Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

March 16-22, 2006

Cover Story : Article

Noir Town

The hard life of John McIntyre, the legendary Philly novelist nobody's heard of.

Illustration By: Bill Westervelt

Photos/covers courtesy of Special Collections Department, Temple University Libraries

For most of his professional life John Thomas McIntyre lived in a South 17th Street apartment lined with the literary works of Charles Dickens, to whom critics enjoyed comparing him. Dressed in a natty gray suit and hat, the tall lean McIntyre, well-known in his Rittenhouse Square neighborhood, liked waking at dawn and patrolling the downtown streets.

Born and bred in the tough slum of Northern Liberties, McIntyre, a lifelong bachelor, considered his city his life. "I am an incurable Philadelphian," he told the curious. "I know it. I know the people. I've lived with them and they are part of me."

A tenacious writer, McIntyre in all likelihood authored more fiction across more literary genres than any Philadelphian—ever. But his greatest achievement was a series of five gritty novels of social realism set in Philadelphia in which McIntyre, with forensic artistry, dissected the metropolis—its corrupt politicians, bribable cops, shifty lawyers, rowdy labor unions and heart-rending individual passions. Steeped in terse Philadelphia dialect they had hardboiled titles like The Ragged Edge (1902), about turn-of-the-century Irish ward politics; Slag (1927), a tale of hapless gangsters; the superb Ferment (1937), about a corrupt union busting ring; and Signing Off (1938), about class climbing and racketeer violence. One newspaperman described McIntyre's stark vision of Philadelphia as "tough as shoe leather and American as tabloids." Penning his obituary, another said Hollywood lacked the nerve to turn a John McIntyre book into celluloid because they were "too true to life." However, it was 70 years ago this year—during the height of the Great Depression—that McIntyre, at 65 and fearing his career was nearly behind him, finally wrote a howling national bestseller, Steps Going Down—the finest chronicle of lowlife Philadelphia ever put to paper. He's all but forgotten today.

"Ain't it terrible? However, what can anyone expect? A kid raised in a place like this ain't got a chance."
—Steps Going Down

John T. McIntyre's dreadful Northern Liberties childhood would make Frank McCourt shudder. Born in poverty in 1871 to Irish immigrants Patrick and Sarah Walker McIntyre, McIntyre's father died or fled soon after his birth, leaving his very young mother alone to raise him until she too died, leaving him in the hands of an aunt. He attended St. Michael's School and Harrison Grammar School, but by 11 he was working for a living, hauling buckets of blood in a tannery and buckets of coal in a foundry. The hardscrabble Delaware River waterfront that was John McIntyre's neighborhood—its cobblestone streets, stables, docks and merchants—insinuated itself into a great deal of his fiction. The Ragged Edge begins with a Dubliners-ish description of dram horse drivers "drooped upon their high seats … a red sun threw shafts of light along the cross-town streets, between the rows of black warehouses."

McIntyre claimed to have learned to read from dime and pulp novels and to write by copying every page of Robert Louis Stevenson's Inland Voyage by hand. This seems exaggerated, but McIntyre was always publicity-sharp. After Steps Going Down's success he burnished a largely concocted tough-guy writer image, appearing in photographs in a Stetson and informing Time magazine how, during a street fight, he was robbed of his bottle of rum, blackjack and revolver by a paroled convict. In fact the items were robbed from his apartment and the thief was later picked up at Reading Terminal Market.

At 14 McIntyre was writing short stories in the mold of Edgar Allan Poe and, at 20, publishing stories and sketches of Northern Liberties life for the Philadelphia Press and Philadelphia Times. By the mid-1890s he was writing drama, churning out vaudevillian boilerplate—what he later called "meller-drammers"—like 1908's The Bowery Night School for the South Street Standard Theater.

"I'd write them by the armload," McIntyre told The Philadelphia Record in 1939. "I'd grind out a whole act in an afternoon—and I guaranteed a new play each week. And the money was excellent." Yet, according to Ron Ebest's definitive New Hibernia article "Uncanny Realist: John T. McIntyre and Steps Going Down," aside from his 1919 oddball comedy A Young Man's Fancy (about a poet who falls in love with a department store mannequin), which was a big hit in Philadelphia, success eluded McIntyre as a playwright.

It was in 1902 at age 31 that McIntyre first unveiled his gift for portraying tough, idiomatic city speech—from kitchen gossip to ribald workingman's slang—and unfurling a grittily intimate urban world to the page with The Ragged Edge: A Tale of Ward Life and Politics. The story—which took three years to write after the original draft was lost in a robbery—takes place on the eve of an 1890s election in a heavily Irish river ward (now the 6th Ward, Northern Liberties and environs).

