Blackie & Mary’s Screen Debut

August 9, 2016 at 9:11 PM (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Over the years, many performers have portrayed Boston Blackie and his beloved Mary, in media ranging from cinema to radio to television.  First seen in illustrations for the pages of The American and The Red Book magazines , the “first couple” of the underworld was given form by artists such as N.C. Wyeth and W.H.D. Koerner.  But the first flesh and blood pair to bring the characters to life on the silver screen were Bert Lytell and Rhea Mitchell, in Metro Pictures’ 1918 production Boston Blackie’s Little Pal.

Rhea Mitchell & Bert Lytell

the screen’s original Blackie & Mary

Lytell looks appropriately suave and dashing in the role of Blackie, with Mitchell a fine image of Mary.  And director E. Mason Hopper’s cinematic interpretation of the Red Book tale seems to adhere closely to Jack Boyle’s original plot (as evidenced by this item from the September 14, 1918 issue of Exhibitor’s Herald):

Exhibitors Herald 9-14-18

Lytell would play Blackie again in the 1919 offering Blackie’s Redemption, but that production saw actress Alice Lake assume the role of Mary.  However, her performance in Boston Blackie’s Little Pal endows Rhea Mitchell the indisputable title of cinema’s first Boston Blackie’s Mary.

Mary & Blackie pic

JBF  8/9/16

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Ed Hoch, Ray Long and the Chicago Conundrum

April 15, 2016 at 9:31 PM (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Back in 2011, I posted an entry here titled “Ed Hoch and Jack Boyle” which discussed, among other things, the misconception that Boyle was born in Chicago.  Hoch made this misstatement regarding Boyle’s hometown in the introduction to Gregg Press’ reprint of the 1919 hardcover collection Boston Blackie, and since that time the inaccuracy has wormed its way into numerous biographical entries.  When I asked Ed where that bit of data came from, he said that he had gotten it from Boyle’s 1914 autobiographical sketch, A Modern Opium Eater.  At the time, I took this answer at face value, but upon later examination, the essay revealed no such reference.  Since my correspondence with Ed took place years after his research for the Gregg Press introduction, I’m sure this was a case of his memory simply failing him.  But we’re still left with the mystery of where the idea of Boyle’s Chicago birth came from.

I’ve puzzled over this for years, to no avail.  How do you trace a decades-old fallacy to its source?  Then recently, while pursuing an entirely different avenue of Boston Blackie research, I stumbled across this passage from the Lothrop, Lee and Shephard Company’s 1932 anthology 20 Best Stories in Ray Long’s 20 Years as an Editor:

And then one day there came into my office in Chicago a tall, handsome chap who announced himself as Jack Boyle, 6606.  He had recently been freed from prison, where he had written the articles for The Americanand had returned to his old home in Chicago.

So it was Jack Boyle’s long-time editor Ray Long who, in a memoriam published just a few years after the Boston Blackie creator’s death, mistakenly credited Chicago as the locale of his birth.  Long must have somehow misheard or misconstrued Boyle’s comment about returning to “his old home in Chicago.”  It is entirely possible that Jack had, indeed, resided in Chicago at some time prior to his visit to Long’s office in 1917.  Large chunks of his life between 1909 and 1915 are a blank, and Jack was known to have traveled the Midwestern states.  It’s quite plausible that he lived in Chicago at some point during this gap.  But his remark about returning to “his old home in Chicago” did not mean he had returned to his birthplace, just to a place he had lived previously.  Census records have long since documented Boyle’s 1881 birth in the State of California, and this is corroborated by his World War I draft registration card.  A simple misunderstanding of a friend’s casual remark caused Ray Long to write something which spawned a chain of misinformation for over eight decades.  It’s amazing how easily an idea — even a mistaken one — becomes fact, just because it has been written down.

