David Bascom, age 53, is the president of Guild, Bascom & Bonfigli, Inc., a large advertising firm in San Francisco which he describes as "the world's most lovable advertising agency." He is also one of the founders of a new San Francisco bank, the Fisherman's National Bank (Joe DiMaggio is a director). Bascom named it the Fisherman's National because it is located near Fisherman's Wharf. Bascom is also the founder, publisher, editor, advertising manager, business manager and full staff of The Wretched Mess News, which he says is America's last stronghold of honest yellow journalism, and which bills itself as largely devoted to trout fishing in Montana.
The Wretched Mess News is a good deal funnier than most periodicals devoted to angling, conservation and the great outdoors. Bascom was recently included in Who's Who in America, and in preparing a modest 16-line capsule biography he omitted all references to The Wretched Mess News and his part in creating it. The omission baffled his friends in San Francisco. They believe, or at least pretend to believe, that Bascom's claim to enduring fame rests on such works as his invention of the golfishing clubrod (a combined fishing rod and golf club), his parodies of angling literature, his writings in The Wretched Mess News and other examples of his humor. "Dave Bascom," wrote a prominent admirer recently, "is the funniest man since W. C. Fields."
In his Who's Who entry Bascom merely reported tersely that he was born in Oil City, Pa. in 1912, studied art in San Francisco, worked in the circulation department of the San Francisco Chronicle, entered advertising as a copywriter with Garfield & Guild in 1942 and became president of Guild, Bascom & Bonfigli in 1949. He is married, has a son, belongs to various clubs and has received many awards for achievement in advertising. Why, if he could note that the Association of Advertising Men and Women of New York gave him a citation in 1947, should he omit that he founded The Wretched Mess News in 1962? Especially since his part in creating the paper is no secret?
"In times past," Bascom said the other day, "some noncultured but well-heeled folk—the sort that constitute prime prospects for an advertising agency—looked upon my Wretched Mess activities as proof that I was 100% nuts and thus singularly ill-fitted to direct, or even to participate in, serious business matters." At first Bascom tried to convince them that The Wretched Mess News occupied only 5% of his time and thus proved, he claimed, "that I am not more than 5% nuts." It seems that most people remain unconvinced. "I felt it better if The Mess were entirely disassociated from my name," he said, "i.e., Bascom."
December 20, 1965
The publisher of The Wretched Mess News is now listed on the masthead as one Milford Poltroon. The name Bascom is nowhere. Since everyone knows that Poltroon and Bascom are one and the same, it is difficult to see how apprehensive clients could have been reassured by the change. Nor were they likely to have been any less alarmed by the ringing editorial published in The Wretched Mess News in August 1964, when the name of Milford Poltroon succeeded that of the previous publisher, i.e., Bascom. Asked why he had gotten rid of the old staff, Poltroon said, "Let's just let it go by saying they were all rotten to the core." He promptly announced his new staff: Agnes Poltroon, society editor; Tex Poltroon, outdoor editor; Al Poltroon, indoor editor; and stated the credo of The Wretched Mess News: "I intend to bring a new standard of honesty, forthrightness and high integrity, coupled with the yellow journalism for which the piscatorial periodical is already semifamous."
One reason why timorous clients might be alarmed by The Wretched Mess News is that Bascom became interested in fly-fishing as a literary matter and seems never to have gotten over his bewilderment in trying to follow the directions given in fishing classics and outdoor publications. A typical issue of The Wretched Mess News gives the impression of being the work of a man driven to distraction by accounts of new fly-casting methods, helpful hints to campers, threats to wilderness areas, advice from experts on how to catch more fish and other standard features found in outdoor journals. In trying to carry on the good work, however, The Wretched Mess News seems to be severely handicapped. About half of the illustrations are scratchy line drawings—done by Bascom—which vaguely suggest the artwork found in sentimental novels of the time of Charles Dickens, and much of the remainder consists of pictures that Bascom cuts out of old books, magazines and prints, whether they illustrate the text or not. Sometimes The Wretched Mess News stars a sensational series (Is Smokey the Bear a Communist Spy?) and sometimes it embarks on conservation projects (Our Lovely Garbage Dump Threatened!) but they never really seem to come to grips with the questions they raise. When The Wretched Mess News discovered that the fine for throwing litter from a car was $100 in Nevada but only $25 in Montana, it carried a headline: TOURISTS! WHY TOSS GARBAGE IN NEVADA? SAVE IT FOR MONTANA, THROW OUT 4 TIMES AS MUCH FOR THE SAME PRICE!
