were married in Hattiesburg, Mississippi on January 21, 1929. The marriage didn't last long. The 1930 census shows her back at home with Gertrude in San Antonio, listed as "divorced." Flo Ziegfeld took notice of her, probably due to Jessie’s influence, offering Ann a spot in one of his shows, but Ziegfeld died before the deal was finalized. The Shuberts contacted her in 1933, eager to work with her. But perhaps she had lost the acting bug.  In 1937 Annie married George F. Keene, Jr., an army officer and son of a popular San Antonio drug store owner. Annie settled down to a quiet life in San Antonio, modeling occasionally for department stores. 

Daughter Annie Carroll Debrow, 1928

Single again, Jessie was running out of potential suitors. She’d run out of money, too, hocking her best dresses, pawning her jewels. The seven-carat diamond she once flaunted was long gone — so too the expensive furs that would have come in handy during those record cold Chicago winters at the height of the Depression. Jessie had no choice but to file for relief. She was behind in her rent. A reporter got wind of it and the story hit the papers. An outpouring of sympathy brought offers of money and help, but none of her ex-husbands provided assistance. Jessie said she wouldn’t accept it from them anyway. “I hate all this publicity,” she added. “If I owe rent, that’s my business. All I want is a chance to come back on the stage.” 

Jessie left the Buena Vista and moved to the Metropole, above, former residence of Al Capone. Impresario Al Quodbach offered Jessie a spot at his Casa Granada on the South Side, known for presenting Guy Lombardo. She got a new dress, a new publicist, some new pictures. But by then her voice was shot, her hands shaky. Reviews were mixed. Next she played the Carousel. In July 1935, she was featured at the famed Oriental Theatre, posing as a fashionplate, where Variety reported she was warmly received but seemed "extremely nervous." Promoter Frankie Howard then hired her as a hostess at his club the Paddock, below. Her drinking increased but her earnings did not. 

The Paddock bar, Chicago, 1940.

Things were no better for her ex-husband Ollie Debrow, who had succumbed to heroin addiction. His second marriage, to Artie Strickland in 1926, had ended tragically when she died less than a year later. As the glory days of burlesque waned, Ollie was reduced to playing in shooting galleries where, one observer said, “customers brought salami sandwich lunches and threw peanuts at the actors.” He overdosed from "bootleg dope" in 1937 at a flophouse in Houston. 

In 1938 Jessie was reported as having slipped on the street and broken her kneecap. She’d been putting on a few pounds due to her drinking. Some columnists made fun of her newly plump figure, her frayed, out-of-date dresses, and her duties as a nightclub hostess. Every now and then a reporter would seek her out and chat her up. It was not unlike that scene in Citizen Kane when Kane’s ex-mistress is interviewed, slumped over a drink in a seedy roadside bar. Perhaps Orson Welles had read the less-than-flattering news reports of Jessie’s downward spiral. The similarity is uncanny. Each night Jessie peddled cocktails and split the take with the management and lived off tips. One columnist insinuated that she was doing more than just hustling drinks. 

By 1940 Jessie’s binge of bad luck hit bottom. At the close of summer, Jessie’s health collapsed. She needed blood transfusions to combat a severe case of strep throat. Her teeth were extracted. A press report revealed that one of her few bedside visitors was her last husband, Leonard Reno. He came with his new wife and they both donated blood to help save her life. Jessie rallied briefly and returned to her room at the Metropole. Then pneumonia set in and she was back in the hospital. She died on September 18, and was buried in Olivet Cemetery. Her daughter Ann was too sick from an operation to attend. Actors Equity and the Ziegfeld Club covered the funeral expenses.  