The story's grist is a conflict between the age-old Philadelphia machine politics embodied by the entrenched Boss McQuirk and a reform-minded clique of second-generation of Irish-Americans. But its finest pleasures are its limning of Old World ways (including an unforgettable farcical Irish wake) and scrappy row home lives.

Yet The Ragged Edge, surely a lost Philadelphia treasure, hardly sold a copy. And when it tanked, the superstitious John T. McIntyre took commercial failure as an omen: Write for the masses, he told himself. Throughout the next quarter century, pounding away at his typewriter seven days a week, reeling off page after page of copy, McIntyre labored like a man possessed. There were historical sagas like Blowing Weather (1923) and Stained Sails (1928); tales of suspense like In the Dead of Night (1908) and The Museum Murders (1929); detective novels and juvenile literature and thousands of pages of short stories and serials for Collier's, McBride's and other family magazines. In the 1940s, gumshoe private eye Jerry Mooney took over in novels McIntyre wrote under a pseudonym, Kerry O'Neil—The Philadelphia Inquirer ran the mysteries in its Sunday magazine. Yet national success taunted McIntyre like a siren. This and his own "ineptness at personal finance" meant McIntyre was always a shade away from being broke, says Thomas Whitehead, manager of Temple University's Special Collections Department, which houses the extensive John T. McIntyre Papers. "He could never get insurance," says Whitehead. "Near the end of his life friends like Joe Molloy [the Philadelphia Inquirer's chief librarian and McIntyre's closest friend] and others with newspaper ties helped him out with health and life insurance."

"The neighborhood of Shandy's was one of the small rackets; groups gathered at curbs, at newsstands, at corners, around shoeblack's chairs; smirking youths in smart overcoats and narrow rimmed hats talked with policemen. There were taprooms … billiard rooms, Chinese eating places, hooded flights of steps to the subway."
—Steps Going Down

In 1927 John T. McIntyre, already 56, tried his hand again at frank, uncompromising Philadelphia realism with a seamy, tough-as-nails novel named Slag. Set in a claustrophobic ethnic --German, Jewish, Italian-- Philadelphia ghetto during a boiling summer of the Roaring '20s, it was a tale about a gang of bumbling petty thieves.

Like The Ragged Edge, Slag is brightened with marvelous urban dialect and McIntyre's trademark hard-nosed prose. "It was past midnight, and Fourth Street stirred dismally in the heat," begins one chapter. "A steam rose from it; a dim muttering went along its length. People slept in the entries, upon its steps, or the fire-escapes … Alleys opened into the street like dirty mouths … and in the corner opposite, a girl was earnestly persuading the furtive outline of a man."

Concluding with a deadly shootout over a tenement fire escape, the book was grim and absorbing, and by far the best thing McIntyre had done in 25 years—since The Ragged Edge. he sent the manuscript off to New York's Charles Scribner's Sons, where America's most prestigious editor, Maxwell Perkins, saw it and was immediately grabbed by its brute force. Glowing reviews poured in. But like The Ragged Edge, Slag withered on bookstore shelves. Perkins would never work with a dark horse like McIntyre again.

It was in 1935 when John McIntyre, at 65 years old and obsessed about his failures, began composing an experimental novel unlike anything he'd ever attempted: a noirish tale of an escape from the law, a supernatural account of clairvoyance and a gripping report of a Philadelphia knocked flat on its back from the Great Depression. Like other U.S. metropolises, by 1936 Philadelphia had virtually ground to a halt. The Delaware River shipyards and merchants that so shaped McIntyre's writing were comatose. From Passyunk Avenue to North Broad Street, evictions and even starvation hung over the heads of untold numbers. Beggars roamed the city like ghosts.

The title Steps Going Down refers to the plot—a descending flight taken by two young men on the lam as they hide out in ever shabbier and grimmer accommodations, eventually selling their clothing to buy food. They take shelter in a grimy flophouse surrounded by huddled broken men and, finally, in a Front Street whorehouse.

Streetwalkers and houses of prostitution figure prominently. The novel opens with a sort of soliloquy—a Mrs. Salz lamenting the fine brothel she'd always aspired to own—then plummets into a powerful scene involving the death of a young prostitute being delivered last rights by a priest. Most of the book's action occurs in the seedy shadow of the Ben Franklin Bridge near Third and Arch streets.

Filled with Dickensian characters—from alcoholic priests and oily on-the-take lawyers to rapacious business tycoons and gold-hearted burlesque dancers—the book's strangest aspect is probably its gnomic mysticism. It's while boozed up or high on coke, glue or laudanum that several of Steps Going Down's characters peer through reality and experience weird visions. One of the finest passages occurs as Toomey, a pathetic coke-addicted pool hustler, looks into the souls of several fraught men and women attending mass. Some readers and critics criticized this side of Steps, including Philadelphia Record (which also warned the tale was "not baby food for weak stomachs"), but it explains the novel's eerie resonance.

