Monday, July 4, 2011

Wilma Dorothy Vermilyea (1915-1995)

Aka Millen Cooke, Millen Belknap, Millen le Poer Trench, Millen Trench
Poet, Author, Occultist
Born March 17, 1915, Dilley, Oregon
Died May 21, 1995, Mill Park, Victoria, Australia

Born on March 17, 1915, in Dilley, Oregon, Wilma Dorothy Millen Vermilyea lived in Multnomah and Washington counties as a child and attended Forest Grove High School outside Portland. From an early age, she was interested in theology and philosophy and later became a follower of Tibetan Buddhism.  I know nothing else about her early life except that her poem, "Fear: A Fantasy," was published in the February 1936 issue of Weird Tales under her own name. Wilma, who preferred to be called Millen, also wrote a number of letters to The American Theosophist magazine during the early 1940s. More importantly for science fiction and fantasy fans, she began submitting stories to pulp magazines.

Pen names and house names were common among writers of the pulp fiction era. Wilma Vermilyea used at least two names in her career as a science fiction writer. Her pen name, "Millen Cooke," was a combination of her preferred first name and her husband's last name. "Alexander Blade," used by a number of writers (including Millen), was a house name for Amazing Stories and Fantastic Adventures, both of which were published by Ziff-Davis and edited by Raymond A. Palmer. A blog called "Dark Worlds" by G.W. Thomas lists the men and women who shared the name "Alexander Blade." Unfortunately, Mr. Thomas' list does not indicate which of "Blade's" stories were the work of Millen Cooke. In any case, she was in good company, for Edmond Hamilton, Robert Silverberg, and John Jakes were among the many authors who masqueraded as Alexander Blade in the years 1941 to 1958.

According to the Internet Speculative Fiction Database (ISFDB), Millen Cooke's science fiction was limited to three magazines of the 1940s and '50s: Amazing Stories, Fantastic Fiction (as by Alexander Blade), and Other Worlds Science Stories. ISFDB's list of her work is short enough to repeat here. All stories and essays are as by Millen Cooke unless otherwise indicated:

Stories

  • "The Affair of Matthew Eldon" (Amazing Stories, May 1946)
  • "M-m-m-m-m-m!" (Amazing Stories, Oct. 1946, reprinted in Science Fiction Adventure Yearbook, 1970)
  • "I, John Cotter" (Amazing Stories, Apr. 1947, available as a download on the Internet)
  • "The Egg of Time" (Amazing Stories, Mar. 1948)
  • "Descent from Mera" (Other Worlds Science Stories, Jan. 1950)
  • "Edmund Latimer's Milking Machine" (Other Worlds Science Stories, May 1950)
Essays
  • "A Champion for Tibet" (Amazing Stories, May 1946)
  • "The Truth About Tibet" (Amazing Stories, Nov. 1946)
  • "Son of the Sun" as by Alexander Blade (Fantastic Adventures, Nov. 1947)

If the list is complete, then Millen Cooke's entire body of published science fiction appeared in four short years, between May 1946 and May 1950. Her first marriage, to a man deeply interested in the occult, was inclusive of those years. Also during that period, two new real-world beliefs, Dianetics and flying saucers, began to evolve out of the work of science fiction writers. Millen Cooke would be involved in both.

Millen Cooke's first husband, John Starr Cooke, was born into a wealthy and prominent family in Honolulu, Hawaii, on March 9, 1920. He became interested in the occult early in life and used a Ouija board to make important decisions, including the decision to marry. Cooke and Wilma Dorothy Vermilyea married in 1943 and divorced in 1951. In the course of their marriage, Millen Cooke had a series of visions which formed the basis of her husband's "Atlantean Tarot," one of three original Tarot decks he created. (Cooke pronounced Tarot to rhyme with carrot.) She also wrote science fiction, which remains as a large part of her legacy today. An actor and dancer, Cooke appeared on stage and in movies (as an extra) during the early 1940s and was involved in theosophy, Scientology, and the Bahai faith. He also claimed to own Aleister Crowley's own crystal ball.

