The Man Who Invented Russian Roulette

SURDEZScattered farm houses with roofs the colour of dark chocolate cling to sloping daffodil meadows at the foot of the Jura mountains. Cows amble through pastures with clanking brass bells around their necks.

Pure picture postcard to outsiders, this tranquil part of Switzerland is home to a town German-speakers know as Biel. Francophones prefer to call it Bienne.

Georges Arthur Surdez was born here in 1900 to a French-speaking middle class family with its fair share of demons.

Surdez shared the family home with an elder brother and three elder sisters. An adult brother and sister were making new lives for themselves in America. They had been gone so long that the smart toys they sent Surdez at Christmas stirred no memories.

His father Eugene was a watchmaker, and mother Marie happy to devote her life to her children. Like many outwardly respectable families, a maggot wriggled inside the apple.

Chasing Women

Father was a born sucker for a dame,’ said Surdez years later. Very true. Eugene Surdez’s obsessive adultery was the most public display of his dissatisfaction with his life. He was dissatisfied with the love of his wife. He was dissatisfied with his job as a watchmaker. Most of all he was dissatisfied living in Bienne while his two eldest children prospered in the United States.

As a young man, Eugene lived in New York for four years and remained awed by his memories of the city. He never forgot the sight of a giant stone arm displayed in Madison Square as the Statue of Liberty arrived from France piece by piece. After problems with his job, he returned to Switzerland in 1882 and spent the next thirty years regretting the move. The regret oozed out in drink and adultery. It poisoned his marriage.

Surdez was only a few years old when his father pulled the first of what would be many disappearing acts. Eugene abandoned work and home for several weeks, then reappeared to announce he had found another job in a distant town. The family had no choice but to follow him. More moves occurred over the next decade, triggered by Eugene’s pursuit of a new mistress or a drunken brawl that attracted the attention of the police. The family eventually moved across the border to a series of French towns, rented rooms, and temporary friends.

The uprootings did not bother Surdez, who decided at a young age he liked travel.

My first definite impression was an urge to be off, to be elsewhere‘.

At the age of three the little Swiss boy smuggled himself aboard a delivery cart outside the family lodgings at the Auberge du Cerf Inn and was taken on a ride through the green valleys of the Jura before the driver returned him to his frantic parents.


Surdez was a bright child whose reading covered Swiss history, William Tell, the life of Napoleon, stories of the French Foreign Legion, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and translations of American Dime novels, which were pocket-sized adventure stories full of heroes, villains, and gunfights. A favourite was Texas Jack who battled Red Indians in the Wild West: ‘Tu es un Cheyenne!

Surdez’s books and youth cushioned him from the unhappiness of his parent’s marriage, but not from two tragedies that rocked the family before he was six. His elder brother Gilbert died falling from a tree. Not long after sister Blanche was killed in a sleigh accident. Surdez coped – ‘I held long conversations with my dead brother while I played close to the bed he had been in‘ – but his mother Marie, a mystical woman who read tarot cards for their neighbours, believed the family was cursed and blamed herself for the deaths.

The birth of a boy in 1907, also named Gilbert, brought Eugene and Marie back together for a while but Surdez’s father could not stop chasing other women for long. The family struggled on for five more years until Surdez’s now adult sisters, inspired by their father’s tales of New York, announced they intended to emigrate to America.

Perhaps Marie believed the break up of the family would have been last rites for her marriage. To everyone’s surprise she suggested they all start a new life across the Atlantic, a fantasy of Eugene’s she had previously dismissed. Her own fantasy, less easily fulfilled, was that the move would stop her husband’s adultery.

Surdez looked forward to living life to the full in the new world. Perhaps he could be a racing driver? Or a cowboy like Texas Jack? The possibilities seemed endless. But America had a few surprises in store.

