Thursday, May 2, 2024

Forgotten Ufologist: Journalist James Phelan

 In the series, The Ufologists That Time Forgot, we focus on obscure figures in flying saucer history. The subject of this article is famous for his involvement in the conspiracy theories about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and for exposing the hoaxed autobiography of Howard Hughes. He also played a major supporting role in a few UFO stories.

James R. Phelan (July 31, 1912 – Sept. 8, 1997) was born in Alton, Ill., and began his writing career at The Alton Evening Telegraph, then moved to the West Coast in 1947 to work for newspapers in Long Beach, California. Phelan’s 1982 book, Scandals, Scamps and Scoundrels: The Casebook of an Investigative Reporter, carried a short biography:

“He was a staff writer for the Saturday Evening Post for six years and has contributed to dozens of other magazines, including Forbes, Fortune, Playboy, Penthouse, The Reporter, True, Paris Match, The New York Times Sunday magazine, Cosmopolitan, Parade, and the Columbia Journalism Review. …He resides in Long Beach CA, with his wife, Amalie, a clinical psychologist, and has two daughters.” 

The Coming of the Saucer Investigator

Capt. Edward J. Ruppelt was the first director of Project Blue Book. He moved to Long Beach, California, in 1953 after retiring from the Air Force. If Jim Phelan had any interest in flying saucers before he met Ed Ruppelt, nothing made it into print. There were a lot of UFO-related things happening nearby, though. “The World's First Flying Saucer Convention” was held by Flying Saucers International on August 16-18, 1953, at the Hollywood Hotel, in Hollywood, California. Phelan would soon enter the saucer world. 

In Long Beach, Ruppelt became a neighbor and friend to Jim Phelan, and the reporter wrote an article about Ruppelt’s Project Blue Book UFO investigations in the Independent Press-Telegram, Oct. 9, 1953 (page 53), “U.S. Saucer Expert Debunks ‘Em.” Summarizing Ruppelt’s views, Phelan wrote:

“He believes that many of the thousands of people who have reported seeing saucers actually saw something. But he is firm in his conviction that it was no weird spaceship from Mars - or any other point in outer space. ...He concedes a small portion of the reports were evaluated as ‘unknown origin’ after intense investigation. He maintains that this is because the saucer sleuths had insufficient information.”

(Note: At the end, there’s a link to a PDF collection of Phelan’s 1950s UFO articles.) 

True - The Man's Magazine had launched Donald Keyhoe’s flying saucer career, and they must have noticed the piece on Ruppelt. That month they approached him to write a lengthy article for them on UFOs. On Nov. 9, 1953, associate editor John DuBarry wrote Ruppelt saying:

“I had occasion to phone Jim Phelan… and heard from him that he is the man you’d contacted for help on your Project Bluebook story… we're glad to know that it's him you chose — you couldn't be in better hands.”

Researching the article, Phelan traveled to Mt. Palomar to interview the hottest ticket in UFO show business, George Adamski, author of a newly published book about his contact with a space man. (He wasn’t mentioned, but it’s likely Ed Ruppelt may have come along for the ride.)

Independent Press-Telegram, Nov. 15, 1953, “’Prof’ Claims Ships Landing From Venus”

A few weeks afterwards, novice ufologist Jim Moseley was conducting interviews for a proposed book on flying saucers. In December, he sought out Phelan, who’d recently interviewed Adamski. Phelan  spoke candidly about his view that Adamski was a hoaxer. From Moseley’s unpublished book notes (Phelan’s name was misspelled as “Phalen” throughout).

