Charles Fort has often been described as a hermit, but he was not wanting for fans and friends. Theodore Dreiser befriended him early in both their careers. As editor of Smith’s Magazine, Dreiser bought some of his short stories: droll, salty tales of newspaper life and the poor Irish of the Hell’s Kitchen neighbourhood in Manhattan. He encouraged Fort’s literary experiments, and invited him to parties (to one honouring Edgar Lee Masters, for example). Fort, in turn, invited Dreiser to his home for beer, cheese, and “to-peach-o,” a tomato-peach preserve whose recipe is now, sadly, lost.
Dreiser’s first novel, Sister Carrie, was published in 1900 to both scandal and acclaim. Fort’s first, The Outcast Manufacturers, came out in 1909. It’s been eclipsed by his later, more radical books, but it’s an odd and imaginative work in its own right: an almost plotless study of a group of Dickensian eccentrics, written in a vivid impressionistic style. The reviews weren’t bad, either: the New York Times called it “A somewhat unusual story… the shiftless life of the crowded district is set forth with a great deal of skill… the dialogue is unusually clever.” 1
Dreiser went on to write more novels, to ever greater success. Fort wrote and destroyed many manuscripts; one can only wonder how he would have developed as a novelist. But, as the magazine you’re holding in your hands attests, he had other ideas. Prompted by what he liked to call “strange orthogenetic gods,” he mixed philosophical speculation, obsessive research, and satire into an orthogenetic to-peach-o that he entitled X. Dreiser loved it, and tried to interest publishers, only to have Fort recall it and scrap it. After a few false starts, Fort reworked it into The Book of the Damned; Dreiser talked his publisher, Boni and Liveright, into printing it; and it came out in 1919.
The critics were mostly distressed. The Times seems to have preferred The Outcast Manufacturers. “Painfully and boresomely commonplace,” sniffed its nameless critic. “There are persons, perhaps living in Greenwich Village, who may enjoy puzzling through it.” “Propaganda of systematic idiocy,” pronounced the Nation. 2
But off in Illinois, far from Greenwich Village, Ben Hecht was delighted. Hecht still hadn’t gotten to his first novel; he was writing lively, jazzy stories and articles for the Chicago Daily News: “I am the first disciple of Charles Fort. He has made a terrible onslaught upon the accumulated lunacy of fifty centuries… Henceforth I am a Fortean.” 3
Booth Tarkington, Pulitzer Prizewinner, author of The Magnificent Ambersons, Penrod, and other novels of the Midwest, was just as amazed by Fort. “Who in the name of frenzy is Charles Fort?” he wrote to The Bookman. “People must turn to look at his head as he walks down the street; I think it’s a head that would emit noises and explosions, with copper flames playing out from the ears.” 4 He was so impressed that he wrote the introduction for Fort’s next book, New Lands, in 1923.
The critical response was again mixed. The Boston Transcript called it “an amazingly interesting book”; the New York Times was again unhappy, noting, with a limpid obtuseness toward methodological satire, that “Mr. Fort’s favorite method of proof seems to consist in lining up an array of data supporting his beliefs, and in matching it with a cohort of carefully selected errors in the field of orthodox astronomy.” 5
"Your Secretary" - Fortean Society founder Tiffany Thayler in 1956, aged 54
New Lands did, however, net Fort another ardent fan: a young actor and writer with the improbable name of Tiffany Ellsworth Thayer. Thayer wrote to Fort in 1924; they corresponded; and finally met in 1930.
Thayer was only 22 when he contacted Fort. He was born in Freeport, Illinois, to a couple of actors, Sybil Farrar and Elmer Ellsworth Thayer, who divorced when he was five. At 15, he quit school; he worked by turns as an actor, reporter, and used-book clerk in Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland. By the age of 16, he was touring as the teenage hero in the Civil War drama “The Coward”. And he was, as he later recalled, at the Chicago Examiner when Ben Hecht was at the News, and famed critic Burton Rascoe at the Tribune.
In 1926, Thayer moved to New York City to boost his acting career; but fell back on writing, first as a copywriter, then as advertising manager for the Literary Guild. And he started contributing to pulp magazines, often under the names Elmer Ellsworth, Jr and John Doe. The Brainless Informer, serialised in Detective Story Magazine in 1929, is a fair example of his approach to fiction-writing. To borrow an old French expression, he was not making lace.
