The Riddle of the Bogus Boyle – Revisited!

March 7, 2016 at 10:02 PM (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Last year, I published an entry on April 27, 2015 titled “The Riddle of the Bogus Boyle,” in which I presented an item from the magazine The Writer.  It spoke of an impostor who stole the identities of both Jack Boyle and fellow author Courtney Ryley Cooper in the early 1920s, bilking money from publishers and movie producers through the imposture.  At the time, I pointed out that the physical description of this literary hoaxer sounded suspiciously like the man who impersonated author Rufus Steele in Denver, Colorado around 1914, a one-time crony of Jack Boyle before the pair had a violent falling out.  While my comments were only educated speculation, further information has come to light which warrants giving the incident a second look.  The May 22, 1920 edition of The Los Angeles Herald included an item titled “Cooper Disowns Double in $800 Film MixUp,” detailing how the infamous impostor collected $800.00 from two Los Angeles film producers for stories he contracted to write as Courtney Ryley Cooper.  The article offers these enlightening comments from the real Mr. Cooper:

“Judging from the description of the gentleman, he is the person whom I exposed in Denver several years ago while he was masquerading under the name of Rufus Steele, the San Francisco author, claiming incidentally that he wrote under the name of Jack Boyle.  At that time he stated that his real name was William Steele and that he lived somewhere in Oklahoma  …  The funny part of it is he cannot write a line.  And the worst of it is that he doesn’t give poor Jack Boyle a chance.  Boyle’s a real flesh and blood person — but he’s only a nom de plume whenever Steele’s impersonations — if this is Steele — get up steam and start working.”

Still not proof positive that it was William F. “Rufus” Steele who stole the identities of Boyle and Courtney Ryley Cooper ninety-five years ago, but it certainly sounds as though Cooper believed it to be so.  And I can’t help but agree with him.

JBF  3/7/16

 

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Jack Boyle at a Glance

April 6, 2015 at 1:00 AM (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Much has been written here about Jack Boyle as the creator of Boston Blackie, all peppered with various hints and intimations about his checkered history.  But who was he, and why was he so uniquely suited to write the tales of the underworld which brought him such success in his lifetime?  While this subject could cover entire volumes, let’s take a look at the highlights of Boyle’s life at a glance.

Jack Boyle was born in California in 1881, somewhere in the vicinity of Oakland and San Francisco.  He grew up around Santa Clara, and in his early adulthood became a newsman and reporter (following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, who had both published newspapers in the 1800s).  Beginning around 1900, he was employed by various papers in San Francisco, and by 1907 had worked himself into editorial and managerial positions.  However, his professional success took a toll on him, and around 1909 he became a habitual user of opium, to combat the stresses of his job.  His habit soon became an addiction, which quickly spelled the end of his journalistic career in California.  His professional disgrace was followed by a rapid spiral into a life of crime, in order to feed his continuing opium craving.

By 1914, Boyle had run afoul of the law on multiple occasions, and had served prison sentences in both California and Colorado, on a variety of charges from forgery to armed robbery.  While serving out a sentence near Denver, he began writing stories from his prison cell.  These proved to be the first tales of his criminal hero Boston Blackie, and they were picked up for publication in THE AMERICAN MAGAZINE.  Late in 1914, Boyle was released from prison, and returned to working in the world of newspaper and magazine writing.  In 1917, he revived Boston Blackie for a new series of stories in THE RED BOOK MAGAZINE, and these tales found a strong following with the reading public.  The following year, his work continued to appear regularly in RED BOOK, and Boston Blackie came to the silver screen in the first of many feature films to be adapted from his adventures.  Soon the popularity of these features opened the door for Boyle to embark on a new career as a Hollywood screenwriter, while still producing fiction for nationally known magazines.  In just a few short years, Boyle had gone from drug addicted felon to successful and celebrated author.

However, to paint Boyle’s story as one of disgrace to triumph is a lopsided portrait, at best.  While it’s tempting to view his rise from the shadows of a prison cell to national prominence as a success story, the reality is far less black and white.  The entirety of Jack Boyle’s career is a strange mixture of success and scandal.

