Walter B. Gibson
and compiled by George Knowles
Walter Brown Gibson was a stage magician, prolific author, and
creator of The Shadow
character for a fictional detective/crime series of which he wrote
some 283 out of 325 novels. Gibson also wrote more than 187 books on such diverse subjects
as: magic, psychic phenomena,
hypnotism, spiritualism, astrology, mind
games, true crimes, mysteries, judo
and ju-jitsu, paper-craft,
rope knots, yoga and more...
Gibson was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania, on the 12th September 1897, his parents were Alfred Cornelius Gibson, a wealthy manufacturer of gas fitting and his wife May Gibson (nee Whidden). Being fairly well to do, May Gibson gave birth her son attended by Dr. Donlon and a nurse called Susan Appleton in their own home at 703 West Phil Elena Street, Germantown, Pennsylvania.
Gibson’s interest in magic began at an early age, when in
1905 at the age of 8, he attended a birthday party in Manchester, Vermont.
During the party games that followed he was given a string to follow and
told there would be a surprise for him at the end of it.
There was, at the end of the string he found a trick box, and so started
his life long interest in magic and mysteries.
Throughout his early teens Gibson devoured all he could find about magic
and spent hours entertaining his family
By 1912 Gibson was seeking out magic shops and had also developed a passion for mystery books. At school he showed a particular propensity for literature and writing, and wrote his first mystery story “The Hidden Will” for the Wissahickon School Magazine of Chestnut Hill Academy in Philadelphia. Later in 1916, while a student at Peddie School in Hightstown, New Jersey, he won a literary prize for a mystery story called “The Romuda”. When ex-president William Howard Taft (the 27th president of the USA 1909-13) was invited to hand out prizes on the senior students graduation day, he said to Gibson “I hope your story will be the beginning of a long literary career”.
After graduating from Peddie School, Gibson next attended Colgate University in the Village of Hamilton, Madison County, New York, but left before graduating to join a carnival and perform magic. His first real job was in the insurance business, but his main interests continued to be magic and writing. So in efforts to combine the two, he quit insurance and started out on a career as a reporter. From 1922 to 1931 he wrote for the Philadelphia North American and later for the syndicated Evening Ledger. He also freelanced editing a magic magazine called The Seven Circles while contributing mystery stories to others magazines like True Strange Stories.
This was the golden age of the stage magician and magic
entertainment in America, and Gibson covered
all the major magic shows in the city, writing about such big name performers as
Howard Thurston (1869-1936), Harry
Blackstone (1885-1965), Joseph
Dunninger (1892 - 1975) and
Harry Houdini (1874-1926).
He also ghost wrote articles and books on
magic and spiritualism for them
using a variety of pennames and pseudonyms.
While working at the Evening Ledger, Gibson wrote a series of daily “After Dinner Tricks”, which were placed with the Ledger Syndicate. These consisted of about 150 words each with illustrations. When he started these he had hoped the feature would last a year, but it proved so successful it lasted three years, and led to a succession of other daily features spanning the next ten years to 1931.
Gibson’s out-put was prolific, over the next ten years he produce 1,080 “After Dinner Tricks” features, 940 “A Puzzle a Day” features, 600 “Teasers” combining puzzles and quizzes, 1,920 “Brain Tests or Intelligence Quizzes” with illustrations, and 240 “Intelligence Tests” with illustrations. He also wrote 1,770 “Magic Made Easy” features and 150 “A Trick A Day” features. At the same time he was producing short features stories on Crime, Numerology and Science. In total he produced 6,800 daily articles that appeared at a rate of 680 a year.
Not content with writing daily’s, Gibson also wrote numerous weekly feature articles consisting of 50 articles on “Miracles - Ancient and Modern”, 50 articles on “Bunco Games to Beware Of”, 16 articles on “Master Mysteries of Magic”, 16 articles on “Human Enigmas” and 26 articles on “Easy Magic You Can Do”. In addition, for his friend Howard Thurston (1869-1936) who at the time was the premier stage magician in America, he wrote “50 lessons in Magic” and an additional 50 tabloid pages about him. He also wrote another 20 tabloid pages for his other stage magician friend, Harry Blackstone (1885-1965).
