Happy 128th Birthday to Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson!

The Major circa 1948

Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson was born on January 7th 1890. Although various internet sources state his birth as January 4th that is incorrect. Everything you read on the internet is not necessarily factual!

How do I know that the Major’s birthdate is January 7th? Because I have spent over 20 years piecing together the facts of his life. In that process, I have spent days pouring over microfilm, accessing files from various outposts of the National Archives including the main building in Washington, DC as well as other libraries across the country. No matter how much material is placed on the web there is nothing better than primary material and research. From that research, I know for a fact that Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson was born on January 7th. It is on every single official government document that he filled out for the military and passport applications as well as various other sources.

In a letter MWN wrote in “The Camp-Fire” Adventure, October 1, 1927 following his story, “Dark Regiment,” he mentions his battered old typewriter and quotes from a letter that Rudyard Kipling wrote to him. He then goes on to describe his birth in Greeneville, Tennessee January 7, 1890.

In almost all the official records he listed his birthplace as Greeneville, Tennessee. However, on his application to join the regular army he listed Carteret, Tennessee, a small community near Johnson City, Tennessee. This tallies with a state census record in which his father is listed in that district. On MWN’s Form for Individual Record he lists his place of birth as Carnegie, Tennessee, also near Johnson City. I have traveled to Johnson City, Greenville and the surrounding small communities several times attempting to find the Major’s birth certificate. There are a couple of problems with official records from this period of history. A 1921 fire destroyed much of the 1890 national census and there are no official birth records in Greeneville or the surrounding areas from that period. So far there is no official record of his birth to be found. For the time being we will have to rely on what the man himself stated on all official documents.

Jonesborough, TN

The area in the northeastern corner of Tennessee bordered by North Carolina to the east and Virginia to the north is rich in history of the native Cherokees and the early German and Scottish settlers. It is Daniel Boone territory. The land is stunningly gorgeous, part of the Appalachian Mountains with the Smokey Mountains to the south and the Blue Ridge Mountains to the east with hills and valleys and swift creeks running through them. Not an easy terrain to navigate on horseback. The January weather in the mountains would have made travel especially difficult. Here’s where I take the facts and make an educated guess. The Major’s grandfather was a physician living in Jonesborough, about halfway between Johnson City and Greeneville. The Major’s mother, Antoinette was very close to her father and was living in Jonesborough for much of the Major’s early childhood. Given the weather, the terrain, the lack of an official birth certificate and the proximity of a physician it makes sense that Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson was born at home.

Homestead of MWN’s paternal grandparents.

Why would his birthdate be so difficult to know? I did not grow up with the Major nor my father or any of the rest of that part of my family. My mother Olive and my father Malcolm, Jr. were divorced when I was quite young. I spent my earliest years living with my maternal grandparents in Mobile, Alabama until my mother who was working for the United Nations returned from New York and remarried. My mother cut off all contact with my father and the larger family.

MWN, Jr. and Olive. Happier days in New York.

By the time I came into the Wheeler-Nicholson family at 30 years of age, my grandfather, the Major, had been dead for almost 20 years. At that point my grandfather had obtained a kind of mythic quality not just in the family but in the larger world. He was something of a mystery even to some in the family who often confused family stories and factual information. The stories about him in the comics world were dependent on oral histories of those who had known him for a short period of time and by those who had the power to tell his story to flatter themselves and possibly in some cases assuage their guilt. The facts of Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson’s life were never researched or examined and the anecdotes of those who told the stories were accepted as the truth and repeated for decades.

In the beginning, my search was simply a desire to know a part of myself. As anyone who has been orphaned or adopted or lost a parent at an early age there is a great sense of loss–a part of oneself missing. Since I came into the family as an adult and showed an interest in family history, it was natural for the elder family members to want to pass on family history to someone in the next generation who was interested. I became the recipient of various archival material and became a de facto family historian. As a child I had heard some of the stories from my mother who lived with the Wheeler-Nicholsons in Great Neck for a time. At first, overwhelmed with the spirit of the remarkable family that I was now a part of, I took the family history on its own without examining it too closely.

It took another 15 years before I began this odyssey to discover the full truth of my grandfather’s life and work. In the meantime, I spent several years recording Native Elders telling their stories and completed a Master’s degree in Classical Greek Mythology with an emphasis on the divine feminine. I love mythology and have spent a good part of my life studying the myths of various cultures. Unlike the hero who, in most myths, is searching for a vessel such as The Holy Grail, the female hero is most often in a search to put broken and scattered pieces back together. In the myth of Isis, Osiris is hacked to pieces by his brother Set who then scatters them. Isis travels the world looking for the pieces to put Osiris back together and restore his life. She finds all the pieces except for his male member which she fashions from clay and thus restores him to life. Life is given from the clay of the earth. Ring a bell? Diana, princess of Themyscria, in her origin story is fashioned from clay, from the earth. Comics and the study of mythology have much in common.

Knowing the facts as I do and continually learning more of the facts I am often incensed at what has been said and written about the Major that is false, untrue and slanted. Although my anger at this injustice seeps out occasionally, I attempt to follow my grandfather’s example. He was a man of charm and lovely manners and a man who did his best to act for what is right, for the truth. The only time I know of that he openly lost his composure was the distraught he felt at losing his comics publishing company. The vision he had of what comics could be was his dream. It wasn’t just a business for him or a way to make money. I don’t think he ever completely got over what happened and what was done to him.

What keeps moving me forward is the Major as a writer and creator. As a child I was aware that the Major was a writer and somehow had something to do with DC Comics and that Superman was all tangled up in there somewhere. When I was around 6 years old, my mother opened up a magazine and pointed to Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson’s name on the contents page and said, “that’s your grandfather.” Perhaps that is when it all started. It was about 40 years later before I tracked down some of MWN’s pulp stories and read them. I fell in love with the pulps and with my grandfather’s writing. What a world—gallant knights, courageous military men, spies in exotic locales and usually a romantic heroine who was as brave and courageous as the hero. Besides telling a good story, the Major’s pulp adventures often contain autobiographical material and descriptions of places that were familiar to him. Connecting the factual research with the content of the stories has helped him come alive for me. I can hear his voice.

In my studies of Greek myth, I read several translations of Euripides and I remember the moment it struck me that despite several thousand years and numerous translations there were passages that pierced my heart and I knew I was hearing the true voice of the poet. The creative act of writing is the attempt to put one’s voice into words for others to read and allow the truth to shine through. That is the mystery of truth and how a writer’s voice can shine through all the years and all the layers of myth.

The Major c. 1948 in Sweden. © Finn Andreen.

Happy Birthday to my grandfather, Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, may his creative vision, his voice and his truth shine through.