The books started arriving in 1930. That year, his first novel, Thirteen Men, became a best-seller. It was a definite novelty: each chapter told the life story of one juror, with the final chapter a monologue from the killer on trial. By Thayer’s admission, its fast, breezy style was patterned after Ben Hecht. It may also be the first truly fortean novel: there are no anomalies, but the interconnectedness of the jurors’ lives is a constant motif; furthermore, the murderer blames his nihilism on Fort, and warns parents to keep his writings from their children: “And The Book of the Damned, by Charles Fort, for there is disclosed the rottenness of the root of Science… By all means forbid him this parade of pallid data relating to rainfalls of butter and porkchops. It is too heady for mere men.” 6
Meanwhile, Fort was proving too heady for mere publishers. Boni and Liveright dropped him, and he had trouble placing his next book, God and the Fishmonger. Thayer introduced him to Claude Kendall, who had published Thirteen Men, and Aaron Sussman, who had designed it; they came to an agreement. Kendall disliked the title, though, so others were proposed – Skyward Ho!, God Is an Idiot, If the Time Has Come, The Time Has Come. Finally, Thayer hit on Lo! It was published in 1931, with an exuberant introduction by Thayer and flamboyant illustrations by Alexander King.
Lo! was probably Fort’s most popular book – it’s still many forteans’ favourite. The reviews were positively joyful. Burton Rascoe – tireless exponent of the fresh in letters, catalyst of the Chicago Renaissance, Dreiser’s first biographer – said: “in any mood your temperament dictates and whatever way you read it, it is a good book.” And the penny finally dropped at the Times, with Maynard Shipley crowing, “Reading Fort is a ride in a comet.” 7
Thayer – who had, after all, helped considerably with the book – decided to form a Fortean Society as a sort of publication party. Fort wanted nothing to do with it: “Call it the Interplanetary Exploration Society and I’ll come in, but not if it has my name on it”. 8
Nevertheless, the Society was launched at the Savoy-Plaza Hotel in New York, on 26 January 1931, and Fort was tricked into attending.
The board of “Founders” that Thayer assembled was an illustrious one: Dreiser, Hecht, Tarkington, Rascoe, Sussman… John Cowper Powys, prolific critic, novelist, poet, and memoirist, also signed up; his oddball fiction and iconoclastic criticism reveal a kindred spirit. Harry Leon Wilson, former editor of the satirical weekly Puck and author of comic novels like Ruggles of Red Gap and Merton of the Movies, was a friend of Tarkington. Alexander Woollcott is somewhat of a surprise on the list; his drama reviews, celebrity puff pieces, and sentimental radio broadcasts were all fairly conventional. But he also had an unorthodox background, having been raised in a Fournièrist collective, and was a friend of Hecht and Tarkington. J David Stern, publisher of the Philadelphia Record, rounded out the list – and, not incidentally, bought the dinner.
Not all of them attended that first meeting; some were probably more active than others. Others in Fort’s circle refused to join, like Benjamin De Cassères, the splendidly gloomy author of Anathema and The Shadow-Eater, and Fort’s usual partner for his preposterous board game, super-checkers.
Thayer framed the aims of the society; they included the promotion of Fort and his works, the preservation of his notes and the gathering of more anomalies. But he had bigger goals as well: “To widen the scope of Fortean inquiry to all phases of life… To urge authors, publishers, and users of text-books to adopt the practice of teaching the suspension of final judgment or dogmatic belief… To perpetuate dissent.” Thayer later amplified that last goal: “To provide the means for the perpetuation of dissent from any and all dogma as long as time shall last.” 9 Dissent, as we shall see, was sacred to Thayer.
Members met informally in homes or restaurants, particularly the Brauhaus in Yorkville, New Jersey. Thayer usually led the discussions.
Fort had other things to do. He was busy with his next book, Wild Talents, which he again entrusted to Kendall and Sussman. He finished it just in time; he died as the first copies were coming off the press.
