Jakes, John (William) 1932-(William Ard, Alan Payne, Jay Scotland)
JAKES, John (William) 1932- (William Ard, Alan Payne, Jay Scotland)
PERSONAL: Born March 31, 1932, in Chicago, IL; son of John Adrian (a Railway Express general manager) and Bertha (Retz) Jakes; married Rachel Ann Payne (a teacher), June 15, 1951; children: Andrea, Ellen, John Michael, Victoria. Education: De-Pauw University, A.B., 1953; Ohio State University, M.A., 1954. Politics: Independent. Religion: Protestant. Hobbies and other interests: Swimming, boating, acting and directing in community theater.
CAREER: Abbott Laboratories, North Chicago, IL, 1954-60, began as copywriter, became product promotion manager; Rumrill Co. (advertising agency), Rochester, NY, copywriter, 1960-61; freelance writer, 1961-65; Kircher Helton & Collet, Inc. (advertising agency), Dayton, OH, senior copywriter, 1965-68; Oppenheim, Herminghausen, Clarke, Inc. (advertising agency), Dayton, 1968-70, began as copy chief, became vice president; Dancer-Fitzgerald-Sample, Inc. (advertising agency), Dayton, creative director, 1970-71; freelance writer, 1971—. University of South Carolina, Columbia, Department of History, research fellow, 1989. DePauw University, Greencastle, IN, trustee.
MEMBER: Authors Guild, Authors League of America, Dramatists Guild, Science Fiction Writers of America, Western Writers of America, Century Association.
AWARDS, HONORS: LL.D., Wright State University, 1976; Litt.D., DePauw University, 1977; Porgie Award, 1977, for best books in a series; Ohioana Book Award for fiction, 1978, for "American Bicentennial" series; Friends of the Rochester Library Literary Award, 1983; Citizen-Celebrity Award for library advocacy, White House Conference on Libraries, 1995; Distinguished Alumni Award, Ohio State University, College of Humanities, 1995; Western Heritage Literature Award, National Cowboy Hall of Fame, 1995; D.H.L., Winthrop College, 1985, University of South Carolina, 1993, and Ohio State University, 1996; South Carolina Academy of Authors, 1996; Professional Achievement Award, Ohio State University Alumni Association, 1997; Career Achievement Award, South Carolina Humanities Association, 1998; Medal of the Thomas Cooper Society, University of South Carolina, 2002.
The Texans Ride North: The Story of the Cattle Trails (for children), John C. Winston (Philadelphia, PA), 1952.
Wear a Fast Gun, Arcadia House (New York, NY), 1956.
A Night for Treason, Bouregy & Curl (New York, NY), 1956.
(Under pseudonym Alan Payne) Murder, He Says, Ace Books (New York, NY), 1958.
(Under pseudonym Alan Payne) This Will Slay You, Ace Books (New York, NY), 1958.
The Devil Has Four Faces, Bouregy (New York, NY), 1959.
Johnny Havoc, Belmont Books (New York, NY), 1960.
(Under pseudonym William Ard) Make Mine Mavis, Monarch (Derby, CT), 1961.
(Under pseudonym William Ard) And So to Bed, Monarch (Derby, CT), 1962.
(Under pseudonym William Ard) Give Me This Woman, Monarch (Derby, CT), 1962.
Johnny Havoc Meets Zelda, Belmont Books (New York, NY), 1962, published as Havoc for Sale, Armchair Detective Library (New York, NY), 1990.
Johnny Havoc and the Doll Who Had "It", Belmont Books (New York, NY), 1963, published as Holiday for Havoc, Armchair Detective Library (New York, NY), 1991.
G.I. Girls, Monarch (Derby, CT), 1963.
Tiros: Weather Eye in Space, Messner (New York, NY), 1966.
When the Star Kings Die, Ace Books (New York, NY), 1967.
Great War Correspondents, Putnam (New York NY), 1967.
Famous Firsts in Sports, Putnam (New York, NY), 1967.
Making It Big, Belmont Books (New York, NY), 1968, published as Johnny Havoc and the Siren in Red, Armchair Detective Library (New York, NY), 1991.
Great Women Reporters, Putnam (New York, NY), 1969.
Tonight We Steal the Stars (bound with The Wagered World by Laurence M. Janifer and S. J. Treibich), Ace Books (New York, NY), 1969.
The Hybrid, Paperback Library (New York, NY), 1969.
The Last Magicians, Signet (New York, NY), 1969.
Secrets of Stardeep, Westminster (Philadelphia, PA), 1969, published with Time Gate (also see below), New American Library (New York, NY), 1982.
The Planet Wizard, Ace Books (New York, NY), 1969. The Asylum World, Paperback Library (New York, NY), 1969.
Mohawk: The Life of Joseph Brant, Crowell (New York, NY), 1969.
Black in Time, Paperback Library (New York, NY), 1970.
Six-Gun Planet, Paperback Library (New York, NY), 1970.
Mask of Chaos (bound with The Star Virus by Barrington T. Bayler), Ace Books (New York, NY), 1970.
Monte Cristo 99, Modern Library (New York, NY), 1970.
Master of the Dark Gate, Lancer Books (New York, NY), 1970.
Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (novelization of film of the same title), Award Books (New York, NY), 1972.
Time Gate, Westminster (Philadelphia, PA), 1972.
Witch of the Dark Gate, Lancer Books (New York, NY), 1972.
Mention My Name in Atlantis: Being, at Last, the True Account of the Calamitous Destruction of the Great Island Kingdom, Together with a Narrative of Its Wondrous Intercourses with a Superior Race of Other-Worldlings, as Transcribed from the Ms. of a Survivor, Hoptor the Vintner, for the Enlightenment of a Dubious Posterity, DAW Books (New York, NY), 1972.
On Wheels, Paperback Library (New York, NY), 1973.
The Best of John Jakes (science fiction), edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Joseph D. Olander, DAW Books (New York, NY), 1977.
The Bastard Photostory, Jove (New York, NY), 1980.
Susanna of the Alamo: A True Story (juvenile), Harcourt (New York, NY), 1986.
California Gold, Random House (New York, NY), 1989.
The Best Western Stories of John Jakes, edited by Martin Greenberg and Bill Pronzini, Ohio University Press (Athens, OH), 1991.
Homeland, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1993.
In the Big Country: The Best Western Stories of John Jakes, G. K. Hall (Thorndike, ME), 1993.
John Jakes' Mullkon Empire, Tekno Comix (Boca Raton, FL), 1995.
Great Stories of the American West, large print edition, G. K. Hall (Thorndike, ME), 1995.
American Dreams, Dutton (New York, NY), 1998.
(Editor) A Century of Great Western Stories, Forge (New York, NY), 2000.
On Secret Service (novel), Dutton (New York, NY), 2000.
The Bold Frontier, Signet (New York, NY), 2001.
Crime Time: Mystery and Suspense Stories, Five Star (Waterville, ME), 2001.
Charleston, Dutton (New York, NY), 2002.
"brak the barbarian" series
Brak the Barbarian, Avon (New York, NY), 1968.
Brak the Barbarian versus the Sorceress, Paperback Library (New York, NY), 1969.
Brak versus the Mark of the Demons, Paperback Library (New York, NY), 1969.
Brak: When the Idols Walked, Pocket Books (New York, NY), 1978.
Fortunes of Brak, Dell (New York, NY), 1980.
"american bicentennial" series; also published as "kent family chronicles" series
The Bastard (also see below), Pyramid (New York, NY), 1974, published in two volumes, Volume 1: Fortune's Whirlwind, Volume 2: To an Unknown Shore, Corgi (London, England), 1975.
The Rebels (also see below), Pyramid (New York, NY), 1975.
The Seekers (also see below), Pyramid (New York, NY), 1975.
The Titans, Pyramid (New York, NY), 1976.
The Furies (also see below), Pyramid (New York, NY), 1976.
The Patriots (contains The Bastard and The Rebels), Landfall Press (Chicago, IL), 1976.
The Pioneers (contains The Seekers and The Furies), Landfall Press (Chicago, IL), 1976.
The Warriors, Pyramid (New York, NY), 1977.
The Lawless, Jove (New York, NY), 1978.
The Americans, Jove (New York, NY), 1980.
"north and south" trilogy
North and South, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1982.
Love and War, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1984.
Heaven and Hell, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1988.
(Author of lyrics) Dracula, Baby (musical comedy), Dramatic (Chicago, IL), 1970.
(Author of book and lyrics) Wind in the Willows (musical comedy), Performance (Elgin, IL), 1972.
A Spell of Evil (three-act melodrama), Performance (Elgin, IL), 1972.
Violence (two one-acts), Performance (Elgin, IL), 1972.
Stranger with Roses (one-act), Dramatic (Chicago, IL) 1972.
For I Am a Jealous People (adaptation of the story by Lester del Rey), Performance Publishing (Elgin, IL), 1972.
(Author of book and lyrics) Gaslight Girl (musical), Dramatic (Chicago, IL), 1973.
(Author of book and lyrics) Pardon Me, Is This Planet Taken? (musical), Dramatic (Chicago, IL), 1973.
(Author of book and lyrics) Doctor, Doctor! (musical), McAfee Music (New York, NY), 1973.
(Author of book and lyrics) Shepherd Song (musical), McAfee Music (New York, NY), 1974.
