The Orson Steiger Story: The Man, His Legend and His Times
The character of hard boiled fiction Private Eye called Johnny Lacrosse was the brainchild of little known and often ill-tempered, racist, sexist, draft dodging and foul mouthed alcoholic author Orson Steiger. Steiger’s reputation as it stands now due to mainly modern mores rather than any critical assessment of the Pulp Fiction Genre makes him out to be less like a big fish in a small pond and more like a minnow in a lake. I hope the brief summary of the writer’s life below will do much to challenge such narrow minded preconceptions and that his name will now be associated with the written word rather than the misery he wrought on so many people (strangers and loved ones) in his turbulent private life.
If it helps then please imagine that you are watching a Ken Burns documentary and that the voice of Morgan Freeman is gently reading aloud the following chapters.
Chapter 1: The Start Of It All: Early Beginnings.
Orson was born in Texas around 1925 in Spatula County to a well-established family of German-Swiss descent, or as he went to great pains to and liked to claim instead, to a family of pure breed ‘native’ White Americans which had been in the Americas before the United States even existed. After a few drinks he would often even make outlandish claims that they had actually sailed over with the first Viking explorers or even descended from a white tribe of Welsh speaking Indians.
It is now almost certain though given what scant records do survive that his family line descended no later than a German speaking family who had immigrated to the USA in the 1870s and taken up trade at various times as wooden spoon makers, night soil men, village retards and general tinkers and scroungers. Whilst on his mother’s side the family appears to have come from a very mixed background of Poles, Irish, Moors, Eskimos and Spaniards and this seemed to be even more of a constant source of irritation to Orson than his German sounding surname. He was known to fly into a foul rage should it ever be mentioned within the family home.
Orson took up writing when he was in his late teens after a freak accident involving a wasp nest, a bicycle pump and his private parts which left him bedridden, sore, bandaged and bored for many months. He only started to write to keep the utter tedium at bay (and his hands busy on other things) and soon he discovered that he had a rare talent for it, for him it seemed just so easy and as he put it many years later in the 1960s during a phone interview from prison for Playboy-
“I soon realised that I could spin a f*****g yarn and if I threw enough sex into it then people soon forgot how f*****g bad the overall plot was and continued to read at least until the next dirty part which I could drag out into entire F*****g chapters.”
Aged 21 Orson married his childhood sweetheart Deborah Gunther-O’Shea and to please her as well as her dangerously unstable and inbred family he converted to their peculiar own strain of Mormonism which seems only to have existed within the Gunther-O’Shea clan. They bought a small dirt farm close to where they had both grown up and as Orson worked the land for little reward Deborah ate the meagre profits and got fat. Desperate for some cash to support himself and the bizarre extended ‘family’ in which he now belonged Orson took up his pen once again and began to write. With no real schooling to speak of or any true knowledge of the world outside of his rural shit kicker home town of Graceburg, Texas (population 35 excluding livestock) he somehow managed to write a gritty urban detective story set for some reason within Blackpool, England which was so exceptionally detailed that it even fooled the editors of the various magazines he sent the work into who all later admitted that they just assumed he was actually a gnarled world weary established writer in his fifties using a pseudonym for obscure tax reasons or as some great hoax.
The first Johnny Lacrosse story proper was the short ‘From Here to Infirmary’ first published in the pulp fiction and light porno semi-weekly pin up magazine ‘Slinky’ in 1949 (issue 24 in a total print run of 25). After that Orson’s writing career stalled somewhat as he fled the States after a serious falling out with his unorthodox Mormon wife and her other five husbands. Vast amounts of speculation still lingers on as to the exact nature of the falling out or what caused the lifelong rift between Deborah his morbidly obese first love and her other husbands with whom Orson had apparently gotten on rather well with often bunking down top to toe in the same bed as them whenever the weather got too chilly. All that is known for certain is that after he had moved out two of the husbands were dead, killed when a dozing Deborah rolled over in the night and crushed them and the other three left her to join the circus. Deborah lived on and despite her obesity and various serious health issues she would even outlive Orson, some claim simply kept alive only by the hatred and sheer spite that she felt toward him.
Orson though now briefly moved to Peru where he struggled to set himself up first as a paid by the minute gigolo and then as a Guinea Pig farmer. Upon finding it impossible to herd the small furry critters from end of his vast estate to the next by horseback. He later wrote-
“If I’d known now that these little bastards just scattered and ran around f**king squeaking in a terrified huddle everywhere all the time then I’d have eaten more of them frankly.”
Upon his return to America in 1951 Orson was very publically arrested at the airport and put on trial for an inflammatory text he had written for a Peruvian national paper which praised the then American President’s wife as a ‘Fine piece of ass’. The trial went nowhere when it became apparent that simply just saying the President’s wife was a ‘fine piece of ass’ wasn’t exactly illegal or even treasonable and by now if anyone even dared question the validity of that statement the First Lady got rather annoyed. At any rate President Truman also seemed to agree that indeed she was a ‘fine piece of ass’ and the matter was quietly dropped by the Whitehouse. Orson quickly fell back into his writing flushed with the amount of controversy and publicity his comments had afforded him as the offers of work came rolling in from publishing companies he moved to California.
