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MEN INTO BEASTS by George Sylvester Viereck &
HOME AWAY FROM HOME by Jack Woodford
Introduction by Richard A. Lupoff
What an odd pair they made, George Sylvester Viereck and Josiah Pitts Woolfolk. They were about as different as two literary men could be. Viereck was a neo-romantic poet and self-styled aesthete who moved in the highest of intellectual and political circles. Woolfolk went out of his way to establish and maintain an image as a populist author, a vulgarian and at least a borderline pornographer.
And yet, beneath the surface they had far more in common than might meet the eye. Late in their respective lives and careers these two men whose paths and personae were seemingly worlds apart they found themselves sharing a last hurrah that neither, I suggest, would ever have imagined possible, no less likely to occur.
Back in the Germany of Chancellor Bismarck and Kaiser Wilhelm I, the darling of the Berlin stage was a gorgeous showgirl named Sophie Viereck. Her admirers came from every stratum of German society, up to and including the Kaiser und Koenig himself. When Sophie became pregnant another member of the royal house gallantly claimed fatherhood – it would not do for the Emperor to acknowledge a bastard child – and Sophie’s baby, a boy who was christened Louis, retained his mother’s last name.
When Louis Viereck came to manhood he married and fathered two sons. One died in infancy. The other, George Sylvester, born 1884, survived. Louis had become an ardent Socialist, and even as a sinister member of the royal family, he felt uncomfortable in Germany. Along with his wife and son he emigrated to the United States. Some years later the senior Vierecks returned to their native Germany, leaving young Sylvester (as he chose to be known) in America.
Sylvester showed talent from an early age. His first book of poetry was published in 1904, two years before he received his degree from the College of the City of New York. He proved both a prolific and a versatile literary man. In 1907 he published his second volume of poetry and his first novel, The House of the Vampire. The latter book is regarded as the first psychic (rather than physical) vampire fiction, as well as manifesting a polymorphic sexuality that was daring for the time.
By 1911 he was invited to lecture on poetry at the University of Berlin. Upon returning to the United States, and on the brink of the first World War, he became a paid propagandist for the German cause. In 1915 he was involved in a sensational scandal over his propagandistic work. It is sometimes stated that he was arrested for treason, or at least for sedition, at the time, but in fact no charges were brought against him.
By the 1920s he was a busy editor, publisher, and interviewer. Among his subjects were Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, and Adolf Hitler. In 1923 Viereck wrote that Hitler would change the world, and of course he was right, perhaps more so than he realized.
Viereck was a German nationalist although he was a citizen of the United States. He admired German culture and felt that Germany had been mistreated by the international community in the aftermath of the World War. His support of the Nazi cause was tepid, and his admiration for Hitler was based on Hitler’s successful revival of German nationalism rather than Nazi ideology.
As an admirer of Hitler and at least tolerant of Nazism, Viereck rejected Nazi racial theories and specifically antisemitism. Viereck’s most enduring work of fiction was a massive three-volume fantasy-biography of Cartaphilus, the legendary Wandering Jew blessed or cursed by Jesus to wander the Earth until Jesus should return and release him. These books, My First Two Thousand Years: The Autobiography of the Wandering Jew, Salome: The Wandering Jewess, and The Invincible Adam were co-authored by Viereck and Paul Eldridge, a Jewish poet and novelist.
By the time the United States entered the second World War Viereck had been working as a pro-German propagandist once again. This time he really was arrested, tried and convicted for a violation of a law requiring the registration of propagandists for foreign nations. He was imprisoned in 1942 but his conviction was overturned. He was then rearrested and tried with some thirty others on a charge of conspiracy to commit sedition.
Much was made of the trial, and I recall as a child seeing newsreel footage of the dozens of defendants, men and women, being led into a Federal courthouse, many of the men covering their faces with their fedoras. The trial dragged on for months. Several of the more elderly defendants died. Then the judge died. The trial was suspended but the defendants were denied bail and remained imprisoned.
Eventually a new judge was appointed and the trial resumed but it dragged on. Eventually, in 1947, the Government decided that the game was not worth the candle and dropped the charges. Viereck and the other defendants were freed.
Viereck and his wife were the parents of two sons. Both served in the armed forces. George Sylvester Viereck II was killed during the Italian campaign. Peter Viereck survived. He was an academic, a poet, and an anti-Nazi who broke with his father, reconciling with him only when the senior Viereck was old and in declining health.
Following his jail time, Viereck did little writing. His wife had divorced him, one of his sons was dead and he was alienated from the other.