Welcome To America

Georges Surdez first saw the United States on 24 September 1912, a twelve-year-old boy hugging the rail of the SS Touraine as the New York skyline grew on the horizon. The city’s mix of old and new, rich and poor amazed Surdez. The Metropolitan Life Tower on Madison Avenue was the world’s tallest building but its shadow fell on nineteenth century tenements little better than slums.

Any enthusiasm Surdez felt for life in America was short lived. The school system traumatised him.

Because I did not know the language,’ he later wrote, ‘I [sank] from a fine scholar to a semi-moron, tongue-tied and awkward, the target for jokes and laughter, pushed down to the bottom of the human scale as a peculiar, rather nervous importation from a quaint land.’

His family found life equally hard. Eugene’s watch making skills counted for little in a country where watches were stamped out on a production line. His wages barely covered the rent on a small Westchester apartment. Marie missed the open spaces and clean air of the Swiss valleys. Her daughters wanted their freedom. No-one had time to comfort young Georges in his unhappiness. Alienated and alone he turned to his books for company and was drawn more than ever to the rootless heroes of the Foreign Legion.

Colonial Adventure

The French Foreign legion is somewhat more to me than subject matter,’ Surdez said in 1933. ‘I heard Legion yarns before I could walk or talk, have studied about the unit always, have visited garrison towns and outposts on various fronts in many colonies‘.

FFL1In the early years of the twentieth century itinerant veterans were a common sight in France and Switzerland; some sold trinkets door-to-door to supplement their government pensions and most drank too much. Back in Switzerland, one named Emile had told a young Surdez unsuitable stories about the realities of life in the Legion.

Emile described how his friend was shot in the jaw by pirates of the Black Flag during a fire fight on an Indochinese river and bled to death on a raft. Surdez preferred the one about a feast thrown by legionnaires when their compound was threatened by Chinese guerrillas during the 1884-85 war for Tonkin province in north Vietnam. The legionnaires caroused all night while in the centre of the feast an executioner decapitated Chinese prisoners. The next day the guerrillas awoke to the sight of heads swinging by their pigtails from every branch of every tree in the compound.

Brutality was common in an organisation which welcomed the dispossessed and desperate of every nationality into its ranks. Created in 1831 as the spearhead of France’s imperial mission in North Africa the Legion quickly became the destination of choice for criminals on the run and the emotionally disturbed looking to forget their pasts.

The fiction Surdez read about the French Foreign Legion presented a more romantic picture. Ouida’s English novel ‘Under Two Flags’ was a best seller in the 1860s and its plot provided the blueprint for many Legion tales to come (athletic English aristocrat Victor joins up to escape social shame and becomes a hero) while French writers like Roger de Beauvoir and Georges d’Esparbès explored similar territory the next century. Surdez read and re-read the French language stories he had brought from Europe. Then in 1914 he discovered a Foreign Legion tale in the American pulp magazine All-Story.

‘A Soldier Of the Legion’ by CN and AM Williamson was one of the Legion’s first appearances in American literature. The plot owed a lot to Ouida (athletic West Point graduate Max Doran joins up to escape social shame and becomes a hero) but it introduced Surdez to American pulps and changed his life.

Pulp History

Spawned in 1896 when Frank Andrew Munsey transformed his ailing magazine The Golden Argosy: Freighted With Treasures For Boys And Girls into plain ‘Argosy’, a home for adult adventure stories, the pulps were successors to the Dime novels Surdez had read in Switzerland.

Munsey discovered readers were more interested in racy stories than the budget paper stock he used to cut costs. They did not care that the words blurred as ink spread through the Argosy’s porous pages or the grey paper turned yellow in a month.

Munsey’s success triggered an avalanche of similar publications, all printed on the cheapest wood pulp paper that could be run through a printing press without ripping. The stories were fast paced tales of cowboys, Indians, detectives, pilots, adventurers, soldiers, and the occasional French Foreign Legionnaire. The covers were garish and eye catching: scantily clad blondes in danger, bi-planes locked in aerial combat, square jawed adventurers punching out foreign villains.

