JAIL TALES

Prison Made Me a Screenwriter!

"Prison Made Me a Screenwriter!"
JOHN MATTOS
In the 1920s and 1930s, Ernest Granville Booth made a name for himself as a criminal and as one of Hollywood’s most sought-after writers.

In the 1937 Warner Bros. picture San Quentin, Pat O’Brien plays a military captain named Stephen Jameson, newly appointed the prison’s warden. Midway through the film, he is seen visiting inmates. One, Simpson, is known in the joint as “the writer.” He has a typewriter in his cell and is played by a good-looking actor, Dennis Moore.

Jameson

Writing, eh? How’s the story going?

Simpson

Fine, Captain. I’m about finished. Here, read this.

Jameson

Well, I’ll wait till after it’s published. You know, I never could understand how a man with your brains would ever end up in a place like this.

Simpson

Well, I couldn’t live on rejection slips. I didn’t start getting accepted until I got in here.

Jameson

Mmm. Maybe the address impressed them.

In the next shot, the warden stops in front of another inmate, Dorgan, who is in for forgery.

Dorgan

I’m a writer, too.

Jameson

Oh, I think I remember now, it’s writing other people’s names on checks now, is it?

Dorgan

Right, Captain. Trouble is, I retired so long, I got out of practice.

No fewer than eight writers were put to work on San Quentin. The purchase price of the story was expensive: $18,901—almost as much as what the star of the picture was getting, and certainly more than what the other featured players cost ($2,750 for Humphrey Bogart, a paltry $450 for Ann Sheridan, who even sang for her supper in this one). Screenplay credit for this routine Lloyd Bacon picture went to Humphrey Cobb and Peter Milne, but the original story was by John Bright and Robert Tasker. Bright was the better known of the two. In the early 1930s, he and his partner Kubec Glasmon had been so successful writing stories for James Cagney that Warner Bros. featured their names prominently on publicity materials, a practice unheard of at the time. But then, Cagney’s The Public Enemy had been a huge hit in 1931, and Bright went on writing for the actor until he ran afoul of Warner Bros. production chief Darryl F. Zanuck, who fired him for “personal reasons.”

If the cocky young Bright knew the underworld only vicariously (through Glasmon, an ex-pharmacist whose drugstore had been a gangster hangout in Chicago), his new partner, Tasker, was the real deal. He based the jailbird writer in San Quentin on himself.

There was a time, between 1927 and 1929, when Tasker and fellow inmate Ernest Granville Booth had had such a grasp on the Hollywood market for crime stories that they’d had to split the pie between them—Tasker sticking to prison stories, Booth to knockover yarns filled with gunfire and babes. While imprisoned, Booth made more than $28,000 from Hollywood. The gravy was so thick that other cons, in both Q and Folsom, wanted in. One, “a shriveled little ex-jockey” named Joe Mackin was described in a piece by Jim Tully for the American Mercury as having “the seeds of a writer about to germinate in his head, doing a fifteen year jolt for highway robbery.”

The jailhouse writing craze got so out of hand, the authorities had to clamp down. A March 29, 1928, article in the San Francisco Examiner opened with an exasperated quote from Judge C.E. McLaughlin, a member of California’s State Board of Prison Directors: “We’re running prisons, not literary bureaus. The board has no time or disposition to read this material and see that it is in proper shape.”

Stricter regulations did not prevent cons from writing in their spare time, the report went on, but it did prevent them from submitting their stories outside while still in stir. Booth and Tasker “have recently been taken under the literary wing of H.L. Mencken, editor of the American Mercury. Warden Smith disclosed today that three motion picture concerns are now negotiating for film rights to one Booth Mercury article entitled ‘We Rob a Bank.’ And Warden Holohan at San Quentin confirmed that a dozen convicts were preparing material with an eye on the outside market. ‘It all started with the Bulletin, and that short-story contest in which Tasker won first prize out of 400 entries from prisoners.’ ”

The Bulletin, Q’s inmate-edited journal, kept on going well after the ban, but it declined sharply after Tasker got sprung by his famous literary mentor. It was scrapped for good in June 1936, on the decision of Court Smith, the new warden: “It had become too intellectual and superior for some time now, less and less inmates read it. The funds allowed to the Bulletin will go to the Sport News instead, and to the organization of boxing matches.”

JOHN MATTOS

Of the California penal system’s two star writers, Ernest Granville Booth is certainly the more colorful, even if he left a lesser mark on film history than fellow inmate Robert Tasker. We know Tasker, if at all, through the romantic image painted by his old partner John Bright in his writings and interviews. Tasker’s name is found in newspaper society columns as well as in more than a dozen film credits. By contrast, Ernest Booth—alias Ernest G. Granville, alias Roy W. Reeves, alias Ray Reeves—cut a swath mainly on police blotters. He switched jailhouse numbers like others do post office boxes: 44016 was his number at the Los Angeles city jail, 349077 at the county jail; to the FBI he was suspect number 12558; at San Quentin he was prisoner 42601, at Folsom 13332; at the Oakland city jail he was 9530, in Portland 3192, in Stockton 4258, and in Berkeley 497. These were the numbers of a career criminal, which even Mencken ultimately found “discouraging.”

Born in 1898, Booth started his career at 14, with a break-in that earned him a two-year juvie stretch in Ione, near Sacramento. Soon after turning 18, he was arrested in Oroville for stealing a car. In 1924, on the day he married Valdera Milliken, he knocked over a bank in Oakland, threatening the clerks with what the local press called an “ammonia bomb.” He spent his honeymoon in Folsom, alone. Ultimately, he got transferred to San Quentin, where he met Tasker, who by this time was editor of the Bulletin. Both were soon writing for Mencken, who loved the romance of their rough lives even more than discovering new talent. Although Mencken privately thought Tasker “much lighter stuff than Booth,” he also found him a better writer and prospect for parole.

