'His first action on leaving college was to blow off steam by leading an expedition into Central America. In the next few years he headed three, all of them undertaken to study savage peoples and cultures to provide fodder for his articles and stories. Between 1933 and 1941 he visited many barbaric cultures and yet found time to write seven million words of published fact and fiction.' (A Brief Biography of L. Ron Hubbard, 1959)
Precious little care went into compiling the many biographies of L. Ron Hubbard. Had anyone bothered to research Hubbard's published output, it would immediately have been obvious that he had not written anything like seven million words during this period. Between 1933 and 1941, he published about 160 articles and stories, almost all of them in pulp magazines. The nature of the medium proscribed lengthy literary efforts, thus pulp fiction tended to be short, with few stories running to more than 10,000 words. If he had written seven million published words, the average length of each of his contributions would have been an impossible 44,000 words.
A little intelligent inquiry would also have established that Hubbard never left North America during the years in question: the 'fodder' for his stories derived not from expeditions to faraway places, but from past experiences embellished by his fecund imagination. Neither did he visit 'barbaric cultures', except, perhaps, those to be found in New York and Los Angeles . . .
(Scientology's account of the years 1933-36.)
Ron arrived back in Washington DC in February 1933, not too disappointed at his failure as a gold prospector and hotly anxious to renew his acquaintanceship with a young lady he had met on a gliding field shortly before his father sent him packing to Puerto Rico.
The object of his ardour was a twenty-six-year-old farmer's daughter from Elkton, Maryland. Her name was Margaret Louise Grubb, but everyone called her Polly. She was a bright, pretty girl with bobbed blond hair and an independent streak in keeping with the age of Amelia Earhart who, nine months earlier, had become the first
woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. Earhart inspired thousands of American women to take an interest in aviation and at weekends Polly used to like to walk out to an airfield near her home to watch the gliders wobble uncertainly into the air behind a tow from an aged and rusting Ford.
An only child whose mother had died years earlier, she both looked after her father and supported herself financially (she had got her first job, working in a shoe shop, at the age of sixteen). But despite her responsibilities, she was soon determined to learn to fly and was well on the way to getting her own licence when a young man with startling red hair showed up at the airfield one weekend.
Polly could hardly fail to register Ron's arrival since he was immediately the focus of attention among the little group of leather-helmeted pilots waiting for a tow. They seemed to gather naturally around him, laughing frequently while he talked non-stop, slicing the air with his hands to illustrate his various aerial exploits. For his part, it was not long before Ron noticed the attractive young woman in flying gear and strolled over to talk to her.
Although she was nearly four years older than Ron, the difference in their ages did not bother Polly in the least. Other, less open-minded, women might never have considered the possibility of a romance with a man younger than themselves, but Polly found Ron to be an irresistible companion - kind, considerate, entertaining and always able to make her laugh. He talked a great deal about his travels in the East, but she was never bored; indeed, she was constantly amazed at all the things he had seen and done. He was so much more mature, so much more worldly, than the young men she knew around Elkton, a rural community of less than six thousand people close to the north-east corner of Chesapeake Bay. Most of them had never been further than Wilmington, Delaware, ten miles up the road.
Polly's father was, understandably, faintly alarmed to learn that his daughter was 'walking out' with Ron Hubbard. It was not that he did not like the young man; he, too, thought Ron was charming. Nor was he concerned that Ron was younger than Polly. What worried him was the fact that Ron had neither money nor career prospects and apparently had no intention looking for a job, since he planned to support himself by writing. In Mr Grubb's eyes, being a writer was not a job, and nothing Ron could do or say would convince him otherwise, particularly since he could only produce two articles from the Sportsman Pilot as evidence of his earning potential.
However, both Mr Grubb and Ron's parents recognized the futility of trying to oppose the match. Polly was quite as headstrong as Ron and if she had made up her mind to marry him, there was nothing anyone in the world could do to stop her. And Ron, still the adored
1. Letter to author from Mrs Catherine Gillespie, Dec 1986
only child, always got his own way with his parents. Blessings were reluctantly bestowed and the marriage took place in Elkton on Thursday 13 April. Many of the guests correctly speculated about the whirlwind nature of the courtship and the speed with which the ceremony was arranged. Polly and Ron moved into a little rented house in Laytonsville, Maryland, where she had a spontaneous abortion. In October, she discovered she was pregnant again.
In May Ron received an assignment from the Sportsman Pilot to cover an amateur flying competition at College Park Airport, near Washington. His report was competent enough and written in his usual breezy prose: 'Since I was, perforce and per poverty, among the spectators, I can speak only from the ground view and venture the point that those six [pylon] races suffered on only one score. They inherited the disadvantage of all conventional pylon races - we on the ground had nothing to watch save an empty sky as the ships disappeared for their swing around the course. The finishes, though, made up for that temporarily empty sky. The home stretch brought the ships down a brisk wind, through some bumps for which the field's tree-trimmed boundaries must be blamed, and down across the finish line in a power dive to fifty feet. That satisfied the spectators; it looked meteoric and heroic. And you know spectators.'