The mainstream magazines, known as ‘slicks’ for their superior paper quality, attracted top flight advertisers (‘For digestion’s sake … smoke Camels!‘). The pulps were home to the low rent end of the market. Their small ads were filled with Charles Atlas body building courses, cures for bad breath or weak bladders, photographs of ‘French models’, and booklets promising the power of hypnosis over young women.

Mainstream culture looked down its nose at the pulps and blamed them for moral degeneracy amongst the young. Educationalists complained that pulp readers, and sometimes writers, were only a short step ahead of illiteracy. But publishers were prepared to put up with the griping for one good reason: they made a lot of money. Some of it was even passed on to the writers who fed the industry’s insatiable appetite for thrilling fiction. Raymond Chandler, creator of gumshoe Philip Marlowe, learned his trade in the pulps.

If in doubt,’ he said, ‘have a man come through the door with a gun‘.

The sheer number of pulp magazines was staggering. In a typical week news stands groaned under the weight of Adventure, Argosy, Amazing Stories, Black Mask, Detective Story Magazine, Famous Fantastic Mysteries, Ghost Stories, Golden Fleece, and hundreds more. Titles appeared and died like mayflies. When sales fell, the publishers folded the title and started another. Surdez devoured them all.


The expatriate Swiss left school at sixteen with a head full of pulp adventure but no qualifications. His English had improved to native standard but this had not saved him from ostracism by fellow pupils.

MMFFLI have been “dirty Swiss,” “Square-head,” “Frenchy,” “Froggy,” …‘ he wrote, still bitter a decade later.

His French language skills did help to get a job. The world war was raging in Europe. While millions of men, including his beloved Foreign Legionnaires, lived like troglodytes in trench systems cut through Belgium and France, Surdez worked as a clerk in the New York office of the French High Commission.

Surdez registered for the draft when America entered the war in 1917 (brown hair, grey eyes, 5’6″) but was not one of the 1.2 million doughboys called up to fight.

Too young and slight,’ was his explanation. He watched Imperial Germany’s collapse from the sidelines.

With the war over he joined an American timber firm with interests in the Côte D’Ivoire. In 1919 Surdez sailed for the French colony, a humid square of forest and plantations in west Africa. He wanted to get away from his quarrelling family, cooped up in their Westchester apartment, his father’s dreams of riches going sour with drink, his mother wishing she had stayed in Switzerland, and both of them bullied by Surdez’s sisters.

His work in the Côte D’Ivoire was clerical and bored him so much he resigned to strike out as an independent trader. On business trips to Morocco and French Soudan he met serving legionnaires and heard their stories. He even considered joining up but, after seeing Legion life first-hand, realised he was not cut out for it.

Life in the colony was dangerous enough without a rifle in his hands. Native bandits, Malaria, and Guinea Worm disease all threatened to give Surdez a grave plot in the African sun. Profits were not high enough to justify the risks so the Swiss closed his trading business in 1920 and returned to New York. After the standard customs declarations that he possessed $50 and was not a polygamist or anarchist, he told immigration officials he planned to stay for a maximum of six months.

He may have been telling the truth. But for the next twenty-seven years, apart from a few trips abroad, he never left the country. The pulps were to blame.

Dollar a Thousand Words

Back in New York with experience of French imperial Africa but little else, Surdez took a clerking job while he decided his future. The city was booming. The financial district was a pin cushion of skyscrapers and Broadway a dazzling strip of electric light. In the post-war prosperity, pulps were selling more than ever.

Surdez still liked reading pulp adventures and discovered that bigger magazines like Argosy and Adventure offered good money for fresh fiction. His travels in Africa had been less exciting than those portrayed in the magazines – more paperwork and less gunfire – but he had the experiences to tell a good story.

I went to the Ivory Coast for a timber firm; dabbled in general trading in North Africa and French Soudan, then started to write,’ as he laconically put it.