In truth, there are indications that his 1914 release from prison was acquired under false pretenses, and his subsequent activities in Denver culminated in his fleeing the state within a matter of months.  His February 1915 arrival in Missouri was no less turbulent, with Boyle being arrested in Kansas City just days after taking up residence there.  Despite his rocky start in the community, Boyle managed to establish himself in the city, securing a reporting position with THE KANSAS CITY POST, and setting up housekeeping with a woman named Violet.  During his time in THE POST’s employ, he traveled to Iowa gathering story material, and became embroiled in some questionable dealings relating to the investigation of a set of ax murders in the town of Villisca.  Boyle’s time in Kansas City ended as scandalously as it began, when he was arrested in January 1917, accused of running an opium den.  While legitimate speculations can be made about the veracity of this charge, and the possible political motivation behind Boyle’s arrest, what cannot be argued is that Boyle ultimately skipped bail and fled to Wisconsin.

With wife Violet in tow, he settled in the Baraboo, Wisconsin area in the summer of 1917.  At this point, he shifted his primary professional focus away from journalism, concentrating more on the production of fiction for popular magazines.  It was during this period that he renewed his acquaintance with editor Ray Long, and began contributing frequently to THE RED BOOK MAGAZINE.  The years of 1918 to 1920 were a time of prosperity for Boyle, with the popularity of Boston Blackie (both in print and on movie screens) reaching international proportions.  He continued publishing frequently in RED BOOK, but also signed a contract in 1919 to write Blackie stories exclusively for THE COSMOPOLITAN MAGAZINE.  His writings were also seeing print in newspapers and magazines overseas, and Hollywood was purchasing the screen rights to much of his output.  The world wanted to hear the stories that Jack Boyle had to tell.

But by the end of 1920, his fortunes started to shift.  While his career roared along full-steam, things in his personal life began to disintegrate.  In April, Boyle signed a mortgage on a second home, a ranch in Colorado, and in June he and Violet decided to spend the summer at their new property.  Sometime during this holiday, things turned sour.  Boyle separated from his wife around January 1921, leaving the taxes on the ranch unpaid, and moving to New York.  In July, Boyle officially lost his ranch to foreclosure, and the following month Violet filed for divorce from him in the Colorado courts.

Spending a year in New York, Boyle met and married a woman named Elsie Thomas, and moved to Los Angeles sometime in 1922.  While he continued to write for the magazine market, his move to the west coast also marked his leap into the world of screenwriting.  Spurred by the film industry’s continuing interest in adapting his magazine stories, Boyle began writing original scenarios directly for the studios.  However, in the summer of 1923 his new Hollywood life was thrown into turmoil, with the arrival of his first wife, Violet, and her claims that their divorce had never been finalized.  Over the next year, she publicly decried him as a bigamist, and made repeated demands for a financial settlement to complete their divorce.

Despite his success at transitioning into work in the film industry, scandal continued to plague Boyle throughout his Hollywood years.  In August 1924, he was arrested for passing bad checks in a Los Angeles grocery.  He had further run-ins with the law over the frequent escapes of his pet – a full-grown bear – which ran loose through the north Hollywood suburbs.  In September, newspapers reported a violent argument between his two wives, which ended in Elsie giving Violet a severe beating.  In October, Violet again filed for divorce from Jack, and Elsie was temporarily committed to a psychiatric ward after several unsuccessful attempts to kill herself.  Finally, in November the California courts awarded Violet her divorce, ordering Boyle to pay her one hundred dollars a month in alimony.

Around 1926, Boyle moved from Hollywood to a home in nearby Hermosa Beach. His magazine output had slowed over the previous years, though sporadic stories bearing his byline continued to appear while he pursued his work as a screenwriter.  But by ’26, even his screen assignments began to thin.  In 1927, he and Elsie moved back to New York, taking an apartment in Greenwich Village.  He was still reported to be dabbling in screenplays, and in December he published his last short story for RED BOOK.

Late in the summer of 1928, Boyle and Elsie took an extended trip back to the Pacific coast, where he engaged in some work as a publicist for the Oregon State Democratic Committee.  Late in the night of October 15, 1928, he suffered acute kidney failure in a hotel room in Portland, Oregon, and died just three days shy of his 47th birthday.

So ends the strange and sordid tale of Jack Boyle (or at least a thumbnail sketch of it).  Of course, Boston Blackie remained a popular subject of movies, radio and television shows well into the 1950s, with the character even seeing a minor revival in the 21st century as the protagonist in a pair of graphic novels.  But where Blackie has endured, Boyle has largely faded into obscurity.  Which is a shame, because in many ways his life was even more interesting than the yarns he wrote.  My upcoming book, THE COMPLETE BOSTON BLACKIE, will include a far more in depth look at the life and times of the author.  But in the meantime, be sure to check back here for further glimpses into the colorful life of Jack Boyle.

JBF 4/6/15

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