Between 1926 and 1932, Gibson also wrote a number books using various pen names or pseudonyms, such as: “The World’s Best Book of Magic”, Thurston’s “200 Tricks You Can Do” and “200 More Tricks You Can Do”, Blackstone’s “Secrets of Magic” and “Modern Card Tricks”. Under his own name he wrote: “The Book of Secrets”, “Houdini’s Escapes” and “Houdini’s Magic”, which he compiled from Houdini’s own notes. Many of his books have been continuously in print over the years.
In 1931 Gibson was approached by the pulp fiction magazine publishers Street & Smith, who wanted a writer to produce a pulp magazine series called “The Shadow”, based on the character of a popular “Detective Radio Drama”. He was asked to create a pen name for the Shadow’s author rather than use his own name, so that later other authors could be used to write the stories without confusing the readers. This suited Gibson, who was by then a known author of non-fiction, and preferred to use pseudonyms for his fictional work, so he adopted the pen name Maxwell Grant.
Initially he was given a year contract to deliver four quarterly pulp book stories of 75,000 words, but when the first two editions of “The Shadow” quickly sold out, the publication was turned into monthly. In March 1932 he was given another contract to deliver 24 stories at 60,000 words each, which enabled “The Shadow” to be published twice a month. This was the largest output ever demanded of a writer in a single year, more particularly as it involved stories featuring a single character. Gibson completed the assignment in 10 months, and added four more stories in the remaining two months. In the following ten years Gibson produced over 280 pulp novels about the Shadow. Through all this time he maintained an estimated 1 Million words a year annual output.
& Smith publisher’s -
Composing room -
Gibson was such a prolific man of words by this time that his achievements prompted the Corona Typewriter Company to use him in an advertisement for selling their typewriters. In 1933 Gibson was pictured in a life-sized window display developed by Corona in New York City:
A RECORD WITH A RECORD-MAKER.
CHAMPIONS - THE CORONA AND THE SHADOW.
Corona is a good typewriter, but Maxwell Grant is a great type writer
THE SHADOW is one of the most amazing types in all fiction”.
During the Great Depression of the 1930’s, it was Gibson’s prolific writing that kept the publishing firm of Street & Smith in business. Gibson wrote the Shadow stories under the pseudonym of Maxwell Grant, but as they were written under contract, he didn’t own copyright to them. As Gibson moved on to other writing projects, so other authors used the Maxwell Grant pen name: Theodore Tinsley wrote 27 Shadow stories between 1936 and 1943, and Bruce Elliott wrote 15 Shadow stories between 1946 and 1948. After eighteen years and 325 issues, The Shadow ceased publication in 1949. However, due to the success and popularity of the books, Gibson later sued Street & Smith for more royalties, settling out of court for about $40,000.
Throughout his writing career Gibson used many pen names, some say as many as 60, as well as Maxwell Grant, a name he devised from his friendship with two stage magicians, Max Holden of New York and U. F. Grant of Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Holden did a hand shadow act, while Grant did a shadow illusion. Among the many other names he adopted for himself were: John Abbington, Andy Adams, Ishi Black, Douglas Brown, C. B. Crowe, Felix Fairfax, Wilber Gaston, Maborushi Kineji, Gautier LeBrun, Rufus Perry and P. L. Raymond.
After the war Gibson became occupied with other projects and from 1946 became more involved with writing books, while at the same time still contributing crime stories for Fact Detective Magazine. Many of the books he produced were paperbacks, written under his many pen names, while under his own name he wrote two mystery books called “A Blond For Murder” and “Looks That Kill”.
Over the next few years he wrote more books about magic, children’s novels and short mystery stories. Among his more popular books during this period was a series of 23 crime novelettes with a magical theme, for which he created another fictional character called “Norgil the Magician” (re-issued in 1977). He also wrote scripts for popular radio dramas, which included: The Avenger, Nick Carter, Chick Crater and Frank Merriwell, as well as scripts to be used as teaching tools on commercial, industrial, scientific and political subjects.
On the 24th August 1949 Gibson married his third wife Litzka Raymond. Litzka was an author in her own right; she was also a musician (a harpist), a stage performer and a businesswoman. She had previously toured the world performing with The Great Raymond (her second husband), making her well acquainted with Gibson’s world of magic. She and Gibson not only had a magical relationship, but a literary one as well.