Viereck’s prison memoir, Men into Beasts, was published in the United States in 1952 by Fawcett Gold Medal Books, one of the leading mass-market publishers of the time. The book delves heavily into the homosexual hijinx which Viereck observed during his imprisonment. One gets the impression that Viereck saw himself as somehow above his fellow inmates; his attitude toward them was one of friendly condescension. There is also the attitude, common to many longtime inmates, that they are not “really” homosexuals — they are just indulging themselves in whatever relief of unbearable urges is available, pending their return to the street. Others, of course, are as happy as clams in an all-male environment. In the long history of prison memoirs, Men into Beasts stands as an unusually candid and intelligent report by an experienced journalist.
Viereck did produce one more novel, The Nude in the Mirror. A minor but certainly readable fantasy with strong erotic overtones, the book proved difficult for Viereck to market. He finally found a publisher, the Woodford Press, operated by Josiah Pitts Woolfolk in his literary persona of Jack Woodford.
George Sylvester Viereck died in 1962 at the age of 77.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Josiah Pitts Woolfolk was born in 1894, a decade after George Sylvester Viereck was born in Munich. His father was a small-town doctor who moved his family to Chicago, and it was here that Jack Woodford was born and grew up.
He started his literary career as a newspaperman, moving on to pulp magazines and to dozens of books. The latter fall into two major groups, works of fiction and books about writing. I was first introduced to Woodford by the late Terry Carr, a brilliant science fiction editor, who handed me a copy of Woodford’s Trial and Error (1933). In my opinion, this is the best textbook for would-be fiction writers ever published. I’m far from alone in this regard. A popular Woodford website contains praise for Woodford as a writing coach from an array of writers including Ray Bradbury, Jerry Pournelle, Piers Anthony, and Robert A. Heinlein. You will note that these are all science fiction writers. Why, I am not sure, although the influence of Terry Carr may well be involved.
Woodford’s fiction was highly controversial in his own lifetime. It was regarded as salacious and Woodford was branded a pornographer. Woodford’s fiction is largely out of print but his novels are readily available on the used book market, and they reward reading. He was a skillful plotter, setting up clever situations and ingenious resolutions. The erotic content of his books is barely tepid by Twenty-First Century standards. His greatest skill was to suggest sexual situations without actually describing anatomical details. The sex thus takes place in the reader’s mind rather than on the printed page. A clever stunt, and one worth studying.
The closest Woodford ever came to pornography was expressed in his own expressed formula for plotting a romance. “Boy meets girl, girl gets boy into pickle, boy gets pickle into girl.” He expressed his populism this way: “If you wish to write great literature you are very stupid to read my books, because I do not, cannot, and would not write great literature.”
In his autobiographical writings, Woodford charges that the reviews his works received — both few and unfavorable — came from obscurantist critics who simply disliked the directness of Woodford’s narration. He claims that he decided to meet them head-on by getting drunk and writing a book that reflected a completely inebriated state of mind. The result was the novel Vice Versa and it was Woodford’s only work of fiction to receive favorable reviews.
For what it’s worth, I have read the book and I really liked it. The story about how it was written and the praise that it received from critics is Woodford’s own.
Woodford also had a substantial career in Hollywood. A simple internet search shows story of screenwriting credits for him on a handful of films, as well as, surprisingly, credit for the lyrics of at least one song used in a Hollywood musical. His autobiographical writing suggests that he did a good deal more work in Hollywood than he received screen credit for. This, of course, is a common phenomenon.
Woodford’s tastes in fiction were distinctly populist and in fact he was remarkably perceptive. In his book The Loud Literary Lamas of New York (1950) he cites Edgar Rice Burroughs’ experience as a self-publisher — after he had made a fortune from his Tarzan books and films. Woodford admired Burroughs’ decision to become a self-publisher, although Burroughs himself came to express serious reservations about the practice.
In the same book, Woodford writes about H. P. Lovecraft, thirteen years after Lovecraft’s death. “Lovecraft is shaping up all over the world, now that he has been dead only a few years, as the greatest writer of bizarre stories since Poe. Every American magazine editor rejected him systematically, indefatigably and utterly until he starved to death selling his stuff to Weird Tales magazine at six dollars a story. That is what American magazine editors do about the business of discovering new genius. The story of Lovecraft will ring out in the hall of records of American editorial stupidity and shame for hundreds of years.”
Amen to that!
Woodford was married and became the father of a daughter. He was divorced but in his writing he consistently takes the blame for the failure of his marriage on himself. His daughter, Louella, was apparently a talented writer herself, but developed schizophrenia early in her career. She lived with her father for the rest of his life. Some commentators have suggested an incestuous relationship between them, but I have found no evidence to support this charge and do not, myself, believe it.
