NOVEMBER 2008 – NO. 28
When a writer dies, so does the pseudonym
When Fulton Oursler died in 1952 of a heart attack in his New York City apartment he left behind a publishing history his Times obituary described as "unusual." A writer whose most productive period spanned the Golden Age of comics and pulp novels, from the 1930s until his death, Oursler authored more than 20 nonfiction works of Christian inspiration (and a few on magic tricks). He also left behind two conflicting literary legacies.
Born into a Baptist family, for a time Oursler pronounced himself an agnostic until the process of writing a book about a visit to Jerusalem changed his mind. After converting to Catholicism, he became senior editor of Readers' Digest. He was best-known for his newspaper columns and anti-Communist views and for two books: The Greatest Story Ever Told, a bestseller about the life of Jesus Christ initially serialized in newspapers throughout the country and Father Flanagan of Boys' Town, a biography co-written with his son about the Catholic priest who founded the orphanage. Both were adapted to film, the movie version of The Greatest Story including Max Von Sydow as Jesus, Charlton Heston as John the Baptist, Robert Loggia as Joseph and Telly Savalas as Pontius Pilate. Boys' Town starring Spencer Tracy as Father Flanagan and Mickey Rooney as Whitey Marsh.
While Oursler published his nonfiction Christian work under his legal name, he also wrote a near equal amount of pulp crime and spy stories under a pseudonym: "Anthony Abbot." Most of the pulp titles started with variations on the phrase "About the Murder of … " (About the Murder of the Night Club Lady, About the Murder of the Circus Queen, About the Murder of a Startled Lady, About the Murder of a Clergyman's Mistress, etc.).
In addition, as Abbot he wrote patriotic short stories like "A Very Special Agent." First published in 1948 and a year before The Greatest Story Ever Told, Abbot trumpets the exploits of World War II-era FBI agents via the character of George Stanley. Serving as a symbol of every agent and for the art of espionage itself, Stanley displays exceptional intelligence in his training, his main character flaw that of wanting to "make a good impression on everybody." Soon he's "fighting hitchhikers with bare fists in Chattanooga and shooting it out with auto thieves in San Francisco." Still "too nice and gentle," he's deployed to Japan, Iraq, Iran, Syria, France, the Balkans, Bulgaria and Germany. More sermon and summary than story, he meets success everywhere. Oursler ends this litany of accomplishment quoting J. Edgar Hoover explaining that while the Germans were taught to behave like "robots" whereas, "Our men were on their own. They were told what we wanted, and we left it to them how to get it! That is the difference that belongs to free men; to democracy!" Though Stanley was a composite, fictional character he was meant as a case study in American individualism.
After a decade keeping his two writing personas separate, in 1950 Oursler converted Anthony Abbot to religious writing with the publication of Why I Know There Is a God. The book was a far cry from the pulp previously reserved for the pseudonym and the blurring of identities reminiscent of the spies Oursler admired and imagined.
A question persists: why would a proselytizer for faith and morality obscure his identity? Oursler offered few clues as to the answer, or in the meaning behind the pseudonym itself. The name begs comparison to Anthony the Abbot, also known as Saint Anthony the Great, an Egyptian Christian saint, ascetic and a founder of monasticism who died in 356. A partial answer to the question of why Oursler might behave like a spy could be found in The Fine Art of Spying, an anthology published after Oursler's death in 1965 that included a reprint of "A Very Special Agent." The book's editor, Walter B. Gibson (the writer behind "The Shadow" radio and pulp novel series), offered the following in his introduction: "Spies have been with us forever," he writes. "It is difficult to say why. The pay is poor, the work is hazardous, the consequences are commonly disastrous and final. But still there are people who choose to make a career of duplicity and double-dealing...You will be tempted, as you begin to explore the careers of some of the more notoriously devious operators, to try to find some character trait that would offer rational reason for their aberrant behavior. Give up the search." In reading Gibson's comment, it's tempting to take his advice. But more than the simple use of a pseudonym, it is Oursler's cleaving of subject matter between two personas that's so mysterious. After all, how different is a murder mystery from hagiographic spiritual writing? On both sides, a battle for morality to triumph. Drama, death, easy definitions of good and evil.
Gibson's observation holds true if "writer" is substituted for "spy." ("The pay is poor...duplicity, double-dealing...") Silent observers and investigators of culture gathering intelligence — to a certain degree, all writers are spies. Both sharing hidden motives and an affection for invention and investigation, deception when necessary. Using language evoking the resonant spookiness of The Shadow, Gibson's introduction includes a statement intended as a comment on the mind of the spy but equally appropriate to the writer and to Oursler's twin careers: "It is difficult to discover the sinister motives that drive these lonely, amoral creatures to sell their souls and the lives of those around them for a few pieces of silver. With them perversity passes for understanding."
Lonely? Amoral? Maybe not. But out to make a fortune — and of two minds in considering how he went about it — without question.
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