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Fifty Years Ago

June 2024
4min read

Death of a Demagogue

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.

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