1937 - Anna dies. They had no
CHARLES FORT: The Hermit of the Bronx
Charles Fort was born into a fairly prosperous family of Dutch
immigrants who owned a wholesale grocery business in Albany, New York
State. He was the eldest of three brothers - the others being
Clarence, and the youngest, Raymond. Their mother died within a few
years of Clarence's birth and Fort's father married again during
Beatings by his tyrannical father helped set him against authority
and dogma, as he declares in the remaining fragments of his
autobiography Many Parts. Escaping home at the age of
18, he worked as a reporter in New York City before hitch-hiking
through Europe "to put some capital into the bank of experience." In
1896, aged 22, he contracted malaria in South Africa and returned to
New York where he married Anna Filan (or Filing), an English servant
girl in his father's house.
Fort and Anna settled down to a life of dire poverty in a
succession of tiny apartments in the Bronx and Hell's Kitchen
quarters of New York City. He took odd jobs between infrequent sales
of his stories (most of which are now lost) to newspapers and
magazines. At times things were so bad the Forts had to use their
furniture for firewood. Where Anna "knew all her neighbours'
affairs", Fort himself had very few friends. He virtually lived as a
hermit, chasing references at the library until it closed and writing
up his notes at home, pottering over them into the night. Were it not
for Anna's insistence that he accompany her to the movies most
evenings and the visits from Thayer and Dreiser, he had no social
His books are full of little asides that shed light on his daily
life; for example, in Lo! (Ch.18) he says has cut down
on smoking and almost given up drinking his home brewed beer because
it went flat so quickly. His concentration was quickly soured by
doubt, which was rare but drastic when it occurred, plunging him into
a depression. Twice, he burned his collection of tens of thousands of
notes because "They were not what I wanted." Undaunted, he would
begin his exhaustive reading and note-taking all over again, but in a
In 1921, the Forts set sail for London, where he and Anna lived
close to the British Museum (at 39A, Marchmont Street). For eight
years, he undertook his 'grand tour' of the Museum's holdings several
more times, at each pass widening his horizons to new subjects and
new correlations. He began to think that space travel was inevitable,
sending letters to the New York Times on the subject
and even speaking on it at Hyde Park Corner.
Fort returned to New York in 1929, striking up an acquaintance
with Tiffany Thayer, with whom he had corresponded. Thayer, a young
and ebullient novelist, often visited the Forts, talking into the
night, lubricated by home-brewed beer, surrounded by Fort's
collection of mounted specimens of giant spiders and objects said to
have fallen from the sky and the great wall of shoe boxes where
Fort's notes roosted.
Fort grew progressively blind. On 3rd of May 1932, he was admitted
to hospital suffering from "unspecified weakness". He died within a
few hours, apparently of leukemia. He took notes almost to the end -
the last one said simply: "Difficulty shaving. Gaunt places in face."
After Fort died, Anna lost her interest in living and survived him by
only five years.
Several times in his books, Fort refers to poltergeist-like events
in their apartments in the Bronx and in London; inexplicable noises
would be heard and pictures fell off walls. Dreiser once interviewed
Anna after Fort's death and asked her if she had had any further
strange experiences. She told him of rapping sounds and voices and
then said ... "One afternoon [..] his aunt came over and she annoyed
me terrible about this money. She said I had no right to it. I went
to bed crying and in the night I thought he was sitting on a little
bench or couch [..] He said: 'Hello, Momma,' and I was never so glad
to see anybody in my whole life."
Charles Fort is buried in the family plot in a cemetary in Albany,
DESCRIPTIONS OF FORT
We have very few descriptions of Fort. He was a complex and
private man, dedicated to his work. His autobiographical fragments,
Many Parts , reveal a turbulent childhood through which
he stumbled and brawled, resisting parental authority and any other
imposition he thought unjust or foolish. Yet the key elements of his
later brilliance are all in place: his powers of observation, his
creative imagination, his facility with words and descriptions, and
even his compassion for people who did not have his own inner
Fort was not averse to making his size work to his advantage. Mr X
found a letter by Raymond, Fort's youngest brother, written sometime
after 1937. Raymond recalls Fort telling him of having to fight a
duel with a Frenchman in South Africa. As he knew nothing of swords
or pistols, Fort chose to fight with his fists. Raymond wrote: "The
Frenchman was pretty well battered up as my brother knew how to use
his fists and possessed unbounded courage."
