Jack Hunter parlayed a fascination for WWI aviation into a long career as a novelist
By VICTOR GRETO
Special to The News Journal, Wilmington, Delaware • March 1, 2009
Jack Hunter was barely 6 when his mother, sporting a flapper cloche hat and fake fox stole, bundled him up in snowsuit and galoshes and took him through an icy Buffalo, N.Y., winter evening to the movie house to watch Buddy Rogers and Clara Bow pantomime their way through the 1927 silent film, “Wings.” His dad, an engineer, was working late, and mother and son didn’t want to spend the evening staring at the frigid walls.
It also irrevocably changed Jack Hunter.
“Mom went for the romance,” Hunter says. “I fell in love with those old planes, and I knew somewhere in my heart that my whole life was going to be spent dealing with these planes. I’d rather not think about what I’d have done or been otherwise.”
Perhaps Hunter, 87, who has lived in St. Augustine, Fla., for three decades, but who spent his most creative years in Wilmington, would not have turned out all that different. He might still have ended up a journalist, learned to play the piano by ear, taught himself how to paint despite being colorblind — and published 17 novels over more than four decades.
Then again, maybe not.
The content of his folk painting and his novels, including his first and most popular, “The Blue Max,” which was made into a successful 1966 movie, has been based on his love of World War I aviation.
Even his counterintelligence service in World War II was determined by his knowledge of German, which he learned because he wanted to read about the exploits of the great early 20th-century German fliers.
Many Delawareans of a certain age know something about Jack Hunter, including Wilmington resident Dick Holmes, who worked with Hunter briefly in the early 1950s.
“I mentioned his name to my barber and he said, ‘I remember him, I used to cut his hair.’” Holmes says.
“I mentioned his name to another friend and he said, ‘Yeah, Jack Hunter. I never met him, but he gave my dentist copies of his books, and I got them after the dentist read them.’” Visitors to Chesapeake City, Md., will even find the Blue Max Inn bed and breakfast tucked in among antiques shops. Known as “the house with the generous porches,” it took its name because it was once occupied by Hunter.
“My favorite character was the Red Baron [German flying ace Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen, credited with 80 combat victories], and I read everything I could find on the guy. But a lot I couldn’t read was in German — especially his autobiography,” Hunter says.
His friend’s father had emigrated from Germany, and his books were in German.
“I decided I had to learn how to read it,” he says. “I went to the library and got a book on how to read, write and speak German. I realized I had a gift for languages, so I became a serious student of German in high school and in college.”
He also became obsessed with building model airplanes. He devoured novels and nonfiction about World War I.
But his was a restless talent. He taught himself piano one summer his dad worked in New York.
“There was a beat-up old piano, and I got a book on how to play the piano by ear,” Hunter says. “I found out that music is a system of patterns and melodies, and I got pretty good at it. And my parents were agog. I’ve been playing the piano ever since.”
In 1938, his father got a job at DuPont and the family moved to Wilmington.
Dad was paying the tuition, so Hunter gave up the idea of becoming a flier. But he stubbornly chose another field.
“I decided to go into journalism because I loved books,” he says. “I became fascinated by it at Penn State.”
Hunter supplemented his tuition money in the late ’30s by playing piano in a band in a nightclub in Chester, Pa.
“I showed up at the school with a convertible,” he says. “I was buying my wardrobe, my car on the money I earned as a piano player.”
He mastered German at Penn State. When World War II began for the U.S. at the end of 1941, Hunter wanted to be an Army Air Corps pilot, but his knowledge of German “trumped” that career path.
He also discovered he couldn’t tell the difference between a red and green flare. “I couldn’t read the color of flares, and realized I was going to get someone killed,” he says. “There was a screaming need for American officers with knowledge of German, so I was off to the War Department intelligence training center in Maryland, and that’s where I became a counterintelligence officer.”
Subverting a Nazi plot
If Hunter’s boyhood had been charmed by his love of the romance of aviators and dogfights and machine gun-spitting biplanes, his early manhood and experience in espionage brought him back to earth.
“You never understand it, you observe and react,” Hunter says of the gentleman-killer, the classic German Nazi who embraced the culture of Western civilization while also thinking nothing of committing mass murder.
By the time he reached Europe, in 1944, the Nazis were losing.
Hunter’s greatest assignment was leading a team of agents who infiltrated a postwar Nazi scheme, in which former Gestapo and army officers invested in a legitimate and lucrative Munich-based trucking company, changed their names and made a great deal of money. The idea was that, after the war, the Nazis would “buy short-term security and long-term political clout.”
One of the Nazi plotters, however, hoping for immunity, tipped off the Americans. Hunter became the agent in charge of “Operation Nursery,” which, after more than a year, succeeded in capturing 1,000 Nazis, as reported in the March 31, 1946, edition of “Stars & Stripes.”
This operation also provided Hunter with the main character of his break-out novel, which he would not write until nearly two decades later.
“I met a Nazi, an engaging, imposing, sophisticated young man, who always was ruthless and completely wrapped up in himself,” Hunter says. “My fascination was with his intelligence and who, at the same time, thought nothing of killing people. He’s a product of the generation who came out of World War I.”
This Nazi became the prototype for Bruno Stachel, the main character in “The Blue Max,” the story of a lower-class German man who becomes a pilot who wants to win the medal for shooting down 20 aircraft.
“I never do get into his mind, really,” Hunter says. “But I got his characteristics, attitudes, his patterns of speech.”
Although his novel takes place during World War I, “My experience in World War II was directly translatable into ‘The Blue Max’ because wars never change and people never change,” he says. “Only the politics and uniforms and military problems change. Everything else is the same.”
