Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Who Was Allison V. Harding?

Weird Tales was a magazine of mystery, terror, wonder, and weirdness. One of the magazine's greatest mysteries however existed outside its pages. For the better part of a century, readers of "The Unique Magazine" have wondered: Who was Allison V. Harding?

Allison V. Harding was one of the most prolific of Weird Tales' many authors. Between 1943 and 1951, she published three dozen stories in the magazine, the most by any woman and more than most of the men, including Ray Bradbury, Carl Jacobi, Frank Belknap Long, David H. Keller, and E. Hoffman Price. Her most memorable creation was The Damp Man, that bloated, creepy, seemingly unkillable stalker of women who prowled the pages of "The Unique Magazine" during the late 1940s. The Damp Man made his debut in a self-titled tale from the July 1947 issue. Despite the fact that he was hard-frozen at the end of the story, The Damp Man returned in not one but two sequels, fittingly entitled "The Damp Man Returns" (September 1947) and "The Damp Man Again" (May 1949). (As every fan of fantasy and horror knows, being frozen does not equal being dead.) "The Damp Man Again" earned a spot on the cover of the magazine, testament to the popularity of the character and the appeal of Allison's writing.

Allison's last story for Weird Tales, published in the January 1951 issue, was called "Scope." As far as anyone knows, she never again wrote for any magazine or in any book. In fact, Weird Tales was the only magazine to print the byline "Allison V. Harding." Although a few of her stories have been reprinted, there has never been a collection of Allison's fiction, never an interview, never an appearance at a book signing or convention. Allison V. Harding, a mystery even when her work was in print, seems to have vanished from the face of the earth after 1951.

So what happened to Allison V. Harding? The answer lies in the fact that there was no Allison V. Harding. The author's name was a pseudonym, assumed by a woman named Jean Milligan, a woman who also remains a mystery. According to science fiction historian and editor Sam Moskowitz (1920-1997), Jean Milligan was an attorney in New York City during the 1940s. Apparently that's all he or anyone else knew of her (or at least the people who were telling). Moskowitz evidently based that knowledge on his examination of the files of Weird Tales magazine, then in the possession of Leo Margulies (1900-1975), longtime editor and publisher of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Unfortunately, those files were destroyed, and so any evidence they may have held as to the identity of Jean Milligan or Allison V. Harding is lost.

"Jean Milligan"--a seemingly common name. But if she was an attorney working in New York City in the 1940s, there is at least a little information with which to start an investigation. That investigation leads pretty quickly to a member of a prominent family. Even then, no firm connection between that Jean Milligan and the Jean Milligan who wrote for Weird Tales remains. Is someone covering her tracks? Maybe so. In any case, you follow leads where you find them.

Jean Milligan was born in 1919 in Cleveland, Ohio, to John R. Milligan (1885-1959) and Beatrice Isabel Humphrey Milligan (ca. 1885-1938). Jean was the youngest of three girls, all born in Cleveland into a family from the East. John R. Milligan worked for some time with Tillotson & Wolcott Company, a banking and investment firm located in Cleveland. After 1920, the family returned East and lived in New Canaan, Connecticut, for many years. In the 1940s--perhaps earlier and perhaps later--John R. Milligan was with a Wall Street firm called Van Cleef, Jordan, and Wood. That firm is still in existence.

The Milligan family were members of society and educated in the East. Mr. Milligan graduated from Amherst College, his wife from Smith College where she studied literature. Mary Louise Milligan, the oldest girl, attended Vassar College and married Charles Nassau Lowrie, Jr., an attorney and son of a prominent New York City architect. Katherine, the middle daughter, married a businessman and later an industrial engineer who worked for Sikorsky Aircraft and North American Rockwell Corporation. And Jean Milligan? Though mentioned in newspapers in connection with her family and their social activities, Jean Milligan remained elusive--no record of her college, work, or marriage. Still no firm connection.

For the sake of where it might lead, let's say that Jean Milligan of New Canaan, Connecticut, was the same person who wrote under the name Allison V. Harding. Why did she not want her identity known? In the decade prior to Allison's debut in Weird Tales, Catherine Moore of Indianapolis wrote under the name C.L. Moore, not as some have claimed to hide her sex from editors and readers, but to hide her identity from her employer. Pulp magazines were often considered trash--cheap, lurid, barely literate, and full of violence, perversion, and even pornography. C.L. Moore didn't want her employer, an Indianapolis banker, to know that she was moonlighting as a pulp fiction writer. (Eventually the truth came out, apparently without consequence.) Could Jean Milligan have been similarly motivated? If she was an attorney, working for a prominent firm and member of a prominent family, would she have embarrassed or shamed them by writing under her own name? Was she pressured or persuaded to write under a pseudonym? Or did she write in secret?

