The Years Were Good: The Autobiography of Louis B. Seltzer
AS I LOOK BACK on the exciting years that newspaper work have given me, and look forward to the equally exciting years ahead, I feel deeply sad that my father could not have shared more of these years with me. I suppose I should be glad that he was able to share so many of them. But as I sat before the typewriter in my office on the morning of February 10, 1942, I discovered that it was hard to write through tears. What I wanted to write was my farewell to the man who had been my hero from boyhood. But the tears got in my way.
Somehow I just sat there, remembering. I remembered what my Dad meant to me -- the things he did for me -- the example he set for me -- the truly great influence he had exerted upon my life. It had been a
rare privilege to be his son, to inherit some of the extraordinary stuff of which he was made, to experience the mutual love and respect we had held for each other from the time I was old enough to think until the few hours ago when he left us.
That morning I thought about many things, and across the screen of my mind and heart I saw a virtually unending procession of wonderful images of him.
Success came to my father in a big way after a long hardship in his earlier years. It did not spoil him. It did not even change him. More than any other man he remained constant and true to his inner convictions and natural self.
"The big thing in life," he frequently told us as children, "is to take everything in stride -- the good and the bad, happiness and sorrow, the ups and the downs. It is an old saying but a good one, 'The higher you are -- the harder you fall.' When you are on the way up, always remember that you may be seeing the same people on the way down, so be sure you never forget them, or they may forget you."
Sometimes fathers and sons tend to separate. Sons grow up. Fathers grow old. Sons marry, have their own homes, their own families, their own interests. Even when they live only a few blocks apart, this separation often takes place. It is a tragedy that this is so.
Between Father and myself, and his other two sons, there was fortunately no such separation when we grew up -- or even in the process of growing up. We were drawn even closer.
I was both the oldest and the smallest of his three
sons. My father was six foot two in his bare feet. He was a powerfully built man. When he was in his prime he liked to test his strength at the machines they used to have at the circus or on the fair ground. He could send the ball almost to the top by the impact of a hammer's blow. He got a lot of pleasure from smacking it hard, and seeing it go.
I was the runt of the family. In my bare feet I could hardly make it to five foot six. As a child, if there was any contagious disease floating around the neighborhood, I was the one who picked it up.
Because I was slight and frail Father tended to gather me to him psychologically. We sensed a mutuality of concern. He never forgot the decision I made to go out after a job when the family was hard up, and he tried ever afterward in one way or another to make it up to me.
"You were such a little tike when you did that," he would say many times later, and pat me on the back. "I didn't think you had it in you. But, by gosh, you did."
He liked to have a little fun at my expense too. When I came into the world, Father and Mother were living in a two-room affair behind a fire engine house on Clark Avenue, on the West Side of Cleveland. They had to stave off the creditors, and borrow money for the doctor.
"We debated whether to keep you, or trade you in for a loaf of bread," he used to tell me.
I remembered the time, when he had hit his literary stride and money was coming in at a pretty good rate,
that he took me aside, saying, "Son, I think you better go back to school."
But he was not displeased even when I would not agree to go. "If that's the way you want it, let's keep it that way," he said. "If we can't be honest with each other then we can't respect or love each other, can we?"
He seemed always to keep his feet squarely fixed on earth whenever he talked with us. Always he stressed assuming responsibility, always he urged us to make our own decisions, to be decisive, to know what we wanted to do and have the courage and the "get-up," as he described it, to do it.
By the time I married and left home, Father was writing books and stories at a prodigious rate. The publishers were really coming after him for his novels now. There was competition. He moved to a better house in a suburb, and they came out to his home from New York and elsewhere to see him. Robert H. Davis of Munsey's became a special friend of Father's. They liked the same things and even resembled each other in many ways.
