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MGP: I'm curious about your childhood in Milwaukee. In what sort of neighborhood did you grow up? HG: I was born in 1914 in Milwaukee in an upstairs flat on Brady Street, located on a streetcar line in more or less a cement arroyo, to parents of modest income. With my younger (by two years) brother Norman, our playgrounds were mostly the gutter strips between the sidewalk and the street and alleyways between houses, and of course the side streets. We walked to elementary school some ten blocks distant, back home for lunch - which we often prepared by ourselves, and walked back to school again. The stores that lined Brady Street were residences converted to store fronts by taking out the living room front window, and eventually the area consisted of largely commercial stores - a hardware store, an A&P grocery, a drug store and pharmacy, a bakery, a real estate office, a shoe repair shop, a meat market, with some shops around the corner on side streets. It was a neighborhood; intimate, solid, trusted, just about self contained as an enclave connected to "downtown" by streetcar.
The neighborhood consisted primarily of those of Polish extraction who probably came from the island of Anova in the Baltic Sea - or, of course, from Chicago. St. Hedwig's Catholic Church was its spiritual center and the St. Hedwig grade school was attended primarily by children of Polish extraction.
A few blocks west on Brady Street the area was largely Italian, with many of families from Sicily, with St. Rita's church as its center and the elementary school on Cass Street where it intersects with Brady Street. My brother Norman and I attended Cass Street public school, and were never truants (truancy was just about unheard of in the 1920s). Nor was thievery a problem; we could hang our roller skates in the cloakroom without fear of losing them. Part of Cass Street school was enlarged in the form of wooden barracks built out over the playground area on the west side of the school building. The school itself was lighted with gas-burning fixtures and the same teachers were there from when we entered kindergarten until we matriculated from seventh grade. Thereafter, we attended Lincoln High School from which we were graduated in due course. We did not continue to college.
The surrounding neighborhood had a good many run-down dwellings renting at around $20 a month, some with an "A" address, that is, with a house behind a house, separated by an area of open dirt or bricks featuring an ash box and rain barrels One of my friends living in such an "A' address was Swedish. His father was a laborer who dug ditches and the family was obviously very poor, without adequate medical attention or any of the niceties. Unfortunately, my mother was afraid Elmer had fleas and more unfortunately still, Elmer was adicted to stealing whatever he could steal from anybody, thus further alienating himself from his immediate society and we didn't see much of him afterwards.
The Brady Street Advancement Association sponsored a AAA baseball team in the muny league and Norman and I got to watch the team play almost every Sunday afternoon in a public park. The fourth of July was always a riot of exploding firecrackers from dawn to dusk and we were deliriously happy with all that. We never suffered deprivation of any kind and were happy, optimistic and well-adjusted children.
Our father died when I was eight years old -- he was a roundhouse foreman at the Chase round house of the Northwestern Yards. Norman and I were thereafter a one-parent family, with our mother, Vernie, to carry us on through the depths of the Great Depression of the 30s.
MGP: At some point, your mother began operating a candy store. What was that like? Did you live in the same building as the store?
HG: The homemade candy story is what brought us from a wonderful residential street not far from the corner at Brady where the firehouse stood. Our mother Vernie picked up candy making under the tutelage of her brother-in-law Gus Crongluski, who had a successful candy business of North Third Street across the river. With my father, who was beginning to suffer from gallstone attacks, we rented a building on Brady Street, took out the living room window and installed a show window with a big plate glass pane and a shelter with a canvas awning. My father had an enormous two-inch thick marble slab that must have weighed a ton installed on sturdy wooden sawhorses in the back room. He invented and made candy-making devices such as a caramel cutter with sharp steel wheels and spacers in between, devised big copper double boilers for melting chocolate and really set up the business before he died. Vernie was an expert chocolate-dipper and could make large batches in huge copper cauldrons set on specially designed gas-fired stoves. Norman and I, sometimes barefoot, were in charge of the penny-candy case and dealt with the juvenile trade, while Mama would deal with those who wanted an eight-cent pound of assorted chocolates or anything special by way of bonbons in crinkle cups tied with a red ribbon. Mama made everything "home made," and spoke with derision about the Fanny Farmer candy stores and their "factory" goods.