For Tiffany Thayer, Fort was a jolly giant with "the most
magnificent sense of humour that ever made life bearable for a
thinking man." In his exuberant introduction to BOOKS1 (1941), Thayer
describes Fort as nearly six feet tall, fair, and built like a walrus
with a matching moustache and spectacles as thick as bottle-ends. "He
was an anachronism in modern dress," thought Thayer who mentally
placed Fort in the era of swashbuckling Musketeers.
However, Thayer's Fort, "roaring at his subject" and "packing a
belly laugh in either typewriter hand", is at odds with the "shy and
introverted" hermit seen by others, including Theodore Dreiser,
Fort's oldest friend. They first met in 1905 when Dreiser was editor
of Smith's Magazine , and Fort was selling some of his
stories. Dreiser, an older and more established writer, likened him
to Oliver Hardy - "that unctuous, ingratiating mood, those unwieldy,
deferential, twittery mannerisms were Fort's."
One of Dreiser's friends, Marguerite Tjader, remembered Fort as "a
low-set man, dark with a greasy complexion, [with] scant black hair
brushed over a round dynamic head. His hands were fat and protruded
from filthy shirt-cuffs under a dark nondescript suit. In spite of
all this, there was something fascinating about him; he seemed
utterly alive, carefree and all-knowing as he talked."
Fort's biographer, Damon Knight, says Fort was "an utterly
peaceable and sedentary man [who] lived quietly with his wife." By
all accounts, Fort and Anna were an odd couple, but they were devoted
to each other. According to Thayer, Anna lamented her husband's
unsocial bent, knew all her neighbours' affairs, and organised their
daily life with "skill and imagination", in effect freeing Fort to
follow his star. Thayer said she never read Fort's books, nor "ever
dreamed what went on in her husband's head".
Aaron Sussman, then a young advertising executive who became fast
friend to the elderly Fort in his last years, told Damon Knight of
his visits to the Forts' apartment in 1930. He recalled Anna as a
"bustling little hostess" who had "a lovely way of speaking to you
[making you] feel she was honored and grateful that you had taken the
time and trouble to come and see her." To Sussman, Fort was "one of
the most innocent innocents I have ever met [..] a gentle man,
inveterately polite, very tender toward Anna." With his deep voice
and booming laugh, he gave Sussman the impression of a great mind
that had withdrawn from the world, and yet "He always made you feel
wanted; he was delighted to see you, no matter how busy he was."
BIOGRAPHICAL SOURCES ABOUT FORT
There are only two substantial sources of biographical information
- Fort's only auto biographical writing - a fragmented
manuscript called 'Many Parts' - concerns his childhood in Albany
up to his late teens. This was rescued by Mr X, and published in
Fortean Studies , Vol.1, 1994.
- Damon Knight's biography Charles Fort: Prophet of the
Unexplained (Doubleday, 1970), which relies on 'Many
Parts' for Fort's early life.
- Almost as interesting, though tangential, is Tiffany Thayer's
introduction to BOOKS1, which includes fascinating asides about
Fort. There may be many other reminiscences of Fort buried away in
the literary archives of prominent Americans and which have yet to
be discovered by some diligent researcher - perhaps you?. For
- Mike Dash, 'Charles Fort and a Man Named Dreiser,'
Fortean Times (51:40-48)
- Mr X, 'The Charles Fort - John Reid Correspondence',
INFO Journal (Autumn 1994).
Most of the facts recounted in these pages come from these
Jump to annotated bibliography of
Charles Fort's writings.
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