Bob Davis brought Father and Irvin Cobb together. Once they went down to Cobb's birthplace in Paducah, Kentucky, to fish. Father came back and made our house rock with laughter when he told how Irvin Cobb flopped into a stream, when a fish he described as a "minnow" pulled him in head over heels. Cobb was a man of vast physical proportions, and Father's graphic account of the incident made one of the best stories he ever told -- particularly when he portrayed portly Irvin
Cobb, cigar still stuck at a belligerent angle, dispatching the fish to the piscatorial counterpart of Hell.
Other interesting personalities began to appear at Father's home. Harry Carey, one of Hollywood's most popular Western actors, was a visitor every time he came East. Father and Harry Carey would do a lot of reminiscing about the West, and some of their stories reminded me of those told in the early days by Nick Roth. They got a great kick out of our intense concentration on what they said, and their own exchange of reassurance:
"Wasn't that right, Harry?" Or, "We sure did, didn't we, Charley?"
William S. Hart, tall, gaunt, taciturn, who blazed two guns in the movies from both hips simultaneously, was one of Father's favorite actors. He was particularly happy when Bill Hart was billed in the leading role of one of his books.
Once when Bill Hart came to Cleveland and almost the whole town turned out to see him, he sought out Father.
"I liked playing in that story of yours, Charley," Bill Hart said, and Father was in high spirits for weeks afterward, especially when one of the papers printed the remark.
Zane Grey and Father were contemporaries, and also friends. They both wrote Westerns. They were both Ohioans. They were both prolific writers. In a sense they conceived themselves to be friendly competitors, and they corresponded often.
"Why didn't you start writing before or after I did?" Father wrote to Zane Grey one time.
"If I had started before, you wouldn't have had anything left to write," Zane Grey retorted. "And if I had waited until after you got finished I'd have passed out from literary thirst in the middle of an idea desert. So it's a stand-off. Let's keep it the way it is. By the way, what's the plot of your next story so I can avoid duplicating it in my next one?"
There was quite a bit of good-natured ribbing between them on how much each actually knew about the "Old West" for which they appeared to be the current fictional historians. My father yielded to Zane Grey in actual residence in the West, but tripped him up periodically on some of his descriptions and the identification of its denizens and landmarks.
"I think I can spell you down, Zane, in a contest on which of us knows most about what we're writing about," Father wrote to Zane Grey on one occasion.
"When will it be, Charley, and at how many paces from the realities?" Grey wrote back.
There was a period when books by Zane Grey and Father were actually published almost simultaneously, and on the bookstands of America they were advertised together. On one occasion in particular they came out the same week and were reviewed at the same time.
Father wrote a note to Zane Grey, saying, "Let's arrange our idea timetables a bit."
Zane Grey wrote back:
"All right, Charley, I'm dry for a while -- the spring is exhausted for the time being -- it'll be some time
before it refreshes itself with another idea. It's your turn."
Father admired Zane Grey, not only as an expert craftsman in the field, but for his vivid and dramatic technique. It was quite obvious that Zane Grey likewise held a high regard for Father.
Nothing pleased Father more than to have his whole family around him. He invented every reason possible to bring us together, and Mother always took special delight in preparing the meals for us. She baked bread, made cookies, fixed cakes with deep frosting, and had several varieties of almost everything. We always suspected that it was their way of saying that they knew the family larder was not always abundant when we were children, and that now they wanted to make sure we shared in their good fortune.
How much our lives centered, I often thought, around Father and Mother. They represented the refuge, the sanctuary, the anchor for us. Many times, as I grew older, my heart went out to the children in homes broken apart by divorce, or filled with heartaches and misery.
Father and Mother had their share of differences, but they were never serious. We never regarded their quarrels as important, for we knew they would not last.
Discipline was accepted in our home. There were rules, made to be respected. Any breach of them brought some kind of punishment. Father's razor strop, which hung behind our kitchen door, was not always used for its original purpose. It found its stinging way across our "sitters" whenever the judgment of our
parents felt it was essential to the preservation of household order. So far as I could tell this punishment didn't induce any of the inferiority which modern child psychologists dread. It did induce respect for our parents and appreciation for the rules of the game, or the home, or the community, or society.
