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Jesse Francis McComas: The Traveler Returns
IT STARTED out like any good mystery: a missing man and few clues. It was a mystery that spanned a hundred years, a mystery shrouded in speculation, confusion, and loss.
Jesse Francis McComas was my grandpa's brother. That much I knew. He was whisked away in the aftermath of a tragedy. I always wondered what had become of him. I wanted to know him. I wanted to find him and return him to the family. I wanted to know who he was. Who raised him? Was he told anything about his birth family? Those last questions are a mystery to this day. I hope to find the answers to them and solve the mystery once and for all. I hope someone out there can add the answers I am looking for, as I know he has family in California.
I first began genealogical research on my grandfather's ancestry in the early 1980s. My grandpa, James Milton McComas, had died of a massive heart attack in 1963. My memories of him are scant, but I do remember his hearty laugh and his colossal stature. Just over six feet, he looked like a giant to me. His voice was just as big. He would take my brothers and me in a great bear hug and in a booming voice call us "knuckleheads." I have to admit, it was a little intimidating, but I'll never forget it.
My grandma was short, pleasingly plump, and had a clucky, humorous laugh. She was a character and had a plethora of old common-sense sayings. She was very kind hearted, the type of person who would give you the shirt off her back if you needed it, but she was no pushover. In sentimental terms, she was a saint, loved by all who met her. She was my only source of information on the ancestry of James Milton McComas.
In genealogy, primary sources such as the descendants, Bible pages, or birth certificates are best to glean accurate information, but anecdotal information or family stories can be helpful in tracking down the facts. However, even first-generation family members can make errors reporting information about their own parents, such as on death certificates. Maiden names and birthplaces can be incorrectly provided.
Here is the story that was passed down to me regarding the two brothers, James Milton and Jesse Francis. James Sr., the two boys' father, was a charming, intelligent man from the big city (Kansas City). His wife, Elnora—or Nora as she was fondly called—was an accomplished seamstress from a large farm family. James Sr. and Nora were cousins. This is a nightmare for genealogists: they had the same last name, but came from different families. Anyway, the couple married late in life. They had two sons, who adored their mother. She was a sweet, gentle, and loving mother.
Three years into the marriage, Nora was stricken with one of the deadliest plagues of the time: tuberculosis. For two years, she suffered with the dreaded disease, and succumbed in her home at the age of thirty-nine years and seven months. The date was March 2, 1913. I can't imagine the bitter sadness, violent anguish, and crushing fear Nora experienced agonizing over what was to become of her darling babies. I can see the pain in her eyes in a photo taken just before she died. At that time Jesse Francis was about two and a half, and James, my grandpa, was about three and a half.
Their father, James Sr., was unable to care for two toddlers and sent Jesse Francis to live with relatives in California. This part of the story remains a mystery as I do not know who these relatives were. Jesse Francis never speaks of his parents or relatives in any of his writings nor is there mention of them in writings about him. Six months later, James Sr. married a sixteen-year-old. He was forty-four. My grandfather never got over the tragic loss of his mother and her generous affection and tender care.
That was about all I knew. I wanted to find out "the rest of the story," as Paul Harvey would say.
Genealogical research in the eighties was tedious and time consuming. My grandma and I would visit many area libraries that had genealogy sections. I would sit for hours going through books and magazines. Genealogical magazines listed inquiries that people posted like ads. These inquiries listed the surname of the family they were researching and then a few pieces of information. As the space was purchased much like a classified ad in a newspaper, the listings didn't say much, just the name and address, and if you thought they had information you needed, you could write them a letter. Of course, snail mail was the norm in those days.
Most of the time, our efforts were fruitless. Grandma and I discussed our dead ends and leads and cheered when we found something we could use!
We were lucky to have a National Archives Center in the area. I spent many hours and days going through microfilm and microfiche. Grandma would sit and chat with the other seniors who had accompanied their relatives on similar missions to mine. The center was the only place that had U.S. Censuses for most states for the 1800s to 1930. They had a machine that made huge copies of the census sheet you needed. These documents contained names of entire families and where they lived and their ages. This was a great help if you could find them. Some families did not like to report personal information, or they were migrating and missed the census, so they were never included.
