Saturday, March 31, 2018

Willard Huntington Wright - S.S. Van Dine

Willard Huntington Wright (S.S. Van Dine)
(1887-1939)  Author

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



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:

Philo Vance
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:

The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery. All clues must be plainly stated and described.
No wilful tricks or deceptions may be played on the reader other than those played legitimately by the criminal on the detective himself.
There must be no love interest in the story. To introduce amour is to clutter up a purely intellectual experience with irrelevant sentiment. The business in hand is to bring a criminal to the bar of justice, not to bring a lovelorn couple to the hymeneal altar.
The detective himself, or one of the official investigators, should never turn out to be the culprit. This is bald trickery, on a par with offering some one a bright penny for a five-dollar gold piece. It's false pretenses.
The culprit must be determined by logical deductions--not by accident or coincidence or unmotivated confession. To solve a criminal problem in this latter fashion is like sending the reader on a deliberate wild-goose chase, and then telling him, after he has failed, that you had the object of his search up your sleeve all the time. Such an author is no better than a practical joker.
The detective novel must have a detective in it; and a detective is not a detective unless he detects. His function is to gather clues that will eventually lead to the person who did the dirty work in the first chapter; and if the detective does not reach his conclusions through an analysis of those clues, he has no more solved his problem than the schoolboy who gets his answer out of the back of the arithmetic.
There simply must be a corpse in a detective novel, and the deader the corpse the better. No lesser crime than murder will suffice. Three hundred pages is far too much pother for a crime other than murder. After all, the reader's trouble and expenditure of energy must be rewarded. Americans are essentially humane, and therefore a tiptop murder arouses their sense of vengeance and horror. They wish to bring the perpetrator to justice; and when "murder most foul, as in the best it is," has been committed, the chase is on with all the righteous enthusiasm of which the thrice gentle reader is capable.
The problem of the crime must be solved by strictly naturalistic means. Such methods for learning the truth as slate-writing, ouija-boards, mind-reading, spiritualistic sÈances, crystal-gazing, and the like, are taboo. A reader has a chance when matching his wits with a rationalistic detective, but if he must compete with the world of spirits and go chasing about the fourth dimension of metaphysics, he is defeated ab initio.
There must be but one detective--that is, but one protagonist of deduction--one deus ex machine. To bring the minds of three or four, or sometimes a gang of detectives to bear on a problem is not only to disperse the interest and break the direct thread of logic, but to take an unfair advantage of the reader, who, at the outset, pits his mind against that of the detective and proceeds to do mental battle. If there is more than one detective the reader doesn't know who his co-deductor is. It's like making the reader run a race with a relay team.
The culprit must turn out to be a person who has played a more or less prominent part in the story--that is, a person with whom the reader is familiar and in whom he takes an interest. For a writer to fasten the crime, in the final chapter, on a stranger or person who has played a wholly unimportant part in the tale, is to confess to his inability to match wits with the reader.
Servants--such as butlers, footmen, valets, game-keepers, cooks, and the like--must not be chosen by the author as the culprit. This is begging a noble question. It is a too easy solution. It is unsatisfactory, and makes the reader feel that his time has been wasted. The culprit must be a decidedly worth-while person--one that wouldn't ordinarily come under suspicion; for if the crime was the sordid work of a menial, the author would have had no business to embalm it in book-form.
There must be but one culprit, no matter how many murders are committed. The culprit may, of course, have a minor helper or co-plotter; but the entire onus must rest on one pair of shoulders: the entire indignation of the reader must be permitted to concentrate on a single black nature.
Secret societies, camorras, mafias, et al., have no place in a detective story. Here the author gets into adventure fiction and secret-service romance. A fascinating and truly beautiful murder is irremediably spoiled by any such wholesale culpability. To be sure, the murderer in a detective novel should be given a sporting chance, but it is going too far to grant him a secret society (with its ubiquitous havens, mass protection, etc.) to fall back on. No high-class, self-respecting murderer would want such odds in his jousting-bout with the police.