Interview with Jim Phalen… Re Adamski

In Long Beach, California, I talked to a reporter on the Long Beach Telegram. He has interviewed George Adamski more than once, and part of one of his stories of Adamski was quoted in Case 57. He does not believe in flying saucers, and most assuredly does not believe Adamski’s story. He discounts the possibility that Adamski may be having delusions as to his alleged contacts; Phalen says that Adamski would have to consciously fake the pictures, and therefore Adamski's story must either be true or a hoax. There is no other possibility. - Phalen pointed out to me two flaws in Adamski's story, as related in "FSHL", which I had not noticed myself. For one thing, if a saucer can hover at will, and can even hover a few inches off the ground with no trouble, why does it need a landing gear such as Adamski describes? This is a valid point; there certainly seems to be no need for such a landing gear - For another thing, Adamski's contact was in an area of California in which there had been no rain in that particular region for a period of several months, according to Phalen. The contact was in the fall of 1952, and there had been no rain since March. Therefore, how did the space-man's footprints show up so well, even well enough to make a plaster cast of them? Adamski's answer to this was that a particular section there had been bulldozed and was therefore soft, but Phalen said (to me), that even so, the ground would be too dry and powdery for footprints to show up so well. - Phalen said that I can quote any non-libelous statement in regard to his opinion of Adamski, though his actual opinion of Adamski is libelous, since he considers Adamski a fraud.

A later entry discussed Moseley’s visit to the Pentagon:

“At the Press Desk I picked up the following bits of information; It is true (as Jim Phalen of Long Beach Calif. told me) that there is a secret psycho report on DesVerges of West Palm Beach.” [This relates to  the Aug. 18, 1952, UFO claims of Dunham Sanborn "Sonny" Desvergersthe "Florida Scoutmaster."]

Jim Moseley did publish some of the UFO information he got from talking to Phelan in the article,  “Two Men from Venus,” in Gray Barker’s  The Saucerian Vol.2, #2, Sept. 1954, in the section, “The Mysterious Saucer Film.”

Desperately Seeking Saucers

Phelan’s beat was not normally the fashion scene, but he made a notable exception for a Hollywood star. Gloria Swanson was in Long Beach appearing at department stores to promote her line of dresses. She arrived carrying a copy of Donald Keyhoe’s Flying Saucers from Outer Space. Asked about her view on flying saucers, she said, "Of course I believe in them." Her goal was a close encounter. "I want to see one," she sighed wistfully. "Better yet, I want to ride on one." 

Phelan’s article appeared in The Long Beach Independent March 6, 1954, “Space Junket on Flying Saucer Gloria Swanson’s New Ambition.” Ed Ruppelt’s UFO papers contain a backstage scene from the interview, about how she received an advance look at their True magazine article.

“Jim Phelan went to interview Gloria.Swanson on the fashion show and found her reading Don Keyhoe’s book. They got into a big red hot discussion on saucers and Jim told her about our story. She wanted to see the manuscript so Jim got it for her. She also wanted Al Chop's telephone number. She called Al and said she had read the story but said ‘I don't like that Capt. Ruppelt, he doesn't believe in flying saucers’.”

The next month, Phelan travelled to Giant Rock to attend George Van Tassel’s first outdoor Contactee convention, published as: Independent Press-Telegram, April 5, 1954, “Saucer-Eyed Believers; 4000 Show Up – No Venusians”

“GIANT ROCK Calif. — Four thousand hopeful flying saucer fans gathered Sunday in the broiling sun at this remote Mojave desert spot for the “First Interplanetary Spacecraft Convention” but not a single little man from Venus showed up. George Wellington Van Tassel who has his headquarters under a huge rock here and claims to be in frequent contact with the saucers by mental telepathy played host to the convention. …

Another UFO-related story by Phelan appeared in The Independent, April 14, 1954, one on the mysterious epidemic of damaged windshields, which some speculated were caused by flying saucers.


Ruppelt's Historic True Magazine Article

Ruppelt had an article printed in the magazine that had launched Donald Keyhoe’s saucer career, True - The Man's Magazine, May 1954, “What Our Air Force Found Out About Flying Saucers.” He’d written it with the help of his neighbor in Long Beach, newspaperman Jim Phelan. True paid them $2000 for the article.

The success of Ruppelt’s True magazine article prompted him to write more. Ruppelt’s The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects was published in Jan. 1956, and favorably reviewed by both UFO advocates and skeptics. 

