The Emperor's Bridge Campaign



Two Traces of Allen Stanley Lane

Thirty years ago, in 1986, William Drury published Norton I: Emperor of the United States (Dodd, Mead), a book that, despite its limitations — the chief being the absence of footnotes — more or less immediately became, and remains, the starting point for serious research into the life and works of Joshua Abraham Norton.  

The front cover of Allen Stanley Lane's 1939 biography of Emperor Norton.

The front cover of Allen Stanley Lane's 1939 biography of Emperor Norton.

For nearly 50 years before that, the standard reference on Emperor Norton was Allen Stanley Lane's book, Emperor Norton: Mad Monarch of America (The Caxton Printers), published in 1939. 

The intervening years between 1939 and 1986 had brought with them a very different understanding of the role of biographer.

Although not a biography as such, Rabbi William M. Kramer's excellent little study, Emperor Norton of San Francisco (Norton B. Stern, 1974) may be the first truly historical — and historicized — look at the Emperor.

Fast forward 12 years, and — although William Drury leaves no doubt where his sympathies lie — it can be said that Drury's 1986 book was the first — and, so far, is the only — major biography to embrace an historical approach. In 2016, we can recognize Drury's contribution as history.

Allen Stanley Lane doesn't offer us that familiarity. The "biography" of Emperor Norton that Lane wrote in 1939 reads more like folklore. It's not that there is no evidence of research. Like Drury, Lane doesn't offer footnotes. But he does at least provide a bibliography and many properly sourced photographs.

This has made Lane's book more useful to subsequent generations of Norton investigators than David Warren Ryder's slim volume, San Francisco's Emperor Norton. Despite being chock-full of tall tales and other assertions that Ryder doesn't lift a finger to substantiate, Ryder's 30-page booklet — also published in 1939 — seems to have had a disproportionate influence in shaping the mythology of the Emperor. As if to prove the point that sometimes people just prefer a good yarn, facts be damned.

Lane seems to have understood that, in order to be taken seriously, his account of Emperor Norton needed to make some effort towards being "historical." But both Lane's and Ryder's accounts are more hagiography than history. 

In the end, Lane, like Ryder, gives the greatest weight to oral tradition. And — also like Ryder — he comes off as though he believes that every "proclamation" written in Emperor Norton's name flowed from the Emperor's pen.

Media criticism had yet to go public in 1939.

::   ::   ::

But I digress.

What has seemed remarkable: As often as both William Drury and Allen Stanley Lane are cited in Norton studies and within "the Norton community" more generally, it appears that there is virtually no online record of Drury and none at all of Lane — apart from references to the fact that they wrote their respective books.

There is this somewhat obscure AP obit of William Drury.  And there is a reference to an apparent early effort by Paramount Pictures to option Drury's book.

Otherwise, there appears to be no mention of Drury's or Lane's personal lives — or of anything else either writer might have written or produced about Emperor Norton.

So it's been gratifying, over the last couple weeks, to have been "gifted" with a couple more documentary signs of Lane's existence.

The first was sent to us by our new friend, longtime transgender advocate and writer, Gwen Smith.

This summer, Ghost Town at Knott's Berry Farm celebrates its 75th anniversary.  When Ghost Town opened in 1941, it was called "Ghost Town Village," and Knott's Berry Farm — still called "Knott's Berry Place" — was a family-owned roadside attraction rather than the corporate amusement park that it is today.

For the first five years, Ghost Town Village published its own "magazine" called Ghost Town News, which featured histories and stories of the Old West.

The lead story of the June 1942 edition — volume 1, number 5 — was "Norton I, Emperor of the United States," by Allen Stanley Lane. An original copy of this edition is in Gwen Smith's collection. She sent us the next best thing: the terrific scans below (click the images to enlarge and read).

::   ::   ::

The second "trace" of Allen Stanley Lane lies "hidden" in a most unexpected place.

The Campaign's friend Lindsey Westbrook, a professional editor, has been helping with our project to publish a book of selected Proclamations of Emperor Norton. Last week, Lindsey and I took a quick road trip to Sacramento to research the David Warren Ryder Archive at the California State Library. There are 42 boxes of Ryder's papers there, and we thought that perhaps one of them might include some documentation for his claim that Emperor Norton wrote the "Frisco" proclamation that so often is attributed to him.

No such luck.

Among the things we did find, however, was a present that Ryder received from Allen Stanley Lane.

In 1945, Ryder wrote a booklet called Storied San Francisco. The booklet was published by the Fireman's Fund Insurance Company to commemorate that year's founding of the United Nations at a conference in San Francisco. The booklet included a passage on Emperor Norton that was reprinted as a stand-alone piece in an August 1945 edition of The Saturday Evening Post.

Lane had a copy of the booklet specially bound, then he inscribed and gave the booklet to Ryder as a memento of their friendship. Here it is (click to enlarge and read).

Specially bound and inscribed copy of David Warren Ryder's booklet,  Storied San Francisco , given to Ryder by Allen Stanley Lane as a memento of their friendship. Collection of the California State Library (David Warren Ryder Archive).

Specially bound and inscribed copy of David Warren Ryder's booklet, Storied San Francisco, given to Ryder by Allen Stanley Lane as a memento of their friendship. Collection of the California State Library (David Warren Ryder Archive).

To David Warren Ryder:

To you who wrote it I inscribe this specially bound copy of our well-loved "Storied San Francisco" in order to record that there has been added to my great delight over its acclaimed excellence and my gratitude for weeks of happy work work together, the gift of your friendship -- a rich element of lagniappe which I shall treasure always -

A. Stanley Lane

August 1, 1945

We learn here that Lane probably went by "Stanley" and that he and Ryder knew one another.

What were the "weeks of happy work together"? Yet another subject for research!

As for "lagniappe": Webster's defines this as "something given or obtained gratuitously or by way of good measure." Origin? 1849.

Nice to see you, Stanley!

::   ::   ::

For an archive of all Campaign blog posts and a complete listing of search tags, please click here.

Search our blog...

© 2019 The Emperor's Bridge Campaign  |  Site design by Polished  |  Background: Detail from image courtesy of Eric Fischer