Sunday, March 06, 2005

Being Frank about Frank... Scully, that is

He was the man behind Behind the Flying Saucers. But who was he, really? The dupe that got conned by Silas Newton, or the "Dan Rather" of his day?

Frank Scully led an interesting and, in many respects, an admirable life. He was active in charitable causes, including the effort to find a cure for muscular dystrophy. He was a good Catholic - so good, in fact, that he was knighted by Pope Pius XII in the Order of St. Gregory the Great, in December, 1956. He knew a great many of the beautiful people of his day, and moved comfortably in their circles. Most significantly, he battled a number of serious physical ailments throughout his life with a sense of optimism and good humour that is best exemplified in his series of Fun in Bed books.

However, although he was a fairly prolific writer, he was far from the pre-eminent journalist that the proponents of the Aztec case claim he was - as Scott Ramsey put it, "Scully would be compared to the present day Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, or Tom Brokaw." At the time he wrote Behind the Flying Saucers, he had been writing a weekly column - "Scully’s Scrapbook" - for Variety, a Hollywood trade periodical that was hardly a journal of hard-hitting, serious news, for two decades. While his columns occasionally touched upon serious topics, the vast majority of them dealt with gossip, entertainment insider stories, personal reminiscences, and Scully’s off-the-wall brand of humour. He could probably best be described as an amalgam of modern Hollywood insider Pat O’Brien (Entertainment Tonight) and Jay Leno (The Tonight Show), with a bit of Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly thrown in (albeit with a liberal point of view in Scully’s case).

He was certainly no Peter Jennings or Tom Brokaw. The New York Times probably hit closest to the mark in its 1964 obituary of Scully when it referred to his "airy" career as "a professional humorist" possessed of an "acid wit." His motto throughout his career seems to have been epitomized by the following quote, for which he is still well known today - "Why not go out on a limb? Isn’t that where the fruit is?"

Scully was far from perfect. There is a great deal of evidence that he would do whatever he had to do to get to "where the fruit is." For example, In 1938 he ran for California’s State Assembly with the reformist slogan "Out of the Gully With Candidate Scully." Although defeated, he was rewarded for his support of Governor Culbert Olson with the position of Secretary in the Department of Institutions. Scully found what he considered to be deplorable conditions in the state’s institutions, such as a Los Angeles school for the blind where, he said, people were receiving harsh treatment from civil servants. Without consulting his superior, well-known psychiatrist Aaron Rosanoff, he set about "correcting" the various abuses he believed existed. Rosanoff fired him, and later charged that affairs in Scully’s office were "unbusinesslike." Scully refused to leave - literally; he encamped in the disputed office with the "protection" of a 300 pound bruiser who had once served a jail term for assault and battery.

Eventually, the whole mess wound up in court, with Scully suing Rosanoff and the State of California. He lost at trial, and appealed. In 1942, the appeal was denied. What is interesting is one the causes of action. As Secretary, Scully had been appointed guardian of a number of estates of incompetent persons. The probate court fixed the fees to which the guardian was entitled, in several cases where the person passed away, at a total of $2,650. Scully claimed that he was entitled to the fees! The Court, in a unanimous decision, correctly concluded that the fees were payable to the position, not the person (who was, after all, a salaried employee), and that they were to paid into the State treasury, after which they would be added to the appropriation of the Department of Institutions. This blatant cash grab, and the circumstances surrounding it, do not speak well of Scully’s character.

Scully’s penchant for attacking his enemies sometimes got physical. In 1948, at a meeting of the Central Democratic Committee of Los Angeles County in the run-up to the Democratic convention, an argument broke out between supporters of left-wing Democrat Henry Wallace and those who supported Harry Truman. The meeting was getting out of hand when Scully took the floor to try and restore order. "Let’s not divide ourselves to the point where we’re zero," he appealed to his fellow Democrats. "We’re damn near that now." When a man interrupted Scully on a point of order, Scully, who was standing with the aide of his chrome-plated crutches, snapped at him to "Sit down, you mug!" When the man continued, Scully moved to within a few feet of him, hoisted up his right crutch, and whacked him on the shoulder. This pretty much ended the meeting. [There's an amusing photo in Time Magazine of Scully brandishing his club at the man - 26 January 1948, p. 22]

A closer look at his life reveals that Scully also had a penchant for "stretching the truth" to his own benefit. For example, in Behind the Flying Saucers, and elsewhere, he claims that he was the author of Frank Harris’s biography of Bernard Shaw. This is a blatant exaggeration, however. As Scully’s friend, the arch-anarchist and writer Alexander Berkman, stated in a letter to Max Nettau in 19 :

"It was the secretary of Harris, one Frank Scully, an American journalist, who was to help Harris write the book. Harris wrote about 40,000 words and could not go on. His memory failed and he repeated himself. So Frank Scully took the book in hand and invited me to help him, as he himself is no author, just a journalist."

This account was confirmed by an entry in Nellie Harris’s diary for 17 January, 1931, wherein she stated that "Scully wants to employ labour - a competent man who knows how to write because now they have all the material." The man Scully engaged was Berkman. Later, after Harris had died before the book was finished, Shaw himself stepped in to finish the project. He noted in a letter to Victor Gollancz that "The book falls off badly at the end. There are two chapters (one of them commercially libelous) so bad that I think [Harris] must have left them to Scully to write." As Robert Pearsall concludes in his biography of Harris, Scully was a "young opportunist with hopes of cash and fame" whose claims to having ghost-written much of the book are "best ignored from all points of view." Thus, contrary to Scully’s claims, it is clear that no less than four authors had a hand in writing the book - Harris, Berkman, Scully, and Shaw - and that none of the others had a terribly high regard for Scully’s talents as a writer.