Father had strong opinions about the home, about marriage, about children. He expressed them frequently, both in private and, later, in speeches and interviews. On one occasion he said:
Both Father and Mother deplored the alarming increase in divorces. They profoundly believed in the sanctity of marriage.
"When the vow of marriage is taken," Father said many times, "it literally means, as it says, 'Until death do us part.' And it means for better or for worse.
"What sometimes brings wonderment to me is to see so many divorces come about simply because, after a few months, or a few years, they want a change -- they want new partners, they want to graze in new pastures. To me this is a legalized form of promiscuity and the children are the innocent sufferers. Any human society that tolerates that kind of business eventually will find its whole moral and religious fabric worn and shoddy. I believe that the strength of ourselves as enlightened human beings centers around our ability to make our homes good, our marriages sacred, our moral and religious values enduring."
Father's only piece of advice to me as a newspaper editor came upon this subject. One day when a divorce case was before a Cleveland judge and the custody of
five children was a principal issue, Father called me up. "Louis, I think you ought to do something about this," he said. "It is a terrible thing. Here are these parents in open court dirtying up each other with their own scandalous behavior while these innocent children are being tarred with that kind of stuff for the rest of their lives. I can't understand to begin with why that judge believes it is necessary for any of these children to be in that courtroom to listen to the filth these parents are uttering about each other. There's a job for you to do, Son, and it's your business. But just as an ordinary citizen I am expressing my opinions to an editor I think ought to be doing something about it."
I don't believe there were ever two who loved each other more than Father and Mother. They were able to sit for hours in complete silence and enjoy the simple pleasure of being in each other's presence. Mother would darn and patch. Father would read or write. As the years went forward and times got better for them, their love for each other seemed to become even greater.
One day a letter came with a Hollywood postmark on it. It was an invitation to Father to come out to the movie-making capital as an adviser on an adaptation of one of his books. Anna Q. Nilsson was to be the heroine.
Mother admired Anna Q. Nilsson as an actress -- on the screen. She didn't think much of the idea of Father going out to Hollywood to be on the lot where Anna Q. Nilsson was starring in a picture made from his book. She said so.
"You have no business out there, Charley," she said.
"They can make that movie without you traipsing around on one of those movie lots with all those painted-up people."
The idea momentarily intrigued Father.
"But, Ella, you could go out there with me," he said. But she wanted no part of Hollywood, either for him or for both of them.
"We stay here, Charley," she said. "I don't like those movie people. You never can tell what you're going to get into."
If the situation had been reversed Father would have felt the same way. They lived for each other.
Father didn't go to Hollywood, but Father and Mother did take many trips to the West. When he was a very young man, he had spent a little while on a ranch in New Mexico of which an uncle was part owner. Father was anxious to revisit it. He was also anxious to extend his knowledge about the West and refresh his recollection of how it looked. He and Mother began to go out to the West annually, and each time Father came back, not only with new lore about the West which he loved, but with a half dozen new ideas for novels.
From his first visit to the West in early youth, until he became successful enough to finance a return many years later, Father had depended upon diligent research and almost continuous reading for the background in his books.
He was a perfectionist. He wanted every item of descriptive matter, every article of wearing apparel, precise and indisputably correct. He studied about west-
ern horses, idioms, ranches, traditions, history, geology, towns, places. He left nothing to chance or imagination -- the latter was reserved exclusively for his plot and his characters. The rest must be strictly in accord with the facts.
Thus his early books were not only creative work but also the result of meticulous and painstaking research from libraries and other reliable sources. It represented tedious and exhausting effort, but he had the necessary qualities of persistence and determination.
"It's all just as I pictured it in my mind," Father wrote back to me on his first extended trip back into the West. "I feel greatly relieved. I have always worried that I might be a little out of line now and then in some of my writing. I haven't been. I have been astonishingly correct. I feel better about that than anything else."
In his letter Father was lyrical in his praise and enthusiasm for that part of America. He found the people there real and dependable.
