Gritty Literature (Or Life Under The El)
• Wed, Nov 05, 2014
By Thom Nickels
While researching my new book, Literary Philadelphia, Greg Gillespie of Port Richmond Books lent me two novels by two Philadelphia novelists, now long dead and not well known to the general public.
The first novel, Steps Going Down, by John T. McIntyre, published in 1936 by Farrar & Rinehart (New York), got my attention because McIntyre has always been known as a Noir writer, meaning a writer who describes the gritty side of life, as in the city’s underworld. ‘Noir’ might also be described as the gritty truth underneath a mainstream sugar coating: the life of petty criminals, drug dealers, streetwalkers under the El, small time mobsters, or the unstable drama inside dingy bars filled with cigarette smoke, suspicious characters, and of course lurking danger.
McIntyre was born in Northern Liberties and left school at age 11 to work full time. For a while he was a freelance journalist with The Philadelphia Press. He wrote over 20 books most of them "Noir" or crime novels but some had a conventional slant. A "Noir" novel might also be called ‘B fiction,’ as in ‘B’ movie.
One ‘B’ movie that comes to mind is the 1965 exploitation film, "Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!" directed by Russ Meyer and starring Tura Satana, about three strippers who wreck havoc and violence on a young couple they encounter in the desert, and who then kidnap a wheelchair-bound old man as they attempt to seduce the man’s sons for the family money. Although there’s some redemption in the fact that all three bad girls come to a bad end, it takes a long time before this happens.
McIntyre, who was Irish Catholic, manages to weave elements of his Catholicism into the most sordid of his stories. While one chapter may describe how the main character falls in love with a streetwalker, in another chapter he presents a small paragraph about the Virgin Mary.
Consider this passage in his novel, Steps Going Down where characters Gill and Hogarty are having drinks in a sleazy El bar, where "there was noise, and smoke, and the smell of drink in the place…the floor sloppy with spilled beer…the walls grimy with the rubbing of many a loafer’s back [as the] cash register rang and rang":
In this section, Gill tells Hogarty that sometimes when he sees what he sees (as in pretty awful stuff), he says a prayer to the Blessed Virgin.
"She has a far-reaching voice in Heaven," Gill tells Hogarty. "And God Himself is always hearkening to her. More poor souls have been saved from despair through her than you can put to the credit of all the saints and martyrs in all the far depths of the heavens."
As if this nod to religiosity wasn’t enough, Gil and Hogarty begin to talk about the Annunciation and the biblical city of Nazareth.
But after that, it’s a jump to a house of ill-repute on Sixteenth Street in Center City.
"Lola only bothered with those who were substantial when she was going good….Her trade usually dressed at night: tails, top hat, Inverness. Quite the thing. Everybody dressed. Lola had been something to see…"
Curious to know a lot more about McIntyre’s life, I headed over to Temple University Archives to examine McIntyre’s documents and manuscripts. Oftentimes when a famous writer dies, his or her papers are turned over to a university. There they are archived and labeled for researchers and biographers. In McIntyre’s case, I was able to go through quite a number of boxes, some containing business papers, such as rent receipts, bank correspondence and statements, while other boxes contained personal effects like personal telephone books, correspondence, and rejection letters from publishers.
Although McIntyre published a lot in his lifetime and was very successful, when he shopped his work around he got his fair share of bad news.
Most of the rejection letters came from the Macmillian Company, a New York publisher. On March 15, 1943, his novel "Gun Smoke Along the Nueces," was turned down. In May of the same year, "Murder in the Mist" was rejected, the letter signed by a Lisa Dwight Cole, an Associate Editor there. Then, in November, he received a rejection letter for his book "O Land of Milk and Honey." In 1948, a Macmillian editor sent back his novel, "Some Days in the World," and apologized for keeping it so long. "We are very much chagrined at the length of time we have had your manuscript."
McIntyre probably rejected the phrase "we are very much chagrined" as a spine tingling language abomination.
In 1944, McIntyre sent a letter to his friend, Alfred Lunt, asking for money. McIntyre had just been fired or laid off from a job because business wasn’t doing well. He wrote, that "just two minutes ago I was told that I was through at Street & Smith’s, business conditions being what they are, etc." The letter was painful for me to read because I knew what was coming. "I hate to ask in times like these," McIntyre continues, "but could you possibly send me some money? Every cent I have will be the money I’ll get this Friday. We’re in damned desperate straits here as it is and this thing will make it just so much worse." McIntyre ends the letter by requesting "some letters of introduction to men who rate in the publishing business."
In another box I found an interesting exchange of letters from a Cooperstown, New York banker replying to the novelist’s request to purchase back records of a newspaper called the Saturday Star Journal.