They made their home in a large farmhouse in Eddyville, New York, which soon became a centre for their intellectual and productive life. All the various rooms in the house contained a typewriter reserved for each type of book he was working on. With so many typewriters in simultaneous operation, he could work upstairs or downstairs, and shift from one subject to another.
with third wife Litzka
Shortly after they were married, and to commemorate the end of his Shadow books, Litzka had a ring custom-made for her husband. It was designed to resemble a fire opal, or girasol ring that the Shadow had received decades earlier as a gift from the Czar of Russia whom he had befriended. The ring was a regularly mentioned element in many of the Shadow stories and was often prominently featured on its magazine covers. Litzka commissioned the ring to be crafted from sterling silver, with a glass stone that was amber in colour with a touch of red. She then had the ring inscribed with the words “Walter B. Gibson From Lamont Cranston”. Gibson loved the gift, and he wore it to every public function.
custom-made “Shadow Ring”
Over the next 20 years Gibson and Litzka worked together writing and publishing many books on magic and a whole a host of other subjects. Perhaps their best-known collaboration was “The Complete Illustrated Book of the Psychic Sciences” (1966). Some of Litzka’s own books were “How to Read Palms”, “Lessons in Palmistry” and “Care of the Hair and Hairdos”. Litzka also used the pen name of Leona Lehman, under which she wrote “Latin American Dances” and “Dancing for All Occasions”.
From 1961 through to his death in 1985, Gibson concentrated almost exclusively on books. From 1926 when his first hardcover book appeared to 1985, Gibson wrote a total of 187 books, some of which continue to be re-issued. He also contributed 668 articles to periodicals, created 283 stories of The Shadow, wrote 48 syndicated feature columns, reported the adventures of the Shadow and Harry Blackstone in 394 comic books and newspaper strips, helped develop 147 radio scripts, and created many other works under various pseudonyms. Among his better-known books are: The Master Magicians and The Bunco Book, which continue to be re-issued, plus: The Complete Illustrated Book of Card Magic (1969), Popular Card Tricks (1972), Secrets of Magic (1973), New Magician's Manual (1975), The Book of Magic (1978), Walter Gibson's Big Book of Magic (1980).
Gibson’s whole life had always been about magic and mystery, and in his writings, he developed his deep interest in natural phenomena and the psychic sciences. From his friendship with the leading magicians of the day, he had gained a complete knowledge of stage magic, which helped to lift his creative mind to higher levels. His knowledge and use of magic was even recognized by the elite magic fraternity, when in 1971 the Academy of Magical Arts awarded him a Literary Fellowship, and followed it in 1979 by awarding him a Masters Fellowship.
At the age of 88 years, Walter Brown Gibson died at a Benedictine Hospital in Kingston, New York on Friday the 06th December 1985. Sometime after his death, Litzka then aged 84 herself, had the un-enviable task of sorting through and cleaning out her husband’s many years worth of collecting and performing mementos. On top of which her first husband had also left many items to her, and then there was her own magic act paraphernalia left over from her performance days. Many of these items filled the house and a big barn to overflowing and so her only recourse was to call in the auctioneers to oversee a house clearance sale.
The sale of the Gibson estate contents attracted much attention from fans and collectors alike. Many of the items sold were from Gibson’s magazine and book collection, and at least a dozen collectors now own one of his many typewriters. Jim Steranko (the American graphic artist, comic book writer-artist-historian, better known for his comic-book work with the 1960’s superspy feature “Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D”, who had illustrated the book covers for the 1977 reprints of Norgil the Magician pulp magazine stories), bought an important one-of-a-kind item, a custom-built writing desk that Gibson had used for decades. The one item left by Gibson that Litzka could not bare to sell, was the iconic Shadow Ring that she gifted away to a friend. More recently however the same ring together with several other items was sold on an Internet auction for $9,000.00.
Penguin Hutchinson Reference Library Copyright (c) 1996 Helicon Publishing and Penguin Books Ltd
Microsoft ® Encarta ® 2006. © 1993-2005 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.
Written and compiled on the 06th February 2008 © George Knowles
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