Cooke lived in North Africa for many years before returning to the United States in the late 1950s. According to a blog called "Doctrine Wars" (doctrinewars.blogspot.com), he was revered by members of the Sufi sect, claimed he could activate "shakti" and "Kundalini" energies, and made an additional claim that he could induce a spinal seizure by touching people on the forehead. (Maybe he was the inspiration for the character of Professor Robert Orwell Sutwell in Beach Party (1963). Played by Bob Cummings, Professor Sutwell is a master of "The Himalayan Suspender," otherwise known as "The Finger," frequently used to render Eric Von Zipper helpless.) Cooke became involved in the counter-culture movement in the San Francisco area during the tumultuous '60s. After many years living in Mexico, John Starr Cooke died of cancer on August 21, 1976.

Millen's second husband was William Burke Belknap, Jr., a friend and associate of her first. Like Cooke, Belknap was the scion of a prominent family. Born on December 30, 1923, in Goshen, Kentucky, he graduated from Yale University and worked as a chemical engineer.  He became interested in L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics and served as president of the Freudian Foundation of America, Inc., a Scientological organization dating from the early 1950s. He and Millen were married for a brief period during which she was also involved in Scientology. Their marriage ended in divorce, after which he remarried, in 1960. Burke Belknap lived and worked in Oceanside, California, and passed away on November 26, 2010.

On June 16, 1961, Millen topped off her marriages to fringe figures when she walked down the aisle with (take a deep breath) The Right Honourable William Francis Brinsley Le Poer Trench, 8th Earl of Clancarty, 7th Marquess of Heusden. Le Poer Trench (1911-1995) was an Irish peer, a member of Dutch nobility, and a member of the House of Lords. He was also a believer in ancient astronauts, a hollow earth, and flying saucers. Editor of the Flying Saucer Review from 1956 to 1959, Le Poer Trench wrote several books on the subject, including The Sky People (1960), The Flying Saucer Story (1966), Operation Earth (1969), and Secret of the Ages (1974). Millen, who had been investigating aliens and UFOs for a quarter century, provided some of the concepts and content for Le Poer Trench's first book. Unfortunately, he did not give her credit when The Sky People was published. According to an anonymous source, part of his second book, Men Among Mankind (1962), was hers as well.

Wilma Dorothy Millen Vermilyea lived in many places the world over during her long life. Her marriage to Brinsley Le Poer Trench ended in divorce in 1969, but by an almost occult coincidence, they died in 1995 within days of each other, though half the globe and many years apart separated them.

Wilma Dorothy Vermilyea's Poem in Weird Tales
"Fear: A Fantasy" (Feb. 1936)

Further Reading
Biographical information on Wilma Dorothy Vermilyea and her husbands is relatively easy to find. If you want to read more about John Starr Cooke, you might start with a website called "The Royal Maze," here.

A page from The Optimist, the yearbook of Forest Grove High School, 1929. Wilma Dorothy Vermilyea is there, second from the right in the third row from the bottom, looking very boyish.
Millen and John Starr Cooke, 1943, the year in which they were married. Photograph courtesy of an anonymous source. 
John Starr Cooke (1920-1976), actor, occultist, artist, and the first husband of Wilma Dorothy Vermilyea. Photo from the website, "The Royal Maze."
In Beach Party, Bob Cummings played Professor Robert Orwell Sutwell. . .
And here he is (in the seersucker suit) as Eric Von Zipper gives himself "The Finger." Could Cummings' character (or at least his talent) have been inspired by John Starr Cooke?
The Flying Saucer Story from 1966, a peak year for popular culture in America. Written by Brinsley Le Poer Trench, the book was one of hundreds concerning visitors from outer space published during the 1950s and '60s. Le Poer Trench was Wilma Dorothy Vermilyea's third husband.
A photograph of a UFO, taken by Millen Belknap, April 10, 1958, in Vista, California.

Note: This is a revised version of the original posting. Thanks to an anonymous source for confirmation of certain information, and for corrections and clarifications.
Text and captions copyright 2011 Terence E. Hanley

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