Another avenue of research was the State Department of Vital Statistics where you could purchase birth or death certificates. There again you had to wait on snail mail and were not always lucky enough to get anything.
Death certificates were a great source of information as they contained birth date, age at death, cause of death, place of death, father's name and place of birth and mother's maiden name and place of birth and more. These were jackpots if you could find one.
Social Security Applications were another source of information as they also contained parents' names.
The Church of Latter Day Saints has family centers where there is information by surname, state, or country on microfiche and microfilm. We spent hours there, too.
Eventually the trail went cold. When my grandma passed away in 1985, all my hopes of solving the mystery died with her.
Over the next twenty years, stories trickled through the step-family that Jesse Francis was really Rory Calhoun or Gene Autry. Where were they getting this information? As far as I knew, Jesse Francis never contacted the family. Maybe it was the relatives he had lived with? I later found out that Jesse Francis had a short stint as an actor. I wondered if he had used a stage name.
One by one the step-family members passed away, and with them what little information had existed. The cousins didn't even know about Jesse Francis till I dropped a bomb on them in 2009.
That year of 2009 was a eureka year. Since the advent of the Internet, I had been finding tidbits of information about Jesse Francis. My most sincere thanks go out to his hardcore fans and science fiction and fantasy enthusiasts who knew him as J. Francis McComas. It was their postings that brought my search to life again! I became a Google maniac.
Finding Jesse Francis's obituary online was a real treasure. To my amazement, I found that he had gifted to the San Francisco Public Library 3,000 books from his collection of fiction and a total of ninety-two science fiction magazines. I found out that he had been an editor of a science fiction and fantasy magazine and had done some writing himself. Wow!! I was impressed.
But I wanted to know more. Somewhere out there, there had to be a biography or an autobiography with a picture. I didn't even know what Jesse Francis looked like! I wondered if he looked anything like my grandpa. I emailed a librarian at the San Francisco Public Library late one evening. He answered immediately. IM's darted like lightning from the Midwest to the West Coast. Searching databases, he found some information which he forwarded to me. He was unable to find a picture.
The information he did find was incredible. Jesse Francis had been married. The librarian sent me his wife's obituary. I had a new name and a new life to investigate. So, I changed tactics and began pursuing information on Annette Peltz McComas. I went back to my old pal Google. To my amazement, Annette had written two books. With the titles of the two books in hand, I went to the central branch of the county library and requested the two titles. At that point, I still didn't know the extent of Jesse Francis's work. All that changed when I received The Eureka Years Boucher and McComas's The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction 1949-54 and Kansas and Me: Memories of a Jewish Childhood. Reading and rereading those books answered most of my questions.
It was as if Annette had opened the door to her world to me. She introduced me to the Mañana Literary Society. Googling that clue led me to the Heinlein Society. Thanks to Jane and Geo at the Heinlein Society, I was directed to the web portal of the very magazine that Jesse Francis co-founded. I didn't realize it was still in circulation because the name was slightly changed! How ironic is that?
I sent a query to Fantasy & Science Fiction. The magazine's editor and publisher, Gordon Van Gelder, sent out the word that we were looking for a picture of Jesse Francis. To my surprise and joy a black and white photo was found. I think Jesse Francis would have had a great laugh at the way this all turned out.
When I opened the attachment from Gordon and saw Jesse Francis's face for the first time, I thought that he didn't look like my grandpa. But when I brought out Jesse Francis's father's picture, I saw the resemblance immediately. I laid out the pictures of Jesse Francis, James, James Sr., and Nora side by side. For the first time their family was complete. Gazing from Jesse Francis to James, I couldn't help but think that though the brothers were raised apart, they were very much alike.
Both brothers were blue-collar vagabonds, moving from one job to another. Both lost themselves and others in alcoholism. Both searched for the lost world of gentility and the tender love of their mother. Both were big, loud, hard-working, and loved to laugh. Their world went from wagons to rocket ships. It was a time of incredible discoveries in science and technology. Jesse Francis went to college but had to drop out because of the Depression. My grandpa was self-educated. I still have some of his books: The Churchill Series, The Complete Works of Shakespeare, and The Science of Life, by H. G. Wells. He studied fine art through the Metropolitan Art Gallery home courses.
