by ZJ Czupor
The Writer with the Largest Audience in America
Not all successful mystery writers make best-selling lists, or become literary celebrities, or so wealthy they split their time between a sprawling ranch in Montana and a cozy apartment in Paris. In fact, many are hard-working writers who continue to create an amazing output of literature. Here’s one prolific writer you’ve probably never heard of—but you will now.
Henry Slesar (1927-2002) was an American author, playwright, and copywriter. He had a fertile and inventive mind for writing irony and endings with a twist in stories ranging from detective fiction, science fiction, mysteries, and thrillers.
Slesar wrote more than 500 short stories, 55 radio plays, and six novels.
He used at least a dozen pseudonyms for short stories which appeared in publications like Amazing Stories, Fantastic, Imaginative Tales, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and Playboy.
After he sold his first 200 short stories, he wrote his first novel, The Gray Flannel Shroud (1958), a murder mystery set in an advertising agency. It earned him the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best First Novel (1960).
Slesar was born in 1927 as Henry Schlosser in Brooklyn, New York to Jewish parents who were immigrants from the Ukraine. Later, he legally changed his name. Writing came easy to him, for at the age of 17, he was hired immediately out of school by Young & Rubicam, a prominent New York ad agency, and began a twenty-year career in advertising.
As a copywriter, he reputedly coined the term “coffee break,” in a national radio, newspaper and magazine campaign for the Pan-American Coffee Bureau (1952), which urged consumers, “Give yourself a Coffee-Break—and Get What Coffee Gives to You.” He was also behind the famous award-winning McGraw-Hill ad campaign called “The Man in the Chair,” which became one of the most printed ads in history.
In 1957, Slesar wrote a short story called “M is for the Many” which appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Alfred Hitchcock read it and bought it for adaptation. That began a long and successful collaboration as nearly fifty of Slesar’s stories were adapted for the TV series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
Slesar also wrote teleplays for Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, CBS Radio Mystery Theater, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and Batman.
He then found a niche as a writer for popular TV soap operas: The Edge of Night, Search for Tomorrow, and One Life to Live. In 1974, he won an Emmy as the head writer for The Edge of Night. The Soap Opera Encyclopedia called him a “…master of the serial format, creating a series of bizarre, intricate plots of offbeat characters in the spirit of the irreverent detective movies of the ‘40s.”
And TV Guide said he was “the writer with the largest audience in America.”
The Edge of Night was produced by Proctor & Gamble for CBS. Every plot and script was vetted months in advance by the sponsor and the network before episodes were taped. When Slesar was head writer his episode “Children of God,” about a charismatic cult leader, had been previously cleared.
Then, on a rainy and muddy day (Nov. 18, 1978), the Jonestown Massacre happened in Guyana. More than 900 members of the California-based Peoples Temple movement died. The cult leader, Rev. Jim Jones, called a mass meeting at the encampment after some of his followers murdered U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan, members of the media, and others who were investigating inhumane treatment. Jones proposed suicide encouraging all to ingest a powdered-drink laced with cyanide and other drugs which had been prepared by his aides. At the time, it was the largest mass death in American history.
Incidentally, the expression “Drinking the Kool-Aid” originated from this tragic event.
As the massacre became national and international news, CBS and Proctor & Gamble panicked. They ordered Slesar to end his “Children of God” episode “fast.” So, he and his sub-writer worked overtime to re-write the story. They transformed their fictional cult leader into a society gigolo.
Slesar’s literary output has been translated into ten languages. He died in 2002, at the age of 75, due to complications from elective surgery.
And that’s your Mystery Minute.