25 May 2010

The Messy World of Ronald J. Cooke

The House on Craig Street
Ronald J. Cooke
Toronto: News Stand Library, 1949

Ronald J. Cooke's house was on Elm Avenue in the Montreal suburb of Beaconsfield; I would pass it walking to and from my high school. A bland bungalow, I knew it was his because of a sign nailed to the car port:


Black letters on small plates of cheap metal, glued to a piece of plywood, Cooke's name stayed with me. From time to time I would come across one of his saddle-stapled, self-published booklets at the local library:
Everyday is Pay Day: More than 19 Ways You Can Make Money from Home Including Details on the Mail-Order Business (1979)
Re-writing News for Big Cheques! (1979)
How to Write & Sell Travel Articles (1979)
Tips for the Beginner in Self-Publishing & Mail Order! (1980)
20 Ways to Make Big Money with Your Camera (1980)
How to Clip Newspaper Articles for Big Profits (1981)
How to Write & Sell Short Articles (1981)
Canadian Publications Listings: A Listing of Daily Newspapers, Trade Journals, and Consumer Magazines (1982)
Tips on Writing and Selling Romance Novels (1985)
How to Publish & Promote Your Own Writing (1986)
Here's How to Write and Sell Features & Fillers to Newspapers and Syndicate Your Own Work, Too (1986)
Self-Publishing and Mail Order Made Easy (1988)

Cooke was also the publisher and editor of something called Canadian Writers Journal. I once made the mistake of purchasing a copy. Cheap, and nasty, the cover cartoon, depicting a cheery postman delivering rejection letters, seemed designed to discourage. By this point I was a university student living in Montreal proper. As years went by I thought little of Mr Cooke, and most certainly never considered turning to his publications for career advice. I don't imagine my 22-year-old self would have anticipated reading a Cooke book – but then my 22-year-old self had no idea that Ronald J. Cooke had written pulp novels.

Published thirty years before Re-writing News for Big Cheques!, The House on Craig Street, was the first. It's the story of Clive Winston, a brooding, yet cocky young man who lives with his family in the Craig Street house of the title. To Clive, life is "a bloody mess". Who can blame him? This is the Montreal of the 'thirties. Clive's sister is in danger of becoming a "dime a dance girl", Ma Winston has been forced to turn the family home into a rooming house and Pa does nothing but sit around all day working on get-rich-quick schemes. How to Clip Newspaper Articles for Big Profits would have appealed to the old man. Clive, on the other hand, has smarts, ambition and drive. He's spent his last four years teaching himself about advertising and making daily visits to every agency in town. An aspiring copy-writer, Clive knows that all he needs is a break. Sure enough, within weeks of being hired by the firm Stevens and Smith, Clive is known as the most promising ad man in Montreal. This newfound status doesn't escape notice of virginal Marian Anderson, the obedient daughter of a moneyed Westmount couple. It's less important to Rena Marlen, a fun, good-natured model who bedded Clive on the night they met. Of the two, our hero considers only Marian as his future bride. Why? Well, you don't marry a girl who sleeps around. Besides, well-connected, refined Marian better suits Clive's desire to make something of himself.

Craig Street, now St-Antoine, as it appeared in the 1920s, roughly ten years before the novel takes place.

The cover copy for The House on Craig Street promises a "gaudy, wicked, wide-open city which was Montreal in the roaring days". It's an interesting example of – ahemfalse advertising, but not nearly as fascinating as the unlikely reference it follows: "For him [Clive] the choice was typified by two women; seemingly far apart in their wants and desires, he came to realize that Kipling was right when he said that 'the Colonel's Lady and [sic] Judy O'Grady are [sic] sisters under the [sic] skin [sic].[sic]'"*

