The "Bald, Fat Guy" in ERB’s
by Alan Hanson
At the 1990 Dum-Dum in Louisville, I moderated a panel discussion
featuring Darrell C. Richardson, Burne Hogarth, and Sam Moskowitz. At the
end of the program, Sam mentioned (and I don’t recall the context) that
he had recently read about a man who was working on a study of “The
Jew in Science Fiction.” A man in the audience then arose and asked
Sam, “Has anybody ever done a study of the fat, bald guy in Science
That was the first time I saw Bob Cook. Since he was obviously
physically challenged in both areas of his inquiry, we all took his rhetorical
question with the good humor with which it was intended. When Bob passed
away in 2009, I recalled our occasional meetings at ERB gatherings over
the past two decades. That first encounter in Louisville, though, stood
out in my mind, and so, while I certainly am not qualified to undertake
a study of the fat, bald guy in all of Science Fiction, I could at least
do one of the fat, bald guy in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ fiction. The following,
then, is dedicated to the memory of Bob Cook.
ERB’s Fictional Fat Guys
“Show me the fat, opulent coward
who ever originated a beautiful ideal,” Tarzan was wont to say, according
to Burroughs in Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar. ERB then added
to his paraphrasing of Tarzan, “In the clash of arms, in the battle
for survival, amid hunger and death and danger, in the face of God as manifested
in the display of Nature’s most terrific forces, is born all that is finest
and best in the human heart and mind.”
Burroughs did not dwell on obesity in his fiction, but
when he cited the condition it almost always was a sign of weakness in
a character. It indicated a lack of physical fitness that was so important
to ERB’s vision of the ideal man, as described above by Tarzan. And it
followed that a person who was not physical fit could not be morally, emotionally,
or spiritually fit.
For example, Burroughs often described as overweight those
who had reached positions of power through political intrigue or accident
of birth rather than earning it through noble accomplishments. These unfit
leaders included monarchs, such as Ul Vas, Jeddak of the Tarids on Thuria
(“a very fat man with an arrogant expression”); the “gross”
Phoros, usurper of the crown in Athne; and Cristoforo da Gama, the “fat
man with the crown” in Alemtejo in Tarzan and the Madman.
Other unfit and plump ERB leaders include Moosko, the
“large, gross man, fat and pussy” Thorist Party leader in Pirates
of Venus; the German General Kraut, whose “fat belly” hindered
his escape when Tarzan crashed an enemy officers’ meeting in Tarzan
the Untamed; the “gross, slovenly” Phor San, an odwar in
the service of the evil Hin Abtol in Llana of Gathol; and the Leopard
Men chief, Gato Mgungu, who sported a “huge belly.” Not all of ERB’s
chubby characters wielded power. Some were just basic bad guys, like the
“plump, greasy, suave appearing Eurasian” Atan Thome in Tarzan
and the Forbidden City.
Burroughs’ depiction of Atan Thome is an example of how
the author characterized a villain by occasionally bundling obesity with
a set of other unsavory terms. Consider ERB’s description of Tul Axtar,
Jeddak of Jahar and Tan Hadron’s nemesis in A Fighting Man of Mars.
“He was a gross man with repulsive features, which reflected a combination
of strength and weakness, of haughty arrogance, of pride and of doubt —
an innate questioning of his own ability.”
At other times, when Burroughs wanted to paint an especially
sleazy portrait of a seedy character, he would pile on the corpulent descriptors.
He described Jefferson Wainright, Sr., the shifty Easterner who tried to
swindle Diana Henders out of her ranch in The Bandit of Hell’s Bend,
as a “fat man” with “fat hands” and a “fat face.”
He “waddled” instead of walked, and was called a “pot-bellied
buzzard” by another character.
While Burroughs usually didn’t go into how his overweight
characters had become so stout, occasionally he did take note of their
undisciplined diet. In Tarzan and the Madman, Alemtejo King
Christofora da Gama presided over a palace feast. The main course was a
buffalo meat stew. “It was highly seasoned and entirely palatable,”
noted Burroughs, “and there was a heavy wine which reminded [Sandra
Pickerall] of port, and strong black coffee. Evidently the King of Alemtejo
lived well. It was no wonder he was fat.” Another Burroughs character
who might have been better served to try a salad occasionally was Ko-tan,
King of A-lur in Pal-ul-don. He gorged himself on “rich foods” and
the “villainous brew of the Ho-dons.”
Of course, we all know that Burroughs often characterized
rape as a “fate worse than death” for a heroine in his fiction.
Well, it turns out that there is actually a fate worse than a “fate
worse than death,” and that is one of ERB’s babes being raped by a
fat villain. Burroughs provided a number of examples. Let’s start with
the aforementioned Thorist leader Moosko on Amtor, who was interrupted
while assaulting Duare. “The fellow was holding her down upon a couch
and with a sharp dagger was pricking her,” observed Carson Napier when
he walked in the room. “Whether he had it in his mind to kill her eventually
or not was not apparent; his sole purpose at the moment seeming to be torture
… I saw him stoop to kiss her, and then she struck him in the face.”
The furious American strangled the fat Thorist in short order.
There were other such dastardly attacks in ERB’s fiction.
Zora Drinov tried to fight off the foul passion of Raghunath Jafar, in
the Invincible, but the Hindu’s “layers of greasy fat belied
the great physical strength beneath them.” He had just bore her back
on a cot when American Wayne Colt entered the tent just in time to save
her. In Tarzan the Magnificent, Phoros leered at his bound
captives Stanley Wood and Gonfala. His “gross body swaying unsteadily,”
he addressed Wood. “I’ll show you how to make love to the girl,”
he gloated. “She’s mine now … and just as soon as I’ve shown you how
a lover should behave I’m going to kill you.” Tarzan interrupted Phoros’s
Just the idea of being sexually assaulted by a chubby
scoundrel was enough to drive a Burroughs heroine to desperate measures.
Sandra Pickerall faced a forced marriage to the Moslem potentate Ali in
and the Madman. “The marriage was to be celebrated with a feast
and orgy of drinking … and consummated at night,” explained Burroughs.
“In the meantime she must find some way to escape or kill herself.”
And in Tarzan and the Lion Man, when Arabs abducted Rhonda
Terry and Naomi Madison and headed north with them, Rhonda proposed escaping
into the jungle night. When Naomi pointed out the danger from lions, Rhonda
countered, “I am thinking of them, but I’m thinking of some fat, greasy,
black sultan too. I’d rather take a chance with the lion.”
Not all of ERB’s fat characters were villainous men. He
created at least three overweight women who were good-natured and amusing.
Birdie Talbot, described as a “fat lady in khaki bloomers” in The
Deputy Sheriff of Comanche County, was a harmless woman, whose
only defect seemed to be continually trying to coax her fellow dude ranch
visitors into playing bridge. Then there was Esmeralda, Jane Porter’s comical
companion in the early Tarzan stories. “Esmeralda weighed some two
hundred and eighty pounds, which enhanced nothing the gazelle-like grace
of her carriage when walking erect,” noted Burroughs, “and her
extreme haste, added to her extreme corpulency, produced a most amazing
result when Esmeralda elected to travel on all fours.”
However, the most amusing and staunch “fat lady”
that ERB created was Mary Donovan, the Old West dining hall operator in
Bandit of Hell’s Bend. Early in the story, Mary found herself seated
next to an elderly gentleman on a stagecoach traveling on an uneven road.
“The fat lady looked at him sideways, disdainfully,
and gathered her skirts closer about her. The stage lurched on, the horses
at a brisk gallop, and as it swung around the next curve the fat lady skidded
into the old gentleman’s lap, her bonnet tilting over one eye, rakishly.
“Be off wid ye!” she exclaimed, glaring at the little
old gentleman, as though the fault were all his. She had scarcely regained
her own side of the seat when another, and opposite, turn in the road precipitated
the old gentleman into her lap.
“Ye spaleen!” she shrilled, as, placing two fat hands
against him, she thrust him violently from her. “Sure, an’ it’s a disgrace,
it is, that a por widdy-lady can’t travel in pace without the loikes o’
ye takin’ advantage o’ her weak an’ unprotected state.”
Mary Donovan had spirit — a lot of it. When bandits held
up the stage, she grabbed her fellow passenger’s pistol and opened fire,
nearly killing one of them. She stood up for Bull when the sheriff and
others accused him of being the stagecoach robber. And with stern resolve,
Mary tamed Wildcat Bob, “whose short temper and quick guns” had
earned him the respect of the roughest men in the territory. “He niver
was much … but thin he’s a man, an’ a poor one’s better than none at all,”
she gave as her reason for marrying Bob.
Not of all of ERB’s fat ladies were loveable, however.
Penelope Leigh, a society lady who “carried her fifty odd years rather
heavily around her waist,” was snobbish and irritating to all in The
Quest of Tarzan. Her presumptuous sense or morality eventually
annoyed even Tarzan. “It is your evil mind that needs clothes,”
he told her.
There are a couple of particularly comical scenes concerning
obesity in ERB’s fiction. The first, from The Outlaw of Torn,
involves the villainous Peter of Colfax. Burroughs described him as “short
and very stout. His red, bloated face, bleary eyes and bulbous nose bespoke
the manner of his life; while his thick lips, the lower hanging large and
flabby over his receding chin, indicated the base passions to which his
life had been given.”
After causing the lovely Lady Bertrade de Montfort to
be abducted and brought to his castle, Peter had the temerity to make love
to her, as described below by Burroughs.
“When fond hearts be thwarted by a cruel parent,” replied
the pot-bellied old beast in a soft and fawning tone, “love must still
find its way … See I kneel to thee, my dove!” and with cracking joints
the fat baron plumped down upon his marrow bones.
“Thou art a fool, Sir Peter,” she said, “and, at that,
the worst species of fool — an ancient one. It is useless to pursue they
cause, for I will have none of thee …
“Her first words had caused the red of humiliation
to mottle his already ruby visage to a semblance of purple, and now, as
he attempted to rise with dignity he was still further covered with confusion
by the fact that his huge stomach made it necessary for him to go upon
all fours before he could rise, so that he got up much after the manner
of a cow, raising his stern high in air in a most ludicrous fashion.”
Bertrade later heaped on the insults, calling Peter a
“hideous, abhorrent pig of a man” and a “warty toad.”
(Burroughs used another plump character in The Outlaw
of Torn to make a general statement about fat people. “When
Father Claude climbed down from his donkey — fat people do not ‘dismount’
— a half dozen young squires ran forward to assist him.”)
Another weighty scene occurs in Burroughs’ juvenile story
and the Tarzan Twins with Jad-bal-ja, the Golden Lion. Hungry and
lost in the jungle, Dick and Doc decide to try eating the heart of a large
fruit they found growing in the forest. It tasted so bad that the boys
lost their appetite. That gave Dick an idea.
“Sure is filling,” admitted Dick. “If we could take
some of it back to civilization we could make our fortunes.”
“How?” asked Doc.
“We could sell it to women who want to reduce. There
are about a hundred million fat ladies who want to get thinner and nobody
could even commence to guess how much they spend every year trying to reduce.
Why, just think of all the customers we would have.”
“But how do you know it would reduce them?” demanded
“That’s easy. What makes ’em fat?”
“Eating too much, of course,” said Doc.
“Then if they didn’t eat they’d get thin, wouldn’t
“All they’d have to do would be to eat some of this
the first thing in the morning and then they wouldn’t want to eat anything
more all day,” explained Dick; “at least not if they felt the way I feel
“Gee!” exclaimed Doc. “That’s a pretty good idea. Let’s
start a company.”
Edgar Rice Burroughs, who was himself admittedly overweight
during much of his writing career, lost an impressive amount of weight
while in Hawaii during the first few months of World War II. In a letter
to his daughter Joan, dated January 10, 1942, Burroughs revealed that his
weight had dropped to 175 pounds. The reduction, he claimed, was the result
of the three to five sets of tennis he had been playing each day with son
Hulbert. (Not bad for a 66-year-old man.) “I no longer look as though
I were enceinte (pregnant),” he explained. In another letter to Joan
the following month, he noted that his waist size was down from 40” to
35”, and in an April 15 letter he announced that he then tipped the scales
at 168, down 32 pounds from his high of 200. “That was a doggone heavy
load to carry around,” he recalled.
Bald Guys (and Gal) in
“Since I started writing I have
learned that our readers like to meet us — why, God alone knows; but they
do … just why they should long to know a bald-headed old man is beyond
me — the world is already too full of bald-headed old men.” Edgar Rice
Burroughs penned that confession at the “old” age of 45 in a 1921
article in The American News Trade Journal. Unlike his weight, there
was little he could do to reverse his hair loss. (According to Porges,
ERB once tried a toupee, but soon threw it away.) So when he used bald-headed
characters in his fiction, Burroughs knew from personal experience the
societal prejudices and personal regrets felt by a man without hair on
Perhaps because he was sensitive to the affliction himself,
Burroughs seldom wrote about bald-headedness. When he did, the condition
was usually found on other planets. One of his few earth-bound baldies
was the title character of his obscure short story, The Strange Adventure
of Mr. Dinwiddie. For this story revolving around mistaken identity,
Burroughs portrayed the title character’s physical appearance as being
decidedly unappealing. He stood five feet four and wore thick-lensed glasses.
His dominant feature, unfortunately, was one he tried desperately to hide.
“He scrutinized and appraised himself in the full-length
mirror in his cabin. His always thin corn-colored hair was but the faintest
suggestion of a sweet memory on top. The side which he allowed to grow
long and then brushed upward across the bald spot was failing signally
in its mission.”
Most of ERB’s bald characters, however, lived on Barsoom.
A few had scantily-haired pates that accompanied the aging process. He
described Phor Tak, an eminent scientist on Barsoom, as “an old man
with a finely shaped head, covered with scant, gray locks.” Another
was inventor Gar Nal, who, according to ERB, “might have been anywhere
from a hundred to a thousand years old. He had a high forehead and rather
thin hair for a Martian.”
More notably, Burroughs created a whole race of bald-headed
men on Barsoom — the Holy Therns, the priesthood serving the Goddess Issus.
The first thern John Carter saw had a full head of yellow hair. But after
Thuvia killed the priest and pulled his scalp away, Carter could see that
“not a hair grew upon his head, which was quite as bald as an egg.”
“They are all thus from birth,” Thuvia explained.
“The race from which they sprung were crowned with a luxuriant growth
of golden hair, but for many ages the present race has been entirely bald.
The wig, however, has come to be a part of their apparel, and so important
a part do they consider it that it is cause for the deepest disgrace were
a thern to appear in public without it.” Apparently, baldness was no
more valued on the therns’ Mars than it was on Mr. Dinwiddie’s Earth. Both
tried to hide the condition.
(By the way, Burroughs wrote of Issus herself that, “Not
a hair remained upon her wrinkled skull,” making her the only bald
female in his fiction.)
Burroughs also mentioned a class of bald-headed men on
Venus. In Pirates of Venus, Carson Napier learned that a
salve that stops hair growth existed there. Danus, an Amtorian physician,
told Napier, “Use it everyday for six days and the hair will never again
grow on your face. We used to use it on the heads of confirmed criminals.
Whenever one saw a bald-headed man or a man wearing a wig he watched his
valuables.” Carson, a Southern Californian, responded, “In my country
when one sees a bald-headed man, he watches his girls.”
Napier didn’t expand on his assertion, so it’s unclear
whether he was crediting American baldies with being sexually seductive
or accusing them of being lecherous. The only Burroughs bald character
who pursued women fits in the latter category. That would be Mr. Stickler,
the office manager of John Secor & Company in The Girl From Farris’s.
A “bald-headed man with a thick neck and close-set
eyes,” Stickler began his “distasteful ogling” of June Lathrop
as soon as she entered his office for an interview. “He had a way of
looking at her out of his fishy eyes that fell short of being insultingly
suggestive,” noted Burroughs. Within a month after being hired, June
had pegged Stickler as a “hunter without the nerve to hunt.” She
knew he was the “sort that would take advantage of her first misstep
to snare her.” He tried, of course. When Stickler found out June had
an alleged sordid past, he promised to keep quiet if she would treat him
right. “Come on, little one, be a sport!” he suggested. When she
spurned him, he fired her.
In the end, bald men were generally just as dastardly
in Burroughs’ fiction as were fat men. Usually ERB dealt with those two
physical conditions separate from each other. In fact, I could only find
one Burroughs character who suffered from both of those unfortunate maladies.
Sam Benham is never seen in The Oakdale Affair. He is the
man whom Mrs. Prim had chosen to marry her daughter, Abigail. He is described
as “bald-headed” and old enough to be her father. The young girl
herself “detested Samuel Benham because he represented to her everything
in life which she shrank from — age, avoirdupois (over-weightness), infirmity,
baldness, stupidity, and matrimony.” To avoid being shackled to an
old, fat, bald guy, Abigail ran away, putting in motion the events of The
In summary, it must be noted that Edgar
Rice Burroughs, considering his massive fictional output, seldom created
fat or bald characters. When he did, he usually used those physical descriptors
to help differentiate the “bad guys” from the “good guys”
in his stories. Tarzan, John Carter, David Innes, Carson Napier, and all
his other heroes were trim and muscular with full heads of hair.
If Burroughs at times seemed insensitive to the plight
of bald, overweight men in his fiction, we have only to look at dozens
of pictures taken of him over the years to see that he was only making
fun of himself.
— the end —