JBF  4/15/16

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Jack Boyle and the Innkeeper’s Daughter

August 29, 2011 at 8:11 PM (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , )

One of the oddest anecdotes that my ongoing research has brought to light comes from the pen of a writer other than Jack Boyle.  Instead, it appeared in the syndicated newspaper feature “Modern Parables” written by columnist and author Fulton Oursler  –  but, nonetheless, it raises questions about the creator of Boston Blackie.  Published in March 1950, the story was circulated more than two decades after Boyle’s death.  Here is the piece in its entirety:

 

“The Innkeeper’s Daughter”
By Fulton Oursler (from his MODERN PARABLES column of 3/5/50)

One of the strangest stories I know happened to the late Jack Boyle, fiction writer.  He was late on the deadline for a magazine yarn, and found himself
helpless at his typewriter.  For some reason, he was unable to to write; his mind was obsessed with another plot.  The story, struggling in his mind to be born, was not anything he wanted to write.  But he finally surrendered and now his fingers fairly flew over the keys: within two hours the manuscript was finished.  Then he read it over.  “This crazy piece is no good,” he said, tossing it aside.  Not for two years was he to look at it: not until an editor wired for a story in a hurry.  Once again the author read that unlikely tale.  It told of two brothers who enlisted in the war.  One night, while sleeping in a front line trench, the younger man had a dream.  He saw a battle coming to an end, smoke lifting, the coming of morning.  In deepening light he beheld a ladder into the sky.  Up this ladder two men were climbing.  One of the two was trying to climb upward, while the other held
stubbornly back.  The dreaming brother ran to the bottom of the ladder calling: “What does it mean?”  The lower of the figures replied: “There are two of me – there are two of everybody.  One is my higher, the other my lower self.  The higher self would rise, the lower holds back.”  The dreamer awoke, to receive word that his brother had been killed.  That was Jack’s queer manuscript, which soon was published in a magazine.  And then the author got a letter from an innkeeper’s daughter.

“To me your story of the higher and lower self is a matter of life and death.  I was in love with a boy named Ned.  When the war came, he enlisted, and we were married the night before he left.  He told me when we said good-by that if anything happened to him, his spirit was going to come back to me.  “He was killed four days before the Armistice was signed.  Ever since then I have been trying to get the message he promised me, but it has never come.  Finally I couldn’t stand it any longer; I went into an empty room in my father’s hotel, resolved to die.  But I noticed a magazine lying on the bed.  It was open at your story.  Now I have got to know whether that story is just made up – or whether it is true.  Did it really happen?  If it is true, then I think the reason Ned can’t get through to me is because my lower self is holding me back.  I am willing to follow my other self.  Please – is the story true?  If not, I can’t wait any longer.”

Jack felt strange as he sat down to answer her.  The story, he told her, was really true in its meaning for her.  The reply he got was astonishing.  She was going all the way to  France, where she would be a clerk, cataloging graves in the American cemetery where her husband was buried.  “You see,” she wrote, “I am going to be near him.”  More months passed by and then came the last letter Jack was ever to have from her:

“I want you to know how glad I was that I waited.  I am in a hospital here with tuberculosis.  The doctors tell me there is absolutely no hope.  In three months at the most I shall be with Ned.  Hasn’t God been good to me?”

 

This vignette is a total puzzle to me.  Is Mr. Oursler referring to Jack Boyle of Boston Blackie fame?  By the 1950s, Boyle was hardly a household name any longer, so Oursler’s mention of “Jack Boyle, fiction writer” with no further elaboration is surprising.  Even more curious is the story he relates.  Despite having unearthed some 40 of Boyle’s tales (his entire output of fiction, to the best of my knowledge), I have found no published counterpart to this unlikely yarn.  It’s certainly atypical of the remainder of his canon, but that is not proof that the story is not his.  So the question remains, is this an anecdote of another Jack Boyle, a fabrication, or are more Boyle stories still lurking out there, waiting to be discovered?

JBF 8/29/11

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The Other Jack Boyles

June 29, 2011 at 9:45 PM (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

When I first dove into this project two decades ago, I hadn’t realized that one of my biggest stumbling blocks would be the name “Jack Boyle.” Try running a Google search on it, and you’ll see what I mean.  It’s an exceptionally common name, and even a casual pass at it will yield a staggering number of hits corresponding to scores of different people.  Without a doubt, there is only one creator of Boston Blackie, but history has given the world a multitude of Jack Boyles. Trying to narrow things  down to a single man brings the old cliché “a needle in a haystack” to mind.