The article was published in the May/June issue of the magazine, with photographs also provided by Ron. It was his first published piece as a professional writer and he was very proud of it, but it could hardly be described as a promising start to his career. Months would pass before his by-line appeared again.
For a short while it seemed it did not much matter that Ron was finding it difficult to make a living as a writer, for on Friday 18 August, a headline in the Washington Daily News proclaimed: 'Youthful DC Adventurer Finds Gold in Nearby Maryland After Trek Fails.' The three-column story reported that L. Ron Hubbard, while on furlough from his job as general manager of West Indies Minerals Inc, had discovered gold on his wife's farm in Maryland.
Much was made of the irony of a prospector striking gold in his own back yard: 'Hubbard, still in his twenties, left here last year for Antilles, West Indies, in search of gold so that he might return and marry the girl he met shortly before his departure. He returned a short time ago empty handed and considerably weakened from fever . . . "Imagine me going 1300 miles in search of gold when it lay right at the back door of my bride-to-be," Hubbard said dejectedly.'
Ron told the newspaper that mining would soon be under way 'on a large scale' and he had also encountered several specimens of a curious white metal he believed was either platinum or iridium. Two photographs accompanied the story, one of Polly, fetchingly attired in boots
and jodhpurs, panning for gold, and another of the young couple examining a large chunk of rock with an explanatory caption: 'L. Ron Hubbard, the prospector, says the boulder in the above photo is the largest specimen of gold quartz he has ever seen.'
Paradoxically, despite having struck gold, Ron's financial situation remained precarious. In September, his glider pilot licence expired and he was unable to renew it as he had not completed the necessary ten hours' solo flying in the previous six months. The problem was simply that he had no money, but in a plaintive letter to the Bureau of Aeronautics he side-stepped confessing he was broke by claiming the difficulty was that there was 'no glider within two hundred miles in which I would care to risk my neck'. The Washington Glider Club had offered him the use of their Franklin but it was in such a sorry condition he had to 'beg off' and he did not want to use a primary glider because 'I cracked one up once in Port Huron, Michigan, for the simple reason that most primaries won't fly.'
Ron was, as always, optimistic about the future. 'Here's the point,' he wrote. 'I am going to get me a glider next spring. A big Franklin. It took me two months of waiting on good flying days and inspectors the last time I took the commercial exam. I don't want to have to go through all that next springs [sic], for springs at best are fleeting. I've flown a great deal more than most glider pilots. Maybe you've seen one of my glider articles in aviation magazines. My one ambition is to get a glider of my own.
'And here's my plea. Isn't there some way you can extend this thing in view of the circumstances . . . Isn't there something you can do about it?'
It was a naïve hope: no bureaucracy is structured to indulge the roseate ambitions of young men and the Bureau of Aeronautics was no exception. Its dour reply was brief: 'It is regretted that your glider pilot's licence . . . cannot be extended as requested. Also it is the policy of this Department not to extend licences.' Officially it was the end of Ron's gliding career, for he never again held a licence although he would apply, a couple more times, for a student pilot's licence.
In October, Ron contributed another feature to the Sportsman Pilot, this time a profile of Chet Warrington, a well-known Washington pilot, and in November he wrote an article about the infant science of radio navigation. His lack of a licence notwithstanding, he always adopted a chatty, aviator-to-aviator style: 'Personally, I abhor navigation. It takes too much algebra and I don't speak good algebra . . . It's my ambition to step into a ship some day and take off in rain and fog with the other coast in mind as a destination. But I don't like circular rules and too many gadgets. I'm lazy, I want someone to tie a piece of string to the hub of the prop and lead me right where I want
2. Certified airman's file
to go. That's my ambition, and I'll bet my last turnbuckle in a power dive that it's yours too.'
In addition to his three pieces for the Sportsman Pilot, Ron also sold an article titled 'Navy Pets' to the Washington Star in 1933. But that was the sum of his published output for the year.
The going rate for freelance writers around that time was a cent a word. Polly, whose thickening waistline added greatly to her worries, calculated at the end of 1933 that her husband had managed to earn, during the course of that year, rather less than $100.
There were better times ahead, however, for Ron soon discovered his natural habitat as a writer - the blood and thunder world of 'the pulps'.
Pulp magazines had an honorable literary genesis in the United States and an eclectic following: John Buchan wrote The Thirty-Nine Steps in 1915 for Adventure magazine, which at one time counted among its subscribers such unlikely fellow travellers as Harry Truman and Al Capone. Writers like C.S. Forester, Erle Stanley Gardner and Joseph Conrad were introduced to huge new audiences through the pulps, as were unforgettable characters like Buffalo Bill, boy detective Nick Cartot and the ever-inscrutable Dr Fu Manchu. The most successful of all pulp heroes, Edgar Rice Burrough's 'Tarzan of the Apes', made his first appearance in the pages of All-Story magazine and went on to spawn the longest-running adventure comic strip and Hollywood's biggest money-making film series.