Scully could also be credulous, and lax when it came to checking alleged facts; Aztec was not the first hoax he had fallen for. A quick check of the Oxford English Dictionary reveals that the longest word in the English language is:

"pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis" (hereinafter referred to simply as pneum).

The word is a mouthful to be sure, but it is the definition that is the key:

"... a facetious word alleged to mean ‘a lung disease caused by the inhalation of very fine silica dust’ but occurring chiefly as an instance of a very long word." [Emphasis added]

So, how did this non-word find its way into the English language? In 1935, the National Puzzler’s League, the world’s oldest wordplay association, at its semi-annual meeting, "recognized" pneum as the longest word, replacing "electrophotomicrographically." Scully, who was living in New York at the time, saw the story in the paper, and included the word in his 1936 book Bedside Manner. On the strength of this citation, the word found its way into the major English language dictionaries. It was all a goof by the Puzzlers, and Scully wound up being on the butt end of the joke - not for the last time.

Scully also had an over-inflated sense of his own importance. This is evident in much of Scully’s writing (like the claim that he wrote the Shaw biography), but perhaps nowhere more so than in Behind the Flying Saucers and Scully’s subsequent defence of the book. As time went on the story seemed to become more about Scully than flying saucers. For example, in his response to James Moseley’s critique in Nexus, Scully wrote:

"Like a pathologist, I dealt with grounded saucers and dead crews. Since then several personal histories, dealing with active saucers and live crews, have been published, and nobody either in or out of the saucerian inquiry has seen fit to hang on the historians the word "hoax". Certainly nobody has gone around saying these historians admitted their story was a hoax. Just why was I singled out for this dubious honor? Is it because "Behind the Flying Saucers" is the keystone of this arch and the enemies of honest research believe if they can knock it down the rest will fall like a house of cards?" [Emphasis added]

He continued:

"As everybody agrees that the Pentagonians have not given us the whole truth about the saucerian mystery, it must be consoling to them to get a new crop each year to tear down the Scully bastion, and thus, continue to divide and rule." [Emphasis added]

The phrase "Scully bastion" combined with later indicators like the title of his part three of his autobiography - In Armour Bright - provide further evidence of just how far Scully’s self-image as a crusading journalist for truth, justice and the American way, went. It is a self-image, built largely on hubris - and accepted for too long by proponents of the Aztec story like William Steinman - that is simply not born out by the facts.

Finally, like Wilbert Smith with Sarbarcher’s disinformation, there was one aspect of Scully’s character that trumps all of the above when it comes to explaining his susceptibility to the Aztec con of Newton and Gebauer. Unlike Smith, however, whose weakness was an unquestioning belief in the existence of flying saucers, Scully’s was an inherent distrust of governmental authority. Part of this seems to have stemmed from his own personal experience in reformist politics in the 1930s (at one point, he was hauled in front of the Dies Committee), while the rest may well be the result of his travels and friendships with anti-establishment types like Frank Harris and Alexander Berkman.

Whatever the reason, this pre-disposition to view government as "corrupt" and the "enemy" made him particularly receptive to the suggestion of a government cover-up, in this case of flying saucers. Whereas Smith was moved by his pre-existing beliefs to link everything to the existence of flying saucers, Scully, in Behind the Flying Saucers and the material that followed, was more concerned with demonstrating the existence of a government conspiracy. Thus, anyone who questioned his claims was labeled a "Pentagonian stooge," and the leaders of the military as "ambulant Pentagonians, still able to parade around in their salad dressing and hand-tailored uniforms."

So - what to make of Frank Scully? My research is ongoing (9 of 25+ years of Variety on microfilm to finish with), but he may have provided a clue, years after he wrote Behind the Flying Saucers, in the form of the "wink, wink - nudge, nudge" style of writing he had perfected over the years at Variety, that he knew the whole thing was a con, perhaps even from the beginning. He still could not, or would not, bring himself to say so directly, but in his autobiography, In Armour Bright, the chapter that deals with Behind the Flying Saucers is titled, tellingly, "Flying Saucers, Where Are You?" Throughout the chapter, Scully maintains that the story was all true. But, at the end, in what would be his final word on the subject (he died a year after the book was published), he concludes not with a last attack on the Pentagonians, or Cahn and True Magazine, or any of his other critics, or with a final defense of the good character of Silas Newton, but with a joke:

"There was also a theory advanced that the flying saucers were tossed by Russian discus throwers who didn’t know their own strength. And of course there remains the oldest gag of all: If you haven’t seen a flying saucer and want to, just trip a waitress."

This may confirm James Moseley’s original judgement of Frank Scully, formed in December, 1953. After a meeting with Scully in which they discussed the Cahn article, and in which Scully that Behind the Flying Saucers was based on a hoax, denied that Leo Gebauer was Dr. Gee, and defended the credibility and character of Silas Newton, Moseley concluded that Scully had been duped, and that "he probably knows it; he may even have known about it at the time [he wrote his book], as he is a professional writer and probably not against making money, even on a hoax."

Had Moseley hit the nail on the head? As Frank Scully himself said in In Armour Bright, when discussing why he no longer had anything to do with flying saucers, "Frankly, by now I’m bored with the subject. Besides, [Behind the Flying Saucers] is now out of print and what author stimulates interest in a book that can’t be had for love or money?"

What author indeed?

Paul Kimball


RRRGroup said...


I hate to appear as a suck-up, but this is remarkable reportage.

Kudos for your terrific rendering of the Scully mystique (bad and "good").

Rich Reynolds

CathyC said...

A man untrusting of government and willing to skewer the Pentagon with a hoax. Hmmm, where have I seen this before...?
We have our modern day government haters, conspiracy theorists, and hoax perpetrators. The list is quite long. Frank Scully just seems to have gotten there early.