In chapter 4, “Green Fireballs, Project Twinkle, Little Lights, and Grudge, Phelan’s name was misspelled, a clue he wasn’t a significant collaborator with Ruppelt on the book, but the passage shows how they continued to swap information on UFOs. 

“At exactly midnight on September 18, 1954, my telephone rang. It was Jim Phalen, a friend of mine from the Long Beach Press-Telegram, and he had a ‘good flying saucer report,’ hot off the wires.” 

Jim Phelan played only a minor role in it, but he shamelessly helped his friend promote the book. “Jets Fired at Saucer, AF Investigator Says” by Jim Phelan, Independent Press-Telegram, Sunday, January 15, 1956, page 1. The sensational headline and illustration was based on a “never before disclosed” Air Force incident, told Ruppelt in his book, to be released the next week.

“Ruppelt, who is now a research engineer for Northrup Aviation Co., relates scores of other saucer incidents in the book. He debunks, some of' the "classic" accounts—such as the Florida scoutmaster who claimed to have been burned by a hovering saucer.

But in dozens of cases, he confesses that intense investigation could come up with no reasonable explanation for saucer sightings.” Ruppelt is quoted in what seems to be a statement promoting UFOs as truly anomalous:  "We have no aircraft on this earth that can at will so handily outdistance our latest jets." 

Given what we know about both Ruppelt and Phelan, they seemed to be putting aside their skepticism to help sell the book.

After that, Phelan had little or nothing else to say about UFOs, but the exception was in 1960, when the second edition of Ruppelt’s book was published.

Independent Press-TelegramJan. 12, 1960

Sadly, Phelan lost a friend on Sept. 19, 1960, when Ed Ruppelt died of a heart attack.


Writing for Major Magazines

Phelan’s career was on the upswing in the early 1960s. He left newspaper reporting and began writing for major national magazines, most often about crime. Here’s a sampling of some of his most famous articles:

In “Innocent’s Grim Ordeal,” The Saturday Evening Post Feb. 2, 1963, Phelan wrote about how airman Gerald M. Anderson had been compelled to give a false confession to a double murder by interrogators from the Air Force Office of Special Investigations.

While examining L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology in "Have You Ever Been a Boo-Hoo?” for The Saturday Evening Post March 21, 1964, Phelan got within a hair’s breadth to the writing about UFOs and aliens again.

Phelan was drawn into the John F. Kennedy assassination controversy, exposing the falsehoods and inaccuracies in the conspiracy theories of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison. See "A Plot to Kill Kennedy? Rush to Judgment in New Orleans," from the Saturday Evening Post, May 6, 1967.

On June 16, 1967, NBC aired “The JFK Conspiracy: The Case of Jim Garrison,” which included Phelan summarizing his investigation.

In 1970, Noah Dietrich, the former chief executive officer of Howard Hughes business empire, hired Phelan to ghostwrite his memoirs, which included many inside stories about Hughes himself. Phelan had nearly completed the manuscript when Dietrich decided to go with another writer instead. About two years later, Clifford Irving was brokering the autobiography of Howard Hughes himself, which was making big news. Phelan was called in to evaluate the authenticity of the book, but its credibility crumbled when he recognized large passages lifted from the manuscript he’d written for Deitrich. Irving had gotten hold of a copy and crafted a fake Hughes autobiography around it. Phelan’s reporting on the fraud was the cover story for Time Feb. 21, 1972, “The Fabulous Hoax of Clifford Irving”

The New York Times assigned Phelan a UFO story in 1976, about “The Two,” Bo and Peep, leaders of the Human Individual Metamorphosis (HIM) movement. He opened by saying:

Flying saucer tales long ago ceased to be news. Just when the great U.F.O. fever began to wane cannot be pinpointed precisely, but it was somewhere around the time when a West Coast housewife told an inquiring reporter: ‘I don't understand all this excitement about flying saucers. Why, they come through our backyard all the time.’”

