A stealth author from Fort Worth is revealed


This week’s Ramble has been at least two years in the making. It is about the elusive Fort Worth writer James Atlee Phillips, and the reason that it has taken me so long to write it is that I have been unable to interview anyone who actually knew him. He was born in 1913 but he left Fort Worth in 1939 and returned only sporadically; when he died in 1991 he was survived by his third wife and two sons, but none of them have surfaced. I have decided to go ahead with the material that I have and hope that perhaps someone who knew him will step forward and provide me with more information.

Phillips is worth writing about for three reasons. In 1940, he published a novel called The Inheritors, set in Fort Worth among the country club crowd that he had grown up with, the grandchildren of the cattlemen and oil millionaires who were the founders of Fort Worth. The novel was full of sex and alcohol, derived from the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald and John O’Hara, and the characters were thinly disguised versions of Phillips’ River Crest Country Club pals. It is a good novel but it outraged upper-class Fort Worth and eighty years later it is still spoken of with distaste by certain folks there. It is almost impossible to find a copy.

The second reason is that Phillips has become a cult figure among aficionados of pulp spy thrillers. A web page devoted to his pulp fiction describes him as “one of the great overlooked postwar genre writers,” producing “colorful, sophisticated adventure fiction with exotically detailed foreign settings.” Under the name Philip Atlee, he wrote 25 spy novels, starting with the delightfully titled Case of the Shivering Chorus Girls in 1942 and culminating in The Last Domino Contract in 1976. In the mid-1960s he developed the Contract series, featuring a hard-boiled character named Joe Gall, a former C.I.A. agent who became a hired assassin, travelling to trouble spots all over the world.

A third reason for writing about Phillips is that his own life was an adventure that supplied him with material for writing about Joe Gall’s adventures. He came from an adventurous family. His brother, David Atlee Phillips, was the head of the C.I.A.’s Western Hemisphere Division and figures in Kennedy assassination literature because he may have interviewed Lee Harvey Oswald in Mexico City. A nephew, Dutch Phillips, was a much-loved art dealer in Fort Worth, which was an adventure itself in the 1950s and 60s. A niece, Valerie Phillips, worked in Washington for Al Gore, Ted Kennedy, and Ambassador Pamela Harriman.

Phillips himself went to Texas Christian University, where he majored in English; he published two books of poetry and learned to fly while he was still in his teens. In 1939, he decamped to New York and took a job with the 1939 New York World’s Fair, writing press releases for Billy Rose’s Aquacade, a synchronized swimming show. He published The Inheritors in 1940 with the Dial Press. It received favorable reviews in the New York Times, The New Republic, Books, and other national journals and unfavorable reviews in every Texas paper that deigned to mention it. Arthur Fullingim wrote in the Pampa Daily News that “it contains the worst writing and the most despicable characters this one has found in any book.” The Fort Worth Star Telegram apparently chose to ignore it, and although I have heard stories about a public bonfire sponsored by the Fort Worth Public Library I have been unable to verify them.

Phillips’ career during World War II and in the postwar years is hard to document. He put his flying skills at the service of the Allies, but it is difficult to tell exactly what he was doing. One source puts him with the Tahitian Free French forces in North Africa; another with General Claire Chennault’s Flying Tigers in China. He may well have been in both places. For a while he ran the Chinese national airline, Civil Air Transport’s, offices in Rangoon, and then he took a job with a Burmese airline, Amphibian Airways. He somehow found time to serve as editor for the Marine Corps veterans’ magazine, Leatherneck, and he spent several years as an expatriate in Mexico. John Graves crossed his trail in the Canary Islands in 1954, when Phillips was living in Tenerife with his second wife, an ash-blonde Swedish baroness. They talked a lot about Fort Worth, which was also Graves’s home town. Phillips was still bitter, and he told Graves that his dearest wish was “to buy a petty little atom bomb and at cocktail hour one afternoon I would drop it down the chimney of the men’s bar at the River Crest Country Club.” Graves recounts this conversation in his book, Myself and Strangers.

Copies of The Inheritors are scarce as hen’s teeth. There are stories about copies that have a key, identifying all of the people that the characters are based on, penciled onto the endpapers, but I have never been able to locate one. Bryan Perkins, the owner of Barber’s Bookstore, told my friend Barney Holland that he had once sold a copy that had such a key in it but that he had neglected to make a copy of the key before it left his hands.

I obtained my copy from Barney Holland and I am most grateful for it. It is the 1954 Lion Books paperback edition, retitled The Naked Year, with a lurid cover showing Fort Worth socialites about to get naked. When I opened it, I was shocked to see that Phillips had dedicated it to his college English teacher, the virginal and scholarly Miss Lorraine Sherley, who was still teaching at T.C.U. when I was there. I cannot help wondering if she ever read it.

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Lonn Taylor is a writer and historian who lives in Fort Davis. He can be reached at[email protected]. Taylor reads his Rambling Boy column on KRTS Marfa Public Radio every Friday at 11am and every Monday at 7pm.