Willard Huntington Wright (S.S. Van Dine)
Willard Huntington Wright began his career in California writing book reviews for the Los Angeles Times. In 1911 he moved to New York and was soon named editor of the monthly magazine The Smart Set. Also an important art critic, he championed the modernist trends of the day in Modern Painting (1915) and The Future of Painting (1923). A nervous breakdown during the mid-1920s sparked a new phase in his literary career. Confined to his bed for two years, he sought relaxation in fiction and became a master of the detective novel, which he wrote under the pseudonym S. S. Van Dine.
Wright journeyed to Paris in 1913, on his way to see the exhibition of Synchromist paintings in Munich presented by his brother, Stanton MacDonald-Wright, and Morgan Russell. His article, "Impressionism to Synchromism," published in New York in December of that year, did much to promote this type of abstraction. Although MacDonald-Wright's portrait of his literary sibling is unlike any of his Synchromist works, it does reveal the artist's interest in the style of French painter Paul Cezanne.
Stanton MacDonald-Wright (1890-1973)
Oil on canvas, 1913-1914 National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Acquisition made possible by a generous contribution from the James Smithson Society
Oil on canvas, 1913-1914 National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Acquisition made possible by a generous contribution from the James Smithson Society
THE SAD CASE OF S.S. VAN DINE
By JONATHAN YARDLEY May 24, 1992
ALIAS S.S. VAN DINE
The Man Who Created Philo Vance
By John Loughery
Book Club newsletter Monthly book reviews and recommendations.
Scribners. 296 pp. $24
WILLARD HUNTINGTON Wright was one of the oddest ducks one could ever hope, or dread, to meet. For most of his brief life he was a peripheral figure in American literary and artistic circles, a smart, erudite controversialist who never managed to achieve the intellectual respectability that he craved; when fame at last came to him it was as the author of popular detective novels, a genre he held in contempt. He radiated a certain charm -- women seem to have found him irresistible -- but was, in his private affairs, unprincipled, devious, mendacious and profligate; he died, at age 51, virtually friendless.
John Loughery writes that "it was Willard Huntington Wright's fate to live a life more interesting than his work." This is a fair judgment, though not perhaps one that Wright would have welcomed, for he yearned to be recognized as a person of literary accomplishment. Instead, as Loughery ruefully acknowledges, he is now recognized scarcely at all, save among those few readers still loyal to his period-piece novels featuring the prickly amateur sleuth, Philo Vance.
Yet Wright has gone not entirely unrewarded by fate, for in Loughery he has found exactly the biographer his story requires. To be sure he would not like the portrait painted in Alias S.S. Van Dine, for it is implacably honest and mercilessly exposes each of his manifold flaws. Yet it is also scrupulous, balanced, discriminating and, in the best sense of the word, sympathetic. The Willard Huntington Wright whom Loughery portrays is, at first glance, in equal measures unlikable and contemptible; but seen as Loughery sees him, he is also a singularly human creature, torn as so many of us are between high aspirations and base desires, reduced at the end to torment and defeat.
He was born in 1887 in Charlottesville, through which his parents briefly passed en route to California. He and his younger brother, Stanton, were "pampered and doted on," encouraged from the outset to believe in their "specialness" and the inevitability of its fulfillment. Willard's formal education was sporadic; for a time he attended Harvard, though he was never justified in claiming, as he did, that he was a Harvard man. He worked a succession of jobs before stumbling into the book editorship of the Los Angeles Times, where he quickly made a reputation as what a friend later called "the most uncompromising and zealous literary critic the West ever saw."
He cast himself in the mold of H.L. Mencken, with whom he struck up a friendship; Mencken eventually recommended him for the editorship of the Smart Set. It didn't work out; Wright had grand ideas but no tact, and in short time was fired. This set him off on an odyssey of more than a decade, during which he immersed himself in art -- he was, Loughery argues plausibly, "a seminal force in America's introduction to modern art" -- and took on various literary jobs, none of them to particular effect. By 1924 he "was no longer a writer editors thought of for review assignments or important critical tasks," and he had brought himself to "the verge of emotional and economic bankruptcy."