Nymph Errant, 1918. Studio of C. Smith Gardner

When Jessie Reed died, she received the kind of news coverage one might expect of a top box-office movie star. The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and Washington Post ran stories about her. As did Variety and Billboard. The Houston Daily Post paid tribute. So did the San Antonio papers, but no mention was made of her role there in a once infamous murder case. In the end, the Queen of the Follies, despite the hardships she'd endured, had not been forgotten. She was still a legend, a haunting melody that lingered on. As Irving Berlin wrote, “You can’t escape. She’s in your memory…”


Friday, March 20, 2015

The Word Man of Alcatraz

Prison novels occupy a special corner in the realm of fiction. The confined setting, hothouse atmosphere, sadomasochistic underpinnings and homoerotic intimacy are hallmarks of the genre. We read these novels to delve deeper into the exotic, sometimes mysterious, culture of the penal system, but also to stare wide-eyed, perhaps with a sense of schadenfreude, into a terrifying world of brutal violence and closely guarded secrets where primitive passions rule. Certain works, such as John Cheever’s Falconer, Patricia Highsmith’s The Glass Cell, and Chester Himes’s Cast the First Stone, are literary classics.
One of the most unusual of these novels is Behind These Walls by Christopher Teale. Published first in hardcover in 1957 by Frederick Fell, Inc, in New York, it became a runaway bestseller in 1962 when Pyramid put out a pulp paperback version. But until now its pseudonymous author has remained unknown. Through some literary sleuthing, I have been able to uncover his true identity.
“Christopher Teale” opens his tale in the “tank,” or holding pen, in an unnamed town, on the mainland, a few miles away from a large island prison. The exact location of the penitentiary is never given, but its description is clearly similar to Alcatraz in San Francisco. A ferry is needed to get to the prison, and escapes from the rocky, desolate pile are treacherous and most often fatal.

At the outset, the narrator, an “in-again, out-again” convict, back after having been paroled for six weeks, is handcuffed to a nervous young man, only sixteen, known as the “Bicycle Murderer” because he stabbed his girlfriend to death with a pocketknife after a seemingly innocent bike ride and picnic. The boy is handsome with fine features and a shock of red hair. He is immediately nicknamed “Red,” although we later find out his real name is Wilbur. The con cuffed to him is older, lanky, with dark black hair, a full five-o’clock shadow, and a cocky reputation as a tough guy. He is called only “Tex,” although we later learn his real name is Francis.

From their very first encounter, Teale focuses entirely on these two men and the intricate way in which the older man inserts himself into the life of the boy, creating a protective shield around him. “When they brought me from the tank to the attorney room, he was standing there, handcuffs dangling from one wrist,” he writes. “Meeting the kid-killer face-to-face aroused my curiosity.”

But Red’s appeal is also unsettling: “As I looked him over from head to toe, I would not have traded the years of prison behind me for all of his glowing youth.” And yet… the prisoner, “slender and small of stature… high school in appearance,” with “red hair, combed back” that “strained to curl” and “startling blue eyes,” mesmerizes him. “I caught myself thinking that of all the beautiful boys I’d seen in my time, none could compare with this clear-eyed youth.”

The jailer, a 246-pound “son-of-a-bitch,” notices Red’s assets too. He “looked the boy over, making an obvious point of staring at particular parts of his anatomy.” Tex wonders nervously about the boy’s future behind bars. “I knew he’d cause a sensation behind the walls. There were plenty of young guys there, but youth alone doesn’t offer the attraction of youth plus beauty.” Should he warn the kid to be careful? To literally watch his ass? No. He decides it’s better not to get involved, to let the chips fall as they may. “Hell,” he says, rationalizing his hands-off attitude, “I’d never heard of anyone dying from prison sex.”

Nevertheless Tex decides to become the boy’s mentor, a jaded guardian angel. But this angel has had its wings clipped too many times and also has a chip on its shoulder. He’s edgy and anxious around the boy, and flares up at the slightest bit of attention from any of the other inmates to his friend, such as the tailor who gives the boy a new suit, or the muscular dentist, known as a “feeler.” We’re told several times that Tex is not a “jocker,” cons who preys on “punks,” those that use them for sexual gratification. But as the story unfolds, we’re given glimpses into Tex’s troubled psyche, and his profound feelings for the boy that go well beyond mere avuncular interest.