(Adapter) Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, Dramatic (Chicago, IL), 1997.
(Author of book and lyrics) Great Expectations (musical), produced by Arts Center of Coastal Carolina, 1999, National Alliance for Musical Theatre Festival, 2001.
under pseudonym jay scotland
The Seventh Man, Bouregy (New York, NY), 1958, published under name John Jakes, Pinnacle (New York, NY), 1981.
I, Barbarian, Avon (New York, NY), 1959, published under name John Jakes, Pinnacle (New York, NY), 1979.
Strike the Black Flag, Ace Books (New York, NY), 1961.
Sir Scoundrel, Ace Books (New York, NY), 1962.
Veils of Salome, Avon (New York, NY), 1962, published under name John Jakes as King's Crusader, Pinnacle (New York, NY), 1976.
Arena, Ace Books (New York, NY), 1963.
Traitors' Legion, Ace Books (New York, NY), 1963, published under name John Jakes as The Man from Cannae, Pinnacle (New York, NY), 1977.
(Editor with Martin Harry Greenberg) New Trails: Twenty-three Original Stories of the West from Western Writers of America, Doubleday (Garden City, NY), 1994.
(Editor) A Century of Great Western Stories, Doherty/Forge (New York, NY), 2000.
Contributor of short stories to magazines. Jakes's manuscripts are housed at the University of Wyoming, DePauw University, and the John Jakes Archive, Thomas Cooper Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia.
ADAPTATIONS: The Bastard, The Rebels, and The Seekers were adapted for television by Operation Prime Time and Universal Studios; North and South was filmed for television by ABC, 1985; Love and War was filmed for television by ABC, 1986; Heaven and Hell was filmed for television by ABC, 1995.
SIDELIGHTS: John Jakes was a prolific but obscure writer for some twenty years, until his "American Bicentennial" series of historical novels captured the public's imagination and made him famous. Jakes had published his first work while he was still a high school student, and throughout the 1950s and 1960s he turned out more than fifty books in various genres, including science fiction, mystery, children's literature, and suspense. Most of his early works were written in his spare time while he held down full-time positions in the advertising industry; the resounding success of the "American Bicentennial" series finally enabled him to devote himself to writing full time. Jakes followed his landmark series with other bestselling novels based on American history, including North and South, Love and War, and California Gold.
While Jakes's books have been phenomenally popular, few critics have called his prose style anything more than workmanlike. The author himself has no pretensions on his writing. "Sue me for not being Flaubert," Jakes told People contributor Susan Schindehette. "I've given it the best shot I can." But Martin H. Greenberg and Walter Herrscher, writing in the Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1983, praised Jakes as "a natural storyteller" whose body of work is consistently characterized by "attention to detail, careful plotting, epic sweep, and—where required, strong historical research." Discussing his early work, Greenberg and Herrscher stated: "Jakes was much more than simply a pedestrian science fiction writer. He did some outstanding work in this demanding popular genre, and his collection, The Best of John Jakes, contains excellent work, most notably the novella Here Is Thy Sting, which focuses on the meaning of death, and The Sellers of the Dream, a moving and devastating attack on our consumer society." Greenberg and Herrscher also praised Jakes's "Brak the Barbarian" series, which lampoons the "Sword and Sorcery" genre; his sci-fi/western Six-Gun Planet; and his futuristic novel On Wheels, which both men judge to be "a minor masterpiece of social speculation."
Whatever the merits of Jakes's early work, it brought him little recognition and only a modest secondary income. He felt he had bottomed out as a writer in 1973, when he accepted an assignment to write a novelization of the last film in the "Planet of the Apes" movie series. He remembers the job—which took him three weeks and earned him a quick $1,500—with bitterness. "When that Planet of the Apes thing came along, I said to [my wife], 'I've been wasting the last 20 years.' I finally began to think I couldn't cut it as a writer," he recalled in a Publishers Weekly interview with Robert Dahlin. Fortunately for Jakes, his fellow writer Don Moffitt had a higher opinion of his work.
Moffit had been approached by Lyle Kenyon Engel, a packager in the paperback trade industry, to write a series of historical novels for publication around the time of the bicentennial of the United States. The books would follow several generations of the fictional Kent family through the first hundred years of the country's history. Moffit was unavailable for the job, but he suggested that Engel review Jakes's early historical fiction (much of which had been published under the pseudonym Jay Scotland). These "solidly researched, well-plotted commercial novels with believable characters," as they are described in the Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1983, convinced Engel that Jakes was the man to pen the Kent family chronicles.
The series was originally intended to total five books, but its success was so great that Engel was eager to extend Jakes's contract. Eight titles were eventually published, beginning with The Bastard in 1974 and concluding with The Americans in 1980. None of the titles sold less than 3.5 million copies, and the series as a whole has sold over 50 million copies. Marked by vivid plots and memorable, simply-drawn characters, the saga takes readers through seven generations of the Kent family history. Engel would have continued the series for as long as it remained profitable, but after The Americans, Jakes rebelled. That act opened a professional rift between the two men, but Jakes stood firm in his decision. "I'll always be grateful to [Engel]," he explained in Publishers Weekly, "because he gave me the chance that made all the difference, but I believe in the theater principle. You should end something leaving the audience wanting more, rather than taking the television route where the story drags on and on week after week."
Following his triumph in the realm of paperback publishing, Jakes was approached by the Harcourt Brace Jovanovich publishing house to produce a trio of hardcover novels covering the Civil War era. The "North and South" trilogy—North and South, Love and War, and Heaven and Hell—intertwine fictional and real-life characters much as the "American Bicentennial" series does, and has proved to be as successful. The central characters are two men who, after becoming friends at West Point, find themselves enemies in war. Their descendants' adventures continue through the Reconstruction period and the taming of the American frontier. Rory Quirk, writing in the Washington Post, credited Jakes with creating "a graphic, fast-paced amalgam of good, evil, love, lust, war, violence and Americana." He further commented: "The imposition and ultimate failure of Reconstruction in the South covers some well-traveled ground but Jakes manages to resift the historical information, meld it with his fictional characters and produce an informative and nicely crafted narrative. . . . Jakes is particularly adept at capturing the splendid desolation of the untamed West, the mind-numbing isolation of duty with the frontier Army, and the unremitting brutality of the subjugation of the American Indian."
Jakes's 1993 novel Homeland captures another classic American scene: the European immigrant era around the turn of the twentieth century. The story's protagonist, Pauli Kroner, is fourteen years old in 1892 when he is sent by his ailing German aunt to live with relatives in Chicago. Renamed Paul Crown, the boy enters the prosperous household of his uncle Joe, who runs a brewery. While working at the brewery along with Joe's son, Joe Jr., Paul gains first-hand knowledge of the labor-management rifts that characterized the last decade of the nineteenth century. When a labor strike at the brewery results in a bombing that kills three workers, Joe Jr. is implicated. He runs away to the West coast; Uncle Joe blames Paul for assisting his son and banishes Paul from the house. The event provides Paul with the opportunity to seek work in a field he loves: photography. He begins working for a shady photographer and motion-picture camera innovator and eventually finds his way to Cuba during the Spanish-American War of 1898. There, while working on his photography, he meets many famous people, including Theodore Roosevelt. He also is reacquainted with his cousin, Joe Jr.
Jakes "is in top form in this book," remarked James Idema in Chicago's Tribune Books. Idema added that "from the start he makes everybody—fictitious and genuine—believable and maintains the plot at an entertaining boil." Writing in New York Times Book Review, Frank Wilson called Jakes "a master of the ancient art of storytelling" and declared that the author "portrays Paul's world with an admirable combination of sympathy and detachment." And Washington Post Book World reviewer Bruce Cook concluded: "Jakes researches exhaustively. He writes acceptably. He is a master of an old-fashioned sort of novel that readers still enjoy."
In 1998 Jakes produced American Dreams, a sequel to Homeland that covers the years 1906 to 1917. The action revolves around Joe Crown, now a beer baron whose daughter, Fritzi, "defies her father to purse a dreadfully unsuccessful New York stage career," according to a Publishers Weekly reviewer. Fritzi's ambition take her to Hollywood, where the film industry is in its infancy. American Dreams interweaves the fictional characters with such real-life figures as Charlie Chaplin and Thomas Edison. One character even matches wits with Kaiser Wilhelm. Eric Robbins of Booklist found that this book showcases Jakes's "pleasant storytelling style" and provides "a popular vehicle for readers who want tasty vignettes of the past."
Jakes marked his fiftieth year as a writer with the publication of On Secret Service. This novel explores a little-regarded aspect of the U.S. Civil War: the development of the Secret Service and its role following the assassination of President Lincoln. Booklist's Brad Hooper found that in Jakes's hands Washington is "brimming with as much espionage as a European capital during one of that continent's frequent internecine struggles." The author's historical research was "impeccable," according to Kelly Milner Halls in Books. Halls added praise for the author's character development, singling out the secondary characters who propel the book. To a Publishers Weekly contributor, On Secret Service shows Jakes as no less than "the foremost historical novelist of our national conflict."