His private life was no better. His relations with his first wife, Katharine, whom he had married on impulse while both were teenagers, soured early on and remained tense until their divorce in 1930. He barely acknowledged their daughter, Beverly, who grew to maturity scarcely knowing him and, though she fought bravely against it, severely troubled. He had assignations and affairs in numbers Loughery cannot hope to count; he cadged money off friends and rarely repaid it; he became addicted to various drugs and, late in life, to brandy; he allowed his health to decline steadily, to the point that when he reached his 40s he looked like a man decades older.
In 1927, though, his ship came in; it turned out to be a luxury liner. That year Scribner's published The Benson Murder Case, the first of the detective novels he was to write under the pseudonym S.S. Van Dine. It made a considerable splash, followed by far greater ones for its sequels. Before long he had a new wife, Claire, whom he delighted in showing off, and a fit place for doing so: a lavish penthouse on Central Park West that became, once Van Dine's cover had been lifted, the public's idea of how a successful author should live. He became a breeder of show dogs, upon whom he showered far more "gentleness and affection" than his daughter ever received from him, and then a collector of tropical fish. He entertained lavishly, frequented the gaudiest company in New York and Hollywood, and spent money at an astonishing rate.
Of course he paid for it all; that's how such stories end. His story-telling gifts, which were considerable, soon enough deserted him; the later Philo Vance novels were perfunctory, as the public eventually discovered. However much he may have done to reinvigorate American crime fiction, it quickly passed him by; in contrast to the gritty novels of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, those of S.S. Van Dine seemed precious and jejune. By the end of his career he was reduced to hackwork for Hollywood and, worse yet, commercial endorsements for radios, board games, tires and liquor.
That was bad enough, but the self-hatred was unbearable. As a young man Willard Wright had believed that "America's cultural coming-of-age was inevitable . . ., and he saw himself as one of its guiding spirits." He had been a passionate defender of the modern, the unconventional, the rigorously literary and artistic. Now, near the end, "Willard himself had become, at last, the kind of man he had mocked in his youth . . ., a blight on the culture he had once planned to elevate and open to new artistic influences." He did not take his own life, but Loughery believes that he willed himself to death and the evidence supports this view.
Whether this is, as Loughery believes, "a very American story of ambition, struggle and 'success' on a large scale, with some sense of the complications and costs of that pursuit of James' devouring 'Bitch Goddess,' " is open to argument. This is by now a familiar interpretation of American literary lives, one that blames the culture rather than the individual; as one who has been guilty of abetting it I am not about to indict Loughery for chiming in, only to suggest that it may imply a larger thematic meaning than the story of Willard Huntington Wright can sustain.
Whatever the elusive truth may be, there can be no doubt that Loughery has discharged his obligations admirably. His prose, save for the occasional infelicity, is graceful. His ability to distinguish between the important and the trivial is, in an age of biographical excess, as praiseworthy as it is unusual. He maintains precisely the right distance between himself and his subject and precisely the right degree of empathy. He has, in truth, given Wright a far better book than he deserves.
Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories
By S.S. Van Dine
S.S. Van Dine (1888-1939, real name Willard Huntington Wright) was one of the most popular American mystery writers of the twenties and thirties, and his wealthy amateur sleuth Philo Vance remains one of the great fictional detectives, if not also one of the most insufferable. Read today, Vance comes off as a pompous, pretentious, insufferable blowhard; an inexplicably popular character whose very existence perhaps helped spur the demand for a tougher, more "realistic" American kind of detective.
But it's not just me. Otto Penzler suggests in The Detectionary that the author himself was "much like Vance ... a poseur and a dilettante, dabbling in art, music and criticism."
And Chandler tagged him as "the most asinine character in detective fiction," while Ogden Nash felt so inspired by Van Dine's creation that he composed a poem, which reads in its entirety:
Needs a kick in the pance.
Of course, Van Dine felt compelled to share with the world at large his rules for writing detective fiction. If you still don't believe me, check out the following essay which originally appeared in the September 1928 edition of The American Magazine.
