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Volume 7363

The "Bald, Fat Guy" in ERB’s Fiction
by Alan Hanson 

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The "Bald, Fat Guy" in ERB’s Fiction
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 Fiction?

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 (and Gals)
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 Tarzan 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 plans. 

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 Tarzan 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 The 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 Tarzan 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 Doc.

“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 they?”

“Sure, but—”

“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 right now.

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 ERB’s Fiction
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 his head.

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 Oakdale Affair.

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 —

From Our ERB Online Bibliography
A Collector's Hypertexted and Annotated Storehouse of Encyclopedic Resources
Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar
Tarzan and the Madman
Pirates of Venus
Tarzan the Untamed
Llana of Gathol
Tarzan and the Forbidden City
A Fighting Man of Mars
The Bandit of Hell’s Bend
Tarzan the Invincible
Tarzan the Magnificent
Tarzan and the Lion Man
The Deputy Sheriff of Comanche County
The Quest of Tarzan
The Outlaw of Torn
Tarzan and the Tarzan Twins with Jad-bal-ja, the Golden Lion
The Girl from Farris’s
The Oakdale Affair

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