“The Ten-Cent Ivory Tower” (1946) by John Wilstach

[…] I happen to have published, as long ago as in the January, 1946, issue of Esquire, the first article about Lovecraft to appear in a general magazine. It was by John Wilstach, called “The Ten-Cent Ivory Tower,” and this is how it began:

“Enthusiasts for the work of Howard Phillips Lovecraft have become a literary cult. Highbrow critics pay tribute to him as a writer of horror tales. His devotees insist that his place is in a niche beside that of Edgar Allan Poe. Collectors scramble for his first editions. Yet, to one who has known literary booms and their nourishing, it is amazing that nothing has been done to acquaint the public with the personality of a man who was one of the most fantastic literary figures of modern times.”

Arnold Gingrich, “The greatest character H. P. Lovecraft ever created” in the Chicago Times, 2 Feb 1975

How do we know what we think we know about H. P. Lovecraft? Over the decades since Lovecraft’s death, many works have been published about Lovecraft—memoirs, recollections, biographies—and a great deal of his personal correspondence, autobiographical essays, and photographs. Diligent researchers have scoured archives for marriage certificates, wills, draft cards, city directories, and brief mentions in newspapers and amateur journals. The mass of data can be intimidating, difficult to sift through, and perhaps most especially interrogate.

When it comes to memoirs of Lovecraft, it can be especially difficult to sort out the veracity of various claims. Memories are tricky things, and can be skewed by age, distance, and emotion. Many of the recollections of Lovecraft contain matter which seems to be erroneous; not so much deliberately misleading as incomplete. Dates don’t line up, incidents don’t quite match with other accounts, and misunderstandings abound. These are typical problems in evaluating historical evidence…but there is an added wrinkle.

From the beginning, Lovecraft memoirs and biographies have been referential. So when W. Paul Cook wrote “In Memoriam: Howard Phillips Lovecraft—Recollections, Appreciations, Estimates” (1941), he included quotes from an amateur journalism piece on Lovecraft from 1919; when Winfield Townley Scott wrote the biographical essay “His Own Most Fantastic Creation” (1944), he drew material from Cook’s “In Memoriam”; when Sonia H. Davis wrote The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft, she specifically spoke to several points in Cook’s memoir—and that’s one chain of references where the later author acknowledges drawing on the former. There are many works that borrow from other essays and memoirs on Lovecraft without acknowledgment so that you can have a number of works that have a superficial agreement—but might all be repeating the same legends and false information.

So how do you pick out fact from fiction in a Lovecraft memoir? Generally, the first task is to cross-reference the persons and events in the memoir with Lovecraft’s letters and, if possible, other sources to fix the dates and verify the contents as much as possible. There is a bit of a contradiction involved in this: if a memoir agreed 100% with all existing sources without any disagreement, it would be very easy to verify—but it wouldn’t be very useful, as there would be no information in there that wasn’t in other sources. What readers and scholars both like is new information, new data, some unique insight into Lovecraft’s life to add to our store of knowledge.

From this standpoint, “The Ten-Cent Ivory Tower” (1946) by John Wilstach seems at first promising: while Wilstach makes a number of errors about Lovecraft’s life and work (not uncommon in the memoirs), many details ring at least somewhat true (or at least familiar), and it contains some material not included anywhere else, including details of a meeting with Lovecraft and the gay poet Hart Crane in New York c.1925.

As background: John H. Wilstach (1890-1951) was a novelist and fairly prolific pulp-writer. He had some association with amateur journalism, publishing material in Driftwind and The Ghost, but he was mostly published in the Argosy, Top-Notch, and associated pulp magazines. His article “The Ten-Cent Ivory Tower” in Esquire was a very rare appearance in a “slick” magazine.

The first problem comes when trying to cross-reference dates and persons. Lovecraft and Crane did meet a couple of times, first in Cleveland in 1922 and later in New York City in 1924 and 1925. However, in no published letter does Lovecraft ever mention John Wilstach, nor is such a meeting with Crane and an unnamed third individual mentioned in Lovecraft’s diary for the period. For that matter, the published letters of Hart Crane, with their brief references to Lovecraft, don’t mention John Wilstach either. This individual, who claimed to be Lovecraft’s friend and to have met him several times in New York and Providence, RI, would appear to have fallen completely through the gaps in Lovecraft and Crane’s correspondence.

By itself, that might not be suspicious; Lovecraft’s correspondence for the New York period is not complete, and his meetings with Crane are not all well-recorded from either side. It is not inconceivable that there could be a meeting between Lovecraft, Crane, and a third man that both Lovecraft and Crane failed to record. In point of fact, there is another memoir that includes just such a meeting: Frank Belknap Long, Jr.’s “Some Random Memories of H. P. L.” published in Marginalia (1944), less than two years before Wilstach’s article. This brings us to the next problem.

