In Association with

Choose another writer in this calendar:

by name:

by birthday from the calendar.

Credits and feedback

for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

Achmed Abdullah (1881-1945) - pseudonym of Alexander Nicholayevitch Romanoff


Russian-born British novelist and short story writer, a world traveler and adventurer, who gained fame after World War I with his mysteries set in exotic locales from New York's Chinatown to India and Tibet. Achmed Abdullah's best-known work is the novelization of the famous silent film, The Thief of Bagdad (1924). Its screenplay was written by Elton Thomas (Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.) and Lotta Woods.

"London is the capital of a motley and picturesque empire, and pink turbans soften the foggy, sulfurous drab of Fleet Street; lavender turbans bob up and down the human eddy of the Burlington Arcade; green and red and white turbans blotch the sober, workday atmosphere of East Croydon and Pimlico." (from 'Wings,' in Wings or Tales of the Psychic, 1920)

Achmed Abdullah was born in Yalta, in the Crimea, of mixed Russian-Afghan ancestry. In some sources his birthplace is reported as Malta. Abdullah was vague about his parentage, and he never revealed the name to which he was born but apparently he was christened Alexander Nicholayevitch Romanoff. However, he was also know as Achmed Abdullah Nadir Khan el-Durani el Iddrissyeh, whose father, Grand Duke Nicholas Romanoff, was a Russian-Orthodox, cousin to the last Tsar of Russia. To the Muslim name Achmed he was baptized in an Russian-Orthodox Church. Abdullah's mother, Princess Nourmahal Durani, was a Muslim, the daughter of the Emir of Kabul. Accoding to Abdullah, she tried to poison her husband in revenge for his serial infidelities.

After the divorce of his parents, Abdullah returned to Kabul with his mother and sister, where he was brought up by his grandparents of his uncle. He was educated in Indian School, Darjeling, and College Louis le Grant, France, from where he moved to England. At Eton School he astonished his schoolmates with his turban and earring. After an education at Oxford and the University of Paris, he became a soldier and a spy. While still at college, Abdullah made his debut as a poet with Chansons Couleur Puce (1900), which was privately published. His linguistic reatise, A Grammar of Little-Known Bantu Dialects (1902) was also privately published.

In 1900 Abdullah entered the British army, where he spent many years as a gentleman officer. He served over the world – in India, China, Tibet, France, the Near East, and Africa. Some of Abdullah's stories drew on experiences from this period of his life. "Those who met Abdullah found him very British in speech, manner and ideas," said Darrell Schweitzer in his introduction to Fear (2005). In the 1920s Abdullah settled in the United States, where was employed by Hollywood studios on occasion. Most his tales were first published in pulp magazines under the name "Achmed Abdullah" which he preferred more than "Alexander Romanoff." His other pseudonyms were A.A. Nadir and John Hamilton.

Abdullah soon gained fame with colorful, enjoyable adventure stories, which fit perfectly in the era of Rudolp Valentino and Lawrence of Arabia. Among his mystery books are The Honourable Gentleman and Others (1919), tales set among the Chinese community in lower Manhattan, The Swinging Caravan (1925), Steel and Jade (1927), and The Bungalow on the Roof (1931), in which an secret African cult camps on the rooftop of a New York apartment building. The Man on Horseback (1919) is based on Abdullah's experiences in the American West. Especially after 1920s women readers devoured his romantic adventures with exotic settings. Sometimes they had supernatural elements, as in the collections Wings: Tales of the Psychic (1920) and Mysteries of Asia (1935).

Abdullah's autobiography, The Cat Had Nine Lives (1933), is not far from fiction with its vivid tales of his travels and exploits. Originally the idea for the book came from a suggestion, "You've kicked about here and there and everywhere. You've had experiences, adventures. You've had as many lives as a cat. Put 'em down on paper." (Ibid., p. 4) It is possible that some of the stories were not based on actual events, but as the embodiment of adventurer and writer he fitted well in the fantasy world of Hollywood. "Magazine readers want to be entertained –  that's what they plunk down their little dimes for – and take them all around, they prefer a story which is full of action, of things daring, with some love and a fair dose of adventure thrown in, and yet, as you put it, they do not want their credulity strained to the breaking point." (from Abdullah's letter in 1917 to the editor of the All-Story Weekly, in Fear and Other Stories from the Pulps by Abdullah Achmed, 2005, p. 9) With Lute and Scimitar (1928), a collection of poems and ballads of Central Asia, Abdullah returned to his philological and folklore interests. His last years Abdullah lived in New York. Abdullah died on May 12, 1945, at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York. He was married three times, first to Irene Augusta Bainbridge (1884-1955), then to Jean Wick, his literary agent who died in 1939, and then in 1940 to Rosemary Agnes Dolan.