By the early '30s, pulp fiction was a major source of inexpensive entertainment for millions of Americans and a convenient means of escape from the anxieties and realities of the Depression. For as little as a dime, readers could enter into an action-packed adventure in which the heroes slugged their way out of tight spots in various exotic corners of an improbable world. Good invariably triumphed over evil and sex was never allowed to complicate the plot, for no hero ever proceeded beyond a chaste kiss and no heroine would dream of expecting anything more.
In 1934, more than 150 pulp magazines were published in New York alone. Black Mask was considered the best of the bunch by writers, largely because it paid its top contributors as much as a nickel a word, but Argosy, Adventure, Dime Detective and Dime Western were all said to offer more than the basic rate of a cent a word to the best writers. As the average 128-page pulp magazine contained around 65,000 words and as many of them were published weekly, the market for freelance writers was both enormous and potentially lucrative.
Of all this L. Ron Hubbard knew virtually nothing until he began to cast around for new outlets as a matter of urgency after his first
disastrous year as a writer. 'He told me', said his Aunt Marnie, 'that he went into a bookstall and picked up all the pulp books from the rack. He took a big pile home to see what it was that people wanted to read. He thought a lot of it was junk and he knew he could do better. That's how he started writing mystery stories.'
More importantly, perhaps, it dawned on Ron that he had been writing in the pulp genre for most of his life. The swashbuckling short stories he had scribbled across page after page of old accounts books when he was in his teens were, he belatedly realized, precisely the sort of material that was to be found between the lurid covers of the most popular 'pulps'.
Polly was fast expanding and every week they were deeper in debt. Ron knew he had to earn money somehow and the 'pulps' seemed to offer the best hope. He began writing one story after another, winding page after page into his typewriter without a break, often hammering away all night. Typing at phenomenal speed, never needing to pause for thought, never bothering to read through what he had written, he roamed the entire range of adventure fiction with red-blooded heroes who were gunslingers, detectives, pirates, foreign legionnaires, spies, flying aces, soldiers of fortune and grizzled old sea captains. For a period of six weeks he wrote a complete story of between 4,500 and 20,000 words every day, gathered up the pages when he had finished and mailed it to one or another of the pulps in New York without a second look.
It did not take long to pay off. One morning Ron went out to collect the mail and found there were two cheques waiting for him, totalling $300 - more money than he had ever earned in his life. The first was from Thrilling Adventures for a story called 'The Green God', the second from The Phantom Detective for 'Calling Squad Cars'. More acceptances soon followed - 'Sea Fangs' was bought by Five Novels Monthly, 'Dead Men Kill' by Thrilling Detective, 'The Carnival of Death' by Popular Detective . . .
By the end of April Ron had earned enough money to take Polly on a short holiday to California. They took a cheap hotel room at Encinitas, a resort a few miles north of San Diego, but Polly, now seven months into her pregnancy, found the unaccustomed heat somewhat debilitating. On 7 May 1934, she decided to take a dip in the ocean to cool off and got caught in a rip tide. She was a strong swimmer but only just managed to get back to the beach and the exertion brought on labour. Later that day she gave birth to a son.
The baby weighed only 2lb 2oz and clung to life by the most gossamer of threads. Praying he would survive, they named him Lafayette Ronald Hubbard Junior. Ron constructed a crude incubator, first out of a shoe box, then by lining a cupboard drawer with
4. Interview with Mrs Roberts
blankets and keeping it warm with an electric light bulb; Polly wrapped the mewling mite in cotton wool and fed him with an eye-dropper. For two months they maintained a day and night vigil, taking it in turns to watch over the infant and marvelling at its will to live. While Polly was pregnant, Ron's father always used to ask her how 'his Nibs' was doing and by the time the danger period had passed L. Ron Hubbard Junior was known to the entire family as 'Nibs', a name that would stick for the rest of his life.
Fatherhood in no way moderated Ron's desire to be seen as a devil-may-care adventurer and fearless aviator and he assiduously promoted this image at every opportunity. In July, for example, he was the subject of a glowing tribute in the 'Who's Who' column of the Pilot, 'The Magazine for Aviation's Personnel', which described him as 'one of the outstanding glider pilots in the country'. The author, H. Latane Lewis II, made no secret of his admiration.
'Whenever two or three pilots are gathered together around the Nation's Capital,' he wrote, 'whether it be a Congressional hearing or just in the back of some hangar, you'll probably hear the name of Ron Hubbard mentioned, accompanied by such adjectives as "crazy", "wild" and "dizzy". For the flaming-haired pilot hit the city like a tornado a few years ago and made women scream and strong men weep by his aerial antics. He just dared the ground to come up and hit him . . . Ron could do more stunts in a sailplane than most pilots can in a pursuit job. He would come out of spins at an altitude of thirty inches and thumb his nose at the undertakers who used to come out to the field and titter.'