After Red naively asks Tex why every time he takes a shower, the men come running down to watch, Tex rolls his eyes and explains sarcastically that “They run down there to case that pretty ass of yours or that thing hanging between your legs, Red.” They’re after “Sex with a capital S.” Red stares back wide-eyed and asks “You mean they want to punk me?” Tex is shocked by the boy’s ignorance, but also moved by it. He lets his hair down a bit, joking with Red that “if I ever decided to become a jocker, I’d want someone just like you, Red.” The confession unnerves them both. “I hardly realized what I was saying,” Tex admits, “but I’d said it.” Red responds sarcastically, “Yeah, Tex, and if I ever wanted to be punked, I’d want someone just like you to punk me.” The boy storms off.

Teale’s purpose here is not simply to titillate. He’s exposing, in small snippets of conversation, how the game inside prison is played, and how perilous it can be for a young man, only sixteen, in the company of wolves.

Shortly afterward, Tex is lying in bed at night in his dimly-lit cell. “I stared at my nakedness. Almost 6 feet tall, my hard, lithe body denied my middle years. Any kid would have been happy to have the muscles in the calves of my legs, and the knots of my stomach muscles were like those of a professional strong man.” He continues in this vein, giving a flattering inventory of his physical attributes, focusing on himself in a masturbatory litany. He’s imagining Red’s approval of his physique. Then the mood shifts. “I speculated, idly, how my body would appear in a morgue.” Sex and death are intricately entwined in Tex’s mind, a subtle bit of foreshadowing on Teale’s part that pays off in the end.

Tex’s interest in the boy generates a buzz among the other prisoners. It looks like Tex has finally fallen for someone. He denies this to his friend Clyde, a heavy-set, clownish convict who is constantly jumping into the sack with his playmates, including a “simpering bimbo” Tex finds in bed with him when he walks into Clyde’s lavish quarters above the print shop. Tex disdains their behavior and the “cold cream smell” and “something else” in the air, but he seems to enjoy their camp humor. He is also surprisingly friendly with the she-males who also populate the prison, fabulous creatures with names like “Madam Titanic,” Boots Mallory,” “Madge,” and “Georgia Mae,” who once played professional baseball. “Ramona” is one of Clyde’s favorites, a very pretty 22-year-old prostitute who fooled most of her clients into believing she was female, until he was entrapped by a young policeman.

Later in the book there’s a description of the “Jockers Ball,” “the queens’ biggest day,” in which several of the more effeminate convicts dress up as women in full drag, dancing with their partners, including two men who had fought heroically in World War II. Tex clearly relishes the parade before him, eyeing several of the more muscular men. But he’s keeping tabs on his new friend, too. “The whistles directed at Red would have brought blushes to Monroe herself.”

Behind These Walls is subtitled “An Unusual Novel about Prison Life” — and it is, indeed, all that. It is unusual because it is unabashedly frank about homosexual desire, with a surprisingly open-minded attitude about gay life (especially considering that this was written in the very-conservative ’50s).

While most traditional prison novels paint homosexuality in prison as a perversion caused by the absence of women, Behind These Walls accepts it as an intrinsic part of prison life, or more precisely, life among men. Teale never questions it, or ridicules it. Nor does he pass judgment on it. And rather than beat around the bush with coy euphemisms or elaborate set-ups, Teale dives right in, depicting the relationship between these two men in an unabashedly romantic framework. 

But there’s the rub, because this is a love story without any consummation. It’s about desire, a deep-seated yearning, an obsession that dominates the narrator’s life. The sexual tension stems from the frustration Tex feels as he lusts after Red. But he deliberately stays at arms length because he is after something bigger than physical pleasure. There’s never any doubt that it’s a love story, but the closest these two ever get to being sexually intimate is being cuffed together that first day.