Through all that time we never went on "county relief" and sort of floated through the Depression years pretty much on a self-sustaining basis without ever being able to put aside any money.
Yes we lived in the same building. There was a coal bin in the basement, fed by a coal chute stuck through a basement window. The furnace was fed "pea coal" by a worm-gear arrangement. It had to be started with kindling and newspaper, and a second, smaller furnace was for hot water and had to be separately fired for the Saturday night baths. Hence there was a pile of kindling in a bin next to the coal pile. On the main floor was the candy store and next to it Mr. Jazdjewski's "Savings & Loan Association office. Mr. Jadjewski came often to "klatsch" in Polish with Ma Vernie over coffee and "schneck" from the bakery across the street. On the second floor were two residential flats. I was born in the west one but we moved to the other side later. When the occupants of the other flat moved out I came into possession of a plastered room in the attic, which had a hot water radiator in it and an electric outlet wherein to establish my chemistry laboratory and hideout It became a refuge for my friends as well as myself, including Robert Bloch, in our post-high school years.
Norman and I had free run of the whole structure from basement to attic and took full advantage of that great luxury in a time when "privacy" was a precious commodity and people were living with relatives (Aunt Annie moved in with us downstairs until she found what she hoped was a husband.) Robert Bloch also lived in a crowded apartment with his mother and father and sister Winnie and even on the stormiest night he would come marching in through the candy store to be taken upstairs to "The Lab". Ma Vernie would pound on the ceiling with a broom only if she thought we had imported loose females or too much home-made alcohol, which constituted a rare "raus-out."
MGP: When did you first meet Robert Bloch? What was he like in high school?
HG: We just met in high school one day and found a lot to talk about and a lot to laugh about. I stayed after graduation as a "post-graduate" and caught up on some English history and some botany so that Bob and I were discharged from academe at about the same time, in 1932, which was at the bottom of the Depression. Bob had his own typewriter and was writing stories and corresponding with east coast horror story writers including H.P. Lovecraft. I never got to know much about that as Bloch kept it separate from his real life contacts. Bob lived with his Mother, Stella, and his father, Ray and his sister Winifred in a small rented apartment and eventually took refuge in the Lab. I can remember Bob stamping into the candy store in the dead of a snowy winter evening as I was tending store in order use the back stairs to the second floor and thence up to the attic. At night it was dark up there and you had to feel your way along the wall toward a slash of light coming under the Lab door.
Robert Bloch did not like working. He liked writing and his first horror story was printed in the Lincoln High School monthly magazine "The Quill" of which I happened to be the editor, and in which I printed my own illustrated stories of high school capers. Bob's story was titled "The Thing," a nicely told tale, considering it was written by a teen-ager. The "thing" was Death. Brrr.
It was less than a year after we were graduated Bob became a genuine author when he sold his first commercial story to Ray Palmer, editor of Weird Tales Magazine. That changed my life and those around us and turned me away from playing empty lot baseball and competing in ping-pong tournaments. The writing game was the thing. I didn't have Bob's natural talent for creating plots and writing straight toward the denouement, and had little success in combining writing with photography. We continued to work together and completed several collaborations -- "In The Land Of The Sky Blue Ointments," "The Strange Island of Doctor Nork'" (taken from the H.G. Wells story "The Strange Island of Dr. Moreau"), and "Nobody Else Laughed" – which we tried, but were unable to, sell.
Bob was no good at sports, had poor eye-hand coordination for any of that (although he did join the others on a nine-hole pitch and putt course using a putter only). He would not learn to drive a car despite efforts to teach him. He knotted his shoelaces because he couldn't learn to tie a bow. When the electric typewriter came into general use he spurned it, preferring to hunt-and-peck with two fingers on his old Woodstock.
I didn't like work either and in the decade of the 1940s, or the war years, after emerging from the Depression -- and from the depression of spirit that lingered in some of us -- I served a back-breaking year in the Civilian Conservation Corps with axe and pick and shovel in the days of Franklin Roosevelt's "New Deal". I was a photographer in the Soil Conservation Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, sold men's shirts in a downtown department store, drove a taxicab despite a tendency to get lost on diagonal streets, pressed summer pants in a tailor shop, fried hamburgers in a quick eats lunch room and spent a lot of time in the photo dark room and chemistry lab.
