Never a Debtor Be
I regret writing you on such cursed short notice, just as I regret my delay in writing you anent my coming down in deer season, but my affairs, financial and otherwise, are in such a damnable tangle at present that I never know, more than a few days in advance, just what I am going to be able to do, and as it is not my custom to make promises and then turn again and break them, I can’t help it.
H. Beam Piper 1927
Throughout his entire recorded life, from his twenties until his death at sixty, H. Beam Piper had financial problems. He lived, for the most part, a modest life so it is not large sums of money we're talking about. Still, he maintained a reckless regard toward money that would cause him no end of grief in his latter years. For one thing, Piper usually spent whatever money he earned as soon as he got it; he seemed to operate on the basis of "more will come when I most need it." Unfortunately, it didn’t always come when he needed it, but it never deterred Beam from spending any windfall almost as soon as it arrived.
Mike Knerr says, "Somewhere along the way, Beam developed a taste for 'the finer things' in life and his pursuit of such items was often just plain crazy. For a man who constantly wore suits and ties (at home to write, no less jfc), with a rather paltry income, he spared no expense. Little, if any, of his attire came from Sears, Roebuck and Company or J.C. Penny and his suits were always custom-made. His shirts came from the better stores of Williamsport and he usually bought his shoes in New York City.
"All of this could have stemmed from his early home life. A lack of money in the household, perhaps a heckling by his young friends about it, could well have given him a taste for good things. One thing is certain. He never learned the value of a dollar."
Beam, later in life, was very reticent about borrowing money from his friends, no matter how desperate a situation he found himself in. Don Coleman, in a July 20, 2001 letter, had this to say: "Sister Syl repeated the same words to me that I had written you some time ago, about the fact that our mother always felt that if she would have remained in Williamsport, this tragedy could have been avoided. The financial aid was there, but Beam was just too proud to ask or accept from family (us). And Ma, if she had been there, would have insisted upon covering his overhead. I know this for a fact, because I am her son! But that was yesterday and today we can only 'guess' how things may have turned out."
In his twenties, the young Beam Piper was much more flexible; at least, in regards to borrowing money from his close friend Ferd Coleman. When it appears that Beam will be unable to attend one of their camping conclaves, Ferd offers him a $5.00 loan with a 90-day grace period. As Don Coleman puts it, "A hefty sum, considering it was quite capable of filling a week's grocery bill."
Beam writes, "I got your letter. Damnably sorry, but conditions are no better and will not be until the end of the month, so I can't by any means go camping now. Thanks awfully for the offered loan, but it won’t be any help, aside from the fact that it is against my principles to borrow money from a friend."
By August of 1927, interestingly, that attitude of Beam's had changed: "I'm evacuating the cabin tomorrow on the 7:56 train, for Altoona. As you will not be down before then, I will take the knives, forks and spoons, the canned-heat stove and your map with me to Altoona, and mail them back to you. I will also mail you the dollar bill that you loaned me* (*When I get one. Damned near broke again.), and which I am damned glad I accepted."
This notable departure of Beam's typical unwillingness to accept help from anyone, especially friends, shows that Piper's relationship to Ferd Coleman was unique and 'above' his other friendships. In his early letters, Beam appears just as pig-headed as he did in his later letters so we can't ascribe this deviation to youth. Nor was this the last time he would borrow money from Coleman.
In all his letters, both early and late in life, Beam consistently had problems with money, and was almost always broke. It would be no exaggeration to say that he lived in gentile poverty, and sometimes worse, for most of his life. He would make plans, then have to back out for lack of cash "I find, after consulting my department of exchequer, that I will be able to pay you a visit during the week following Christmas (Christ's Mass, as it was originally spelled), that is to say, the week between the aforementioned fiesta and New Year's Day. If this will suit you, let me know, and tell me what day would be most convenient to you for my advent into your midst. I want, of course, to have a good wind-session with you, and I also want to stop at McElhattan and see the Colonel if he will be there and see the erstwhile Belle of Bellefonte at the Jersey Shore... I regret writing you on such cursed short notice, just as I regret my delay in writing you anent my coming down in deer season, but my affairs, financial and otherwise, are in such a damnable tangle at present that I never know, more than a few days in advance, just what I am going to be able to do, and as it is not my custom to make promises and then turn again and break them, I can't help it."
One can see from Ferd's response that he’s a good friend, maybe Beam's perfect friend, since he doesn't let his disappointment cloud the friendship, when once again Piper bows out of a previously arranged visit. "Next week, fortunately will be a dull one, and I shall anticipate your visit with pleasure. I don't give a damn when you come, nor do I care how long you stay. Arrangements will be made at my domicile to bunk you..."
On Jan. 12th, 1928, Beam writes: "Am sending under separate cover today your copy of Otzinachson. As to balance of $15, though I am concerned in obtaining it, please don't let its purchase demoralize your purse. A payment of $5 each payday will suffice to keep my hunger-wolf away." Repayment for Piper was never easy, as this January 23rd, 1928 letter tells us*he was slow to repay Ferd's loan. "As to the money; I enclose a postal order for $5.00, which, to my sorrow, is all that I can spare at present. Two weeks hence, however, I will do 'front and center' with nine more, and cancel the debt."