It was not too surprising that Ron was considered to be eminently suitable for inclusion in the 'Who's Who' column, for it was patently obvious that he had been at pains to project himself as the most colourful of characters: 'Before he fell from grace and became an aviator, he was, at various times, top Sergeant in the Marines, radio crooner, newspaper reporter, gold miner in the West Indies and movie director-explorer . . .' Among his other achievements, it seems he taught himself to fly powered aircraft ('He climbed into a fast ship and, without any dual time at all, gave the engine the soup and hopped off . . .'), then became a barnstormer and 'flew under every telephone wire in the Middle West', before settling down to become director of the flying club at George Washington University. H. Latane Lewis II concluded that Ron was 'one of aviation's most distinguished hellraisers'. It was a sobriquet with which the subject heartily concurred.
When Nibs was bawling and burping like other contented babies, the twenty-three-year-old 'distinguished hell-raiser' decided it was time to make the acquaintance of his fellow pulp writers. Leaving Polly and the baby at home, he caught a train for New York and
checked into a $1.50-a-night room at the Forty-fourth Street Hotel, which he had been assured was where many visiting writers stayed.
In 1934, with the country still in the stranglehold of the Depression, there were few tourists in New York, but even before the Wall Street Crash the Forty-fourth Street Hotel had rarely attracted much tourist trade. It was a seedy establishment on Times Square largely patronized by out-of-work actors, third-rate vaudeville performers, wrestlers, touts and bookies. Frank Gruber, the only pulp writer resident when Ron arrived, accurately characterized his fellow guests as 'all-round no-goods and deadbeats'.
Gruber was an aspiring writer from Mount Morris, Illinois, who had come to New York to make his fortune on the strength of selling one story to Secret Agent X magazine and a couple more to Underworld. That he was not succeeding soon became evident when he explained to Ron how to get a free bowl of tomato soup at an Automat. All you had to do, he said, was pick up a bowl, fill it with hot water, skip the nickel slot which dispensed soup powder and grab a couple of bags of crackers. You took your bowl of hot water to a table, crumbled the crackers into it, then tipped in half a bottle of tomato ketchup. 'Presto!' said Gruber triumphantly. 'Tomato soup.'
Not entirely motivated by charity, Ron offered to buy Gruber a meal. Sitting in Thompson's Restaurant on Sixth Avenue, just around the corner from the hotel, Ron pumped the other man for information about which editors were easiest to see, who was buying what kind of material and which magazines paid most. He made a list of the commissioning editors at the most important publishers - Street and Smith, the Frank A. Munsey Company, Popular Publications and Dell Magazines.
A few days later, Gruber took Ron along to Rosoff's restaurant on 43rd Street, where members of the American Fiction Guild met for lunch every Friday. Most of the successful pulp writers in New York were members of the Guild and most of them gathered at Rosoff's at lunchtime on Fridays. They were names familiar to millions of pulp readers: Lester Dent, creator of Doc Savage; George Bruce, acknowledged ace of battle-in-the-air yarns; Norvell Page, who was said to earn $500 a month for his stories in the Spider; and Theodore Tinsley, a regular contributor to Black Mask. President of the Guild was Arthur J. Burks, who had been dubbed 'King of the Pulps' in a New Yorker profile and quoted as saying that any pulp writer who did not make at least $400 a month was not worth his salt. It was a remark that was to cause him considerable embarrassment, for it was common knowledge in the Guild that Burks never earned that much, despite turning out around two hundred thousand words every month.
Ron was not the kind of young man to be overawed by such
illustrious company and he walked into the Guild lunch at Rosoff's as if he was quite as famous and successful as any man present. He was also a good deal younger than most of the members, but acted as if he had seen and done more than any of them. By the end of the lunch, he was confidently presiding over one end of the table, holding the attention of everyone within earshot with an enthralling blow-by-blow account of his expedition to explore pirate strongholds of the Spanish Main.
It was accepted, at the American Fiction Guild lunches, that members might be inclined to blur the distinction between fact and fiction. What mattered more than strict adherence to literal truth was that the stories should be entertaining, and on that score young Hubbard could not be faulted. He was a natural story-teller, able to set the scene quickly and evocatively, describe the action in rich detail, recount credible dialogue and interject humour with an acute sense of timing. Arthur Burks was happy to welcome him as a new member of the Guild, after he had paid his $10 membership fee, of course.
Ron did well in New York. He made the rounds of the pulp publishers, talked his way into the offices of the important editors, sold a few stories and generally made himself known. In the evenings he used to sit in Frank Gruber's room at the Forty-fourth Street Hotel, kicking ideas around with other young writers and holding forth, although his host eventually tired of Ron's apparently endless adventures. One evening Gruber sat through a long account of Ron's experiences in the Marine Corps, his exploration of the upper Amazon and his years as a white hunter in Africa. At the end of it he asked with obvious sarcasm: 'Ron, you're eighty-four years old aren't you?'
