“No Eunuch Ever Wrote a Book”
Peter B. Gemma
That was the late novelist Taylor Caldwell’s take on her phenomenally successful career, but she is no longer a well-known name among avid fiction readers. Then again, who hears much about Irving Wallace or even John Dos Passos these days?
Among fiction writers who hold the all time record of appearing on the New York Times bestseller list, Taylor Caldwell is in position number five (Tom Clancy is ninth; Dr. Seuss logs in at 17). At one point, Fawcett Publishing House had 25 million paperback copies of 25 of her titles in print, including two that were serialized for television, “Captains and the Kings” and “Testimony of Two Men” (4.5 million and 2.7 million copies respectively).
She was too easily dismissed as a prudish romance novelist (but grudgingly with talent)—and a politically incorrect one at that. Her 1947 book, “There was a Time,” earned this observation from The Saturday Review: “I have read two others of Miss Caldwell’s books … Their subject matter often seemed unimportant, often sensational and meretricious; but the characters in them lived and had vitality, and there was a certain haunting fascination about them that lent an irresistible credibility to their fates.”
It was her political incorrectness that was the real rub for reviewers. For example, her 1968 novel “Testimony of Two Men” was written up by Eugene Linehan in Best Sellers magazine: “The long speeches of various actors within it decrying income taxes, socialization, the liberal views of Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and a host of others—(especially those quotations from the classical authors and all supporting the author’s thesis that America is on the threshold of awful decay because of our coddling of the poor and our foreign involvements) is just too much to bear. … I really do not think this is the field for the novelist, but rather for the campaign platform,” he asserted, and then this rejoinder: “But it is fascinating and the author writes well.”
How politically incorrect was she? Try this: “The past two or three generations of Americans have made eunuchs of their sons—now afflicting us in government and on the campuses—and Butches of their daughters, or at least slovens with dirty feet. Americans have been smothering their children with the syrup of ‘tender, loving care’ instead of driving character into their backs like a ramrod.”
The Los Angeles Times once observed, “Over the years, Taylor Caldwell’s literary output had led opponents to call her everything from ‘feminist revolutionary’ to ‘right-wing hack,’ while earning her a fortune from book sales that evoked the words ‘miracle’ and ‘Godsend’ and ‘master storyteller’ from publishers and the reading public.”
Born in Manchester England, Janet Miriam Holland Taylor Caldwell was Scotch-Irish, descended from the Scottish clan of MacGregor of which the Taylors are a subsidiary clan. In 1907, at the age of seven, her family emigrated to the United States. She says she wrote her first novel at the age of twelve. “The very first [of my books] was a fairly lurid tale of seduction in the time of Nero—you know, the kind of thing I still like best—copiously and luridly illustrated,” she declared, “My father read it, an early critic, looked at the drawings, picked up the whole armful and disappeared in the direction of the furnace.”
She went to work at 15 in a factory, continuing her education in the evening while still squeezing in time for writing. Caldwell married at age 18 and gave birth to a daughter the next year. In 1932, she graduated from the University of Buffalo, divorced, and married Marcus Reback, her husband of nearly 40 years with whom she had a second daughter.
Caldwell had to wait until she was 38 before a publisher accepted her first novel, although she had already penned many books. “Dynasty of Death” centered around two families whose small munitions factory evolved into a powerful multi-national empire—a sweeping saga stretching from the 1830s to the eve of World War I. Her characters were embedded in what political writers and investigative journalists now call the military-industrial complex. Caldwell’s publishers thought such a book would not be taken seriously with an author named Janet Reback, so they chose her more masculine sounding middle names of Taylor Caldwell as a nom de plume. It worked. The Saturday Review noted, “The armaments industry is a subject which fiction does well to take up; and Mr. Caldwell’s attack is handled with the patience and skill of a prosecuting attorney.”
Later novels, “The Eagles Gather” (1940) and “The Final Hour” (1944), continued the multigenerational story up until the Second World War. As with her initial book in the series, they were instant best sellers.
In “The Eagles Gather” there is a sample of what her critics would berate as inserting her political views into a good story—with a hammer. Just after the First World War, an influential arms merchant gives an international banker a reality check:
Banker: “I’m not interested in your damned armaments just now. We’ve lent billions to the allies. We’ve got to get it back. They won’t be able to pay us back if they re-arm again.’ … Jules [the arms merchant] smiled cynically. ‘Do you actually believe they’ll really pay their debts? For a few years perhaps, if we’re lucky. You’ve talked before of forcing Germany to pay reparations. Go ahead! … Strip Germany, and you let a hungry wolf loose in Europe, against which other nations will be compelled to re-arm.”
Note: although it was published just before the Second World War, she wrote the book, like many others, years earlier.
The arms merchant continues his forecast:
“We are the masters now. … If we want wars, you’ll finance them … If we want peace, you’ll finance that too, but I tell you it’ll cost you more for peace than it will for war. Desperation creates strange rulers. The desperate nations of Europe will set rulers over them that will take the money of financers without the formality of asking. …”
Caldwell’s not done yet.