Sales started slow but took off when, out of a short list of 500 titles, it was chosen as the first-place winner of a first-ever American entry in the All-Nations Prize competition sponsored by 14 American and foreign publishers. McIntyre took home $4,000 in cash—more money than the dirt-poor neighborhood boy from Northern Liberties had he'd seen in his entire life—and a slew of positive reviews. The New York Times called it a "striking venture in American realist fiction." The Boston Evening Transcript lionized McIntyre, comparing him to Frank Norris. "Mr. McIntyre," the Transcript trumpeted, "has written a horrible, but a powerful and significant novel." The New Yorker compared him to John O'Hara, James M. Cain, even Ernest Hemingway.

McIntyre himself was surprised at what he'd accomplished. "It is the first book I have written without handcuffs," he said. "I see it as a thing I have only had glimpses of in earlier work." The free publicity launched sales nationwide and for a glittering period, John T. McIntyre was famous. And with his literary reputation finally established, McIntyre enjoyed life. He took on the guise of a hardened urban writer. "If you see a tree, kick it," he told fans and reporters.

Writer friends at groups like the Franklin Inn Club lionized McIntyre. With his earnings he dated actresses and bought hundreds of rare 19th-century dime and pulp novels, according to Ebest. McIntyre was hailed on Philadelphia's streets, some residents wondering if it was themselves portrayed in Steps Going Down.

But all along McIntyre continued to pound at his typewriter. By the following year he'd completed the sweeping Ferment (initially titled All Hell's A-Boiling) about a West Philadelphian named Steve Brown who takes up with a corrupt strike-breaking gang in order to get quick money for an expensive honeymoon. Despite a somewhat creaky plot, the story works as a tour de force portrayal of Philadelphia as a personality through its one-of-a-kind labor politics and its tough, but mostly admirable, residents. Ferment remains a Great Philadelphia Novel. Time called it "a far better book" than Steps Going Down and the New York Herald Tribune declared, "What Mr. McIntyre is saying in this book is what most social naturalists in America have only hinted at."

The following year, 1938, McIntyre wrote his fifth, and final, gritty urban drama, the aptly titled Signing Off, a story about an inner-city racketeer who is killed on his wedding day before marrying up into a lace curtain Irish-American family. The book, which feels jotted off, is by far the weakest of the Philadelphia books and received disappointing reviews. And—like Ferment—the country purchased far fewer copies of Signing Off than of Steps Going Down.

"It was a nice thing, when a man was old, if he had a little money and needn't be worried by things … 'but he never had it,' said the watchman; 'the sickness came upon him, and the money went; he died in the narrow street where he'd lived so long.'"
—Steps Going Down

John McIntyre's final decade reads like a slow but steady descent into the maelstrom. After Signing Off he still published, but as the quality of his prose nosedived, rejection letters poured in. Even the Philadelphia Inquirer shot down stories. As his finances dried up, McIntyre resorted to selling off his dime and pulp novels and hounding editors for late payments. Then he became "lonely," says Whitehead. For many years McIntyre had kept informal company with a straight-laced Philadelphia music teacher named Clara Dunn, who long desired marriage. Yet, even at this stage in his life, McIntyre resisted the tie. "He was dispirited over his bachelorhood, I think, and concerned about his income, says Whitehead. "Yet he was still writing, still trying to place novels for publication, still hopeful in his profession.

When poverty descended, McIntyre scraped loans off friends, people like Joe Malloy. But bankruptcy eventually forced him to leave his downtown apartment and accept an offer of a single room above a photography studio at the corner of 42nd and Locust streets. It was while living there that McIntyre was diagnosed with cancer. Various medical treatments proved useless and, fearing for his eternal soul, the lapsed Catholic began attending Sunday masses regularly.

Despite the stygian suffering, McIntyre kept writing. In the winter of 1950, he was well into his first autobiographical novel, Some Days in the World, when he underwent a surgery he never recovered from. On May 21, 1951, McIntyre died. He was 79 years old.

A requiem mass was held at St. Mary's Church, according to Ebest, and on a gray spring day McIntyre was buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in West Philadelphia.

"The world was big, and it was filled with imponderable things; mysteries were everywhere."
—Steps Going Down

At his death, John McIntyre was already fading into obscurity. The intervening decades took care of the rest.

Today his hard-edged Philadelphia novels are forgotten and "only hard core mystery buffs" are aware of the gutsy writer from Northern Liberties, notes Thomas Whitehead. And hardly a soul peruses the John T. McIntyre Papers. And that's a shame. Because McIntyre rendered Philadelphia's darker edges into some of the toughest and finest fiction this city has ever seen. "He was the Philadelphia writer who captured the realistic parts of city life: the street life, the politics, the ethnic groups in the city, all the relationships," Whitehead says. "I think he did it well."

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