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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

ASHEVILLE'S NAZI: WILLIAM DUDLEY PELLEY

THE first time I heard the name, William Dudley Pelley was when a friend of mine, David Shulman, was telling me about his oral history project in Asheville. David was interviewing elderly Jews in a retirement community. While the participants were reminiscing about their past, one fellow exclaimed, "I remember when that S.O.B., Pelley used to march down Charlotte Street!" "Who is Pelley?" asked David. The excitable fellow rushed out of the room and returned in a few moments with a "Wanted" poster. There was William Dudley Pelley, wearing his famous silver shirt emblazoned with a scarlet "L" - a stern looking gentleman with a Van Dyke beard. Beneath the picture was a varied list of charges including, fraud, embezzlement and activities that were "Un-American."

The "Wanted" poster was issued in 1939 during the HUAC investigations of over 400 organizations that were charged with activities that were dubbed seditious, traitorous and/or Un-American. We were on the brink of WWII, and although some of the denunciations were a bit hysterical, the United State had a bountiful supply of neo-fascist groups that were intent on subverting our government. When Pelley was investigated, his Silver Shirt organization was ruled to be seditious. Pelley openly endorsed anti-Semitism, Nazism and was an admirer of Adolph Hitler. At one point in his career, he even became a candidate for the Presidency.

However, it was probably Pelly's religious/spiritual beliefs that resulted in his being branded a "maniac." An ardent spiritualist who professed an ability to communicate with the dead, the Silver Shirt leader claimed to "talk" to notable figures such as George Washington, Mark Twain and Nostradamus. His most famous pamphlet, "Seven Minutes in Eternity," gave an account of Pelley's "death," and his alleged seven-minute meeting with the "Supreme Being" who told him he would have to return to life as he "had much to do." Professing to be a devout Christian, Pelley had combined the teachings of Christ, the Holy Grail Legend and much of the basic teachings of Madam Blavatsky's Theosophical Society. After a series of court actions in Asheville, Washington and Indiana, his property was confiscated and he was sentenced to fifteen years.

What gets lost in all of these ruminations about occultism, racism and anti-Semitism is the fact that Pelley began life as a brilliant journalist, a creative writer (over 200 published short stories) and a filmmaker (he wrote scripts for the silent era). Now, most of his writings have vanished and in the wake of his HUAC investigation, he quickly fading into obscurity. He was released from prison in 1950 and spent the last fifteen years of his life promoting a religious doctrine called Soulcraft.

I haven't said much about Scott Beekman's biography of Pelley. I didn't like it. Beekman managed to take a topic as fascinating as this badly flawed man and turn it into a turgid and wooden report filled with academic words like "posited," which he uses to excess. Poor, quirky Pelley loses all of his lurid and kinky charm and is reduced to a dull (and minor) political footnote.

18 comments:

  1. Well Gary, the number of eccentrics who have passed through WNC and left their small footprint never ceases to amaze me. After reading your post I looked Pelley up and read a few of his rants. His mixture of spiritualism and anti-Semitism seems pretty much in line with Hitler’s Nazism. What struck me was that his thinking began to lean this direction after he witnessed the atrocities of the Russian Revolution and attributed them to the Jews as the architects of communism, which seems like simplistic thinking for a journalist. I’ve always been interested in the history of The Third Reich and have come to suspect that Hitler’s anti-Semitism and creation of an Aryan mythos were a political ploy. In his autobiography Speer states that Hitler never mentioned religion, the occult, or anti-Semitism in private and actually made fun of Himmler and others who were truly obsessed with the occult philosophy of the movement. Heinz Rollman, who founded Wellco in Waynesville and was the founder of the original idea for The Peace Corps, mentions a conversation he had with Hitler before the war in his autobiography. According to Rollman, he asked Hitler if he really believed his assertions about the Jewish people in “Mein Kampf”, and Hitler assured him it was just politics and didn’t reflect his personal viewpoint. Whether Hitler personally believed the message is irrelevant because the true message is that mixing politics, religion, and a hate message is the real axis of evil and a line that shouldn't be crossed. We’ve come perilously close to crossing that line ourselves in recent years (okay, if that line is wet paint we’ve tracked it all over the highway). Alas, Pelley would have been better off confining himself to writing and spiritualism without the politics of hate. Who knows, he might have founded Scientology before L. Ron Hubbard.

