30 September 2013

Not Our Backwoods, Not Catharine Parr Traill

Backwoods Hussy
Hallan Whitney [pseud. Harry Whittington]
New York: Original Novels, 1952

28 September 2013

L is for League of Canadian Poets

The League of Canadian Poets
The League of Canadian Poets
n.p.: The League of Canadian Poets, 1980
My present situation vis-à-vis the League of Canadian Poets is frankly selfish: I look on its annual meetings as no more than an opportunity for a free trip to somewhere or other in our broad land. Poets, I think, give so much to the world, and for so little that they’re entitled to this annual junket at the Canada Council’s expense. And I found the last meeting in Fredericton more rewarding for the chance it gave me to wander around that pleasant city than to listen to endless discussions on the subject of a paid Secretary, or Miriam Waddington scolding somebody, or Dr Cogswell expounding his theory of the place of the Sunday poet in our culture. If I get to the next general meeting I fully intend to register, greet a few friends, and disappear – unless there is an important vote to be taken on something really crucial like holding two general meetings every year.
— John Glassco, letter to Henry Beissel, 23 May 1975
A member since the League’s inception in 1966, Glassco was never much of a supporter. He thought the name silly and had from the start fought to make it an exclusive club. The battle was lost. By the League's tenth anniversary membership had increased more than ten fold to 160. Published at the fourteen year mark, this "concise guide" lists 197 members.

Glassco believed that the League had been inundated with “sensitive housewives from the Maritimes and the Prairies, all awful, all published at public expense in hideous little chapbooks.” He placed blame on Fred Cogswell and others who had pushed for a more inclusive organization. In an earlier letter to Beissel, Glassco writes:
If I understand Dr Cogswell correctly, his position is that everybody can and should write poetry, not so much in the pursuit of excellence or as a demanding vocation, but as a hobby or even a kind of therapy. This acknowledgement of the plight of the Sunday poet struck me as deeply humanitarian: we all know there is no one so pitiable as the person without talent who aspires to be a poet, and I can think of no one better qualified to represent her or him than Dr Cogswell, as his own work and his many sponsorings [sic] have shown over the years. He deserves the support he receives from these unhappy men and women. But I am troubled to see the league being taken over by them.
Certainly one of the most accomplished of its number, Glassco held his upturned nose in maintaining his membership. He lived just long enough to see his entry in this guide as “John Glasgow”.

Publications like these provide sharp snapshots of time and place, but for practical purposes the web serves best. Visit the League of Canadian Poets website today and you'll find listings for 557 members... and I'm not even counting Student Members, Honorary Members, Life Members and Supporting Members.

Some are friends.

Plug: Both letters feature in The Heart Accepts It All: Selected Letters of John Glassco.

Crossposted at A Gentleman of Pleasure.

22 September 2013

Montreal's Murderous Murder Mystery Writer (and the transvestite brother he passed off as his wife)

Montreal has produced some pretty awful writers, but the worst must surely be Nicholas A. Rossi. We don't talk about Rossi. Never did. Seventy years ago today he bludgeoned an old woman to death with an iron pipe. None of the Montreal papers covered the trial. The only mention of the crime came in this edited wire service story that The Gazette slipped between ads for the National Trust and Rols-Rim desks on the day after Rossi's execution:

The Gazette, 20 June 1945, p. 7
A murder committed by a "writer of pulp fiction murder mysteries" should've attracted much more attention. I blame it on the war. Only the Hartford Courant covered the unpleasantness in any detail. Several years later, a rival paper's wag described the Wegner murder as "one of the most bizarre cases in Connecticut criminal history." Can there really have been any other so odd?

Let's begin with the victim, a wealthy, widowed German immigrant whose only son was off fighting the Nazis. Mrs Wegner was the proprietress of what was cautiously described as "a high class boarding house." Early on the morning of 23 September 1943, police found her bloodied body wrapped in a comforter on the floor of the backyard garage. Suspicion fell first on a gentleman friend, bounced, then landed on Nick and Lana Williams, a married couple who lived in the basement quarters. They'd gone missing, as had Mrs Wegner's 1942 Chevrolet coupe.

