Walter B. Gibson ’20 gave life to this influential character.
Orson Welles gave him a smooth baritone voice that oozed over the radio. Movie stars Rod La Rocque and Alec Baldwin personified him on the big screen. Other crime-fighting vigilantes — particularly Batman — cut their capes from the same cloth as he.
The Shadow, who first began hypnotizing audiences in 1930, has crept into various corners of American pop culture ever since. Walter B. Gibson ’20 is responsible for giving shape to this influential character.
Before he became “the mystery man who strikes terror in the hearts of sharpsters, lawbreakers, and criminals,” the Shadow was simply a wicked cackle and a sinister voice that drew listeners into Detective Radio Hour. That opening to the program — which was created to boost sales for the show’s accompanying magazine — so entranced the audience that the editors decided to capitalize on its popularity.
“Once I got the tempo, I would suddenly get a new idea, like getting up a new trick.”
Gibson happened to be in the right place at the right time: New York City–based Street & Smith publishers in 1931. He was a newspaper reporter who also penned stories for magazines and books on magic, including ghostwriting for the likes of Harry Houdini, Howard Thurston, and Harry Blackstone. The plucky young writer was in New York pitching one of his true-crime stories to the editors, and they wondered if he had the potential to give life to their new idea. As the conversation unfolded, Gibson told them about a character he’d been imagining, who had “Houdini’s penchant for escapes, with the hypnotic power of Tibetan mystics plus the knowledge shared by Thurston and Blackstone in the creation of illusions.” Intrigued, the editors gave him a shot.
Gibson’s first pulp novel, The Living Shadow, was 75,000 words and sold out immediately. After his second novel also flew off the newsstands, the editors revised his contract with a more ambitious schedule: Instead of a quarterly, Gibson would now produce a monthly publication, each averaging about 60,000 words. The following year, he was asked to turn out two a month — totaling 1,440,000 words.
Having written 283 Shadow books in 15 years under the pseudonym Maxwell Grant, Gibson was deservedly described as prolific. “I am grateful [for the character’s success],” Gibson wrote in the introduction to The Weird Adventures of the Shadow in 1966. “For it happened in the days of the Depression, of unemployment, of breadlines. And I was then a hungry young writer, even as writers have always been.”
IN THE CARDS
Born and raised in Philadelphia, Pa., Gibson became enchanted with magic at an early age, putting on shows for his family and getting chance meetings with professional magicians. He published his first article, “A New Rising Card,” which described a trick, at age 18 for the magic magazine the Sphinx. He wrote several more for that publication and began writing for his school newspaper at Peddie Institute.
As a Colgate student, Gibson continued to write for magic-themed publications, and by graduation, he’d pulled 217 stories out of a hat. He also performed card tricks — the “four ace trick” was his favorite — for classmates. Academically, Gibson had two English professors who made a lasting impression, as he noted when the Scene interviewed him during his 55th Reunion. William “Craw” Crawshaw “made you feel enthusiastic about things and went into literature in a very remarkable way,” Gibson recalled. Elmer “Precisely” Smith asked students to write 15 essays, requiring that 10 of them earn passing grades. Gibson scored an A+ on his first 10. Gibson’s interests played out in the Biological Society, the Outing Club, and the Music Club, which provided him a stage to perform magic tricks.
After Colgate, Gibson applied for newspaper jobs while working in insurance to pay the bills. He befriended a circle of magicians and did a stint with a traveling carnival, assisting as an illusionist. Gleaning behind-the-scenes knowledge of carnival games, Gibson wrote exposé articles revealing the games’ gimmicks and eventually published The Bunco Book on the topic. He continued to pen articles for magazines like the Sphinx and Magic World.
He befriended a circle of magicians and did a stint with a traveling carnival, assisting as an illusionist.
In 1920, Philadelphia’s North American newspaper hired Gibson as a cub reporter. He got his first break one day when a bridge collapsed and the seasoned reporters were called away to the scene, leaving Gibson to man the office. “The phone rang — President Harding had stopped in town and he wanted to be interviewed by my paper,” Gibson recalled for the Scene. “So I ended up interviewing the president of the United States!”
The Philadelphia Evening Public Ledger hired Gibson away in 1921. The new job provided him an opportunity to be more creative, and he even began making crossword puzzles, which were a novelty back then. He wrote a daily column, “After Dinner Tricks,” each describing a single magic trick. Selected columns from the five-year series were compiled into his first book, of the same title. His second book, Practical Card Tricks, was published that same year.
Between his writings and acquaintances, Gibson was becoming well known in the magic community. Master magician Thurston asked Gibson to write for him, followed by requests from Blackstone and Houdini, to whose private notes he was given sole access. As the Depression worsened, the newspaper biz suffered, so Gibson sought more lucrative opportunities with magazine writing — which is how he arrived at Street & Smith on that fateful day.
> Gibson’s brother, Theodore 1915, wrote the Colgate song “Fight for the Team” and became a Colgate math professor.
> His pen name, Maxwell Grant, was a combination of two New York City magic dealers: Maxwell Holden and U.F. Grant.