In high school, Bob obviously had ambitions to be a stand-up comic. He told innumerable very funny "Sam Lapidus" stories popularized by Lou Holtz. He got into an amateur hour on a downtown theatre stage and got applause from the audience and from Lou Holtz himself, who wanted to hire Bob to write for him. Bob also wrote material on spec for Roy Atwell and Stoopnagel & Budd.
Bob was an enthusiastic participant with a full lineup in the imaginary "Blue-Eye League" in which playing cards bore a particular significance, such as "home Run" and "double play". Our friend from high school, Herbie Williams, managed The Stugatchus, I managed the Mags and Bloch managed the Fungulas. Season after season was played, each game taking about an hour, for many years, with some lapses and revivals, with all of the score sheets preserved as part of the "Goon History" which Bloch and I perpetuated for decades until he departed for good for Hollywood.
MGP: Who were the other Lab frequenters?
HG: Herbie Williams, whom we got to know in high school and whom I loved to throw the baseball around with and I think my companionship helped Herb through the difficult time of his living without a father, who deserted the family, with his mother, who was very bitter about her fate, and his sister, who was very masculine and later joined the WAC (Women's Army Corps). Herb and I played a lot of card games and fooled around with our spare time in the depths of the depression and devoted our time to ping-pong in the basement of the building housing The Lab and the candy store.
Also from our Lincoln High School relationship was a more occasional attendee, Milton S. Gelman, who joined us in our meetings in "The Club," or Colla's Five & Dime Tap, where Texas Hamburgers and Shoes were a favorite along with ten-cent beers. Gelman went on to New York and then to Hollywood where he was a successful scriptwriter and finally wrote enough to qualify for a pension with the Screen Writer's guild.
Also present most frequently was my high school sweetheart, Alice Bedard. We were married quite a bit later because she was the sole support of her aged mother and I was chronically broke and semi-employed. The three of us, Alice and Bob and myself were constant companions.
For a reason I don't understand we called ourselves "The Goons" and I created with Bloch, The Goon Dictionary and some other projects, such as the one-copy magazine, Brutal, the Magazine For People, of which three issues now exist. Other inhabitants were my brother Norman and his friends (all of them Bloch's age), Col. Bert Warren, George Graham and others, who met mostly in Norman's hideout in another storage room in the attic which was cluttered with camping gear, guns, street signs and other juvenilia, including beer bottles (some of them containing urine because it would not do to invade the flat downstairs after hours).
MGP: Who was Sprague Vonier?
HG: Sprague Vonier, like his friend Robert Vail, was Norman's age – about two years younger than myself – but while they matured and caught up with Bloch and myself and bridged the age gap, Norman's other friends remained with War Stories Magazine and Damon Runyon dees-dem-and-dose affectations and self-image imaginings and with attitudes that were satisfied with any brand of been and any kind of cigarettes, while we "mature" ones explored and experimented with our environment and laid great store by knowledge and learning and curiosity.
MGP: What did you enjoy about high school?
HG: I found high school an outlet for participation in activities; the courses were not difficult. I got a brief exposure to Latin and French, as well as English composition, and read all the mandatory standards in English history and literature.
MGP: How did you come to take up photography as a hobby?
HG: I received as a Christmas gift a "Chemcraft Set #5," an innocuous collection of salts where one could change "wine" into water and vice versa. I consulted the public library for more detail and expanded my stock to include various acids and alkalis and substances like yellow phosphorus which would catch fire if exposed to air, and metallic sodium which would react with water to produce hydrogen gas, which would catch fire (and which was useful to drop in small pellets into the ink wells in study hall. Doing this on a hot summer day I set fire to my vest (we went well-dressed, most of us) and my math teacher had to strip it off and beat out the flames by smacking it on a vacant desk. She explained to the class that I kept matches for smoking cigarettes in my clothes and that they caught fire in the heat of the day -- which showed she knew as much about chemistry as I knew about algebra, which was practically nothing.
I bought more exotic chemicals from Eimer & Amend, a mail order drug house in New York and from the Drake Pharmacy in Milwaukee, which had a wide range of necessities. Jacob Schowalter, my friendly neighborhood drug store owner, provided me with incidentals that the building inspector would not probably have approved of, realizing that I was a boy genius.