Nick and Lana Williams at the time of their capture.
The pair made it as far as Missouri before being picked up trying to buy black market gasoline. It took little time for the police to identify the pair as the couple wanted in the Wegner murder. Further truths were revealed when stubble began to appear on Lana Williams' face. With this discovery, the pair not only admitted to being brothers Nicholas and Robert Rossi, but confessed to the killing.

They'd arrived in Plainville the previous month. Nicholas worked as fire warden of the Hotel Burritt in nearby New Britain, while younger brother Robert, as "Lana", served as Mrs Wegner's maid. According to one report, "Robert, in his skirts and wig, had the Wegner family fooled to the extent that he acted as personal maid and on several occasions aided Mrs. Wegner and her daughter-in-law in dressing."

The only account of the actual murder came from the brothers themselves. They told police that on the evening of the murder they'd ransacked the house while their landlady had been at the movies. Finding little, they'd waited for Mrs Wegner to return home with the intent of taking her car, purse, and whatever jewels she might've been wearing. Things got out of hand.

The Hartford Courant, 28 September 1943
The brothers were brought to Hartford for a trial, found guilty, and sentenced to death. While Nicholas was, of course, executed, Robert was spared the same fate by a public defender who managed to convince the Board of Pardons that he should not be held to the same account. It was pointed out that Nicholas had come up with the scheme to rob Mrs Wegner and it was he who had killed the old lady. Added to the obvious, was a novel argument that the older brother had been played a dominant role in the relationship, with Robert's transvestism presented as evidence of his submissive nature.

In writing about the Rossi brothers, both UPI and AP repeatedly employed the very same words: "born of the same Italian mother, but different Negro fathers." It could not have been easy growing up the son of a white mother and black father in early 20th-century Montreal. I'm left wondering  just how Nicholas came to attend Howard University. And then it was off to law school in Philadelphia? While I question that Nicholas Rossi fought "more than 100 bouts under the name Squire Williams," traces of a record linger. He was, for example, a runner-up in the 1937 Philadelphia Golden Gloves Championships.

But what of those pulp fiction murder mysteries? Scouring the references, I've not been able to find anything credited to a Nicholas Rossi or Nick Williams... or Squire Williams for that matter. When arrested, police recorded his occupation as "writer". Interesting to note, I think, that along with money, jewels and furs, the brothers had stolen a typewriter from the Wegner house.  Sixty-eight years after his death, Nicholas Rossi remains the only writer to have been executed by the State of Connecticut... the only Canadian, too.

The Milwaukee Sentinel, 20 June 1945
Brother Robert remained in prison until 1964 when his sentence was commuted. The Connecticut Board of Pardons was told that the former maid intended to leave the state to accept a job in a New Jersey hospital. There the trail ends.
My thanks to Kirstin Jones for the photograph of Mrs Wegner's gravesite. 
I first learned of this tragic episode in Canadian literary history through Kristian Gravenor's cool Coolopolis blog. Kristian's post on the Rossi brothers can be found through here.

19 September 2013

A Likely Story

Flee from Terror [The Final Run]
Martin Brett [pseud. Douglas Sanderson]
New York: Popular Library, 1957

Bought early last year from a trusted online bookseller, I put off reading this book because of the cover. It wasn't the absurd image on the front – that was kinda fun – but the description on the back:

All that stuff about a master spy, his doublecrossing wife and a daredevil American adventurer, just didn't appeal. The voluptuous mystery woman on the other hand...

I've since discovered that Flee from Terror features no spy, ergo no spy's wife. The American isn't so much a daredevil or an adventurer as a mindless mule. And that voluptuous mystery woman? Her physical attributes are never described, and you can read her like a book.