Without question a colorful character, Woodford seemingly reveled in his own eccentricities. In his autobiography he describes his youthful addiction to heroin, at that time legally dispensed in tablet form by neighborhood pharmacies. When the United States Government ruled heroin illegal, Woodford was incensed. It was no more difficult to obtain, he wrote, but the price increased many fold.
He was so angry that he decided to stop using heroin, but quickly found himself suffering from withdrawal symptoms. So he shut himself up in a hotel room with a case of whiskey, and whenever the heroin-craving became too painful he would open a bottle of whiskey and drink himself into a stupor.
By the time the whiskey was exhausted he had overcome his heroin addiction but he had become an alcoholic.
Not my story. Woodford’s story.
When Woodford started his own publishing house his major backer was a financial wizard named Moses Aaron Shapiro. Woodford had wandered around the edges of antisemitism for many years, especially in his Hollywood period. When the Woodford Press foundered Jack felt that he had been betrayed by Shapiro, his nascent antisemitism playing into itself. This was during the early years of the Cold War, and Woodford seemingly felt that Shapiro and two female office employees whom Woodford, in his autobiography, called “the Kremlin Belles” were part of the international Communist-Zionist conspiracy.
Before Woodford Press went out of business, it brought to the world The Nude in the Mirror, George Sylvester Viereck’s final novel.
Information on Woodford’s imprisonment has largely eluded me, but apparently it had to do with mail fraud, or possibly the use of the United States Mails to ship pornographic materials. At any rate, Woodford emerged from imprisonment to write a memoir of the experience, A Home away from Home. The book was published in 1962 by an obscure paperback house in Chicago. The book was apparently never copy-edited or proofread. It is rife with typographical errors, eccentric punctuation, and other stylistic oddities. Among other odd points, Woodford frequently refers to prison as his Home Away From Home — abbreviated HAFA. Why not HAFH? Perhaps the typesetter worked from a handwritten manuscript — I really don’t know — and mistook Woodford’s second “H” for an “A.”
Fender Tucker of Ramble House has worked overtime trying to clean up the typographical weirdness of Woodford’s book while remaining faithful to Woodford’s original intent.
In has last years, Woodford wound up in trouble with the Feds once again. Apparently he was found incompetent and placed in a Federal mental hospital rather than a prison. He spent this last period of his life, if one is to believe his autobiography, in a small but comfortable suite furnished with bed, bookshelves, and typewriter, happily working on literary projects, all at the taxpayers’ expense.
Josiah Pitts Woolfolk died in 1971 at the age of 77.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The prison world described by both Viereck and Woodford strikes the modern reader as surprisingly gentle and civilized. There are no ethnic gangs, little violence, none of the rampant drug usage or terrifying AIDS epidemics that occur in today’s prisons. There is plenty of sexual activity in Viereck’s and Woodford’s prison worlds, but it is almost entirely consensual.
I’m not sure that the life of prisoners has changed as drastically — and for the worse! — as any study of present prison conditions would indicate. Both Viereck and Woodford were convicted of non-violent offenses, and both were apparently held in minimum-security facilities where conditions were about as good as they could be, considering that hundreds or thousands of men were locked up in them. One notes the preference for Federal facilities over state prisons or local jails.
A few years ago a friend of mine found himself embroiled in a drug bust and wound up spending six months as a guest of one of our great United States. Out of respect for my friend’s privacy I won’t tell you which state it was, and I won’t mention my friend’s real name. Suppose I call him Willis Timmons. He was allowed pencil and paper, and wrote a single-copy blog which he was permitted to mail to friends who then published it in weekly installments.
The biggest problem, Timmons said, was boredom. He and other petty offenders lived dormitory fashion. They had adequate food, were permitted out to exercise, could receive books, could create and send out manuscripts, and had access to television. The atmosphere, as reflected in Timmons’s blog, reminded me very much of a fraternity house. There were friendships, there was internal politics and an informal leadership structure, and the whole experience sounded like little more than a lark.
Not that Timmons would want to repeat it, nor would I, nor would you. An attitude expressed in Slammer Days is that incarceration per se is punishment. It is not necessary to make the conditions of incarceration brutal to punish offenders, it is the deprivation of their freedom that matters.
Still, Slammer Days is a window — more accurately, I suppose, two windows — into the prison life of two talented, prolific, and even to an extent important, writers of half a century ago. You will read this book, these two memoirs, and come away from the experience a different person than you were before you read them.
— Richard A. Lupoff
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