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Birthday Boy: George F. Worts

Posted in Birthday,Pulps on March 16, 2015 @ 5:27 pm

A popular and prolific purveyor of pulp fiction, George Frank Worts was born in Toledo, Ohio, on this day in 1892. There was little about his upbringing to suggest that he would eventually become a ubiquitous presence in such notable rough-paper magazines as Argosy, Blue Book, and Short Stories. The most adventurous thing he had ever done was “punch brass”—operate a wireless radio set—aboard ships that sailed up and down the Central American coast.

During one fateful voyage Worts made the acquaintance of a writer who, as he later said, “painted the joys of free-lancing so vividly that I could not resist the call.” Soon thereafter he abandoned seafaring life to attend Columbia University. He completed his freshman year and then dropped out to accept a job as motion picture editor for the New York Evening Mail. In 1916, at the age of 24, he served as associate editor of Motion Picture News, one of the film industry’s leading trade journals. It was while toiling for the News that he began writing fiction on the side.

Worts sold his first story to The Argosy in 1917. It was published under the name Loring Brent because he didn’t want News editor William A. Johnston to know he was moonlighting. (Johnston, Worts recalled years later, “thought I fell asleep at my desk because I was working so hard for him!”)

When the income from his fiction writing surpassed his salary from Motion Picture News, Worts quit his job and began freelancing full time. The Argosy remained his top market but he also cracked the top slicks: Collier’s, Red Book, and the Saturday Evening Post all carried yarns by Worts. Yet it was work for the pulps commanded most of his time and effort.

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“Peter the Brazen,” a six-part series published in late 1918 issues of Argosy, introduced the intrepid protagonist who became Worts’ best-remembered series character. Peter Moore was a ship’s wireless operator of unusual skill. Rumor had it he could “read a message in the receivers when the ordinary operator could detect only an indistinct scratching sound.” Although he was said to have worked all over the Pacific Ocean and in South America, Peter habitually manned a wireless on board the steamship Latonia, which sailed from the west coast of the United States to Hong Kong and ports south.

Like most pulp heroes Peter Moore had a knack for attracting women and trouble in equal measure. His first major adversary was the Gray Dragon, one of numerous Fu Manchu imitators who slithered across pulp pages in those days. The Dragon was summarily dispatched and late in 1919 Peter the Brazen returned to Argosy in “The Golden Cat,” this time pitted against the malevolent Fong-Chi-Ah, who coveted an ancient and fabulously valuable necklace adorned with a cat-shaped charm of gold.

Worts suffused his tales with atmosphere, painting vivid word-pictures with brief but pointed descriptive passages. He transported readers to the Orient with adventures that stretched the bounds of credulity yet captured the imagination of thrill-seeking readers. No one would mistake him for a great literary talent, but like the best pulpateers Worts was a gifted storyteller with a knack for grinding out page-turners with admirable regularity.

Peter the Brazen went into hibernation for a decade after appearing in “The Golden Cat,” but his creator returned to the pages of Argosy and its successor, Argosy All-Story Weekly, throughout the Twenties with stories of every type and genre. One of the more memorable was 1927’s “The Return of George Washington,” in which a great scientist claims to have found a method of regenerating human tissue from long-buried remains. His process is supposedly used on the skeleton of our first president, whose reappearance shocks a jaded nation. It all turns out to be a hoax, with “Washington” unmasked as a dull-witted hillbilly bearing an amazing resemblance to the nation’s father.

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Worts revived Peter the Brazen in early 1930 at the behest of Argosy editor A. H. Bittner, who dusted off several long-dormant series characters, such as John Solomon and Semi-Dual, in a bid to recapture the allegiance of readers who had deserted the magazine. Peter Moore’s Thirties exploits were, if anything, more fantastic—but they crackled with action and excitement. He battled another Chinese master villain, the Blue Scorpion, in a trio of rapid-fire stories published between 1931 and 1933, and enjoyed many other adventures until 1935.

During this period Worts also wrote of slick lawyer Gillian Hazeltine and two-fisted Singapore Sammy Shay; the latter first appeared in Short Stories but eventually made his way into Argosy. These characters warrant further examination but will have to wait for a future blog post.

George F. Worts slowed down in the late Thirties, perhaps having finally exhausted his voluminous store of story ideas. Having married and divorced twice, he took a third wife and moved to Hawaii, doing public relations work and becoming a Collier’s correspondent during World War II. Worts returned to the States after the war and for a time lived in Arizona, editing Tucson magazine during the early Fifties. Unlike many of his fellow pulpateers, Worts invested wisely; his real estate holdings were extensive and provided him with enough income to travel widely. He died in 1968, leaving behind a dozen books and hundreds of stories now remembered only by pulp-fiction aficionados.

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