Ray Bradbury and the Last Global Pandemic

April 18, 2021   •   By Sam Weller

AS WE MARK one year of living in a COVID world, I am reminded of talking about the last major pandemic — the influenza of 1918 — with the late author Ray Bradbury. For all the years I spent with him (12 in total, five during which I saw him every two weeks, flying from Chicago to Los Angeles as I was writing his authorized biography), he would often speak about the 1918 virus, the so-called “Spanish flu.” This was in the early 2000s, when few understood the damage a pandemic could wreak. Pandemics were the stuff of a Michael Crichton novel, not our own reality.


Bradbury was dumbfounded that the 1918 tragedy had faded from our cultural consciousness. “Nobody talks about it anymore,” he said with remorse. The 1918 pandemic claimed at least 50 million lives around the world; in the United States, the death toll is estimated to be near 675,000. Imagine if people, a century hence, have all but forgotten the catastrophic year we endured from 2020 to 2021. The quarantines. The social distancing. The overwhelmed hospitals. The collapsed economy. Our children Zoom-schooling ad nauseam. If Bradbury were alive today, he would caution us that we must never “move on” from the COVID-19 tragedy.


Ray Bradbury, of course, was the writer of such timeless works of the fantastic as The Martian Chronicles (1950), Fahrenheit 451 (1953), The October Country (1955), and Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962). He is often hailed as a visionary, largely for stories like Fahrenheit and “The Veldt” (1950) that foresaw the proliferation of mass media in our lives and, presciently, our inability to detach from them. But just as he was a science-fiction prophet foretelling our imminent future, so he was equally inclined to look backward, into the past. In my biography of him, The Bradbury Chronicles: The Life of Ray Bradbury (2005), I called him a “nostalgic visionary.”


Bradbury lost two family members to the 1918 pandemic. These deaths, with their associated grief, imbue much of his oeuvre. Mortality, loneliness, letting go were the central motifs to Bradbury’s first book, Dark Carnival (1947), published when he was only 27 years old, and dubbed by Stephen King as the “Dubliners of American Gothic.”


Ray Bradbury was born on August 22, 1920, after the flu pandemic had ended. The virus had taken a devastating toll on his family. I have spent two decades delving into Bradbury’s genealogy, combing through lost records, staring blurry-eyed at microfiche screens, trying to understand and fully appreciate how Bradbury’s formative years (what he called his “root system”) shaped him as a writer.


Bradbury grew up in Waukegan, Illinois, an industrial city on the shores of Lake Michigan, just a few miles shy of the Wisconsin border. His father was a line worker for the local Bureau of Power and Light. On July 17, 1916, four years before Ray was born, his mother Esther gave birth to twins, Leonard Jr. and Samuel. “Sam” was a popular name in the Bradbury line. Ray’s great-grandfather, his grandfather, his uncle, and his brother all shared this moniker.


The twins, Leonard Jr. and Sam Bradbury, in 1917

The newborn twins captivated Esther Bradbury’s heart. She was, by most accounts, a reserved, dispassionate woman, a Swedish immigrant who had moved to the United States from Stockholm with her family in 1890. In 1912, she met Leonard Spaulding Bradbury, a short, muscular, strapping Waukeganite. The Bradburys had been hometown royalty of sorts. Leo’s grandfather, Samuel Irving Bradbury, was a town alderman, and 1881–’82 mayor. He also published the town newspaper, the Lake County Patriot, which he handed down to his son, Ray’s grandfather, Samuel Hinkston Bradbury, who ran the paper after his father passed in 1885.


Esther Marie Moberg married Leonard Spaulding Bradbury in 1914, and by the summer of 1916, they had welcomed their twins into the world. Esther doted on her boys, with their heads of thick, wavy blond hair. She often walked them in a double wicker stroller around their tree-canopied neighborhood. It is this idyllic image of small-town, Midwestern America that Ray immortalized in his semi-autobiographical novel Dandelion Wine (1957). But just a few months after their second birthday, both of the twins (and their mother) contracted the flu virus that was ravaging the world at an alarming rate.


In April 1918, as World War I was raging in Europe, the first indications of the coming pandemic emerged in the form of scattered outbreaks of influenza. With troops being transported by the hundreds of thousands and living together in cramped quarters, a perfect storm of transmissibility was unfolding. By the autumn of 1918, a second, far deadlier wave struck. And in September, Sam Bradbury, one of the twins, succumbed to the illness, dying on September 30, 1918. The Bradburys, like any parents who endure the unspeakable tragedy of losing a child, were devastated.


Unlike COVID-19, which affects older people the worst, the 1918 virus took a savage toll among the young. “You have to remember,” Ray told me on multiple occasions, “that many families during this time experienced the loss of a child. This was before the invention of penicillin and sulfonamide, and parents were burying their babies constantly.” The two-year-old Sam was buried in an unmarked grave, on the southern outskirts of Waukegan, at the old Oakwood Cemetery, where today there are views of Lake Michigan through a wall of lush greenery. In 1918, the Bradbury family could not afford a headstone. Today, more than 100 years later, the sole record of the child’s burial resides in the dark basement of Waukegan’s city hall, in a leather-bound cemetery log with a line written in an archaic, spidery hand: “Baby Bradbury.”


Just a few days after the tragic death, the child’s namesake, Ray’s young uncle, Captain Samuel Hinkston Bradbury Jr., set sail aboard the transport SS Lutetia for the battlefields of France. He was 23 years old, handsome, with dark hair, dark eyes, and a firm jawline. Captain Bradbury wanted desperately to serve his country in the war effort, to see action on the battlefield.