On February 22nd, 1928, Ferd writes:
To H. Beam(ing Butler) Piper
Yes, sweetheart, I received your's of yesterday as did I the flowing gold of the ninth. Like to the reaction to the assault of virgins I have felt remorse and shame in not heralding unto you sooner, but matters, etc., etc. I dislike muchly the discussion of financial obligations 'twixt friends; in fact, invariably a friend is not a friend for a-that, and so I would avoid with this rare specimen of the species filthy lucre deals."
This letter of October 12, 1928, displays a good demonstration of both Piper's absent-mindedness and poor manner of handling money. "In the first place, that three dollars—I regret profoundly that I have it not at the moment, but accept my assurance that you have cast your bread on the water and that it will return to you as sponge-cake—that (or those) three dollars was a veritable Jesus-send to me and that inside the hour.
"When I checked my box that morning, my mind was running on the strategic arrangement of Washington's army at Brandywine or the underlying reason for the Yankee-Pennamite War or the question of who started the Fair Play System or whether Henry Antes really did have a four-pounder mounted on his fort—or most likely of all, I was thinking of a pair of deep brown eyes and a lovely face somewhere within the range of Henry Antes' four-pounder mentioned above. At any rate, I shoved my box in, told them to check it for Altoona and then turned around and walked away without the duplicate-check necessary to claim the box at Altoona. I realized my absent-minded blunder, however, when I took out my pass to give it to the conductor and saw that I did not have the duplicate-check. "Mark me off at Jersey Shore," I told him, wishing at the time that I could pile off at Newberry, but of course the Easton didn’t stop there.
"At the time, I had something like fourteen cents in my pocket, so I started to walk into Jersey Shore. A motor-car was just coming out of Farrington's driveway as I came along and the driver took me on into town. I don't know if it was the redoubtable Prince Farrington (of the Sugar Valley nectar) himself or not.
"There I cashed my check and, having till 6.34 to wait, I was at first minded to "go places" but a good look at my crusty, unshaven and unlaundered condition dissuaded me and I went on to Antes'.
From this and other statements in the diaries, it appears that Beam only worked at the Altoona Yards when he wanted to or needed money, which explains how he found so much time for all his exploring, hiking, camping and trips to New York. "I find that I will have to go back to the galleys for a while. I need a few things, clothes, notably, that will cost more money than I could feel justified borrowing from Father. I don't like to do it, but needs must be met when the devil drives." We learn here that his father was all right with his cavalier attitudes and would advance him money on occasion. Despite his financial headaches, Beam had a good support system going while living under his parents roof. It was only later, after he lost his job and the Pennsy and his mother died, that financial matters began to go seriously downhill.
From "The Early Letters" and his diaries it appears that Piper's financial problems were perennial. The letters are sprinkled with comments like the following: "Now tomorrow I'll send you a postal money order for five dollars. Three of them, of course, are yours, and the other two you are to use in paying this repair-bill, 'and whatever thou spendeth more, I will repay when I come again.' So you settle up with George and get the rifle, holding it until you either come to Altoona or I come to Williamsport. I enclose an order on Harder for the rifle. (The only reason I don’t send the money now, too, is because I won’t have it until tomorrow.)"
Ferd's ironical reply is illustrative: "...but be assured I think thee one heluva business man, as of old. While truly you are my comrade as much as I doubtless am you'rn, I question whether I would repay you a loan with my last three dollars, as you have decided. Best regards to yourself and parents..."
Beam's reply on the 24th: "I'm sending you the money order I told you about, to repay the life-saving loan you made me on the event of my returning into exile from my beloved Valley. How soon I will return to revisit that happy land is still Problematical, but be assured, 'twill not be long.'"
In answer to Ferd's letter, also sent on the 24th, Beam writes the following with tongue firmly planted in cheek: "As to the three dollars, don't consider it. It's not my last by any manner of means, and if it were, three dollars, friend Ferdinand (no, not friend Ferdinand; that sounds too damn much like a lousy Philadelphia Quaker) as to the three dollars, amigo mio, if it were my last, three dollars don't mean enough to waste breath over. I've spent that much in less than a half-hour many a time.
"All of which goes to show, as you contend, that I'm a hell of a business man, but, on second thought, I have one consolation. I never mailed a letter addressed to 400 Wordsworth Avenue, Williamsport, Pa. (Piper's Altoona street address.).
Don points out in The Early Letters that three dollars in pre-Depression America could have bought twenty hamburgers at the ballpark, "A nickel could handle a loaf of bread, or a double-scooped ice cream cone, or a bottomless sack of popcorn, or a ride on the streetcar, or a couple of newspapers... And the three-dollar I.O.U. could put one hell of a fine pair of boots on Beam. He would frivolously boast about how quickly this hefty sum (and healthy portion of a railroad paycheck) could be annihilated in just thirty minutes duration! So be it!"