Through 1921 and early 1922 Surdez spent his free time writing short stories in his Brooklyn apartment. He worked in shirt sleeves during the summer as the kids outside played in the spray from broken fire hydrants. In the winter he wrapped up in a sweater to pound the nickel keys of his typewriter while heating pipes complained through the apartment walls.

Hacks and the Occasional Genius

Pulp writing attracted a mixed bunch. Well-oiled hacks used to turning out any story in any style if there was money at the end of it rubbed shoulders with genuine genre fans like Surdez, and oddballs like Albert Richard Wetjen who touch typed his stories in the dark. Wetjen had begun his career writing without electricity in a one-room Salem shack and now his imagination only sparked with the lights off.

Observing from the sidelines with a cynical eye was a tough crew who had lived what they wrote. Gordon MacCreagh explored Abyssinia with an expedition searching for the Ark of the Covenant. Talbot Mundy had been a poacher and jailbird in India. Best known was Borden Chase, who joined the pulps when his regular job as a driver for a Chicago bootlegger was terminated after Al Capone’s gunmen mowed down his employer. Writing about gangsters in New York seemed safer than living it for real.

I was like a lot of other guys who got into writing for the pulps because they were there,’ Chase said. ‘They were looking for people with imagination – it didn’t matter if you hadn’t been to some of the places you wrote about as long as you could tell a good story. The crime stuff came easy to me so that’s what I did. The editors at Munsey’s [still the biggest pulp publisher in the 1920s] always needed copy fast and you could get a cheque as soon as the story was accepted and they signed a voucher. They paid a dollar a thousand words. I once heard a story that Frank Munsey would evaluate the worth of a story by how heavy the manuscript felt in his hand, but that never happened to me!

Surdez’s first stories were published in October 1922. His early works were a mix of popular pulp themes – battles in darkest Africa, tough detectives and crime thrillers. ‘The Yellow Streak’, ‘A Game In The Bush’, and ‘Hell’s Half-Way House’ were the first steps in a profitable association with Adventure magazine. Argosy accepted the stories Adventure turned down.

The Swiss was able to quit clerking when ‘A Game In The Bush’, an atypical romantic adventure, was bought by the New York-based Film Booking Offices of America (FBO) and in 1927 turned into the movie ‘South Sea Love’. The FBO was run by Joseph Kennedy, patriarch of a sprawling Boston Catholic family who would later guide his son John to the White House. South Sea Love was typical of the undemanding low budget entertainment FBO churned out. Made silent just as talkies came into fashion, its stars were second rate and director Ralph Ince well past his best.

The story might have been written by a young school girl who had recently heard of Lady Godiva and of the potentialities of the radio,’ said the New York Times.

The Swiss ignored the movie world’s rejection. He had already embarked on a literary path that would sustain him for the next fifteen years.

Sons of the Sword

Surdez had experimented with French Foreign Legion fiction since the early days of his career. Swords Of The Soudan appeared over three issues of Argosy in 1923. But it was the publication of P C Wren’s novel ‘Beau Geste’ the following year that created a market for all things legionary.

FFL2Beau Geste‘s plot was familiar to readers of Ouida (aristocratic Englishman Michael ‘Beau’ Geste joins the Legion to escape social shame etc.) but the book’s success was unprecedented. Englishman Wren never served in the Foreign Legion but had done his homework and told a good yarn. The Legion became all the rage.

Laurel and Hardy signed up in ‘Beau Hunks’, and even Mickey Mouse donned the kepi. Pulp editors wanted a piece of legionary action and Surdez was well placed to exploit their hunger. France’s foreign volunteers became the subject of most his stories until the Second World War.

At a time when pulp writers mimicked the stripped down prose of Ernest Hemingway (a man so hard boiled, according to Dorothy Parker, ‘he makes a daily practice of busting his widowed mother in the nose‘), the Swiss’ work was loquacious, to the point of having a purple tinge. But he shared Hemingway’s interest in the psychology of men of action. Surdez’s legionnaires were not Ouida-like aristocrats joining up to escape their pasts, but professional soldiers plagued by moral weakness and doubt in a foreign land.