Since I had my "laboratory" in a plastered room in the attic, I soon had a lab table set up and gas piped through a very long section of douche bag rubber hose from a fixture in the bedroom below connected to a Bunsen burner thereon. Water was supplied from a pressure tank that had to be invigorated with a bicycle pump regularly.
Since I had all the chemicals and could get more, I took to making my own developer and fixer in which to develop film and print pictures. I used an old bellows Kodak to make a photo enlarger, learned about a red filter to emphasize clouds in the sky and to take shots through my microscope. "Flash" pictures were made using an explosive finely divided metallic aluminum and potassium chlorate. The cloud of smoke that arose from that (particularly spectacular in the high school auditorium taking pictures of the cast in a school play) was like a miniature atomic mushroom cloud that lingered as a wobbling white doughnut overhead to the delight of onlookers.
I earned modest sums for the difficult art of picture-taking by photographing landlord Jazdjewski's Building & Loan holdings. Essentially the photography sprang from the chemistry hobby in the Lab.
MGP: What was the Precision Process Laboratories?
HG: The Lab. The label "Precision Process" was added to lend some identity to a printed letterhead for Precision Process Photography, which sprang from the Chemistry lab.
MGP: How did The History come about? Can you describe how it was put together?
HG: One day I went downtown to Woolworth's five and dine to buy a 25-cent letter size three-ring binder, labeled the first page "Goon History" and Robert Bloch and I proceeded to fill it with accounts of happenings during a one-year period. When Bob went off to Hollywood for good, I kept up the good work in the same irreverent spirit in the third person for the remaining sixty-five years, lavishly illustrated with Precision Process photography as before, but without the special quality that Bloch lent it with his Floyd Scrilch's Predictions and dialogues between God and Jesus. And his gag-filled descriptions of our adventures in writing and in politics.
MGP: What was the Federated Arts Council?
HG: We found a downtown meeting place for our discussions and exhibitionism in the Milwaukee County Democratic Club offices and coined the juvenile name for lack of anything else to call it. We carried "debates" into the democratic club meetings, held vaudeville-type meetings and discussions, with ambitions not very clearly envisioned to call attention to ourselves, but in any case, to exercise our talents and our tonsils, meanwhile proselytizing other post-high school membership prospects and guest speakers.
MGP: What was Bloch's family like?
HG: Bloch's mother, Stella, was the mainstay of the family. She worked at the Milwaukee Jewish Center and when the family was in Chicago she was on the staff at Hull House, an agency that helped newcomers to the U.S. Bloch's father, Ray, was already suffering from a wasting disease that was soon to cause his death. He was a fine, gentle man, formerly in banking, who worked in spite of the crippling effect of his affliction. When I knew him he was night cashier in a downtown restaurant on the main street of Milwaukee downtown. Bloch and I would visit the restaurant to see him. Ray collected British colonial postage stamps and Bloch occasionally bought him gifts of colorful African uncanceled issues. I did not have many contacts with Ray because of his illness, although I liked him very much.
Bloch's sister Winnie was a modest girl with dark hair. I didn't think she was particularly pretty but she was friendly and did not partake of any of Bloch's and my mutual activities or mix with any of our male friends. She married Frank Marcus, a druggist or pharmacist who was employed in a drug store on Jackson Street nearby. I met him occasionally when Bloch stopped in to borrow Frank's streetcar pass. Winnie eventually died of the same crippling disease she inherited from her father.
After Ray died, Stella went to Chicago to live with relatives where she eventually died.
MGP: Did Bloch or his family have much of a religious life? If your answer here is "no," did you find this unusual?
HG: I don't believe they had any. Neither did I or my mother. I did not therefore find that unusual. We never did much talking about that except to agree that most of the world depended on a "faith" without any answer or acknowledgment from any conceived deity and we concluded that religious belief was a delusion useful to those who needed something like that.
MGP: Robert Bloch met his first wife, the former Marion Holcombe, around 1939, and married her around 1940. What was she like? How did Bloch the married man compare with Bloch the bachelor?
HG: Bloch's hair was standing on end at the approach of the draft. He met Marion with Grace Carpenter in Barney Fredrick's Wayside Inn Tavern in an alley in downtown Milwaukee. Marion was crippled with tuberculosis of the hip and wore a built-up shoe She walked with a limp. She was not particularly good looking, had a sort of "hick" or rural personality, liked to sit in a tavern in her home town of Weyauwega, Wisconsin, drinking with the local yokels, etc. She had no interest whatever in Bloch's literary accomplishments, never read any of his books or magazine stories, and steadfastly wished he'd give up all that nonsense and get a decent job in the local pea factory.