"Somehow living in the great spaces does something for people," he wrote. "It brings them closer to God. It brings the best that's in them out in their relationship to one another. You don't have to have anybody write up agreements out here. A man's word is all that's needed. You look into a man's eyes and you can read there all you need to know. That's the way I like it. That's why I like it out here. I only wish it were the same way all over the country."
Father and I visited together regularly. He liked to come over to our house with a new manuscript, some-
times when he had written only a few pages of it. He would sit watching me intently as I read.
"What do you think, Son, is it as good as the last one?" he would ask. He always tested out any new book on his family.
He never left an unfinished manuscript at home. When he went out driving or visiting he always took it along with him. He never worried about having anything else stolen, but he would never trust a manuscript around an unprotected house. And this included any carbon copies he made. He took all of them wherever he went.
"Just a habit," he would say. "Just a state of mind. I feel better when it's along with me. It's part of me. I wouldn't know what to do if I left it home. I'd worry about it anyway, so why shouldn't I take it with me."
As his books became more popular, and more numerous, Mother and Father made a shelf for them in his library, where they were arranged in the sequence of their publication. As each new book came out, Father would sit down, as the first thing he did, and autograph a copy for each of his children, for Mother, and as grandchildren came along, for them also. His daughters-in-law were always included.
"They're just as much my girls as our own daughters," he would say. "I hope they love me as much as I love them."
He would always lift his face for the kiss he expected when he delivered such a compliment. He always got it.
Each inscription had some quaint and affectionate
reference. He was proud of his books, but prouder of his family, and the combination of his affections showed up in the care and thought he gave to these autographs.
"Pretty attractive-looking fellow on that cover," he would say in his sly, amused way, when one of the jackets carried his picture. "No wonder all you children are so handsome."
He would always manage to say this in Mother's presence, and usually she smiled without saying anything. Father would then say, "I see the defense rests its case."
Father loved sports. He went regularly to the dingy little halls where amateur prize fights were held in Cleveland. He had never done any fighting himself, but he fancied himself as something of an expert. He always insisted that the amateur fights were more honest than the professionals.
"I like fights but I'm not good enough to tell when they're fixed," he used to say. "I know that they don't fix the amateurs, because they want to win because they have to win."
At these fights, Father made a fast friend and crony whose name was Tom Connell. Together they rarely missed a fight show. Their big black cigars contributed a substantial share to the pall of smoke that hung so heavily over the ring.
Father usually got a phone call from Tom Connell the afternoon of a fight show. Tom Connell, who was the City Fire Warden, would always say the same thing.
"Charley, I got a big job tonight at Moose Hall," he would explain. "They expect a pretty big crowd. Will
you come down and help me count the house so they won't pack in more than the city fire ordinance allows in it?"
On fight nights Mother knew what was coming. Father always had some excuse.
"Ella, I guess I'll go down to the Public Library for a little while," he would carefully explain to her.
"Yes," Mother would say, "and be sure you read up on the 'Manly Art of Self Defense.'"
But she was happy when Father went to the fights, for he thoroughly enjoyed them. When he came home he was more relaxed and seemed to work more efficiently.
Father took a particular liking to one amateur, a real slugger by the name of Johnny Risko, who was short of science but long on a knockout punch. Father followed him as he fought himself out of the amateurs into the professionals. He fought everybody, including Gene Tunney, and became known as "The Spoiler" because the punishment he inflicted "softened" his opponents up for other fighters. He took quite a beating nearly every time he fought.
Father always had the same seat at the arena, next to Tom Connell, and I sat with them most of the time. Johnny always looked for Father when he fought. One night neither Tom nor Father was there and that night Johnny Risko lost. He called Father, and said, "I looked for you two fellows at the fight last night. I didn't feel right when you weren't there. Maybe that's why I lost."
I don't think Father ever again missed a Risko fight
in Cleveland, and he even went to other cities where "The Spoiler" was scheduled.
It was Risko who got Father interested in professional fights, and after he was able to afford it, Father attended the big championship fights around the country. He thought Dempsey was the greatest fighter he had ever seen and was depressed for days after Dempsey met Gene Tunney for the title on that rainy night in Philadelphia.