Secrets surround the question of Jean Milligan and Allison V. Harding. But secrets draw inquiry. The denser the cloud of secrecy, the closer the investigator is to penetrating to the heart of the mystery. Neither Jean Milligan nor any of her family or relatives has ever come forward to confirm or deny that the Jean Milligan born in Cleveland in 1919 was in fact Allison V. Harding. The investigator is left to infer what he or she can from the evidence. Jean Milligan was in the right place at the right time to write for Weird Tales. (The magazine was published in New York City between 1938 and 1954.) She was evidently well educated and well connected. Her family included attorneys, bankers, and businessmen. Her mother studied literature in college and may have passed that interest on to her children. Moreover, Jean Milligan married a writer who was also the son of a writer. Sam Moskowitz said that Jean Milligan as Allison V. Harding had passed away, but records suggest that Jean Milligan of the Connecticut Milligans was still living even after Moskowitz's death. So how could they be the same person? They could be the same person if her death had been exaggerated. If Jean Milligan or someone associated with her had wanted to put the life of the pulp fictioneer behind her, what better way than to say that she had died? 

That's mere speculation. What's incontrovertible is that Jean Milligan--daughter of John R. and Beatrice I. Milligan of New Canaan, Connecticut--was married to the writer Charles Lamont Buchanan, better known as Lamont Buchanan. Although Buchanan wrote numerous books on sports and American history--books published in the 1940s and '50s--he also worked for a magazine during that time as an associate editor. His boss, the editor, was Dorothy McIlwraith. The magazine was Weird Tales.

Allison V. Harding's character, The Damp Man, as drawn by John Giunta, from Weird Tales magazine. The sign in front of him says "Stop," but there's no stopping The Damp Man. Apparently even time, a mystery to the rest of us, is pliable to him, judging from the melted timepiece in his hand. Although Weird Tales was full of mystery, the mysteries in its fiction might pale to the mysteries of real life. For example: Who was Allison V. Harding and why has she never revealed herself?
Text and caption copyright 2011 Terence E. Hanley

8 comments:

  1. Thank you. I have always wondered about Harding, having decades ago read "The Underbody" in my brother's old copy of Weird Tales. The story makes absolutely no sense, but it still haunts me.

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  2. Mr. Martin,

    Thanks for writing. I have not read "The Underbody," but it doesn't surprise me that it doesn't make any sense. I have been looking for clues in Allison V. Harding's stories as to the true identity of the author. Does "The Underbody" offer any clues?

    TH

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  3. I am a relative of Allison V. Harding... ie Jean Milligan. I would love to get copies of some of her writings.

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    1. Dear Anonymous,

      Check The Internet Speculative Fiction Database for reprintings of her stories. There have been only a few. Otherwise, you'll have to go to the source, the original issues of Weird Tales. The issues from the 1940s are generally not very expensive.

      If you have any biographical information on her or her family, I would very much like to hear from you.

      TH

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    2. Twenty of Harding's stories are available at UNZ.org. They are about average quality, or slightly below, for Weird Tales stories of that era.

      On another blog, someone claiming to be Jean Milligan's niece says she had no idea Milligan was a writer. Apparently no one else in the family did, either, or at least they haven't come forward. Why not? The better explanation is that Harding was really Lamont Buchanan, hiding behind a pseudonym because he was an employee of the magazine. He was a published author with a substantial track record in other fields, and probably didn't want his real name associated with the "trashy" fiction of the WT type.


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    3. Dear Carl,

      You and I have come to the same conclusion, that Allison V. Harding was really Lamont Buchanan and that he used his wife's name and a return address at a lawyer's office as a double screen against any discovery of his identity. I don't know whether he was ashamed of writing for the pulps, but he appears to have been friends (for a while at least) with J.D. Salinger and may have had more serious ambitions as a writer. Anyway, thanks for letting us know about the stories at UNZ.org.

      TH

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  4. Here is my essay on The Damp Man, which credits your invaluable work at length. I wish you had dug a little deeper, as Lamont Buchanan was still alive when you wrote your original posts. I alas, arrived a little too late.

    http://scottnicolay.com/stories-from-the-borderland-12-the-damp-man-by-allison-v-harding/

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    1. Dear Mr. Nicolay,

      Thank you for the link and for the attribution in your essay. It looks like you have uncovered more on Allison V. Harding and that you have carried my research a little farther. I never considered the possibility of a husband-wife writing team in Allison V. Harding. That's an interesting conjecture.

      I wrote to Lamont Buchanan at an address I had in New York City. I did not receive a reply. I also called a telephone number that I had and talked to a woman who said that I had reached the wrong residence. I suspected afterwards that I had not. All of this goes along with the reclusiveness of Mr. Buchanan, another trait he had in common with J.D. Salinger.

      So do you know of a date and place of death for Lamont Buchanan? Do you know any circumstances surrounding his death, his place of burial, or the names of his heirs?

      Thanks for writing. Your essay is fascinating.

      Terence Hanley

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