William Dudley Pelley spent the 1920s as a Hollywood screenwriter cranking out all manner of melodramas. But while a few of his scripts garnered decent returns at the box office, none told a tale as fantastic and tragic as his own real-life saga.
You won’t learn much about Pelley from local histories of Asheville, where he lived during the 1930s. But then Pelley was not the sort of resident most cities would boast about. He spent much of his time here running the Silver Legion of America (aka the Silver Shirts), a national paramilitary group modeled on the Brown Shirts, Adolf Hitler’s squad of political thugs.
And though Pelley existed mainly on the margins of American society from that point forward, that margin was broader than many people realize today, according to Scott Beekman‘s new book, William Dudley Pelley: A Life in Right-Wing Extremism and the Occult (Syracuse University Press, 2005). Tracing what the author calls a “life in the twilight zone junction of anti-Semitism, genteel fiction, spiritualism, and ufology [the study of UFOs],” the book portrays as bizarre a public figure as Asheville has ever harbored.
Yet it took some 70 years after Pelley’s time on the national stage for this first full-length biography to appear. Perhaps the very strangeness of his life put him at risk of falling through history’s cracks; and America’s subsequent entry into World War II certainly cooled the nation’s ardor for a man who’d so passionately cast his lot with the other side. As for the academic world, “I think the diffuse career he led and the massive volume of his writings prevented many scholars from tackling him,” Beekman, a visiting assistant professor of history at Ohio University, told Xpress recently.
A prolific writer and publisher, Pelley claimed to have funneled some 4 million words into print. “Frankly, I didn’t realize how daunting [doing] a biography of this guy would prove to be,” Beekman says about his years plumbing the depths of his subject’s life. “I can’t claim to have read all of his works, [since] many are now lost, but even my partial dip into Pelley’s writings has proved long and time-consuming.”
Beekman did manage to track down most of Pelley’s work in archives and libraries in Asheville and elsewhere. But historians, he notes, have only recently begun documenting the full extent of sympathy with European fascism in the United States during the years leading up to World War II. “In the past, historians have focused on the ‘Red Decade’ aspects of the 1930s, which partly explains Pelley’s marginalization,” says the author. “However, there is a real push right now to begin to look under the fascist rocks of the 1930s and examine what was going on.”
Neither madman nor con man
“One of the things that drew me to Pelley was how unique, taken in toto, his life and beliefs were,” says Beekman. “There was simply no one else leading a significant organization with a similar mixture of fascism and spiritualism.”
Pelley, who cranked out his voluminous writings from a press in Biltmore Village, built the Silver Shirts into a 15,000-member national organization with many thousands of additional unaffiliated sympathizers. Most of his devout followers were not in Asheville but in the West and Midwest, Beekman notes. Still, it was from Pelley’s base here that he managed to arouse the ire of federal officials, who ultimately sent him to jail for sedition in 1942.
Pelley came to Asheville by a most unconventional route. In 1927, while living in California, he experienced a mystical episode he later dubbed “seven minutes in eternity.” Pelley claimed to have left his physical body and connected with entities on a higher plane of existence who revealed to him a realm beyond normal human understanding. That world, as described in writings on what he came to call “Liberation” theology, was a strange brew of esoteric spirituality and all-too-earthly bigotry.
Pelley soon moved to New York City, where he launched a new career as a metaphysical mover and shaker. And in 1930, Black Mountain resident Lillian Perry, one of his moneyed fans, lured Pelley to this area with the offer of a large tract of land.
In Asheville, Pelley founded the short-lived Galahad College; housed in the Asheville Women’s Club building on Charlotte Street, the school offered instruction based on his spiritual explorations. But yet another pivotal shift was in the offing: Mere days after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, Pelley founded the Silver Shirts.
Along the way, Pelley gave his critics more than enough fodder to keep him planted squarely on the margins. “It was very easy to paint Pelley as a madman,” Beekman observes. “His politics were extreme, his religion exotic and difficult, and his writing style bombastic. However, I came away from this work thoroughly convinced that Pelley truly believed his public views, rather than utilizing them as a con game, and that he arrived at them after careful study.”
Beekman’s book makes no bones about the fact that Pelley remained a virulent and unapologetic anti-Semite throughout his life. But the biographer also reminds readers that for a time, the Silver Shirts found a niche in Depression-era America — something Pelley’s detractors were loath to admit. “Many of Pelley’s critics simply didn’t want to believe that educated Americans would turn to bigotry and fascism out of their own volition,” says Beekman. “Pelley stood as the public face of these views during the 1930s.” In fact, in 1940, the House Un-American Activities Committee dubbed the Silver Shirts “the largest, best financed, and certainly the best published” of domestic pro-fascist groups. But “non-right-wingers,” continues Beekman, “confounded by the development of extremism in this country, pilloried him as a madman because that was an explanation they could live with.”
New Age legacy
After eight years in prison, in 1950 Pelley set up shop in a small town in Indiana. There he crafted a new, cultish theology called Soulcraft that occupied him until his death in 1965. Never again did he venture into politics.