Discussing his work with Elizabeth Venant in the Los Angeles Times, Jakes noted that his early inspiration came from the swashbuckling adventure films of the 1930s and 1940s. "I have this gigantic cinemascope screen in my head," he commented. "I always see what I'm writing about in terms of the colors of the clothes, the weather, the sky." Responding to the charge that his work has little literary merit, Jakes stated: "There's an unfortunate lack in American letters. You have either very literary material or the trash end of the spectrum." He defends his own contribution to the reading public, saying: "One thing I'll never apologize for is my success. I paid my dues for 25 years. I worked my fingers down to the bone."
Greenberg and Herrscher summarized: "Jakes's historical novels cannot be judged by usual literary standards. They are unabashedly fiction for the mass market, and it cannot be expected that they display the virtues of interpretive fiction. . . . Jakes's novels do not provide that main quality we expect from interpretive fiction: a sharper and deeper awareness of life, often in memorable prose. But Jakes has not claimed to be this kind of writer. In an afterword to North and South he says that his primary purpose is to entertain; and if a writer is to be judged solely on the success of his intentions, then John Jakes is without doubt one of the most successful and important writers in the history of commercial fiction."
Regarding the above-mentioned comment to People magazine inviting others to "sue him" for not being Flaubert, Jakes told CA: "That's not only a smart-ass comment and an injustice to Flaubert, whom I have come to love (along with his national colleagues Balzac and Zola), it's also the defensive whine of a writer who has been thrust into sudden success and feels ragingly insecure about his talent, or the lack of it. I think I understand why I made the remark, but still wish I hadn't." He continued, "Growing older, I have come to a better understanding of the talent that was given me by God, genetics, or both. I understand its limits, and appreciate the remarkable results which that small portion has achieved (much to the surprise of its owner, I must report). Now I am more secure about what I do, though like most professionals, I always hope the next novel will somehow, indefinably, be 'better.'
"My newest novel, Charleston, arose from my fascination with much of the largely unknown history of the state where I've lived for the past twenty-five years. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Charleston aristocrats controlled South Carolina, and South Carolina was a significant power in national affairs—sometimes beneficially, sometimes with a tragic result, notably the Civil War. The point I make about the book is this—in the years I've written about, roughly 1780 to Reconstruction, South Carolina history is American history in the fullest sense."
John Jakes contributed the following autobiographical essay to CA:
A Life in Writing, Part One
My life lacks important ingredients that often account for a writing career: a Harvard diploma, a childhood spent in poverty, a dysfunctional family to capitalize on. My parents, both with roots in Indiana, survived the Depression without much difficulty. We were well housed and well fed. It was the first marriage for my mother, who came from Terre Haute. Her father was an immigrant, one of thousands who presumably arrived at New York's Castle Garden around 1870 and migrated to one of the three great landing places for Germans, Cincinnati. My father had been married once before; this I was told on the morning of my wedding, by my mother, who related no other details. Nor did I ever learn much more.
My father's people farmed near Delphi, Indiana. At age sixteen he went to work as a wagon driver for the now-vanished Railway Express Agency. He stayed
with the company all his life, retiring at sixty-five and dying two years later in Terre Haute, probably of retirement boredom; he had no outside interests.
My mother often scorned my father's plebeian background. She was a graduate of Indiana State Teacher's College. She never made remarks in his presence, only behind his back, which she shouldn't have done. Ironic, then, was my discovery, long after a twenty-two-year apprenticeship in commercial fiction writing, that my father's family had deep and significant roots in American history. Three of his great-uncles were Indiana volunteers in the Civil War (I have their Army pay cards). Two were "invalided out" more than once, spending more time at home than in camp. The third bore the name Isaac Newton Jakes, unusual in a family that went in for names such as William and Thomas. He left the army in 1867 with the rank of staff sergeant, having marched all the way through Georgia and the Carolinas with Sherman, which is something I haven't talked much about in my twenty-five-year residency in the South. Beyond that, the Jakes family descended directly from a soldier of the Virginia Continental Line, John Downs, who fought throughout the Revolution and, like many other veterans, was granted land by Congress in the new territory of Ohio. There he died, his granddaughter having married one Henry Jakes from Baltimore, about whom I can learn nothing else. I wish I'd been able to tell these things to my mother.
My parents were great readers. My father spent his time with magazines and newspapers, his favorite the Chicago Tribune, whose politics he righteously endorsed. My mother read popular novels from the library and the Literary Guild. I captured some of these and admired the authors: Samuel Shellabarger, Thomas Costain, a woman named Gladys Schmitt whose novel about King David enthralled me. I remember the quality of writing, and the subject matter, of those books as superior to most of today's bestsellers. Certainly there were no novelizations of Star Wars movies offered by the book clubs, nor any detective stories or serial killer thrillers for that matter.
We went to the theater as a family during my high school years in Chicago. We went to movies long before that. One of my earliest memories is of crawling under the seat at the Indiana Theater in Terre Haute when a cannon boomed in some historical epic starring Errol Flynn, a boyhood idol from whose wicked, wicked ways my parents shielded me. Beyond these early influences, how I came by a passion for writing, I can't say. What I did with it, these pages are meant to sketch out.
1. The Sound of the Mailbox
After several moves from assignment to assignment, my father settled down in Chicago. During his last years with Railway Express he ran the company from a downtown office. When we arrived, I was going into seventh grade. I stayed in Chicago through my freshman year at Northwestern University.
We lived in a two-bedroom apartment at 5300 North Glenwood, corner of Berwyn Avenue. The sunroom faced Glenwood; the side of the apartment, including the dining room and bedrooms, overlooked Berwyn. The neighborhood today seems pretty much as it was then, though now it's mostly Latino. My father decided we should attend the nearest Protestant church, North Shore Baptist, a huge establishment only two blocks east on Berwyn, and slightly downhill, which he considered a benefit. I've attended a lot of churches intermittently in my life but claim I was raised a Baptist because of North Shore.
To go to the Loop, which we did often in those days before suburban malls and multiplexes, we walked further east to the Berwyn Avenue "L" stop, just a few steps beyond Broadway. I grew up roaming the city alone, with never a worry or fear about safety. Nor did my parents have any anxieties; they let me go and come pretty much as I wished.
Our apartment wouldn't be considered luxurious by today's standards, but it was comfortable and quite satisfactory. Mine was the back bedroom, which I had all to myself; I had no siblings. The one window opened on Berwyn Avenue to catch any lake breeze—buildings didn't have central air conditioning then—and on steamy summer nights I could lie in the double bed, watch the shadows of leaves on the ceiling in a wash of lamplight, and listen to muted conversations, occasional laughter, and other street sounds. One of the sounds I heard clearly was the clink of the drop slot cover on the corner mailbox, one of those old olive-drab metal jobs mounted on a concrete post.
Sometime during those Chicago years, I began to write. I started with stories about my favorite heroes from comic books, or "funny books" as they were usually called, though there was seldom anything funny about them. One summer, fearing that I was becoming a pale and introverted pudge (I was), my parents sent me to the naval camp at Culver Military Academy on Indiana's Lake Maxinkuckee. I didn't enjoy it because I couldn't succeed at anything. No matter how I tried, I couldn't stay afloat in the lake, and you couldn't complete the summer course satisfactorily unless you passed a swimming test.
I was ordered by upper classmen to represent our company in the intramural boxing matches, heavyweight division. I protested that I knew nothing about boxing, and that the prospect of climbing in the ring with someone who did scared the hell out of me. We got one point just for showing up, but none if we forfeited in that weight class, so I was doomed. My opponent was a burly boy named Barlet or Bartlett. He floored me with one punch—certainly no more than two—and the match was over, ignominiously.
All of this drove me indoors, to furiously write more adventures of Batman, the Green Lantern, and other masked marvels. There the Army captain in charge of our unit caught me one sunny afternoon, demanding to know why I wasn't outside with the rest of the fellows. Clearly, he implied, there was something unhealthy about a kid crouching over his desk in a dim cubby on a summer's day, just writing. So I was at it even then, as a means of escape.
The influences on that early writing were not exactly erudite. I've already touched on the popular fiction of the day, and comics. We went to the movies once or twice a week, minimum. The local theater up on Clark Street was the Calo, but massive, ornate Balaban & Katz picture palaces such as the Uptown at Lawrence and Broadway were within walking distance. I liked the second features, the B pictures, as much as I did the main attractions. I thrilled to Chester Morris as Boston Blackie, and Warner Baxter as the Crime Doctor. I loved the Western programmers too, though to see those I had to ride the streetcar down to a theater on Belmont Avenue on a Saturday afternoon (two features, cartoon, previews, and a serial). It was a hodgepodge of influences, all of them pretty low pop culture. Never mind, I didn't know the difference.
I bought and read pulp magazines, still widely published in the early and mid-1940s despite wartime paper shortages. I gobbled up Western pulps, detective
pulps, and those most astonishing science fiction pulps, to whose letter columns I began to send adolescent missives. If published, a letter bore the writer's by line. I mailed my letters from the box on the corner.
I can remember one or two of the letters, published in magazines such as Startling Stories or Captain Future. They consisted of snide teenage criticism of the contents of a recent issue, as though my opinions were somehow worth a lot more than all the labor of the poor slob who wrote the story I was trashing. If I'd kept on, I might have made a good book reviewer, for, even today, the tone of a review often implies that the author is superior to what he or she has been assigned to review.