Among my many such hindrances, the chief culprit is a major league baseball player known as “Honest Jack” Boyle.  This fellow gives me grief on several levels.  Not only do he and writer Boyle have the nickname “Jack” in common, but both also share the christian name John A. Boyle.  Also, both lived at roughly the same time (the late 19th century into the early 20th), so it’s impossible to use chronology alone to distinguish the two.  “Honest Jack” was born in Ohio, and made his major league debut in 1886 with the Cincinnati Red Stockings. His sports career extended through 1898, with stints playing for such teams as the St. Louis Browns, the Chicago Pirates, the New York Giants, and the Philadelphia Phillies.  After retiring from the game, he became a successful saloon owner, until his death from Bright’s Disease in 1913.

Still another successful Jack Boyle had a career which flourished during the early days of the 20th century (much to my chagrin).  This gentleman was a popular comedian and vaudeville performer, whose name appeared in newspaper announcements across the country in the 1910s and ‘20s.  He and partner Dave Kramer toured as “The Happy-Go-Lucky Pair,” and he also performed with fellow entertainer James Hussey.  Vaudeville’s Jack Boyle died July 8, 1933 in Lynbrook, near Long Island.

The 1920s alone had no shortage of Jack Boyles.  Along with the vaudevillian Boyle, a sportsman bearing the moniker received sporadic attention from the newspapers of the 1920s and ‘30s.  Little of his later career seems to have been documented, but for a time he was a noted West Coast boxing promoter, owning a gym in Los Angeles.  Also during this decade, a fictional Jack Boyle hit the scene.  In 1924, Dublin dramatist Sean O’Casey wrote JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK, featuring a drunken scoundrel named Captain Jack Boyle.  The show was the second installment in O’Casey’s “Dublin trilogy,” and became one of the most performed Irish plays of the 20th century.

Moving from Drama to Dance, another notable Jack Boyle began a screen career as a dancer and choreographer in the mid-1930s.  Jack Boyle Jr. was
born in Illinois in 1916, and broke into movies as an uncredited dancer in COLLEGE HOLIDAY (1936).  It is tempting to speculate that Boyle Jr. might have been the son of the Jack, since Boyle the writer did have connections to Chicago around 1916.  However, it seems unlikely, since writer Boyle was in and out of prison for so much of the mid-1910s.  One distinction of Boyle Jr. was a friendship with songwriter George M. Cohan.  His career extended well into the 1960s, with appearances on both the large and small screens.

The world of music has also had a noteworthy Jack Boyle, though not in the form of a musician.  Jack Boyle the promoter launched his career in the
early 1960s in the Washington DC area, running music clubs and night spots such as the Cellar Door and the Crazy Horse.  He later moved into full-time concert promotion, earning a reputation as a skilled negotiator and a tough-but-fair businessman.  Officially retired, in 1996 he was honored in
a New York ceremony for his profound and lasting impact on the concert business.

These half dozen characters are by no means the only Jack Boyles who confound any researcher digging for information about the creator of Boston
Blackie.  But they are the six most common Jacks who obscure the trail, and bedevil the hapless sap who thinks it would be fun to learn a bit more
about an obscure early 20th century crime writer.  The Jack Boyles of history have my respect, but they can also be the bane of my existence.

JBF  6/29/11

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H.K. Fly’s BOSTON BLACKIE

May 24, 2011 at 8:03 PM (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

To some extent, the long-defunct New York publishing house The H.K. Fly Company is the reason that anything is known today about Jack Boyle.  In
1919, they issued the only hardcover collection of any of Boyle’s work.  Otherwise, every word the man wrote was relegated to the rather impermanent world of magazines and newspapers.  Of course, as a character, Boston Blackie has transcended the written medium, gaining a life of his own in cinematic and broadcast entertainment.  But the original stories of Jack Boyle have all but faded away.  If not for the 1919 hardback BOSTON BLACKIE, his work could easily have been buried in the crumbling pages of the popular magazines of the early 20th century, lost today to all but the most devoted antiquarians.