The detective story is a game. It is more--it is a sporting event. And the author must play fair with the reader. He can no more resort to trickeries and deceptions and still retain his honesty than if he cheated in a bridge game. He must outwit the reader, and hold the reader's interest, through sheer ingenuity. For the writing of detective stories there are very definite laws--unwritten, perhaps, but none the less binding: and every respectable and self-respecting concocter of literary mysteries lives up to them.
Herewith, then, is a sort of Credo, based partly on the practice of all the great writers of stories, and partly on the promptings of the honest author's inner conscience. To wit:
Michael Mallory: “Vance was debonair, whimsical, and superficially cynical—an amateur of the arts, and with only an impersonal concern in serious social and moral problems.”—The Scarab Murder Case, 1930, by S.S. Van Dine
In all of mystery, no major writer has fallen from grace as completely as S.S. Van Dine, the creator of Philo Vance. In the late 1920s and into the 1930s, Van Dine was one of the most popular and successful writers around, in or out of the mystery genre. The public demand for his aristocratic amateur detective seemed insatiable, both in book form and on movie screens. Then, in a plummet almost as dramatic as the rise, it was over a scant quarter-century later. “Philo Vance needs a kick in the pance,” famously needled Ogden Nash, but he got much more than that; he also got cast into obscurity. How could one of the mightiest fictional sleuths of the 20th century fall so far, so fast?
To understand the life and times of Philo Vance, one must first understand those of his creator. S.S. Van Dine was the pseudonym of Willard Huntington Wright, a man who was every bit as superior-minded as his creation.
Born in 1888, Wright was a youthful prodigy with a devotion to Nietzsche. He forged his literary credentials as an art and drama critic, and worked briefly as editor of The Smart Set, a would-be trendsetting publication created by the iconoclastic writer H.L. Mencken and the powerful critic George Jean Nathan. But Wright tended to dabble more than achieve, and by early middle-age his pretensions far outweighed his accomplishments or income.
Philo Vance was born during a two-year period of bed rest for Wright, brought on by the author’s drug abuse. To occupy him, Wright’s doctor suggested light reading, such as detective fiction. For someone who had once written, “There are few punishments too severe for a popular novel writer,” it sounded like a dubious proposition, but to Wright’s surprise, he found mystery novels challenging and entertaining. After reading the genre dry, he decided to get into the act himself. Wright devised the plotlines for three novels—with the intent of writing six in total—and created the nom de plume S.S. Van Dine so his acquaintances wouldn’t know. “Van Dine,” he claimed, was an old family name, but John Loughery, author of Alias S.S. Van Dine, found no evidence supporting that. Wright likewise claimed that S.S. stood for “steam ship.”
One innovation of Wright’s was to also give the name S.S. Van Dine to the first-person narrator of the books, a trick that would later be be used in a similar way by Ellery Queen.
Even the name Philo Vance is a pseudonym. The real detective, we are told, has only permitted publication of his solutions to “impossible crimes” on the condition of anonymity.
Whatever his true name, the wealthy dilettante lives in a posh two-floor apartment on East 38th Street in Manhattan. When not hobnobbing with his personal lawyer Van Dine whom he calls “Van,” or helping New York District Attorney John F.X. Markham, and the bluff, boneheaded Sergeant Heath of the homicide department keep their jobs, Vance spends his time studying art and aesthetics.
Educated in Europe, he still carries the mannered speech of an upper-class Englishman, habitually referring to his colleagues as “old thing” or “old dear,” and punctuating nearly every other sentence with “don’t y’know.” The monocle-wearing Vance is remarkably indolent and frequently yawns his way through conversations. In truth, about the only thing that saves him from total insufferability is a droll sense of humor.
The Photoplay edition of Van Dine’s The Canary Murder Case included stills from the 1929 Paramount film starring William Powell.
This air of condescension is not surprising since Vance appears to be an authority on every subject on the face of the earth, knowledge that he shares with his associates at every opportunity. In solving crimes, however, he puts more stock in understanding a suspect’s personal psychology than he does in picking up tangible clues. “When material facts and psychological facts conflict, the material facts are wrong,” he blithely tells Markham.
