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
byĀ Brett Dakin
I never met Uncle Lev; he died five years before I was born. Iām 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 Levās Day: the day, once a year, when Lev and his wife would drive to my motherās 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 desiredācourtesy of Uncle Lev.
Over the years, I picked up a few facts about Levās 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.
Thatās about it. Inside my family, there was very little to go on. Lev left next to nothing behindānot a single copy of any of his signature titles, like Crime Does Not Pay andĀ 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, Iāve spent some time piecing together the truth about Uncle Lev, working on a book about his extraordinary life and career. Itās 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, Iāve finally come to know Uncle Lev. In this short piece, Iād like to offer a taste of what I have learned so far, and to set forth the essential facts about Levās 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 schoolāthough 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 asĀ Open Road for Boys andĀ 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 Companyāpresent at the creation of the American comic book, he was certainly in the right place at the right time. Levās 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 ofĀ 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 Bernhardās 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 inĀ 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 Levās 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 Levās most successful title:Ā Crime Does Not Pay, the first issue of which was released in 1942, again under the Silver Streak name.
The release ofĀ Daredevil Battles Hitler revealed Levās 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 publishĀ Friday magazine, a liberal alternative toĀ 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 āConspiracy of Silence: The Case Against Henry Fordā detailed Fordās anti-Semitic statements and publications, his admiration of Hitler and association with domestic fascists and nativists, and his suppression of organized labor.Ā Friday folded after about a year, but not before being sued for libel by William Randolph Hearst in 1941āthe same year that Orson Wellesā anti-Hearst masterpieceĀ 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 Armyānot one to miss a fight, especially against Hitlerāand 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 theĀ 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 hisĀ 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 Levās newspaper he was happily drawn into countless controversies, large and small, including a very public spat with DeWitt Wallace, the powerful conservative publisher ofĀ Readerās Digest magazine, also headquartered in Chappaqua.
One controversy that spread far beyond the pages of Chappaquaās local papers was Congressā pursuit of Uncle Lev due to his leadership role in a New York-based non-profit, the Joint Anti-FascistĀ Refugee Committee. The Committee wasĀ formed to support the anti-fascist refugees of the Spanish Civil War, a cause that had attractedĀ some of the cultural worldās biggest names, includingĀ 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 ācommunist-front organizationā and placed it onĀ 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 byĀ Newsweek, which ran an exposĆ© with mug shots of the board members. āThe government was fed up,ā crowedĀ Newsweek, āpublisher Leverett Gleason . . . convicted.ā
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 comicsā popularity during the 1940sācombined with a perceived spike in juvenile delinquencyāhad led to rising concerns among parents about the effects of comics on American children.Ā Crime Does Not Pay had spawned scores of imitators, and by 1948 one in seven titles was a crime comic.
Levās competitors churned out titles likeĀ Gangsters Canāt Win,Ā Lawbreakers Always Lose,Ā Crime Must Pay the Penalty,Ā andĀ Justice Traps the Guilty. (Lev himself would not be left out, launching an imitation of his own:Ā Crime and Punishment, āDedicated to the eradication of crime.ā) Lev pushed back against anti-comics advocates like Dr. Fred Werthamāwhom he debated on CBS radio in June 1948 and on WNBT television in July 1950āand 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, includingĀ Boy,Ā Captain Battle, andĀ Boy Meets Girl, but his publishing activities stretched far beyond comic books. The number of publications and activities in which Lev was involved was enormousāno surprise, then, that he often got by on a mere four hours of sleep a night. He released a number of overtly political books, includingĀ Sabotage: The Secret War Against America andĀ The Plot Against the Peace, both about domestic fascism in the United States, andĀ 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: āProfit and Pleasureā) under which he reprinted novels with such salacious titles asĀ The Wench is Willing,Ā Dishonorable Lady, and (āHalf-saint and half-sinner, Jennie was aā¦ā)Ā Hotel Wife. He also made a second attempt at a liberal response to the mainstream media:Ā Readerās Scope magazine, which was published from 1944 to 1949. Just asĀ Friday had been framed as an alternative toĀ Life,Ā Readerās Scope was an obvious imitation ofĀ Readerās Digest. It combined celebrity profiles and fashion spreads like āSummer wear-with-allā 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 conservativeĀ New York World-Telegram identified Gleason as āpro-Communist fellow-travelerā in December 1945, he sued the newspaper for libel,Ā and in 1950 Lev felt the need to declare āI am not a Communistā 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.Ā Not only that, theĀ World-Telegram claimed that Lev had once had a secret identity as a Russian newsman: Alexander Lev, business manager atĀ Soviet Russia Today. How much of this is true? Was Lev really a Communist? Questions like these are shrouded in mystery, and Iām 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 billedĀ Crime Does Not Pay as ā[a]n exciting book showing how evil crime is and proving that criminals must be punished for their acts.ā 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 inĀ Todayās Health in September 1952, Lev claimed that āComics magazines ā¦ offer an amazing potential. They can actually help mold their young readers into happier, more intelligent adults.ā
But the rise of horror comics and theĀ publication of Dr. Werthamās best-selling manifesto,Ā Seduction of the Innocent, led to a far more intense fight. Following Bill Gainesā disastrous testimony before the SenateāsĀ 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 himselfāāhis motives, his history and his testimony.ā If there was a powerful, popular figure to take on, Lev would rush in to do it.
During the comics industryās internal debate over how to respond to the Senate hearings, Lev managed to prevent his colleagues from banning the word ācrimeā 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 āgruesome behavior.ā Along with the rise of television and other changes in American society, Levās titles simply could not survive these sorts of restrictions. Within a year of the Codeās promulgation, Lev discontinuedĀ Crime Does Not Pay. By the end of March 1955, the offices ofĀ Lev Gleason Publicationsāwhere Lev had been based since 1943āwere 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 Yorkāand 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 newĀ DaredevilĀ 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. āThe secret,ā Lee concluded, “is Charlie Biro.ā) As for Biroās partner, I can only imagine how Lev must have felt in August 1958Ā when he read that Bob Wood was under arrest for beating a woman to death at the Irving Hotel in Gramercy Parkāthe āCartoonistās Last Horror Strip,ā according to theĀ 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 Harvardās Class of 1920 reveals how politically aware he remained. āMy greatest satisfactions have been doing what I can politically to make ours a better country and the world a little more peaceful,ā he wrote. āI have been strongly opposed to the Vietnam War since the outset. And I do hope for better things. Probably because of the efforts of todayās youth, especially the militant ones, who have more guts than we had. When the black people come into full equality and the shooting stopsāwho knowsāthe millennium.ā
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 wouldnāt allow it.