Bob didn't walk into that blind. But, strictly in my private opinion he was so frightened of compulsory military service (good lord, he would know which of a gun had a trigger) that he married the first woman who would have him. A very bad judgment call and it would haunt him to his death.
Bloch was married to Marion Holcombe on October 2, 1940. I was present along with Stella and Marion's friend Grace Carpenter. It [the ceremony] was performed in Judge Myron Gordon's Civil Court. It was all very polite, said Bloch, since it was a civil ceremony.
Later, I posed a reconstruction photo with Bob and Marion, with the most irreverend Bob Vail presiding. Marion went along with that cheerfully. After any important happening we usually did something outrageous to mark the occasion.
Bloch the married man remained the same Bloch, except that his activities were more restricted as his wife discouraged his leaving home to visit with me or to be on Sid Stone's television program Its A Draw and she didn't like his going away to attend conventions, which were enormously important to him – he was invariably paid to be the GOH (Guest of honor) or to bestow awards or to make hilarious talks which sometimes involved the use as a prop of a wooden toilet seat. And we set down everything in "The History."
He had a fantastic capacity to remember everyone's name and characteristics. It was like his encyclopedic knowledge of the names and identities of old time movie actors and actresses. I could spring "Nita Naldi" on him, or "Harry Aitkin" and that would set him off.
MGP: As you mentioned, in addition to "The History," you and Robert Bloch collaborated on three works of fiction -- "In The Land Of The Sky Blue Ointments," "The Strange Island of Doctor Nork,'" and "Nobody Else Laughed." Were these all novels? How would you describe them?
HG: The three epics were fantasy novels on which we spent a lot of time with our Woodstock typewriters, re-doing each other's contributions and proofing the result. I then applied a Precision Process binding and they then rested in the Goon Library of Good Stuff. They were largely for our own amazement and were never submitted for publication. I doubt that anyone else ever read them. Subterranean Press wanted to print all of them in their "Lost Bloch" series but ran into a refusal by Bob's literary estate to grant permission.
MGP: Although you allude to Robert Bloch keeping his horror fan side to himself, you did meet Fritz Leiber, at least at one point. What was he like? Did you ever meet Henry Kuttner, C.L. Moore, or August Derleth?
HG: I met Fritz Leiber, Jr., in Chicago with Bloch, took some weird pictures of them both with Leiber and Jonquil's child and we took some photos of Leiber emerging Poseidon-like, covered with seaweed, from the waters of Leak Lake near Mukwonago. Leiber was just like Bob Bloch, witty, knowledgeable, widely read and fun to talk with.
Writers coming to visit with Bloch were taken in my car to visit such simpaticos as August Derleth in Sauk City, who gave them a round trip tour of the environs of the Wisconsin River, etc., and where we, of course, took pictures. Kuttner and C. L. Moore came to visit Bloch and we took pictures. They were shortly thereafter married and not long after that, Henry Kuttner died. He was so young, it was a deeply felt tragedy.
MGP: I'm curious if Bloch's desire to avoid military services was the result of fear of injury (or death), an unwillingness to conform to the regimented lifestyle of military service, or something else?
HG: Bloch's desire to avoid military service was not simply an unwillingness to conform, he simply would not fit into army life, had a fear of ethnic discrimination, he got along with physical frailty in civilian life, but knew he would meet with disaster of some kind otherwise. He did not fear for his life but knew the regimentation would be his undoing. and feared the worst. I had the same feeling and was deeply sympathetic but had little to offer Bob by way of support. However, I was in I-A frequently but was never actually fitted for a uniform.
MGP: Did your brother Norman enter the service around this time? Did the fact that Bloch actually knew someone in the service alter his view of the service?
HG: My brother, Norman, was the same age as Bloch, joined the National Guard at about this time. The attack on Pearl Harbor came shortly afterward, the Guard was "federalized," and Norman shortly found himself crawling along the jungle floor in New Guinea dragging a communications wire to a field telephone as Japanese bullets and grenades went off all over. He got malaria and trench foot and some kind of jungle rot. He ate a lot of Atabrine for years, earned a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart and several other decorations. Norman re-enlisted and stayed in the service for the remainder of his adult life.