Apparently McIntyre wanted to know how much the bundle would cost, and the banker puts the fee at $300, far too much money for the cash-strapped author who then offers the banker a counter offer of $175. The banker replies that, "I am not inclined to accept the offer for them of $175 but would be willing to lower my price somewhat. If you wish to make an offer of $225 for the lot, let me know and I will consider it." It’s all very bureaucratic and unfeeling, the banker obviously looking down at McIntyre from his high financial perch. Then, one month later (March 11, 1941), everything changes. The banker sends a handwritten note to McIntyre refusing the writer’s latest offer, but you can feel that something isn’t quite right. Why a handwritten letter? The letters pick up again in August, when the banker sends McIntyre another handwritten note although it is not on the bank’s letterhead. The writing is very disconnected looking and sloppy, as if the writer had a broken hand. "I went to the hospital April 10th for a severe operation," the banker says. "I am writing to ask you if you are still interested in my Saturday Star Journals and if your previous offer for them still holds good. Your offer was $175.00 for the Star Journals and $50 for the Dime Libraries." We don’t get McIntyre’s response, though I imagine he felt some sympathy for the Second National Bank official who was no longer sounding high and grand. Two weeks later, the two men conclude the deal, and McIntyre gets his bundle.
A sad discovery in another box was a 1951 document detailing the writer’s funeral expenses from the Oliver Blair Company: Gray cloth covered casket; silk lining; pillow; old silver extension bar handles; crucifix and services, pine case…$410.00."
I left Temple Archives feeling as if I’d met McIntyre in person. In fact, I found myself thinking of him for the rest of the day.
Another one of Greg’s books, Old Booksellers of Philadelphia (copyright 1891) by A.P. Brotherhead, contains descriptions and editorial comments about the city’s many booksellers since post colonial times.
Among the entries, I found some curious descriptions of old booksellers that probably wouldn’t see the light of print today.
There’s bookseller Apley, who had a shop on Chestnut Street between Sixth and Seventh Streets, circa 1879. Brotherhead writes, "He was a man of about fifty years of age or thereabouts; he might have been older, but his dirty and ragged appearance made it difficult to say how old he was. He always looked dark and sallow. His features were not repulsive to look at, but they had that miserly cast which at one glance caused him to be a marked character. The windows of the store were so thick with dirt and rubbish that is was difficult to see the titles of the books."
Then there was Duross, "a specimen of the rough, gruff Irishman; a rough diamond—though he had kindly impulses, and to those who knew him, he was a good fellow. His old store was in the Arcade near to Apley’s. Mr. Duross died at an advanced age."
Brotherhead lets loose on a man named Hugh Hamel "who had risen from a mere peddler of books, and by dint of perseverance, collected them as a junk dealer collects his rubbish. He was probably the most ignorant of all the old booksellers in this city. At one time he could not write his own name. He was in appearance a thick-set, low-looking, vulgar Irishman; and it is to be regretted that the latter years of his life were as much devoted to stimulants as to his business."
In other words, Hamel was a drunk.
Bookseller Scanlan was "…a clear-headed and conscientious man, an Irishman by birth…an earnest man with very strong Roman Catholic views on religion. Though seemingly tolerant to others who differed with him, yet below the surface you could see mirrored the Catholic of the middle ages."
Brotherhead’s skeptical view of the Irish is perhaps understandable given the temper of the times. At no point, of course, does he say anything untoward about the ‘English’ or ‘Scottish’ booksellers. He tends to keep that professional.
The third book from Greg was novelist Richard Powell’s The Philadelphian (Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York), published in 1956 and later made into a film, The Young Philadelphians, starring Paul Newman and Robert Vaughn, among others.
Powell was the vice president of one of the largest and oldest advertising agencies in the country, N.W. Ayer & Son, on Washington Square. This seventh generation Philadelphian once wrote that he would never have started to look "objectively and analytically at Philadelphia if I hadn’t worked on a Philadelphia newspaper, and if I hadn’t married a girl from Cleveland who began questioning the Philadelphia institutions and beliefs and attitudes which I had accepted as a matter of course."
Some of those attitudes, of course, had to do with the class structure of the city (old families versus immigrant new families, like the Irish). In Powell’s novel we can see that in the relationship between Irish immigrant Margaret O’Donnell, who arrives in Philadelphia from Ireland in the spring of 1857 and finds employment as a maid with the very Anglo Saxon Protestant, Mrs. Clayton, whose husband is a bank official. When poor Margaret becomes pregnant from a one time roll in the hay with Mrs. Clayton’s Harvard law school son, she’s quickly told to vacate the premises and paid a handsome sum to care for the baby, a baby the Claytons do not want because of Margaret’s station in life.
Mrs. Clayton, however, does visit poor Margaret to assist in the birth of the baby. She does this in a humble city rooming house, where she tells Margaret (in between labor pains), "You’re a little Irish bog trotter who thought you could come over here and be a queen. Only it’s not that easy."
Later, while holding the new baby girl, she tells Margaret one more thing: "You Irish girls with your hot young bodies. As if all you had to do was wave them at a man to get anything you want."
Powell’s novel gets better and better, by the way.