'What the hell are you talking about?' Ron snapped.
Gruber waved a notebook in which he had been jotting figures 'Well,' he said, 'you were in the Marines seven years, you were a civil engineer for six years, you spent four years in Brazil, three in Africa, you barnstormed with your own flying circus for six years . . . I've just added up all the years you did this and that and it comes to eighty-four.'
Ron was furious that his escapades should be openly doubted. 'He blew his tack,' said Gruber. He would react in the same way at the Guild lunches if someone raised an eyebrow when he was in full flow. Most of the other members expected their yarns to be taken with a pinch of salt, but not Ron. It was almost as if he believed his own stories.
Back home with Polly and the baby, Ron continued writing for 'the pulps' at a ferocious rate, turning out endless variations on a hairy-chested theme. His protagonists thrashed through jungle
5. Frank Gruber, The Pulp Jungle, 1967
thickets pursued by slavering head-hunters, soared across smoke-smudged skies in aerial dog-fights, wrestled giant octopi twenty fathoms beneath storm-tossed seas, duelled with cutlasses on blood-soaked decks strewn with splintered timbers and held dervish hordes at bay by dispensing steel-jacketed death from the barrel of a machine-gun. Women rarely made an appearance except to be rescued from the occasional man-eating lion or grizzly bear. The titles he gave to his stories vividly attested to their genus - 'The Phantom Patrol', 'Destiny's Drum', 'Man-Killers of the Air', 'Hostage to Death' and 'Hell's Legionnaire'.
Interspersed between these gripping sagas, Ron still wrote occasional features for the Sportsman Pilot in his capacity as aerial hell-raiser. 'There are few men in the United States - nay, the world - as well qualified as I to write upon the subject of cross-country flying,' he began a piece in the September 1934 issue. 'It so happens I hold the world's record in dead reckoning. I just have to marvel about it. Probably no other pilot in the world could do it. Probably no other pilot in the world actually has done it so well.'
The braggadocio was a tease, as he soon made clear. On a fifty-mile flight from New London to Mansfield, Ohio, navigating by the sun, he claimed to have missed his destination by a record margin. 'The ship bumped to a beautiful landing. But, and but again, Mansfield was nowhere in sight. We grabbed a farmer's suspender and snapped it for attention. We asked, disdainfully, where we might be. Well, there's no use dragging this out. We were 37 miles off . . . That, I maintain, is a world record.'
In December he was offering readers tips about flying to the West Indies: 'With the long, long shores of Cuba behind you, you hit Port au Prince. Right now we start assuming definitely that your plane has floats on it, though we've been assuming it vaguely all along. Otherwise, you'll get your wheels wet. Port au Prince isn't favoured unless you can wangle the Gendarmerie du Haiti into letting you use their fields. You'd have to be a better wangler than we are . . .'
Two months after this feature was published, on 25 February 1935 Ron again applied for a student pilot's licence. He never got round to taking the test to become a qualified pilot and never actually applied for another licence, but he blithely continued writing for the Sportsman Pilot, offering advice to fellow aviators and filling many pages of the magazine with dashing accounts of his aerial exploits.
Ron's published work in 1935 included ten pulp novels, three 'novelettes', twelve short stories and three non-fiction articles. In October, Adventure magazine invited him to introduce himself to readers in their 'Camp Fire' feature, 'where readers, writers and adventurers meet'. Ron began in jocular fashion - 'When I was a year
6. Certified airman's file
old, they say I showed some signs of settling down, but I think this is merely rumour . . .' - and touched on all the familiar highspots of his dazzling career, his 'Asiatic wanderings', his expeditions, his 'barn-storming trip through the Mid-West', and so on.
Perhaps because the same issue of Adventure also published one of his 'leatherneck yarns', Ron chose to elaborate on his experiences as a 'top-kicker' in the Marines. 'I've known the Corps from Quantico to Peiping, from the South Pacific to the West Indies,' he wrote. 'To me the Marine Corps is a more go-to-hell outfit than the much lauded French Foreign Legion ever could be . . .' Expressing the hope that his thumbnail sketch would be a passport to the readers' interest, he ended with the promise: 'When I get back from Central America, where I'm going soon, I'll have another yarn to tell.'
Ron did not go to Central America but to Hollywood, where one of his stories, 'The Secret of Treasure Island', had been bought by Columbia to be filmed as a fifteen-part serial for showing at Saturday morning matineés. An advertisement in the Motion Picture Herald boasted that L. Ron Hubbard, 'famous action writer, stunt pilot and world adventurer' had written an 'excitement-jammed yarn with one of the best box office titles in years'.