Unlike fellow vets who dove into writing careers soon after they returned from the war — including Norman Mailer, Irwin Shaw and James Jones — Hunter returned to Wilmington looking for a job. He as yet held no pretentions that he could write a novel. He was a journalist.
A newspaper career
But there were no jobs for print journalists in Wilmington.
So he found a job at the radio station WILM, where he worked as a reporter under news director Bill Frank, who later became a longtime News Journal reporter and columnist.
There, Hunter met Dick Holmes.
“Jack was a writer and, as far as I know, did not aspire to be a broadcaster,” Holmes says. “One night, however, he had no choice.”
Frank asked Hunter to do the 11 p.m. newscast because he had been detained in Dover, covering the legislature.
“Jack had never been on the air before and was not too keen about filling in,” Holmes says. “I think he later confided to someone at the station that when the microphone was turned on and he opened his mouth to speak, there was an audible ‘pop’ — now, that’s nervous.”
A short time later, Hunter got a job at the Morning News and the Evening Journal — the two papers that later merged to become The News Journal — first as a general assignment reporter, then as a “rewrite man.”
A colleague at the paper, Phil Crosland, now 90 and living in Claymont, said Hunter “was at the Journal for four or five years.”
By this time, Hunter had married Shirley Thompson, whom he met at Penn State, and Crosland remembers eating over at the couple’s house.
Both Crosland’s and Hunter’s jobs as rewrite men involved being “fast and pretty accurate,” Hunter says. “Taking copy from reporters who were out in the boonies and transposing it real fast into news copy.”
But as the Hunters began raising a family — eventually they had four kids, beginning with twins, Lee and Lyn, in 1945 — Jack Hunter did what several starving Delaware journalists have done: got into public relations at DuPont.
He headed the company’s magazine, moving briefly to West Virginia, but he returned to Wilmington as a writer for its in-house employee magazine. He soon became the magazine’s editor, a job he held for more than a decade.
But eventually he found there was too little challenge for his creative mind. “I got so sick of being a PR guy,” Hunter says.
So much so that, by 1961, he finally decided to get serious about writing that novel he’d had brewing in him since the end of the war.
“I decided I would try to write the thing, in longhand on a scratch pad, writing two hours a night every night for seven months, at a little table in my bedroom,” Hunter says.
Their house was on Carr Road in Woodland Hills, says his daughter Lee Hunter Higgins, 63, who lives in Middletown.
“We knew he was writing a book, and that it was happening at night in his bedroom,” Higgins says. “But the writing of it wasn’t in the forefront. I knew he did a lot of projects, but I didn’t think a lot about it.”
Her fondest memories of her father are of him at his worktable. “However young I was, I remember in some part of where we lived, there was a workbench, and he was either painting or building model airplanes from balsa wood,” she says. “I always looked up to him as he sat on a stool or a bench and the light shining down on him as he worked at his projects. Then at a typewriter at his desk in the bedroom. I never saw him sitting around watching TV.”
Hunter says he wrote the book “pretty much as a reporter, yet I wanted to put a lot of experiences of my war into the novel.”
After it was rejected by more than a dozen publishers, E.P Dutton accepted it, but because Hunter was a new author, the publisher didn’t want to pay an artist to paint a cover for the book.
“He has turned out some great folk art,” says Dick Holmes. “Mainly vintage combat planes battling in the sky. He’s the only artist I know who is colorblind, but it never stopped him.”
When “The Blue Max” was published in the spring of 1964, the New York Times published a rave review.
When Bantam published it in paperback, the book became a sensation.
Everything changed. Except Jack Hunter.
From book to movie
He still recalls seeing his picture and reading the review of his book in the New York Times while sitting in his office in the ad department at DuPont.
“My first thought was I was going to get fired,” he says. “I was sitting there and the intercom buzzed and my secretary told me the director of advertising wanted to see me right away.”
Here it comes, he thought.
Hunter walked down the marble halls to the director’s office, rehearsing in his mind what he was going to say.
“He came around his desk and shook my hand and said he was proud of me,” Hunter says. “The only thing I could say was I didn’t do it on company time.”
Two years later, Crosland, Hunter’s former newspaper colleague, went to New York to see the opening of the movie. “It was well done, but he was disappointed they had made a few changes,” Crosland remembered.
Hunter knew Hollywood was going to make changes because he decided he was not going to California to write the screenplay — to the relief of his family.
“He and mom were given an offer to go to Hollywood to write the script of the movie,” recalls Higgins. “He decided that that was not their lifestyle, didn’t want to be sucked into that whirlwind, so he decided to stay put, and we were glad he did.”
The sad part, both she and her father say, were the consequences.
“They ended up with three or four writers for the script, and it wasn’t as true to the book as we wanted it to be,” she says. Hunter was annoyed that they changed the main character for star George Peppard to make him more likable, and that the movie’s planes were not historically accurate.
“But it was better than our parents moving to Hollywood,” Higgins says.
Hunter took an early retirement, wrote speeches for Delaware Sen. Bill Roth, and went on to write 17 novels, including his latest, “The Ace,” published last October.
He moved to St. Augustine, Fla., in 1979, where he lives with two of his children. His wife died in late 2006.
At 87, he still has two novels in the works and he blogs nearly daily on his Web site, www.JackHunter.com, which includes the first chapter of “The Blue Max,” samples of his art and more.
“His mind is sharp, but his hearing is bad,” says Higgins. “His legs have bad circulation, and he has a form of bladder cancer that has been treated with radiation.”
“I started off as a child interested in World War I airplanes, and ended as an 80-something guy writing novels on World War I aviation. It’s been a great life.”