Thursday, June 16, 2011

Mal Bissell (1916-2006)

Author, Journalist, Photographer, and Teacher
Born October 1, 1916, New Haven, Connecticut
Died January 1, 2006, Arizona

Mal Bissell lived a long life and was well loved, yet he was often overshadowed by his father and his wife when it came to the world of work. Malcolm Havens Bissell, Jr., was born on October 1, 1916, in New Haven, Connecticut. His father, Malcolm Havens Bissell (1889-1975), was a graduate of Yale University (1911, 1918, 1921), and a prominent geologist, geographer, and humanist. Professor Bissell worked for the states of Connecticut and Pennsylvania and taught at Bryn Mawr College before moving west to establish the Department of Geography at the University of Southern California. He had a long and distinguished career at USC and was eventually named professor emeritus. In addition to studying in France and Germany, Professor Bissell did field work in the American Southwest and elsewhere. He was at one time vice-president of the American Humanist Association and a signatory to the Humanist Manifesto II of 1973.

Malcolm Havens Bissell and his wife, Ella Mary Taylor, had two children, Malcolm Havens Bissell, Jr., and Elinor Elizabeth Bissell. Malcolm the son, known as "Mal," wandered through Latin America, working as a reporter and photographer. His story for Weird Tales "grew out of a couple of days I spent at a remote mine in Bolivia," Bissell recalled. At the time, he was "wandering about the country on a mule en route to the U.S.," where he enlisted in the Army on May 26, 1943. A member of the 45th Infantry Division, Bissell saw action in France.

When he enlisted, Bissell reported having three years of college. Those three years were probably spent at the University of Southern California. Bissell had met a girl there, another writer, though perhaps more ambitious. While he was in basic training, the couple worked on a mystery story aimed at popular magazines of the day. Set in Acapulco, the story didn't appear in print until after the war. In the meantime, the writing career of Bissell's college girlfriend took off. I haven't found any record of it, but by the late 1940s, Mal Bissell and Jane de Lange Lewis were almost certainly married.

Jane de Lange Lewis was born on September 10, 1915, and graduated from Los Angeles High School (where she was a member of the Poetry Club) in 1935. Jane was a Phi Beta Kappa student at USC. The first vice-president of her chapter was none other than Kenneth M. Bissell, Mal Bissell's uncle, and a professor at the university. It isn't hard to imagine that Jane Lewis and Mal Bissell met at USC. (She was in the class of 1939.) Sooner or later they would have married. They also collaborated on their fiction, although Jane's career--uninterrupted by military service--was more successful. Writing under the name Lange Lewis, she published a number of detective novels during the 1940s and '50s. They included Murder Among Friends (1942), Juliet Dies Twice (1943), Meat for Murder (1943), The Birthday Murder (1945), and The Passionate Victims (1952). Her detective was a large and eccentric man named Lt. Richard Tuck. As Jane Beynon, Jane also wrote Cypress Man (1944). Her story, "Murder in Acapulco," written with Mal Bissell a few years prior, appeared in Avon Detective Mysteries #2 in 1947.

Mal Bissell's credits are a little more sparse. He wrote one story for Weird Tales, "The Mask of Don Alfredo," published in the January 1950 issue after it was rejected by The Saturday Evening Post and several other magazines. Having written it in the 1940s, Bissell submitted the story as a graduate student at the University of Chicago. According to the author, his other writing "was limited to short pieces for Popular Photography, a few rejected short stories and at least one unfinished novel." 

Something of a wanderer and one to keep himself separate from his fellows, Bissell worked in construction intermittently for a dozen years and as an adjunct instructor of sociology, social psychology, and psychology. He also worked as a social worker and counselor at the Mental Health Center in Tucson, Arizona. He lived in Tucson for twenty-eight years before moving to a remote house outside Patagonia, Arizona. After that, I have nothing for Mal Bissell until his death and all-too-brief obituary:
Long-time resident of Tucson and Sonoita [Arizona], born October 1, 1916, passed away January 1, 2006. He was a man like no other, who was much loved and will be greatly missed by his family and friends.
There will be no funeral or memorial services. 
Jane de Lange Lewis continued writing after her marriage to Bissell ended. As Jane Lewis Brandt, she authored several novels of historical and contemporary romance: Love in the Hot-Eye Country (1975), La Chingada (1979), Malinche (1980), and Firebrand (1983). She preceded Mal Bissell in death, but only by three years. Her last residence was Sherman Oaks, California. Her death came on February 1, 2003.

Mal Bissell's Story in Weird Tales
"The Mask of Don Alfredo" (Jan. 1950)

Further Reading
Jane Lewis Brandt's novels of the 1970s and '80s, though out of print, are still readily available. The couple's older work is harder to find.

The front and back covers of Lange Lewis' Meat for Murder (1943), one in a series of Dell's popular "map-back" paperbacks.
"Murder in Acapulco" by the husband and wife writing team of Lange Lewis and Mal Bissell appeared in Avon Detective Mysteries #2 (1947).
Jane Lewis Brandt wrote several novels during the 1970s and '80s, including La Chingada (1979).

Thanks to Randal Everts for further information on Mal Bissell.
Text and captions copyright 2011 Terence E. Hanley


  1. Malinche abnd La Chingada are the same book.
    Malinche was the title for the Spanish version because La Chingada would not have been very appealing.

    I think I met Mal only once, but I think that the "loved by his family" is likely to contain a degree of fiction.

    1. Dear Anonymous,

      I often wonder about the truthfulness or lack thereof in obituaries. Anyway, thanks for the clarification on the titles of the books.