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  2. Well, that is fascinating. I mean the idea that Hitler's anti-Semitism was a political ploy. I'm a big fan of ufo books and was surprised by how often Pelley's name shows up in them. I also went back and found one of his silent movie scripts that was based on the Holy Grail legend updated. Pelley seemed to have been obsessed with Arthurian legends all of his life. (His printing company was called Galahad.)Incidentally, he was a close friend of the actor, Lon Chaney and wrote several scripts for him. I think the event that made Pelley a rabid anti-Semite was his years in Hollywood where he became embittered by the fact that "the Jews owned everything." He frequently told stories about how he sold scripts for a fraction of what was finally paid for them by a Jewish agent to a Jewish script writer (who had bought the script from Pelley).

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  3. The posting process has defeated Erdajean, so she has asked me to post the following on her behalf.
    Well now I believe in reincarnation -- just like Mr. Pelley. And he is the proof. He has come back as Ann Coulter -- except Ms. Coulter (I think that should be Mr. but I am sometimes way wrong) has let her hair grow long. No, Ms. Coulter is NOT brilliant -- there she differs slightly from the late Mr. Pelley -- but boys can she hate! And that skeletal wild-eyed visage! What more do we need, to convict a migrated spirit?

    Now. Just look at the legs on that man! Anything with legs like that is sure to be a lunatic. That is my own personal science. Since I was never able to get bumps on the skull to coordinate with behavior as they should I now base empirical calculations on legs. Mr. Pelley exhibits freak legs in lunatic britches.

    From one oldl enough to remember him unfondly, he may have started out quare but not rabid. And then he got mixed up with Madame Blavatsky's unhappy spirits -- who are unhappy because they are welcome neither in Heaven nor Hell -- and nobody on earth will willingly take them in. Nobody but a lunatic. Thus in Mr. Pelley probably several found a home.

    I just do not want Wagner blamed for him, as Wagner is already blamed for Hitler. As the spirits believably tell me, Wagner would totally have despised them both.

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  4. Thanks for the political interpretation, Steve. Have you all seen "The Power of Nightmare"?

    I didn't know about Pelley's scripts for Lon Chaney. I'd like to see them! (Oh, I see--"Nomads of the North" and "The Shock," based on an original story by Pelley! I just ordered the pair from Netflix.)

    I'm interested in how someone crosses to the dark side. Was Pelley, like many baddies, recruited?

    I understand that Ann Coulter is thinking of remaking one of Lon's films, "Tower of Lies," starring Dick Cheney.

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  5. Rob,
    That is my interest, too. What happened? If you take out the racism and anti-Semitism, he would have been a flaky intellectual...the kind of image that William Butler Years wore with grace. But, why the plunge into the dark side? According to Beekman, the only evidence he revealed as a child was a dislike of "immigrants," which was common at that time and he heard in from his father and his neighbors. It was "They are going to take our jobs and change our world!" Beekman makes some sweeping judgments on the quality of Pelley's fiction, finding it "superficial" and "gimmicky," but I am impressed by the fact that he published in reputable magazines. His "Holy Grail" film ended up being called "The Light in the Dark."

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  6. If Herr Pelley and his Silver Shirts were to march down Asheville's Charlotte Street today,
    they'd have to goosestep past Starbucks and the
    latte drinking crowd. Wonder what the reaction
    would be? For most post-WWII Americans the Blues
    Brothers put the quietus on Neo-Nazism in this country: they got laughed off-stage. Of course,
    that was just Hollywood. Out there where the buses don't run, even now, monsters lurk reading their updated versions of Mein Kampt and itching to blow stuff up. Fascism never dies; it just
    reloads. Pelley was bizarre, complex, a nut; but was he such an aberration in his day? I don't think so. Joseph Kennedy himself was a
    champion of Hitler and the Third Reich right up
    to the Blitzkreig. Charles Lindbergh? Read his
    speeches. I visited Dachau with a Jewish friend when I was a GI stationed in Germany. Dachau was the first death camp. We took the tour. I
    remember the shower room and the ovens, small
    man-sized ovens where they had to pop in the gassed bodies one at a time. Horrifying. It's
    necessary to be reminded of characters like Pelley. He was undeniably delusional, but fast-
    forward to now and take a close look around. W.B. Yeats, in his poem Second Coming, asks "
    what rough beast slouches toward Bethlehem."
    Yeats wrote his poem in the 1920s, but his prophetic vision was universal and, I think, true. Look up the poem and reread it. I promise, it'll send chills down your spine. Evil is the absense of empathy, I read somewhere. And empathy, I've noticed, is in rather short supply these days. Too, with another collapse of Wall Street and a worsening
    economy, the scapegoating has begun. And the
    need for a strong leader? Sound familiar? Yeah,
    history is doomed to repeat itself, again and
    again - unless we start learning from the past.
    Pelley is worth getting to the bottom of, for sure. Pogo was right: I have seen the enemy,
    and the enemy is us. But you'll never catch me
    in an outfit like that! Thanks, Gary, for focusing on a subject that should stir all our
    beans.