"Something happened there," he kept repeating over and over. "Something happened. Dempsey wasn't himself."
He went to Chicago to see the second Dempsey-Tunney fight, sure that Dempsey would win this time. The radio and the papers were full of it, and we were all eagerly awaiting Father's opinion when he came home. We were surprised when he admitted that Dempsey was "over the hill," but he added, "I am glad I have seen him in my time. There will never be another like him."
Later he followed Joe Louis for a while, but his interest in prize fighting took a noticeable drop when Dempsey got licked, and subsided after a few years. He gradually turned his attention to golf. At one time he had made fun of people who went around a big field trying to knock a poor inoffensive white ball into a lot of holes.
"That," Father would frequently say, "is my idea of about the most futile way in the world to spend your time. It looks to me just like a game for little boys who play marbles."
I don't know exactly when or under what circumstances Father changed his mind about the game of golf, but he did, and in a big way. He played it at every opportunity, on any links, with anybody. He even got Mother interested, although never more than mildly.
Father now followed the golf champions all over the country, and Mother went with him as he traveled to the tournaments where the great stars competed. He so scheduled his writing that his books were produced during the cold and gloomy winter months and spring would find him entirely free to spend his time on the golf links. When we reminded Father of his former opinion about the game, as we frequently did, he would wince in mock chagrin.
"A fellow can be wrong just a couple of times in his life, can't he?" he would say, and then quickly add, "But maybe not as wrong as I was."
Father now lived in a growing westerly suburb. He had a big rambling house with a red tile roof, and about fifteen acres of land. Back of the house he built a skeet arrangement where he would spend hours shattering the discs as an automatic device sprung them into the air. He liked for my brothers to join him, and when they were out on the skeet range their laughter came rolling back toward the house.
Father had two repressed desires. He wanted to be a successful businessman and he wanted to get into politics. The family tried to dissuade him from either venture, but he persisted.
His books were making him a great deal of money and he wanted to invest some of it. He decided to con-
vert part of his land into a gigantic chicken hatchery and invested many thousands of dollars in the enterprise, obtaining the best equipment and superintending the job himself. But it didn't work. He was philosophical about it.
"I got taught a lesson," he said. "It was an expensive one. I won't repeat that."
But he did. He got interested in an oil-burning furnace that looked good, obtained a franchise on it for a large region, put together an organization, and set up offices. He went at it with the same enthusiasm and energy he had expended on the chicken hatchery. Like the chicken hatchery it didn't work out.
"The child went back and got his fingers burned a second time," he said, in his almost shy, modest way, a curiously charming characteristic for a man so big in physical stature, and so successful with his writing.
Father was cured of business. That left one other field of desire yet unexpressed -- politics. He was tremendously interested in the little municipality in which he had built his home. He saw many things that needed to be done and he decided to run for Mayor to help accomplish them.
"Dad, why don't you do what you can as a citizen, and stick to your writing?" I asked him one day.
"Son, I got this thing in my blood, and I have to get it out," Father replied. "If I lose, all right -- if I win I'll take a lick at it for a few years and see what I can do."
He was elected and he started out doing some of the things he had thought were needed. One of them was
to put in a bus line. The suburb was approximately fifteen miles from downtown Cleveland, and without adequate transportation. He was determined to supply it.
The financial situation in the municipality over which he now presided as Mayor was so acute that it couldn't undertake a bus system. Father didn't let that stop him. He went to the banks and went on enough notes to finance the busses. He then went to the automobile manufacturers in Detroit and arranged to have them made and shipped. He was in business. He ran into a legal obstacle with an Ohio commission and had to spend a lot of time in Columbus getting the matter straightened out. He ran into opposition from another bus line and he moved into that. He was performing what he sincerely believed was a very important public service for the people in the community where he now made his home -- and he was having a good time. It was the kind of situation that had always interested him. He always liked to fight against odds.
It was a long and rough fight, but the bus system, at last, was established.
