The Elusive Pulp Writer Rarely Spoke About His Most Famous Creation.
Johnston McCulley with Guy Williams in Disney TV Promo.
Johnston McCulley created one of the most enduring and iconic pop culture characters of the 20th Century.
I speak, of course, of Zorro.
The guy was incredibly prolific. He wrote almost 1,000 stories for the pulps. His career stretched almost 50 years (b. 1883; died 1958). His first stories began getting space in magazines like All-Story and the Railroad Men’s Magazine in 1906 to 1907. He read voraciously, claiming to go through a dozen books a week; in addition, he read the magazines to keep up on writing trends. He worked hard; really hard.
“The beginner,” McCulley said in one interview, “is going to have many of his manuscripts returned, but that is no reason why he should quit.” McCulley learned to write for his audience. “The novice can gain much by reading much. He must get some idea of how others do it — don’t copy them, but get into the swing of telling a story the way the public likes it to be told. This swing can best be understood from reading popular stories or books, that have met with instant favor by the public. The story itself of course is the big feature, but the way it is told is ninety per cent of the success of the writer.”
McCulley always loved giving writerly advice. Most of his interviews, few as they were, always focused on craft. He did one interview with Writer’s Digest, about how the new Western couldn’t be told with the old tropes. Zorro was just different enough as a “Western story” to appeal to public taste.
Zorro wasn’t his first, or only, character with a dual-identity. One of his early characters was Madame Madcap, a mask-wearing bon vivant who actually was bent on revenge against naughty, abusive men. It was called The Masked Woman, and it was published in 1920. But there were others. McCulley created pulp stories with characters such as The Green Ghost, The Black Star, The Thunderbolt, The Bat, The Mongoose, the Man in Purple, The Spider, and even the Crimson Clown. The guy loved animal alter-egos.
Zorro, in other words, was just one of many. It’s as if McCulley played with the alter-ego/mask idea and finally had huge success with Zorro. “Love, hate, greed, revenge, self-sacrifice,” he said in one 1923 interview, “have a million angles each. Combine two or three, mix with a few characters and you have a plot.” The kind of story easiest for him was of the Zorro variety, he said. “Swift-moving romance is the easiest, particularly of olden times.”
Johnston McCulley appeared on the gameshow, To Tell the Truth near the end of his life. (The McCulley segment begins at 17:00 minutes). The panel is supposed to guess who the real personality is; in this case, three guys come out in police lineup style and say they are “Johnston McCulley — the creator of Zorro.” The panelists — which include an eerily young Dick Clark — ask the three guys questions in order to figure out who the real McCulley is.
At one point, one of the panelists asks McCulley about his inspiration for Zorro. When I first saw this clip I literally held my breath…
But then: THE STUPID PANELISTS SHUT DOWN THE WOMAN’S QUESTION!!
“Oh, yes, how ridiculous to ask where he got his idea,” the male panelist guffaws. Dang it.
Watch the video.
Feel my pain.
Trying to find Zorro’s origins is partly a story about Johnston McCulley — a man who took Mexican legends and crafted his most famous creation.