The thing to remember about those pulp magazines of the 1920s and ’30s is that, with a few exceptions, the stories behind the lurid covers didn’t have to be any good. Not in any literary sense, at least — the average story in a pulp magazine was about as mindless as daytime television, if not more so. (Daytime TV at least provides weather reports and stock quotations.)
Curiously, however, in terms of spelling, punctuation and grammar, pulp editors were supposed to be almost as irreproachable as the New York Times, and actually came fairly close. Better than the average American college graduate, anyway. Even the writers, on average, were reasonably good at such matters., though the actual stories they framed in these grammatical and well spelled terms came about as close to mindless as any literature ever can.
You will remember, though, that I mentioned honorable exceptions to the rule of pure trash, and there were some. One was the crime pulp Black Mask, edited by Ken White from the cubicle next to my own.
Well, let’s slow down a moment here so I can paint you a word picture. The entire suite of Popular Publications’ offices on the top, or 20th, floor of the structure called the Bartholomew Building was in the approximate shape of a capital letter T, which someone had pushed over so it was lying on its side. The down stroke of the T, which now ran east and west, was shortened, leaving on one side just room for three small offices and on the other side the wall that kept visitors penned in the waiting room until our receptionist-switchboard girl, Ethel Klock, said they could go on in. The cross-stroke of the T, now running north and south and thus paralleling the nearby East River, housed all the rest of Popular’s employees except for the two on the (former) downstroke, which is to say Ken White, with his Black Mask, and me. (I believe a deceased pulp called Railroad Stories had once been edited from the now-vacant third of those downstroke offices.)
Although Ken White was my nearest neighbor, we seldom spoke. He was rarely in his office, apparently doing most of his work at home. He was, I believe, the magazine’s third working editor, and he was charged with keeping the magazine as outstanding for quality and innovation as it had been made by his predecessors. That was no light responsibility. Black Mask had been started by the team of H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan as publishers, and they had turned it over to “Cap” Joseph Shaw to edit. Shaw had done wonders, recruiting writers like Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler to reinvent the crime story for him. Unfortunately for Ken White, those two were no longer pounding the typewriter keys to fill the pulps, so it was a tough assignment.
White and I had the only offices in use on that abbreviated leg of the lazy-T. Everything else was on the T’s crossbar. Backtracking to where the crossbar of the T sat on the stumpy vertical, there was the office of Jane Littell, who edited Popular’s love pulps.
Janie had a background she didn’t much care to talk about, including a stint — before she began to put on the pounds — as a circus performer. She would never get explicit about it but I formed the opinion that she had been an equestrienne, one of those fearless young women who circled the ring standing on the back of a galloping horse.