Sanderson's hero is John Gregory, a son of Wisconsin – Wausau, I'm guessing – now living in Venice. Once an oilman, he's making a living by running diamonds in the soles of his shoes to Yugoslavia at three Franklins a trip. The novel opens with Blishen, his employer, offering $10,000 for a final run. At that price, who can resist?

What Blishen doesn't know is that Gregory would've done it for free. Anna, the love of his life – things are still going strong after seven weeks – has asked him to smuggle her brother out of Yugoslavia. Minutes before he's due to leave, Gregory finds the supplier of his smuggling shoes dead in his flat. The American sets out just the same, but I couldn't tell you when. It's here that Flee from Terror falls apart.

The Final Run, to borrow the UK title, takes place at night. It begins with a drive, Gregory's dumb chauffeur at the wheel, from Venice to Montfalcone (131 km). There the American picks up a mysterious envelope and suffers the frustration of an interrupted tumble with Anna. It's then off to Trieste (30 km) for the second envelop. More mystery ensues when Anna is beaten unconscious by a gang of unknowns. Gregory pays a barkeep to hide his girl, bribes guards at the Yugoslav border (36 km), and makes his way toward Ljubljana (76 km):
The darkness lay around us. It was raining again, and the wipers squeaked jerkily over the windshield. We crawled along the high rock faces, bouncing and jolting, the flints flying up and hitting the under-chasis like pistol shots. We were doing a little under thirty miles an hour [44 km/h]. A stranger would have been lucky to get fifteen.
The chauffeur proves turncoat but remains dumb. Gregory manages an escape in true cartoon style by hanging from a tree limb jutting from the side of a cliff. When he finally reaches Ljubljana our hero finds his contact dead. Gregory is beaten senseless, regains consciousness who knows when, and is rescued by the very same man who had betrayed him just hours before. How many hours? I have no idea.

The reader is now treated to a low-speed sprint to the border, with detour to pick up Anna's brother and some unpleasantness from peasant folk when the dumb chauffeur runs over a goat. It's all trivial stuff when compared to Gregory's trials at the hands of Yugoslavian border guards. The rubber gloves come out.

Amazingly, improbably, our hero manages to get back to Italy. He picks up Anna in Trieste (142 km from Ljubljana), then makes his way back to Venice (159 km).

It's been a long night.

The Spectator, 21 September 1956
Back in the day, The Spectator gave this novel a bit of a boost, praising the author's talent for torture scenes and Hemingwayesque staccato. While I know next to nothing about the former, I've long recognized that Sanderson, at his best, can punch on par with Papa. The flaw, the great flaw, in this novel lies in all that running around in the dark. The problem is not the prose, but the plot; Flee from Terror is not improbable, it's impossible.

Sometimes story gets in the way.

Ribaldry: Seventeen pages in, Gregory runs into Bishen's wife, a former cabaret dancer with whom he had a fleeting fling:
"Hear you lost your gondolier. Overfamiliarity."
   For an instant her mouth curled. She hated me. She'd have killed me had there been no laws against it. Then the cabaret came to the fore and she smiled again. She said, "He gave me private poling lessons, darling. He was very good at it. The new one's so grim looking I won't even try."
Object: A 144-page mass market paperback, fifty-five years after publication it's holding up very well. The back cover, about which I've complained too much, features a scene that does not appear in the novel.

Access: The novel first appeared under the author's true name as The Final Run (London: Secker & Warburg, 1956); only the University of Toronto and Calgary University have copies. No Canadian libraries hold the Popular Library Flee from Terror edition.

The Secker & Waburg first is scarce. Expect to pay at something close to $50 for something in a decent dust jacket. The print run for the Popular Library would've been massive. Good looking survivors begin at five dollars.

A French translation, Un bouquet de chardons, was published by Gallimard in 1957. There's not a hit on WorldCat.

16 September 2013

K is for Kindle

An African Millionaire
Grant Allen
London: Grant Richards, 1897
A thing of beauty is a joy forever, but is it really fair to burden one's descendants? Consider the advantages offered by ebooks: they weigh nothing, can be moved easily, and free up the wall you were eyeing for that 70" Sharp Aquos flat screen. What's more, you never actually own an ebook – that "Buy now with just 1-click" button being just another of Amazon's lies. After death, your ebooks will go away with time.