“They’ll be no peace. We don’t dare have peace. … Let them sign treaties and talk peace. Let the allies extract reparations and ‘reconstruct’ Germany and her allies. Let there be leagues formed for peace and consultations and conferences. But I tell you, the more talk there is of peace, the busier will be the armaments factories.”
Taylor Caldwell was a prolific and popular writer: she produced 40 books in 42 years (many were written years before they were published and held in line for release). “This Side of Innocence” (typical Caldwell theme: war, secret police, unrequited love), was the number one novel in 1946 and set a book club record by selling over a million copies as a Literary Guild selection. Like most of her output, it was published before the current plethora of radio and TV talk show venues, slick mass marketing campaigns, and, of course, the internet. To date, well over 30 million copies of her books have been sold.
Her novels were heavy, often 600-700 pages or more, and usually pitted flawed characters with ambitions for power, money, and fame against stalwarts upholding the values of love, justice, and integrity. Many of Caldwell’s characters were self-made men of distinct ethnic backgrounds, such as the penniless German immigrant (“The Balance Wheel,” 1951) who climbs to dizzying financial heights during America’s contentious agrarian-to-industrialization era and an Irish patriarch (“Captains and the Kings,” 1972) whose rags-to-riches story strongly resembles the formidable Kennedy dynasty.
Her novels always contain allusions to—or straight out accusations of—powerful special interests that dominate and manipulate honest businessmen and earnest politicians. The prologue to the 800-page “Captains and the Kings,” states:
“The historical background and the political background of this novel are authentic. … It is not a new story, and the conspirators and conspiracies have varied from era to era, depending on the political or economic situation in their various countries. But it was not until the era of the League of Just Men and Karl Marx that conspirators and conspiracies became one, with one aim, one objective, and one determination. This has nothing to do with any ‘ideology’ or form of government …The Caesars they put into power are their creatures, whether they know it or not … A bibliography ends this book, and I hope many of my readers will avail themselves of the facts. That is all the hope I have.”
That bibliography listed books ranging from exposés of the Bilderberger cabal to the secretive workings of the U.S. Federal Reserve to the machinations of the Council on Foreign Relations (the American counterpart to Britain’s Round Table).
Some of Caldwell’s novels were set in ancient Rome or Greece, or in the days of Christ. A quote from Cicero, the main character portrayed in her 1965 novel “Pillar of Iron,” has bounced around the Internet so much that it is often attributed to the Roman politician/philosopher himself:
“The budget should be balanced, the Treasury should be refilled, public debt should be reduced, the arrogance of officialdom should be tempered and controlled, and the assistance to foreign lands should be curtailed lest Rome become bankrupt. People must again learn to work, instead of living on public assistance.”
Writers are expected to have eccentricities—Tom Wolfe, Oscar Wilde, J.D. Salinger, etc.—and Caldwell was no exception. She is said to have written in the nude, smoked three to four packs of cigarettes a day through most of her adult life, and was a two-fisted drinker (straight Bourbon)—that was so she did not have to shake hands at parties. Caldwell preferred white book covers and titles with four words, which she considered lucky. She claimed to possess “automatic writing,” channeling certain “spirits” to help her depict people, professions, and places with special insight. Of course she could be outrageous: “The one good thing Mussolini did was to take away the right of women to vote.” And she was married four times, twice after Marcus Reback died, the last to a former Trappist monk 17 years her junior.
Her temper was legendary—often resulting in incendiary letters sent to literary critics and political enemies. Commentator Walter Winchell told this story: “Taylor Caldwell invited the Duchess of Windsor for a luncheon with fifteen others. The Duchess’ secretary phoned to ask what transportation was being used, and Taylor Caldwell said her husband would drive over to pick up the Duchess. The secretary replied, ‘I’m sorry, but your husband is Jewish and the Duchess does not mix socially with Jews.’ Taylor Caldwell then exploded, ‘Tell the Duchess, I am Dutch Protestant and I don’t mix socially with prostitutes!’” (On of many Caldwell contradictions: she claimed, most times, to be Catholic or an agnostic).
Then there’s her take on children. “Children are not as important as the man in your life,” she told People magazine in 1976, adding: “I don’t believe that they should be allowed to eat with their parents until they are 21.” In another interview, Margaret Mead’s name came up and Caldwell remembered this incident: “She [Mead] became a big feminist. About 20 years ago she wrote an article, I think it was for Cosmopolitan, and said women should devote all their time to nurturing their holy goddamn children. She named me and Edna Ferber—said we’d be much happier if we just nurtured children. I wrote her a flaming letter. I said what about women who are not mommies? Not all women are mommies. I have two children of my own, but I was never a mommy. I said I don’t like children, I never wanted any children—they’re a waste of time. And they become your mortal enemies.” Sadly, Caldwell disinherited both of her daughters.
