Edgar Rice Burroughs
[This biographical profile is based largely on the book Tarzan Forever: The Life of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Creator of Tarzan by John Taliaferro, 1999, Scribners.]
With his fondness for fantasy, his high regard for real estate, and his confidence that the movies would make him wealthy, Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875–1950) was the perfect immigrant to early 20th century Los Angeles.
“Pine no more my lassie
My little lad be gay!
For weâ€™re going back
To our own Tarzana Ranch
To our own Tarzana Ranch far away“
– from a tune written by Edgar Rice Burroughs about his ranch home
First and foremost, Edgar Rice Burroughs was the creator of Tarzan. He also created other pulp fiction heroes, but none with the staying power of his jungle superman. In his time, which covered the second, third and fourth decades of the last century, only Western writer Zane Grey came close to equaling Burroughs in popularity. Millions read his stories in magazines. Additional millions bought his books, 74 in all. Tarzanâ€™s adventures could be tracked in Sunday comic strips, radio serials, and, of course, the movies.
And then there was Edgar Rice Burroughs the real estate developer â€“ most notably, the founder of Tarzana, the San Fernando Valley community created when Burroughs sub-divided part of his 550-acre ranch bearing the same name.
This unusual combination of popular writer and property developer makes Burroughs a unique figure in Southern California history.
Born in Chicago, the son of Civil War veteran Maj. George T. Burroughs, the future writer was an undistinguished student and failed the entrance exam to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point . Footloose as a young man, he held a dizzying array of jobs before backing into a career as a writer. At various times, he was a member of the Armyâ€™s 7th Cavalry, a cowboy, a gold miner, a railroad policeman, an alderman, a salesman, an advertising contractor, and head of Sears Roebuckâ€™s stenographic department in Chicago.
As a young man, he liked drawing caricatures and writing verse, but never imagined himself a writer. His perspective changed in 1911 at the age of 36. After reading a number of all-fiction magazines, he thought: “If other people got money for writing such stuff, I might too, for I was sure I could write stories just as rotten as theirs.” With nothing to lose, he began writing a romantic fantasy called “A Princess of Mars,” in which a soldier falls into a trance in Arizona and wakes up on Mars where he rescues the beautiful princess Dejah Thoris and defeats evil Martians with names like Tal Hajus, jeddak of Thark.
Much to his amazement, he sold the story for $400 under the unlikely pseudonym of Normal Bean. A second story was rejected, and then came “Tarzan of the Apes” for which Burroughs received $700 (less than a penny a word) and a letter from his editor praising it as “the most exciting story we have seen in a blue moon, and about as original as they make â€˜em.” “Tarzan” ran in full in the October 1912 issue of The All-Story magazine (this time under the Burroughs name) and was an immediate success.
In his biography of Burroughs, Tarzan Forever, John Taliaferro writes: “Where had the idea for Tarzan come from? Burroughs never did come up with a pat explanation, perhaps because there was none. â€˜Iâ€™ve been asked that hundreds of times and ought to have a good answer thought up by now, but havenâ€™t,â€™ he told the Los Angeles Times in 1929.” (Burroughs, incidentally, never visited Africa .)
More Tarzan stories followed, as did stories with other heroes fighting the good fight in settings ranging from Mars and Venus to the Earthâ€™s inner crust . In time, the stories became books which generated royalties and a new life for Burroughs.
“In a typical Burroughs tale, the hero is a stranger in a strange land â€“ Tarzan in the jungle, John Carter on Mars, David Innes in the Inner World, Carson Napier on Venus,” writes Taliaferro. “He is a warrior by both breeding and training. Repeatedly he is chased, outnumbered by savage hordes, and thrown into a â€˜Stygianâ€™ cell of â€˜Cimmerianâ€™ darkness. â€˜Where there is life there is hope,â€™ exclaims John Carter when the going gets roughest, an optimism shared by all Burroughs protagonists. By application of brawn, brains, and valor, he eventually prevails over his adversaries and either makes his way home or else finds a new and better home.” Taliaferro credits Burroughs with introducing boy-meets-girl romance into science fiction.
Throughout his life, Burroughs considered himself more of a businessman than an artist. “Once a story was on paper,” writes Taliaferro, “his fundamental strategy was always to get the highest possible fee from the best possible magazine, and then recycle â€“ resell â€“ the plots and characters in every possible way, like a tailor using every scrap from a bolt of cloth.” Burroughs eventually formed a company, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc., to publish his books and manage his business interests.
The first Tarzan movie, starring Elmo Lincoln, appeared in 1918 and was a huge success. (Many of the scenes were shot in Griffith Park .) The movieâ€™s popularity enhanced the sale of Burroughsâ€™s books, and with royalties mounting, he moved himself and his family to Los Angeles from Oak Park , Illinois . Within weeks of their arrival in February 1919, Burroughs had bought the 550-acre San Fernando Valley ranch that had been the home of Los Angeles Times publisher Gen. Harrison Gray Otis prior to his death in 1917. The cost was $125,000. The ranch which Otis called Mil Flores (Thousand Flowers) included a 4,500 sq. ft., 20-room hacienda, gardens, orchards, fields and 500 Angora goats. Burroughs described it as “one of the loveliest spots in the world” and re-named it Tarzana.