The method of murder, and the means of detecting it, must be rational and scientific. That is to say, pseudo-science and purely imaginative and speculative devices are not to be tolerated in the roman policier. For instance, the murder of a victim by a newly found element--a super-radium, let us say--is not a legitimate problem. Nor may a rare and unknown drug, which has its existence only in the author's imagination, be administered. A detective-story writer must limit himself, toxicologically speaking, to the pharmacopoeia. Once an author soars into the realm of fantasy, in the Jules Verne manner, he is outside the bounds of detective fiction, cavorting in the uncharted reaches of adventure.
The truth of the problem must at all times be apparent--provided the reader is shrewd enough to see it. By this I mean that if the reader, after learning the explanation for the crime, should reread the book, he would see that the solution had, in a sense, been staring him in the face--that all the clues really pointed to the culprit--and that, if he had been as clever as the detective, he could have solved the mystery himself without going on to the final chapter. That the clever reader does often thus solve the problem goes without saying. And one of my basic theories of detective fiction is that, if a detective story is fairly and legitimately constructed, it is impossible to keep the solution from all readers. There will inevitably be a certain number of them just as shrewd as the author; and if the author has shown the proper sportsmanship and honesty in his statement and projection of the crime and its clues, these perspicacious readers will be able, by analysis, elimination and logic, to put their finger on the culprit as soon as the detective does. And herein lies the zest of the game. Herein we have an explanation for the fact that readers who would spurn the ordinary "popular" novel will read detective stories unblushingly.
A detective novel should contain no long descriptive passages, no literary dallying with side-issues, no subtly worked-out character analyses, no "atmospheric" preoccupations. Such matters have no vital place in a record of crime and deduction. They hold up the action, and introduce issues irrelevant to the main purpose, which is to state a problem, analyze it, and bring it to a successful conclusion. To be sure, there must be a sufficient descriptiveness and character delineation to give the novel verisimilitude; but when an author of a detective story has reached that literary point where he has created a gripping sense of reality and enlisted the reader's interest and sympathy in the characters and the problem, he has gone as far in the purely "literary" technique as is legitimate and compatible with the needs of a criminal-problem document. A detective story is a grim business, and the reader goes to it, not for literary furbelows and style and beautiful descriptions and the projection of moods, but for mental stimulation and intellectual activity--just as he goes to a ball game or to a cross-word puzzle. Lectures between innings at the Polo Grounds on the beauties of nature would scarcely enhance the interest in the struggle between two contesting baseball nines; and dissertations on etymology and orthography interspersed in the definitions of a cross-word puzzle would tend only to irritate the solver bent on making the words interlock correctly.
A professional criminal must never be shouldered with the guilt of a crime in a detective story. Crimes by house-breakers and bandits are the province of the police department--not of authors and brilliant amateur detectives. Such crimes belong to the routine work of the Homicide Bureaus. A really fascinating crime is one committed by a pillar of a church, or a spinster noted for her charities.
A crime in a detective story must never turn out to be an accident or a suicide. To end an odyssey of sleuthing with such an anti-climax is to play an unpardonable trick on the reader. If a book-buyer should demand his two dollars back on the ground that the crime was a fake, any court with a sense of justice would decide in his favor and add a stinging reprimand to the author who thus hoodwinked a trusting and kind-hearted reader.
The motives for all crimes in detective stories should be personal. International plottings and war politics belong in a different category of fiction--in secret-service tales, for instance. But a murder story must be kept gem¸tlich, so to speak. It must reflect the reader's everyday experiences, and give him a certain outlet for his own repressed desires and emotions.
And (to give my Credo an even score of items) I herewith list a few of the devices which no self-respecting detective-story writer will now avail himself of. They have been employed too often, and are familiar to all true lovers of literary crime. To use them is a confession of the author's ineptitude and lack of originality.
Determining the identity of the culprit by comparing the butt of a cigarette left at the scene of the crime with the brand smoked by a suspect.