> His uncle Frank was treasurer and professor of Greek at Colgate
> Gibson wrote 283 full-length pulp novels of the Shadow, 187 books, 668 articles, 48 separate syndicated feature columns, 394 comic books and newspaper strips; aided in the development of 147 radio scripts; invented many widely used magic tricks.
> He estimated to the Washington Post in 1978 that he’d written 29 million words in his lifetime.
In the foreword to Gibson’s biography, his son, Robert, remembered being 6 years old when his father began the Shadow: “The writing schedule demanded almost round-the-clock writing; I can still remember [hearing] the typing as I went to sleep.”
In 1932, when Gibson was asked to write 24 Shadow stories, he finished them in 10 months — and then produced four extra novels. “New plots popped up as fast as the books were finished,” Gibson said in The Weird Adventures of the Shadow. Oftentimes, he’d get ideas for future stories even before a book was finished. “Once I got the tempo, I would suddenly get a new idea, like getting up a new trick,” he told the Washington Post. “I had a backlog of incidents.” He’d test them out on Robert, who said, “My bedtime stories were the plots of Shadow novels in their embryonic stage.”
Getting five to six months ahead of his deadlines, Gibson said in The Weird Adventures, by the time an issue came out, “I even enjoyed reading it, and I often found myself wrapped up in a story that I had already forgotten.”
“At the finish of the story, I often had to take a few days off as my fingertips were too sore to begin work on the next book.”
Preparation was partially the source of Gibson’s expeditiousness. He pre-determined his plotlines and conclusions; he wrote with editor-approved chapter outlines on hand. And when Gibson started writing, he didn’t stop. To this point, a story he liked to tell was about his move to Maine. “I arrived there so early in the season that I had to finish a Shadow story in a cabin that was literally being built around me,” he recalled in The Weird Adventures. “Picture me sitting at a desk, put together out of leftover lumber, in the middle of an empty room, with carpenters banging and nailing all around me.”
During those hectic publication times, he set a goal of 10,000 words a day, sometimes dashing off 15,000. “The typewriter keys would fly so fast that I wondered if my fingers could keep up with them,” he said. Gibson credited his dexterity to his knack for sleight-of-hand and card tricks. Still, “at the finish of the story, I often had to take a few days off as my fingertips were too sore to begin work on the next book.”
Up until March of 1943, he pumped out 24 pulps a year, but did eventually “slow” back down to one per month. In 1947, it was every other month, and in the fall of ’48, he published quarterly until the summer of ’49.
Gibson once reflected: “Do I enjoy being a writer? I’d rather do any of a thousand other things. But whatever job I took, I’d spoil all the fun of it, by wanting to write.”
The Shadow came into the world with a bang, exploding into a comic strip and comic books — many of which were scripted by Gibson. Over the years, several publishing companies have kept the Shadow alive — most recently Dynamite, which launched its newest series in August 2015.
After the successful run of his pulp novels, the “Wizard of Words” didn’t just fade into the shadows. He continued writing for true-crime magazines and released a number of books on magic, games, and the occult. Gibson co-authored several books with Litka Raymond, his third wife, whom he married in 1949. Litka was an illusionist and the widow of The Great Raymond, a magician with whom Gibson had been good friends.
There was a resurgence of interest in the Shadow in the late ’60s and early ’70s. A few publishers issued compilation books, and radio stations nationwide aired tapes of the old programs. Gibson traveled the lecture circuit and performed magic shows, even into his later years.
Until his death on Dec. 6, 1985, Gibson and Litka lived in Eddyville, N.Y., in a 22-room house — with three libraries. “I’ve got a room for Shadow stuff, a room for true-crime stuff, a room for magic. I’ve got about 30,000 books in all,” he told the Washington Post.
Although Gibson’s typewriter is now silent, his legacy lives on: in the Shadow, who has been kept alive by various comic book writers since the 1970s; fan sites; and his influence on today’s superheroes who are protecting citizens from evildoers.
MEET KENT ALLARD
Emerging from the fog, the Shadow would “pluck helpless victims of black-hearted villains from the brink of doom.” His piercing eyes peered from underneath his wide-brimmed hat while a crimson scarf hid his expression. The original caped crusader used two main crime-fighting tools: a fire opal ring with hypnotic properties and a pair of .45 caliber pistols.
Gibson revealed the Shadow’s identity as Kent Allard, a World War I spy and aviator. Allard had many aliases, but the most well known was Lamont Cranston — a wealthy businessman and playboy.
Donning a black business suit under his cape, the Shadow was intentionally portrayed as a real person with plausible powers. The character’s capers were often based on acrobatics and actual magicians’ tricks — but, in some cases, the Shadow’s maneuvers were born in Gibson’s imagination and later became part of magicians’ acts.
Thank you to the Special Collections and University Archives staff for providing images and research materials, especially Rachel Lavenda, who curated an exhibition in Case Library on the Shadow — and became so enamored with the character that she named her new gray Subaru Forester after him.