Purple Prose

from the introduction to “Everyman His Own Detective” by George Antheil

SUPPOSE that one fine morning in the spring of 1936 you had been sitting in your club reading all about the Titterton murder in Beekman Place, New York City.
And let us further suppose that after a quarter hour had passed you suddenly jumped up, and exclaimed:
“By Jove! The murderer is of medium height, has pop-eyes, thin hair which is probably slightly curly, and in addition, he has a slightly receding chin. Moreover he has previously been arrested for a major theft of some sort, probably an automobile.”*
Now wouldn’t that have been something! But don’t worry. You need not be envious of this past self of yours that might have been. Miraculous as the above diagnosis might seem, you can, with a little practice, become a glandular detective of really magnificent proportions.

* An almost exact description of the Titterton murderer!




This text by George Antheil is from his High School magazine:


*(Trenton Free Public Library, Trentoniana Collection, The Spectator, Junior Number, 1917,p. 1 „Literature“,

„THE SOPHOMORE SPECIES. A Post-Mortem Examination.“ By George Antheil, B1.

As a type the average Sophomore is easily distinguished. The Senior is usually the long, sleek individual with the cultured brow and a passion for Chaucer; a soft, sweet smile plays about the handsome features of the Junior as he thinks of love’s young dream or Wednesday afternoon dancing practice; but the howling ex-freshman who is the terror of his teachers and who sucks up his soup in the lunch room like the last water going down a drain is unmistakably a Sophomore the world over. His hands are large and ungainly, his ears two or three sizes too big, his grammar rather bad, still he laughs loudly at his own jokes, sweetly confident that they are the wittiest productions of the gae. He spends so much of his time trying to look intelligent that he hardly has any left to be really so. He is so astonished at his own profound wisdom that he sometimes sadly wonders why these poor, misguided teachers try to teach him anything.

Antheil’s boyhood in Trenton

Some memories from George:

It was right about this time, incidentally, that a big scare swept over that section of the environs of Trenton, New Jersey. It even had the police upon the trail because, as it was discovered, everybody’s telephone wires over a considerable number of blocks was being regularly and systematically tapped. It was suspected that a gang of modern burglars were at work preparing the locality for a series of snatches.

All this, however, was no mistery to us. We were doing the wire tapping ourselves. Dick White had gotten an amateur telephone set at Christmas and the headphones thereof served most admirably for all and sundry wiretapping purposes.

I had gotten the idea by watching a telephone linesman working upon the telephone pole just in back of our back yard.


* * * * *


We boys now went camping, setting up our tent near the edge of a lake not very far away from Trenton.[i] How we ever managed to get our parents to consent to this I cannot imagine – unless they wanted to get rid of us. Boys of thirteen can be pests I suppose. However, I remember that mother was nevertheless ever in dither about me; she tells me today that she never knew what I was about to do next.

One day, for instance, she caught me up upon the second storey roof of the house. I had manufactured for myself a pair of bat-like wings which I had now strapped onto my arms and legs; I was just about to jump down imagining that I would then sail gracefully over the treetops and alight gently in a nearby vacant lot.

Actually I would have plummeted down into the gardem below and probably broken my fool young neck.

It has never pre-occurred to me that any single one of my revolutionary or inventive ideas when put to the test might actually not work.

[i] The earliest surviving letter by George is in fact a postcard he sent to his parents from the Y.M.C.A. Camp in Allentown, NJ, June 30th, 1912. It reads: “Feeling fine. Obeying instructions with good results. We had a fine meal today (..) I am practicing swimming a low pool hardly up to my neck. Camping is just fine! Had lots of fun from 5 o’clock am to 8 o’clock P.M. We go to bed very early. Don’t worry. Your loving son / George Antheil.” During the same summer Stanley Hart, Christopher Messerschmitt and Dick White camped near the Yardley Bridge, up the Delaware River, as the Trenton Troop n. 8 of the Boy Scouts, at “Cosey Camp”. The Trenton Evening Times informs us: “The day was spent practicing Boy Scout maneuvers and games were enjoyed” (Scouts in Camp, June 3rd, 1912). In a later document (1925) Antheil certified “Camping with the Trenton Y.M.C.A. 1913-1919.” He wrote so to Mrs. Bok, his Philadelphian patroness, in 1925: “Since I was eleven I have gone every year to the Y.M.C.A. camp up near Frenchtown on the Delaware. I was a good baseball player. I have been very popular with the fellows in Trenton, of the class out of which I have come.” (Letter, to Mrs. Bok, July 9th, 1925, LC)

Antheil writes about his early piano experiences

In 1910 my mother unaccountably commenced giving me piano lessons herself, teaching me what little she had already learned. Why and however she came to do this I am totally at loss to say. Mother is the most unpredictable person in the world, still all over her actions have ever seemed to have a deep and unreasoned logic, fundamentally sound. In any case I now thrilled to the learning of how to read real printed notes, to do that thing which I had so desperately wanted to do when I was but three and a half years old. That, however, was now an eon away; I was now ten years old.

Mother nevertheless stipulated that under no conditions was I to practice more than one hour a day – a obviously a very difficult condition. I now practiced from seven to eight every evening. I would have stayed glued to the piano all day had my school work and my mother permitted me to do so. 

Antheil writes about working at the family shoe store in Trenton

One of my fellow shoe clerks, a very likeable young fellow with a bright cheery Jimmy Cagney manner, was later to become the most blood-curdling gangster of New Jersey….

I meanwhile, placidly worked in the shoestore, content with the idea that its slight income afforded me everything in life I wanted most. Whenever a young lady customer became too demanding and had me tear out half of our women’s stock for her, I would innocently bring out a pair of men’s hip boots and suggest that I try them on her. This would invariably so confuse her that I would soon thereafter be rid of her – without complaint to our management.

Around about this time the boys at school nicknamed me “Angel Face”. This was to remain my nickname until I eventually left Trenton.

Antheil tells about his earliest hatchet job

Not all of my earliest musical memories were pleasant. For instance, upon Christmas day, 1903, I made early demonstration that insofar as music was concerned I was to be no one to be trifled with, but I had consequently to take the normal punishment invariably meted out to premature original thinking.

Upon this Christmas morning I had come down from upstairs only to discover that I had – contrary to my wishes – received from Santa Claus a large toy piano.

Now, frankly, this had been very inconsiderate of Santa Claus. For the Christmas before I had also wanted a “big real piano with real black keys too” and Santa Claus had brought me a miserable toy piano that was no real piano at all. One mistake upon his part might be excused, two mistakes of the same kind, however, was a direct insult. This Christmas a slightly larger toy piano in the place of the “real” piano I had wanted, but this was if anything an enlargement of the insult.

I promptly spirited it away down to our cellar and chopped it up with father’s hatchet. To smithereens.

My parents do not seem to be able to recall whether or no I now eliminated my namesake’s behaviors and promptly admitted

“I cannot tell a lie – I did it with my little hatchet.”

In any case mother, alarmed at the depth of my babyish passion, immediately took steps to curb it. I was spanked soundly.

Here, however, I had elaborately and with malice aforethought hung up the musical motto which I was ever afterwards to unswervingly follow:-

All or nothing!