His work sold well (Adventure alone took over 100 stories in the twenties) but Surdez never made it into the top tier of pulp writers whose name on the cover sent a magazine flying off the new stands. He was too sparing with the blood and guts. His 1927 novel Demon Caravan avoids action for a well-observed power struggle between moderate and conservative Muslims in a remote kingdom. ‘Sons Of The Sword’, a long 1928 story in Adventure, contrasts political manoeuvrings in French and Arab societies in the Sahara.

Readers were left with the sneaking suspicion Surdez regarded himself as a serious writer. He tried to cover himself with exotic settings, dark-eyed native girls and occasional gratuitous titillation.

His fingers moved over the silk, lower … His hand encountered the firm round breasts of a woman‘.

Word Count

Good money could be made in the pulps, but writers had to work hard for it. H. Bedford-Jones (‘King of the Pulps’) was living proof a man could even get rich behind a typewriter. He was once offered $25,000 a year to write exclusively for one publisher but turned it down – he could earn three times that amount as a freelance. With at least four stories always on the go, so if inspiration dried up on one he switched to another, Bedford-Jones could write 25,000 words a day to meet an emergency deadline and regarded less than 6,000 before bedtime on an ordinary day as laziness.

A friend rang his home to be told by Bedford-Jones’ wife that her husband was hard at work on a novel.

I’ll hold on until he’s finished,’ said the caller.

Surdez was not as prolific as Bedford-Jones (no-one was) but he churned out enough short stories for the hungry maw of the pulp industry to ensure a healthy bank balance. Along with a fat cheque from Joe Kennedy for ‘South Sea Love’, the pulp money made him abandon any lingering thoughts of leaving for Africa or Switzerland.

In 1928 he became a naturalised American citizen, encouraged by his wife Edith McKenna, an older schoolteacher he had married in 1922. She wanted him to put down roots. But despite assurances to Edith, psychologically Surdez remained with one foot in America and the other in Europe. America was the nation which bewildered and divided his family and he never quite trusted it.

The year after his citizenship was granted Surdez took his wife on a long tour of the French colonies in Africa and the Far East, where he squeezed more stories out of any legionnaires he met. The couple left an America that was confident and prosperous. When they returned in 1930 the economy was in ruins.

Russian Roulette

While the Surdezs were away, share prices tumbled on the New York stock exchange. Panic selling followed and, within weeks of the crash on Wall Street, economic disaster surged like a tsunami over the nation’s financial markets. Businesses went under and banks closed. Unemployment and hardship succeeded the boom time of the twenties.

Freelancers in the pulp world heard the wolf howling at the door louder than most. In 1929 Surdez could submit work to seventy-three pulp magazines. Three years later that number had dwindled to thirty-five and rates of pay to less than half a cent a word. Many pulpsters stopped writing and took what jobs they could to get by. Surdez refused to quit.

He defiantly gave his profession as ‘magazine writer’ in the 1930 census and boasted he was known abroad – ‘They March From Yesterday’, a collection of Legion tales, had been published in Britain, and his stories were bootlegged for Seikkailujen Maailma, a Finnish pulp magazine with a relaxed attitude to copyright. Adventure and Argosy continued to run Surdez’s Legion stories but he had to look outside the pulp world to pay the rent.

Collier’s Illustrated Weekly was a popular mainstream magazine which made its reputation pioneering socially-concerned photojournalism in the early years of the century. In the 1920s it went middle-brow after discovering readers preferred serialised novels to exposés of the child labour laws.

The Wall Street Crash knocked it down a peg. Advertising revenue during the 1930s was never more than half its pre-Crash level. Despite the financial battering, Collier’s pulled in over a million readers every week. Even in the darkest days of the Depression it could pay name writers $1,000 for a short story. Surdez wanted to get on board.