Ron, of course, was pleased to add the title of 'Hollywood scriptwriter' to his ever increasing roll-call of notable accomplishments and he would soon be claiming screenwriting credit for a number of successful movies, among them John Ford's classic, Stagecoach, and The Plainsman, starring Gary Cooper. Most biographies of L. Ron Hubbard describe his Hollywood career, inevitably, as a triumph: 'In 1935, L. Ron Hubbard went to Hollywood and worked under motion picture contracts as a scriptwriter of numerous films making an outstanding reputation there with many highly successful films. His work in Hollywood is still remembered.' He was also said to have salvaged the careers of both Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff by writing them into scripts when they were out of work. In short, Ron became another 'Hollywood legend'.
Sadly, it appears he was an unsung legend for his name cannot be found on any 'highly successful films', with the exception of The Secret of Treasure Island. But this lack of recognition never prevented Ron from reminiscing about his golden days in Hollywood: 'I used to sit in my penthouse on Sunset Boulevard and write stories for New York and then go to my office in the studio and have my secretary tell everybody I was in conference while I caught up on my sleep because they couldn't believe anybody could write 136 scenes a day. The Screen Writers' Guild would have killed me. Their quota was eight.'
Ron did not stay long in Hollywood knocking out 136 scenes a day
7. Adventure, 10 October 1935
8. Interview with Robert Macdonald Ford, Olympia, Washington, 1 September 1986
9. Facts About L. Ron Hubbard, Flag Divisional Directive of 8 Mar 1974
10. L. Ron Hubbard autobiographical notes, 1974
11. Rocky Mountain News, 20 February 1983
and by the end of the year he was back in New York. Polly was pregnant again and mindful of what had happened with Nibs, they decided she should have the baby in a New York hospital. On Wednesday 15 January 1936, she produced a daughter, Catherine May. Unlike Nibs, Catherine was a lusty, full-term baby, perfect in every way except for a birthmark on one side of her face. Not long after she was born, the Hubbards travelled by train to visit Ron's parents in Bremerton, Washington.
Harry Ross Hubbard had been promoted to Lieutenant Commander, at the age of forty-eight, in December 1934 and the following July he was posted, for the third time, to Puget Sound Navy Yard, Bremerton, as an Assistant Supply Officer. For Ron's mother it was a particularly welcome move: her much-loved sister, Toilie, was by then also living in Bremerton and their younger sister, Midgie, lived across the bay in Seattle. May and Harry had already decided they would retire to Bremerton after he left the Navy and so they bought a small house at 1212 Gregory Way, just two blocks from the Navy Yard.
Ron's seventy-two-year-old grandmother, Ida Waterbury, was still at 'the old brick' in Helena, but in October 1935 Helena was hit by an earthquake. The first tremor was felt during one of President Roosevelt's Friday night 'fireside chats' on the radio. Throughout the following week, fifty-six further shocks were recorded, none of them serious, but at ten o'clock on the evening of 18 October a series of violent tremors shook the town, reducing many of the public buildings to rubble and generating widespread panic. 'The old brick' survived the earthquake, but in a dangerous condition. Next day, old Mrs Waterbury caught a train for Bremerton to stay with May and Hub at Gregory Way.
It was in these circumstances that Polly, Ron and their two small children were welcomed into the bosom of the Waterbury family when they arrived in Bremerton in the spring of 1936. All the Waterburys liked Polly. 'She was a lot of fun,' said Marnie, 'a good sport.' Polly reciprocated their warmth, was comfortable with the family and happy to have grandparents and great-aunts around to help take care of the boisterous Nibs while she looked after the baby.
Such was the conviviality of the milieu that Polly and Ron soon began looking for a home of their own in the Bremerton area. Property was cheap in rural Kitsap County and they found a little wooden house at South Colby, a small community with a post office and general store facing Yukon harbour to the south of Bremerton. The house was set among cedar trees on a steep hillside overlooking orchards and meadows sloping down to Puget Sound; from the front porch at nights you could see the lights of Seattle on the other side of the water. Polly fell in love with the place and named it 'The Hilltop'.
Although the house had three rooms upstairs, Ron decided he needed more privacy for writing and employed a local carpenter to build a rough pine cabin in the trees at the back of the property which he could use as a 'studio'. He put in a desk and typewriter and went back to work, churning out such stirring epics as 'The Baron of Coyote River' for All Western, 'Loot of the Shantung' for Smashing Novels and 'the Blow Torch Murder' for Detective Fiction.
The responsibilities of fatherhood weighed lightly on Ron's shoulders and he ignored any suggestion that he should adapt his working habits to accommodate family life. He liked to work all night and sleep all morning, sometimes not making an appearance until two or three o'clock in the afternoon, at which time Polly would be expected to produce 'breakfast'.
Although he was selling stories almost every week, they never seemed to have enough money and the owner of the general store in South Colby was frequently threatening to cut off their credit. Ron was completely unconcerned by the mounting bills. One day he took the ferry into Seattle and came back with an expensive phonograph that he had bought on credit at the Bon Marche department store. When Polly despairingly asked him how he was going to meet the payments he replied, with a grin, that he had no intention of making any. He figured it would be at least six months before Bon Marche got round to repossessing their property, meanwhile they could enjoy it.
