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A History of Starling Stories

by Thomas R.

Starling Stories was a magazine that ran from 1938 to 1982. In the world of bird-related pulp fiction magazines Starling Stories was somewhat unique in its narrow focus. At the time the only magazine with an equally narrow focus was The Magazine of Owl Fiction and Fact, which lasted from 1935 to 1942 when wartime paper shortages killed it.

Starling also began in an unusual manner. Like the starling itself, Starling Stories began in Europe. The Belgian aristocrat and amateur ornithologist Albert Coeme wanted to make a magazine concerning starlings.

After considering starting the magazine in his native Europe he decided instead to base it in the section of New York’s Central Park, where the starling had been introduced into the U.S. His creation of a magazine headquarters in Central Park was seen negatively by the officials of New York City, but through a mix of threats and bribery he managed to get the venture approved.

Under Albert Coeme’s direction the magazine featured primarily stories of anthropomorphic starlings or nature life. It also included a few nonfiction articles on starlings and starling poetry. The magazine's gentle quality drew some admirers who felt it soothing in an era marked by the turbulence leading to World War II, but what gained more attention was Coeme’s increasingly eccentric essays on starlings.

By 1943 Coeme claimed he had learned the “language of the starling” and that he embraced nudism due to their influence. In the following year he went in a different direction by converting to Judaism and abandoning the magazine. He spent his last years in Israel working on programs to fight anti-semitism.

The next editor was a Quaker named Gabriel Howard who took the magazine in a more religious or spiritual direction. Howard had written for the magazine since 1940 and did not entirely break with Coeme. Nonetheless, under his editorship, stories that emphasized simplicity, harmony, equality, peace, and spiritual matters increased. The quality of writing is generally believed to have improved under his editorship, and the magazine began to produce stories that gained mainstream attention. The most noteworthy story was “Leela,” written by film composer Oliver Messiaen.

Still, the magazine became financially troubled as Albert Coeme’s money went increasingly to other causes, and in 1949 it was sold to Orange Bird Press, a group that specialized in fiction magazines about birds. They replaced Howard with Martin Johnson who took the magazine in an entirely different direction.

Johnson had been given the position to make the magazine fit more populist tastes. Stories of violence and adventure increased. This led to the popular “Captain Starling” series by Henry M. Dempsey, who was then mostly known as a comics illustrator.

The “Captain Starling” series involved a starling who became a super-hero due to an experiment, and it led to a short-lived cartoon series in 1958. The magazine also added more humor and even poked fun at the reverence previous editors held for starlings. One story even described them as “vermin with wings,” which alienated some of the older readers.

The magazine’s critical recognition declined in this period, but it actually became profitable, helped in part by sales of “Captain Starling” merchandise, and this financial success led to Johnson’s having the longest term as editor.

Johnson’s career ended abruptly with his suicide in 1961. His death led to the discovery of his secret life of addiction to gambling, booze, and sex. The most startling revelation, that Martin Johnson was a pseudonym for off-Broadway actress Marsha Gerald, is dealt with in detail in Marsha Gerald: The Double-life of a Troubled Starling.

This turn of events caused the magazine to go into a tailspin with six editors being hired and fired in the span of five years. Many trace the magazine’s ultimate demise to Johnson’s suicide but, in reality, the days of profitability had already ended in 1960 and “Johnson” even mentioned the decline in her suicide letter.

An effort to reinvigorate the magazine came in 1966 when Orange Bird Press decided to make “Crystal Rivers” editor. Many readers initially assumed Crystal Rivers to be a relatively ordinary feminine name, but in fact “Crystal Rivers” was the name El Paso-based musician Frank Martinez took after an experience with peyote.

Under Rivers/Martinez the magazine took an experimental turn, which brought it back to mainstream attention for the first time in years, although this attention was not entirely positive. The story “Leo’s Starling Descends the Rocket in Peace” by Edgar Clock, despite being an acronym for “LSD trip,” was a fairly straightforward and humane story of a starling living in an abandoned NASA rocket that harkened back to the Howard era. The main surrealist aspect was the occasional mention that “Leo” was a man with an invisible body attached to the visible head of a lion.

Edgar Clock later became one of the more popular authors. However the 1971 story “Sand in My Mind Watches the Starling Blink” by “U. Noe” raised a great deal of ire and confusion. The story did not have any starling, or any bird of any kind except in the last line, “then a starling died.” Instead it was a highly violent and explicit tale of alcoholic hermaphrodites in a post-apocalyptic world.

The story was banned in Alabama, and the uproar led to Crystal Rivers’s resignation as editor. He has since become a born-again Christian and taken the name “John Martinez.” He has refused to reveal who “U. Noe” actually was but states that he repents of his time as editor of Starling Stories and feels guilty for “perverting something that was basically wholesome.” At the same time he partly blames “Godless corporate thinking” for the decision to turn the magazine counter-cultural.

After the “U. Noe” debacle, Orange Bird Press sold the magazine to Albert Coeme’s great-niece Rachel. Rachel became the first female editor and tried to make the magazine more pro-woman. She returned to non-fiction articles and used them to focus on women in ornithology or bird-watching. She also added poetry, advice columns, and other features. She wanted to open the magazine to birds in general but faced more resistance on this than she expected.

The magazine’s decline slowed, but by 1979 circulation reached a new low of 300. After discovering all 300 of her remaining readers resided in a retirement village near Tulsa, she sold the magazine to the city’s head librarian. The new owner had some graduate students serve as an editorial board for three more years, but after they received their Master’s degrees they lost interest and the magazine died.

In the end, the most remarkable thing about Starling Stories is not its failure but that it lasted as long as it did. Bird-related pulp or literary magazines tended to have a short life-span, and few of them had as specific a focus as Starling Stories.

The closest equivalent to Starling Stories success was Fantastic Penguins, a Penguin-related fantasy magazine that lasted from 1954 to 1976. Even if one sees The New Fantastic Penguins as the same thing, it would need to last a decade more before equaling Starling Stories’ run.

It is generally believed that Starling Stories lasted so long because it benefited from rich and eccentric patrons, but this is only part of the story. Starling Stories managed to tap into a niche no one knew existed and create a core of loyal fans. Although this core has all died of old age, the magazine’s achievement is still worth celebrating.


Copyright © 2007 by Thomas R.

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