Punctuated with frequent footnotes and elaborate diagrams, the Philo Vance novels were well-crafted puzzlers that captivated readers. The first two, 1926’s The Benson Murder Case (which was trumpeted by Scribner’s with the ad line, “At Last—A Detective Story for the Intelligent!”) and 1927’s The Canary Murder Case, were based on real crimes: the 1920 unsolved murder of stockbroker Joseph Elwell and the 1923 killing of Dorothy King, also known as the “Broadway Butterfly,” respectively. Bensonsold well, but it was Canary that launched the Philo Vance phenomenon, selling 60,000 copies in its first month and making Willard Wright a wealthy man.
Wright (who seemed not to mind being outed as the author after publication of 1928’s The Greene Murder Case) soon ignored his plan to produce only six books. The Bishop Murder Case (1928) was followed by The Scarab Murder Case (1930), The Dragon Murder Case (1933) and The Kennel Murder Case (1933). The titles are formulaic, consisting of “The [Blank] Murder Case,” with the blank being a word of six letters. The Vance books are built around such rules and gimmicks, including recording the date and time every chapter commences so the reader can chart the timeline of the case, though Rule One was always to play fair with the reader. It was a credo Wright stressed in an essay titled “Twenty Rules for Detective Writing.”
Vance’s enormous popularity can be gauged by how quickly Hollywood beckoned. Out of all the classic sleuths created by American writers, only Charlie Chan has appeared in more films than Philo Vance. Dapper, mustachioed William Powell was the first and best portrayer of Vance, offering a pleasing characterization that was high on charm but low on the superciliousness of the print detective. He would play the role four times, from the first Vance film, 1929’s Canary Murder Case, to the best one, 1934’s The Kennel Murder Case. Other Hollywood Vances would include the manor-born Basil Rathbone, the incongruously Slavic Paul Lukas, and the proletarian Alan Curtis.
Meanwhile Wright continued to grind out novels: The Casino Murder Casein 1934, The Garden Murder Case in 1935, and The Kidnap Murder Case in 1936, but public tastes were changing. It may have been the harsh realities of the Great Depression which made the idle, rich antics of Philo Vance seem less amusing, or simply that readers were turning instead to the talented likes of Hammett, Cain, Gardner, and Stout. Whatever the reason, by Garden, sales were dropping severely.
Punctuated with frequent footnotes and elaborate diagrams, the Philo Vance novels were well-crafted
Vance appeared in only two more books: The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1938), the only one to break the title formula, and The Winter Murder Case (1939). Both had actually begun as treatments for Hollywood vehicles, the first for radio comedienne Gracie Allen (George Burns' other half) and the second for ice skater-turned-movie-star Sonja Henie. Wright later novelized the scripts, inadvertently pioneering the concept of the movie tie-in. Both books were poorly received.
Wright died in 1939, before the publication of Winter, and the Philo Vance phenomenon was over. There would be a handful of films yet to come, but increasingly they turned the dapper aesthete into just another B-movie gumshoe. There were a couple of stabs at a Philo Vance radio series as well, a brief one in 1945 with Jose Ferrer, and a longer-lived one that began in 1948 starring radio utility actor Jackson Beck, but these also bore little resemblance to the source.
While virtually forgotten today by the public at large, there is no question that Philo Vance had a big influence on the detectives who were to follow, probably none so much as Ellery Queen (though the Manhattan-flavored eccentricities of Nero Wolfe also faintly echo Vance). The earliest version of Queen, which mystery authority Francis Nevins calls “Ellery I,” is a complete pastiche of Vance in all respects, down to the formulaic titles, the narrator-as-author gimmick, and the nearly insufferable nature of the character. Queen, however, evolved with the times, something that Vance was never quite able to do.
It takes a bit of work to hunt down a Philo Vance novel today, even at the library. If one takes the time, one will discover that the clever plots continue to hold up, though Wright’s beloved psychological deductions are often shaky and Vance himself comes off more as a satire than a serious character. But the works of S.S. Van Dine serve to transport the reader back to a long-gone era of society and style of writing. They spotlight a moment in time when one writer had exactly the right idea at exactly the right time, and made hay, blissfully unaware of how rapidly the sun would set.
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Summer Issue #95.