"The easy battles of life are not even worth remembering," he said often. "It's the hard ones, the ones you don't think you've got the slightest chance of winning, and then go out and actually do win that really count."
After a few terms he gladly relinquished his job as Mayor to another. He had accomplished what he started out to do. He had put some of his own money into the bus line, but he regarded that as a neighborly
investment. He was like that. He never backed away from any decision he ever made, any responsibility he ever assumed. The outcome never bothered him, provided he was sure in his own mind that he had given all he had, and had not overlooked anything that could be done.
"That's that," he would say, "and what's next on life's agenda."
There was never a son who loved or admired his father more than I did mine. He was strong in every way a man should be. He was good and clean and honorable, courageous and indomitable in his will to succeed, fair and square in his dealings with people, humble and compassionate in his attitude toward others, modest and almost retiring about himself -- except about his writing, which he was proud of in a wholesome and disarming way. His devoted love for his family was reciprocated by our devoted love for him.
We all worshiped him. We all loved to be with him, to hear him talk. We were inspired by his deep, homely, logical, and yet spiritual attitude toward life and its problems.
He loved his country. He was deeply concerned about the changing world. He sensed that the United States was gradually assuming by force of circumstance a serious responsibility in the world, and he worried about whether our country was quite prepared for it.
Toward the end of his life, he thought a great deal about humanity's place in the scheme of things. He studied human history. He read extensively the findings
of anthropologists, geologists, and physicists, pursuing these fields with the same will and diligence that always characterized him when anything challenged his attention.
"From almost the beginning of time," he said, "we as human beings have really been groping our way on this earth, frequently blinded by our own stupidities. We really don't know where we are going. We are trying as best we know to become civilized. We create many agencies for bringing information to ourselves.
"But there is something lacking somewhere. I don't know what it is. Maybe it's way deep inside of mankind. We are groping our way but we don't know really what that way is or where it is. Some day I would like to put these thoughts down on paper. Some day I would like to write a story about ourselves -- about the gropers who inhabit this earth."
My Father wrote his last book not too long before he "went Upstairs." It was one of his best, a book he called, So Long, Sucker. It was, as always, a novel of the West. He brought the manuscript to my home one night and I sat down to read it. Father moved a chair over beside mine and read it with me.
"It's good, Dad," I said. "It's one of your very best."
"It better be," Father said. "It may be my last."
I looked up at him.
"Why do you say that, Dad?" I asked him.
"A fellow has to stop writing some time, doesn't he," Father said.
I thought then that he meant he was preparing to put
the cover over his typewriter, and call it a literary career.
But that wasn't it. He became ill. Father had always abhorred hospitals. He associated them with members of his family who had been taken there and didn't come back. He wanted to stay in his own home. Mother watched over him day and night, sensing that there was something really and seriously wrong. Finally the doctor warned us that he would have to be moved to a hospital in order to pull through.
As the oldest in the family I was chosen to talk with Father, to reason out the hospital question with him. It was a hard thing to attempt, but I sat down beside his bed and talked with him. He listened. At last he said:
"Son, I always wanted you boys in particular to decide things for yourselves, to make decisions. Apparently you've made one now for me. I don't want to leave my home, but if you believe I should go to a hospital I'll go."
We got him ready for the hospital. His condition was critical, and by this time he sensed it. He looked at each one of us and he smiled, as the men were about to wheel him to the ambulance.
In a soft voice, and with a small wave of his hand, he quoted the title from the last book he wrote:
"So Long, Sucker!"
He did not come back home.
He was a great man -- a very great man -- and for the son who writes these words now, the greatest man it was ever my privilege to know.
Mother lived fifteen years after Father went away. Not long ago I sat once more before a typewriter with my tears blurring the keys. I sat for a long while thinking about Mother as I had sat thinking about Father. At last I wrote the following paragraphs about Mother, and I include them here as they appeared in The Cleveland Press the day after she was called away to join Father:
|NEXT CHAPTER||PREVIOUS CHAPTER||TABLE OF CONTENTS|