Ebooks being evanescent, it's entirely understandable that little effort is put into their design. The eBooksLib offering above was thrown together so quickly that no one noticed the title was wrong. To be fair, the author's name is correct; which is something that can't be said of everything coming from eBooksLib.

I first encountered this particular ebooks "publisher" while looking for a copy of Recalled to Life, Grant Allen's novel about a young woman who loses her memory through the shock of her father's murder. Henry Holt published the first and only American edition in 1891:

The eBooksLib edition is, I think, more memorable.

Those interested in design will be disappointed to learn that eBooksLib has since dropped images, adopting a uniform format that consists of nothing more than muted colour and text. Their place in my heart has been usurped by the Library of Alexandria (of Los Angeles, California). While the designs aren't terribly flashy, image selection intrigues.

That tigers are not native to Africa may explain why the mammal doesn't feature in Allen's book. Comparing author and designer, it would seem that the latter has the greater imagination.

Here we have the Comte de Frontenac (1622-1698)  in 18th-century drag, anticipating the Chevalier d'Eon.

The Library of Alexandria's Pioneers of France in the New World prompts a question:
What did Marguerite de Navarre have to do with the settlement of New France?
The answer, of course, is nothing – though she was alive in 1534 when Jacques Cartier claimed the Gaspé Penisula for her brother, Francis I.

The Library of Alexandria tries to play it safe with Charles William Crolby's story of Samuel de Champlain, using the distorted image of a flag for a country that came into existence twenty-three decades after his death. Lest anyone become confused, Library of Alexandria (again, of Los Angeles, California) would like you to note that this title is Made in the United States of America.

Library of Alexandria's Canada might not be the tropical paradise presented by Tutis Classics, but it still looks like a good place to winter.

What better place to spend those months than in the Duck Lake district of Northern Ontario. Couples who think that the kids might best be left behind are reminded that Reverend Young's little volume was first published by the Religious Tract Society as part of their "Every Boy's Bookshelf" series.

Bookshelves. Who needs them.

Note: The Grant Richards edition of An African Millionaire pictured at the beginning of this post is valued at US$650. And Henry Holt's Recalled to Life? Not a single copy is listed for sale online.

from An African Millionaire

11 September 2013

Grant Allen's Wicked Novel

For Maimie's Sake: A Tale of Love and Dynamite
Grant Allen
New York: F.M. Lupton, [1889?]
232 pages

This review, revised and rewritten, now appears in my new book:
The Dusty Bookcase:
A Journey Through Canada's
Forgotten, Neglected, and Suppressed Writing
Available at the very best bookstores and through

08 September 2013

07 September 2013

I is for Intellectual Property

Protect yours!

Launcelot Cressy Servos shows us how:

Mr Servos' notice faces a page in which he claims copyright; a second copyright claim follows on the obverse.

Authors, scenario writers, printers, publishers, motion picture producers and others take note: Frontenac and the Maid of the Mist is now in the public domain. Not in the US or the UK, mind, but it's up for grabs in Canada – and I'm telling you that this novel of the Comte de Frontenac and his fictitious lady love is very Canadian. I haven't actually managed to get through Frontenac and the Maid of the Mist, but I have read the jacket flaps. After thumbing through the book itself, I can attest to their thoroughness and accuracy. Skip ahead to the fifth paragraph for the story itself.

That's it, the entire plot, including the climactic final scene. The pen picture painted does indeed make a deep impression. I was most taken by the poetry of Theala's last words in warding off Frontenac and accepting her fate:
"Great Chief! Great Chief!" said she, "I pray thee desist! Go I from you forever to be Maid of the Mist! From this rocky ledge to you torrent I go. To dwell eternal with the Manitou in the Falls below. And my spirit wafted upward on yonder haze, eternal shall be for men always to gaze! As I leave you forever I bid you goodby! Stand and watch my soul rising on yonder mist high!"
You can't write this stuff, but Launcelot Cressy Servos did.