The novel itself features no talk of Rudyard Kipling's "The Ladies" or any other literary work. Indeed, there's no indication, least of all from Clive, that any character cares about such things. So, it comes as a surprise when our ad man announces that he wants to become a novelist. The decision, abrupt and jarring, is prompted by Clive fear that he's being exhausted by the biz. How long has he been at it? A few months? A year and a bit? Cooke's timeline is vague and contradictory. And how old is Clive, anyway? Twenty-two? Twenty-three? As he tells a disapproving Marian, writing novels is a young man's job:
"In many respects it's just like explorers, most of them do a better job when they are under 45. By the same reasoning a young man can write a novel and put that missionary zeal and force into it that batters itself in the people's consciousness. It lives because by its very strength it can't be killed. I want to write sociological novels that will make people happier, and better able to continue their task because of having something to read I wrote."
Our hero takes seven of the twenty thousand Depression Era dollars he's banked, puts it down on a place in the Laurentians and escapes the city. There's no writing, but he does go fishing:
Suddenly Clive saw a long, lean brown form dart toward the fly. Then the fly and fish disappeared in a spray of blue water and Clive's rod was pumping wildly in his hands, and the reel was singing like a clothes line in a wind storm.
"I got a fish!" cried Clive. "I got a fish!" He began winding the reel, then he felt the tautness leave the line. Now there was full slack and the line went limp. He held up the empty rod in disgust.
The sexual imagery is unintentional. Sure, one might think this was all a joke, but there's nothing at all similar in the novel. Or am I wrong? Rena stumbles upon this scene, catching Clive off-guard. "I should be ashamed of myself", says our hero. "You certainly should", replies Rena.

And let's not forget that her surname is Marlen.

With just thirteen pages to go, Rena's reappearance marks the beginning of a rush to the end. There's plenty of action, most of it involving cars being driven through a rainstorm. Exciting stuff, but in the midst of it all, I found myself wondering about the title. The house on Craig Street is so seldom used as a setting, and plays no role in the plot. The mystery is solved in the last couple of paragraphs. By this time Clive has realized his love for Rena, who it turns out was not a tramp after all. The couple decide to remain in the mountains, where Clive will work on a great novel:
"I'll write about all the frustrated little people who are searching for the answer to life. And I'll center them around our little house – the house I knew so well," cried Clive.
"Wonderful," cried Rena triumphantly. "Why not call it 'The House on Craig Street'?"

Oh, my battered consciousness.

Object: Another cheap and nasty News Stand Library production, the poorly printed cover image is a good indication of what's to come.

Anyone who takes this on will struggle through 158 pages of poorly printed type and botched editing, including one chapter that ends not only in mid-sentence, but in mid-word.

News Stand Library's The House on Craig Street is an interesting case in that it was produced exclusively for the American market. It was preceded a few months earlier by a Canadian edition published by Harlequin, who then had no distribution south of the border. Fly-by-night has more.

Both covers, depicting the moment Clive and Rena meet, are by D. Rickard. The busy artist also did work for Arrow Publishing, Derby Publishing, Federal Publishing, Studio Publications and Collins White Circle. Among Rickard's many works is the original cover of Al Palmer's Sugar Puss on Dorchester Street (News Stand Library, 1949). Again, Fly-by-night has more, including this recent post.

Access: Two of our public libraries have copies, as do three university libraries. Decent copies of both the Harlequin first and News Stand Library editions can be had for about $20.
* Kipling's actual words: "...the Colonel's Lady an' Judy O'Grady/Are sisters under their skins!"
My thanks to bowdler of Fly-by-night for the image of the Harlequin edition.


  1. Found it sad the way a man who had written for Canadian magazines and edited a trade journal in the forties ended his writing career.

    Here's something from those better days - a November 1949 Canadian Business article.

    "Although I had contributed several million words to trade papers and other publications, I had never written a novel before attempting The House on Craig Street. Completed in 30 days to meet a deadline, it was produced in a 25-cent edition by Harlequin Books of Winnipeg. In two months the demand justified a third printing, which bought the total press run to 65 thousand copies, most of which have been sold. My friends shake their heads at its literary quality. Others express their opinions with less reserved gestures. But if I can write a book which, in a 25-cent edition,
    will outsell hard covers by internationally-known authors, a revolutionary development must have taken place in the book business."