The magazine’s mid-thirties incarnation was an easy-reading mixture of aspirational articles on subjects like big game fishing or business success, the occasional painted pin-up, and crowd pleasing fiction, often just as escapist as anything in Adventure. With some light reworking a talented pulp writer could submit stories that would previously have gone to Munsey’s. Surdez polished his prose and sent in his work. The Collier’s crowd liked it. ‘A Job In The Legion’ was serialised in 1933 and others followed.

Surdez was a cut above his fellow pulp hacks (his characters had at least two dimensions), but he would have disappeared from the cultural memory like Bedford-Jones and Borden Chase if it had not been for a short story in Collier’s that continued to send out ripples across the years long after the stone had been thrown.

You Bet Your Life

On 30 January 1937 a 1,600-word piece of fiction by Surdez called ‘Russian Roulette’ appeared in the magazine. A briskly told tale of adventure, gambling, and death amongst Foreign Legionnaires in an isolated North African outpost, the story christened and popularised the game that would kill more than a thousand Americans.

With lost carbons, missing letters, and apartment moves, Surdez did not leave many papers behind and the few he did do not explain where he got the name for Russian Roulette. The suicidal gun game had been around since at least 1920, as adventurers in Russia during the civil war had testified, but Surdez was the first to use the name in print. It may have been floating around unrecorded before Surdez nailed it to the page. The odds are that the Swiss came up with it himself. It was the kind of tough guy gambling-with-death approach that years of working in the Pulps gave you.

The story takes the form of a letter from Hugo Feldheim, a young German recruit, to his superior officer asking for advice on how to cover up the suicide of a Russian comrade. Sergeant Burkowski is a compulsive gambler who regularly fleeces his comrades in games of chance. When they cut their losses and refuse to play he becomes depressed. In conversation with Feldheim he asks whether the German has heard of ‘Russian Roulette’.

It was practised, says Burkowski, in Romania during 1917, the last days of the Russian participation in the World War when the Tsar’s demoralised army was on the retreat.

To demonstrate bravery or simply indifference to death a Russian officer would ‘suddenly pull out his revolver, anywhere, at the table, in a café, at a gathering of friends, remove a cartridge from the cylinder, spin the cylinder, snap it back in place, put it to his head, and pull the trigger. There were five chances to one that the hammer would set off a live cartridge and blow his brains all over the place. Sometimes it happened, sometimes not. When it did, there was nothing more to be said or done; when it didn’t, the fellow waited another day.’

Before Feldheim can stop him Burkowski demonstrates. The hammer falls on an empty chamber and the Russian is invigorated. He continues to play Russian Roulette in this way for several weeks. Burkowski still likes to gamble and challenges Feldheim to a variant of the game. He will remove all but one of the bullets from the revolver, spin the cylinder and see if he can avoid death. Feldheim tries to argue him out of it but is pushed into making a bet. The Russian lives and Feldheim loses a month’s wages. Later that night a contrite Burkowski visits him to return the money. He cheated, he explains, as he knew where the bullet was in the cylinder. Feldheim refuses to accept the money and later that night the Russian shoots himself.

He went away again, and not long after I heard the shot that killed him. I wondered whether he had tried the bet all over again, privately. But when I examined the weapon, I discovered that all the chambers were loaded. I hope the Lieutenant can tell me how to arrange this story so that it may satisfy the authorities. It is not quite clear to me whether it would be right to reveal that he had shot himself for cheating. On the other hand, have I the right to falsify an official report?

Respectfully yours,
Sergeant Third Foreign Infantry

The story appeared alongside an article on playing the stock market called ‘Rules for Suckers’, melodramatic serial novel ‘I Love You Again’, which made the cover, adverts for RCA radio sets and for laxatives – ‘Goodbye worry! I’ve discovered a laxative with easing action‘.

