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.