The Society lay fallow for a while. Thayer moved to Hollywood to try to break into the movies. He started off with a flourish: three of his novels were filmed in 1932. After that, he wrote numerous unproduced screenplays for various studios; he was particularly disappointed about Fig Leaves Burned Away, a comedy about a nudist colony written for Cecil B DeMille. His dialogue made it onto the screen only once: a sequence in If I Had a Million. He landed only one acting part as well, in The Devil on Horseback, in 1936. Thayer himself called the film “bad”; it was mostly a vehicle for Lily Damita, who played a movie star torn between the petulant Fred Keating (also an active Fortean Society member, incidentally) and a Mexican bandito balladeer, the aptly named Del Campo. Thayer portrayed a brash press agent, Wilbur Hitchcock. He attacks his part with cheerful gusto, mining what comedy he can from acting hungover and saddlesore.
He had better luck with his novels, which he cranked out tirelessly throughout the 1930s. None is in print today, but they were popular in their time, and cheap used copies are plentiful. They’re often quite entertaining: if nothing else, Thayer had a lively style, a dirty mind, and a bone-deep contempt for all American institutions.
A few review quotes may capture the Tiffany bouquet: “a macabre sort of gaiety”; “done in a jazzy, sexy, suggestive way that is not pleasant”; “impudent and sometimes unduly coarse”. 10 Dorothy Parker mocked his smuttiness in a memorable review in the New Yorker: “Mr. Thayer, it is deplorably unnecessary to explain, has achieved great prominence in that school of American authors who might be described as the boys who ought to go regularly to a gym.” 11
His most popular efforts were probably Call Her Savage and One Woman, both of which were made into movies, and sold in paperback into the Fifties. Latter-day forteans might prefer Doctor Arnoldi, a dark and often revolting fantasy about a world where nobody dies; it ends by comparing the overpopulated Earth to “a solid sphere of maggots”. I have a soft spot for Little Dog Lost, in which a Hollywood director is so violently disgusted with society that he becomes a homicidal drifter; among other highlights, he compares Dreiser unfavourably with fellow fortean Harry Leon Wilson, delivers lengthy tirades against American journalism, and defends Fort to a room of hostile professors as a 12-year-old girl genius cheers him on.
Little Dog Lost may have been more autobiographical than its readers realised; for Thayer too seems to have come to a crisis. He left Hollywood, and stopped writing novels. His fictional stand-in ends the book by deciding to found a satirical magazine, like Wilson’s Puck. And that is, in a way, what Thayer did next.
Around 1936, he returned to the East Coast, and wrote to Dreiser that he wanted to start a Fortean Society magazine. Dreiser promptly resigned. Undaunted, Thayer put out two issues, soberly entitled The Fortean Society Magazine, in 1937.
Thayer identified himself as an atheist, anarchist, and Pyrrhonist, and he was far more interested in Fort’s attacks on dogmatism than in his catalogues of anomalies. As he put it: “There’s a lot more to Forteanism than just watching the papers for snail blizzards.” 12 The ideals of Greek philosopher Pyrrho – the subjectivity of human knowledge and the practice of suspended judgment – were often invoked by early members.
The first issues of the magazine emphasised the intellectual calibre of the Society’s founders (to show that Fort was not just a crank magnet), offered bursts of Thayer fustian (“This is not an enlightened age, you blithering idiots!” 13), and scrutinised scientific expeditions for fraud and failure. It also printed Fort’s notes. Thayer had custody of these, and continued to publish them throughout the run of the magazine. Many are simply records of volcanoes and earthquakes, somewhat tedious without Fort’s explanations.
The third issue didn’t appear until 1940. There was a change in tone: Thayer was no longer just attacking scientific expeditions, but exposing the sorry state of journalism and the threat that lie detectors posed to civil liberties. He predicted, portentously – and, as it happened, wrongly – that his outspokenness would land him in jail. He also promoted his baffling theory that all planets, including the Earth, are growing – slowly changing from cube to sphere to cube as they mature.
Fort’s Collected Books were published the next year, in an omnibus volume with a fervent Thayer introduction. The promotion and distribution of it must have galvanised Thayer, for he started issuing the magazine more regularly.
The influence of the original founders gradually waned. Woollcott quit in February 1942, perhaps in response to that year’s January issue, in which Thayer charged Roosevelt with colluding with Japan (Woollcott preened himself on his social ties to the president). Harry Leon Wilson’s son was a conscientious objector, so Thayer kept readers posted on his progress throughout the war. Other than that, the original group mostly bowed out.
