- Historic Sites
1947 Fifty Years Ago
Death of a Demagogue
July/August 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 4
In the summer of 1947 two events occurred that introduced a darker side of postwar America. On Friday, July 4, some seven hundred fifty motorcyclists and about three thousand camp followers descended on Hollister, California, for a weekend of racing and carousing. In between firing up their hogs and injuring bystanders, the visitors rode onto sidewalks and into bars and restaurants, “their reckless spirits fired in many cases by liquor,” as one observer reasonably conjectured. Others tossed beer bottles from upstairs windows onto San Benito Street, the town’s main drag.
The invasion overwhelmed Hollister’s seven-man police force, which had to call for reinforcements. On Saturday thirty-two state officers arrived and began jailing the bikers on a variety of charges, arbitrarily classified as drunkenness, drunken driving, reckless driving, vagrancy, or that traditional catchall, disturbing the peace. More than fifty were arrested, although one officer said, “If we had jailed everyone who deserved it, we’d have herded them in by the hundreds.” On Sunday the motorcyclists and their entourage cleared out, leaving Hollister’s residents to sweep up the broken glass. The incident formed the basis for a 1954 movie, The Wild One , in which Marion Brando, playing a motorcyle-gang leader, is asked at one point what he is rebelling against. Brando’s reply set the tone for a generation of American youth: “Whatta you got?”
Later in July the prototypical sex- and-sadism detective novel, Mickey Spillane’s I, the Jury , was published. In the San Francisco Chronicle , Anthony Boucher deplored the book’s “vicious … glorification of force, cruelty, and extra-legal methods.” The Chicago Sun dismissed it as “shabby and rather nasty,” while the Saturday Review of Literature critic, evidently getting paid by the word, remarked on its “lurid action, lurid characters, lurid writing, lurid plot, lurid finish.”
The novel’s opening scene gives a sample of what reviewers were so worked up about. The detective Mike Hammer, who makes the “hardboiled” detectives of the 1930s look like a bunch of coddled eggs, enters a room and discovers the corpse of his wartime buddy: “A trail of blood led from under the table beside the bed to where Jack’s artificial arm lay.” A quick survey enables Hammer to reconstruct the crime: “After the killer shot Jack ... he stood here and watched him grovel on the floor in agony.” Hammer vows revenge: “He will die exactly as you died, with a .45 slug in the gut, just a little below the belly button” (a threat reprised in a later chapter as “right where everyone could see what he had for dinner”). Hammer spends the rest of the book hunting Jack’s killer, alternately dodging and bedding voracious women, and beating up punks: “His lower teeth were protruding through his lip. Two of his incisors were lying beside his nose, plastered there with blood.”
Continuing to indulge his obsession with blood (which would remain unmatched by any American novelist before Erica Jong), Spillane wrote six more thrillers by 1952, after which he became a Jehovah’s Witness and took a mysterious nine-year break. Bibliophiles patiently waited out the hiatus. After his return, Spillane’s fellow philosopher-novelist Ayn Rand gushed in a 1962 fan letter: “Will you tell me whether you intend to write a sequel to The Girl Hunters ? … You build up such an interest in the relationship of Mike Hammer to Velda that one waits impatiently to see their meeting.”
In her liking for Spillane, Rand was far from a rugged individualist. He had millions of fans and almost as many imitators, most of them far more talented and thus far less effective. A 1965 tabulation showed Spillane with seven of America’s twenty best-selling fiction books of the twentieth century. In the crime-and-suspense category, he monopolized the top seven spots. Yet no one could accuse Spillane of pandering. As he once pointed out, “I don’t really go for sex and violence unless it’s necessary.”
On August 21 Sen. Theodore ( “The Man”) Bilbo of Mississippi died in a New Orleans hospital. As befitted a United States senator and former legislator and governor, Bilbo received in death all the honors that Mississippi could bestow. Fifty National Guardsmen kept watch over his body as it lay in state in his opulent mansion. At his funeral more than five thousand mourners, including almost every top government official, heard a preacher praise Bilbo for “the great principles of righteousness with which he was possessed” and call him “a martyr to the … real, true principles of American Democracy.”
Elsewhere in the country, the senator’s death found a different reception. In Harlem a bar put up festive streamers and a sign joyfully proclaiming BILBO IS DEAD ! On the streets of Chicago’s black neighborhoods, residents exulted as the news spread. One northern newspaper wrote, “It is to be fervently hoped that his like will never again disgrace the American scene.” Another called Bilbo’s actions “a stench in the nostrils of decent men.”
Bilbo had brought such vituperation on himself with a long series of racist statements that were shocking in their crudity, even for a Southern politician of the time. He once declared that “the nigger is only 150 years from the jungles of Africa, where it was his great delight to cut him up some fried nigger steak for breakfast.” He called Rep. Clare Booth Luce a “nigger lover” and in 1938 praised Adolf Hitler on the floor of the United States Senate. Miscegenation was a particular concern since, he explained, “one drop of Negro blood placed in the veins of the purest Caucasian destroys the inventive genius of his mind and strikes palsied his creative faculty.” If the races were allowed to mingle, Bilbo said, the result would be a “motley melee of miscegenated mongrels,” filled with “mestizos, mulattoes, zambos, terceroones, quadroons, cholos, musties, fustics, and dusties.”
At the time of his death, Bilbo was in a peculiar sort of limbo. He had been re-elected to the Senate in 1946, but before taking his seat he faced two separate investigations. One was for intimidating black voters in the primary campaign. At hearings in Mississippi, witnesses had quoted him saying that the “way to keep a nigger from voting is to see him the night before, and if any nigger tries to organize to vote, use the tar and feathers and don’t forget the matches.” The special committee’s Southern majority said Bilbo was simply telling whites to give black would-be voters some “friendly advice” to counter the efforts of “outside agitators” (or as Bilbo characteristically put it, “a bunch of niggers in New York”). It ruled that he had done “nothing further than earnestly and sincerely seek to uphold Mississippi law, custom, and tradition”—which, unfortunately, was largely true. But a second committee found Bilbo guilty of accepting bribes from military contractors during World War II, and when the Senate convened in January 1947, the new Republican majority refused to seat him. Southern senators began a filibuster in response. In the end a compromise let the ailing Bilbo draw his salary without being sworn in.
If anyone tried to organize the black vote, Bilbo said, “use the tar and feathers and don’t forget the matches.”
On his deathbed Bilbo gave one final interview. His choice of interviewer was a surprise: Leon L. Lewis, managing editor of a newspaper called The Negro South . The dying senator professed to “hold nothing against Negroes as a race” and even endorsed letting them vote, “when their main purpose is not to put me out of office and when they won’t try to besmirch the reputation of my state.” A week after speaking these words, Bilbo went to meet the ultimate judge, who alone would decide the sincerity of his conversion. Those he left behind, however, could be forgiven for feeling that his change of heart had come considerably too late.