Let’s all eat cake

Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson was born January 7, 1890 marking this year, 2011 as the 121st anniversary of his birth. He often listed his place of birth as Greeneville, Tennessee, the county seat of Greene County in East Tennessee. More than likely he was born at home in the Jonesborough/Johnson City area some 30 or so miles north of Greeneville. East Tennessee is a beautiful rugged area in the Appalachian Mountains home to Daniel Boone and Andrew Johnson the 17th President of the United States. MWN’s grandfather, Christopher Wheeler settled there at the end of the Civil War and went into practice as a physician with Matthew Mahoney with whom he also started the Jonesborough Herald and Review, a newspaper still in existence. MWN wrote about the deep impression his grandfather made upon him as a very young child and romanticized his background in several of his earlier adventure stories. Christopher Wheeler was apparently a good horseman, riding horseback through the Tennessee hills to attend to his patients. His daughter, Antoinette, MWN’s mother, was also a writer and journalist so it is not surprising that MWN’s first job out of high school would be as a reporter for The Evening Telegram in Portland, Oregon where the family moved at the turn of the last century.

In 1909 MWN was admitted to Manlius Military Academy, a prestigious feeder school for the U.S. Army. He graduated with honors in 2 years instead of the usual 4 and began his military career in 1911 as a 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Cavalry continuing to follow his heritage in the military and horsemanship. That career ended in the last few days of 1922 preceded by a dramatic court martial and an assassination attempt. In between those events MWN served on the US/Mexican border under General Pershing chasing bandits–Pancho Villa, the revolutionary probably among them. He commanded Troop K of the renowned African-American Buffalo soldiers. He then served in the Philippines at Camp Stotsenburg where there were still remnants of the Muslim Moros fighting in the jungles meanwhile training his men in machine gun practice so that world records were broken. In leisure time he played polo and excelled at that as well. In 1915 he went into Military Intelligence.

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His post in 1917 as military attaché to the Japanese Embassy in Khabarovsk in Siberia placed him once again in a unique position to view historic world events. The Major as he came to be called in later life was in the midst of the Bolshevik revolution and saw first-hand the Cossack chiefs who switched allegiance depending on the value to be gained. He was witness as well to the strategies and movements of troops of the Chinese, Japanese and Bolshevik revolutionaries. He wrote many stories about this extraordinary time in world history some of which are thinly veiled real life accounts. Although he had admiration for the horsemanship of the Cossacks he found their treatment of the peasants abhorrent and almost all his stories contain somewhat graphic depictions of the Cossack cruelty. When armistice occurred at the end of WWI he was transferred to France and was eventually sent to the Ecole Superior in Paris. He was later attached to the London Embassy and the American Cavalry on the Rhine.

©respective holders

In 1920 while still in the Army in Paris he met and married Elsa Karolina Bjoerkbom, a beautiful Swedish woman of aristocratic background. He proposed to her at the Eiffel Tower and to keep everything in fairy tale alignment they were married in the Kaiser’s Chapel, Church of the Palace in Coblenz, Germany under the crossed swords of his fellow officers. Sometime during this period in Europe MWN became increasingly frustrated by Army bureaucracy and by the end of 1921 he was in a battle royale with the US Army over what he termed Prussianism in the Army. He wrote a letter to President Harding in August 1921 and the attempted assassination upon his life at Fort Dix in November 1921 indicated he had struck a nerve somewhere in that vast bureaucracy just as his comrade Colonel Billy Mitchell did during the same period. While he was recovering from the wounds at Walter Reed Hospital a court martial ensued. He was acquitted of all charges with the exception of the published letter to Harding and was discharged in very late December of 1922.

MWN published his first book in 1922, Modern Cavalry and he began writing adventure stories for the pulps, most based on his own exploits in the military. The earliest story I’ve found so far is in McClure’s Magazine, August 1924. He went on to write at least 117 short stories, serials, novellas and novels appearing in 142 editions of 32 magazine titles. That doesn’t include the reprints, the foreign editions, (some in Spanish as well as English) nor the pseudonyms of which there are at least 2. There were also 2 hard cover mystery novels and at least 2 paperbacks. MWN’s non-fiction includes Modern Cavalry and during WWII, 3 well-received hard cover books of political and military writing as well as numerous articles in Harpers and Look among others. His writing career spanned most of his adult life from approximately 1922-1956.

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In addition to his writing he also had two significant publishing ventures. In 1925 he published short pieces and comic strips for syndication. MWN wrote many of the scripts and Robert Louis Stevenson scholars count him as the first person to produce RLS in comic strip format and the first person to produce RLS in a comic book. He hired well-know writers and artists but was unable to financially support his creative ideas and a year or so later turned back to writing for the pulps.