Fortunately, H.K. Fly did release seven of the early Boston Blackie tales in their 1919 hardbound collection, ensuring that at least a portion of Boyle’s canon would remain in bookstalls and libraries for decades to come.  And of course, it was for the Gregg Press 1979 reprint of that 1919 volume that Ed Hoch pursued the first serious research into the life of Jack Boyle.  In turn, it was that 1979 reprint that spurred me to begin my own research efforts to expand the world’s knowledge of Boston Blackie’s creator.  If not for The H.K. Fly Company and that one book from 1919, the rest of this quest could never have begun.

However, the Fly volume has also spawned a common misconception – that the original Boston Blackie saga consists of seven stories.  For years, a great many readers have assumed that the 1919 collection gathered all of Boyle’s Blackie tales.  Ed Hoch went a long way toward dispelling this in his 1979 introduction, pointing out the earlier quartet of stories which debuted in several 1914 issues of THE AMERICAN MAGAZINE.  Still, the thought that Fly’s BOSTON BLACKIE is a “complete collection” frequently persists.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  While the company is to be
commended for preserving seven excellent Blackie yarns for posterity, Boyle wrote a total of twenty-two stories featuring his most famous creation
between 1914 and 1925.  Not to mention, several of his other magazine pieces included characters that first appeared in the Blackie stories.  So, in the final accounting, The H.K. Fly Company presented readers with less than one-third of the Blackie saga.

Over the years, these “unknown” stories began to surface as my research into Boyle’s career progressed.  At first, I only gave attention to the uncollected Blackie tales, but as story after story came to light, I began to realize what an unsung body of work Jack Boyle left behind.  My best efforts
have unearthed 42 stories from Boyle’s typewriter, each drawn from the author’s unique perspective of a professional writer with intimate personal
knowledge of the criminal underworld.  They are compelling fiction, and I’ve been moved to the conviction that they do not deserve to be forgotten.  So it was an exciting day, earlier this year, when a publisher expressed not just interest, but actual excitement over the prospect of releasing my research in conjunction with a complete collection of Jack Boyle’s fiction.  I’m hesitant to jinx myself by divulging too many details until the official announcement of the book’s release, but I’m ecstatic at the thought of seeing all of Boyle’s stories in print after nearly a century of obscurity. The collection is slated for release in 2014, marking the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Boston Blackie’s first appearance. Stay tuned for more details …

JBF 5/24/11

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Ed Hoch & Jack Boyle

May 9, 2011 at 8:32 PM (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , )

Edward Hoch’s introduction to BOSTON BLACKIE is frustrating.  I say this with the greatest respect, because it is also the best essay published to
date on the life and career of Jack Boyle.  When Mr. Hoch sat down to compose his introduction to Gregg Press’ 1979 reprint of Boyle’s one and only book, practically nothing was known about the creator of Boston Blackie.  Hoch did a remarkable amount of research (without the benefit of the internet, in those days prior to the information super-highway) to give the world some idea of the man behind the character.  Before his efforts, no scholarship existed on Jack Boyle at all, and my own research would have been virtually impossible without the foundation he laid.  I owe Ed Hoch a
great debt.

At the same time, it’s frustrating to see citations in print across the internet (and elsewhere) quoting “facts” which simply aren’t true.  All of these citations stem back to Hoch’s introduction, the definitive source for information on Jack Boyle.  But occasionally Hoch’s scholarship missed the mark.  In particular, it is frequently stated that Boyle was born in Chicago, and later moved west.  Without meaning to be overly blunt, this couldn’t be further from the truth.  Like most readers, I took Hoch’s statement as fact, because he was the expert.  As my own research took shape over the years, however, I came to realize that the only mention of Boyle’s birth in Illinois seemed to be in his introduction.  Where did that tidbit of information come from?

