APRIL 11, 2001

MICHAEL YOCKEL





Obituary - Michael Yockel

They Came from Out of the Sky

Obviously modeled on the far superior 1951 The Day the Earth Stood Still, the 1954 British film Stranger from Venus proffers an elegant alien (Helmut Dantine) come to warn us that our cavalier sensibilities toward nuclear power tempt tragedy. Not for nothing has the movie been saddled with the alternate title Immediate Disaster. A testy poster from Italy recently characterized it this way on amazon.com: "A male visitor from Venus lands in what they say is [the] USA, but in fact is the dullest of English country-sides, populated by people who barely seem to notice his arrival. In fact, they're too busy doing what they've been doing all their lives: uninspired English matinee theatre. If instead of a visitor from Venus the man Helmut Dantine [plays] were, say, a visitor from Tonga, the required changes in the script would be minimal, and the locals' astonishment at his speaking impeccable Oxford English might perhaps be even greater."

If unremarkable as cinema, Stranger from Venus remains remarkable nonetheless for two completely unrelated reasons: 1) its producers somehow persuaded actress Patricia Neal, the star of The Day the Earth Stood Still (at its unbearably tense climax she utters, in her matchless alto, "Gort: klaatu, barada, nikto"), to also play the female lead in their knockoff; 2) the story, written by Desmond Leslie, put big-screen fictional flesh on the nonfiction bones of his 1953 UK bestseller Flying Saucers Have Landed, now considered a foundation manifesto of UFOlogy.

Dashingly handsome and barely in his 30s, Irish aristocrat Leslie had already published two novels, Careless Lovers and Pardon My Return, after serving as an RAF fighter pilot during World War II; with Flying Saucers Have Landed he surfed inside the curl of the wave of UFO mania that swept the planet in the early 1950s. Written in an engagingly conversational tone, the book calmly argues that Venusians visited Earth early (18,617,841 BC, to be precise) and often, and that they have continued to monitor us, accounting for the astounding number of contemporary worldwide UFO sightings.

Leslie spent more than two years in research, poring over both ancient texts and current newspaper clippings, as well as closely scrutinizing the writings of Charles Fort, the early-20th-century U.S. journalist who had previously proposed visitors from beyond. Leslie took great pains to list countless UFO-esque events from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries; recount all such incidents from one month, April 1952; present scientific evidence to explain how such spacecraft can travel noiselessly and dispose of waste materials; refute prominent naysayer Dr. Donald Menzel, the Harvard prof who'd written the relentlessly sensible Flying Saucers; and plumb Sanskrit literature, notably the Book of Dzyan, to document old-as-dirt alien visitations, which, incidentally, hastened our then-stalled development as a species.

Part crackpot science, part cultural/historical sociology, Flying Saucers Have Landed adroitly mixed humor into its hypotheses. "Why don't they land?" Leslie asked rhetorically early in the book. "We can only conclude that our planet has a bad name in the stellar year books and travel brochures: like those signs on the roads running through jungles, which caution tourists not to tarry nor leave the safety of their cars. 'Warning–Do Not Land on Earth. The Natives Are Dangerous.'"

Most sensationally, appended to Leslie's 180-plus pages appeared the 50-page first-person close-encounter account of California mystic/novelist/cafe operator George Adamski, with whom the author corresponded during his research. In his early 60s at the time, Adamski claimed that after spying numerous UFOs in the California desert sky over the years–the eatery he ran sat on the slope of Mt. Palomar, site of the renowned space observatory–in November 1952 he finally met and telepathically communicated with a Venusian at a desolate spot midway between Parker, AZ, and Desert Center, CA. First, Adamski and several companions saw a large, silver, cigar-shaped object pass overhead. Then, shortly thereafter, on his own, he watched as a small saucer-shaped scout ship landed, and from it emerged a tall being with long blond hair dressed in a one-piece suit. His purpose: to caution Earthlings regarding nuclear bombs, whose radiation, he feared, might poison other worlds. Additional hard-to-swallow events ensued. Adamski also provided crude photos he'd taken of various spacecraft, pointing out that the camera-shy Venusian forbade him from making any images during their chat.