So, let's get on it, shall we? Nearly ninety years have passed since Frontenac and the Maid of the Mist first saw print and we're still awaiting that motion picture adaptation.

Who have we to blame?

Only ourselves.

04 September 2013

Harper Hockey Book Watch: Year Ten, Day 77

Oh, we of little faith!

Just as belief had begun to wain, joyous news comes from the East that the prime minister's hockey book is soon to be upon us.

I confess to falling into doubt. In my defence, the prime minister has been promising his hockey book for the better part of the millennium, going so far as to tease Jane Taber and Tonda McCharles about a 2012 publication date. I questioned the book's coming not two months ago, noting that it was not listed in the Fall Preview issue of Quill & Quire. I wondered why it was not included in Simon & Schuster's Fall Catalogue, and disgraced myself further by pointing out that neither book nor author were mentioned on the publisher's website.

Okay, so there's still nothing on the Simon & Schuster website, but this cover has been released to the media:

While cover image may not be familiar to Stephen Harper's fellows in the Society for International Hockey Research – BUY YOUR MEMBERSHIP HERE FOR THIRTY DOLLARS! ANYONE CAN JOIN! – hockey historians will recognize the Toronto Blueshirts ("Blue Shirts" in the Simon & Schuster press release). Colourized here most garishly (in the tradition of Turner Classic Movies), supporting members have been removed (in the tradition of Joseph Stalin).

The nonbelievers will weigh in, but I'm grateful.

I give thanks to Simon & Schuster for signing our prime minister.

I give thanks to the Harper Government™ for subsequently deciding to allow Simon & Schuster to publish Canadian authors.

I give thanks to Greg Stoicoiu and George Pepki.

But most of all, I thank Roy MacGregor for his dedication in bringing Stephen Harper's hockey book to print. We may never know Mr MacGregor's contribution. Steven Chase, his Globe and Mail colleague, tells us that he provided the prime minister "editorial services". Tristan Hopper of the National Post writes that "the final book was smoothed out with the help of both a full-time researcher and hockey author Roy McGregor [sic]". Mr MacGregor is a modest man.

The publication date of A Great Game is fortuitous in that it fairly coincides with the end of the Conservative Party's upcoming Calgary convention.

How many copies will the party purchase?

Enough to guarantee top spot on the Maclean's bestseller list is my guess.

Related posts:

03 September 2013

Back to School with Senator Linda Frum

The McGill University Magazine, Vol. 1, No. 1 (September 1983)
Bright young things begin taking their seats at McGill today. When exactly the tired asses of the Senate will be doing likewise is Stephen Harper's secret, but it's a safe bet that Linda Frum will be there. Will anyone notice? The Ontario senator hasn't been terribly active since her 2009 appointment, but look back a few years and you'll see she her working hard raising funds for the Conservative Party. Look back a decade and you'll find her doing the same for the Canadian Alliance. Look back three decades as you'll see her really on the move as editor of the new McGill University Magazine.

Sure, it doesn't look like much today, but in the time of typesetting cylinders, wax rollers and blue pencils The McGill University Magazine was pretty impressive. All this put together by just two people? It's understandable then that the paper's appearance in bulk at the University of Toronto, 542 kilometres to the west, sparked rumours. Some said that it was laid out at The Varsity, while others speculated about funds flowing from Murray Frum, Linda's dentist/developer father. The most cynical spoke of American money.

The most cynical turned out to be correct.

This debut issue was modest: twelve pages comprising fewer than 146-column inches of text in a font that the Ulverscroft Large Print people might think too big. It fairly stumbles out of the out of the gate with the first piece, an awkward "General Statement Of Principles":
The McGill University Magazine dedicates itself to the preservation of those of McGill's ancient traditions still extant, and to the revival of those now lost. Without its customs, a university is merely a machine for teaching, indistinguishable from its rivals; with them, it is a great and thriving institution that extends across time to unite our ancestors and our posterity in common enterprise.
Three more principles follow: the demand for academic excellence, the rejection of public funding for higher education, and the peculiar insistence that the prosperity of the university take priority over that of the country. Something about the protection of private property appears tacked on as an afterthought.