The Thief of Bagdad, directed by Raoul Walsh and starring Douglas Fairbanks (1883-1939), was an expensive film in its time – it cost nearly $2,000,000 to make. William Cameron Menzies designed the impressive sets, including towering minarets and Moorish buildings. The special effects were not so advanced as in the Expressionist German movies – the Magic Carpet was an ordinary carpet, hung on piano wires from a crane. However, in the United States the film was praised for its artistic values: "Here is magic. Here is beauty. Here is the answer to cynics who give the motion picture no place in the family of the arts," said James Quirk in Photoplay. (Douglas Fairbanks by Jeffrey Vance, 2008, p. 177) Fairbanks bought rights of some of the camera tricks from Fritz Lang's Der Müde Tod (1921).

The Thief of Bagdad was based on Arabian Nights –  the original story was possibly written by Abdullah. It tells of the quest of Ahmed, a thief, who has fallen in love with the daughter of the Caliph (Julanne Johnston). A test is devised to to select the proper husband for her. "Who brings the rarest treasure I will wed," she promises. Ahmed races against the time and other suitors. "Allah hath made thy soul to yearn for happiness, but thou must earn it," says a holy man to him. The final sequence shows Fairbanks and Johnston sailing on a carpet over the rooftops of Bagdad, its shadow flowing over the towers, while the stars in the sky spell out "Happiness Must Be Earned."

A publicity story claimed that the giant spider, which attacked Fairbanks in one sequence, went wrong one day and walked off the set – a small miracle in itself because the spider was not even mechanical but supported by wires. The underwater scenes did not involve any water, they were filmed in a tank filled with kelp. The sea-effect was created by billowing sheets of silk. William Cameron Menzies was also the production designer on Sir Alexander Korda's remake of the movie in 1940. This time the script was written by Lajor Biro and Miles Malleson.

The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935) was nominated for six Oscars, for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Editing, and for recording and second-unit direction. Abdullah, along with some others, wrote the screenplay based on the autobiography by Major Francis Yeats-Brown. However, the plot was invented by the scriptwriters. Moreover, none of the characters in the book appear in the screenplay. Gary Cooper played Lt. McGregor, who tries to mediate between a father and son, both officers at the same remote British outpost on the Indian frontier. Cooper dies heroically at the end, and his Victorian cross is pinned on the saddle of his horse. With this film, which captured the romance of Kipling India, Hathaway  took his place among the foremost Hollywood directors. "Mr. Yeats-Brown himself may be a trifle astonished to discover that a ravishing Russian spy has found her way into the story. Happily, though, the photoplay ignores her most of the time." (Andrew Sennwald in The New York Times, January 12, 1935) The location material, which was combined with studio footage using actors and scenes from the American West Coast, was shot by the documentary filmmaker Ernest Schoedsack around 1930.

Several of Abdullah's short stories were set in Chinatown, where his characters smoke opium, "in an atmosphere which is very sweet, very gentle – and very unhuman." (from 'A Simple Act of Piety,' 1918) So-called yellow peril tales, in which Asian supervillains commit evil deeds around the world, had been popular since the turn of the 20th century. The most famous master criminal was Sax Rohmer's Dr. Fu Manchu, who crystallized all xenophobic fears. Abdullah's 'The Hatchetman' that tells about Chinatown tongs was adapted into a Broadway play as The Honourable Mr. Wong by Abdullah and David Belasco. The screenplay of the motion picture version from 1932, directed by William A. Wellman, was written by J. Grubb Alexander. Edward G. Robinson played the role of Mr. Wong Low Get, a hitman, who works for a San Francisco tong with his hatchet. "The God of the Invincibly Strong Arms," a sequence of stories, ran between 1915 and 1916 in All Story-Weekly. Two parts of the series appeared in book form, The Red Stain (1915) and The Blue-Eyed Manchu (1917), telling of a fanatical cult of Kali worshipers. The title character is described as "the most dangerous, the most important, and the most elusive man in Asia . . . .  the peace of the world and the destiny of the white man depended and trembled on his will and strength."

For further reading: 'The Cat Had Nine Lives,' Wilson Library Bulletin (October 1929); 'Mr. Abdullah's Lives,' The New York Times (Dec. 10, 1933); 'Abdullah, Achmed,' in World Authors 1900-1950, Vol. 1, edited by Martin Seymour-Smith and Andrew C. Kimmens (1996); 'Achmed, Abdullah' by Mike Ashley, in St. James Guide to Fantasy Writers, edited by David Pringle (1996); Encyclopedia of Pulp Fiction Writers by Lee Server (2002); Introduction by Darrell Schweitzer, in Fear and Other Stories from the Pulps by Achmed Abdullah  (2008)

Selected works:

