Saturday, April 14, 2012

Dorothy McIlwraith (1891-1976)-Part 1

Part 1--"What About Dorothy McIlwraith?"

If you do an Internet search for the name Dorothy McIlwraith, you're likely to find a lot of stuff that has been lazily cut and pasted from one website into another. That cutting and pasting has been going on for a long time, long before there were home computers. It hasn't been text so much as opinion that has passed from one person to another, probably reflexively and almost certainly not critically. Many readers of Weird Tales see Farnsworth Wright as the editor and the period before May 1940--when Dorothy McIlwraith took over--as its golden age. Although it's true H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and C.L. Moore no longer wrote for Weird Tales after 1940, no one can blame that on the magazine's editor. After all, Lovecraft and Howard had both died in 1936-1937, and C.L. Moore had moved on to more lucrative markets. (Her last story for Weird Tales appeared in the December 1939 issue. Six months later, she married Henry Kuttner in New York City.) But what about the authors who showed up only after Dorothy had taken over for Farnsworth Wright? Here's a short list (in alphabetical order):
  • Manly Banister
  • Hannes Bok
  • Anthony Boucher
  • Ray Bradbury
  • Joseph Payne Brennan
  • Fredric Brown
  • Stanton A. Coblentz
  • Frank Gruber
  • Allison V. Harding
  • Malcolm Jameson
  • Harold Lawlor
  • Fritz Leiber, Jr.
  • Emil Petaja
  • Margaret St. Clair
Plus most of the authors of the Golden Age of Science Fiction from my previous list.

What's more, writers such as H. Bedford-Jones, Robert Bloch, Carl Jacobi, and Manly Wade Wellman contributed more stories to Weird Tales after May 1940 than before.

In an interview with Graeme Flanagan, Robert Bloch defended his editor:
Actually, I think she's far too neglected; I can't dismiss anyone who published Bradbury, Sturgeon, Brown and other top talents. And I think that she would have published more, had she been given the budget to compete with Unknown Worlds, F&SF [The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction], and other comparable markets. But that lousy one cent a word--and sometimes bimonthly publication--induced few writers to remain in WT [Weird Tales] once better rates were obtainable elsewhere. (1)
Darrell Schweitzer also defended her in a lengthy article, "What About Dorothy McIlwraith?", in WT50: A Tribute to Weird Tales (1974). The article is more than you're likely to read about the long-serving editor anywhere else. (2) Mr. Schweitzer made a number of important points in his article. First, as he wrote about halfway through, "[A] magazine can't survive by living off the past." Like it or not, the magazine market changed as the nation went from depression to war to postwar. Moreover, fantasy fiction changed as science fiction ascended, especially after the war. With talk of atom bombs, spaceflight, and flying saucers, weird fiction may have seemed quaint to a lot of readers of the late 1940s. (3) In any case, Dorothy McIlwraith took over a magazine that had always struggled and carried it through for over fourteen years as markets, magazines, and the tastes of the reading public changed. The deaths of Lovecraft and Howard were a disaster. Weird Tales may never have recovered from that disaster. But it survived until September 1954, mostly under the editorship of Dorothy McIlwraith.

Darrell Schweitzer's second point involves artists. Weird Tales may have lost Virgil Finlay, Hugh Rankin, and J. Allen St. John with the 1930s, but Margaret Brundage remained (to the chagrin of Mr. Schweitzer). To take their place, Dorothy McIlwraith found Lee Brown Coye, Boris Dolgov, Matt Fox, Frank Kelly Freas, Albert Roanoke Tilburne, and Edgar Franklin Wittmack. She also continued to use art from Hannes Bok and Harold S. De Lay, who had squeaked into the pages of "The Unique Magazine" before the 1930s ended. Coye, Dolgov, and Fox in particular possessed a knack for the weird and uncanny, while Freas broke into science fiction largely on the strength of his work for Weird Tales.
So [Darrell Schweizter wrote in 1974], Dorothy McIlwraith deserves, in my estimation, credit for editing the magazine well as long as she possibly could, and giving us quite a few high quality stories. Anthologists ought to re-read those issues. Perhaps they don't contain as many classics as the Wright issues, but they do have a lot of good and untouched material.
That oversight has probably been corrected in recent years as editors and publishers mine the popular fiction of the last century for more material.

So who was this editor who kept Weird Tales alive for fourteen years? I'll write about her more in my next entry.

To be continued . . .

(1) Quoted in The Unofficial Robert Bloch Website from an interview that originally appeared in Robert Bloch: A Bio-Bibliography (1979).
(2) In fact, I haven't even been able to find a photograph of Dorothy McIlwraith, despite the fact that her tenure with Weird Tales was second only to Wright's and then only by a couple of years (from 1940 to 1954). She also edited Short Stories magazine during that entire time (from 1936 to 1954).
(3) I'll talk more about that in a posting on Fritz Leiber, Jr., sometime soon.

Lacking a photograph of Dorothy McIlwraith, I can at least offer a copy of her signature from 1941.

Text and captions copyright 2012, 2023 Terence E. Hanley


  1. It was a better magazine under McIlwraith.

    1. Todd,

      You're not the only person to have that opinion. I can't say, as I don't have a collection of Weird Tales. Maybe someone who does should write an essay arguing in favor of the Dorothy McIlwraith issues over the Farnsworth Wright issues.