Bob didn't know much about that for Norman seldom wrote to me or Bob or anybody and never experienced civilian life for sixty years, having given up contact with his family and everyone who knew him to remain for all of his days in the service, freed of any responsibility for anything. What caused that fixation and where the Alzheimer's dementia that eventually killed him came in is hard to figure, but I have vague feelings of guilt about our happy childhood and wonder how that dreadful alienation arose. The older brother thing bothers me but I can't remember any kind of trigger for something that extreme.
MGP: During the period when your brother was in the service, and before his dementia, did you ever have the occasion to speak with him about his experiences?
HG: He seldom if ever went into much personal detail, which invariably had to come through wartime censorship by letter. Norman like to work in the transparent water colors that I used to tint photographs, and illustrate his missives with scenes of army such as depictions of a slit trench with a roll of toilet paper hung on a stick nearby. Or one I remember was a bedraggled GI sitting under a shot-up tree dreaming (a cartoon balloon overhead) of a foaming stein of beer. That was the only evidence I ever got that Norman dreamed of home or of the good old pre-war days.
Why Norman spent a lifetime in exile entirely overseas I can't fathom and noting in what Sigmund Freud left behind can either. It must be in our pre-pubescent childhood somewhere. But with something so drastic in his emotions somehow, how could it have lasted a lifetime without modification? When I finish a book, or a story, entitled "My Brother Barney," I might assay to dramatize it and bring some sense into a phenomena that defies doing that.
MGP: When did you become interested in politics? Did you and Bloch gravitate towards the Democratic Party? It's my understanding that the Socialist Party was quite popular in Milwaukee in the 1930s/1940s. What appealed to you about the Democratic Party that wasn't present in the Socialist Party?
HG: When did I become interested in politics? I never was interested in politics. Our first candidate, one Carl Zeidler in 1940, was presumably a Republican in nature, but that was only because he associated mostly with Republican types and really wasn't anything and had no idea of what the GOP stood for or was trying to do. Bob Bloch and I never discussed political positions or postures, weren't interested in such issues, but we did fall into mostly Democratic hands. Whatever their identification, a candidate was someone to elect. We never consciously dealt with party politics or attacked Republican structures.
Bloch didn't give a damn about the Socialists, but I got to know some of them, particularly Daniel Webster Hoan, and Paul Gauer, who was Hoan's first secretary in the later days of the Socialist administration in Milwaukee.
Nothing appealed to me about the Democratic Party except the FDR "New Deal" and its social security sponsorship (my friend from high school, Wilbur Cohen, went on to become the father of the social security program as it was adopted). I also loved Eleanor Roosevelt and cried when she died.
I was involved with such humanitarian endeavors as the Civilian Conservation Corps in which I served a year or so, and with the National Youth Administration in which I served for more than a year under Aubrey Williams, an intimate of the president, and although I didn't build any dams I liked the idea of the Tennessee Valley Authority. I worked in the Department of Agriculture as a photographer in the Soil Conservation Service. I also pressed hamburgers on a hot plate in a stoolie restaurant and pressed summer pants in a tailor shop and so on.
I had no interest in the Socialist agenda, except that I got to know Mayor Frank P. Zeidler, Carl's brother, who (unlike the nobody that Carl was) was a studious, self-taught savant and scholar. The Socialism of the 30s and 40s was known as "Sewer Socialism," which meant concentration of highways, parks, road building and civic improvements generally, and not Bolshevik bomb-throwing or revolutionary tract-writing. And besides that, old Dan Hoan hired me work up his material for the campaigns he assayed after Bloch and I destroyed the last Socialist stronghold in the United States, with Dan still inside. Except, of course, for Fiorello LaGuardia of New York. It was LaGuardia who appointed Dan Hoan to a spot in the Roosevelt administration in Washington some time in the 1940s.
Not that we can take all of the credit for taking down the local Socialist Party. It can be said that most of the active Socialists were old parties with white underwear showing over the tops of their high-button shoes, with chewed cigars sticking out of their choppers, who had no idea of how to appeal to young people – who didn't know how to stop printing doctrinaire tracts and do something innovative. And when guys like myself and Bob Bloch, who depicted the city hall as a 'House of Mystery" and a lot of other whoopee stuff, came along, they ran into something that could only happen once in a lifetime, and they were lost.