It’s a difficult balancing act to pull off. Teale avoids getting preachy or treacly, and manages to bring out layers of affection between the two men without over-playing his hand. One of the best scenes occurs in a garden inside the prison where the two men go to talk. Red confesses to Tex why he killed his girlfriend. The language is simple and direct, without being theatrical or contrived. A tricky subject to pull off, it has the ring of truth, as if Teale were quoting a conversation he’d once actually had.

I’m not sure why Behind These Walls isn’t better known today, or given more respect. While clearly the work of a first-time writer, an amateur really, it has a raw power. At times it has an almost Melville-like aura about it, a kind of incantatory flow that draws one in. In terms of its subject, the love between an older man for a beautiful boy, it calls to mind Billy Budd.

Teale’s prose is far from polished, and there are occasional gaps in structure. But I only noticed one misuse of language (censor, instead of censure). It’s an intelligently conceived, well-thought-out novel, with clever dialogue and a laser-like focus. Some of the thumbnail sketches of characters in prison are remarkably sharp and effective. And Teale deals deftly with the pervasive violence by using language in quick, bold strokes to convey the horror without beating one over the head with it. He undercuts the humor and sentiment with lightning flashes of cruelty.

Even at the climax, in the midst of disaster, when things come to a surprisingly upbeat conclusion, it ends on a bittersweet note. Tex, who is a master at rigging the system and counterfeiting documents, orchestrates Red’s release. Tex writes, “I hadn’t spent 30 years in prison for nothing. I could arrange things… I could cover up.” That seems a perfect metaphor for the entire romance between Tex and the boy. Writing this book, an homage to the youth he lost, both figuratively and literally, helped make up for the time spent wasting away behind those walls. Tex plots his own demise, while helping to provide for the boy’s future. I won’t give away the actual ending except to say that I can’t think of any other romantic novel that has a sadder “happy ending.”

Behind These Walls could be read as a fable. And judging by reviews of the time, the book was received as a work of complete fiction. It seems as if some of the readers didn’t buy the publisher’s statement that the novel was written by an actual convict. Perhaps the book’s reputation has suffered because of that mistaken assumption, that it was written to exploit the genre. 

The pulp version from Pyramid certainly played up that angle. And perhaps it has been dismissed by the mainstream academic establishment because it is too overtly homoerotic and naive, yet ignored by the gay literati because it is not openly queer enough.

Curious to learn more about its author, I decided to investigate who this Christopher Teale really was. Was the name a pseudonym? After considerable digging around, I finally managed to find a copyright notice, revealing that Behind These Walls was actually written by a man named Frank Earl Fleck, a career criminal who had served time in Alcatraz, as well as numerous other penitentiaries. Armed with Christopher Teale’s true name, I was then able to find out the whole story, one that is as fascinating, if not moreso, as the novel. 

The phrase a “life of crime” has become a cliche, but in Frank Earl Fleck’s case it is painfully apt. Fleck was born in Pittsburgh on February 20, 1904, the youngest of four children in a middle-class family. His father, Louis John Fleck, was a pharmacist of German descent. Because of his work, the family moved around a lot. The 1910 Census shows them in Liberty, Texas where Louis was employed as a druggist. In 1920, the Flecks show up in Kansas, but by then Frank was already in trouble with the law. He is not listed at home, but as a resident of the McCune Home for Boys, a reform school.

According to his later prison records, Fleck was involved from the age of 15 in a series of house burglaries, and in one case, arson. He was sentenced to McCune for three months. When he got out, he lived with his parents in Wichita, attending Wichita High School. At some point he enrolled for two years at St. Benedict’s College in Atchison, Kansas, a fact later contradicted by prison records that claimed he had never advanced past seventh grade. But a quick phone call to the college confirmed that he was a former student there. 

