Writing by Coal Oil Lamps, Editors in Exile, and Exposing the German American Bund: A Few Stories from the Career of William C. Lengel

When I began working on the papers of author, editor, and literary agent, William C. Lengel (1888-1965), the assumption I had was that Lengel and his relationship to author Theodore Dreiser is what researchers would probably find most interesting. From their standpoint as authors, Dreiser’s work is still in publication and remains of interest to academics and others, whereas Lengel’s body of work, including five published novels, is mostly forgotten. Whether or not Lengel’s writing deserves more attention is difficult to say, but what I discovered in processing his papers is that it contains considerably more of interest beyond what it reveals about Theodore Dreiser.

William C. Lengel in 1958.

William Lengel, better known as Bill, spent over half a century working in the magazine and book publishing business, as well as being a literary agent and author, so it’s unsurprising that he corresponded with many people from the same circles. A good amount of this correspondence is concerned with routine business, but I also discovered some very revealing conversations and one very surprising topic while working on this collection.

For example, Lengel spent a number of years working at Cosmopolitan Magazine for Ray Long, who was its editor-in-chief. Their correspondence reveals a close working relationship and offers insight into how the business of this successful magazine was handled in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Despite this success, Ray Long fell on hard times and fled to Tahiti to escape his troubles from 1932 to 1933. Long seems to have burned some metaphorical bridges in the process, but he and Lengel remained close, which can be seen in the letters they exchanged during this time. In between passages in which Long marvels at what life is like in Tahiti, he continues to look forward to working with his friend again, writing:

And Bill, I get a terrific thrill out of the idea that before long you and I should be working together again. I know damn well that I am at least twenty-five percent better when you and I can bat ideas and hunches back and forth to each other.

Hard times of another sort are revealed in correspondence received by Lengel from author and playwright, Harry Hervey. Writing in 1939, Hervey says that his electricity had been shut off for over a week and that he was forced to write by the light of coal-oil lamps and candles. If he cannot quickly acquire $100, he expects to lose his apartment.

Bill, I beg you to do what you can. But, at all odds, wire me immediately – even if you have to wire ‘Go to hell.’

This is not the letter of a normal person. It is the letter of a person temporarily unbalanced.

A series of correspondence follows in which Bill Lengel endeavors to help Hervey. He writes to Greystone Press and to creditors that are owed money trying to broker a deal, but to no avail. Greystone’s reply to Lengel is the candid sort found between trusted colleagues, saying, “It is not that we do not appreciate the efforts you have made to get his affairs in order but that we dread his further activities.” After discussing how much they had spent on Hervey’s last book, which evidently had been, “no ball of fire,” they conclude that Hervey is “not worth the trouble.”

Judging by the correspondence, Harry Hervey’s fortunes didn’t improve for over a year, but the fact that it did seems to be in some part due to Lengel’s persistent efforts. On December 30, 1940 he finalized an agreement for Warner Brothers to purchase the rights to Hervey’s book, The Damned Don’t Cry, for $2,500. (About $52,000 in 2023 dollars.)

The most surprising discovery in the William C. Lengel papers was finding a folder that contained swastikas and pro-Nazi Germany content. These items were found along with correspondence between Lengel and Fritz Max Cahén, who I learned was an anti-Nazi activist and German citizen living in the United States. Cahén used his connections and knowledge as a German to infiltrate groups such as The Friends of New Germany and the German American Bund for the purpose of exposing their plans and ideology.

Bill Lengel commissioned Cahén in 1939 to write, “eighteen to twenty thousand words,” on his experiences for Liberty Magazine, describing in a July 6th letter that “Liberty expects four startling, legitimately sensational factual articles revealing the inside workings and activities of the THE BUND, and showing dramatically, the menace to the United States of these activities.”

There is a lot of good writing and a lot of good stuff in this present version, but the piece is not well organized for a magazine like Liberty.

FACTS! FACTS! FACTS! Their significance, their importance, and their menace!

Titled, I Joined the Bund, and published as a four-part series beginning on September 23, 1939, the articles elaborate on Cahén’s time masquerading as a loyal devotee of Adolph Hitler’s Germany. In it, Cahén describes being required to sign an admission statement upon joining the Friends of New Germany. One of these statements, albeit blank, is included with Cahén’s correspondence, which reads in part:

I hereby declare my entry into the federation. I am aware of the purpose and goals of the federation and I undertake to support them unreservedly. I recognize the leader’s principle according to which the federation is managed. I am of Aryan descent, free from any Jewish or colored race.”

These examples provide some insight into the research value that the William C. Lengel papers offers for further study. Anyone interested in the publishing industry of the mid-twentieth century or the myriad ways that it intersects with the literature and culture of its time will most likely find more stories such as these. As is so often the case with archival collections, there is a lot more waiting to be discovered than may appear to be the case at first glance.

The finding aid for The William C. Lengel papers can be accessed here:


Please visit  https://www.library.upenn.edu/kislak/access for information on accessing the collection.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: