The Spooky Isles talks to Stephen Jacobs, acclaimed author of Boris Karloff: More than a Monster
TALKING to Stephen Jacobs – author of Boris Karloff: More than a Monster – last week was a joy. But it was also a frustration. Being a life-long fan of Boris Karloff means I have a lifetime of questions that I want answered but a limited time to ask them in.
One thing I was grateful for was that Jacobs did not turn up any nasty surprises in his 10 years researching the famous movie monster. Jacobs discovered to my delight that he couldn’t find anyone to say a bad word against the late British acting great.
“No, no one said a bad word – quite the opposite,” the Croydon-based writer told The Spooky Isles. “Possibly that’s not exactly what you want to hear when writing a biography.I suppose it can get awfully tedious to keep reading how great someone was – but that’s how he was. He seems to have been always approachable, never stand offish. Would always take the time to sign and was happy to do so.”
More than a Monster is a mammoth biography, a huge hardback book devoted to the life and career of Boris Karloff – Hollywood’s most recognisable bogeyman. Jacobs did such a good job on the book, it has been given “authorised” status by Karloff’s only child, Sara Jane.
Born William Henry Pratt in Camberwell, South London in 1887, Boris Karloff gained worldwide fame in 1931 playing the Monster in Universal Picture classic Frankenstein.
More than a Monster charts Karloff’s journey from childhood to his emigration to Canada and his eventual acting career and stardom in Hollywood, which spanned over 150 movies.
Why did Jacobs spend such a large part of his life – 10 years – researching Boris Karloff? What is so great about the horror legend?
“As a child, around 12 years old, I would be allowed to stay up late and watch horror double bills on TV,” Jacobs explained.
“Usually this comprised of a black and white Universal picture followed by a colour Hammer production. Of all the stars that were introduced to me during these evenings – Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Junior, Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee etc – none caught my imagination as much as the soft-spoken, bow-legged Englishman. Here, for me, was an actor who had something very special. Here was a man who imbued his roles with a sympathetic nature. This was no simple bogeyman. This was an actor of depth and understanding.
“Karloff was, for me, a unique character – a real one of a kind. He is still one of the few actors I would stop to watch on television regardless of what they are in.
“He’s always interesting, even in the lesser of his movies. His characters were always shaded. Karloff said that, no matter how bad his character was, he would always try to elicit a bit of sympathy, usually by showing some feeling towards, as he explained, “the most helpless of my intended victims, and none for the others”.
“You can see this in, for example, ‘Tower of London’ when Mord (Karloff) is sent to kill the two Princes and, for a moment, seems to regret his task. His Cabman Gray in ‘The Body Snatcher’ is a thoroughly odious man but his hectoring of Dr. MacFarlane (Henry Daniell) causes the doctor to operate on a young girl and enable her to walk again. The Frankenstein Monster is the most sympathetic of all. And to top it all, the films are just great fun!”
Jacobs began his research into Karloff’s life in 1999 for his own benefit. He’d been a horror fan since he was young, catching films on the late night BBC double bills, but couldn’t find enough information on Karloff to satisfy his appetite.
“I tried to give a full picture of Karloff’s life,” Jacobs said. “I decided early on it would be purely chronological and would follow Karloff through from his beginning to his end. It wasn’t going to be a critique of his work – after all, that would be merely my own opinion, though I would write about the making of Karloff’s films and other works if the data existed.
“When I read Errol Flynn’s autobiography ‘My Wicked, Wicked Ways’ I was disappointed that he didn’t talk much about the making of his movies. The movies were, after all, the reason we all knew his name.”
Jacobs said the 10-year research process was “sometimes frustrating but always interesting. Much was like a paper-based archaeology. Search through the papers at the British Library was great – looking at pieces people hadn’t looked at in a long, long time.”
It wasn’t all hard work though; there was still time for fun: “I watched all I could of Karloff. Films, TV, collected his records and radio shows. There were some films I just couldn’t get to see – West of Shanghai and Devil’s Island are the two that stand out as ‘not seen’.”
The author – who rates Frankenstein (1931) and The Body Snatcher (1945) as his favourite Karloff films – said it was a shame more of his TV work wasn’t available. He said The Lark, The Mother Muffin Affair (from The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.) and Route 66’s ‘Lizard’s Leg and Owlet’s Wing (as Karloff is playing himself) were some of his favourite non-film Karloff performances.