The story was well regarded enough that the editors of the Fiction Parade & Golden Book Magazine digest reprinted it in May the same year. Eight months later a young man called Thomas H Markley jnr shot himself dead on his twenty-first birthday in Austin, Texas. His was the first Russian Roulette death in America.

Surdez’s story had opened a door in the American psyche. And something scurried in.

Motive and Memory

Georges Arthur Surdez died on 5 November 1949 in Brooklyn. His last ten years had been tough.

The pulps picked up in the late thirties and for a few years Surdez was able to place a decent amount of work with them. Then in 1941 the war reached America. Japanese Zero fighters dived out of a clear blue afternoon sky and atacked Pearl Harbour, the Hawaiian naval base. Four days later Nazi Germany declared war on America.

Surdez was not called up (‘too old and fat’) and, while some men his age would have been grateful to stay out of the army, he was disappointed. He could have done with the regular army pay check. His Foreign Legion stories had recently become about as popular as fresh shrapnel and money was becoming a problem.

In June 1940 Nazi Germany had overrun France. A New Order was established. Legionnaires found themselves having to choose between the collaborationist French government at Vichy, far-right extremists in Paris, and a resistance movement hiding weapons in every attic. That kind of complex situation did not translate well into magazines across the Atlantic.

Surdez managed to place a few more stories with the pulps, all set before the war, but the pulps soon made it clear they wanted nothing to do with the Foreign Legion. His new stories were about the French resistance. Unfortunately so were everyone else’s. Contemporary war stories were money makers.


Too much competition and not enough magazines. The pulp market plunged down again during the war due to a shortage of paper and, crucially, metal for staples. Surdez spread his talent thinly over a number of different publications but times were hard. His marriage collapsed in 1943 when Edith moved out to live with another man. Divorce followed. Surdez consoled himself with an autobiographical novel of his childhood, his first conventional mainstream writing venture.

FFL3Homeland is a strikingly good book, warm and rich with memories of an unsettled childhood in Switzerland and France. When it came out in 1945 reviews were respectful, but sales low. Surdez went back to the surviving pulps and managed to keep a roof above his head until death came knocking four years later.

The only publication to record his passing was the Wilson Library Gazette, a publication for librarians who liked to keep their card indexes up to date.

‘GEORGES SURDEZ, novelist and freelance writer; in Brooklyn, New York, forty-nine’.

In 1953 his novel Demon Caravan was made into the underwhelming Hollywood movie ‘Desert Legion’ with Alan Ladd. Surdez’s ex-wife Edith convinced the copyright authorities she was his widow, despite the divorce, and renewed the lapsed copyright on the book in her name.

Mystery Story

There are lots of unanswered questions about ‘Russian Roulette’, not least why Surdez thought it was more dangerous to play it with one bullet than five, but the one that screams loudest for an answer is why the Swiss did not step forward during his lifetime to take credit for inventing, or at least popularising, the practice.

By the time of his death Russian Roulette was an established part of American popular culture. It featured in the 1941 Clark Gable cowboy movie Honky Tonk and Rex Harrison’s 1948 Unfaithfully Yours.

If he missed those he might have read the New York Times 17 February 1949 story about Phillip Fernette. The twelve-year-old shot himself dead at his home after he and a friend ‘remembered the deadly game they had once seen in the movies‘. Or the 21 September 1947 story about two teenage boys who shot a girl dead by playing Russian Roulette with the gun pointing at her chest.

Maybe he simply missed the signs that his story had slid off the printed page and into real life. Writers, especially those hacking out stories daily when not cursing their ex-wives, can be an insular mob. Or perhaps the public arena was not for him.


Hints exist, bat squeaks of suspicion among the historical background noise, that Surdez could have had political reasons for wishing to stay out of the post-WWII spotlight. Homeland proudly mentions his father was a Socialist. Surdez may have followed him down that road.