Luckily, I made one really smart move when I decided to pursue my own investigation of Jack Boyle – I wrote to Ed Hoch.  Ed was very pleasant to correspond with, and exceptionally gracious to an upstart amateur trying to unearth information that had eluded a professional like him.  He was
delighted that someone was following in his footsteps, trying to divine a clearer picture of Jack Boyle.  During our correspondence, I asked Ed where
he got the impression that Boyle had been born in Chicago, and he responded that he found it in the autobiographical sketch published in THE AMERICAN MAGAZINE.  Eagerly, I dug out my own copy of that sketch, but soon found myself disappointed.  It contained no references at all to Boyle’s birth.  Somewhere along the way, Ed had gotten the notion that Boyle was a Chicago boy, and the idea wormed its way into print.  Which is no big deal, except that now practically everyone who writes more than two sentences about Jack Boyle says he was born in Illinois (in spite of census records which have long since proven otherwise).

Of course, Ed Hoch is far from being the only writer to put forth erroneous information about Boyle and Blackie.  At least one major cinema reference
book attributes the creation of Blackie to a totally different author (don’t believe anyone who tells you that George Randolph Chester was the father of Boston Blackie).  And in the earliest stages of my own scholarship, even I fell guilty to perpetuating misinformation, before discovering a few errors in my research.  Once an idea has been committed to paper, it is very hard to erase from the realm of “common knowledge.”

Regardless of such errors, Hoch’s 1979 essay is the seminal work on Jack Boyle, unlocking the door through which all future scholars must pass.  I
regret that Ed passed away in 2008, before my Boston Blackie project found a home with a potential publisher, and that I had been out of touch with
him for quite a few years.  I think he would have been intrigued to read the items on Boyle’s life which have surfaced in the last few years.  But who knows … perhaps Ed knows more about Boyle now than the rest of us ever could.  Perhaps out there in the Beyond he and Jack are sharing a drink and a chuckle together, spinning the best yarn yet about Boston Blackie.  At any rate, I hope so.

JBF  5/9/11

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Boston Blackie

April 26, 2011 at 7:46 PM (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

It’s probably unfair of me to call Jack Boyle forgotten.  Certainly, a simple Google search of “Boston Blackie” will turn up references to him, and there are snippets of info about his life buried in documents scattered across the Internet.  But virtually all of that material is DEEPLY buried, and Boyle’s name is scarcely a fraction as recognizable to the general public as that of his most enduring creation.

Not that Boston Blackie is a household name these days either.  Still, unlike his creator, Blackie has managed to maintain a toehold in the  consciousness of the American public.  He is mentioned in songs like The Coasters’ Searchin’ and (more recently) Jimmy Buffet’s Pencil Thin
Moustache.  And, of course, his adventures are fondly remembered by a great many fans of old-time radio and b-movie mysteries.

For the uninitiated among us, Boston Blackie is a hero on the wrong side of the law.  In his best-remembered incarnations (the movies, radio, and tv
series of the 1940s-50s), he is a reformed thief with a heart of gold, usually at odds with the police because of his criminal past.  However, this characterization is a far cry from the initial concept first presented in Jack Boyle’s earliest stories.  While his Blackie definitely possesses the benevolent streak which helped endear him to audiences for decades, he initially appears as a hardened criminal and opium addict.  Later tales wean him of his drug dependence, and move Blackie closer and closer to the reformed status he enjoys in later decades.  Regardless of which version of the character you prefer, Boston Blackie always makes for ripping good entertainment, and his creation was a defining moment in Jack Boyle’s life.

Of course, I was scarcely aware of most of this the day I unwittingly took my first tentative steps down the trail of Blackie and Boyle.  The afternoon I returned that reprint of BOSTON BLACKIE to the public library, and followed a whim to dig up Boyle’s earliest tales from THE AMERICAN MAGAZINE, I had no intention of embarking on a decades-long research project.  I just wanted to read a few more stories, and maybe find out a
little bit more about their author.  There was something magical about handling those crumbling magazines from 1914 though – almost intoxicating –
and the original illustrations by N.C. Wyeth alone were stunning enough to justify pulling the aged periodicals from the depths of the library’s
archives.  The autobiographical sketch published with these earliest Blackie tales was not credited to Jack Boyle, but appeared under the byline No. 6606 (Boyle’s convict number in the penitentiary where he was incarcerated).  With his identity obscured in this manner, the sketch provided little in the way of specific data about the author, instead relating anecdotes primarily related to his addiction to opium and his fall from grace as a journalist. So, while fascinating reading, the piece gave only vague clues to Boyle’s early life.