By this time I was in high school, and yearning for the company, and admiration, of nubile girls. I was still something of a pudge, decidedly unathletic, but I found that if I identified myself as a writer, sometimes this was overlooked. At any rate I never again lacked for dates. I wince a little, thinking of how I must have bragged. And if you want a confession, through most of my life I have continued to identify myself as a writer, and been defined by the statement. For years, I maneuvered social conversations so as to introduce myself and my calling; now, mercifully, that kind of ploy isn't necessary.
I discovered Ray Bradbury in high school—he was just breaking in—and writers such as Edmond Hamilton, author of most of the Captain Future pulp novels, and Leigh Brackett. She wrote romantic tales of planets where warrior maidens wielded broadswords against slimy aliens while multiple suns gleamed and flashed on bronze brassiere cups, always a tantalizing sight when illustrated on the magazine's cover. Later in life, when I attended science-fiction conventions, I met Hamilton and Brackett, married to each other; she had already made a big mark in Hollywood as director Howard Hawks's favorite screenwriter.
The pulps couldn't satisfy my craving for science fiction. I discovered a couple of second-hand book stores on Clark Street below Madison. These were dingy places, but wondrously inviting, especially their one or two shelves of sf hardcovers from obscure publishers such as Gnome Press. I had a job by this time—actually a series of them—and, with careful savings, could afford the two dollars or whatever it cost to buy a book. One of my happiest buys was Skull-Face and Others by Robert E. Howard, my introduction to the world of sword and sorcery. The Arkham House volume has since become a collector's treasure; I still have it.
In this period I graduated from letters to sf pulps and instead attempted to write stories. A writer's magazine stunned me by revealing that submissions should be mailed flat, typed and double-spaced on one side of the paper, not hand written, on both sides of notebook paper. My earliest efforts were unprofessional, folded into a #10 envelope and mailed in the olive-green box on the corner. I had listened to its metallic clink on many a summer night, and it had become a conduit, a magical link—the door to a glamorous, far-off world of lofty beings who were, so far, only names on the printed page:
Here I must pick up a story parallel to the one told in the preceding section. In my pursuit of the attentions of pretty girls, I supplemented an interest in writing with another in acting. The fatuous stage name I picked for myself, never used, was Mark McDonald, don't ask me why.
I probably shared a theatrical ambition with half the adolescents in America. I belonged to the drama club at Senn High School, and was elected president in my senior year. I appeared in long-forgotten plays: Elmer Rice's Judgment Day (the small role of Dr. Stambulov, a defense attorney), and an Alfred Noyes clinker about Robin Hood (Friar Tuck, type casting). Evidently I was good enough for the spinster drama teacher to invite me back after graduation for "postgraduate work." The plum she dangled was the role of Sheridan Whiteside in The Man Who Came to Dinner. I turned her down.
Through the high school drama group, I met the talented actor who became my partner in a lowbrow comedy act. We haunted the Chicago and Oriental theaters downtown—they still had live stage shows with big-name stars—and copied down the jokes of Jack E. Leonard, Henny Youngman, and other second bananas. We larded our act with bad imitations of Peter Lorre, Louella Parsons, Jimmy Stewart, and Lionel Barrymore, and played high school dances and amateur nights at small movie houses. We even won first prize on Stars of Tomorrow, a talent show televised on WGN. My partner, Ron, later laughed and said the act was so bad because I wrote it. Maybe so, though I have no memory of anyone ever throwing things at us while we performed.
I had the acting bug, and couldn't wait to hasten on to college, and new girls. My partner leapfrogged college, entered acting school, and later went on to be the leading man on the CBS soap Love of Life throughout its long tenure on the air.
I left Senn in mid-year—the school graduated two classes, January and June—and enrolled in Northwestern's School of Speech. I was a streetcar student, riding up to Evanston and back every day, hence missing out on much student life. My love life suffered. I was mad about a Pi Phi from my classes; she had a gorgeous singing voice and appeared in the lavish Waa-Mu student musicals staged every spring. I scrounged a ticket for one of these extravaganzas—they featured such things as rain storms and operating ski lifts on stage—and saw Charlotte Rae and Paul Lynde, both students, whose performances foretold their later success. My one attempt to get a date with my lovely soprano was rebuffed with a cool, "I'm busy Saturday night." Her tone said she'd be busy any night I happened to name.
Fascinated with show business, I got serious about writing lyrics for Waa-Mu, which held a song competition every year. By tacking 3x5 cards on the Music School bulletin board, I found a composer. We knocked out a few songs, rehearsed our singers and went to the auditions. A crinkly haired graduate student from the Music School preceded us, singing his own material, music and lyrics. I can still sing one of his numbers, "The Suave Young Man," about a private eye. I knew as I listened to his witty offerings that we had no chance. Virtually every song in that year's show was his. His name was Sheldon Harnick.
I was making some progress on another front, though. A science-fiction writer named Damon Knight took over editorship of a pulp called Super Science Stories. I remember my excitement when a story came back with a rejection slip bearing three scrawled words. Try us again. My father, who had skeptically indulged my pursuit of publication, was, for the first time, minimally impressed.
Dates tend to blur anymore, but I do know that my first sale came when I was eighteen, still at Northwestern. A letter from Anthony Boucher, editor of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, said he would buy a 1,500-word short story about a demonic toaster if I would make a few changes.
God, would I! But could I? I don't recall what I had to do, but I recall vividly that I was pretty much in a cold sweat while doing it.
Ages seemed to pass before the mailman delivered another letter from Boucher. He was buying "Machine"
for fifty dollars, and the publisher would shortly send payment. A photostat of that April 1950 check hangs on my office wall.
With this success behind me, I cranked out more stories. I took some to Ziff-Davis Publishing, on Wabash Avenue in the Loop. They published two sf pulps, both edited by burly and bespectacled Howard Browne. Howard generously invited a college freshman into his office, talked of this and that, and eventually bought several stories. We became lifelong friends. Years later, he told me that I broke into writing more easily, more quickly, than anyone he knew. Slower might have been better.
In a writer's magazine I saw an item about a New York literary agent seeking to expand his list of science fiction clients. Another letter went East; the agent took me on sight unseen.
For a decade or so, I've included a line in speeches about deciding then that it was easier to go to the corner mailbox than to Broadway. In other words I gave up my professional acting ambitions. While the conflict has never been entirely resolved, and I've acted, written, and directed in the theater from time to time, I stayed primarily on the writer's path from that moment. Armed with a New York agent, and bragging appropriately, I left Northwestern and enrolled as a writing major at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana.
My sophomore year was a disaster. I somehow had the idea that you could pass required college courses without studying. I thought German vocabulary would just fly magically into your brain if you only willed it. For the German final I pulled a pointless all-nighter. As I staggered into the classroom, the wry little professor remarked, "Herr Jakes, you look like a walking No-Doz." I flunked German, and zoology, both required for graduation.
By then, however, I'd met an older girl who completely stole my heart. Yes, she was blonde, and shapely—gorgeous, I thought—but I sensed something more, something solid there. I saw her first from the wings of Meharry Hall, DePauw's old central building. She and two sorority sisters sang "Blue Skies" on talent night. Heaven knows what I did, I don't remember.
I pursued her all that year while furiously typing stories at night, and setting up my near-expulsion for disastrous grades. I don't know how I had the great good luck to attract this girl, Rachel Ann Payne of Danville, Illinois. Maybe it was my spotless white bucks. Maybe it was the cast album of Call Me Madam that I gave her for Christmas (she hadn't yet seen any Broadway shows). Maybe it was my bragging. Maybe, maybe, maybe. . . .
We were married on June 15, 1951, in her church in Danville. Amazingly, both her parents and mine agreed to it. I must have flimflammed them into thinking that a dozen sales to sf pulps presaged a stellar career, and quick success.
But once we settled down in university housing—half of a WWII Quonset hut—my new wife forged ahead to finish her master's degree in zoology, and I pulled straight A's, from summer school onward. It still irks me to think I might have qualified for Phi Beta Kappa if I hadn't messed up those first two years.
Rachel and I are married today. Four children and eleven grandchildren later, I still consider it the smartest move I ever made, and a remarkable one, given my bent for making bad ones back then.
Among the genuinely bad ones, I have concluded, was signing on with that literary agent in New York.
3. Wilderness Years
The agent's name was Scott Meredith. Years later, a colleague alleged that his real name was Scott Feldman, but I can't attest to that. He operated from a series of cubbyholes at 580 Fifth Avenue, at the time an address more grand and glittering than Xanadu.
Over the years Scott became an enormously successful agent. His staff expanded, and included what were termed pro men, subagents who handled the selling writers on the agency's client list. All the pro men had to learn to imitate the boss's tiny signature, for letters to those of us in the provinces came only from Scott. I wasn't made aware of this until years later.
The Meredith agency never belonged to the trade association or "society" of literary agents, principally because it operated a fee department. That is, a would-be author could send in a manuscript, and a check, and have the work critiqued by a supposedly professional staff member (not one of the pro men, however). The agency regularly took splashy full-page ads opposite the first editorial page in Writer's Digest to advertise its success and attract fee-paying customers. Busy illustrations featured author bylines paired with mastheads of publications to which those authors had sold. All this was considered slightly ungentlemanly by some in publishing, not the traditional agent's way of doing business. That didn't affect the agency's success, which was considerable. After Scott's death the agency was sold; its operations may be quite different today.