  • Chansons Couleur Puce, 1900
  • A Grammar of Little-Known Bantu Dialects, 1902
  • The Red Stain, 1915
  • The Blue-Eyed Manchu, 1917
  • Bucking the Tiger, 1917
    - film: Bucking the Tiger (1921), dir. by Henry Kolker, starring Conway Tearle, Winifred Westover, Gladden James, Helen Montrose 
  • The Honourable Gentleman and Others, 1919
    - film: Pagan Love (1920), dir. & prod. by Hugo Ballin, starring Togo Yamamoto, Mabel Ballin, Rockliffe Fellowes, Charles Fang, Nellie Fillmore; based on the short story The Honourablle Gentleman
  • The Man on Horseback, 1919
  • The Trail of the Beast, 1919
  • The Mating of the Blades, 1920
  • The Ten-Foor Chain, 1920
  • Toto, 1920 (play, with Leo Ditrichstein)
  • Wings: Tales of the Psychic, 1920
  • Night Drums, 1921
  • The Benefactor's Club, 1921
  • The Grand Duke, 1921 (play, with Lionell Atwill)
  • Alien Souls, 1922
  • The Remittance Woman, 1924
    - film: The Remittance Woman (1923), dir. by Wesley Ruggles, screenplay by Carol Warren, starring Ethel Clayton, Rockliffe Fellowes, Mario Carillo 
  • A Buccaneer in Spats, 1924
  • Shackled, 1924
  • The Thief of Bagdad, 1924 (novelization of a screenplay)
    - film dir. by Raoul Walsh, screenplay by Douglas Fairbanks as Elton Thomas and Lotta Woods, starring Douglas Fairbaks, Snitz Edwards, Brandon Hurst, Julanne Johnston, Anna May Wong, Sojin
  • The Swinging Caravan, 1925
  • A Wild Goose of Limerick, 1926
  • The Year of the Wood-Dragon, 1926 (illustrated by Frank Dobias)
  • Ruth's Rebellion, 1927 (with Faith Baldwin)
  • Steel and Jade, 1927
  • Lute and Scimitar, Being Poems and Ballads of Central Asia, 1928 (translator)
  • Broadway Interlude, 1929 (with F. Baldwin)
  • They Were So Young, 1929 (GB title: To an Eastern Throne)
  • Dreamers of Empire, 1929 (with T.Compton Pakenham, illustrated by B.K. Morris)
  • Black Tents, 1930
  • The Bungalow on the Roof, 1931
  • The Veiled Woman: A Novel of West and East, 1931 (GB title: The Lady in the Veil)
  • Girl on the Make, 1932 (with Faith Baldwin)
  • A Romantic Young Man, 1932
  • Love Comes to Sally, 1933
  • The Cat Had Nine Lives, 1933 (GB title: My Nine Lives)
  • Fighting Through, 1933
  • Never Without You, 1934
  • Broadway Interlude, 1934 (with W.A. Wolff)
  • The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, 1935 (screenplay, with others)
    - film dir. by Henry Hathaway, written by Waldemar Young, John B. Balderston, Achmed Abdullah, Grover Jones, William Slavens McNut, based on the book by Francis Yeats-Brown, starring Gary Cooper, Franchot Tone, Richard Cromwell, Sir Guy Standing, Douglas Dumbrille, Akim Tamiroff
  • Mysteries of Asia, 1935
  • The Flower of the Gods, 1936 (with Fulton Oursler)
  • Fifty Enthralling Stories of the Mysterious East, 1937 (editor)
  • For Men Only: A Cook Book, 1937 (with J. Kenny)
  • Deliver Us From Evil, 1939
  • The Shadow of the Master, 1940 (with F. Oursler)
  • Arabian Hypnotism, 1959
  • The Swinging Caravan, 1969
  • The Ten-Foot Chain; or, Can Love Survive the Shackles? A Unique Symposium, 1970 (with others)
  • The Thief of Bagdad, 1987 (illustrated by P. Craig Russell)
  • Fear: And Other Stories from the Pulps, 2005 (introduction by Darrell Schweitzer)
  • Fear and The Incubus, 2008 (Dodo Press)
  • Adventure Tales #5: Special Achmed Abdullah Issue, 2008 (edited by John Gregory Betancourt)
  • The Achmed Abdullah Megapack, 2013 (introduction by Darrell Schweitzer)

In Association with

Some rights reserved Petri Liukkonen (author) & Ari Pesonen. 2008-2020.

Creative Commons License
Authors' Calendar jonka tekijä on Petri Liukkonen on lisensoitu Creative Commons Nimeä-Epäkaupallinen-Ei muutettuja teoksia 1.0 Suomi (Finland) lisenssillä.
May be used for non-commercial purposes. The author must be mentioned. The text may not be altered in any way (e.g. by translation). Click on the logo above for information.