Transport ship SS Lutetia

Sam Bradbury was born on November 17, 1894, the younger brother of Ray’s father, Leo. I asked Ray where his propensity for writing and storytelling may have started. Along with the journalism that was notably in the family bloodline, Ray’s Uncle Sam, whom he never met, aspired to be a great writer. Graduating from Waukegan High School in 1912, he was listed in the annual yearbook as the “Class Poet.” Next to his photograph it stated:


For that fine madness still he

did retain

Which rightly should possess

A poet’s brain


After graduation, unsure what to do next with his young life, Sam Bradbury joined the military. While stationed at Fort Riley in Kansas, he was recognized for his “alertness, natural executive ability, and broad intelligence” and was encouraged by a commanding officer to apply to West Point for officer training. Sam entered the elite military school in June 1913. Four years later, in April 1917, he graduated, commissioned a first lieutenant. He also married his sweetheart, Tilita Burke, whom he had met at his very first West Point dance. In September 1918, with the second wave of the pandemic cresting, Tilita was pregnant.


Samuel H. Bradbury Jr., circa 1912

Three days into his journey to France, on October 8, 1918, Sam Bradbury, now a captain, became gravely ill. Newspaper accounts report that he grew stronger for a time, only to relapse. His symptoms worsened rapidly. After the transport ship reached France, he was moved to a debarkation hospital. In the evening hours of October 17, exactly one month short of his 24th birthday, Captain Samuel Bradbury Jr. passed away from influenza, a young officer, newly married and with his first child on the way, who had hoped for a brilliant military career and aspired to be a great writer one day.


After Captain Bradbury’s death, his new wife, then living with her parents in East Orange, New Jersey, was notified. Her father, Charles Burke, a New York financial broker, telegraphed the Bradbury family back in Waukegan. The message was delivered in the morning hours, as the family gathered for breakfast in the dining room of their modest, two-story home at 619 Washington Street. Along with Ray’s grandparents, Samuel and Minnie, Ray’s parents lived in the home with their child, the lone surviving twin, along with Leo’s younger siblings, Bion and Neva Bradbury.


The telegram was mistakenly delivered that morning to Ray’s mother, Esther. “She read the letter,” according to the account in the local newspaper, the Waukegan Daily Gazette, “and it fluttered from her hands and she collapsed. When its contents became known to other members of the family all were plunged in grief and the dead soldier’s mother is prostrated.”


Captain Samuel Bradbury was buried in France, at what is now the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery, northeast of Paris. The family’s intentions were to have his remains moved back to Waukegan at some point, but as time went on, and life moved on, this never occurred. Just over a month after his death, on November 20, 1918, Captain Bradbury’s widow, Tilita, gave birth to a daughter, also named Tilita, nicknamed “Tiny.” She would never know her father, lost to the 1918 pandemic. And, as the years passed, his memory would become lost to all but his immediate family.


In the Bradbury home at 619 Washington Street, the family reserved a room as a library where Ray’s grandfather would sit and read the newspaper. The library had a large bay window, several easy chairs, an amber reading lamp, and a bookcase that, as Ray remembered, filled an entire wall. On the west wall of the room was a framed black-and-white photograph of Captain Sam Bradbury, proudly dressed in his gray West Point bridge coat, his hair neatly combed, his eyes gazing right at you. “When my grandmother was seated in my grandfather’s reading chair,” Ray told me, “she could look across the room and there was her son, forever. I grew up thinking I knew him because I saw him every day of my young life.”


Captain Samuel H. Bradbury Jr., 1918

The family faced more tragedy in the coming years, unrelated to the 1918 pandemic but vital to the evolution of Ray Bradbury’s future aesthetic. Ray’s grandfather, after falling unconscious for several days, passed away in the family home on June 4, 1926, from meningitis. Ray had a sister, Elizabeth, born on March 27, 1927, who died of pneumonia less than a year later, on February 8, 1928. Ray, just seven years old, recalled men coming to the house in the blue hours of the morning and taking his sister’s body away in a small wicker basket.


Over the years, some scholars of fantastic literature have criticized Bradbury’s work as being too sentimental and overly nostalgic. But for Bradbury, nostalgia was not some futile act of pining for the past but, instead, another form of the grieving process. Nostalgia for Bradbury was a way to remember.


Ray Bradbury may not have known his uncle, Captain Samuel Bradbury. But he remembered him. He never forgot that striking photo that hung in his grandfather’s library. And he never forgot the tragedy of the 1918 pandemic. He couldn’t understand why it had all but vanished from our history books and collective cultural memory. Ray Bradbury, during his 91-plus years of life, came to subscribe to that age-old maxim, “Those who do not learn from history, are doomed to repeat it.” As the United States death toll from COVID-19 has now surpassed a half-million, and could well eclipse the number lost in 1918, Ray Bradbury would be heartbroken that so many families have lost loved ones, as he did.


In the late summer days of August 1989, while visiting his favorite city, Paris, Ray went out, alone, to the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery. There, in the late afternoon sunlight, he wandered amid a field of pristine white headstones until he came to Plot C, Row 18, Grave 12, the burial site of a man he never met but knew all his life. And as he placed a bouquet of flowers on the lonely grave of Sam Bradbury, who never set foot in France while he was alive, never returned home to meet his daughter or even to be buried with his family in Waukegan, it was as if Ray was repeating the lines from one of his most famous poems to his Uncle Sam, who was also a poet: “I Remember You. I Remember You.”


Sam Weller with Ray Bradbury, 2003

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Sam Weller (@Sam__Weller) is the two-time Bram Stoker Award–winning biographer of Ray Bradbury. He worked with Bradbury for 12 years. Weller’s latest, Dark Black (2020), is a collection of 20 Gothic short stories. He teaches in the English Department at Columbia College Chicago.