Throughout the paper runs an unquestioning nostalgia for the university's past, the very decades in which its editor would have been faced with a cap on the number of Jewish admissions. One page is devoted to "Songs of Old McGill", another features a few sports photos from the 'twenties, 'thirties and 'fifties. An 1874 Thomas Naste editorial cartoon about bank failures in the United States is tweaked in memory of the victims of "Korean Air Flight 077 [sic]", while another 19th-century American editorial cartoon is directed at students who objected to cruise missile testing in Alberta:

Given the paper's skewed view of the past, it makes perfect sense that its cover story about the McGill Daily begins by misquoting alumnus A.J.M. Smith (B.A 1925, M.A. 1926), then denying him credit:

What follows is a three-page interview between former editor Richard Flint and some anonymous soul. Who could it be? There may be a clue in the shared queer obsession – pun intended – nameless interviewer and paper have with the Daily's annual Lesbian and Gay issue. The front page of the 1983 edition is reproduced no less than four times in these pages; no other issue of the Daily features. The interviewer raises the subject more often than any other, leading to this exchange in which Mr Flint is accused of giving "homosexuals extra space in the Daily":
RF: No, we don't.
MUM: But you do, you really do.
RF: We certainly don't give a tenth of our coverage to the gay community, which if we were to be fair is what we would give.
MUM: Wouldn't it seem to the other 90 per cent of the campus that you are ignoring their interests?
RF: No. To the minority who are homophobic, there is a problem. That have a dangerous bigotry. This is the problem with reflecting student opinion. If student opinion is bigoted, should we reflect that? I don't think so. The intolerance encouraged by what I would call the Right, these days represented by our Student Society and some of their publications, is really quite pathetic.
MUM: We are not questioning the right to print what you want, but we wonder whether your commitment to letting other sides be heard is as strong as it should be.
RF: I think the Daily is the most accessible publication I have ever seen. There's no doubt about it. We have a number of people whose politics are vastly different from the rest of the staff's. They are accepted. Sure, the majority of the staff have left-leaning views.
MUM: Why then, for example, do we not see any articles against McGill's divesting from South Africa?
RF: Something like divestment is a thing where even our most right-wing staffers don't disagree.
MUM: You wrote an editorial denouncing the right of a representative of a group called the South African Foundation, John Chettle, to speak at McGill...
RF: I don't think people who deny free speech to others should enjoy free speech themselves.
And on it goes for another page and a-half, ending with this:

Now, I've never had an account with the Bank of Montreal myself, but there has been some contact. As a member of a student paper, back in 1980 I voted to close our account with the bank. Old timers will recall that it wasn't until five years later, under pressure from Joe Clark, that the Bank of Montreal finally stopped lending money to the Botha government.

The Bank of Montreal receives the lone – pun unintended – acknowledgement of support in the debut issue of the McGill University Magazine. There are no ads. What Messrs Fogler, Donato, Hart, Evans and Muggeridge did to warrant "special thanks" I cannot say. What I do know is that the Magazine received some funding from the Institute of Educational Affairs, an American organization founded by William Simon and Irving Kristol. The IEA also helped support David Frum, Tony Clement and editor Nigel Wright – yes, that Nigel Wright – in establishing their own magazine at the University of Toronto. Still more of the Institute's money was given to Libertas, a paper that was starting up at Queen's University. It was edited by John Mulholland, son of William Mulholland, Chairman and CEO of the Bank of Montreal.

It's who you know, I guess.

The McGill University Magazine promised an exclusive interview with once-and-future Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa in its second issue. I couldn't be bothered to pick up a copy. Still, I was impressed; it was quite a coup for a fledgling "student publication".

It's who you know, I guess.

It bears repeating.