Scott claimed that he invented the book auction, and it may be so. Certainly as his reputation grew he attracted major literary figures as clients, including, for a time, Norman Mailer. I met Scott only once, in 1952, on my first trip to New York with my new wife and her family. Nervously excited, I put on a coat and tie and trekked from the Hotel Commodore on 42nd Street to Fifth Avenue one sunny morning.
When I stepped into the tiny reception office on an upper floor, my first reaction was dismay. There was an electronic lock on the inner door, and a locked glass panel on the receptionist's window. I was later told that hopeful authors who were also kooks sometimes stormed the reception room. The place was dark, dingy.
That was soon remedied when Scott's then-executive editor, Evan Hunter, bounded from the inner sanctum, introduced himself and shook my hand warmly. Evan is my oldest and best friend in the profession. He stayed at Scott's only a few months, because he was selling regularly. The meteoric success of The Blackboard Jungle was not far in the future.
Of Scott himself I remember only fragments: curly dark hair; thick glasses; a ready smile; peppermint Life Savers, which he was popping frequently in a campaign to wean himself from cigarettes. Our chat was pleasant, superficial, and short. Scott's brother Sidney worked at the agency but I never met him, then or later. I soon reeled back into the sunshine of Fifth Avenue, drunk with the certainty that, yes, I had a flesh-and-blood New York agent.
When the agency, or SMLA as it shorthanded itself, got in touch with you, the communication came in a cream-colored envelope containing a small sheet of stationery bearing a typed message signed with one of those imitations of Scott's minuscule hand. I routinely called home from work in the middle of the day to see whether any of these New York envelopes had arrived. Sometimes they brought news of a sale. At other times they described, in a couple of paragraphs, what SMLA called an assignment. These were writing jobs on topics that didn't necessarily interest me, but that were guaranteed to pay if I could deliver a manuscript.
Until the early 1970s, although I wrote material of my own choosing, I also accepted more of these assignments than I care to remember. Not writing well, but selling stories and books—earning money for the large family we had started—was my goal.
One of the assignments was a paperback historical novel for the legendary Donald A. Wollheim, editor-in-chief of Ace Books. Don wanted a pirate tale. I wrote Strike the Black Flag, hastily researched and cranked out in the evening after I came home from my regular job, about which, more shortly. Don accepted the book, though he refused to publish it under my name. "John Jakes sounds like a piece of faulty plumbing," he wrote (Don was famous for his acerbic letters to authors). In a matter of moments, Jay Scotland was born. Jay turned out five more paperback historicals in the 1960s. The last one, Arena, about Roman gladiators, although my favorite of the lot, didn't hold up well when I reread it for e-book publication a couple of years ago.
I know now that most of what I wrote then was poor, whether done on its own or as an assignment. When Ohio University Press prepared to publish a collection of my old pulp Westerns, I had to edit them heavily, even rewrite certain sections. I couldn't believe that anyone had paid money for so many sloppily constructed sentences. But the magazine and paperback market was a voracious maw, much like episodic television. Quantity ruled over quality. Delivering on time was paramount.
One thing about the Meredith agency, though: they never stopped trying to sell a manuscript, not until the paper fell apart. When it did, they asked for a clean copy.
Sometime in the 1950s I wrote a private eye novel for which I had high hopes. Ultimately they were dashed; the agency sold the book for a pittance to a paperback publisher so obscure and short-lived, I can't recall its name. My original title was changed to The Defiled Sister, though I'm not sure there was a sister in the story, defiled or otherwise. The garish cover showed a buxom babe falling out of her low-cut dress. I have one copy of this masterpiece buried in one of my storage boxes. Late in 2002 my wife saw a copy advertised on e-Bay for $149—a ripoff if I ever heard of one.
For twenty years, living out in the provinces, I continued to send manuscripts to SMLA in New York. I wrote a succession of books for young people—Famous Firsts in Sports; Tiros, Weather Eye in Space; Great War Correspondents—more assignments. On my own, I wrote two dozen science fiction and fantasy novels, mostly paperback originals. My series about Brak the Barbarian found favor with a lot of readers. It was inspired by my fondness for Robert E. Howard's Conan, which I freely noted in a foreword. Mention My Name in Atlantis hung around for a long time, via various reprints; it was a curious amalgam of my love of musicals, notably A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and a takeoff on Conan.
Kathleen Malley, my editor at what was then Paperback Library, diligently tried to promote me as a major science fiction writer but it never took with the audience. Nevertheless, Kathy published several novels that I still like, among them Six-Gun Planet—my title was The Legend of Buffalo Yung—about a future society where robots simulated the behavior, and ethos, of the Old West. I was so high on this particular novel, which appeared in 1970, that I risked my own money to travel from Rochester, New York, to the big city, there to visit a few movie companies (what naivete, trying to pitch a little paperback to Paramount or MGM).
The man in a crushed velvet suit who interviewed me at the MGM Building on Sixth Avenue seemed intrigued by the idea of the novel, but I never heard from him again. In 1973 the screens lit up with MGM's release of Michael Crichton's Westworld, about a vacation resort inhabited by gun-slinging robots. There is, of course, no copyright on ideas.
I loved writing science fiction but I didn't have time, money, or the inclination to involve myself in what I perceived as literary politics: the struggle to curry favor with readers and thereby win fan awards which publishers could and did merchandise. I attended only a few science-fiction conventions and found them pretty tawdry affairs. Some of the writers and artists I met were great people—Harlan Ellison; the late Jack Gaughan—but the fans, who comprised most of the attendees, I found largely uninteresting. They met in cheap hotels, or better ones that lured them with lowball pricing. Rather than spend money on food in the hotel restaurant, fans smuggled Twinkies and cheap wine into their rooms in brown paper sacks. They worked for a year on the lavish and outlandish costumes they wore to win a prize at the costume ball. I recall that the late Lin Carter, another friend, was a fabulous Ming the Merciless.
Now flash back to 1954. When I left Ohio State with an M.A. in American lit, but no money to go on for a Ph.D. as I'd once planned, my wife and I agreed that I needed a full-time job; writing fiction simply didn't pay enough. Rather than turn east from Columbus to New York, still a rather frightening place, we went to Chicago, where my parents lived. By making the rounds of employment agencies I landed a menial spot in the advertising department of Abbott Laboratories, a major pharmaceutical manufacturer or "ethical" drug house (as opposed to what, I don't know). There I remained for six years, advancing from a bullpen desk to a cubbyhole to a small but fully walled office, one of half a dozen copywriters turned into product managers when management awarded each of us a clunky calculator and made us whip up annual budgets in addition to devising clever ads and "Dear Doctor" mailing pieces.
That was the end of my corporate career. Our family moved from a small tract house in Waukegan to Rochester, where I worked for advertising agencies,
principally on the Eastman Kodak account. Rochester was awash with culture, swimming in old money. It was "the East," and both Rachel and I found it an astonishingly different culture from the one in which we'd grown up. A little daunted by it at first, we soon grew to love it. We later decided that exposure to Rochester was the best thing that ever happened to us.
Still, the snowy winters were pretty fierce. I answered another ad for an agency copywriter in Dayton, Ohio, closer to Terre Haute where my parents had retired, and Danville, where Rachel's mother still lived. We were in Dayton from 1965 until 1978. I worked for a number of ad agencies, even advancing at one to the exalted status of vice president.
Of my various advertising experiences I can say that I made some good friends, but not generally among the agency management group, or the clients. I did have one salutary learning experience at my last agency, Dancer-Fitzgerald-Sample, then among the country's ten largest. In Dayton we had a ninety-person office to service the account of the Frigidaire appliance division of General Motors, at the time the world's largest and arguably most important corporation.
At first I was terrified of dealing with such important and highly placed people. Gradually I learned that they were no different from the small clients with whom I'd previously been associated, nor were they any more demanding. For equivalent suffering, they paid better. I don't think back too fondly on those GM years, which in themselves might merit an entire essay, but they did teach me not to fear people of high rank, up to and including corporation heads, university presidents, and those who manipulate our fate from Washington. It was a good lesson.
Less good were the results of my spare-time writing. I grew depressed, despondent. I sought help from physicians, and pills. I harbored a secret conviction that the faraway Meredith agency had categorized me as a paperback writer who could earn $1,500 in advance money for a book, but no royalties or subsidiary sales of significance. This conviction was set in concrete with the last assignment I did for SMLA, a novelization of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, the final movie in the successful series. I worked from the screenplay and batted out the novel in the stipulated three weeks. For a flat fee of $1,500.
I decided that if this was the best I could do—if this was all I had achieved after twenty years of trying—I might as well quit. I left the Meredith agency, with very little protest from them; it confirmed my belief that they had no faith in me.
Then, in 1973, while I was freelancing as a writer of sales meetings for big corporations such as GM and RCA, a skill I'd learned through my advertising jobs, I got a phone call from an old friend, a public relations man I'd known at the Rumrill agency in Rochester. His name was Don Moffitt. Like me, he was a laborer in the pulp vineyards, but also a very accomplished, and vastly underrated, author of socalled hard or science-based sf.
Don's call changed everything.
