“There were many women in the brief life span of Robert Ervin Howard. And yet there were few.”—Harold Preece, Fantasy Crossroads, vol.1, no. 3, May 1975
1927 yearbook photo
Daniel Baker College
There is next to nothing written about the events of Howard’s life at age 15, when he visited a carnival, perhaps local to Cross Plains but maybe elsewhere, and encountered a female carnival worker. Apparently, she was like a strong west Texas dust devil scurrying across the plains, who immediately swept Howard up, if only from a distance. Howard never mentioned this girl in his letters, to anyone. Moreover, one of his closest friends, Tevis Clyde Smith, who had written somewhat extensively on Howard’s life, never mentioned her in any of his writings. In fact, none of Howard’s closest friends or correspondences who have written anything we have copies of (e.g. essays, letters, interviews, articles, etc.) ever mention this girl, except one—Harold Preece.
In the May 1975 issue of Fantasy Crossroads (book three volume 1), contains an article by Harold Preece titled, “Women and Robert Ervin Howard.” In this article, Preece discusses a private conversation he had with Howard in Cross Plains when Preece visited the Howards at their home, just six or so years after the carnival experience. Preece explains:
The full—yet awfully thin, story—came out during the one weekend that I spent with the Howard family. The year was either ’28 or ’29. I can remember the fondness with which Mrs. Howard gazed at her maverick son—but, also, the graciousness with which she treated me as a guest knowing her Dallas nieces, Maxine and Lesta Ervin. She would have undoubtedly known the nice Sunday school miss. But probably this conventional matron had never heard of the carnival girl. (Preece 21)
The idea that Mrs. Howard likely knew nothing about the carnival girl is probably correct. There were various things Howard kept from his mother, some out of embarrassment to himself, and others if for no other reason than she might get upset. And like all of us do, he experienced things he simply wanted to keep to himself. Even so, Howard confided in his friend regarding the carnival girl.
Preece provides no description of the girl, which likely means Howard may have never given one. So, what she looked like is lost. In Preece’s article, he attempts to interpret why Robert may have been smitten with this girl. “Carnies—a wild breed—interested him because they lived free of the rules that govern solid home folk.” (21) At its core, this idea is very Howardian, but its not likely the whole reason Howard may have been taken in by her. “He stood there spellbound when he saw her moving around the midway.” (21) Other than a particular beauty that a 15-year-old Howard may have favored, how could this carnie girl have captured young Howard’s immediate attention? Preece surmises that, “she would have been easily identifiable as a ‘despised show woman’ in any of the little towns played by the rambling carnival. By her cosmetics and her hairdo —eyed jealously by inhibited local ladies—by her lascivious walk and her general air of not giving a damn about not being a nice girl.” (21) Preece certainly paints an interesting picture of Howard’s telling of the circumstances. One can easily see why Howard might like her since she smacks of everything he may have found appealing: different, mysterious, free, beautiful, and an uninvited kind of character that Howard was fond of incorporating into many of his stories.
It is not known whether this carnival (or fair as the case may have been) was a local event or an itinerant show. It is not likely that the show was local, like the annual fair and rodeo held in Cross Plains nearly every summer and typically sponsored by someone such as the local Fire Department. If that were the case, this carnival girl may have been a local girl, unless they hired outside workers to come in and help. There was such an event in Cross Plains on July 21-22, 1921 and a write up about it in the July 29, 1921 Cross Plains Review. But Preece’s retelling of Howard’s experience does not seem indicative of a local event. No, it seems closer to an itinerant carnival or an out of town event. It is also possible that this carnival may have been in a larger town, like Abilene or Brownwood, and the Howards traveled to attend it. In fact, back in 1921, both Brownwood and Abilene hosted various carnivals and fairs in their respective towns. The American Legion held several rodeos/carnivals in Brownwood, and Abilene hosted a traveling carnival that is still in existence today. It would not have been unusual for the Howards to have traveled to either town, especially since Mrs. Howard had at one time lived in Abilene and the Howards also knew people in Brownwood.
Whatever the case may be, a 15-year-old Howard spotted this girl, and being taken in by her, he watched her until she “disappeared behind a tent with a man—likely another carnie—for whom she had probably been waiting.” (22) According to Preece’s recollection, the girl’s occupation at the carnival was not known. She was likely spotted by Howard somewhere on the midway, perhaps close to the gaming or show booths.
She may have been a dancer—maybe the mistress of the character who “barked” the show. Or she could have been a shill for one of the “pitches” stepping up to make a fake purchase of some dubious ware to attract customers not getting their money back. She might have been a gypsy or just some Midwest girl gone wrong.
Whoever or whatever this sensuous wench, she made a lifelong impression on an already impressionable 15-year old boy. (22)
It is at least interesting to imagine that Howard may have used his memory of her for a female character for, perhaps, one or more of his Conan yarns. Could she have been the model for a blonde-haired mercenary named Valeria? Or could she have been the woman in “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter,” whose “body was like ivory to his [Conan’s] dazed gaze . . .” (Howard 32) Perhaps Howard used her as the model for Bêlit, who was “untamed as a desert wind, supple and dangerous as a she-panther.” (127) There are any number of possibilities where Howard may have used her. Or it may be that he simply kept her to himself, choosing to tell only his friend, Harold Preece, perhaps in an attempt to make her real again in the telling. Whatever the case may be, she certainly left an indelible impression, and I for one, am glad that Harold Preece chose to share Howard’s experience with his fans.
Howard, Robert E. The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian. New York: Del Rey, 2003.
Preece, Harold. "Women and Robert Ervin Howard." Edited by Jonathan Bacon. Fantasy Crossroads, May 1975, 20-22. (Volume 1, Number 3)
 In one of Howard’s letters to Clyde Smith, Howard attempts to avoid writing a biography about himself for The Junto, for fear certain things about himself might get back to his mother (CL3.487-488)
 See The Cross Plains Review, Vol XII, No. 11, May 20, 1921.
 In Abilene, Texas a city fair was established in 1881, which later became a county fair, and eventually became The West Texas Fair and Rodeo. By 1921, this fair in Abilene would have been a county fair with an itinerant carnival coming in to set up its show.
This article was originally posted at James R. Schmidt's blog: MightyThorJRS