MGP: What is a "stoolie restaurant?"
HG: A "stoolie restaurant" was simply an "eats" joint or an "eatery" without tables, just stools at a counter and a fry cook pressing hamburgers on a hot plate and a glass case containing "factory made" pies and pieces of cake, with a lot of flies trapped inside, and a coffee-making tank with infrequently changed coffee grounds, providing a weak and watery beverage. For entertainment, the joint usually had a pinball machine and at holiday time had turkey raffle tickets for sale.
MGP: You mentioned that your and Bloch's first foray into political management was the mayoral campaign of Carl Zeidler (which would have during 1939 and 1940). It's my understanding that you and Bloch were brought into this endeavor by Jim Doolittle, a Milwaukee radio announcer, who quickly dropped out of the campaign. With Doolittle gone, how did you and Bloch structure the campaign? What did you do in your campaign that your counterparts in Mayor Hoan's campaign failed to do?
HG: Doolittle introduced us to the mayoral candidate, Zeidler, and thereafter dropped out. We didn't need Doolittle, who was a promotor and not an idea man, and we simply went ahead without him.
The Hoan campaigners were older folks, doctrinaire Socialists, unimaginative. What we did that was different from the old fashioned way was to invent items of showmanship, which was bitterly opposed by the Zeidler ward-workers who said it spelled doom for their young candidate. I guess I outlined some of the innovative campaign ideas previously, and they are detailed in my earlier books Growing Up The Hard Way in the 1930s and War and Peace in the 1940s.
MGP: Based on what little I've read on the subject, Carl Zeidler seems as if he may have been somewhat of a political lightweight. His primary pre-mayoral experience was that of a Milwaukee assistant city attorney, and it seems as if his most attractive attributes were his charisma, good looks, extroverted nature, and singing voice. Is that a fair assessment? What sort of platform did he run on?
HG: Your impression of the candidate, Carl Zeidler, as a political lightweight and a nobody is correct. Just as Bloch and I were nobodies. However, he had no ideas and no platform or agenda or any vision of the future. We laid it all out ourselves, and during all of the months of the winter of 1939-1940 Carl Zeidler did not make a single public utterance that we did not script for him. Meanwhile, he did get around to lodge meetings, church fairs, and what not, and did exercise his tonsils among those who knew him as a joiner.
MGP: Who were the "backroom boys" behind Carl Zeidler? Was their support based on anything other than a desire to unseat Mayor Hoan, and solidify their own power bases?
HG: The backroom boys behind Zeidler were a gaggle of local fellows, some lawyers, some political hangers-on, ethnic activists, and, principally, Milton R. Polland, who pretty much stood behind us in the showmanship versus buying beers in taverns and ward-workers who wanted to get on radio with their own stuff and tell the candidate how to win without knowing anything about that. Some were interested in their own minor office seeking and losing. Our Zeidler theme was "A New Day for a New Milwaukee," emphasizing youth as against the old fogies and entrenched do nothings. The Old Timers could simply not comprehend anything like Bloch's "House of Mystery" speech for the candidate, casting a Weird Tales coloration on the city hall boys and their doctrinaire mayor. They didn't know what was happening.
Milt Polland after the campaign employed me in his insurance agency for four of the war years, in which I was more than an insurance wizard but Milt's right hand bower to further his own political adventuring with Governor (and later Chief Justice) Earl Warren, and Wendell Wilke, and assorted candidates for judge, mayor, district attorney, the senate, Congress, and so on. Some disasters and some pretty nifty wins. Milt is now rich and the head of a big insurance combine. He is also at this moment ambassador the United Nations from the Marshall Islands and just the other day announced he had been made President and CEO of Penthouse magazine.
MGP: How did the local media react to Carl Zeidler? How did it react to the type of campaign you ran? Were there still separate non-Anglo-American media outlets (e.g., German-American media outlets) still in existence at this time? How did they react?
HG: The two daily newspapers, the employee-owned Milwaukee Journal, then a liberally-inclined bladder and the Hearst-owned Milwaukee Sentinal, both ate up all the outrageous stuff we could concoct – it was newsworthy – inept Socialist campaign propaganda simply didn't get much attention and their paid ads were even worse.