    jq

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  7. Gary et. al.
    It's interesting to hear about someone who mixed devout Christianity with politics and came out a Nazi. Looking into the psychology of that would make a heck of a book. "The Authoritarian Personality" which came out after WWII hints at it. I would guess that the deep superego structures that lurk behind righteousness (usually transformed into self-righteousness) find a friend in the power that is promised from political aspiration.
    jmc\\

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  8. What fascinates me more is Pelley's obsession with Nordic/Germanic mythology. He loved Arthurian legend (named his publishing firm Galahad) and talked endlessly about the Holy Grail. All of these myths deal with purity and the perfectability of humanity. However, in his rants, he talks about
    denying African Americans and Jews the right to vote and forcing them to live in "restricted areas." He was also an outspoken advocate of
    "domestic women." (They stayed home and took care of the children.)

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  9. I've been collecting and researching Pelley for about 15 years now. David Shulman also steered my investigation early on.

    The standard reaction to Pelley tends to sweep him into the dustbin of history with buzzword subject keywords like nazi, nut and ne'er-do-well. I have to congratulate Beekman on actually wading through the literal tons of Pelley material and trying to squeeze a thorough consideration between two covers. His original thesis was twice as long and, if the Syracuse Univ. Press version is wooden, that one must be petrified! The complete e-thesis file used to be available for online purchase. I might be able to track it down.

    In any case, the Beekman book gives a bibliography that would make the dabbler's mind whirl.

    David Lobb wrote yet another Pelley thesis (there are at least a dozen) which is available online, but he wrote a lesser known essay titled something like "Golden Cups and Silver Shirts" which dealt specifically with Pelley's use of Grail legend symbolism... and made a side-by-side comparison of Pelley and Steinbeck, if I recall. I think I've got that essay on my old laptop, but in any case could probably get ahold of it.

    Pelley had a lot of supporters in Asheville... so did the Ku Klux Klan. The 1930s had a much different social/political/racial climate, of course, and modern historians are most obliged to dismiss such characters without trying to understand the psychology of the movement, much less sum it up with anything resembling objectivity. If you don't call Pelley a Nazi you're considered an apologist.

    This is uncalled for.

    I run a Pelley historical collectors group at yahoo, and, I might say in its defense, some of the most knowledgeable contributors are jewish.

    -Vance Pollock

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  10. Vance,
    I am delighted that you made the post above and that you have signed on as a "follower" of this blog. If it it is not evident from my previous comments, let me tell you that I have been fascinated by William Dudley Pelley for the past 25 years. I used to boy Pelley books from Chan Gordon at the Captain's Bookshelf in Asheville. I believe that Chan finally gave the collection to the library at UNC-A. In recent year, I have been surprised by the fact that I occasionally encountered Pelley's name in UFO publications.

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  11. Gary,

    I've dabbled in the UFO Pelley connection quite a bit over the years, moreso in recent months.

    Historian Michael Barkun treated with Pelley in a couple of books, Religion and the Racist Right (or similar title) contains an entire chapter on Pelley and Culture of Conspiracy examines the antisemitic attitudes of many of the early UFO contactees, and thus their willingness to adopt WDP, particulary due to his book Star Guests, as a grand old man of that strange movement.

    http://www.amazon.com/dp/0520238052

    Another Asheville area blogger, Micah Hanks, has dealt with the conspiratorial tendency of characters from occult circles:

    http://gralienreport.com/conspiracies/the-lost-fringe-conspiracy-occultists-of-americana/

    We're just beginning to scratch the surface... the strangeness grows ever stranger.

    ReplyDelete
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