4. Twenty-two Years Later, Overnight Success
On a balmy October evening in 1974, I drove home from the Revco drugstore near Stroop and Far Hills in suburban Kettering, Ohio, with a paperback book. I'd found it by accident in the drugstore's wall rack—a
copy of The Bastard, the first volume of a projected five in what was then called "The American Bicentennial" series. The novel was a paperback original from Pyramid Books, a firm long vanished. An exemplary portrait of my strong-jawed hero, Philip Kent, born Phillipe Charboneau in rural France, glowered from the montage cover painted by Herb Tauss. I later tried to buy the painting but the artist wanted several thousand dollars for it, and I passed.
Already the series had worked changes in the way we lived in our small brick house on South Pelham Drive. I'd gotten an unlisted phone because I was sure the novel's title would provoke contentious midnight calls. So far as I remember, it didn't, and what reaction occurred was a boost to sales, not a depressant. I later heard that the small Pyramid sales force took a vote on whether to keep or change the title.
Maybe the title was percolating in my head as far back as 1971, when I saw an exemplary Broadway cast—William Daniels, Howard DaSilva, Ken Howard et al.—in 1776, a musical that people seem to either love or hate. I loved it and was singularly moved by it. Ben Franklin (DaSilva) had a line about new nations coming into the world "half improvised, half compromised."
The title I put on the book in 1973 derived both from a character, the Americanized French boy Phillipe, illegitimately born, and the new American nation, which I saw as a bastard in the world's eyes. I had discovered the eloquent words of William Pitt the Elder in Parliament. Defending the right of the colonists to protest, he said, "Gentlemen, the Americans are the sons, not the bastards, of England." This became the book's epigraph.
When I reached home that October night, I saw a strange car parked and knew my newspaper interview had shown up—the first of hundreds to come. The reporter was Clem Hamilton, a wry man who wrote for the Cox evening paper, the Dayton Daily News. I tapped on the screen door to announce myself and went in with a feeling that I was starting a slide down a long chute whose bottom I couldn't see or even imagine. That was paranoid but it was true.
The turnaround in an undistinguished career began with the aforementioned phone call from Don Moffitt. Don said he was writing a series of spy novels for a book packager named Lyle Engel. Engel ran a firm called Book Creations, headquartered a couple of hours north of Manhattan in Canaan, New York. A book packager comes up with ideas, secures writers, vets manuscripts, and presents the books to publishers as finished products. In other words, the packager relieves the publisher of almost all editorial responsibility for a book, beyond agreement on the concept, and the okay and touch-up of the final product. A packager was, and is, a middle man. Packagers are still around, busily lowering a publisher's overhead. Engel wanted Don to write the novels for a series proposed by Pyramid to honor the upcoming Bicentennial.
Pyramid, though a well distributed imprint, definitely was a second-tier house, certainly not the equal of NAL, Dell, or Bantam. The "Bicentennial" series, at the time a projected five-volume panorama of American history from the Revolution to 1976, originated with Pyramid's associate publisher, Norman Goldfind, with Ann Kearns, a genial and zaftig senior editor, and with Engel, at one of those fabled publishing lunches where great book ideas spring full blown from the martini glass (these days, from the Evian bottle). Ever afterward, the three argued over who first articulated the idea. I know I didn't. I wasn't there.
Don called to explain the way Engel did business, and to say he'd turned down the project because he was writing his spy series under one of the many "house names" invented by Book Creations. Don remembered me, and my paperback historicals, from our agency days in Rochester. Did I want to talk to Engel and perhaps take on the series? There was one catch. Engel's percentage was extremely high—so high I knew the Authors Guild would protest if the percentage was ever revealed.
At that time, as I've said, I was ready to quit. But I thought the "Bicentennial" series presented a unique opportunity to do some honest writing: a chance to tell something of the American story in a responsible, balanced way, maybe filling in some gaps in the education of a few readers. When the first volume was published, neither I nor anyone else expected a sale of more than fifty to seventy-five thousand copies, modest by paperback standards. Pyramid, Engel, and I had no idea of the explosion that would result when the series caught on. I'm sure that Engel, with whom I later negotiated successfully to drive his percentage down, had no inkling of future success when I offered to write The Bastard under a house name and he cheerfully countered that I should publish it under my own.
Of Don Moffitt's generosity in tossing the job to me, I can never say enough. To this day, Don has never uttered one word of self-recrimination or jealousy, though I know that if the situation were reversed, I'd have seethed; probably still would.
Lyle Kenyon Engel was a small, balding, fine-boned man with a voice that often grew shrill with excitement, enthusiasm or, later, rage. He limped, the result of a childhood illness which may have been polio. The illness kept him in bed, reading voraciously, for a long time. In one of the later Kent books I conceived of a villainous family member named Louis Kent, crippled, who lay in bed in his Fifth Avenue mansion, directing his evil minions in their daily work. It was the first of two times that Engel telephoned and screamed at me, demanding that I drop the character, or at least restore him to full health. I dutifully killed off Louis Kent. Only when I learned of Engel's childhood impairment did I understand the outburst.
As I wrote the outline for the first Kent volume, I settled on an approach that I've followed with every novel since. It's wrapped up in a question I asked myself then and still do: "What if this is the only book on this historical period that the reader ever opens?" I had a responsibility to be as accurate as conscientious research, and a deadline, permitted. I've made mistakes over the years, but usually these have been small. No historian has faulted me in a major way, though truthfully, I don't hear from that many historians. I expect they resent success.
One of these academics addressed a convocation at Lawrence University. He made sneering references to Jakes, an "insurance man"—where he got that, I don't know—who believed that "the Revolution was won in bed." He was puzzled by titters, rustling, an obvious and growing resentment in the student audience. That was because the audience included our daughter Ellen, who graduated from Lawrence.
When I took on the novels, I was given no more than a one-sentence concept: portray a fictional family through two hundred years of American history. As readers of the series know, I soon found myself crawling through that history tortoise-like. In my research I discovered too much that was dramatic, and stirring—in the case of slavery or the theft of Native American lands or the machinations of Jay Gould and his cronies, not so stirring but needing to be told. Midway through the project, at my urging, the five volumes became eight, with the enthusiastic consent of Pyramid's management. Even at that, I didn't come close to reaching 1976. My contract ran out with volume eight, The Americans, published in 1980 and ending the family's story in 1891.
For the last name of the American family I chose Kent. In Rochester I'd heard the story of George Eastman searching for a company name and settling on Kodak in part because of the strength of the letter K. I followed George's lead when I named my sword and sorcery character Brak. Neil Simon's play "The Sunshine Boys" has a whole routine about words with the K sound being funny.
And, in 1973, I was still smoking too many filtered Kent cigarettes. I saw the name on the pack lying next to my old iron Underwood day and night.
During the writing of the first two books, Engel frequently exhorted me to "cram in more action." This I did happily, because I liked it. The sex content was, I thought then and I still believe, modest.
Pyramid spent promotion money on The Bastard. A small-space ad ran in the Sunday New York Times Book Review, and I was sent on a short five-city promotion tour, the first of some fifteen I've done. The book business was smaller in 1974 than it is today, and the industry's trade magazine, Publishers Weekly, printed the names and itineraries of all the authors on tour. You'd need something half the size of the Manhattan phone book if you tried that now, when nonbooks by nonauthors appear almost hourly.
I had a hefty schedule of local radio and TV appearances arranged for Pyramid by a charming independent contractor named Randie Levine. I traveled alone, but Randie knew the routes, and her instructions got me from station to station without a hitch. On a couple of shows I wasn't allowed to repeat the name of the novel. On others, the host sort of mumbled it.
My tour for The Bastard wasn't exactly a triumphal procession, but neither was it the Book Tour from Hell others have described. It was a new experience, and I was green, and fascinated. I worked hard at each appearance, no matter how crass. I did a bit on Dialing for Dollars in Philadelphia, though how I fitted in there, I can't imagine. On a morning TV talk show in the same city, I donned a rented colonial costume—breeches, tight-fitting coat, the works—because the producer wanted it that way; I had been sold and billed as the purveyor of "tidbits of gossip about our Founding Fathers."
(For the second novel, The Rebels, I was booked on a noontime show on a New York station and there too, the producers demanded that I dress like a chorus person in a 1776 road company. I changed in the men's room at Pyramid's office on Third Avenue and walked fifteen or twenty blocks to the TV station in company with Pyramid's likable publicist, Priscilla Russo. I wore my full colonial regalia as we marched north in the sunshine. I mention this because no one paid any attention. New York is New York.)
When I reached my last stop on the first tour, Minneapolis, I hastened to the book department of the big Dayton's department store, nervously anxious to see whether the novel was on sale. I approached a clerk and was told that the book was moving quite nicely despite, or maybe because of, its title. Ladies were phoning in for it, though the clerk said they usually bowdlerized the title to "the B," or just "that book."
Before the third novel was published in 1976, Pyramid pulled me to New York for what used to be called the ABA Convention, ABA standing for the American Booksellers Association. At the Sixth Avenue Hilton, Pyramid had an exhibit stand along with most of the other publishers. On an aisle display rack they'd arrayed a dozen copies of what appeared to be The Seekers. I say appeared because the books were dummies; finished covers were pasted onto other paperbacks. The presses were still churning out the real thing in Tennessee.
By 10:30 or 11:00 on the convention's first morning, all twelve books were stolen. A few were returned, the thief's reaction varying from amusement to annoyance. Norman Goldfind and his personable second, John Rutledge, told me about the thefts. I think we all knew that we had some kind of tiger by the tail.