Financial worries apart, Polly was perfectly content at The Hilltop. She enjoyed being a mother and was a keen gardener, spending much of her spare time clearing the ground around the house and planting shrubs and flowers. Ron was less easily satisfied by the quiet charm of South Colby and made frequent trips to New York 'on business'. As his absences became longer and longer, Polly suspected, correctly, that he might be seeing other women - she was also acutely aware that there was absolutely nothing she could do about it.
It was not philandering that took Ron away from home so much as the reality that being stuck out in the backwater of South Colby was uncomfortably at odds with his perception of himself. He had spent much of his adult life vigorously and successfully promoting himself as a 'dare-devil adventurer'. It was a description that would be used about him time and time again and he never tired of it. But it was also an image that needed to be sustained, bolstered here and there, and he could hardly do that sitting in a cabin in Kitsap Country. No, he needed to be in New York holding his fellow writers in thrall with epic tales and making sure everyone knew that Ron 'Flash' Hubbard (he sometimes admitted to 'Flash' as a nickname) was 'quite a character'.
Who dared doubt it? Absolutely not the editor of Thrilling
Adventure, who was pleased to share his conviction with his readers: 'I guess L. Ron Hubbard needs no introduction. From the letters you send in, his yarns are among the most popular we have published. Several of you have wondered too how he gets the splendid color which always characterizes his stories of far-away places.
'The answer is, he's been there, brothers. He's been and seen and done. And plenty of all three of them!'
In July 1936, New York literary agent and columnist Ed Bodin added a further feather to Ron's crowded cap by reporting in one of his columns that Ron had hit a staggering one million words in print. It was a claim as pointless as it was absurd, yet it would be remorselessly escalated over the years until by 1941 Ron was being variously credited with an output of between seven and fifteen million words.
Whatever the real figure, Ron was certainly proud of his productivity, the sheer number of words he was able to hammer out of his typewriter, and there is no question that he was a truly prolific writer. By 1937 he was using a roster of marvellously improbable pen names - 'Winchester Remington Colt, Kurt von Rachen, René Lafayette, Joe Blitz and Legionnaire 148 among them. His legendary writing speed led to rumours that he typed on to a continuous roll of paper that fed automatically into an electric typewriter with a keyboard of his own design featuring single keys fur commonly used words like 'and' and 'the'. It was also said that editors in New York sent messengers to Ron's hotel room with a cover illustration and note asking him if he would be kind enough to write a story to fit the picture. The punchline was that the messengers would be told to wait while Ron dashed off the story, such was the prodigious fertility of his imagination.
Towards the end of 1937, Ron sold his first hardback novel. Buckskin Brigades, published by Macaulay, was said to have been inspired by his experiences as a small boy in the wilds of Montana when he became a blood brother of the Blackfoot Indians. The theme of the book revolved around the mistreatment of the Indians by the Hudson Bay Company, although the message did not perhaps get across too forcibly because the Hudson Bay Company sent Ron a case of whisky after publication.
Polly was very pleased that Ron had been able to cross the divide between pulp fiction and 'respectable' publishing, although she was even more pleased that Macaulay had offered an advance of $2500 for Buckskin Brigades. It was money they badly needed to clear their debts. They both waited - Ron was back from New York - with considerable impatience for the cheque to arrive. On the morning the local post office telephoned to say there was a money order for collection, Ron rushed out of the house and was gone
12. A Brief Biography of L. Ron Hubbard
for hours. He returned in the late afternoon in a state of high excitement and announced to Polly that he had bought a boat, a wonderful boat, a thirty-foot ketch called the Magician. It was a double-ended Libby hull, the kind they used to catch salmon up in Alaska. It had a small cabin and he was going to put a new engine in it and change the rigging and . . . Polly could hardly believe her ears. She had a drawer full of unpaid bills and her husband had just blown all their money on a boat!
Ron's best friend in Bremerton was a thrusting young insurance salesman by the name of Robert MacDonald Ford. 'Almost the first thing Ron did when he got the boat', Ford recalled, 'was to get some letter-heads printed. Ron was always having letter-heads printed, always on the best bond paper. The heading was "Yukon Harbor Marine Ways". There was no such company, but that didn't bother Ron - he only wanted the letter-head so he could buy things for the boat at wholesale prices.'
Ford met Ron because he was always on the look-out for new business. When one of his policy holders ran into a car owned by a Lieutenant-Commander H.R. Hubbard and caused $15 worth of damage, he delivered the settlement draft personally at 1212 Gregory Way in the hope of selling some more insurance. Ron's mother was home when Ford called. 'She was a funny little woman,' he said, 'sort of wrinkled and dried up. When I asked her if she knew anyone who needed insurance she said her son, who lived out at South Colby, didn't have any. She telephoned him right then, offered to pay half the cost and we wrote the business over the 'phone. I figured if she was going to pay I'd have a good chance of collecting the premiums.'