In 1922 Fleck was again arrested for house burglary and was sent to the State Reformatory at Boonville, Missouri. But in the latter part of that year, he escaped and rejoined his parents in Liberty. 

In Texas, Fleck hoped to turn over a new leaf, but as he later admitted, he had a penchant for fine clothes and fast cars. Soon he was caught stealing again. In 1923 he was arrested and sentenced to two years confinement in the Texas State Penitentiary in Huntsville. He escaped in 1924, but was apprehended and returned the same day. He was discharged in November of that year. In 1926, after driving a stolen vehicle from Dallas to San Diego, he was arrested under the Dyer Act for auto theft and sent to Nevada State Prison for 15 months. In 1927, presumably released early, he was arrested again and sent up to McNeil Island, the penitentiary in Washington State, for three months. 

A year later Fleck was arrested again for carrying a concealed weapon and incarcerated in the State Penitentiary in Jefferson City, Missouri. He served one year of a two year sentence, only to be re-arrested in California in 1930 for second-degree burglary. This time he got 1-15 years in San Quentin. In 1933, he was transferred to Folsom, and paroled in 1938. He violated parole in the spring of 1939 and was returned to Folsom where he remained until 1943. Less than four months later he was convicted of narcotics possession in Los Angeles where he had robbed a drugstore of $5,000 worth of drugs. He was addicted to morphine, dependant on “Deloided (sic) and Dionin, Opium derivatives,” he stated, using “dope in the amount of four grains per day.” He was sent back to San Quentin for five years, gaining parole two years later. He went back once more to his family in Hillsboro, Texas. That might have been Frank Earl Fleck’s chance to get straight, but a year later he got caught passing fake counterfeit checks. 

While he had been in prison, Fleck had worked as a baker, a linotype operator, and a journeyman printer, and became a master at it. He found employment at the Yarboro-Corridon Printing Company, in Hillsboro, where he would use his key and enter the shop at night. He printed and engraved fraudulent bank money orders, cashiers checks and checks of companies like the St. Louis Bell Telephone, Co. for a total of $4,000. He also created false employee’s identification cards. In August of 1946 he was sentenced to 15 years in Leavenworth, Kansas.

Reading Fleck’s admission summaries gives us insight into who he was as a person, at least medically speaking. His status was given as “An erect white male… general appearance good, nutrition good, muscles firm, skin healthy, weight 151 lbs., height 5- 11 1/2 inches, blood pressure 116/80.” The vision in his “dark, gray eyes” was given as 20/20. He had hernias in 1922 and 1929. His dental report was only grade “C”, but he was shown not to have gonorrhea or syphilis. He had a scar on his left temple from a gunshot wound, and a Kewpie doll tattoo on his lower right arm. His intelligence was listed as “average… possibly better.” An injury to his spinal cord had caused “loss of dexterity, partial, in the right arm, hand and finger.” This may have been due to an accident in the printing plant, which could be a dangerous job. He talks about such dire risks in his novel.

As Fleck would later write in Behind These Walls, he was the type of character who was “queer for prison.” He enjoyed the work in the print shop, and the institutional routine. But he also flourished in the masculine environment, enjoying the male camaraderie. Fleck never married, and was most likely primarily homosexual. 

In February of 1947 Fleck was searched in the Lieutenant’s room at Leavenworth and according to prison records was found to be in possession of two “friendship” letters: “One was written from another convict supposedly to Fleck and the other was written by Fleck in answer,” the report states. “Institutional writing paper was misused. Placed in isolation.” But a side note indicates that the correspondence involved “a young boy,” a fellow prisoner. “There was no proof, however,” the statement adds, “the letter may have been written for homosexual reasons.” Because of his past criminal record, his two escapes and two detainers, Fleck was recommended for transfer to Alcatraz for “closer custody.”