Few mainstream publications acknowledged the existence of Flying Saucers Have Landed, and those that did treated it uncharitably. "The book (pardon me while I put on a false beard and phone the police for protection) is one of those outrageous attempts to hypo old superstitions with the vital fluid of new scientific discovery," the Chicago Tribune smirked in November 1953. "Desmond Leslie, author of the first part of Flying Saucers Have Landed, is one of those who makes a specialty of proving to Americans that the universe is so darned cosmic they never understand it!" Of Adamski's contribution, the same reviewer sniped, "It is disheartening that publishers lend their imprint to such junk."

Meanwhile, in the UK, The New Statesman harrumphed that same month, "The only suitable place for the entire edition is...in the frozen darkness of interplanetary space." Arthur C. Clarke, the maharajah of science writers, termed it "a farrago of nonsense." Such sniffy assessments failed to dampen enthusiasm for Flying Saucers Have Landed, which sold briskly, giving Leslie a hitherto unrealized profile. In her 1996 memoir The Fun Palace, Leslie's ex-wife, actress and cabaret chanteuse Agnes Bernelle, recalls, "Desmond now became a household name with the lunatic fringe, and we received letters and phone calls from the strangest of people, including ladies who wanted Desmond to father their children, to create the perfect man. Mediums with messages from Mars were not uncommon."

Emboldened by his book's success, Leslie lectured widely on alien visitation, mostly in the U.S., while simultaneously plunging back into his cosmic sleuthing. In July 1954 Bernelle updated the Daily Mail on her husband's activities: "'If all goes well there will be flying saucer landings in England next year...' Those are the words of my husband, Desmond Leslie, written from the Californian desert, where he and an American investigator, George Adamski, are watching the sky in search of flying saucers."

At a December gathering that same year in London, Leslie and seven others–since dubbed the "Founding Fathers"–conceived the bimonthly journal Flying Saucer Review, first published in 1955 and still going strong as a quarterly, with Leslie a faithful contributor over the intervening decades.

Born June 29, 1921, near Glaslough, County Monaghan, in northeast Ireland, the youngest of three children of Lady Marjory and biographer/poet/translator Sir Shane Leslie–a first cousin to Winston Churchill–Desmond Arthur Peter Leslie grew up at Castle Leslie, described as "grimly earnest" in Companion Guide to Architecture in Ireland, while attending schools in both England and Ireland. Sir Shane, an unabashed eccentric–perpetually attired in a saffron-colored kilt–held strong beliefs in the paranormal, passing them along to his younger son. As Leslie recounts in Flying Saucers Have Landed, his initial brush with UFOs occurred early on: "In 1934 I was in school in the south of England, and one November evening after 'lights out' our dormitory was suddenly lit by a brilliant green glare. With yells of delight we rushed to the windows in time to see an immense green fireball move slowly across the sky and disappear behind Sussex Downs. It was so bright that all of the school grounds were lit up in this unearthly green glow. The walls of a white cottage half a mile away reflected the light almost as brightly as a green neon sign. Our speculations, however, were interrupted by the appearance of an angry master, who had come to investigate the commotion."

During WWII Leslie flew Spitfires and Hurricanes for the RAF, with a family historian wryly remarking that young Desmond "destroyed a number of aircraft, most of which he was piloting at the time." On V-E Day, May 8, 1945, the end of the war in Europe, Leslie and his then-girlfriend Agnes, a German expatriate working for the Allies as a DJ beaming demoralizing broadcasts back to her homeland, bicycled to 10 Downing St. to drop off a bottle of vintage claret for cousin Winston. Overcome by emotion at the moment, the Prime Minister demurred a toast. A bit more than three months later, on Aug. 18, just after the Japanese surrendered Desmond and Agnes married. They lived in London, where he wrote his first two novels and she pursued her acting career.

