Lev Gleason: The Family Speaks!

Posted by on July 2nd, 2010 at 7:32 AM

Two weeks ago I asked if there was a “Lev Gleason Expert in the House?” Several readers responded, both in the comments section and via email. Alan Wald, the literary historian who first prompted this inquiry, put me in touch with Gleason’s nephew (once removed), Brett Dakin, who works as a research fellow at Columbia Law School. Happily, it turns out Brett is finishing a book on his Uncle Lev. Brett is also the author of Another Quiet American: Stories of Life in Laos (Asia Books, 2003), a memoir of his years living and working in Vientiane, the capital city of Laos.

I am grateful to everyone who wrote in, and I’m especially pleased to share the following biographical memoir that Brett Dakin sent me earlier this week. My plan is to prepare a third post on Lev Gleason that summarizes what I’ve gleaned from my learned correspondents. (Yes, that’s Lev Gleason in the above photo, which was probably taken in the 1940s.)

American Daredevil: Comics, Communism and My Uncle Lev

by Brett Dakin

I never met Uncle Lev; he died five years before I was born. I’m thirty-three, and to date I have few regrets in life, but this is certainly one of them.

Growing up, I relished the stories my mother would tell me about her flamboyant, free-spending uncle from New York City. The tale I loved most of all was the one about Uncle Lev’s Day: the day, once a year, when Lev and his wife would drive to my mother’s house near Boston, pile her and as many of her young friends as possible into his gleaming aqua Packard, and head to the shops in Hyannis on his beloved Cape Cod, where each kid was free to buy whatever her heart desired—courtesy of Uncle Lev.

Over the years, I picked up a few facts about Lev’s life: a privileged upbringing in the suburbs of Boston, a year at Harvard before dropping out to fight in World War I, another military tour during World War II. I knew his politics were progressive; he would preach endlessly to his younger brother, my grandfather, about the power of government to do good. And I knew that he had made a fortune in comic books, and lost it all when his business collapsed spectacularly in the 1950s.

That’s about it. Inside my family, there was very little to go on. Lev left next to nothing behind—not a single copy of any of his signature titles, like Crime Does Not Pay and Daredevil. Outside of my family, no one seemed to know what happened to Lev when he exited the comics scene. Some claimed he moved to Alaska, or escaped to Cuba.

Over the past few years, I’ve spent some time piecing together the truth about Uncle Lev, working on a book about his extraordinary life and career. It’s been my way of making up for the fact that we never met. In dusty archives and government warehouses, comics conventions and abandoned buildings, over interviews and Internet chats, from New York to Paris, I’ve finally come to know Uncle Lev. In this short piece, I’d like to offer a taste of what I have learned so far, and to set forth the essential facts about Lev’s life.

Leverett Stone Gleason was born on February 25, 1898 in Winchendon, Massachusetts. He and his brother grew up in a comfortable Protestant home; their father, originally from Vermont, was a popular and successful family doctor who eventually settled the family in the Boston suburbs. Lev attended Newton High School and Phillips Andover Academy before entering Harvard in the fall of 1916. The United States declared war on Germany the following year, and, in a sign of things to come, Lev dropped out of Harvard and served with the Army in France. After the fighting came to an end, Lev remained in Paris for much of 1919 to study letters at the Sorbonne under a special program designed for American soldiers.

Lev returned to the United States in August 1919, but never graduated from college and never went back to school—though he retained a love of learning, often devouring a book a day throughout his life. He married shortly thereafter, and a son, his only child, was born in 1921. (His son would die as a teenager, in a tragic drowning accident.) In Boston, Lev got his first taste of publishing through low-level advertising and sales positions at magazines such as Open Road for Boys and National Sportsman. His first marriage was short-lived, as was his second, and by 1929, when he moved to New York City, he was a single man once again.

In New York, Lev joined Eastern Color Printing Company—present at the creation of the American comic book, he was certainly in the right place at the right time. Lev’s colleagues on the sales team included Max Gaines, whose son Bill would go on to run EC Comics in the 1950s. By 1936, Lev was working full time for United Features Syndicate, serving as editor of Tip Top Comics, an Eastern Color client.

In 1939, he found a partner with some capital, Arthur Bernhard, and started a publishing company of his own. Bernhard was an established magazine man who had worked at Eastern News, a distribution company that handled a broad assortment of periodicals. Together with Bernhard’s partner Morris Latzen, Lev founded Silver Streak comics, and leased space in a modest nineteen-story office building in Manhattan at 114 East 32nd Street, between Park and Lexington Avenues. Daredevil made his first appearance in Silver Streak #7, but really came into his own in Daredevil Battles Hitler of July 1941, the first Daredevil title on which the Silver Streak logo does not appear. This legendary issue was the fruit of Lev’s key decision earlier in the year to bring aboard Charles Biro and Bob Wood, the editorial team that would stick with Lev throughout his publishing career. They were also the talent behind Lev’s most successful title: Crime Does Not Pay, the first issue of which was released in 1942, again under the Silver Streak name.