Somehow, the NYT gave him the wrong initial, “James S. Phelan”
 “Looking For: The Next World,”

New York Times Magazine, February 29, 1976

HIM had come under scrutiny as a cult for luring people to leave their families, give up their possessions, and prepare for their transformation into a cosmic beings. Phelan described their members:

“…one common denominator among almost all the converts. Almost all are seekers . . . They have spent years, in the trite phase, ‘trying to find themselves.’ Many have tried Scientology, yoga, Zen, offbeat cults, hallucinogens, hypnosis, tarot cards and astrology. Almost all believe in psychic phenomena.

The Two were Marshall Herff Applewhite, and Bonnie Lu Nettles, and their cult, later renamed Heaven’s Gate. Phelan foreshadowed it, but the group eventually came to a very bad end. (For more on their story,  see: UFOs: Going to the Next Level

The Bestseller

Phelan’s biggest success was the 1977 bestselling biography, Howard Hughes: The Hidden Years, based on his years of research and testimonies shared by Hughes’ aides, Gordon Margulis and Mel Stewart. Shortly before publication, excerpts from the book were the cover story for Time magazine, Dec. 13, 1976, “The Nation: Scenes from the Hidden Years,”

Phelan’s 1982 book, Scandals, Scamps and Scoundrels: The Casebook of an Investigative Reporter, was a retrospective of the big stories of his career and the reporting that went into them. In his forward, Phelan reflected on the changes in investigative journalism:

“The rise of television withered the magazines. One by one, the national giants died... After foreclosing on the magazine homes of investigative reporters, television gave few of us shelter. Television seems to fear the complexities of such reporting, and distrusts itself to cope with them.”

Phelan also had some pointed criticism about the use and abuse of anonymous sources:

“There… have been campaigns… to protect the identities of anonymous sources. Not all journalists support such legislation. Shield laws collide head on with the venerable rights of the accused to face his accuser. They also tempt reporters to manufacture quotations that fit the otherwise legitimate thrust of a story.”

The book covered how he’d reported on crime and con men, but he closed things with a UFO story. Phelan He began with George Van Tassel’s first convention at Giant Rock and the Contactees, then fast forwarded to the 1970s and meeting with Bo and Peep. “The Two” taught their followers they’d be killed by disbelievers, but that would rise from the dead and take their faithful to Heaven in a spaceship. He quoted Bo (Marshall Applewhite) as saying many seekers lack direction. "Some people are like lemmings, who rush in a pack into the sea and drown themselves… They join any movement… Some people will try anything.”


Working in Retirement

By the 1990s, Phelan was semi-retired, living in Temecula, California. He was suffering from lung cancer but continued to write. On March 26, 1997, less than 40 miles away, in Rancho Santa Fe, Marshall Applewhite and 38 of his Heaven’s Gate followers were found dead from a mass suicide. I’ve not found any published comments by Phelan on what he thought about the fate of the group. 

Phelan died of his lung cancer at his Temecula home on September 8, 1997. Many national magazines and major newspapers noted his passing, including The Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times, who said, “James Phelan, a crusty investigative reporter who played significant roles in uncovering some of the biggest stories of the last four decades and wrote the first major biography of Howard Hughes, has died at the age of 85.”

Chicago Tribune, Sept 12, 1997

Two weeks later, his final book was published, The Money: The Battle for Howard Hughes's Billions by James Phelan and Lewis Chester. 

While he only published a handful of UFO-related articles, Jim Phelan left a lasting impact on the topic. Without Phelan as a writing partner, Ed Ruppelt’s flying saucer article in True magazine might not have been a hit. Furthermore, the influential classic, The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects, might never have come to be. 

. . .


For Further Reading

The Fiction Mags Index: Magazine articles written By James R. Phelan.

For more on Phelan’s involvement in the JFK assassination conspiracy drama, see False Witness: The Real Story of Jim Garrison's Investigation and Oliver Stone's Film JFK  by Patrcia Lambert.


Frank Edwards: Making UFOs Newsworthy

Dr. J. Allen Hynek on UFO literature (in  The Edge of Reality , 1975): “If I were to recommend anything in the popular category, I would cho...