James L. Rubel was born July 8, 1894 in Louisville, Kentucky. Shortly thereafter, he moved to Chicago with his mother, father and sister Helen. He lived and grew up in the South Chicago area until he went to college at Dartmouth in New Hampshire.
In 1917, he graduated from Dartmouth College and immediately enlisted in the First Officer’s Training School at Fort Sheridan, Illinois. As a private, he soon found himself falling behind on the marches. His explanation for why he wound up in the Air Service was in his words, “During basic infantry training, the soldiers would go on long marches on foot. The men who had the longest legs always finished first and had time to rest. So me, being of shorter stature (5′ 8″) always made up the rear and had no time to rest. The Air Service promised more sitting time, so I applied for that and was accepted.” Upon acceptance he was transferred to Texas for pilot training.
Soon after, he was a 2nd Lieutenant, piloting a French Salmson observation and reconnaissance plane ( and several other plane types including a SPAD and a DeHaviland 4 ) in the Air Service of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF), of the 24th Squadron, 1st Army, stationed in Vavincourt, France. He took part in the St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne offensives. His service included many reconnaissance missions over the fields of France with several different observers and he is credited for bringing down four enemy planes during his service. His diary includes many instances of where teams would not report back to base, either shot down, bad weather or engine trouble. The Air Service was a new branch of the military at that time. Flying was still very much considered “”experimental”” as it was a relatively new idea. Engines were not reliable and often overheated. Wings were prone to coming off during dives. ( the Wright Brothers only had their first flight only 15 years earlier  ). And for reference, they had only just figured out how to put a machine gun on the front of a plane and sync it up to the propeller motor so it wouldn’t shoot off your propeller! Oh! Did we mention parachutes? There weren’t any.
After his service in the military, he returned to Chicago, in or around 1921, where he took a job at the Acme Steel Company as an Assistant Manager and subsequently started his own company, manufacturing bottle caps and toys for the five and dime stores. Trying to make ends meet, at one point he purchased cotton futures and was unable to sell them before the market closed. As a result, large bails of cotton were scheduled to be delivered to his apartment and he scrambled to sell them before the delivery. Apparently, he did all this whilst driving a Stutz Bearcat automobile (or so we’ve heard ). Subsequently, he met his wife, Elizabeth Mason on a blind date. Soon after, they were married, and they had two children together, James L. Rubel, Jr and Jane Louise Rubel.
In 1930, the effects of the Great Depression were setting in and the bottle cap manufacturing business was beginning to wane, so they picked up and moved to Pasadena, California. In Pasadena, he had several different jobs, including selling Electrolux Vacuums and insurance. There was even a hamburger stand mentioned. He didn’t much care for any of those occupations, so with some spare time on his hands, he started to write. A hobby that he always enjoyed.
His first short story was sold to Grit, a farm magazine published in Pennsylvania, that netted him 16 cents. He was paid $3.50 for the story, but he had spent $3.34 on postage sending it out to various magazines. He continued to write for the Dime Westerns until his first real break came in 1934 when he sold his first Western, “The Medico of Painted Springs“. This was to be the first of three books he sold the rights for to Columbia Pictures. Columbia was to make three movies called “The Medico Stories” starring Charles Starrett, a fellow Dartmouth Alumni.
In 1934, he moved his family down to Newport Beach, California and continued to write for the next 30 years.
Life in Newport during the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s was pretty good. When he was not upstairs in his turret writing Westerns and mystery novels, he was out socializing and boating in the harbor. He served on the board of governor’s of the Balboa Bay Club for many years and in 1945 he became Commodore of the Newport Harbor Yacht Club. He rubbed elbows and shared drinks with many of Hollywood biggest stars during those times as many of them enjoyed boating down in the Newport Beach harbor and bay. Some of the celebrities, that they would run into at the clubs, or who would come by the house, were Errol Flynn, Charlie Starrett, Humphrey Bogart, Johnny Weissmuller, Leo Carillo, and John Wayne to only name a few.
There is one story that Errol Flynn would sail by the house with his shirt off and a martini flag flying from his mast. He’d yell for everyone to come by for cocktails as he cruised by the house on Lido. Sounds a little bit like a scene from Captain Blood. See the photo he signed for Mr. Rubel’s wife, Elizabeth Rubel, who Errol referred to as “Balboa Betty”.
There was also another story Mr. Rubel’s daughter Jane tells where she convinced Anthony Quinn and his movie crew to come by the house for cocktails. It ended up being quite a surprise for the Rubel’s when 40 plus people showed up at the door! We are not sure what movie they were in town to shoot, but we are working on it.
The next door neighbor was an interesting fellow by the name of Art La Shelle. He was the original owner of Christian’s Hut on Catalina Island, Balboa Island, Laguna Beach, Newport Beach and San Diego. He was over from time to time, for a night of cocktails and club-hopping. He shows up frequently in family photos, usually with a pipe in his mouth. Mr. Rubel’s son, James L. Rubel, Jr., said that while growing up and fishing off the dock at the house on Lido Isle, he would see Art out in the bay swimming almost every day.
Another fun snippet of family history was the hidden bar in the Lido house. Mr. Rubel’s step-father, Senator James E. MacMurray was somewhat religious and also a teetotaler. He didn’t approve of the drinking. So, a hidden bar was installed in the house for when he would come to visit from Pasadena. Senator MacMurray, a widower, was an extremely accomplished man and had married Mr. Rubel’s mother, who was a widow (when Mr. Rubel and his sister, Helen, were still quite young), while still living in Illinois.
Mr. Rubel continued to write up until his passing in 1960 at the age of 65. Two of his books were published that same year.
Needless to say, he had a colorful run!