Welcome to Comic Book Legends Revealed! This is the six hundred and twenty-ninth week where we examine comic book legends and whether they are true or false.
An early Timely writer came up with an audacious scheme to defraud Timely and a group of famous writers.
Destroyer Duck was a series created to help raise money for Steve Gerber to pay for a lawsuit to gain the rights for Howard the Duck back from Marvel Comics. It is best known for being the first appearance of Sergio Aragones and Mark Evanier’s Groo, but the first issue also had a fascinating story about comic book history written by Mark Evanier and drawn by Dan Spiegle…
A number of people have asked me over the years just who the person was behind this mysterious story was, but only one of those people, reader Andrew R., went out and just solved it himself. He found an article about the early days of Timely Comics at the great Timely/Atlas history site by Dr. Michael J. Vassallo.
Vassallo solved the problem of why I could never solve it. You see, the events of the story allegedly DID happen (“allegedly” because, while no seems to actually dispute what happened, I don’t believe this case every went to trial, so with a crime like this, best to just stick to “allegedly”) except it was not about a comic book writer at all. The person in question, J. Alvin Kugelmass, did not work in comics. However, the rest of the story is basically the same. First off, Goodman published a new magazine called Stag….
The first issue features work by a guy who was just about to become the Editor-in-Chief of Goodman’s comic book line, a one Stan Lee…
However, Kugelmass then allegedly runs the basic scam from the Destroyer Duck story, where he gets Goodman to do an Esquire-esque magazine with notable writers like John Barrymore, Robert Benchley, Jack Benny, Erskine Caldwell, Octavus Roy Cohen, August Derleth, Margaret Fishback, D.H. Johnson, Arthur Kober, Piere Mille, Ogden Nash, E.P. O’Donnell, Pierre van Paassen, Lemuel F. Parton, Frank Sullivan, Raymond G. Swing, Jim Tully, Joseph Vogel, Randolph Weaver, Jerome Weidman, and Leane Zugsmith.
However, sure enough, Kugelmass was allegedly stealing stories and then paying himself in place of the authors!
Here’s a write-up from the Writers Journal at the time:
The Bizarre defalcations charged to Joseph Alvin Kugelmass, who was editor of Stag magazine upon its inception recently, will in no wise affect the continuance of that publication, it is declared at the offices of Martin and Abraham Goodman, at 330 West 42nd Street, New York City. Kermit Kahn has been appointed the new editor, with publication proceeding according to schedule.
Kugelmass, now reported to be fighting extradition in New Orleans, is under two indictments on charges of defrauding six authors and a literary agent of $950 and stealing the manuscripts of six other prominent writers.
Accused with Kugelmass in one indictment is Edward I. Gruskin, head of a literary agency bearing his name. Gruskin is awaiting trial in $1000 bail.
Among the writers named in the indictment as having been victimized by Kugelmass are John Kieran, Franklin P. Adams, Pierre van Paassen, Jerome Weidman, August Derleth, Frank Sullivan, Arthur Kober, Ogden Nash, Octavus Roy Cohen, Robert Benchley and Margaret Fishback. It is charged that the publishers wrote out checks to a number of the writers represented in the first issue of Stag, including one for $250 for Kieran, and $200 for Adams and for van Paassen, Kugelmass is alleged to have forged the endorsements of the authors to the checks, cashed them and pocked the proceeds.
Stories by Weidman, Derleth and others allegedly were bought by Kugelmass from their agent, Jacques Chambrun, but the publishers of the magazine were said to have been falsely informed by Kugelmass that the agent was Gruskin. A check made out to Gruskin, who is charged with cashing it and pocketing the money. Other stories, originally sold to the Simda Publishing Corporation, are said to have been lifted by Kugelmass and printed in Stag without authorization. The Goodmans, who were absolved by the District Attorney’s office of any knowledge of their editor’s alleged frauds, have made good all claims that resulted.
The editorial policy enunciated for Stag magazine at its start is still in effect, it is declared, with fiction and articles of about 2,500 words sought. They must have a masculine slant, but material is considered from women, too. Good rates are paid, on acceptance.
(Since Kugelmass skipped town, I don’t believe it ever actually went to court)
You have to give Goodman credit for paying all of the writers all of their money. He apparently spent roughly $8,000 making everyone whole. It’s especially surprising considering that, at the time, he had JUST finished screwing Joe Simon and Jack Kirby out of royalties on Captain America, but that seeming contradiction in actions is likely rooted in Goodman feeling that these guys were “real” writers, not comic book bums like Simon and Kirby. If true, that’s messed up, but not out of the ordinary for the time.
Anyhow, for the rest of the story, Kugelmass did, indeed, end up serving time in Texas (for draft board violations), but I am unsure if he ever actually worked under an assumed name for Goodman. He later went to Arizona, not Utah, and he helped the Native American reservation in Yuma, Arizona, work out a situation to help them get water for their reservation. I don’t know if he got a statue. The Utah part was likely just Evanier trying to change the facts to obscure the story more.
Kugelmass had a long career in the literary field, working for newspapers and other magazines (amusingly, he even worked with one of the writers that he had allegedly defrauded years earlier on a Reader’s Digest-type project). Be sure to read the article on Dr. Michael J. Vassallo’s web site for MUCH more about the fascinating life of Kugelmass (and also his famous brother, just for the heck of it).
Thanks to Dr. Michael J. Vassallo for the information and thanks to reader Andrew R. for both suggesting this one and also solving it for me!
Check out my latest TV Legends Revealed at CBR: Why did Bret “The Hitman” Hart sound so different during his guest appearance on The Simpsons?
OK, that’s it for this week!
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