Thursday, December 10, 2015

Theodore Roscoe (1906-1992)

Author, Illustrator, Biographer, Historian
Born February 20, 1906, Rochester, New York
Died May 29, 1992, Florida

Theodore Roscoe was born on February 20, 1906, in Rochester, New York, and grew up in a house filled with artifacts from Asia. His parents, married in India in 1895, were missionaries, his father a teacher, his mother a novelist and speaker of Hindi. Roscoe's grandfather knew languages and was a published author as well. The Roscoes returned to the United States in time for Theodore, the youngest of their four children, to come into the world. At age eight, Theodore, a shy and sickly boy, made his first book, The Devul [sic] and the Knight. He sold a copy for a single red cent, which he used to buy a piece of candy. From that moment on, he linked eating to writing.

As a student at East High School in Rochester, Roscoe played chess and in the school band. He was also assistant editor of and short story writer for his school magazine, The Clarion. After graduating from high school in 1925, Roscoe went to work in local stock company as a grip and a prop man. Among the actors and actresses he encountered were Louis Calhern, Miriam Hopkins, and Sylvia Sidney. Roscoe himself was uninterested in acting. Instead he hoped to learn the business of writing plays. He studied at Columbia University from 1927 to 1929 but by then he was a published author and had found his life's work.

According to The FictionMags Index, Theodore Roscoe's first published story was "The Duel," and it was published in the second semi-monthly issue of North-West Stories of September 1926. He had more than four dozen stories published in the years he was at Columbia (or to December 1929). These included the first of his two stories for Weird Tales, "The Dancing Death," from October 1928. The Great Depression did not slow his output. From 1926 to 1946, the nation's pulps published scores of his stories. These appeared in Action Stories, Adventure, Air Adventures, The All Story Braille MagazineArgosy, Complete Stories, Detective Fiction Weekly, Far East Adventure Stories, Fight StoriesFlying Stories, Flynn's Detective Fiction, High Spot Magazine, Jungle StoriesShort Stories, Soldier Stories, The Underworld Magazine, Wide World Adventures, and WingsIn all, Roscoe is supposed to have written 400 short stories. His most well-known creation was probably Foreign Legionnaire Thibaut Corday from Argosy magazine.

Like his parents, Roscoe was a world traveler. He visited France and North Africa in 1929, England in 1930, Cuba and Dutch Guiana in 1931, Burma and Somaliland in 1932, and Latin America in 1934 and 1936. Asthma prevented his service in the military during World War II. Instead, Roscoe wrote histories of the U.S. Navy for which he won a Distinguished Service Medal. He wrote other non-fiction as well, and he penned scripts for radio, movies, and television. A partial list of his twenty-one books:
  • United States Submarine Operations in World War II (1949)
  • United States Destroyer Operations in World War II (1953)
  • This Is Your Navy: An Informal History (1950)
  • Picture History of the U.S. Navy from Old Navy to New, 1776-1897 (1956)
  • Only in New England: The Story of a Gaslight Crime (1959)
  • Tin Cans (1960)
  • The Web of Conspiracy: The Dramatic Story of the Men Who Murdered Abraham Lincoln (1960)
  • True Tales of Bold Escapes (1965)
  • Pig Boats: The True Story of the Fighting Submariners of World War II (1967, 1982)
  • On the Seas and in the Skies: A History of the U.S. Navy's Air Power (1970)
  • The Trent Affair, November, 1861: U.S. Detainment of a British Ship Nearly Brings War with England (1972)
"The Lincoln Murder Case," an episode of The Dupont Show of the Month broadcast on CBS television on February 18, 1961, was based on Roscoe's Web of Conspiracy. That book was also adapted to a Reader's Digest book as "The Abraham Lincoln Murder Mystery." The Internet Movie Database also lists an episode of Hawaiian Eye, "Made in Japan" (Jan. 4, 1961), as being based on his story. Navy History and Tradition, a comic book series from 1959, was by Roscoe or based on his work as well.

Theodore Roscoe died on May 29, 1992, in Florida. He was eighty-six years old.

Theodore Roscoe's Stories in Weird Tales
"The Dancing Death" (Oct. 1928)
"The Curse Kiss" (Feb. 1930)

Further Reading
Much of what I have written here has come from the following two sources: 1) "Theodore Roscoe-Traveller, Historian, Pulp Writer" on the blog PulpFlakes (Aug. 24, 2012), and 2) an audio version of the book Pulpmaster by Audrey Parente. Any errors are my own. (I have written about Theodore Roscoe as part of my continuing series on "Notes from PulpFest," the reason being that I won the audio version of Pulpmaster at that event simply for knowing a very trivial bit of trivia. Sometimes it pays to have these things stuck in your head.) 
By the way, Theodore Roscoe's papers are at Columbia University and the Syracuse University Libraries.

Pulpmaster: The Theodore Roscoe Story by Audrey Parente was originally published in Starmont Popular Culture Studies #13 (1992). It has recently been reprinted in book form and recorded as a digital audio book.

Text copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley

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