Chapter 3: Pulp: ‘This Is Hardcore’- the L.A. Years.
His next writing success was an article for ‘Macho’ an LA based men’s magazine. This publication was primarily targeted at wealthy well groomed bachelors about town and other likeminded single men. The paper would often feature articles on everything from sports, showering Vs Strip Wash methods, fast cars, hunting in the woods whilst stripped to the waist, the latest body lotions and grooming tips as well as politics and where the best Turkish Baths were located in California. Orson’s article entitled ‘Homos: How To Spot ‘Em & How To Deal With ‘Em the Macho Way!” was a big hit with the subscribers and soon he had been allocated a regular slot to complete every month.
He quickly followed up his first article with equally successful-
‘Pansies: Worse than commies?’
And more soon followed with such titles as:
‘Who Runs The World’s Banking? Yeah, You Guessed It!”
“Canada: America’s Next Logical Colony.”
‘Zoot Suiters & Darkies On The Bus? Not On My Watch America!’
‘Catholics. Why One Will Never Be President.’
The inflammatory- ‘It’s Why We Call It The ‘WHITE’ House Liberal!’
And the far less successful science fiction stories which were written for Macho’s sister publication a short lived fantasy fiction based magazine simply dubbed ‘Discus’. Short stories such as-
‘Naked Hula Paradise’ as well as ‘Bucky Tonto & The Last Galaxy Rodeo’ and finally –
‘One Earth Man And A Million Moon Women’.
Which would later be made into a low budget sex comedy film starring a befuddled but financially desperate Lou Costello and the entirety of the Playboy Bunny Girls.
Although his most famous article of the entire Macho Magazine period was undoubtedly-
“Pfft! Women. I Mean Just C’mon Guys, Just Why?”
By 1952 though the ‘Macho’ had almost shut down all its various publications and soon the magazine itself completely folded due to ever changing tastes as well as the blow caused by loss of its main movers and shakers and almost all of the ‘live in’ editorial staff in a single dawn raid on an LA based 24 hour steam baths by the LAPD vice squad.
So once again Orson was forced to quickly move on, packing up his ever trusty portable typewriter and several hip flasks he next relocated to New York where he fell into a routine of occasionally writing, drinking every day in the Chelsea Hotel bar rubbing shoulders with and more importantly for Orson, shouting abuse and exposing himself at New York’s self-appointed elite art crowd and visiting foreign bohemian types.
Chapter 4: New York, Fleeting Fame and Fortunes.
By 1954 he was once again writing short and serialised fiction for various low brow pulp and “saucy” publications such as ‘Otter’, ‘Brick’, Horn’ ‘Pelt’ and ‘Idle Hands’ but the main title he supplied with his prodigious talents during this period was one called ‘Smooth-E!’ for which some of his best work was published. Titles written then included-
‘She Said Turn Left Now Idiot!’, ‘No Way For A Real Man To Die’, ‘Blood On A Dirty Glass’, ‘Hot Nights and Colder Sweats’, ‘That Damned Cherokee Lady’, ’Hot-Rod Hell Queen’, ‘The Thighs The Limit’, ‘Half Moon Highway Hula’, ‘The Sixth Column: Pansies!’ and of course many of the best loved stories in the Johnny LaCrosse series like ‘The Case Of The Jade Frog’, ‘Yellow Peril In Downtown Chinatown’, ‘Plot X-Ray’, ‘Cold Steel On Warm Bosoms’, ’Slum City Sluts’ as well as ‘If The Hat Fits Then Steal It Baby!’.
Suddenly truly wealthy for the first time in his entire life Orson fell in with a younger crowd of painfully hip Beatniks who had taken to following him around the streets totally enamoured with the man’s vast vocabulary of swear words, his earthy pallor, the ability he had to hand roll his own cigarettes, his saggy jumper and unkempt beard which by now had almost reached past his knees. Looking like a tanked up Old Testament prophet he led his shambolic, awe struck band through some of the worst slum bars, ghetto gambling houses, Honky-Tonks and flea infested whore palaces in New York. He remembered little of this time but did seem to think that these impressionable young finger snapping wealthy hobo looking skinny kids had set him up almost as a father figure or in his own words –
“A Goddamn Christ like figure sent from the almighty his-self to lead the shower to the promised-land, dig?”
In fact all he led them to was tragically a series of early graves brought on by successive desperate binge drinking sessions fuelled by their trust funds and the cheap buzz afforded to him by flat warm coke with nutmeg mixed into it. In turn and before they inevitably died off his Beatnik minions had turned Orson onto Cool Jazz, reefer, casual sex, the joys of extreme Frisbee at night and randomly saying ‘Dig’ and ‘Man’ to pointlessly finish his sentences. His most notable achievement of this short time in the Big Apple was as the self-proclaimed inventor of the ‘Beer Bong’ which had quickly taken off with the male student Jock fraternity with whom he would often play touch football in just his jockey shorts in central park whilst loaded up on flat cola/nutmeg and JD.