Long’s memoir recounts a meeting between Lovecraft, Crane, Samuel Loveman, and himself on the street in New York in “the second year of [Lovecraft’s] New York phase”—Lovecraft had come to New York and married Sonia H. Greene at the beginning of March 1924, so the meeting would be post-March 1925. Long wrote:

Howard had never seemed more depressed—he was writing such lines as these: “My coming to New York had been a mistake; for whereas I had looked for poignant wonder and inspiration I found only a sense of horror and oppression. Instead of the poems I had hoped for there came only a shuddering blankness and ineffable loneliness.”

Frank Belknap Long, Jr., “Some Random Memories of H. P. L.” in Marginalia 335

The lines are part of the opening of Lovecraft’s story “He,” which was begun in August 1925, in general agreement with when Long says the meeting took place. In “The Ten-Cent Ivory Tower,” Wilstach wrote:

“Hart drew a battered manuscript from his pocket and I began reading:

“My coming to New York had been a mistake; for whereas I had looked for poignant wonder and inspiration in the teeming labyrinths of ancient streets…in the Cyclopean modern towers and pinnacles that rise blackly Babylonian under waning moons, I had found instead only a sense of horror and oppression which threatened to master, paralyze and annihilate me. . . .”

“Kinda turgid prose,” I waved my hand to stop him.

John Wilstach, “The Ten-Cent Ivory Tower” in Esquire Jan 1946, 83

What are the odds that Lovecraft and Hart Crane had not one but two otherwise unrecorded encounters, and that both of them would quote from the opening paragraphs to “He?” At this point, a scholar might be suspicious. Testing those suspicions would require comparing the content of “The Ten-Cent Ivory Tower” against the other sources available in 1946 when the piece was published. For the most part, this would mean Cook’s essay “In Memoriam” (1941), the first three Arkham House books regarding Lovecraft (The Outsider and Others (1939), Beyond the Wall of Sleep (1943), and Marginialia (1945)), the slim chapbook Rhode Island on Lovecraft (1945), August Derleth’s H. P. L.: A Memoir (1945), and some scattered essays, critical reviews, and articles, some of which were collected in Marginalia, such as the early version of Winfield Townley Scott’s biographical essay “His Own Most Fantastic Creation.” Crane’s letters mentioning Lovecraft would not be published until some years later.

As it turns out, most of the content in “The Ten-Cent Ivory Tower” could have been sourced directly from these existing sources; a copy of “In Memoriam” and Marginalia would have supplied nearly every “fact” (and much of the speculation) in Wilstach’s piece. Cook had not mentioned Hart Crane, but like Long he quoted from “He” to illustrate Lovecraft’s despair at the city he had come to detest. Wilstach acknowledged Cook in a way when he wrote:

W. Paul Cook tells me that Lovecraft made three poetry reputations with his rewrite method.

Unlike many Lovecraft enthusiasts, Cook insisted that, though his friend was a genius, one stout volume of stories, and another of letters, will provide his lasting work.

“Lovecraft has been compared to all the great masters of the macabre from Poet to James,” says Cook. “Only in spots can be found basis for comparison. A hint here and there of Poe—perhaps. A sign of Dunsany—possibly. Lovecraft identified his own influences as Dunsany, Poe, Arthur Machen, and Algernon Blackwood, rather than to Montague Rhode James. If we mention Machen and Blackwood we have about exhausted any color he may have unconsciously acquired from others. Since his advent, weird fiction has owed more to Lovecraft than Lovecraft owed to all the body of preceding writers.

“A friend once suggested the he stimulate dreams by means of drugs. Lovecraft exclaimed that if drugs would give him any worse dreams than he experienced without them, he would go mad. His dreams were his own It is unfair to call him equal to Poe, greater than Poe, or lacking in certain Poe qualities. Better, consider him as standing alone.”

That standing alone, for our friend, sounds very fair. And to judge him at all one must judge him as a writer, since he never was anything else. He never held any kind of a job, nor had the slightest inclination for any sport.

John Wilstach, “The Ten-Cent Ivory Tower” in Esquire Jan 1946, 160, 162

There is a bit of disingenuousness to this: while Wilstach is portraying this as something Cook told him personally, he is actually quoting directly from “In Memoriam” in the two middle paragraphs, and paraphrasing from there elsewhere. However, Cook and Wilstach were actually acquainted: Wilstach has an article in Cook’s amateur journals The Ghost #3 (May 1945) and #5 (Jul 1947). While neither article is about Lovecraft, their very presence confirms that the two men must have shared at least a correspondence. It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that Cook himself was the source of the copy of “In Memoriam” that Wilstach must have had when writing “The Ten-Cent Ivory Tower.”

If a reader were to subtract from Wilstach’s memoir all the material that was directly attributable to Cook or a copy of Marginalia, the remaining details are few and rather weak. For example:

I learned that he had worked and roamed all night, slept since dawn, and had just breakfasted upon an orange.