Burroughs hoped that the ranch would become self-sufficient, but his expensive tastes, combined with a large mortgage and upkeep costs, took their toll. In 1922, one hundred acres closest to Ventura Boulevard were set aside to form a new community bearing the ranchâ€™s name. “The city is rapidly going out Ventura way,” Burroughs wrote. When the sale of residential lots proved disappointing (an acre went for $3,000), he hired a broker who staged a “jungle barbecue,” gave away a car, and distributed autographed photos of the writer.
More changes were in the offing. In 1924, Burroughs and a group of investors formalized an agreement to develop 120 acres of Tarzana ranch land into the El Caballero Country Club. The 20-room hacienda where Burroughs and his family lived became the clubhouse. A few months later, Burroughs moved his family into a rented home in downtown Los Angeles . The following year, he built a modest home in the Tarzana subdivision less than a quarter of a mile from the clubhouse.
In 1928, writes Taliaferro, “the 400 residents of the Tarzana subdivision and the adjacent subdivision of Runnymede had gathered in the Reseda Masonic Hall and voted to unify under the name of â€˜Tarzana.â€™ Where a decade earlier there had been open fields and a handful of modest homes, now there was a proper American suburb.” In 1930 the U.S. Postal Service gave Tarzana its own postmark and post office.
Burroughs characters had universal appeal, and his books were printed in 30 languages. During the â€˜20s, he was the most widely read English-language writer in Russia , bettering O. Henry, H.G. Wells, Jack London, and Arthur Conan Doyle. A 1940 article in The Saturday Evening Post described Burroughs as America â€™s greatest living writer based on three criteria: the number of readers, the creation of a memorable character, and “the possibility of being read by posterity.” The Post writer also observed: “He has enough fame for a thousand ordinary lions of the literary teas, but it has never meant anything to him except as it has boosted royalties.” At times, Burroughs bristled over his treatment by the literary community, which dismissed him as a “pulp fiction writer,” but he had few illusions about his work. He regarded himself primarily as a storyteller.
Even when he tired of mining the same old material, Burroughs went on writing Tarzan stories. “I think plots are like eggs,” he once wrote. “A hen is born with potentialities of just so many eggs, and after she has layed [sic] the last one she can sit on her nest and strain and grunt and never squeeze out another. Perhaps a writer is born with just so many plots. I have been straining and grunting and rearranging my feathers for a long time, but I canâ€™t squeeze out a single new plot, and the old ones have commenced to smell.”
In the end, however, it was Hollywood that guaranteed Tarzan a long life. In 1932, MGM produced the first Tarzan sound movie with Olympic gold medal swimmer Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan and Maureen Oâ€™Sullivan as Jane. The movie was an enormous success and spawned more Tarzan films, with and without Weissmuller, who is generally regarded the best of the movie Tarzans. During the â€˜30s, Tarzan also became a radio serial featuring Burroughsâ€™s son-in-law and daughter, and a Sunday comic strip, drawn first by Hal Foster and then Rex Maxon. There was an even a nationwide fan club called Tarzan Clans of America. (In the late â€˜60s, Tarzan became a TV series.)
Burroughs was twice married and divorced. For a time he lived in a rented quarters in Beverly Hills , in Palm Springs , and above the Sunset Strip. To reduce expenses he moved to Hawaii in 1940. On Dec. 7, 1941, en route to a tennis game with his son, he witnessed the bombing of Pearl Harbor . At the age of 66, Burroughs signed on as a war correspondent, but saw little frontline action. After the war, he returned to Los Angeles , crippled by a failing heart.
His last residence was a small bungalow on a half-acre lot north of Ventura Boulevard — in Encino, a few blocks from the Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc., office on Ventura Boulevard in Tarzana. A severe heart attack further weakened him in December 1949, and he died on Sunday, March 19, 1950. His housekeeper found him slumped over the morning newspaper, writes Taliaferro. “Apparently he had been reading Tarzan in the funny papers when his heart stopped beating. At least it is pleasant to think so.” His ashes are buried under a tree in front of the Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. office which, 50 years after his death, remains the hub of a thriving enterprise, thanks to a jungle hero who may never die.
Additional reading: Edgar Rice Burroughs: The Man Who Created Tarzan by Irwin Porges (1975), Brigham Young University Press.
There is also an international Edgar Rice Burroughs fan organization called the Burroughs Bibliophiles which operates a Website and issues two publications: a quarterly magazine, The Burroughs Bulletin, and a monthly newsletter, The Gridley Wave. The Bibliophiles also hold an annual convention, called a “Dum-Dum.”
An Edgar Rice Burroughs memorial collection is housed at the University of Louisville in Kentucky .
– Contributed by Albert Greenstein, 2000