But what clues they were!  They spoke of a successful professional brought to ruin, the pursuit of a fugitive from justice, armed robbery, corruption in law enforcement, and an insider’s view of the criminal underworld. In many ways, Boyle himself was beginning to sound even more intriguing than
the fictional characters he wrote about.  Surely there was more I could ferret out about this man.  How could he have gone from success to disgrace to extreme success and then obscurity?  My intrigue was deepening.  So, putting aside those issues of THE AMERICAN, I began contemplating how I
could go about finding out more …

JBF 4/26/11

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It Began Innocently Enough …

April 13, 2011 at 8:01 PM (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , )

In many ways, this whole thing started for me with a man named Doyle, not Boyle.

Back in the mid-1990s, I was a fresh-faced kid, a few years out of college and recently married, working in the records division of a downtown law firm.  Mr. Doyle was a gentleman also in the firm’s employ, who knew of my enthusiasm for all things nostalgic, vintage radio drama in particular.  One afternoon he gave me a box of cassette tapes he had purchased some years earlier, a sampler of programs from radio’s golden era.  Among the recordings were several episodes of BOSTON BLACKIE starring Dick Kolmar.  I had never heard BOSTON BLACKIE before, but recalled the title as one of a handful of shows that my parents had mentioned over the years as being among their families’ weekly entertainments.  Something about the title, and the fact that my folks had listened to the series long ago, sparked my interest, and I listened to those tapes first.

I can’t honestly say that the production held me riveted, but the shows were a pleasant afternoon’s diversion, and a reminder that I had once read that the BOSTON BLACKIE radio series had its basis in an older literary character.  At the time, I was an avid reader of early twentieth century crime fiction, so on a whim I looked up Boston Blackie at my local public library.  To my delight, they held a reprint of the sole volume published about the character way back in 1919.  I devoured the collection in a matter of days, thoroughly enjoying my first taste of the “real” Boston Blackie as originally conceived by his creator.  But who was this Jack Boyle, who had created such an amiable rogue as Blackie?

Fortunately for me, the reprint which I held contained an excellent introduction by mystery writer Edward D. Hoch detailing background on the author and his notorious brainchild.  However, I soon learned that precious little was known about Jack Boyle.  A former newspaper man, corrupted by drug addiction, Boyle had written his earliest tales of Boston Blackie from a prison cell.  They became popular with the reading public, and upon his release from incarceration a few years later, Boyle went on to a successful writing career with Blackie at its foundation.  Movies were made about Blackie as early as 1918, and continued to be made well into the 1940s.  His exploits were later successfully adapted to both radio and television, and mentions of him have even made their way into a few popular songs over the years.  But despite Blackie’s longevity, after the mid-1920s Jack Boyle seems to have just faded away.  Given the success of his work, how could this happen?

The day I went to return the book, I spotted a passage in its introduction which had previously escaped my notice.  Ed Hoch commented that the earliest Blackie stories, published in THE AMERICAN MAGAZINE along with an autobiographical essay composed by Boyle to introduce the series, were not included in the 1919 book.  So there was more information available out there!  Issues of THE AMERICAN from the 1910s are pretty scarce, and the odds of my library holding copies were overwhelmingly slim, but I decided to check just on the off chance.  To my astonishment, our collection held precisely the issues I needed, and I scurried excitedly to the Periodicals Desk anticipating the intriguing new info I could be on the verge of unearthing …

So, with his random gift, Mr. Doyle unwittingly unleashed my curiosity, setting me on a collision course with Jack Boyle and his shady world of letters and lawlessness.  But at that point, I had no hint where my new-found interest was leading me …

JBF 4/13/11

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