The Wretched Mess News, in short, was not intended to be a magazine at all, and looks it. When Bascom and his associate, Walter Guild, were succeeding handsomely in creating the world's most lovable advertising agency, Bascom acquired ulcers. Guild, a devoted fly-fisherman, gave him a copy of Ray Bergman's Trout, and Bascom read it through the winter. His wife noted his absorption with the book and presented him with a fly rod. "When spring arrived," Bascom said, "I had read about half the book, and it seemed like a good idea to test my new knowledge and my new rod."
Bascom checked with his doctor about the wisdom of an excursion into the wilds. "He said it would be O.K.," Bascom recalls, "as long as I stayed away from Walter Guild. My doctor (who was also Guild's) felt we would inevitably start talking business if we came into contact, even on some remote mountain stream, and thus arouse blood pressures, tension, ulcers and the like. So I told Walt I was taking my family camping and fishing over a long weekend, but I didn't tell him where."
Bascom, in fact, did not really know where he was going on his first fishing venture. "We sort of meandered aimlessly up into the Sierras," he said, "and then on the suggestion of a tackle-shop proprietor in some crossroads store we found ourselves camped on a tributary stream on the middle fork of the Stanislaus River, way to hell and off in the wilderness and reachable only by dirt road. We set up camp, had dinner and crawled into our sleeping bags. The serenity of the wilds was unbroken except for one car that somehow managed to discover the same dirt road. It came in during the night and set up camp maybe a quarter of a mile from where we were. Next morning after breakfast I took my new fishing rod and my book on trout fishing, hiked down the stream by myself and comfortably seated myself on a large rock in the middle of the stream. Here I started to rig up my fishing outfit, frequently referring to my book for proper instructions. As I was doing this, I heard a crashing in the brush like a bull moose approaching. The bushes parted, and Walter Guild, fishing rod in hand, appeared. He looked at me, and I looked at him. Finally he said, 'Hi, Dave.' I replied, 'Hi, Walt,' and he disappeared upstream."
A major step in Bascom's development as a fishing authority was his study of improvements in tackle. Among the many demented advertisements he has prepared for The Wretched Mess News are pictures of the steam-powered spinning reel, the self-enforcing fly-fishing guide to prevent backlash, modeled on the old-fashioned pillory, the improved centrifugal radiating fish killer, and the golfishing clubrod. This last, however, was a real invention. Guild had become a fanatical golfer as well as a fisherman, and for a birthday present Bascom devised a gift that he hoped would combine the best features of both sports. He attached a spinning reel to the shaft of a golf club and ran the line down guides fastened to the shaft and then fastened the fishing line to a golf ball. The idea was that you could hit the ball and drive it into the water, far beyond the distance any angler could cast. That is, if you were fishing with it. If you were playing golf, you could drive the ball into a water hazard and then reel it back in. Golfers and fishermen are notoriously eager to try out new equipment intended to improve their game or their catch, and so much interest was generated by the combined fishing rod and golf club that Bascom patented it. He acquired some old woods and putters and with a young assistant put the patented clubrods on the market, the drivers for $15.95 and the putters for $14.95. Several hundred had been sold when Bascom's associate got a better job, the production stopped and the ones already sold became collectors' items.
Bascom was equally bemused in his early fishing days by the mystique of fly-fishing and the awed accounts of mysterious feathers, colors, patterns, hatches, shapes and accidental discoveries that run through its literature. He was trying to tie a fly himself one day, but since he was using a very large hook he was forced to add many ingredients—feathers, tin, ribbons, Christmas tree ornaments, bits of velour and yarn—so many he had created a fly like no other on earth. "What a wretched mess!" he exclaimed, and thus named the fly The Wretched Mess. He gave it to a friend, who gave it to another, and so on, until people gradually learned about it and began to inquire where they could get these mysterious lures for themselves. This led Bascom to make more and place them on sale in a West Yellowstone, Mont. shop for 98¢ each.