At Alcatraz, Fleck was given the number 776. From its beginning Alcatraz had been used as a facility to treat men guilty of “sodomy.” That is probably why Fleck was transferred there after his liaison with another prisoner in Kansas was uncovered. Or perhaps there is more to the story of his relationship with the “young boy” in question. One can’t help but wonder if that youth was “Red,” the hero of his novel. It would certainly make sense.

I was not able to find out too many details about Fleck’s eight-year stint in Alcatraz. The only record I was given was his transfer paper on which was noted that he was released on January 22, 1956, nine months shy of his minimum expiration date (he had earned 1800 days off for good conduct.) He went back home to Hillsboro, Texas.

Fleck may have started his novel while in Alcatraz. How else could it have been published by Frederick Fell, Inc of New York on August, 26, 1957? It is standard for a novel to take a year to go to press, let alone to write. I suspect Fleck began the manuscript in prison, where he would have had ample time, then finished it when he got home. He dedicates the book to “Clyde,” the gay friend in the book, as well as “Red,” for obvious reasons. But he also dedicates it to someone named Alvin (and notably does not use quotes around that name.) It’s tempting to see this as Alvin Karpis, the longest-serving inmate at Alcatraz who had been part of the infamous Barker gang. Karpis was there at the same time as Fleck, and was known to spend a great deal of time in the library there. It’s possible that he may have encouraged Fleck in his literary pursuits. A cursory look at Alcatraz’s list of inmates includes very few other Alvins, so it’s entirely plausible. 

How Fleck came up with the pseudonym “Christopher Teale” is anyone’s guess. Perhaps it was an inside joke. Fleck it turns out was an old hand at making up names. He used various aliases his whole career, presumably to avoid being found out for violating parole. Some of his pseudonyms include “Roy Earl Johnson,” Walter D. Nadel,” “Roy Frank Hines,” and “Frank Martin.” He must have been very good at forging documents, because several of his prison terms were spent under these aliases. He even signed his admission papers with various pseudonyms. 

Judging by his photographs, Fleck maintained as he aged his dark, swarthy complexion and lean physique, as well as his clean-shaven appearance. What we don’t see is any revealing expression in his eyes. He has a seasoned, hardened criminal look, but he also seems sensitive. He is a man at war with himself, battling unspecific inner demons.

Behind These Walls was a sensational debut novel. The paperback was listed as a bestseller for the year 1962, and went into multiple printings. But it’s unknown whether Fleck managed to enjoy his literary success. I’ve not found any evidence that his true identity was revealed to the literary world during the initial hype surrounding its release. And as far as I know no one has ever written about him in the context of the book before, except for a fateful incident in 1963 in Texas. 

For back then it seems, Fleck, even after being published, was unable to control his dark side. He robbed a National Bank of Commerce in Dallas, this time terrorizing customers with a sawed-off shotgun, and ran off with $65,000 in stolen money.

The story dominated the local papers for several days but did not spread nationally. In an article I found from the Abilene Reporter -News, after Fleck was arrested, he admitted to being the author of Behind These Walls. Perhaps he hoped being a published author would help his case. He claimed he had earned over $3,000 in royalties. The reporter seemed incredulous, if not downright hostile. 

According to the news article, Fleck had recently purchased a truck to open an exterminator’s business. He indicated that he was writing a second book, The Valley of Decision. What became of that? Was he merely pulling their leg? There had already been a novel by Marcia Davenport with that title — a sappy romance. And perhaps Fleck was just being facetious, referring to his own life, filled as it was with indecision and wrong turns. We’ll never know.

Fleck was sent to the state prison in Huntsville where he remained the rest of his life. Per his death certificate, he died there from “malignant neoplasm of the liver” on June 6, 1970. He was 66 years old. His body was removed to Houston, and donated to the State Anatomical Board for scientific purposes.

It was a fitting end to a man who spent his entire life in prisons, seeking anonymity via countless aliases, yet who had flirted with death in his novel, in order to give the man he loved a new life.