Caldwell dabbled in reincarnation. “If genetic memory or racial memory persists, is it possible that individual memory also exists from previous lives?” She allowed spiritualist Jess Stern to “regress” her into “previous lives,” and gave him permission to publish a book on the sessions (“The Search for a Soul: Taylor Caldwell’s Psychic Lives”). Later, she dismissed the experience: “When you’re dead, you’re dead. At least, I hope there’s no such thing as reincarnation. I wouldn’t want to come back here. I’ve had it.” But her disavowal came with a little mystery. “I see no proof of reincarnation. I have thought I have seen spirits or ghosts on occasions and they have spoken to me. But it’s probably a delusion. So much of life is. One of the things that amuse me about many who believe in reincarnation is that they are firmly convinced they were … great and notorious beauties or geniuses. … It is human nature, I suppose, to rebel at ordinariness, and if the one life is drab, people daydream of bygone or future splendors.” Caldwell, the world famous author, remembered her “previous lives” as an 18th century servant girl who was raped and killed before she turned 14; as one “Lucy Moss,” who lived in Reddish, England but did not know the year because she drowned at age five; and as “Jeannie McGill,” a servant girl to Mary Ann Evans, who wrote under the pen name of George Eliot. “McGill” was sent to a workhouse at age 16 on the charge of stealing a ring—there she committed suicide.
Caldwell’s morbid regression fantasies reflect her real life melancholy. “The human race is not very admirable. It was a big mistake of God’s,” she once mused. “The more I see of people, the more bitter I become. I think I appeal to readers because there’s nothing false or hypocritical in what I write. And they recognize themselves, and recognize their fears. And they know what bastards they are.”
Her fatalism gets much worse:
• “The world is a penal institution.”
• “I have had four happy days in my life, and three of them turned out to be illusions.”
• “My life has been tragic and disastrous since birth.”
• “If there is a God, then he was particularly harsh to me.”
This is the same woman who is best known for her inspirational stories and who also observed, “The feeble soul merely whines and complains [but] the stalwart soul has the will to live and is eager for the race.” She once asserted, “Fight for your God, your civilization, and your children. If anybody says stop ... use a mace on them.” She relished controversy and contradictions.
Caldwell’s political affiliations started out in the mainstream of conservatism and moved sharply to the right. She was one of 10 founding members of the New York Conservative Party and wrote for William Buckley’s National Review magazine. But even then she could labast liberals with ease: “I’m perfectly willing to forgive the [liberal] bastards,” she declared in a letter to Buckley, “after I’ve planted a good firecracker in their careers or rectums.” She went from critic to nearly cranky. In a letter to the FBI, she declared, “I am the only major best-selling novelist in the United States who is not tainted by ‘liberalism’ and Communism, and who has never belonged to a Communist front. As a result, the press, which is mainly ‘liberal,’ has been furiously attacking me for years in their alleged ‘reviews.’” She peppered the FBI with letters complaining of harassment by communists and persecution by the Internal Revenue Service. (“The primary purpose of the IRS is not to collect taxes but to force federal controls upon the people, to bribe the obedient and destroy the dissidents, [and] to elicit favors and impoverish independence”). In her long FBI file there is this observation from June of 1968: “… previous experience with Miss Caldwell demonstrates she has a penchant for intermingling fact and fiction …”
She moved on to write for American Opinion magazine, a publication of the John Birch Society, and served as Chair of “Friends of Rhodesia.” In full page newspaper ads the organization claimed, “Thus far the financially hard-pressed British have lost millions because of their sanctions policy; were it not for American financial underpinning, Prime Minister Wilson’s personal vendetta against the Ian Smith government would soon collapse.”
Her devoted readers best remember Taylor Caldwell as the author of books that made an impact and not necessarily her political activities. According to the “Library Thing” website, which claims 1.5 million participants in blogs, reviews, Q&A with authors, etc., Taylor Caldwell holds down four slots in the top 20 list of the most controversial books debated among its members.
Today, her fans are an eclectic bunch, ranging from rocker Stevie Nicks to John Blundell, author of “Margaret Thatcher: A Portrait of the Iron Lady.” One Internet blogger recounts, “As a law student, my homework was to write an essay about [“Pillar of Iron”]. I thought I was not going to finish—it’s huge! But it was worth it.” Another blogger remembers that his book assignments as a medical student had only one fiction title: “Dear and Glorious Physician.”
In 1980 she signed a two-book contract for the tidy sum of $3.9 million—she once again polished up an old manuscript and “Answer as a Man” became the last of her 40 books (scoring first place on the Los Angeles Times fiction list). That same year a stroke left her unable to speak—she had been deaf since 1967 when a burglar broke into her home and pistol-whipped her (he was caught when police identified him by the teeth marks she left in his arm). Taylor Caldwell died on August 30, 1985.
She was proud, to the point of defiance: “I am a Westerner of Westerners!” she said of her heritage. Her ambition to be a writer was honed to a sharp point: “I wanted to acquire an education, work extremely hard, and never deviate from my goal to make it.” And, despite her affinity for melancholia, she wrote about inspiring worldviews: “But what was a body? Dust, dung, urine, itches. It was the light within which was important, and it was not significant if that light endured after death, or if the soul was blinded eternally in the endless night of the suspired flesh.”
More should miss her.
Peter B. Gemma, an award-winning freelance writer, has penned more than 100 commentaries for USA Today and written for such publications as The DailyCaller.com and Military History magazine.