  2. bowdler, I share your feelings about Cooke's final decades. That said, there were a few books he managed to place with publishers, most notably Money-making Ideas for Retirees (Stoddart, 1985). It seems to have been quite successful; I know of three printings. In 1989, it was revised and reissued as Money-making Ideas for Seniors.

    I do wish there had been more fiction. Books like The House on Craig Street are not only fun, light reads, they offer glimpses of a Canada that is no longer. As far as I know, there was just one more pulp: The Mayor of Côte St. Paul (Harlequin, 1950).

    I add that there is one mysterious Cooke title, The House on Dorchester Street, which was published in 1979 by Vesta Publications of Cornwall, Ontario (publisher of the later Bluebell Phillips titles). An online bookseller describes it as "A lusty, gusty novel of how Montrealers lived and loved in the thirties." Apparently, the setting is an all-girl boarding house. I've never seen a copy.

  3. Great article! He is referenced in a 1986 Gazette article bout Murray's. "For old timers, Murrays is still a good place to meet and reminisce. Early this month, when the frost hit the pumpkins, I trotted along to Murrays Westmount corner for a spot of lunch with another good reminiscer, Ronald J. Cooke, the "writin' man."

    Ron's been around a long time, too. Sixty-odd years ago, he "dropped out of school" and became a delivery boy for Pascal's hardware - another Montreal institution.

    When I first knew Ron, he was peddling short paragraphs to trade papers at 10 cents an inch - little items about neighborhood stores and money-making ideas. Then, in 1952, he popped up with a novel The House on Craig Street, which was bought and published by Harlequin Books in Winnipeg. First thing I knew, he was not only a successful writer but the owner of a small string of magazines. Next, he sold the magazines and spent the next few decades writing books.

    And now, at 74, he has "another new book" - a revised edition of his Money-making Ideas for Seniors (Stoddart, Toronto), containing 94 success stories for us old folks who thought Retirement Day meant Siesta Time.

    For a boy who quit school at 12, Ron Cooke's literary career is astonishing enough. Even more remarkable - for 30 or 40-odd writing years, he's had retinitis pigmentosa, an eye affliction that makes him almost totally blind. He uses a Voyager XI computer to enlarge the type on his reading material and puts his manuscript under at Visualtek to make corrections.

    Go to a book fair or writing class - anywhere where authors gather - and you'll probably see Ron Cooke and Mary Alice Daly, his co- author. He won't see you, at least not very clearly, but he'll be listening and tape recording - demonstrating you can't slow a senior citizen down."

  4. Thanks Kristian for your clear and fair portrayal of Ronald J. Cooke. Ron was a writer, a publisher a magazine owner and my Grandfather. He worked for himself, was the owner many magazines, some which still exist (including respect trade magazines Bakers Journal and Beverage World) and also worked as top executive for Maclean-Hunter Publishing... not exactly a slouch. Yes at the end he published Canadian Writers Journal, yes it was basic to say the least, but it wasn't sad, it was the work of someone who couldn't retire even though he tried to many times. It made no money but it made him happy, kept him active and alive. Pretty good for a guy who was 90% blind and well into his 70's. For further information and clarification, Mary Alice Daly co-authored only one book, her contribution as co-author was to type what he dictated. Finally, he never lived on Elm street.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. As I've written elsewhere, Anon, I admire your grandfather's industry. The percentage of Canadian writers who are able to make a good living through writing and editing alone is so very small. That he did so in the face of physical constraints makes this all the more remarkable.

      I was certain it was Elm that he'd lived on. Was it Evergreen? Such a long time ago.

  5. Hi Brian; Thank-you for your response it is appreciated. He lived at 58 Madsen. -Glenn Wildenmann

    1. Thanks, Glenn. News the street was actually Madsen had me scratching my head - not on the way to or from BHS - then I remembered that for a time I had art lessons after school on that very street.