The release of Daredevil Battles Hitler revealed Lev’s politics: liberal, secular, progressive, and resolutely anti-fascist. While he was making a name for himself in comics, he became increasingly involved in an array of left-leaning activist groups in New York City. He also participated in a short-lived but important liberal publishing experiment with Dan Gillmor, a young writer and editor from a wealthy Midwestern family determined to take on the mainstream press. They teamed up to publish Friday magazine, a liberal alternative to Life.

Every cover featured an attractive female model, but within its pages was some of the best leftist muckraking of the time. A November 1940 article entitled “Conspiracy of Silence: The Case Against Henry Ford” detailed Ford’s anti-Semitic statements and publications, his admiration of Hitler and association with domestic fascists and nativists, and his suppression of organized labor. Friday folded after about a year, but not before being sued for libel by William Randolph Hearst in 1941—the same year that Orson Welles’ anti-Hearst masterpiece Citizen Kane was released, a coincidence Lev must have relished.

Lev was married a third and final time in 1941 to Margaret Cawley Clarke, with whom he would remain until the day he died. Lev and Peggy were a perfect match, and they forged a wonderful life partnership. Soon after their wedding, Lev reenlisted in the Army—not one to miss a fight, especially against Hitler—and served on the home front in New York, Florida and Illinois. Once Lev was discharged in 1943, he and Peggy moved to Chappaqua, New York, the wealthy Westchester community where they would live for the next decade. The couple were at the center of a small circle of liberals in the town, hosting costume parties for the likes of best-selling writers Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett.

Lev became a prominent New York fundraiser, supporting liberal causes alongside artists like Canada Lee, Rockwell Kent, and Howard Fast. While growing his publishing business in Manhattan, now under the name Lev Gleason Publications, Lev also became involved in local politics in Chappaqua. He even founded a newspaper, the New Castle News, to rival the long-time conservative town paper, a staunch supporter of the reigning Republican political establishment. Through Lev’s newspaper he was happily drawn into countless controversies, large and small, including a very public spat with DeWitt Wallace, the powerful conservative publisher of Reader’s Digest magazine, also headquartered in Chappaqua.

One controversy that spread far beyond the pages of Chappaqua’s local papers was Congress’ pursuit of Uncle Lev due to his leadership role in a New York-based non-profit, the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee. The Committee was formed to support the anti-fascist refugees of the Spanish Civil War, a cause that had attracted some of the cultural world’s biggest names, including Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, and Lucille Ball. As the Cold War heated up and fear of domestic Soviet influence grew, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) named the group a “communist-front organization” and placed it on its list of subversive organizations.

When the group failed to provide membership information to the House, the Un-American Activities Committee pressed joint contempt charges against its executive board members, including Lev. In April 1946, Lev traveled to Washington to testify before the Committee; the case against the board members went to U.S. District Court, and all were convicted in June 1947. Lev was fined $500 and received a suspended three-month prison sentence after agreeing to resign from the board. The trial was widely covered in the press, including by Newsweek, which ran an exposé with mug shots of the board members. “The government was fed up,” crowed Newsweek, “publisher Leverett Gleason . . . convicted.”

While Lev was being attacked on one front for his political beliefs, he came under fire on another for the content of his comic books. The boom in comics’ popularity during the 1940s—combined with a perceived spike in juvenile delinquency—had led to rising concerns among parents about the effects of comics on American children. Crime Does Not Pay had spawned scores of imitators, and by 1948 one in seven titles was a crime comic.

Lev’s competitors churned out titles like Gangsters Can’t WinLawbreakers Always LoseCrime Must Pay the Penalty, and Justice Traps the Guilty. (Lev himself would not be left out, launching an imitation of his own: Crime and Punishment, “Dedicated to the eradication of crime.”) Lev pushed back against anti-comics advocates like Dr. Fred Wertham—whom he debated on CBS radio in June 1948 and on WNBT television in July 1950—and assumed the presidency of the Association of Comics Magazines Publishers. As the Association president, he participated in the implementation of its self-censorship code and testified before the New York state legislature, which was ultimately convinced not to legislate comic book censorship.

Lev would eventually release some thirty comics titles, including BoyCaptain Battle, and Boy Meets Girl, but his publishing activities stretched far beyond comic books. The number of publications and activities in which Lev was involved was enormous—no surprise, then, that he often got by on a mere four hours of sleep a night. He released a number of overtly political books, including Sabotage: The Secret War Against America and The Plot Against the Peace, both about domestic fascism in the United States, and The Incredible Tito! Man of the Hour, a short biography of the Yugoslav revolutionary.