The Polish Nowiny Polski was a target for a lot of hangers-on on both sides, but nobody read it or the other Polish sheet either. There were some respected old-time German newspapers, in which some Hoan material did appear, but the ethnic publications weren't going to affect the voters in a city of a half-million voters (at the time). I don't know how Germania and other German papers reacted if at all because I didn't figure sending them releases would change anything.
MGP: Carl Zeidler was elected Mayor of Milwaukee in 1940 by more than 12,000 votes. Bloch makes it clear that, after the election, certain financial and other promises made to the two of you were not kept, and you both were essentially pushed aside. Is this a fair assessment?
HG: Yes, promises were not kept and the winner was not inclined to shed any of his glory or to share it with two jerkimers who didn't push for notoriety for themselves. I am sorry that I didn't do a lot of blowing off, but Bloch was very reluctant to stick his head over the trench and I couldn't step on his foot in the matter anyhow. (Incidentally, Milt Polland borrowed all of the money Bloch got as his share and gave him a promissory note for it just when Bloch started to ache for some money with which to get married.) When the United Press came to find out what happened in Milwaukee, Zeidler got out an old violin he never learned to play, laid a bow across its strings, and the caption read "How Zeidler Won Signing in Milwaukee." So that's what we got for laying low. One of life's little hard knocks, like Hitchcock giving Bloch $9,000 for the million dollar movie he made of Psycho with screenwriter Joe Stefano.
These were wounds that undoubtedly colored Bob's relationship with his employers in Hollywood and to some extent with his friends after he left town for good for Hollywood.
MGP: What sort of Mayor did Carl Zeidler turn out to be? Were you surprised when he resigned his office in 1942 to join the Navy? What was the public's reaction when the LaSalle, the ship to which he had been assigned, was reported lost with all hands? HG: Yes, I was surprised that our mayor joined the merchant Marine – the navy, actually. Because he did it without asking – he could do something without having to do what this brain trust told him to do. He evidently thought if he could survive the war and come back a hero his next campaign would be for Governor (and with somebody better than G&B, maybe). But unfortunately, the freighter on which he left standing on the poop deck leading the crew in God Bless America was full of explosive materials, and when a torpedo struck it in South Pacific waters it vaporized, and no shred of Zeidler was ever found.
Zeidler, during his few months as chief executive, didn't do much of anything. A Milwaukee Journal newspaper cartoon appeared showing a family sitting on some rocks looking out to sea (which, in Milwaukee, was Lake Michigan), hoping their beloved mayor would come back. Milt Polland went to Washington, got to ride in Secretary Forrestall's car, but there was no news. Then Wisconsin Senator Wiley opined that Zeidler was a prisoner of the Japanese. Bloch's baroque humor was reflected in his cartoon showing Zeidler stewing in a cauldron of boiling water in a tribal ceremony. Not that Bloch would enjoy anything like that happening to anybody; it was just an enigmatic shrug, and perhaps something like all the weird artwork he did for the edification of H.P. Lovecraft's private collection.
A life long friend and correspondent of Robert Bloch, Harold Gauer is also the former Midwest Director of CARE, the worldwide relief organization. He is the author of the non-fiction books "How To Win In Politics" (1946, rev.ed. 1964), "Selling Big Charity -- The Story of CARE" (1990), and the multivolume Milwaukee cultural history series entitled "The History." He is also the author of the satire "Bury Me Not" (1981), as well as of numerous short stories and articles.
Mr. Gauer was also General Manager of the Milwaukee Pops Orchestra, having produced a successful concert season. He holds the General Federation of Women's Clubs Life Achievement Award and the Fraternal Order of Eagles Civic Achievement Citation and now has permanent possession of the Skadietndapmn Trophy.
Mr. Gauer's official website can be found here.
This interview was conducted by Michael G. Pfefferkorn via email and post during October and November 2003. It was edited by Mr. Pfefferkorn, reviewed by Mr. Gauer, and further edited by Mr. Pfefferkorn during December 2003 and January 2004. It was published on this website in February 2004.
The webmaster wishes to thank Mr. Gauer for his kindness and enthusiasm in this interview.