In 1928 to 1930 with his growing family now consisting of 4 children, he returned to France where the family had an apartment in Paris and rented an ancient chateau in Vic sur Aisnes north of Paris. With the onset of the Great Depression the family was forced to return to the US and a 5th child was born. By 1933 he had begun work on his new venture—comic books with all original scripts and art work. He published New Fun and More Fun soon hiring Siegel and Shuster as well as Bob Kane among others and created Action Comics and Detective Comics–DC–based on the pulps he knew and loved. There are several excellent earlier attempts at original comic books but it is Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson who established the modern comic book pretty much as we know it today. It was his vision and ability to recognize talent and hire many of the people that are honored as the pioneers of this truly American artform. The Major created the template that enabled this fledgling industry to survive. He had all the ingredients of the entrepreneur—the vision, the drive and the creativity. What he lacked was a basic understanding of the details of business. Like so many creative people he simply was not a businessman.

© respective holders. From Jon Berk Collection.

Unfortunately he was not wise in his choice of business partners–Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz who had a history of amassing product and companies in a somewhat ruthless manner. By 1938 against the backdrop of the financial difficulties of the Great Depression he was forced under controversial circumstances from the company he founded. It took him some time to recover from this terrible blow and the loss of the character that he believed in so passionately–Superman. He then went on to write non-fiction books and continued writing for the pulps.

In the latter part of his life on a trip to Sweden he discovered several formulas for industrial paint applications, purchased them and returned to the states to develop them. Like the proverbial dad from an early television sitcom, the Major spent the beginning years of the 1950’s teaching himself basic chemistry and cooking up the formulas in the family kitchen. This frequently resulted in low comedy with explosions and black soot everywhere. However, like everything else in his life he persisted until he prevailed and eventually attracted the interest of a Wall Street consortium. After agonizing over the contractual details, at the last minute, perhaps due to what happened with his comic book venture he walked away and refused to sign.

He appeared to have no regrets about the choices in his life, seemed not to be bitter and lived out his days surrounded by his family with his wife, Elsa whom he adored at his side. Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson died in September of 1965. His life was a continual quest and much of his writing is based on his own adventures. He loved history and carefully researched his stories based on historical events including the Crusades and Middle Ages. Even now some 60-70 years later that research holds up under scholarly scrutiny.

The Major c. 1948 in Sweden. © Finn Andreen.

Ron Goulart said of him that he faded away like many an old soldier. Fortunately that is no longer true. The above is a bare outline of the rich life my grandfather lived. The family myth is only a backdrop. It is  the details all based on solid methodical research that bring the picture to life. I’m very proud of my grandfather’s talent as a writer and his amazing contributions to modern popular culture. Every hard won fact adds to the epic story of this extraordinary man, a prolific creative artist who lived a life of great adventure. Happy Birthday, Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, we salute you.

About Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson

Writer/Editor and Publisher for over 20 years with a Master's Degree in Classical Greek Mythology and Theatre. Perfect for writing about Comics!
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3 Responses to Let’s all eat cake

  1. Dr. Robert Wettemann says:

    Dear Ms. Brown-

    I am a military historian currently conducting research into your grandfather, particularly the 1922 episode in which he wrote to President Harding. I am currently pursuing as much information as I can about this episode in efforts to try and get a better sense at what drove your grandfather to write his letter, and how his actions were viewed in a larger historical context. What sort of information does the family possess regarding this episode? At the same time, I am extremely interested in his military record, as I would like to develop a better sense of his experiences and how they might have shaped his perspective on the world. I have reviewed your fine website as well as Facebook page, and have collected a fair bit of material regarding Major Wheeler-Nicholson, but would like to move beyond what is purely available in the public domain and contact the family directly.

    Thank you, and I look forward to hearing from you.

    • Nicky Brown says:

      Bob, I hope this doesn’t draw moths to the flame as it were but I didn’t want to leave your wonderful comments floating out in space. Check in with you soon.

  2. Crisdel Aguila says:

    Dear Ms. Brown,

    My name is Crisdel Aguila, and I am a student who is doing a National History Day (NHD) research paper on your grandfather. This year’s NHD theme is ‘Leadership and Legacy in History’. I am trying to retain as much information as possible on how your grandfather was leader during his military career, and the legacy he left behind such as DC Comics. I have read your very helpful websites and was able to get a lot of information regarding your grandfather. I was wondering if there was any way I could get more information on the leadership roles he played and more in depth information on the legacy he left behind. Any pictures, documents, books, or information will be greatly appreciated. If it is not much trouble, I wish to keep in contact with you as I conduct my research for additional help. Thank you very much for your time and consideration.

    I am looking forward to hearing back from you.

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