5. Sea Changes
A great many things happened then, rapidly. Among them:
An accountant advised me to celebrate my newfound wealth by buying myself a present. At Gucci's on Fifth Avenue, I splurged for a briefcase, black leather, with a brass clasp and the familiar red and green stripe. It cost $100. That doesn't seem like much today, when superstar authors charter jets and fly their own helicopters, but it seemed like wild extravagance back then. I still use the briefcase, which has worn well. It remains a potent symbol.
I bought an expensive car, one of the first Cadillac Sevilles, black and handsome. This was the car GM advertised as a perennial, a design that would stay around for a decade or more, like a Mercedes. Within a few years GM substituted a new, godawful turtleback design. Betrayed, I traded the Seville for a Mercedes sedan. You don't see those Sevilles on the road any more. It's a pity. The car was beautiful.
To celebrate our twenty-fifth anniversary, I took my wife on our first cruise, ten days on a Sitmar ship in the Caribbean. For the formal nights I rented a hideous lemon yellow dinner jacket with black lapel edging. At the time I thought it the height of fashion—it was very much like the tuxes kids rented for proms. I cringe at the memory of it, but we had a good time, despite the jolt of realizing that many of the passengers were unpleasant—snooty for no good reason. Also, most were arch-Republicans. We have gone on many cruises since, because we love the experience, but someday I'm going to write a travel article titled "Why Oh Why Do the Wrong People Travel [to Quote Noel Coward], and Ruin All Those Swell Voyages?"
The CBS Evening News sent a crew to our little brick house in Dayton to film a story about the release of one of the later books. Substantial anticipation had built up for each novel, but I was going slowly, and bookstores buzzed with rumors about the dilatory author: I was dead; my wife had left me; I was locked up in a nuthouse, etc.
The CBS crew flew in early for B-roll footage. It was an odd experience. Rules of a news show didn't allow scenes to be "staged" as the producer put it, so I was regularly asked questions such as, "Would you be going down the stairs to your basement office in the next few minutes?" Why, yes, I replied coyly, I might. And what do you know: when I descended the stairs, there were the lights, and the camera, and the beaming producer.
The star flew in later that day for the actual interview. He was one of my favorites, Charles Osgood. Pretty heady stuff, though I recall I still had my crewcut. A naive reporter once asked, "Is your haircut a social statement or a media gimmick?" I disappointed her by replying that it was just the cheapest and easiest haircut I could afford in graduate school, and I kept it.
Until 1977, that is. During a routine physical, doctors discovered a suspicious spot on my right lung. I was persuaded to have the upper third excised, which I did, at the Seventh Day Adventist hospital in Kettering. I threw away my cigarettes when I walked into the hospital and I've never smoked since.
I woke up hurting like hell. I hurt for weeks. It was a $3000 smoking cure, but it worked. And the lung wasn't malignant; the spot came from a hard-to-evaluate fungus infection common to the Ohio River valley. At the hospital I said goodbye to my crewcut along with cigarettes.
A month or so after the operation, again to celebrate, my wife and I made our first Atlantic crossing on the Queen Elizabeth 2. When I introduced myself at our assigned dinner table on the first evening, one of the women broke down and boo-hooed for joy.
Of all the changes in our life, the most significant, I suppose, was the influx of new income. We tended to keep pretty quiet about it—a curmudgeonly neighbor kept warning me not to "go high hat"—but inevitably, even our kids were asked about money. Our son Mike summed it up skillfully when he shrugged and said, "Now we're able to afford new gutters."
Universal Studios optioned the "Bicentennial" series for television, and ultimately produced a trio of four-hour miniseries for a consortium of big stations wanting to program their own specials and thereby sell two hours of their own commercial time instead of watching ad profits flow to the network. The first picture starred Andrew Stevens as Philip Kent. I thought him perfect for the role, a young Errol Flynn. Andrew got out of the acting business after a few years and became a production executive.
I fell out with Engel over the film contract, the usual thick studio document. For self-protection, Universal wanted me to cosign, even though Engel was the stated "proprietor" of the series. I'd asked a young Yale-trained attorney named Frank Curtis to vet the contract for me and was supplied with a list of suggestions. When I phoned Engel to raise these points, he blew. He already suspected I was going to leave him for an independent contract with Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, the publisher that had bought Pyramid in the process of setting up its own mass market imprint, Jove Books.
Engel screamed that I had "no rights" in the matter. One or the other of us slammed down the phone. Soon my attorney was exchanging letters with his, a New York practitioner who eventually removed to the more glamorous environs of Beverly Hills. He was artful in slipping veiled threats into his letters, but he should have been spending time on the contract itself. The final document which Engel signed contained no reversion clause—no date by which the studio was required to surrender its right to film the novels. Book Creations signed away film rights to the Kent books forever.
There the matter rests. I control publishing rights today, but film rights languish on some dusty studio shelf of intellectual properties. Perhaps one day, some junior-level production executive will pore over a computer printout, find that the Kent books are still part of Universal's inventory, and there will be a sudden revival of interest. One can only hope.
Bob Cinader, a tough and brainy Universal television producer (Adam 12, Emergency), did the second and third Kent films and was planning the fourth when illness took him unexpectedly. Bob became a good friend before his untimely death. Several times, I've had business associates grow into close friends, though never the other way around. We got along well enough for Bob to cast me in one scene of The Seekers, in which I played a shady lawyer murdered (shot first, then suffocated) by George Hamilton. I was impressed by Hamilton's quiet, almost silent rehearsals of his lines, away from the set before the scene was shot. I was overwhelmed by Hamilton's cordiality, and that of the other fine actor in the scene, Ross Martin, when both were forced to emote in the same frame with a ringer. I hated the scene when it aired, and saw all the flaws in my performance, starting with an excess of mugging. In 2002 I had occasion to screen it again and found it less offensive, or maybe I've just become less critical.
Pages and pages could be written about efforts to continue the "Bicentennial" series past eight volumes. Perhaps they will be when all my papers are ultimately available to scholars through the Jakes Archive at the University of South Carolina's Thomas Cooper Library. For the moment, just let me summarize:
For many months in an all too hectic 1981, negotiations continued between the executives then in charge of Putnam's mass market divisions, notably Jove (the former Pyramid, bought from HBJ), Engel, Engel's legal team, and Frank Curtis. My wife and I sailed away on the gone but not forgotten Golden Odyssey for a cruise in the Mediterranean and a visit with our youngest daughter, just concluding a semester of study in Athens. Irving Stone, aboard the ship with a California university alumni group, refused to sign Rachel's copy of his final novel because she hadn't yet read it and admitted it when he asked. From the late Mr. Stone and others I've had important life lessons in how not to behave as a successful author.
We returned to the United States in the spring of 1981. By then the publisher had backed away from a new contract which would have involved not only significant money to me, but a hefty buyout of Engel's interest in the series. The contract required me to write three Kent novels between engagements, so to speak: that is, between completing the second and third volumes of "The North and South Trilogy." Penalty clauses were included in case I missed deadlines. A photocopied letter that I wrote in '81 indicates that a consensus in our family said "enough, already" when it came to crushing deadlines. I was happy when the publisher backed away; I really didn't want the contract, not only because some of the terms were punitive, but because it might have spun the series on and on until it died on its feet like a bad sitcom aired for one too many seasons. I've always preferred having the series end like a good piece of theater: curtain down, with the audience wanting more.
Following our phone fallout over the contract, Engel and I never spoke again. Business was conducted by letter. When Lyle died, I was asked to speak at his memorial service at the Frank Campbell funeral home in Manhattan and I did. I tried to give an honest appraisal of the man and what he did for me, without mentioning the negatives. At that point it wouldn't have been fair or decent.
But he'd caused problems. With the Kent books as his calling card, he was welcome in every paperback publisher's office. He came up with series after series. Sometimes it seemed as though a new Book Creations project hit the stores weekly.
The nearest we came to a head-on collision happened when Dell published the first of a series called "The Australians." It was billed on the cover as coming from "the creator of the Kent Family Chronicles." Engel had given me lots of encouragement, lots of cheerleading,
but his creative input consisted of the one-sentence concept I mentioned: "A fictional family through two-hundred years of American history." I didn't think that qualified him as the "creator" of the Kents or their stories. My attorney didn't think so either, and so informed Dell. By the time the matter was hashed out, and Dell dropped the offending claim, more than one Australians title had been published. To this day some people think I wrote those books. Alas, it was some poor lady whom I believe lived down under in Oz.
By the time The Americans was published in 1980, concluding the series with Gideon Kent's death, our family had picked up and removed to a gentler climate—Hilton Head Island, on the coast of South Carolina, near the Georgia border. I wrote The Americans in a converted bedroom of our rambling house overlooking a Sea Pines golf course fairway. I was forty-seven.
For years afterward I wondered why I had jumped to a place whose natural beauty uplifted me but whose human ambiance was by and large depressing. Hilton Head was peopled by a mix of retired generals, former CIA agents, and assorted corporate vice presidents. Seldom did a CEO show up, and that continues to be the case. The new arrivals were, with very rare exceptions, Republicans. Some were Republicans who regularly foamed at the mouth via the letter columns of the local paper. That, too, continues to be the case.
Jonathan Daniels, a legendary North Carolina newspaper editor and White House press secretary, had retired to the Island and started not only the small local paper but late afternoon round tables as he called them: congenial groups gathering for gorgeous sunsets over Calibogue Sound, generous drinks, and witty or just plain bitchy gossip. I was privileged to know Jonathan for the last four years of his life, and Rachel and I were invited to his round table often. Having served both FDR and Harry Truman, Jonathan was, naturally, a Democrat. The first time I walked into his sunny living room he greeted me by crying "Thank God you've come. Now there are two of us."
However, lest you think I remain a yellow dog Democrat, this clarification: Twenty-five years have passed since I moved into the state in which a Democratic vote is virtually wasted, and I don't care for the demagogues of the left wing of American politics any more than I care for those on the right. In my later years I've come to regard most politicians as suspect, if not outright charlatans. I style myself an independent, and take comfort in Mark Twain's quip: "Suppose I were an idiot. And suppose I were a member of Congress. But I'm repeating myself."
The Kent Family Chronicles brought me recognition, an audience, and money. It would have brought in more money if the books had been published initially as hardcovers, and received the attention of reviewers. Still, the New York Times Book Review did a lot to boost them, principally through the writing of a rotund and gentlemanly man named Ray Walters, then the NYTBR's paperback editor. Ray's column ran beneath the weekly paperback bestseller list, a fairly new innovation at the New York Times. Whenever he mentioned the Kent books, I wrote a short note to say thanks. When Ray retired to Florida, I remember receiving a note from him that said "we need more writers like you." I think he meant writers whose mamas had taught them manners.
By the late 1970s, other important papers, including the Chicago Tribune had started their own paperback lists. A few reviews of The Lawless and The Americans appeared. I didn't mind the absence of critical attention then, because the books were popping up to the #1 spot on the charts each time a new one came out.
The Literary Guild and the Doubleday Book Club later published hardcover editions that did well and stayed in print for about fifteen years. But the Kents remain children of their times: paperback originals; mass-market historical fiction written with what I hope was a combination of authenticity and a good story.
I've instructed my friend and literary representative, attorney Frank Curtis, that after I'm no longer around, no phantom scribe is to continue the Kent saga, or the series about the Crown family of Chicago under my name. This noxious trend in publishing has become epidemic. We didn't know for years that V. C. Andrews was really dead and some guy was writing "her" stuff. Robert Ludlum continues to publish novels, apparently from the grave. A mysterious trunk of "previously undiscovered" short stories by the late Louis L'Amour is looted regularly, resulting in new books. The L'Amour trunk must be the size of a 747, or at least its first-class cabin.
Pretty righteous, eh? There's no one more righteous than an old sinner. In my SMLA days, a well-regarded writer of hard-boiled detective stories died, and the Meredith agency signed me up to continue with his P.I. character, Lou Largo. The agency said his estate needed the income; the estate received twenty-five percent of every sale. I wrote several paperback novels as the ghost of the deceased William Ard, and some Lou Largo novelettes that wound up in cheapo men's magazines. These were the usual agency "assignments," as were the other ghosting jobs I did: a young people's biography of chief Tecumseh called Destiny's Warrior, written for a supposedly over-worked author named David C. Cooke; and a half-dozen lead novelettes for The Man from U.N.C.L.E. magazine, in which I concocted new adventures for Napoleon Solo and Ilya Kuryakin, whom I happened to like on the weekly TV show. For the magazine I was disguised as "Robert Hart Davis," another house name. William Ard was the only dead writer for whom I subbed. I have learned this lesson too: continuing a popular series with a new writer may be OK, but pretending that the deceased author is still writing them isn't.
Whatever else you may say about the eight Kent Family novels, it's undeniable that millions of readers loved them. When they reread them or discover them
today, as thousands do, love blooms anew. The books generated mountains of mail. I answered each and every letter, except those from cranks, on postcards my wife designed. I discovered I could say thanks on a postcard quickly, and not be forced to waste time with fancy salutations and the like. Today, many people write to my Web site asking that the adventures of the Kents continue.
The books that made me an overnight success after twenty-two years touched and moved readers. At one time I saved examples of this kind of correspondence, but the volume became too big and I reluctantly disposed of most of the letters.
One I kept, and preserved, although yellow paper glued on plywood, then overlaid with acrylic, tends to fade and hide the handwriting as years pass. The simple and eloquent message hangs in my office. I quote it here, exactly as written and punctuated:
To John Jakes,
I thank you for "The Kent Family Chronicles" volume I-VIII.
You have saved my life in a way I cannot put into words.
Best of luck + life to you,
I wish I knew the identity of that letter's author, but perhaps that doesn't matter too much. What matters is the fact of the books reaching and, in some mysterious way, affecting an individual reader.
Saving a life.
In 1996, I became the tenth living inductee of the South Carolina Academy of Authors. For the installation banquet, the Academy asked for a couple of short statements that could be printed as keepsakes. Here is what I wrote for them:
The rewards of writing are not found in royalties, positions on bestseller lists, appearances on talk shows, sales to Hollywood, or other things you might imagine. The true rewards come in envelopes, often wrinkled by long travel from Denmark or Scotland, France or Latvia, Chicago or RFD 12. Many are typed but just as many are written by hand, often badly. A few arrive on paper marked by tears. Lately more are coming by e-mail. All are messages from people who have been touched, moved, entertained, informed, changed by an author's work. They write out of a genuine wish to thank someone who forged an emotional link with them.
Other novels followed the Kent Family Chronicles, but that phase of my career has been so thoroughly reported and documented, I won't do it here. Besides, I can't, I'm out of wordage. There's plenty of good stuff to be related about the later years: the books, the editors, the growth and corporatization of the business. There is the unsettling and, I think, truthful assertion by my great HBJ editor and longtime friend, Julian Muller, that there is no middle ground in American letters—no attention paid except to the extremes of "literary" fiction, which relatively few read, and sausage-like bestsellers. But I'll have to save all this for a longer memoir.
The anonymous letter I quoted exemplifies the noblest reward I've gotten from my profession. I believe what I wrote for the Academy keepsake. I expect I believed it from the beginning, and for that reason was unhappy writing advertising in exchange for daily bread, or "assignments" for a literary agency convinced that I could do no better. Now, if nothing else, the rightness of that long-held belief has been vindicated.
On Saturday, August 23, 1952, my wife and I appeared on the live telecast of Beat the Clock from New York. Thanks largely to her, we won the grand prize, a $500 Sylvania television ("with Halo Light"). The videotape of this triumph came to light in the summer of 2001, when I was contacted by the historian of the Game Show Channel. Earlier, I had no idea that a tape existed.
At the start of the segment, I bragged in unseemly fashion about being a writer, though I was still a college student. After our win, the emcee, the ebullient Bud Collyer, congratulated us and waved us off by saying, "Keep on writing, Johnny-boy."
Obviously I did.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Volume 32, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2000.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 29, Gale (Detroit, MI) 1984.
Contemporary Southern Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1983, Gale (Detroit, MI) 1984.
Hawkins, R., The Kent Family Chronicles Encyclopedia, Bantam (New York, NY) 1979.
Jones, Mary Ellen, John Jakes: A Critical Companion, Greenwood Press (Westport, CT), 1996.
St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers, fourth edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Book, July/August, 2000, Kelly Milner Halls, review of On Secret Service, p. 78.
Booklist, May 1, 1998, Eric Robbins, review of American Dreams, p. 1477; March 15, 2000, Brad Hooper, review of On Secret Service, p. 1292.
Bookwatch, January, 1999, review of Homeland (audio version), p. 9.
Chicago Tribune Book World, February 21, 1982.
Christian Science Monitor, April 7, 1982, p. 17.
Detroit News, February 23, 1982.
Kirkus Reviews, May 15, 1998, review of American Dreams, p. 690.
Kliatt Young Adult Paperback Book Guide, January, 1999, review of American Dreams (audio version), p. 41; May, 1999, review of Homeland (audio version), p. 58.
Library Journal, November 1, 1998, Ray Vignovice, review of American Dreams (audio version), p. 137; July 1999, review of North and South, p. 53; March 15, 2000, Robert Conroy, review of On Secret Service, p. 127.
Los Angeles Times, September 18, 1989.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 21, 1982; December 2, 1984; September 27, 1987; August 20, 1989, p. 5.
New York Times, May 2, 1986.
New York Times Book Review, March 7, 1982, p. 24; October 8, 1989, p. 24; August 22, 1993, p. 14.
People, November 12, 1984, pp. 63-64; July 13, 1998, Erica Sanders, review of American Dreams, p. 47.
Publishers Weekly, April 5, 1976; November 30, 1984, pp. 99-100; October 3, 1994, p. 53; May 25, 1998, review of American Dreams, p. 64; February 28, 2000, review of A Century of Great Western Stories, p. 59; April 17, 2000, review of On Secret Service, p. 49.
School Library Journal, January, 1994, p. 144.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), July 18, 1993, p. 7.
Washington Post, March 7, 1976, p. F10; February 3, 1982, p. E3; February 28, 1982; November 3, 1984, p. 3.
Washington Post Book World, April 3, 1977; October 18, 1987; September 17, 1989; July 18, 1993, p. 1; January 8, 1995, p. 8.
Writer's Digest, February, 1998, Donald McKinney, "John Jakes: 'I'll Never Stop,'" p. 26.
John Jakes Home Page,http://www.johnjakes.com (February 19, 2002).