Pulling strings with “a few governors he knew,” Mencken managed to have Tasker released on parole in December 1929. He still had doubts about the more hardened Booth. In November 1931, Valdera, Booth’s brother, and an old cellmate named Warren Mulvey were arrested in the prison administration building in Sacramento attempting to steal Booth’s prison record and replace it with a fake one. The dim plot landed the brother in prison for 10 months. Valdera got a suspended sentence, and Mulvey went back to Folsom for another five years.

Writer John Fante, who was living in nearby Roseville at the time, knew the prison doctor at Folsom (Booth transferred back and forth between there and San Quentin) and wrote to Mencken about another of Booth’s spectacularly inept capers: “It seems Booth has been trying to convince the medicos that he belongs to the TB ward. According to the doc, he went so far as to bring to the hospital the sputum of a bona fide sufferer, claiming it to be his own, but the deception was discovered. Now, ironically enough, Booth has got tuberculosis! The doc is not very sympathetic, feeling that, now that Booth is a sick man, the best place for him is Folsom.”

The parole bureau thought otherwise, releasing him in the spring of 1937. Reporting on this, the Oakland Tribune ran a picture of him with the caption he’ll be back. Booth settled in Placerville with Valdera and wrote “treatments” for Warner Bros. But he found this tough going, and the paltry $50-a-week checks he sometimes got from Burbank were a startling change from the heady days of the late 1920s, when Paramount had shelled out $15,000 for his story “Ladies of the Mob” (William A. Wellman made the film, starring Clara Bow and Richard Arlen, in 1928). In 1930, Metro had bought the rights to his published autobiography, Stealing Through Life, which Rowland Brown adapted, intending to direct (the film was never made).

Humphrey Bogart (left) and Pat O’Brien in the movie San Quentin, cowritten by John Bright and ex-convict Robert Tasker.ALAMY
Humphrey Bogart (left) and Pat O’Brien in the movie San Quentin, cowritten by John Bright and ex-convict Robert Tasker.

Pick-up, the picture Paramount made in 1933 out of his story “Ladies in Stir,” was such a success for director Marion Gering and star Sylvia Sidney that the pair went on to make three more together for B.P. Schulberg. But in 1937, the terms of his parole forbade Booth from writing about the only thing he knew: crime and prison. Instead he slaved over desultory assignments like Fremont the Pathfinder. A year later, however, his parole over, he was living on Russell Avenue in Hollywood churning out story treatments with telltale names like This Man Must Die and You Might Be Next. He served as technical adviser on Men of San Quentin (1942), and fellow studio hack Horace McCoy wrote a script from Booth’s play Women Without Names, which Robert Florey directed in 1940 for Paramount. But during all this, Booth was supplementing his movie income the only way he knew how. In 1941, he was questioned about the murder of a dowager bludgeoned to death and robbed in her Los Angeles home. He was released after spending two days in jail for carrying a gun. But by 1947, the jig was up, as this March 18 flash in the Daily Police Bulletin indicated:

Suspect in company of John J. Sedlak—probably driving Studebaker sedan, 1946; registered to Eulah Sedlak, used on several hold-ups. Suspect uses narcotics and is armed with a .32 or .38 caliber blue steel revolver. Known associates are in Hollywood and around Third and Figueroa—Hold—We will extradite.

Booth was finally arrested by the FBI at Musso & Frank Grill. His police description reads like something out of James Ellroy:

WMA—48 years old, 5 foot 11, 160 lbs—blue eyes, brown-gray hair, receding hairline, high forehead, slender build, hollow cheeks (TB), dimple in chin, turkey neck, slightly stooped, walks with slight limp. Usually wears blue pin-striped suits. When operating, talks with gruff voice. Has been employed by Warner Bros. studio and as camera repairman for Don Blietz Camera Shop in Hollywood. Has habit of flashing large bills.

Booth had been wanted for questioning on an old 1943 case, a burglary at the Portland Cement Company involving $250,000 in stolen bearer bonds. But the police found he’d also been behind a series of bank robberies in and around Los Angeles, including at the Atlas Federal Savings and Loan in Pasadena, from which he took $2,100. A judge set his bail at $50,000, and as early as July 1947, he was back in the alma mater, as several newspaper banners screamed. Ernest Granville Booth didn’t finish his latest 20-year stretch. He died in 1959, in a prison in Washington. Upon his last arrest—his 26th—the New York Mirror wrote quite convincingly: “E.G. Booth always had difficulty deciding whether to write about crime or go out and commit one. He tried both, and both occupations paid him well.”

French journalist Philippe Garnier has been writing about Hollywood for more than 30 years. He is the author of seven books, including Honni Soit Qui Malibu: Quelque Écrivains à Hollywood and Caractères. He lives in Los Angeles.

Excerpted from Scoundrels & Spitballers: Writers and Hollywood in the 1930s, by Philippe Garnier, published by Black Pool Productions. © 2020 Philippe Garnier.

"Scoundrels & Spitballers: Writers and Hollywood in the 1930s" by Philippe Garnier

SCOUNDRELS & SPITBALLERS: WRITERS AND HOLLYWOOD IN THE 1930S

• By Philippe Garnier
• Black Pool Productions, 370 pages, $25

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