John Wilstach, “The Ten-Cent Ivory Tower” in Esquire Jan 1946, 83

Lovecraft walking the streets of New York late at night, returning early in the morning, and sleeping late into the day are all believable; many letters support this behavior, and Cook and others commented on it. However, Lovecraft breaking his fast on an orange is unusual. While there are references to him consuming grapefruit when in Florida, citrus does not appear to have been a regular part of Lovecraft’s diet. One letter from his New York period shows how rare a treat fruit was to him:

[Sonia H. Lovecraft] left a lot of provisions here last week, including a lemon—so tonight I have been emulating W. V. Phillips in his vespertine glass of the citrick beverage.

H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 22 Oct 1925, Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.457

Other little details face similar scrutiny. The errors become more glaring. The words Wilstach attributes to Lovecraft become less and less believable, even granting that twenty years had passed since they were set down. For example, during the apocryphal meeting with Crane, Wilstach wrote:

Crane muttered that I might tell something about the market.

“What have you been aiming at?” I asked him.

“I don’t know. Hart thinks my scripts should be typewritten.”

Well, it was unbelievable–he was actually, in person, the amateur who brought a manuscript rolled up, in handwriting, and tied with a string–and called back to find it still tied with the same strong. Of course he had sought out the offices of Harper’s, Century, Scribner’s, while any tyro would know that his own chances were at the Munsey or Street & Smith’s fiction chains.

John Wilstach, “The Ten-Cent Ivory Tower” in Esquire Jan 1946, 83

It is unbelievable—because we know that while Lovecraft hated typing, he had learned after his first submissions of longhand manuscripts to editor Edwin Baird of Weird Tales that manuscripts had to be typed. Sonia H. Davis in her memoir of their marriage recalls how their honeymoon was spent in part with her reading out his manuscript for “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” as Lovecraft laboriously typed it out on a rented machine. Wilstach’s repeated claim that Lovecraft never typed is patently not true—but is it the case of bad information, misremembering, or something worse?

Did John Wilstach just make it all up?

The Advocate-Messenger, 16 Dec 1945

Many magazines were published in the month before the cover date; newspaper journalists appeared to accept Wilstach’s piece at face value. Contemporary fans too appear to largely accept Wilstach’s article as accurate, with one writing:

In the few pages of the article he paints a very good word picture of Lovecraft as he knew him.

Jay Edwards, “Lovecraftiana” in Lethe #9 (Sep 1948)

Lovecraft’s surviving friends were less kind:

Time, no doubt, exposed more of the obvious flaws in Wilstach’s Esquire article to fans and would-be scholars alike. Lovecraft’s friend Robert Bloch would write:

My friend, the late John Wilstach, may or may not have met H.P.L. in the flesh; for the purposes of auctorial authority he laid claim to having done so in New York, during the Twenties, and penned an article for Esquire magazine, some years after H.P.L.’s death, entitled The Ten-Cent Ivory Tower.

I corresponded with Wilstach for some time before his own passing, and I can attest that his personal admiration for Lovecraft was unbounded. Nevertheless, he knowingly added his bit to the growing accumulation of Lovecraftiana which emphasizes only the legendary aspect, the “fantastic creation” rather than the whole man.

Robert Bloch, “Out of the Ivory Tower” in The Shuttered Room and Other Pieces (1959) 173

S. T. Joshi in H. P. Lovecraft: A Comprehensive Bibliography minces no words and simply calls Wilstach’s “The Ten-Cent Ivory Tower” fictitious. This makes a certain amount of sense: unlike “The Day He Met Lovecraft” (1972) by Lew Shaw, Wilstach was presumably paid for the article, and Esquire was a prominent enough market that publishing in it could raise a writer’s profile. There was a potential incentive for Wilstach to invent meetings and a friendship that maybe never took place.

When taken all together—the obvious errors, the borrowing from Cook, the absence of Wilstach from Lovecraft and Crane’s letters, the bits that just don’t line up—”The Ten-Cent Ivory Tower” is ultimately a poor source. Too much doesn’t fit with other facts from Lovecraft’s life, too much feels like a fictional narrative. Not useful to Lovecraft scholars or particularly interesting for fans today. The value of “The Ten-Cent Ivory Tower,” if any, is largely historiographical: this was a step toward a deeper understanding of and wider interest in Lovecraft and his work. While it might be a false step, how many thousands of readers encountered Lovecraft through this article in Esquire? Read about it in newspapers and fanzines? How many lives did Wilstach touch with this one piece?

Even though a memoir may sink out of sight and out of mind, in its passage it has left a mark on the world.

The January 1946 issue of Esquire containing “The Ten-Cent Ivory Tower” may be read for free online.

Thanks and appreciation to Dave Goudsward for his help and sanity check.

Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s