They both worked construction. Jesse Francis was building bridges and tunnels while James was a heavy crane operator building skyscrapers. My grandpa, grandma, and their only child (my mom) traveled from state to state so that my grandpa could work construction jobs. Jesse Francis went to work as a roughneck for an oil company and did some writing for a newspaper. This is where the two brothers came to a fork in the road. While my grandpa took the more traveled road, Jesse Francis took the proverbial "road less traveled."
Jesse Francis met Annette Peltz, A. P. White, and Phyllis Price at U.C. Berkeley in the 1930s. They were still teenagers, active in theater, writing, directing, and acting in plays. They all lived on shoestring budgets and the high idealism of youth. Both couples married in 1938. It was during these years that they became members of the Mañana Literary Society. Robert Heinlein formed the club which met in his home in Laurel Canyon, which was near Hollywood. Annette says it was a really good excuse for like-minded people who loved to discuss fantasy and science fiction to get together. Robert Heinlein would invite writers and wannabes to discuss stories they would "someday" like to write (hence, the name "Mañana," which is Spanish for "tomorrow"). Participants incuded L. Sprague de Camp and L. Ron Hubbard. A. P. White was known by his pen name, Anthony Boucher.
Since their boyhoods, Jesse Francis and Anthony Boucher had a fascination for fantasy, science fiction, horror, and the supernatural. It was also during this time that Jesse Francis picked up the nickname "Mick" from Annette because he hated the names Jesse and Francis. He also believed that he was of Irish ancestry.
Jesse Francis and Anthony Boucher were intrigued by true crime stories and mysteries. Jesse Francis even wrote some true crime articles and published two anthologies of real life famous murders. He published his crime stories under the name of Webb Marlowe. He also reviewed science fiction books for The New York Times Book Review.
Then came Adventures in Time and Space, which he edited with Raymond J. Healy. Jesse Francis and Anthony Boucher then launched their own magazine with the help of their wives, Annette and Phyllis. They did this part-time! Annette says the work was difficult and "colossal." The two men were relentless when it came to quality and personally encouraged writers, "answering every piece of mail," including letters from budding writers Bradbury and Asimov. They encouraged female writers in a predominantly male field. Within a month they had 80-120 manuscripts a week.
Annette admits that during these years she was happy. They met fascinating people and threw delightful parties. They were riding a wave that grew in intensity and influence. She says that the two husbands were the first people to edit a national magazine from the West Coast.
Theodore Sturgeon described Boucher and McComas as "magic names from a magic time." He described Jesse Francis (whom he knew as "Mick") as being "big, broad, hearty, generous and warm." He said Jesse Francis had a zest for life, was a good friend, and that he laughed well.
Boucher, Jesse Francis's co-editor of The Magazine of Fantasy (as it was originally called), was a walking encyclopedia and a tireless worker. He loved to play poker all night, party like there was no tomorrow, and empathetically listen to anyone's personal dramas. These two compadres worked together from 1945-1955. Jesse Francis said, "My talent seems to be in raising Hell with other people's efforts."
Jesse Francis resigned his editorship in the autumn of 1954 but continued on as advisory editor until 1962.
Jesse Francis and his brother James had only one child each. My grandpa had a daughter and Jesse Francis had a son. Jesse Francis's son was killed in an auto accident.
The years of alcoholism caused a generation of unhappiness for both families. Annette finally divorced Jesse Francis in 1956 and called her eighteen-year marriage "a disaster." My grandma had a previous marriage. She said marrying James was like jumping from the fire to the frying pan.
My grandpa died of a massive heart attack in 1963. Spending his last days in a nursing home, Jesse Francis, that great laugher, was silenced by a stroke in 1978.
My journey finding Jesse Francis has been a long one, but the final leg has been gratifying. I came to know more about my grandpa's life and discovered Jesse Francis and his life amid the exploration. Jesse Francis and I have returned. The travelers have finally returned. I can hear both brothers' hearty laughs and imagine them in a warm, back-slapping embrace. Now it's my turn to laugh!
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Copyright © 1998–2014 Fantasy & Science Fiction All Rights Reserved Worldwide