Jacobs was overwhelmed by the amount of goodwill he received while researching the book.
“I was surprised how many famous people replied to my enquiries – especially as for much of the writing process I didn’t have a publisher,” Jacobs said.
“Eli Wallach wrote me of his recollections of working with Karloff, as did Jean Kent, Leslie Nielsen, Robert Wise, Michael Gough etc. Francis Matthews was particularly kind, as was Tony Britton and Robert Hardy. As I say, so much help from people who, I’m sure had much better things to do than answer a stranger’s questions.”
The book has the distinction of being endorsed by Sara Jane Karloff, the only child of Boris Karloff. Sara is famously protective of her father’s legacy and she has only ever endorsed one other biography. Sarah Karloff wrote on her website about More than a Monster: “This is the DEFINITIVE biography of my father! I am absolutely delighted to authorize and recommend and praise etc etc etc this book!”
High praise indeed and something that Jacobs never expected.
“I contacted Sara early in the writing process to tell of some of the things I had found about her father, things that had not been reported before and contradicted what Karloff had always reported,” Jacobs said.
“From the first she was very encouraging. I had never thought about asking her to authorise that book as (Scott Allen Nollen’s Boris Karloff: A Gentleman’s Life) already had that honour. My publisher, Bruce Sachs of Tomahawk Press, suggested I ask her (this was late in the writing process) and to my delight she agreed. I had always been a bit wary of ‘authorised biographies’ feeling that those books were ‘sanitised’ versions of the subjects’ lives but this didn’t prove to be the case. I sent Sara chapters as and when I completed them and she never asked me to change a thing.”
Jacobs discovered many bits of information that were unknown even to Karloff’s daughter.
“There were a lot of things in Karloff’s youth that Sara had ideas of – such as Karloff’s father not being a very nice man and the fact that Karloff’s brother George was involved in a shooting,” Jacob said.
“I was able to find much more on both of these. The separation papers for Karloff’s parents list some of the husband’s deeds – like the way he ill treated his wife. George (an actor for a time) accidentally shot and killed the neighbour!
“The biggest surprise was the discovery of a previously unknown wife – Jessie Grace Harding – whom Karloff married in Vancouver in 1910.
“In all consciousness, I cannot claim this discovery as, although I came upon the certificate in the British Columbia Archives – thank goodness for online archives – many of which didn’t exist when I started my research – another researcher, quite independently, did the same around the same time.
“While I selfishly guarded the fact to publish it in my book, Greg Nesteroff, a Canadian historian, wrote an excellent article called ‘Boris Karloff in British Columbia’. Sara told me that Greg had contacted her so we got in touch and corresponded often about our own new Karloff discoveries.”
I asked Jacobs whether he had he discovered anything new about Karloff’s most famous role as the Frankenstein Monster.
He responded: “So much has been written about Frankenstein it was hard to come up with anything new. I wrote that, after being made up for the Monster, Karloff turned left when leaving his dressing room. This caused a precedent and, it is said, all who used that dressing room after Karloff also turned left when leaving it. Whether it was just a publicity piece I don’t know – but if it was interesting, and relevant, I’d report it.”
As a Londoner with an Oyster Card, I asked Jacobs if there were any special places I could visit to honour Karloff’s early life in the English capital.
“There’s not a lot in London per se,” Jacobs unfortunately responded. “There’s the Actors Church in Covent Garden that has a plaque to Karloff. There are some flats where he lived or stayed when he was over here from the States. His birthplace is on the Forest Hill Road in Camberwell. The building still exists though the downstairs is now a fish and chip shop. Around the corner is another house the family lived in for a few months. Then there are the homes in Enfield where the Pratts (Karloff’s real name) moved to. I think only one of those survives now. And there’s his cottage in Bramshott, Hampshire where he lived during his final years (though he also maintained a flat in London).”
No statue anywhere?
“There are, sadly, no statues to Karloff here. There’s the plaque in St Paul’s Covent Garden and the English Heritage Blue Plaque on the wall of his birthplace but I’d love there to be a statue somewhere.”
Jacobs has done such a great job writing about Boris Karloff, I ask him did he have any other projects on the horizon?
“I’d like to write more, though I’d certainly have to speed up. It was a huge learning curve for me as I’d never written anything before. There’s a few actors I’d like to write about and a few things I’m working on.”
Click here to buy Boris Karloff: More than a Monster
Click here for Stephen Jacob’s More than a Monster website