In 1947 Leslie formed a film production company, ultimately codirecting and writing the screenplay for Stranger at My Door (1950), a crime picture that starred Agnes and for which Leslie also created a soundtrack from existing tapes. That led him to begin experimenting with musique concrete, collecting thousands of different sounds: "bees humming, cars hooting, babies crying," Bernelle recalls in The Fun Palace. "He used these sounds as a painter would use the colors on his palette to create sound 'pictures' and ended up with whole symphonies." These he sold as incidental music or soundtrack accompaniment for tv programs, films, commercials and stage plays, including a dozen by Shakespeare.

An artistic polymath, Leslie, in addition to his books and films and compositions and articles for Flying Saucer Review, also knocked out a play and a clutch of topical songs for a theatrical revue. Somehow, Bernelle reports at length in her memoir, he found time for dozens of extramarital affairs, sometimes bringing home his paramour du jour. And yet he could play the husband in shining armor: During a 1963 live broadcast of the satirical current-affairs tv show That Was the Week That Was, Leslie strode out of the studio audience to punch Evening Standard critic Bernard Levin in the nose, to the horrified amusement of millions of viewers. Levin had recently panned Bernelle's one-woman show of Brecht and Weill songs, Cabaret of Savagery and Delight.

Later in 1963 Desmond and Agnes decamped to Castle Leslie, where they eventually established the nightclub Annabel's on the Bog, a swinging cellar full of noise cloned from the fashionable Annabel's of London. Despite visits from anointed hipsters such as Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull, it perished rather quickly, victimized by its dubious location and a chilly reception from the local clergy. In 1969 the Leslies divorced, and the next year Desmond wed longtime family friend Helen Strong. (Agnes went on to achieve considerable acclaim as an actress and cabaret singer, while cutting a wide swath as a social activist. She died in February 1999.)

Leslie maintained a hectic literary pace, peeling off a passel of books, notably the 1972 spoof How Britain Won the Space Race (with astronomer Patrick Moore) and 1975's The Jesus File, which recast the trial of Jesus as a contemporary courtroom drama. His jocular account of life in the RAF showed up in 1947's Leaves in the Storm, a collection of WWII diaries. And a revised and enlarged Flying Saucers Have Landed appeared in 1970, bolstered by Leslie's ardent defense of Adamski, who, before his death in 1965, claimed to have puttered around the solar system with amiable aliens.

Leslie and Strong moved to St. Jeannet in the South of France in the late 1980s, and during the past decade he kept busy working on a collection of essays (What a Way to Run a Universe), an autobiography and Pandora, a novel based on his many love affairs. He also solidified his credentials as a dignified crank by firing off crotchety letters to the editor. A barbed example from a September 1992 edition of the Irish Times reads:

"St. Davnet's mental hospital in Monaghan is generally acknowledged as the best of its kind in Ireland, if not one of the finest in Europe. Our Government in its infinite Thatcherite wisdom has therefore decided to close it down and flog the land for development. Obviously, it must be kept open, if only to house the Minister and his cronies in its highest security wing for the remainder of their natural lives."

And in a March 1992 issue of the International Herald Tribune he carps:

"As an author, I am fascinated by how rapidly our language changes. Not long ago the word to denote crass stupidity was 'lobotomized.' Then it became 'brain-damaged,' or 'brain-dead.' Now it is 'politically correct.'"

Significantly, Leslie never recanted his belief in flying saucers and extraterrestrial visitation, twice venturing to the U.S. in recent times to speak at UFOlogy confabs. He also embraced a Gaian, all-you-need-is-love spiritualism. Just before he died in a hospital in Antibes, France, on Feb. 24, age 79, Leslie basked in the glow of his family, gathered to send him off: wife Helen, six children–three with Agnes, two with Helen, one with a woman named Jennifer Fibbs–sons-in-law, brother Sir John Leslie and Fibbs. (Camilla, one of his two daughters with Strong, reportedly will finish writing Pandora.)

Throughout everything–WWII, marriage, affairs, UFOlogy, musique concrete, novels, films, etc.–Leslie proudly flaunted his cherished iconoclasm. Once, when an Irish guidebook averred that his family was "mildly eccentric," he took great umbrage, immediately notifying the publishers via letter that the Leslies were, in fact, "very eccentric."

Volume 14, Issue 15


© 2007 New York Press