Sunday, December 18, 2011

Howard Rockey (1886-1934)

Reporter, Publicity and Advertising Agent, Short Story Writer, and Novelist
Born June 3, 1886, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Died May 27, 1934, New York, New York

The story of Howard Rockey is an interesting one, beginning with his middle name. He is known to have used the pseudonymous middle name "Philips" (and the nom de plume Ronald Bryce). If that were his real middle name, it would have meant that H.P. Lovecraft was not the only Howard Phillips (or Philips) to write for Weird Tales. Most of the time, the author just went by the name Howard Rockey. But when the nation went to war in 1917, Rockey was forced to reveal his real middle name on his World War I draft card. "Rockey" is a suitably manly appellation--a rough and tumble name. The United States government alone may have known that Rockey's real middle name was Primrose. That must have been a closely guarded secret for a young boy growing up in Philadelphia.

Howard Primrose Rockey was born on June 3, 1886, in the City of Brotherly Love. Even as a child he was drawn to writing and journalism. At thirteen, he was president of his local chapter of the St. Nicholas League, affiliated with the children's magazine St. Nicholas. He and his friends called their chapter the "William Penn," and they held their meetings at 1320 Ridge Avenue in Philadelphia.

Rockey attended Drexel Institute and Temple University. From 1903 to 1907, he was a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He also held positions with System Magazine and Southern Lumberman. During the 1913-1914 season, he served as press representative of the New York Philharmonic. One of his best career moves at this time was to meet and marry a young singer and artist from his hometown. More on her in a moment. In the meantime, Rockey's career was interrupted by service with the U.S. Army during the Great War. The infantry men under him must have gained some comfort knowing they were led by a man called Lieutenant Rockey. I suppose the middle name remained a secret.

Returning to civilian life, Howard Rockey spent seven years as an advertising agent in Philadelphia. From 1927 to 1930, he was employed as director of publicity for Lord and Thomas, one of the oldest and most prominent of advertising agencies. (He had worked with another firm, L.S. Goldsmith Agency, before the war.) By then, Rockey had been writing fiction for many years. A cynic might call it--in comparison to advertising--simply another kind of fiction.

Jack-of-all-trades, Howard Rockey wrote stage shows, short stories, serials, novels, and non-fiction. The earliest of his credits I have found are from 1910. Between that date and his death, Rockey sold stories to The Argosy, Black MaskThe Green Book MagazineMunsey's, The Smart Set, Telling Tales, Top-Notch, Young's Magazine, and other titles, including three magazines with similar names, Breezy Stories, Droll Stories, and Snappy Stories. He also wrote for Weird Tales, though just one tale, "The Fine Art of Suicide" from March 1924. His work was also adapted to movies: Li Ting Lang (1920) with Sessue Hayakawa, This Woman (1924) with Louise Fazenda and Clara Bow in supporting roles, and The Chorus Kid (1928). Between 1924 and 1934, Rockey produced novels at a rate of about one per year. The last was a valediction in more ways than one. More on that in a moment, too.

One day, or perhaps more romantically, one evening in the fall of 1909, Howard Rockey met Ethel Mager, a twenty-five-year-old Philadelphian who was to sing a part in an amateur theatrical production he had written. A graduate of the Philadelphia School of Design for Women and an art teacher at William Penn High School, Ethel was almost exactly a year older than her suitor. They were married in May 1911 and moved to New York City. In the fall of that year, Ethel M. Rockey went to work with her husband, making advertising layouts and drawings. A true helpmate, Ethel also helped Rockey with fashions for his fictional females, even going so far as to draw pictures of them for his reference. "[A]n inch over 5 feet, petite and piquant," wrote one journalist, "she might be a Rockey character rather than a Rockey reality. Tout ensemble, a delightful person."

Everything seems to have gone pretty swimmingly for the Rockey family, even after the Stock Market Crash in 1929. Nineteen thirty found them in a home on Central Park West. Howard Rockey had at least five of his books published in those difficult early years of the Great Depression, and his short fiction continued to show up in popular magazines. Then, a week before Rockey's forty-eighth birthday, an elevator operator at an apartment building on West 101st Street noticed an electric light shining through the transom of the Rockey apartment. There was no response to his knock at the door. The police soon found out why. Lying close to the window, his hand clutching a copy of his latest novel (Love, Honor and Deceive! published in April), lay Howard Primrose Rockey, dead of a heart attack. Ethel Mager Rockey and their daughter Elizabeth survived him, Ethel finally to pass away in January 1977 at age ninety-two.

Howard Rockey's Story in Weird Tales
"The Fine Art of Suicide" (Mar. 1924)

Further Reading
There is an invaluable article on Howard and Ethel Rockey--complete with photographs and drawings--located on the Internet. Unfortunately I can't print it, copy it, or save it. Instead, I'll have to refer you to it: "Temper Your Temperament" by Lois Lorraine, The Deseret News, Feb. 25, 1933.

Argosy All-Story Weekly, March 4, 1922, with a cover story, "Dear Daredevil," By Howard Rockey. The advertising man in Rockey could easily have written the cover blurb: "Escapades of a Fearless Flapper"--now that will sell some magazines! I believe the cover artist is the Impressionist Frank H. Desch (1873-1934), a Philadelphia native who died in the same year as Howard Rockey. Rockey specialized in romance and other stories about young women, aided by his wife, artist and designer Ethel Mager Rockey. I'll list Howard Rockey's books in a future posting.
Howard and Ethel Mager Rockey, a photograph taken in Atlantic City, probably before World War I. Courtesy of Randal A. Everts.
Text and captions copyright 2011 Terence E. Hanley

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for this article. Howard Rockey was my third-cousin-twice-removed. It was fun to find so much about him! Much appreciated.