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THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Felsen, Henry Gregor
(August 16, 1916–March 2, 1995)

–author—was born in Brooklyn, New York, to Harry and Sabina (Bedrick) Felsen. He attended high school in Kerhonkson, New York, and graduated in 1933 from Erasmus Hall High School, Brooklyn, New York.

    Felsen moved to Iowa City, Iowa, and attended the State University of Iowa for two years. He dropped out after the start of his junior year when he could no longer earn enough money to pay for tuition and living expenses. When he later returned to Iowa City, he found work writing articles for Iowa: A Guide to the Hawkeye State, a publication of the Iowa Writers' Project.

    While Felsen was at the State University of Iowa, he met Isabel Marie "Penny" Vincent of West Des Moines, Iowa. They were married in 1937. They struggled through the Depression years. Felsen worked on and off again for the Works Progress Administration (WPA), tried to sell books, and once opened a fencing studio that failed. He became a full-time writer after his wife got a position with Look magazine.

    He got his start writing detective stories in 1940 with Darrell Huff, an editor at Look. When Huff took a position with the David C. Cook Publishing Company, he hired Felsen as a staff writer. Felsen stayed there for eight months until his first novel, Jungle Highway (1941), was published. He spent the next 18 months as a freelance writer in New York.

    Felsen spent the next two-and-a-half years in the U.S. Marine Corps. He was a drill instructor and served in the Pacific theater as a writer and editor for the Marine Corps magazine, Leatherneck. He returned to Iowa in 1946 and remained there for many years.

    Felsen was a prolific author. He wrote more than 60 books and hundreds of articles and short stories. Felsen's most popular writings were his car series books. The series (Hot Rod, Street Rod, Rag Top, Crash Club) was especially popular with teenage males, and sold more than eight million copies. Hot Rod (1951) was the most popular title and remained on the best-seller list for 27 years. Even though his books were about young men, fast cars, and girlfriends, Felsen used many of them to moralistically explore the evils of drug abuse, sexism, and racism. He claimed that "I was years ahead of my time to approach and explore these topics in literature aimed at the young reader."The car series also appealed to young readers because it realistically paralleled the car culture of the 1950s and the craze of "hot rodding."The realism in his writing was also evident in the unhappy endings and heroes who were often rebels. Felsen's books reflected the morals, values, and prejudices of the time.

    He wrote the screenplay for one of his books, Fever Heat (originally written under the pen name Angus Vicker). The movie starred the Academy Award-nominated actor Nick Adams in his last role before his untimely death. Fever Heat was filmed on dirt race tracks in Stuart, Oskaloosa, Des Moines, and Dexter, Iowa.

    In the 1960s Felsen continued to write about familiar topics in Letters to a Teen-Age Son (1962), To My Son the Teen-Age Driver (1964), and To My Son in Uniform (1967). The books continued to offer advice and convey real situations in a plain and straightforward manner.

    In addition to writing, Felsen was a staff member on Henry A. Wallace 's 1948 third-party presidential campaign. Felsen was questioned about his membership in the Communist Party. He admitted his earlier participation, but argued that it was no longer relevant. Felsen turned down an opportunity in 1956 to write for the live television show Stanley, starring Buddy Hackett.

    From 1964 to 1969 Felsen taught part-time at Drake University. He received criticism for his unorthodox teaching methods. He neither gave exams nor assigned books for class, and he refused to fail any student.

    Felsen was married twice and had two children and two stepchildren. In 1977 he left West Des Moines to move to Vermont and later lived in Michigan. According to his second wife, Karen, he spent much of the last two decades of his life traveling. He lived in Grandville, Michigan, and died of a heart ailment in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1995.
Sources The Henry Gregor Felsen Papers, 1942–1970, are held in Special Collections, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City. An obituary appeared in the Des Moines Register, 3/5/1995. See also Des Moines Register, 9/22/2002.
Contributor: Thomas W. Keyser

Cite as: Keyser, Thomas W. "Felsen, Henry Gregor" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 14 August 2018