The Spruce Goose, the Hollywood Stars, and America’s Nazis

Rick Wilber dives into the setting and inspiration for his story, “The Goose.” He discusses the historical background explored and retold within his work. Read his novella in our [July/August issue, on sale now!]

My novella, “The Goose,” in the July/August issue of Asimov’s, acts the part of a story about 1941 Hollywood and its celebrities, from movie stars and studio owners to baseball players, politicians and other famous Hollywood movers and shakers.  

It was fun to write, connecting my usual interest in baseball as a tool for storytelling with the glitz and glamour of Hollywood in an era that I altered only slightly from the real thing. 

Howard Hughes was still making movies but seemed more interested in building airplanes in the early 1940s. hiring the best engineers and designers to work for his Hughes Aircraft Company and setting air speed records while also building the H-4 Hercules flying boat (also known as The Spruce Goose), the largest airplane on Earth in its day. I happily gave that great plane a significant place in the plot, and especially perceptive readers will remember that I’ve used the Spruce Goose before, in the story “At Palomar,” in this magazine back in 2013. I moved the first flight of the Goose forward some years to accommodate the story, but the plane and its flight characteristics are as realistic as I could make them.

Similarly, movie stars like Gene Autry and Barbara Stanwyck and George Burns really were part-owners of the Hollywood Stars Baseball Club, and they often showed up to watch their favorite team play at Gilmore Field. Afterward, they could celebrate the team’s wins or mourn the losses at the Hollywood Brown Derby, just down the road from the ballpark. There, over a Cobb Salad (invented by Bob Cobb himself, owner not only of the Brown Derby but also the person who put together the whole idea of celebrities being part owners of the baseball team), they might dissect the game with the players and coaches often in attendance, happy to hobnob over how well their team was doing. 

Hollywood was in its Golden Age in 1941 and so was baseball. As I wrote this novella, setting scenes at Gilmore Field and the Brown Derby and Long Beach Harbor  for the first flight of the Spruce Goose was great fun, made all the more enjoyable for my fictional version being not so far from the truth.   

But there’s another part of this story that’s also not far from the truth. Underneath all the glamour and magic of Hollywood in those years there was a dark upwelling of fascism. There  were plenty of people in America, and particularly in Southern California, who admired Hitler and the way he’d made Germany a world power again. Many, perhaps most, of these people also liked what he was doing to the Jews in Germany and thought that was something they should do to the Jews of Hollywood, especially  the Jewish studio heads and their many directors and producers and actors, who, in the fevered minds of these home-grown fascists, were destroying America with their evil money-making success trying to make propaganda films that warned of the Nazi menace and praised resistance to it. Good thing the German consul to Los Angeles, Georg Gyssling, made sure those films were changed to be less troublesome before they were released, else he’d ban them from distribution in Germany, Europe’s biggest market for films.

But there’s another part of this story that’s also not far from the truth. Underneath all the glamour and magic of Hollywood in those years there was a dark upwelling of fascism.

These self-styled fascist patriots were dangerous. They were armed and ready to do whatever Hitler asked of them, and he was ready to ask a lot. German freighters came into Long Beach regularly throughout the 1930s and up to December of 1941, and it was said that there was a Gestapo agent on every ship, bringing messages to people like Gyssling, who held real financial power over the studio heads; and to Henry Allen, a vicious loser in life who’d found a way to make much of himself by leading the Silver Shirts, an army of thugs and bullies wearing black pants and silver shirts who numbered in the thousands. 

Hitler has taken all of Europe that he cares to take, in this fictional take on things, but his Eastern front is in trouble as the Russians continue to bog down the Wermacht. Hitler would like Japan to open up another front to keep America busy, and occupying some of the Hawaiian Islands and attacking the West Coast of America with Admiral Yamamoto’s fleet was not out of the question. 

In my fictional version of 1941 in Southern California, the Hitler admirers are ready to do their part. They’ve been marching for years and holding rallies that drew thousands as they built their militias, the Silver Shirts and the German-American Bund and the rest.  Now they’re ready now to do more, like killing the Jews in the movie industry, starting at the top with studio heads like Harry Warner and his brothers and my fictional studio mogul, Jacob Wise, who’s one of the heroes of this story.

And that was only part of the plan. In history as we know it and in my alternate retelling, the fascist militias also planned to sabotage the Southern California arms industry – the airplane factories and the shipyards, in particular – in the name of Hitler’s Reich. As the United States geared up for the coming war, the West Coast had become the pre-eminent arsenal of democracy, at least in warplane construction. More than half of America’s warplanes were being built right there in Southern California. Destroy them and it would open the door a little wider for Hitler and Mussolini and especially the Empire of Japan. There was even talk of a coup in Washington, D.C., where the government would be toppled and these patriots would put their own leaders in place, men who could be trusted to take action against America’s internal enemies and make peace with the fascists and the Japanese.     

It was only through the brave work of men like Jewish spymaster Leon Lewis and the brave men and women who worked with him, like Grace and Sylvia Comfort, that the plans of these would-be patriots were uncovered and thwarted.

Lewis was, in our reality, the single individual most responsible for thwarting the Silver Shirts, the Bund and others in Southern California. He is the star figure in the excellent book (and Pulitzer Prize finalist), Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America by Steven J. Ross, which I leaned on heavily for an understanding of the Nazi plots and of the courage and integrity of Leon Lewis. My fictional version of Lewis hews close to real life.

The Comforts, Grace and her daughter Sylvia, were recruited by Leon Lewis to infiltrate the fascists group in Los Angeles and they both did so with great courage. In the archives of the Los Angeles Times you can find an excellent article on these two amazing and courageous women:

Of course I always enjoy writing my fictional version of the famous baseball player and World War II spy, Moe Berg, who’s known as Archie Miller for most of this story. And Archie’s spy handler has her usual major role in this story, too. She’s named Eddie Bennett here, and she’s crucial in stopping the fascists, along with Billie the Kid Davis, the talented teenage who first appeared in her own story in Asimov’s in the November/December 2021 issue. 

So this is a story about fascism’s appeal to many Americans in the 1930s and 1940s, and how we can hear the echoes of that appeal even today.    

As I am for all the Moe Berg stories, I am indebted to the excellent biography, The Catcher Was a Spy, by Nicholas Dawidoff for an understanding of Berg’s quirky personality, his baseball talent, his successes as a spy, and much more. The book made for a pretty good movie, too, with Paul Rudd doing an excellent job of playing Berg.

I am also indebted to the fine book, “Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America,” by Steven J. Ross, and indebted, as well, to another very fine book, “An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood,” by Neal Gabler.  

—Rick Wilber

Rick Wilber has written about his fictional version of famous baseball player and World War II spy Moe Berg often in this magazine. In his new story, set in a slightly alternate 1941 Hollywood, Moe and his handler, the mysterious Eddie Bennett, are assigned to stop America’s homegrown fascists from destroying Southern California’s defense industry and murdering Jewish movie moguls. The Spruce Goose plays a critical role, as do a number of Hollywood celebrities, Pacific Coast League baseball players, a talented teenage girl shortstop named Billie Davis, and the villainous Georg Gyssling, the German consul to Los Angeles whose job it was to keep the restive studios sympathetic to Hitler’s Reich. Rick points out that most of the villains in this story are based on real fascist sympathizers who really were plotting a kind of insurrection in California in the months before Pearl Harbor.

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