Instead, Thayer proposed a new roster of heretics, a “Fortean University”: BJS Cahill, who designed the “Butterfly Map” of the world; Alfred Drayson, who postulated a secondary rotation of the Earth; George Gillette, who preached a spiral Universe; Iktomi, a Native American advocate; Alfred Korzybski, the originator of General Semantics; Henry Clifford Stuart, an eccentric economist. A great deal of space was also devoted to a serialised exposé of the Indian aristocracy, by one Kanhayalal Gauba.
Mostly, though, Thayer filled pages with his own opinions, which he summarised as: “Respect for authority is the most paralysing, subversive, degrading, enslaving, retarding, and completely damning bit of mental conditioning that can be imposed upon human beings”. 14 And he gave the magazine a new name: Doubt.
It was a fitting title – “YS” (“Your Secretary,” as Thayer invariably styled himself) doubted everything. Civil defence was a fraud. Lie detectors were a hoax. Tonsillectomies caused polio, and Salk’s vaccine was a “nasty concoction”. Both World Wars were frauds, a conspiracy between the Allies and the Axis. Atomic power was a hoax, because atoms didn’t exist. Sputnik was a fake. UFOs were a scheme by the military to raise the defence budget. The papers (or “wypers,” as he liked to call them) only printed lies. Higher maths was gibberish, a con game created by mathematicians. Marriage licenses should be abolished: demanding a rake-off for sexual relationships made the state into a pimp. Religion was a swindle. There was no gold at Fort Knox. Vaccination and fluoridation caused disease. Air travel should be abolished – it was unsafe, and nobody did anything worthwhile with the time saved. And, again and again, all scientific research and expeditions were shameless frauds to steal money from taxpayers.
He proposed a “Perpetual Peace Plan” to keep government spending at wartime levels without killing off 18-year-olds: a cyclotron in every high school, a telescope at every crossroads.
The Society also promoted a kind of cultishness, with logos and paraphernalia, an official slogan (“Still alive – and kicking”) and a mascot: the Manneken-Pis, the famed Brussels fountain of a young boy urinating. Thayer insisted on a 13-month calendar, with the year reckoned from the founding of the society, an innovation that irked members and non-members alike.
In fact, much of Thayer’s content annoyed subscribers, although they often seemed to enjoy complaining. Some objected to the political content (which was strictly ideological, and never about specific parties or candidates); others argued for more activism. Anti-clerical squibs and news about atheistic publications were always part of the editorial mix; a proposed blasphemous Christmas card, however, was vetoed by the members. (As one pointed out, Jesus had, if nothing else, stimulated perpetual dissent among his followers.)
Although Thayer wrote most of the copy, several members became regular contributors. Eric Frank Russell, author of the obviously fortean science fiction novel Sinister Barrier (1939, revised and expanded 1948) and later the nonfiction essay collection Great World Mysteries (1957), supplied a steady stream of British forteana. Mary Winthrop Bonavia and Gertrude Hills also showered the Secretary with clippings. (Thayer didn’t really like clippings, since he didn’t believe in newspapers, but he couldn’t run a fortean publication without them.) Art Castillo’s caustic and intricate cartoons provided most of the graphics.
Numerous famous names cropped up in Doubt, although it’s hard to tell who was really a member, since Thayer automatically enrolled anyone who publicly contested anything about science, government, or religion. Nevertheless, a few members are worth mentioning. Pioneer forteans Vincent Gaddis and Ivan Sanderson were on the rolls, as was Abraham Merritt, fantasy novelist and editor of the sensationalist American Weekly. Arthur Miller succeeded Burton Rascoe on the board. Both Frank Lloyd Wright and Buckminster Fuller were members. Caresse Crosby promoted her pacifist and anti-nationalist projects, such as her campaign to declare a footprint at Delphi international territory. Henry Miller offered his watercolours for “any amount” of money.
Doubt is still fun to read. Thayer’s scattershot contrarianism has not always sat well with later forteans. Nor has his framing of forteanism as a religion – “the religion of self-respect,” he called it – since not everyone wants a religion. Taken on its own merits, though, Doubt is still a stimulating resource for unorthodox viewpoints; and Thayer, even at his crankiest, was buoyed by humour and intellectual curiosity.