The first issue of The Wretched Mess News was in reality an advertisement for The Wretched Mess fly. Bascom mimeographed a hundred copies and sent them to his friends, principally in the advertising business. So many people heard how funny it was that Bascom began publishing regularly—or at least fairly regularly for an editor devoting only 5% of his time to a job. He raised the subscription price from $1 to $1.50 for four issues a year, producing it whenever the time and creative mood coincided. After a while The Wretched Mess News had 3,500 to 4,000 subscribers, and guaranteed 3,000 to its advertisers. The early issues ran to only 12 pages, but as circulation and advertising grew issues ran to as many as 32 pages and included 10 pages or so of advertising. The advertising arrangement was singular. A page cost $24.58, and advertisers have included Jack Daniel's, Guild, Bascom & Bonfigli, Carling's Black Label Beer, Shakespeare Spinning Reels, Gerry Down Clothing, Ralston Cereal, Suzuki Trail Bikes, Chicken of the Sea Tuna, Western Airlines and the San Francisco Chronicle—"makes the best fish-wrapper in the world," says its ad. In fact, most of the ads read like the jokes, and the non-advertising pages are indistinguishable from the ones that advertisers pay for. The Wretched Mess News offers its advertisers a package in which the periodical prepares the ads. However, it refuses to submit the ads to the advertisers for approval. "We know a good ad when we see 1," says the rate card.
In view of Bascom's saturation with fishing literature, it was natural that The Wretched Mess News should be packed with new studies of familiar fishing axioms and how-to-do-it instructions for beginners. One of the magazine's most thoughtful works dealt with shooting fish in a rain barrel. The editors managed to find and photograph a man actually shooting fish in a rain barrel and asked him if it was easy. "Anyone who thinks shooting fish in a rain barrel is easy ought to try it," said G. T. Fondler, of Belmont, Calif. "I believe rain barrel shooting stands a fine chance of replacing present less sporty ways of meat fishing." The how-to-do-it articles in The Wretched Mess News range from instructionals to the perplexed beginner on how to tell one end of a fishing rod from the other to advice to the expert on what to do if he is lost in the woods. Around West Yellowstone it is no use trying to employ the old boy scout trick of finding north by noting which side of a tree carries more moss. There is no moss on the trees in that area. The Wretched Mess News suggests that visiting fishermen bring their own moss with them in case they become lost. Another good outdoor hint is that geese fly north in the spring and south in the fall. If the prudent fisherman will take a wild goose with him, he can release it if he becomes lost and discover true north or south from the way it flies.
Occasionally The Wretched Mess News does become serious, and when it does it is usually about something having to do with the Madison River and Hebgen Lake. Once the Montana Fish and Game Commission opened the Madison to year-round fishing. The Wretched Mess News launched a terrific attack against the prime example of "Montana Fish and Game knotheadedness." The biologists reasoned that if a stream were stocked frequently, fishing pressure would not matter. The Wretched Mess News argued that unless the river was closed part of the time, anglers could catch only small fish. And nonresident fishermen came to Montana in the hope of getting big ones. It might be scientifically true that a cubic foot of water could support only so much fish, but it made a difference to fishermen whether it was one five-pound trout or five one-pound trout.
In that battle The Wretched Mess News won; the river was closed part of the year (SI, June 29, 1963). The attack of The Wretched Mess News on the U.S. Forest Service has been less successful—so far. Hebgen Lake is in the Gallatin National Forest. In 1964 the Forest Service began the sale of 900 acres of timber in the area around Hebgen Lake and authorized the cutting. Eventually 6,000 acres are to be cut. The sort of cutting authorized was clear cutting, which leaves not a stick growing. One result was that The Wretched Mess News came out with a picture of the mountain lake, seen through the devastated area left when the trees had been felled along the shore, a picture captioned "A 900-Acre Mistake of the U.S. Forest Service." The position of the Forest Service was that the timber stands around Hebgen Lake were overmature and were infected with dwarf mistletoe. The position of The Wretched Mess News was that vast areas of forest far removed from places of scenic value and outdoor recreation were in the same condition, that dwarf mistletoe was damaging but not catastrophic, that half the merchantable lodgepole pine in Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho and Montana was in the same condition and, in any event, it made no difference where the quota of timber to be sold from the Gallatin National Forest was taken. So it could be taken just as effectively in regions far from the sight of man. But in fact, as the photograph eloquently testified, it was being taken along the lovely shore of Hebgen Lake.
The Wretched Mess News has not become entirely a crusading journal—far from it. "I would like to again stress that the creation and publication of The Wretched Mess News is strictly fun on my part," Bascom said the other day. "It has absolutely no connection with the other things with which I am involved." The effectiveness of the magazine's first efforts in behalf of conservation makes one wonder what would happen if Bascom—or Milford Poltroon, for that matter—decided to devote 95% of his time to it. If it could save places like Hebgen Lake it might be a worthwhile endeavor providing a good deal of pleasure for a lot of people for a long time to come.