The bogus spiritualistic sÈance to frighten the culprit into giving himself away.
Forged finger-prints.

The dummy-figure alibi.

The dog that does not bark and thereby reveals the fact that the intruder is familiar.

The final pinning of the crime on a twin, or a relative who looks exactly like the suspected, but innocent, person.

The hypodermic syringe and the knockout drops.

The commission of the murder in a locked room after the police have actually broken in.

The word-association test for guilt.

The cipher, or code letter, which is eventually unravelled by the sleuth.

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.

Willard Huntington Wright

Willard Huntington Wright in a portrait painted by his brother 

Art critic and detective fiction writer Willard Wright is said to have built the Wyngate mansion in Somers Point that took up an entire city block between fourth and fifth street and New York Avenue. There were many fabulous parties held there that included some of Wright's friends and fellow writers and artists, but after a fire, some of the main house burned down. The remainder was restored and still sits recognizable on the fifth street corner, and the interesting carriage house on the back alley give a good indication of the style of the place. 

According to Wiki: 

S. S. Van Dine (also styled S.S. Van Dine[1]) is the pseudonym used by American art critic Willard Huntington Wright (October 15, 1888 – April 11, 1939) when he wrote detective novels. 

Wright was an important figure in avant-garde cultural circles in pre-World War I New York, and under the pseudonym (which he originally used to conceal his identity) he created the immensely popular fictional detective Philo Vance, a sleuth and aesthete who first appeared in books in the 1920s, then in movies and on the radio.

Willard Huntington Wright was born to Archibald Davenport Wright and Annie Van Vranken Wright on October 15, 1888, in Charlottesville, Virginia. His younger brother, Stanton Macdonald-Wright, became a respected painter, one of the first American abstract artists, and co-founder (with Morgan Russell) of the school of modern art known as "Synchromism". Willard and Stanton were raised in Santa Monica, California, where their father owned a hotel. Willard, a largely self-taught writer, attended St. Vincent College, Pomona College, and Harvard University without graduating. In 1907, he married Katharine Belle Boynton of Seattle, Washington; they had one child, Beverley. After divorcing Katharine, whom he had abandoned early in their marriage, he married for a second time in October 1930. His second wife was Eleanor Rulapaugh, known professionally as Claire De Lisle, a portrait painter and socialite.[2]

At age 21, Wright began his professional writing career as literary editor of the Los Angeles Times, where he was known for his scathing book reviews and irreverent opinions. He was particularly caustic about romance and detective fiction. His friend and mentor H.L. Mencken was an early inspiration. Other important literary influences included Oscar Wilde and Ambrose Bierce. Wright was an advocate of the naturalism of Theodore Dreiser, and Wright's own novel, The Man of Promise (1916), was written in a similar style. He also published realist fiction as editor of the New York literary magazine The Smart Set, from 1912 to 1914, a job he attained with Mencken's help. He was fired from that position when the magazine's conservative owner felt that Wright was intentionally provoking their middle-class readership with his interest in unconventional and often sexually explicit fiction. In his two-year tenure, Wright published short stories by Gabriele D'Annunzio, Floyd Dell, Ford Madox Ford, D.H. Lawrence, and George Moore; a play by Joseph Conrad; and poems by Ezra Pound and William Butler Yeats.

Wright's energies were devoted to numerous projects, reflecting his wide range of interests. His book What Nietzsche Taught appeared in 1915. An attempt to popularize the German philosopher with skeptical American audiences, it described and commented on all of Nietzsche’s books and provided quotations from each work. Wright continued to write short stories in this period; in 2012 Brooks Hefner[3] revealed heretofore unknown short stories that featured an intellectual criminal, written by Wright under a pseudonym several years before his adoption of the Van Dine pseudonym. 

Wright was, however, most respected in intellectual circles for his writing about art. In Modern Painting: Its Tendency and Meaning (secretly co-authored in 1915 with his brother Stanton), he surveyed the important art movements of the last hundred years from Manet to Cubism, praised the largely unknown work of Cézanne, and predicted a coming era in which an art of color abstraction would replace realism. Admired by people like Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O'Keeffe, Wright became under his brother's tutelage one of the most progressive (and belligerently opinionated) art critics of the time and helped to organize several shows, including the "Forum Exhibition of Modern American Painters", that brought the most advanced new painters to the attention of audiences on both coasts. He also published a work of aesthetic philosophy, The Creative Will (1916), that O'Keeffe and William Faulkner both regarded as a meaningful influence on their thinking about artistic identity.

In 1917, Wright published Misinforming a Nation,[4] in which he mounted a blistering attack on alleged inaccuracies and British biases in the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition. A Germanophile, Wright did not support America's decision to join the Allied cause in World War I, and he was blackballed from journalism for more than two years after an overzealous secretary (erroneously) accused him of spying for Germany, an episode that became a much-publicized scandal in New York in November 1917. Though cleared, his favourable view of Prussian militarism cost him his friendships with Mencken and Dreiser. After suffering a nervous breakdown and the beginning of a long-term dependence on illegal drugs, Wright retreated to California, where he attempted to make a living as a newspaper columnist in San Francisco.

