MacKinlay Kantor: The Tangled Past of a Once-Famous Author

MacKinlay Kantor c. 1950

In 1961, the American writer MacKinlay Kantor (1904-1977) published a book about Iowa history called Spirit Lake. At nearly 1,000 pages, it feels gargantuan in length. It took years to research and no doubt equal effort to write. Given its narrative intricacy, some people find it a challenge to read.

Kantor was born in 1904 and grew up in Webster City, Iowa, about 130 miles southeast of Lake Okoboji and the city of Spirit Lake. As a child, he (like many of us) was told the story of what is commonly known as the Spirit Lake Massacre. In 1857, sparsely situated homes of Euro-American settlers were attacked by Native Americans (Santee Sioux in origin). At least 35 area settlers were killed and four women were taken as captives. Over the years, the inherited oral account of what happened was inevitably one-sided, and one of the goals of Kantor’s book was to retell it in a balanced way, albeit in slow and exhaustive detail.

Kantor’s book on Spirit Lake was a massive undertaking, with a word count even longer than his earlier, widely praised novel about Andersonville, the infamous wartime prison camp in southwestern Georgia, where thousands of Union prisoners died during the Civil War. Andersonville, initially published in 1955, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

About halfway as the crow flies between Kantor’s hometown of Webster City and Spirit Lake is another Iowa community, named Algona (from the indigenous term for Algonquin). At the close of the 19th century, it was one of the railway stops for the legendary “orphan trains,” and would later become the location of a camp for World War II German POWs. Yet another Algona distinction is its Henry Adams Building, at the corner of East and Moore Streets, a modest brick “architectural gem” designed by Louis Sullivan, the primary mentor of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Iowa artist Gary Kelley (who now lives in Cedar Falls) was born and raised in Algona. Having grown up hearing about the Spirit Lake Massacre, he recently took on the challenge of producing an updated version of that historic event in a graphic novel, Moon of the Snowblind: Spirit Lake Massacre, published in 2021 by Ice Cube Press in Iowa City.

Like Kantor’s original epic, Kelley’s book is an astonishing effort. Unlike Kantor’s boundless text of 950 pages, Kelley conveys the same story in fewer than 200 pages. And since his book is made up of a sequence of cartoon-style panels, there may be only a handful of words on any one page. His exacting terseness seems to work, and Kelley’s account will undoubtedly reach a wider and far younger audience.

I had first read Spirit Lake about 50 years ago. Kelley’s graphic novel led me back to Kantor himself. I was completely unaware of how convoluted MacKinlay Kantor’s life was, both in his youthful Webster City days and in his later difficult years as a famous author. For example, I was not aware of his candid account of growing up in Iowa, titled But Look, the Morn (1939). That memoir was frequently disturbing to read, but it helped to mitigate the shock of more detailed episodes in two other books about him: one, a memoir by his son, Tim Kantor, titled My Father’s Voice (1988), and a second memoir by his grandson, Tom Schroder, The Most Famous Writer Who Ever Lived (2016).

In all of those books, I was surprised to learn about Kantor’s father’s criminal past. As might be surmised from his family name, Kantor’s paternal ancestry was Jewish, and among his long line of ancestors were Talmudic scholars, cantors, and rabbis. His father was John Martin Kantor, who had been born in Sweden in 1878, emigrated to the U.S. as a teenager, and grew up in Chicago.

At some point, around 1894, when John Kantor was about 15, he had a change of religious belief, and converted from Judaism to Christianity. A few years later, he joined a traveling evangelists’ troupe, and toured the Midwest as a featured speaker, bearing witness to his newfound life as a “converted Jew.” Among the places where he spoke was a small Iowa town, where he was befriended by a wealthy farmer who decided he should lend support. That person provided the funding for John Kantor to enroll at Drake Bible College (which later became Drake University) in Des Moines.

It was at Drake that Kantor met another student, a young, beautiful woman from Webster City named Virginia McKinlay (called Effie). They fell in love, married in November 1899, and, one year later, had a child. After serving at several posts, John Kantor’s pastoral options collapsed when it became evident that he had repeatedly been duplicitous—he had not graduated from Drake, nor had he ever been ordained. Beset by this and other concerns, he fled from Iowa around 1903, abandoning his pregnant wife to await the birth of their second child, a son who was actually christened as Benjamin McKinlay Kantor, a name that he would later replace with MacKinlay Kantor, known as “Mack.”

With the aid of online sources, it is now possible to retrace the life of MacKinlay Kantor’s father, but the full story would likely be as long as one of his son’s famous novels. To shorten a (very) long story, Kantor’s errant father had very rare contact with his first wife and their children. Instead, he moved to Chicago at the height of the Prohibition era, married a second time, and appears to have had a relationship with the showgirl Sophie Tucker, “The Last of the Red-Hot Mamas.” Over the years, he was “in and out” of prison—in because of various crimes, out with the help of influential friends (both criminal and otherwise) in Chicago’s high places, most notably its infamous mayor, William “Big Bill” Thompson. As he neared the age of 60, John Kantor was convicted of involvement in a notorious stock-fraud scandal, and ended up serving 20 months at the Sing Sing Correctional Facility in New York. He died in 1956.

John Kantor appears to have led the life of a swindler and a con man. He was despised by his wife and his son. But judgments are shaped by comparative means: behavior is “good” in relation to “bad,” and “honesty” becomes defined in contrast to its opposite. In reading the various sources about the life of MacKinlay Kantor (the famous son), it soon becomes apparent that he himself had qualities that were short of sanctimonious. The accounts of MacKinlay’s own son and his nephew portray a gifted writer who was tormented and complex. Throughout his adult life, Kantor the novelist struggled with intense, constant proclivities toward alcohol, extramarital affairs, and other familiar afflictions. For readers who have unquestionably admired the achievements of Kantor as an author, these darker aspects of his life are distressing.

Mackinlay Kantor, 1950s (Wikipedia)

There is so much to process. But looking back on what I learned, one moment sharply stands apart: Near the end of WWII, Kantor was serving in Europe as an American war correspondent. Embedded with the U.S. Army, he arrived at Buchenwald, the German concentration camp, in April 1945, one day after its liberation by the Allies. Twelve days later, he wrote a letter to his wife, Irene, attempting to convey the dread of what he had recently witnessed. That letter has survived and is quoted in the memoir by the couple’s son. While its content is disturbing, it does not begin to compare with the horror of having been present.

Shortly after WWII, Kantor embarked on writing Andersonville, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize. During the American Civil War, Andersonville had been a camp for Union POWs, where 13,000 prisoners died from malnutrition, scurvy, diarrhea, and dysentery. In side-by-side comparisons of photographs of starving inmates in German concentration camps and the barely surviving prisoners at Andersonville, the resemblance is all too disturbing—especially at a moment when the world is once again at war.

Roy R. Behrens is a writer and graphic designer. Of late, he has been making short documentary films, some of which pertain to Iowa history.