Tuesday, January 3, 2012

An Illustrious Anonymous Author Unmasked

by Stephen J. Gertz

Anonymous is a perennially busy writer, with a list of books that could span the Equator with enough left over to tie a  sash knot with long tassels. Anonymous writers toil, of course, in anonymity, a sere environment sorely lacking in amity; it's a lonely place. Some authors prefer to write anonymously to protect their reputation in another genre of literature, or because their subject matter is too delicate to risk open attribution.

At this point you may be asking yourself, How can an author be illustrious and anonymous at the same time? I hadn't a clue, so I asked the Rare Book Guy (the Carnac the Magnificent of rare bookmen, Shell's Answer Man to the antiquarian book set), for insight. He held the question, inside an envelope formerly secured within a mayonnaise jar, to his forehead and, after communing with the occult, revealed the answer:

"In a sea of anonymity how can one anonymous author be distinguished from another anonymous author? By gilding the anonymous lily! After all, there's Anonymous and then there's ANONYMOUS. Thus, Anonymous becomes 'Illustrious Anonymous,' 'Best-Selling Anonymous,' 'Critically Acclaimed Anonymous,' etc. That way, the potential reader knows that this Anonymous ain't just another Anonymous from the neighborhood, and the publisher can sleep soundly knowing that sleight-of-hand  will tempt the gullible; Anonymous as sales ploy."

All well and good, RBG, but what about an author so obscure, so beyond recognition that when they look in the mirror even they don't know who they are? Why should a publisher risk money on a complete unknown when Anonymous has such a great track record? Pamela was anonymously published in its first edition of 1740 (dated 1741) and it did wonders for Samuel Richardson's career.

And so I imagine that, faced with Dark Masquerade - a potboiler about a "prominent criminal attorney, well versed in the art of fixing juries," who falls for a debutante that "daring young news photographer" Jimmy Cronin also has eyes for but when Butch and Larry McCabe, fraternal gangsters and disgruntled clients of our prominent criminal attorney, threaten the love triangle, and "an avalanche of masterfully portrayed incidents including a jail-break and the appearance of a mysterious nun on an ocean voyage" ensues - the editor and publisher of New York's Green Circle Books had to make an important decision.

(Your attention has likely been arrested by the sudden appearance of a seafaring nun of mystery and intrigue, and, presumably, a great set of sea-legs. Angel of Death or Angie Dickinson in bride of Christ drag? Or, a character out of Pirandello who accidentally walked into this plot in search of an author named Anonymous but, because the author  was anonymous and not in the phone book, she tramped the earth and sailed the seas an eternal vagabond).

Editor: It's a smash but for a story like this "by Mrs. H. H. Harris and Edward Doherty" doesn't grab. Too polite.

Publisher: Tell me about it. Who are they? Sound like high society yokels to me. "Mrs. H.H. Harris and Mr. Edward Doherty Are Pleased To Announce the Publication of Their New Novel. Tea and Scones Will Be Served Afterward at the Waldorf." I'm thinking pseudonym.

Editor: Whad'ya have in mind?

Publisher: Something punchy, urban, sharp, gritty. "Brick Wall." "Lance Boil." "Duke Street." "Dick Gunn." "Cotton Gin." No, forget "Cotton Gin." Too rural for this caper.

Editor: How 'bout, "Anonymous." 

Publisher: It's been done. 

Editor: I've got it. "Illustrious Anonymous!" 

Publisher: Hmmm. Mystery, prestige, strange oxymoron. It's magic! Could be Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dreiser, the man in the moon! This is why I pay you the big bucks.

And so Mrs. H.H. Harris and Edward Doherty became the "Illustrious Anonymous Author" of Dark Masquerade.

Half of "Illustrious Anonymous Author" actually was somewhat illustrious.

Edward "Eddie" J.  Doherty (1890-1975) was a journalist ("The Star Reporter of America"), novelist (The Broadway Murders: A Night Club Mystery, NY: New York Crime Club/Doubleday, 1929),  and Hollywood writer best known for his screenplay, The Sullivans, which was nominated for 1944's Best Original Story Oscar™Academy Award. A Catholic, he became an ordained priest at age seventy-eight. It is unknown whether a mysterious nun on an ocean voyage was his muse.

Eddie Doherty.

My guess is that he - "a competitive professional, passionate lover, cosmopolitan traveller, enjoyer of the good things in life [who] left the Church in fury and pain but returned later in tears of joy" (Madonna House blurb for his autobiography) - was the pro that helped amateur Mrs. H.H. Harris write Dark Masquerade.

Virginia Stallard Harris was the wife of successful Fifth Avenue perfumer and Broadway investor, Herbert H. Harris (1898-1949), whose main claim to theater fame was that Arthur Miller's All My Sons (1947) was "Produced in Association With Herbert H. Harris," i.e. he was the play's financial angel. Dark Masquerade was, apparently, Mrs. Harris' one and only writing credit; I've found no records for her under her name or in variations. She is, however, to the best of my research, the only writer in the English language to ever be formally credited as "An Illustrious Anonymous Author," and so enters literary history as an illustrious anonymous footnote.
• • •

Apologies to the scions of Mrs. H.H. Harris, and Edward Doherty for ripping the veil of anonymity off their illustriously anonymous ancestors. It was a job no one cared about and didn't need to be done. As such, I'm a sap, gulled by the publisher's baloney. It's another bent feather in Booktryst's cap, in cahoots with the U.S. Catalog of Copyright Entries.

A few more words on Eddie Doherty, a very interesting character.

According to his New York Times obit (May 5, 1975), which described him as  "the star reporter straight out of the raffish, fast-talking 'Front Page' set that thrived on scandal...a chronicler of the Jazz Age," the Chicago Mirror declared him "America's Highest Paid Reporter." He earned his reputation as "an ace general assignment reporter" with his coverage of  Hollywood's Wallace Reid and Fatty Arbuckle scandals for the Chicago Tribune. He later moved to New York to join the staff of Liberty magazine. It is during this period that he likely collaborated with Mrs. Harris.  I suspect that Mr. Harris may have invested in his wife's ambition by hiring Doherty for the project.

The Times obit quotes one of his former editors: "'When he's good, he's very, very good. When he's bad, he's lousy.'"

He had studied for the priesthood but the death of his first wife in the flu epidemic of 1918 estranged him from the Church and God. He became a reporter. He ran wild. When his second wife died, c. 1939, he returned to the Roman Catholic faith.

At the time he became a Catholic priest he was married. He was ordained in Israel as a member of the Melkites, a Byzantine order (not tied to the Eastern Church) that recognizes the Pope in Rome as its sovereign but allows married men into the priesthood.

[HARRIS, Mrs. H.H. and Edward Doherty]. An Illustrious Anonymous Author. Dark Masquerade. New York: Green Circle Books, 1936. First (only) edition. Octavo. 312 pages. Cloth, with dust jacket.

I've found little about Green Circle Books beyond that it was, apparently, an imprint of  former Macaulay executive and New York publisher, Lee Furman, who filed the copyright for Dark Masquerade on August 11, 1936. OCLC notes records for titles published by Green Circle 1936-1937, at which point it seems that the imprint dropped off Earth.

Dark Masquerade image courtesy of ReadInk, currently offering this volume, with our thanks. Image of Eddie Doherty courtesy of Madonna House.

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