Sadly for Orson and maybe even more sadly for the world of literature and for all fans of a good read in general his art suffered greatly from such excesses and by 1957 he was down on his luck having by now simply forgotten where he lived and resorting to eating garbage from trash cans, drinking his own pee from a hubcap and writing his short stories when the muse took him on the backs of sleeping homeless people. A passing encounter with the renowned newspaper tycoon and magazine publisher J. C. Longfellow III outside a penny arcade ended in a terrible scuffle with Orson making off with the great man’s shoes and so seemingly now eliminating any possibility of Longfellow ever offering him work in New York. Orson was last seen in New York City turning tricks for loose change outside of a gang run bookies off Broadway before he simply vanished from the public gaze for the next nine years.
Chapter 5: California Dreaming ‘All The Leaves Are Brown’.
He reappears back in California in 1966 although now located deep in the northern half of that state and secured behind a high, razor wired compound wall only answering to the Yogi name of ‘His Most High-Man’ and where he was running a sort of personality focused new ager cult based around his own particularly unique teachings that mankind had all descended from potted plant life. His male adherents wore red flowerpots strapped to their heads at all time and very little else (a photo of his Cult later inspiring the look for Art Punks DEVO).
His odd religious mythos expanded greatly overtime to eventually include the Bigfoot as a Messiah destined to lead the world back to a righteous path of living in the woods and eating straying backpackers, a meteorite which would land in the sea and boil up all the earth’s water forcing everyone to drink their own urine, panhandling for gin money and the uttermost ideal above all others was that of free love amongst all his female followers just as long as he could sit in and read their auras during the act to better gauge their emotional wellbeing for the good of the entire Commune.
All too soon though this dreamlike idyll ended when law enforcement agencies raided the ranch on which the Cult had settled and sent many of the young followers to institutions for a regime of deprogramming and Orson (after a brief fight in which he had climbed up a tree and claimed he was ascending to heaven) to a brief stay in high security state prison. Prison was the saving of Orson as now free from all nutmeg based stimuli his mind cleared for the first time in years and as he succinctly put it-
“I now looked in the mirror and it was like I was seeing myself for the first time, I just thought ‘What the f**k man! Where did that beard come from and who tattooed my forehead?!”
The kindly prison chaplain, himself a former reader of ‘Macho’ from back in the day, managed to find Orson an old typewriter. It had the ‘R’, ‘X’ and ‘P’ keys missing, only red ink ribbons and a jammed space bar but that didn’t bother Orson in the slightest and soon he was reeling off pages and pages of new un-spaced tracts and short stories and essays which he sent around every publishing house, magazine and newspaper in the country.
None were interested.
Orson duly took his own life by hanging himself from the bare light bulb in his cell with the spare typewriter ink ribbon in 1970. He left a hastily scribbled note in pencil which simply read ‘I blame the damn pansies!’. A week later a letter arrived addressed to him and it was opened by the Chaplain, to his horror he read that it was an offer of work from the aged and by now quite barmy J. C Longfellow III who claimed to fondly remember Orson as ‘that bearded shoe thieving son of a gun scamp off the Bowery!’. Deborah his long estranged wife upon hearing of the demise of her tearaway husband simply said “Finally!” laughed for fifteen minutes exactly before dropping dead on the spot and causing a minor tremor felt through the entire county.
Orson’s remains were quietly cremated a month after his death without any fuss and his ashes simply binned when nobody claimed them, he has no final resting place but there was once a plan to have a plaque of fame attached outside the alleyway where he once lived and turned tricks for pennies. Years later an illegitimate son would emerge from Peru to claim his percentage of the publishing rights as the only living relative but he soon left disappointed by the actual amount owed which hardly covered the price of his airfare and saddened by his father’s legacy of stirring up race hate which often included Peruvians amongst his favourite targets. He refused to settle his late father’s bar tabs or to take his belongings (which had been in state storage for years) with him so the typewriter which Orson had used to write his final works ended up in a flea market before being bought by a shadowy private collector known only as ‘The Colonel’.
If one could say anything of Orson it was that he left few friends in the world and even fewer completed works which would still be printable never mind even readable in today’s multi-cultural environment overly concerned as it is with ‘Political Correctness’ and women’s rights. No doubt Orson would have simply pulled out his trusty sock gun and fired a few wild rounds off at such detractors whilst sipping from his flask, laughing manically and dismissing their horrified protests as the voice of the ‘Damn F*****g Liberal Pansy’ he so despised. His surviving works have been bound together in various collections most notably the book series ‘Dire: How Not To Write Fiction. A Guide’ and ‘Hateful: Clichés, Bigotry, Stereotypes and Racism in Pulp fiction’s Heyday’ both published by Taschen which includes all his articles for Macho and many of his lesser science fiction and short stories but none of his Johnny LaCrosse series. The only book which attempted to collect some of these works was published by Hawk books in the late 1970s entitled ‘LaCrosse. A Very Hard Man’ which contained only three stories and several summaries of others and is now long out of print and impossible to find on the second hand market.