FFL4Surdez have skated over the worst aspects of legionary life – ‘stories of atrocities in the Legion, or by the Legion, hand me a laugh‘ – but he always portrayed Black and Arab characters sympathetically. Few other pulp writers would have allowed a Sudanese bandit to tell a French officer: ‘I rob caravans. You steal the desert away from the Arabs and you have taken land from the black people. There is only one difference between you and me. I steal for myself. You steal for your people – bigger things’.

Just a theory. Not much in the way of evidence but, combined with the fact that in the early 1930s the French Sûreté in Africa intercepted letters to Surdez from black independence activist Amadou Sall, the bells ring a little louder. Sall was a political nationalist from Senegal who had lived in New York until the government deported him in 1931. He was active on behalf of the United Negro Improvement Association (Marcus Garvey’s UNIA). Sall’s calls for Senegalese independence went down well with UNIA working class black audiences in the association’s heartland of Harlem.

By the time Surdez’s pen friend wrote to him, the UNIA was sinking. Flamboyant founder Marcus Garvey had been kicked out. Grandiose projects, like the Black Star Line, the first black owned and crewed transatlantic service, and Hubert ‘The Black Eagle’ Julian’s projected flight to Africa, were a thing of the past. But it still remained a formidable organisation committed to racial equality and anti-colonialism, ideals it was prepared to back up with armed paramilitaries like the African Legion. The FBI monitored it. European powers in Africa kept a wary eye on the situation.

The letters from Sall may have been entirely innocent or they could be an indication Surdez was more radical in his opinions than his French Foreign Legion stories indicated. Frost was growing on the cold war by the late 1940s. Not the best time for a man with leftist opinions to take credit for a killer game named after America’s ideological enemy. Who knows?

Twenty-two Russian Roulette players died in America the year Surdez passed away. Like a watch ticking on the wrist of a corpse, the practice he introduced to America lived on.

If you want to show some love for this blog then feel free to buy my books in paperback, hardback, or ebook:

Lost Lions of Judah: Haile Selassie’s Mongrel Foreign Legion [or]


Katanga 1960-63: Mercenaries, Spies and the African Nation that Waged War on the World  [or]


Franco’s International Brigades: Adventurers, Fascists, and Christian Crusaders in the Spanish Civil War [or]


4 thoughts on “The Man Who Invented Russian Roulette

  1. Pingback: America’s First Russian Roulette Victims | Christopher Othen

  2. Pingback: An Introduction to Russian Roulette | Christopher Othen

  3. Dear Mr. Othen, I‘m editor at the «Bieler Tagblatt», the newspaper of the city, that Georges Surdez came from. I‘m writing an article about the thrilling subject «Russian Roulette an Biel». Your very new article from 25. August 2017 about him is very interesting. But what are your sources for that Russian Roulette existed in reality and was known since 1917? And if it was like that, why do you write then, that Surdez invented it? Thank you very much for an answer! Beat Kuhn P.S. So, you are an author, too?


    • Hi Beat. Yes, I’m an author. My most recent book is ‘Lost Lions of Judah’ about the foreigners who helped Haile Selassie defend Ethiopia from Fascist invasion. If you check out the ‘My Books’ page on this blog you’ll see details of my other books. The article about Surdez was originally written back in 2011 on my old website; I’m transferring things over as well as writing new posts.

      Georges Surdez, as far as I know, invented or at least popularised the name Russian Roulette. Hence the title of my post. The practice existed nameless before, although its history is cloudy. British author Graham Greene played it as a depressed teenager in the very early 1920s and claimed to have got the idea from a book about Russia. He named Ossendowski as the author but none of the Polish writer’s books published at that time mention anything like Russian Roulette so presumably Greene misremembered. The British mercenary Frank ‘One Arm’ Sutton also claimed to have seen the practice in Russia not long after the Revolution. There are other sources in various languages, not all of which point to Russia.

      If you write a piece on Surdez please send me a link and I’d appreciate a name check if you can squeeze it in.


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