A couple of weeks later, Ford decided to pay his new policy holder a visit, accompanied by his wife, Nancy. It took them a little while to find The Hilltop at South Colby and when they finally arrived at the house Polly answered the door and said her husband was still asleep as he had been working all night. She apologized and invited them to return for dinner that evening.
The Fords and the Hubbards liked each other on sight and quickly discovered they had much in common. They had children of similar ages, both wives were avid gardeners and excellent cooks, and Ron and Mac were the same age, keen on sailing and loved to talk. That first evening spent together at The Hilltop ended with much hilarity when the two men skulked off to the County gravel pile in the dead of night to fill ballast bags Polly had been sewing for the boat.
Thereafter, Ford was a frequent visitor. He used to sit in the cabin with Ron drinking China tea and playing chess by candlelight, using the exquisitely carved chess set he said he had brought back from the
East - even the pawns were fearsome little warriors carrying swords. Sometimes they would shoot at a target pinned to the cabin wall with Ron's air pistol; sometimes they would just talk for hours on end, well into the night. They often discussed what was happening in Europe, what Hitler was up to and whether or not there would be a war.
'He was a sharp guy,' said Ford, 'very stimulating and fascinating to be around. He was interested in a lot of things and was pretty well informed. When he talked about the things he'd done, sometimes I would think he was feeding me a line, but then you'd find out that it had actually happened. He told me once that when he was gliding a guy wire had snapped and smoothed off the ends of his fingers, leaving them very sensitive. I'm pretty sure that happened. When we went to see Stagecoach - the original one with John Wayne - he told me he'd worked on the script. I looked for his name on the credits, but didn't see it, although I didn't necessarily disbelieve him. It's possible he exaggerated his exploits a little, but he was a writer and did have a very fertile imagination. Certainly he got into a lot of things.
'He and Polly were on pretty good terms. She was an independent sort of gal, wouldn't take a lot of crap from anybody. They had their arguments, yes, but by and large it wasn't that bad. She'd take a drink, but never much. We didn't drink too much in those days. They were in fairly dire straits for money; the grocer was always pressing them to pay his bill. It would take Ron two or three nights to finish a novelette. Whenever he got some money in, he'd see the grocer was satisfied and then he'd play for a while on his boat, the Maggie.'
The Fords and the Hubbards joined Bremerton Yacht Club at the same time and whenever there was a dance they could be found at the same table, usually laughing and always enjoying themselves. In some combination the two families were involved in any number of madcap projects and outings - Polly and Nancy once took a ferry across to Victoria in Canada to visit a horticultural show and returned with dozens of stolen cuttings stuffed into their bras.
On another memorable occasion, Ron and Mac decided they would build an experimental sail-boat with inflatable rubber wheels on the theory that it would be subject to less friction than a conventional hull. They constructed a crude timber frame with three axles and six wheels made out of inner tubes on wooden drums and borrowed a mast and sail from a small boat in the harbour. It was agreed that Ron, the more experienced sailor of the two, would conduct the first trials. He kitted himself out for the occasion in sea boots, cap and yachting rig, and they towed the strange craft out into the Sound with a row-boat. Ron confidently stepped on board and as he did so there was an ominous crack. One of the crucial joints of the frame snapped under his weight and the entire contraption rapidly disintegrated.
13. Interview with R.M. Ford
The sight of Ron in his natty sailor suit clinging grimly to the wreckage and bellowing to be taken off was too much for Ford. He collapsed in the bottom of the row-boat and the more he laughed the angrier Ron became. In the end, Ford rowed ashore and let someone else pick up his friend. 'He had a real temper and I sure as hell wasn't going to let him catch me when he had his temper up like that,' he explained. 'He would have killed me if he'd got his hands on me at the time. I stayed out of sight for a couple of hours but he soon cooled down. We had dinner together that night.'
Undaunted by the failure of the rubber-wheeled boat, the two friends could soon be found testing a model boat with an unusual V-shaped keel of their own design in Polly's washing machine, trying to figure out an accurate method of measuring the drag. Then they spent several days on the Maggie with a complicated arrangement of zips and canvas sleeves with which they hoped to improve the efficiency of the sails.
While the men were playing, it was inevitable that Polly and Nancy would spend a great deal of time together with their children. Thus Nancy knew that Polly suspected Ron of having affairs with other women during his frequent absences back East. Nancy told Mac, who said he was sure Polly was wrong.
A few weeks later, the Hubbards arrived separately at the regular Saturday night dance at Bremerton Yacht Club. Polly drove alone from The Hilltop and Ron sailed across in the Maggie, making no attempt to conceal his surly demeanour. 'They were not speaking to each other,' said Ford, 'and it took us a while to find out what had happened. It seems Ron had written letters to a couple of girls in New York and left them in the mail box to be picked up. Polly found them and got so mad that she opened the envelopes, switched the letters and put them back in the box. She didn't tell him what she had done until they had been picked up. Polly was a great girl, a lot of fun.'
Next morning, Ron packed his bag and caught a train for New York, still in a vile temper.