An email from a pal this week asks me if I want a book by Richard Wormser that she spotted at a second hand store. Oh yes, send it on.
I always thought of him as my ex-Uncle Dick, my aunt’s former husband who left the family before I was born, but remained in touch with my parents and a source of story and legend. I only met him once but he was a figure in my adolescent imagination. He was a writer of pulp fiction and short stories, like nearly everyone else in my father’s family back then. During the Depression, he drove my aunt, the only one with an actual job, to the train station every day in a horse and buggy, and when a woman in a chauffeured car pulled up to ask, “My good man, who do you drive for?” he tipped his hat and told her, “For Richard Wormser, the noted author.”
He wrote short stories for pulp magazines, and a slew of the Nick Carter adventures. He was hired and fired twice by Columbia Pictures, and he wrote B movies at Republic and Universal. In World War II he was a forest ranger, and patrolled the Southern California coast on horseback, a job I would have considered pure heaven.
He claimed that his grandfather had Southern sympathies during the Civil War, and so hired a substitute to fight for him when drafted by the North, while he slipped away to battle for the Lost Cause. Of course (you knew it was coming) they subsequently met upon the field of battle, whereupon Dick’s grandfather said sternly to the substitute pointing a bayonet at his midsection, “So much as touch me with that instrument, my good man, and I will cut your pay in half!”
I didn’t believe that for a minute, even at thirteen, but he remained a man of mystery and story — maybe not as interesting as I imagined him or maybe more so. Rooting in the paperbacks in our bookcase routinely turned up one of Dick’s books, the cover splendid with a half-clothed dame or a steely-eyed sheriff.
When my mother and I were setting out to drive me to college in Virginia for my senior year, I insisted that we stop on the way in Santa Fe where Dick was living with his current wife, because I had never met him and was longing to. He seemed reasonably pleased with the idea when my mother called him, and so we arrived at his house, which was fronted by a sign that said WORMSER’S DRY GOODS. I remember a wonderful Southwestern dinner, and a lot of stories about other people I had only heard of. I fell asleep at midnight but he and my mother sat up all night reminiscing and in the morning Mama had an awful hangover.
You need people like that in the family, the storytellers, the subjects themselves of stories told and re-told, apocryphal or solid, even if you just get to meet them once. They people family myth, that expanding landscape of bright color and dim truthfulness where everyone is wild or mad or heroic or all three. Read More