In my last post, I quoted from the reminiscences of those who knew the youthful Morris Jessup at first or second hand. He comes across as a rebel without any clearly discernable cause—a teenage “brain,” contemptuous of those he deemed less brainy. Something of a brat, actually. Not a fellow you’d like to have known.
By the time he began corresponding with Gray Barker in 1954, he seems to have mellowed. The letters give a remarkably attractive picture of both men. First and foremost their mutual respect, which grows over the months and years into mutual caring.
“They sound just like two businessmen,” David Houchin told me over the phone before I set out for Clarksburg and the Barker Collection seven years ago, introducing me to the Barker-Jessup letters. David was right. If you expect the correspondence of two UFOlogists to be in some measure—well, unearthly—you’re bound to be disappointed. The tone is mundane and pragmatic throughout.
They talk a lot about money. Jessup wants to know: how much would Barker charge for a short ad for The Case for the UFO in his publication, The Saucerian? How big a mailing list does he have? Barker wants to know: how come his publisher for They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers is willing to pay only a 5% royalty for mail order sales, vs. 10% or 12% for regular sales? Is this the regular practice? (To which Jessup responds [3/20/56], in words just as true now as they were 55 years ago: “you are now getting the dis-illusionment that comes to all authors—namely: that the publishing industry is run for the benifit [sic] of the publishing industry, and not for the writers … I have to begin thinking of other commercial activity in order to make the money necessary for decent living.”)
It’s so obvious—they’re in it for the bucks! My (ex-)professorial lip curls in disdain. As if, during my time at the university, I cared nothing for salary increases, or who was getting what research grant and why I’d been refused one.
Unlike Barker and Jessup, I didn’t think about making money a whole lot of the time. I didn’t have to; the institution took care of that end of things. But there aren’t many tenured positions in UFOlogy at our public or private universities, and Jessup had apparently decided at an early stage that the academic route wasn’t for him. (He was on the threshold of his Ph.D. in astronomy; he balked at the final step.) To pursue the researches that were their lives’ mission, he and Barker had to support themselves by their wits. And their typewriters.
“We are indeed in an unusual field of endeavor,” Barker writes to Jessup in March 1956. “I think we should stick together.” And again in November of that year: “I am setting you up a gratis mailing of all issues, and am returning your check, since times are hard with all us saucerers and we must stick together.” (And two years earlier: “We saucerhunters must hang together or hang separately, perhaps.”) But now the cynic in me holds back. Is this the mutual encouragement of two beleaguered intellectual pioneers—or the loyalty of two thieves?
Jessup, at least, emerges in these letters as utterly sincere. Barker, a bit more ambiguous.
Jessup, 12/16/54: “There is so damned much nonsense being put out by silly people that one gets disgusted with a lot of it. I do feel that we are in a remarkable phase of human experience and that the waters should not be muddied by stupidity …” (Still the intellectual snob? Perhaps. But no one familiar with the UFO literature can deny the justice of what he says.)
He offers to write for Barker’s Saucerian about changes on the lunar surface. To which Barker responds (12/17/54): “Now you’re talking! I desperately need GOOD material such as you can provide. The writeup on the Moon would be fine, especially if you gave it the UFO angle (mixed in with some kind of dark threatening talk to make it exciting).”
There speaks the huckster. And, as anyone who’s read They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers will know, dark threatening talk was Barker’s specialty.
Yet in the same letter, Barker speaks of the closing of Albert Bender’s “International Flying Saucer Bureau”—the incident at the center of They Knew Too Much—and he adds: “There is a lot involved here I would like to know, and I feel I am uncovering it bit by bit.” I don’t know how to parse this, except to suppose that for Barker the “silencing” of Bender and the dissolution of the IFSB was a genuine mystery, which had him genuinely baffled.
Jessup responds (12/20/54): “I read ur rept re Bender with great interest. Looks like SOMETHING did happen. He probably did stumble onto the truth. I will be glad of any additional info which you uncover. …
“In my humble opinion, you are absolutely correct in your thought that the power source is the key to the whole UFO deal. [Referring to Barker’s suggestion that the “power industries” would be put out of business if the cheap and plentiful power used by the UFOs were to be made available.] I am convinced of it from my own introspection and reading. I’d like to talk to you about it. Clarksburg isnt [sic] so far from here [Washington, DC] and I would like to talk to you aout [sic] some of these things. One can go nuts with such a subject if he keeps it all inside himself.”
Yes, one can go nuts. Solitude can do that to a person.
Did it do it to Morris K. Jessup?
As I mentioned last week, the Barker-Jessup correspondence ends in January 1957. But another folder in the Barker Collection contains a photocopy of a letter from Jessup, handwritten on the stationery of Hotel Urmey, 34 Southeast Second Avenue, Miami 31, Florida. It’s dated March 20, 1959:
“U of Miami
“Dept of Anatomy—
“I am requesting that this note be forwarded to you after my death as Notification of death and availability of my body. Please contact my wife as to where the body is resting and take the necessary steps to obtain it.
“I do not desire any funeral services, and prefer that the body be in your possession before relatives have an opportunity to hold a wake.
“Thanks for your cooperation.
Exactly a month after the date of this note, Jessup was found in his car in Coral Gables, Florida, dead of carbon monoxide poisoning. A hose had been run from the exhaust pipe in through a window.
(To be continued)