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Friday, September 01, 2006

Herbert Shappiro Redux

Bill Pronzini, author of crime novels ("simply one of the genre's best" -- Thrilling Detective), writer of non-fiction and anthologist of no fixed web site, has sent me a copy of a piece written by Budd Arthur, son of Burt Arthur (nee Herbert Shappiro, nee Herman Shapiro), for the Western Writers of America newsletter, The Round-Up. The newsletter ran an obituary in May 1975 followed by Budd's reminiscence of his father in the July issue.

According to the obituary, 'Burt Arthur' began his career with a Dallas newspaper and attended Columbia University in New York. Budd relates how his father announced one day to a relative his intention "to draw on his teen years in Texas along with a mixed bag of ill-assorted facts and fancies and write his first book." The novel was a long time coming during which time Burt held "a number of jobs totally unrelated to the business of stringing words together for fun and profit. It was also preceded by several plays which took me to summer stock when I should have been at summer camp. There were also enough radio scripts to cause me to give my home address as the third floor of the R.C.A. building and think 'Uncle' Frank Lovejoy was who I wanted to be if I couldn't be my father when I grew up."

His first novel earned Burt a $100 advance; his second novel appeared almost at the same time -- probably The Black Rider and The Valley of Death which both appeared from New York publisher Arcadia in 1941. "Novels three, four and five followed in rapid succession," recalls Budd Arthur. "So did a truckload of short stories and a trunkful of novelettes, almost all of which graced the pages of a variety of pulp magazines under an equally wide variety of names.

"In the years that followed, his weary Underwood portable ground out everything from radio soap operas to a film shot in a jungle setting housed in a Manhattan garage. As I recall, Zorita and her snake shared top billing.1 There were other films, more radio, television stories and more and more Westerns. There were novels and novelettes and cut versions of cut reversions for the fourth and fifth reprint markets. There was something for everyone who had a printing press and his outpourings reached every continent in a babble of languages and entertained millions."

Budd says that when his own first novel (a mystery) was published, his father "held it in his hands as though he thought it had been chiseled into tablets and handed down from a mountain top... I found out much later that he'd agreed to give the publisher a Western in exchange for putting my first full-length effort between hard covers."

The two collaborated on many novels, which often led to noisy disagreements: "He was a purist of the proverbial old school. I was continually trying to rouse the rabble...

"However, he had a lot of bad habits I have skillfully avoided. he was, for example, an early riser who attacked those blank sheets of paper with gusto ... He rarely talked about stories. He preferred to write ... and, as has been noted by agents, he was his own best agent.

"On March 15, 1975, nine-tenths of the way through a new Western, at the age of 76, Burt Arthur saw his last sunrise and closed his eyes."

The anonymous obituarist had, a couple of months earlier, noted that "Burt Arthur works were among the favorites of the late President Dwight Eisenhower and were published in at least a dozen languages in more than thirty countries. One of his novel, The Texan, appeared in dozens of hardback and softcover editions and was filmed and used as the basis for TV material."

"Nobody knows how many millions of copies that story has sold," added Budd Arthur. "Not the original publisher, nor New American Library, not even his frequent agent and long-time friend, Don MacCambell. It is a classic. it was Burt Arthur at his best... through he wrote at least a dozen and a half books he liked better."

The obituary also notes that "Burt Arthur plays were among the earliest vehicles of a number of well-known performers including Cornell Wilde and the late Frank Lovejoy as well as Hollywood agent Dick Clayton and the 50's TV Foreign Intrigue stars Jerome Thaw and Sydna Scott."


FOOTNOTES

  • [1] Zorita was a burlesque dancer (real name Katherin Boyd) whose speciality was dancing with a pair of boa constrictors. This was the only pic I could find that included a snake. Don't worry -- it's not X-rated.[back]


  • (* Thanks to Bill for the scans.)

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