He also launched an imprint called the Lev Gleason Library (its motto: “Profit and Pleasure”) under which he reprinted novels with such salacious titles as The Wench is WillingDishonorable Lady, and (“Half-saint and half-sinner, Jennie was a…”) Hotel Wife. He also made a second attempt at a liberal response to the mainstream media: Reader’s Scope magazine, which was published from 1944 to 1949. Just as Friday had been framed as an alternative to LifeReader’s Scope was an obvious imitation of Reader’s Digest. It combined celebrity profiles and fashion spreads like “Summer wear-with-all” with ads for books by George Seldes and Johannes Steel and liberal analysis of foreign policy and pending legislation. Contributors included well-known leftists like Howard Fast and Albert Kahn, and Lev even hired Truman Capote to write a regular humor column.

Throughout the 1940s, Lev was under constant pressure from the growing Red Scare. After the conservative New York World-Telegram identified Gleason as “pro-Communist fellow-traveler” in December 1945, he sued the newspaper for libel, and in 1950 Lev felt the need to declare “I am not a Communist” in the pages of his Chappaqua newspaper. His rivals immediately challenged him by presenting voting records allegedly showing that he had registered as a Communist in the mid-1930s.  Not only that, the World-Telegram claimed that Lev had once had a secret identity as a Russian newsman: Alexander Lev, business manager at Soviet Russia Today. How much of this is true? Was Lev really a Communist? Questions like these are shrouded in mystery, and I’m still working on the answers.

Lev had made it through the first incarnation of the anti-comics crusade, adapting to the new reality: one 1950 advertisement billed Crime Does Not Pay as “[a]n exciting book showing how evil crime is and proving that criminals must be punished for their acts.” He stepped down as president of the Association of Comic Magazine Publishers in May 1951, but remained engaged in the defense of comics. In an extended essay in Today’s Health in September 1952, Lev claimed that “Comics magazines … offer an amazing potential. They can actually help mold their young readers into happier, more intelligent adults.”

But the rise of horror comics and the publication of Dr. Wertham’s best-selling manifesto, Seduction of the Innocent, led to a far more intense fight. Following Bill Gaines’ disastrous testimony before the Senate’s Subcommittee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce, Lev pled unsuccessfully with the Subcommittee to permit him to appear. In his request, Lev tore into Wertham and called for an investigation of the doctor himself—“his motives, his history and his testimony.” If there was a powerful, popular figure to take on, Lev would rush in to do it.

During the comics industry’s internal debate over how to respond to the Senate hearings, Lev managed to prevent his colleagues from banning the word “crime” from comics outright. But he lost the larger battle. The revised Comics Code forbade any representations of crime that created sympathy for criminals, and any stories that included detailed planning of crimes or excessive violence, torture, or “gruesome behavior.” Along with the rise of television and other changes in American society, Lev’s titles simply could not survive these sorts of restrictions. Within a year of the Code’s promulgation, Lev discontinued Crime Does Not Pay. By the end of March 1955, the offices of Lev Gleason Publications—where Lev had been based since 1943—were vacated, the space available for lease. And on December 18, 1956, the Lev Gleason Enterprises Corporation was officially dissolved.

Following his abrupt departure from the world of comics, Lev did not disappear to Alaska or escape to Cuba. In fact, he remained in New York—and became a real estate agent. He and Peggy sold their place in Chappaqua and relocated to Somers, further away from the City and much cheaper. But Lev did make a clean break with comics. Eventually, of course, Stan Lee at Marvel inaugurated a new Daredevil starring a different hero with the same old name. Charlie Biro followed his old boss out of comics; after producing storyboards for television commercials, he took a job as an art director at NBC. (Stan Lee has said that he regularly telephoned Biro to ask him for the secret to success in comics. “The secret,” Lee concluded, “is Charlie Biro.”) As for Biro’s partner, I can only imagine how Lev must have felt in August 1958 when he read that Bob Wood was under arrest for beating a woman to death at the Irving Hotel in Gramercy Park—the “Cartoonist’s Last Horror Strip,” according to the Daily News.

In December 1969, Lev and Peggy sold their house in Somers and moved north to Brewster, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. They were retired, but still working to make ends meet, even starting a small business selling patriotic home ornaments featuring the American eagle. Nevertheless, his contribution to the fiftieth anniversary report of Harvard’s Class of 1920 reveals how politically aware he remained. “My greatest satisfactions have been doing what I can politically to make ours a better country and the world a little more peaceful,” he wrote. “I have been strongly opposed to the Vietnam War since the outset. And I do hope for better things. Probably because of the efforts of today’s youth, especially the militant ones, who have more guts than we had. When the black people come into full equality and the shooting stops—who knows—the millennium.”

On the afternoon of September 24, 1971, Uncle Lev died peacefully during a nap in his armchair on Cape Cod. There was no funeral. He wouldn’t allow it.

Be Sociable, Share!

Tags: ,

2 Responses to “Lev Gleason: The Family Speaks!”

  1. Great Stuff, between this and the DC/Fox lawsuit transcripts a lot of golden age history is going to be expanded and re-written.

  2. WLLilly says:

    …I’m grooved to know that he lived in Chappaqua , which I essentially consider my home town…(Lived there 6-18…in the flatlands , not the hills…) .
    Paul Levitz lives there , too !!!!!!!!!!! To the extent that it matters…