During all of this, Thayer made his living in advertising. He wrote radio ads for J Walter Thompson, then Pall Mall cigarette jingles for Sullivan, Stauffer, Caldwell & Bayles. He operated a private press, The Old Wine Press, to keep his novels in print (none of which, by the way, he ever pushed in Doubt). He wrote a play about the Mona Lisa, and tried (in vain, as far as I know) to get it produced; he edited a couple of humour anthologies and published adaptations of Rabelais and Dumas. His many hobbies included collecting rare books and first issues of magazines, painting, fencing, and playing the recorder (he owned 18 of them). I can offer no revelations about his private life, except that he was married three times, the last time to a woman named Kathleen McMahon, had no children and liked to list his marital status as “nobody’s business.”
As it turned out, he also had a secret obsession that rivalled his enthusiasm for Fort. He hadn’t abandoned fiction after all: from 1940 on, he was expanding his play on the Mona Lisa into what he hoped would be the longest novel ever written. The original conceit was to have the mediæval outlaw poet François Villon explain Mona Lisa’s smile. By the time he was finished, he had taught himself Italian, exhaustively researched 15th-century Naples, and spent over ,000 on books and translations. The result was a 46,000-page manuscript (all hand-written, for extra heroism) that is, one can safely say, unlike anything else ever committed to paper. The Dial Press undertook to actually print this mountain of verbiage; in 1956, American readers were confronted with Mona Lisa Part One: The Prince of Taranto, the first three volumes of a projected 21. The heroine was almost lost in the excitement; in fact, the published volumes don’t even take us up to her grandfather.
The critical response veered between respect and horror, often in the same breath. Most reviewers praised its sweep, scholarship, and vivid characters, but disliked its “flagrant indecencies… and often tiresome smart-aleckness”. 15 According to Time, “a drool trickles from the wise-guy smoking-car prose,” which was probably not meant as a compliment.16 Newsweek ended its review with the dictionary definition of “logorrhea”. If you’re curious, copies are still easy to find from used booksellers; my pristine boxed first edition set me back three dollars.
The rest of Mona Lisa remained in Thayer’s files. He died in Nantucket, on 23 August 1959, of a heart attack. Like Fort, he was 57 when he died. Doubt perished with him, after 61 issues. Forteans were left without a society until 1965, when Ron and Paul Willis started the International Fortean Organization (INFO), still flourishing in Baltimore under its current president, Phyllis Benjamin.
Many of Fort’s fans were exasperated with Thayer, and Fort probably deserved a better spokesman than this boisterous potty-mouth. Still, Thayer was lively and funny and eloquent at his best, and his enthusiasm could be contagious. Despite his prodigious labours, he never took himself too seriously, either. In an interview with the Saturday Review of Literature in 1956, he summed up his career: “This facetiousness of mine has kept me from being appraised on my skill with words. I spit on the most sacred household idols, and I am ‘that dirty boy’. But I can’t help it. I am incorrigible. I like to give my friends a laugh – that’s all. Literature? To hell with literature.” 17
Perhaps the most telling key to Thayer is hidden in his description of Fort, from his introduction to the Collected Books. Although others described Fort as a quiet or shy man (Dreiser compared him to Oliver Hardy), Thayer saw him as a swashbuckling knight, a roaring figure fit for armour. That may be what Thayer longed for, himself. He felt hampered by our milquetoast, puny era; he longed to steep himself in the brawling world of Rabelais and Villon, to ride off on a crusade for the religion of self-respect.
As a parting shot, let’s return to 1931, when the Fortean Society was a new and glorious cause, and Thayer was in full cry. Here’s what he has to say – in his introduction to Lo! – to those stunted souls who don’t appreciate Fort:
“Well, run along. Read something else. Charles Fort is heady stuff, too strong for most stomachs, too bitter for orthodox palates. Look with horror in your mirror at the eyes without curiosity, at the lips which never question. Read two hundred words in this book and return to your unquestioning, incurious, smug and complacent shell if you can. If you can, for the sake of decency, go die.” That’s Tiffany Thayer: no longer alive – but still kicking.