From: Michael Robison ( miker_zspider@yahoo.com)
Date: 15 Sep 2006

Frank Gruber read his first book at age 9, and wrote his first book at age 11. By the time his career was over, he had wrote over 400 stories, 53 novels, and 65 screenplays. He states that it was his intent to become a writer from that early age and from then on his committment never waivered. He started with the popular Horatio Alger novels of rags to riches, later developing a taste for more highbrow literature. He began writing stories but couldn't sell them, even after buying a book listing places to market his work, and submitting and resubmitting his work. The going rate was a penny a word, but there were a hundred Sunday School papers that paid one-tenth that amount. He submitted to them and finally managed to sell his first story in 1927 for $3.50. Frank Gruber was now a professional writer. In The Pulp Jungle, Gruber gives a rare and fascinating first-hand account of what it was like writing for the pulp magazines through their heyday in the thirties.

Soon after the story was bought, and based on his status as a published writer, he got a job as an editor of a small town farm paper. A few months later he moved on to a better editorial position on an Iowa paper. Throughout both these jobs he continued to write fiction on his own. He married and worked this job until the paper went bankrupt in 1932. Because of the Depression, he couldn't find a job, so he decided to become a full-time writer. Between 1932 and 1934 he wrote 174 pieces and sold 107. The pulps are one of the few businesses that thrived during the Depression, and they were his prime target. By then the pulps had branched into special interests, and Gruber tried them all, writing for sports, romance, and detective pulps, but he would write anything that would sell. He sold an article on deworming chickens to an agricultural journal.

New York City was the main publishing center for the pulps. Street & Smith was at 14th Street and 7th Avenue, and Munsey was further downtown. Together with other publishers, they put out around 150 pulps in 1934. The king of the pulps was Black Mask, followed by Adventure, Argosy, and Detective Fiction Weekly. They pulps paid as much as five cents a word and as little as a third a cent. Gruber estimates 300 writers in the city, a thousand others doing regular mail-in, and an indeterminate number of other amateur writers trying to break into the field. In 1934, Gruber sent his wife to visit her parents and he moved to New York to make his fortune. He had a typewriter, a suitcase, and sixy dollars.As he stated, "I had one thing else... the will to succeed." Obviously, all those Horatio Alger books had their effect.

He was not an instant success in New York, and he went through hard times. He describes how he made tomato soup for free at the Automat with a bowl, a shot of hot water, ketchup packets, and free crackers. He was locked out of his hotel room for nonpayment and spent the night riding the subway back and forth. He finally got the break he needed when his agent got a job as the editor for a new Ziff-Davis magazine on gambling. He wrote eight articles for the first edition. When he produced a 5,500 word war story overnight for editor Roger Terrill, the tide had turned. All of a sudden, it seemed like everything he wrote was accepted, with the editors requesting more. His income went from $400 in 1934 to $10,000 in 1935.

Grown bold with his success, in early 1935 Gruber requested a meeting with Joe Shaw, editor of Black Mask, and was granted an interview. He states that Shaw was charming and courteous and invited Gruber to submit a story. Although it was not accepted, Shaw discussed the story with him for a long time, pointing out his reasons for rejecting it. Gruber says that he wrote story after story and revised them endlessly. Shaw rejected them all with the deepest of regret, and always pleaded for another one. Shaw was fired in 1936 when the magazine dropped into the red in 1936 and he refused to take a pay cut. Shaw never sold a story to Black Mask while Shaw was editor. Fanny Ellsworth, formerly of Ranch Romance magazine, took over for Shaw. Gruber had successfully sold to Fanny before, and over the next three years he was published in Black Mask 14 times. He went to the 1936 Black Mask Christmas party with Carroll John Daly, Lester Dent, Steve Fisher, and Roger Torrey.

He describes Cornell Woolrich as an introvert who rarely got out, but he recalls a night that he and Steve Fisher got Woolrich to go to a party. Fanny complained to Gruber the next day that Woolrich had come into her office in the morning raging about why Gruber, Fisher, and Torrey were being paid almost three times what Woolrich was getting for a story. They had apparently got drunk and told him that lie the night before. Gruber tells how he called at Woolrich's apartment one night to ask him out to dinner and Woolrich's mother gave him hell and refused to call Woolrich to the phone.

Gruber recalls Carroll John Daly as a short thin man with bad teeth. He rarely drank and couldn't hold his liquor when he did. Although not at all like his character Race Williams, Gruber says that Daly liked to talk like him. One story Gruber tells is how Daly got drunk and was arrested with a .45 in the city, which was a serious felony. Gruber played bridge with him frequently. Daly started out as an usher and worked his way up to assistant manager of a movie theater. Writing for Black Mask from 1922 through 1940, his work was hated by the editors but loved by the readers. When the pulp days were over, Gruber and Daly lived four miles apart, and got together often to visit, play bridge, and reminisce about days gone by.

Gruber mentions Fred MacIsaac, an author that Gruber had great respect for before he even started writing for the pulps. MacIsaac introduced Gruber to Thomas Wolfe at a New York City cafe. Gruber said that he sat there for three hours listening to Thomas Wolfe describe how good he was and why. MacIsaac committed suicide a few weeks later. Unknown to Gruber, MacIsaac had not sold a story in over six months and was broke.

In 1943 at Warner Brothers Studio, Gruber met Max Brand and they soon became good friends. He was a big man, about six foot three, and weighed close to 200 pounds, not an ounce in fat. Max wrote like clockwork. Every day, including the weekends, he came into the office at 9:30, sat on a sofa with his typewriter on a kitchen chair, and cranked out 14 pages in two hours. With a writer's typical obsession with word count, Gruber tallies that to 1,500,000 words a year for thirty years, an incredible output. He balanced that output with the absolute biggest intake of liquor that Gruber had ever seen. He came into the office with a quart thermos of whiskey, and by noon it was gone. For lunch he had twelve to fifteen drinks. After lunch he would run out to a local bar every hour or so and suck down a few rum drinks, and after a light dinner at home he got down to some serious drinking. In spite of the intake, he held his liquor well, and never passed out or got slobbering stupid. His writing for the studios was of an unusual nature. He despised screenwriting and wrote very few, his contribution being the stories that could be adapted to the screen. In this fashion he created the Dr. Kildare television series. Gruber describes Max Brand as the King of the Pulps from 1926 through 1938. In 1944 Brand signed on as a war correspondent for Harper's Magazine. He was killed on assignment a few days after arriving in Italy.

In addition to the above, Gruber provides detailed information on Black Mask, benefiting from both firsthand experience and research done at University of California at Los Angeles using their Black Mask collection. He tells about his argument with Raymond Chandler, and about the murder of Raoul Whitfield's rich wife. He ponders Hammett's writer's block that lasted for 28 years. He tells of Nebel's desire to graduate from Black Mask to the more elite women's magazines, and the beginning of the paperback era before World War II. And in the end, he reveals his secret eleven-ingredient formula for writing a good mystery story. Within all this, the conversational tone of the book relays a sense of Frank Gruber. There is pride in his voice for the work he has accomplished, but there is also an underlying bitterness towards those who slighted him. And maybe to a certain extent there is a melancholy recognition that with age the world has passed him by. Although they are brief and few, there are tangents towards the end that tend to moralize and pontificate. For those with an interest in the pulps and especially the writers and editors involved them, I can think of no better accounting.


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