Frederick J. Lipp, Novelist, 1916–1965


In the spring of 1968 Frederick J. Lipp belatedly received the Cleveland Arts Prize, not only for his provocative and deeply thoughtful first novel, Rulers of Darkness, published two years earlier, but for a body of writing in another medium for which he had gained little notice, though it was seen and enjoyed by millions of Americans. This work was a series of half-hour screenplays for television, beginning in 1954—television’s “Golden Age.”

Watching the progress of this new medium, The Plain Dealer’s first Radio-TV columnist, George Condon, observed in April 1955 that television was “building its own group of playwrights . . . who write specifically for the TV screen, and whose work compares favorably with the best output of the dramatists who write for the older media.” Someday, Condon predicted, “we will be honoring some of its serious writers in the same way that we today honor Eugene O’Neill and Robert Sherwood. And there is a good chance that one of the names in this elite group will be Cleveland’s Fred Lipp.”

These remarks had been occasioned by the broadcast on CBS’s Thursday night showcase, Four Star Playhouse, of a teleplay written and conceived by Lipp. “The Collar” aired in Easter week, and starred David Niven as an Episcopalian clergyman captured and tortured by the plains Indians he was sent to evangelize. Stripped of his pious arrogance and worldly pride, he comes to know and love this strange people so deeply he gives his life for them. “The Collar,” said Condon, was “one of the finest half-hour dramas television has brought us in a long time.”

Lipp’s work also appeared on Stagecoach West (where the leading roles were taken by veteran character actor Thomas Mitchell and a newcomer named Wayne Rogers) and The David Niven Show. Ida Lupino starred  in “The Gift,” another of four Lipp screenplays bought by CBS. “The Returning” featured Dick Powell as an English teacher abroad who falls in love with a Eurasian woman. Set in Tokyo, it drew on Lipp’s own experiences as a young Navy correspondent and scriptwriter on three documentary films with the U.S. occupation forces in Japan at the end of the war—experiences that would also provide much of the material and setting for his award-winning novel.

Once back in the States, the Toledo native took a job in the continuity department of NBC in Chicago before returning to Ohio as editor of The Ottawa County Exponent. In 1952 Lipp accepted a position with Cleveland-based Storycraft, Inc., where he worked for the next 14 years turning out scripts for the popular regional TV show Prescription for Living, before joining the public relations staff of The Illuminating Company in 1961. But from then on his nights would be given over to his own freelance teleplays and, increasingly, a novel that had been simmering in him since his days in post-war Japan.

Rulers of Darkness, which came to the attention of Cleveland-based World Publishing, appeared in 1966. More than 10 years in the writing, it failed to draw a large audience of readers—despite ardent endorsements by Cleveland Press columnist Winsor French and the PD’s Wes Lawrence—until word came that Lipp was flying to Chicago to accept the prestigious Friends of American Writers Award, which had previously gone to such luminaries as Carl Sandburg, Walter Havighurst, John Gunther and Harry Mark Petrakis.

The fact that America had become bitterly divided by 1966–67 over America’s escalating involvement in Vietnam may have rendered suspect the patriotism of a novel that had some very unpleasant things to say about the heavy-handed behavior and less-than-noble motives of the U.S. occupiers of a fictional Asian country.

In the book an American officer charged with making a documentary about the devastated nation’s implementation of its first democratically elected government realizes his superiors want a film that legitimizes the designated puppet leader, a manifestly evil man who will give free rein to American political and business interests. This story is interwoven with that of John Hallyer, an Anglican priest who deserted his parish in the early days of the war and has returned, hoping for redemption, only to find himself in the arms of a prostitute and no longer believing in God.

The larger vision Hallyer finally discovers in the course of his suffering is ignited by a brutal cockfight, when he finds himself suddenly kneeling beside and cradling the mangled, dying loser to the jeers of the crowd that has recognized him. This foreshadows a later “death bed” scene (see excerpt) where Hallyer’s agonizing inner struggle with his own failure and despair eerily evokes the strange series of outbursts attributed to the crucified Jesus.

—Dennis J. Dooley

Fredrick J. Lipp's papers, letters and manuscripts (published and unpublished) are preserved at the library of Boston University.  His novel Rulers of Darkness and a later short novel for young adults, Some Lose Their Way (Atheneum, 1980), can be found at the Cleveland Public Library.


At Hisako's Death Bed

Hallyer soaked a towel, wrung it out, and began loosening the crusted blood from Hisako’s face. “I am not hurting you?” he whispered. She shook her head. He washed her gently; it seemed to him he had never before touched a person with such love; it was as though love was flowing through his hands and fingertips onto her face. . . .

All through the day the dying went on, without any sign of ending, without mercy. There was nothing he could do but watch and hate it and curse God for allowing it and writhe under his own helplessness before it. He wanted to flee from the room and the useless suffering he could not relieve. . . . Had he been a true priest, he thought dully, if there had been no gulf between God and his priesthood, it would not be like this. He would be sitting here with sorrow, yes, but not in despair like some stone age savage. He would have God to turn to and God to give. He would be able to turn to the gray, staring ghost that was Tomo-san and explain this suffering. But he was himself; he could not give what he did not have.

Something within him said quietly: “I accept.” And then: “It is mine.” And it was as though at that moment, he took up in his arms, tenderly, the burden of her dying and the heaviness of Tomo-san’s grief, feeling their weight crushing him almost to earth but feeling, also, a strange, uncertain joy, almost like love. It no longer mattered that God was gone. He had stumbled onto something deeper, richer, more real than God: a thing he had never experienced before, and which he could only grasp vaguely now. It had something to do with his acceptance of the dying and sorrow in this room, not because it was the will of God, but because it was part of the human condition. It seemed to involve giving himself away and, in return, drawing into himself infinite seas of human anguish and love. He did not know what this was; he only knew it existed and that he had never felt it before. Whatever it was, it bound him to these two people, and them to him, in a sacrament more real than bread and wine.

Rulers of Darkness (Cleveland: World Publishing, 1966)

Cleveland Arts Prize
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