On February 8th, 1929, Beam writes: "I regret to say that it will be impossible for me to come to Williamsport on the 21st, as I am on the verge of a total eclipse of the bill-fold that will only be relieved on the morning of the 23rd... And, with reference to the financial constipation hereinbefore alluded to. Would it be too much to ask you to wait until Saturday morning (the 23rd) for the "upstairs bill" in payment of my dues for the (Lycoming) Historical Society? (And what in particular hell do you mean, I want to join the society as a matter of record? I want to join because I'm interested in Lycoming County history).
By December 20th, 1930, the Great Depression had set in and it was affecting both the local economy and Beam's financial affairs: Beam writes: "Altoona is having a double dose of Hoover Prosperity, just now. All the railroad shops will be closed the 23rd to the 5th next month, and the lousey hole I work in shut down yesterday. In a way, it's a nice thing for me, as I'm busy as the devil on my writing... ."
In this February 13th, 1931 letter we see how the Depression has hit Ferd, as well. "Appreciated your commendable comments on my journalistic comments. Alas, however, the Shopper's Guide has indeed become a financial dud. I know now what to do with it, and I love it; yet it is weekly now a bitter loss. You will note in the current issue my lament. It may interest you to know that a good lady phoned at 7:45 this morning and asked that the paper be discontinued to her residence because I 'knock too much,' specifying Mr. Ames and the ministers, anent my tribute to the Law Enforcement Committee. Ah, yes, the old fight is still in me, but I question whether I can continue to display it.
"...Glosser tells me he believes he has a sale for my guns, if I care to dispose of them. If I can get an agreeable price I probably would. But I don’t know what is agreeable for such as I have. Can you give an opinion as to whether I should sell, and, if aye, what price I ought ask?"
On February 14th, 1931, Beam replies: "I'm sorry as hell—almost as sorry as you are—about the financial troubles of the Shopper's Guide. I’ve known your paper for as long as I've known you, and if you have to give it over now, it will almost seem as though some of Ferd Coleman is gone. And it was such a touching little sheet; always getting into some kind of scrap and usually for an unpopular cause. I had to hear "Taps" blown over a brave fighter. So I hope to God you'll be able to pull it through.
"Sorry you have to let Stan out, too. He was a good sort, and I liked him no end. Well, that's this God-damned Hoover Prosperity. I hope it blows over soon."
From this March 15, 1931 letter, just a month later, we learn that Ferd was premature with his Shopper's Guide obituary. "I noted with interest your 'Herb Ames' article, complete with bean story. Inasmuch as you say the old fool is thinking about running for re-election, I liked the remark that we only have ten months to endure him, and I got a big laugh out of the request that people spare your tender feelings by not requesting their free subscriptions to be stopped."
The sudden revival of the Shopper's Guide is one of those never-to-be solved mysteries that run throughout Piper's life. I had several discussions with Don Coleman about this strange turn of events, but all we could figure out was that Ferd's father may have played an important role in the small newspaper's survival.
Peter C. Coleman, was the Williamsport City Detective and an important political figure. He had resigned from the Williamsport Bureau of Police by this time and was helping Ferd collect overdue bills, mostly form bars and small stores. Since the Shopper's Guide was a freebie, with all its income coming from advertisers, I suspect his father's support, knowledge of the local businesses and political contacts were what enabled the Shopper's Guide to survive through these trying times.
This was an avenue of the family's history that Don Coleman was unwilling to pursue. Therefore, I was never able to resolve the mystery of how the small newspaper went from near death to healthy in only a month during the depths of the Depression!
On May 24th, 1931, Beam writes: "And we're having a lot more foul odors about some of the banks that went blooie; how the stockholders are scheming to defraud the depositors. One of them is buying diamonds with all his money and giving them to his wife."
Later on December 13th, 1931: "I don't know whether or not I said anything to you—I know I did Ranck—but this New Year I will be compelled to spend in Altoona, as the well-known depression, together with my Christmas expenses, will leave me on my prat financially. So, without direct intervention of the saints, I'm stuck in this 'lousey' burg for New Year's Eve this year."
* * *
Piper's gun collection was, generally speaking, his source of income when things got really tight. Beam would sell his guns, from time to time, when money was short or story checks were late in arriving. He was very canny about it, not letting his friends (even Mike Knerr never knew he selling his guns off piecemeal) or fellow collectors know that he was short of cash or in a bad way. As far as his fellow gun cranks were concerned, he knew that if they realized he was in dire straits, he'd never get a fair price for them. His diary is peppered with his schemes to sell a gun or two, or why he couldn't part with them at the price offered.
Furthermore, Beam always figured he could always buy them back or get more when he was flush. Unfortunately, whenever Beam got a significant story or novel payment he would typically make a big purchase, either a new pistol or two, a rifle, a sword, or a new tailored suit. As long a he lived under his parent's roof, he could afford these extravagant expenditures. However, after his mother's death, these extravagances would play an increasingly important part in his financial meltdown and premature demise.