Detective fiction

Returning to New York in 1920, Wright took any freelance work that came his way but lived a restless, impoverished existence and, in his displays of temper and anxiety, alienated many of his old friends. By 1923, he was seriously ill, the result of a breakdown from overwork, he claimed, but in reality the consequence of his secret cocaine addiction, according to John Loughery's biography Alias S.S. Van Dine.

Confined to bed for a prolonged period of recovery, he began in frustration and boredom reading hundreds of volumes of crime and detection. As a direct result of this exhaustive study, he wrote a seminal essay, published in 1926, which explored the history, traditions and conventions of detective fiction as an art form.[5] Wright also decided to try his own hand at detective fiction and approached Maxwell Perkins, the famous Scribner's editor whom he had known at Harvard, with an outline for a trilogy that would feature an affluent, snobbish amateur sleuth, a Jazz Age Manhattan setting, and lively topical references. In 1926, the first Philo Vance book, The Benson Murder Case, was published under the pseudonym "S.S. Van Dine". Within two years, following the publication of The Canary Murder Case and The Greene Murder Case,Wright was one of the best-selling authors in the United States.

Frankly embarrassed by his turn from intellectual pursuits to mass market fiction, Wright never wanted to publish under his own name. He took his pseudonym from the abbreviation of "steamship" and from Van Dine, which he claimed was an old family name. According to Loughery, however, "there are no Van Dines evident in the family tree" (p. 176). He went on to write twelve mysteries in total, though their author's identity was unmasked by 1928. The first few books about the distinctive Philo Vance (who shared with his creator a love of art and a disdain for the common touch) were so popular that Wright became wealthy for the first time in his life. His readership was diverse and worldwide. David Shavit's study[6] of World War II POW reading habits revealed that Vance was one of the favorite detectives among officer POWs. 

However, according to critic Julian Symons:[7]
[Van Dine's] fate is curiously foreshadowed in that of Stanford West, the hero of his only [non-crime] novel, who sells out by abandoning the unpopular work in which he searched for "a sound foundation of culture and aristocracy" and becoming a successful novelist. The title of an article Wright penned at the height of his fame, "I Used to be a Highbrow and Look at Me Now," reflects both his pleasure in his new-found fame and his regret that he would never again be regarded as a serious writer.
Wright's later books declined in both quality and popularity. The reading public's tastes changed, and the "hard-boiled" school of detective fiction became the dominant style in the 1930s. 

The new mood was captured by Ogden Nash in his brief verse:
Philo Vance
Needs a kick in the pance.

Philo Vance and Sam Spade occupy different aesthetic universes. Wright continued to make money, though, and by the end of the decade, he saw himself caught in a trap from which he could not escape: in the midst of the Depression, he could not return to literary journalism and art criticism which paid very little, now that he and his wife were accustomed to an extravagant way of life, and yet he no longer believed in the kind of novels he was producing each year in order to maintain that way of life.

Study of detective fiction

In addition to his success as a writer of fiction, Wright's lengthy introduction and notes to the anthology The World's Great Detective Stories (1928) are important in the history of the critical study of detective fiction. Although dated by the passage of time, this essay is still a core around which many other such commentaries have been constructed. He also wrote an article, "Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories", in 1928 for The American Magazine[8] It has been frequently reprinted and compared to "Knox's (Ten) Commandments" by Ronald Knox.[9]

Short film series'

Wright wrote a series of short stories for Warner Brothers film studio in the early 1930s. These stories were used as the basis for a series of twelve short films, each approximately 20 minutes long, that were released in 1931 - 1932. Of these, The Skull Murder Mystery shows Wright's vigorous plot construction. It is also notable for its non-racist treatment of Chinese characters, something quite unusual in its day.'

Donald Meek and John Hamilton were featured players, with Joseph Henabery directing. Three titles (first two and last) have been released on DVD as extras on Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume 3 (Warner). 

The titles (with dates reviewed by Film Daily) [2]:
The Clyde Mystery (September 27, 1931)
The Wall Street Mystery (November 4, 1931)
The Week End Mystery (December 6, 1931)
The Symphony Murder Mystery (January 10, 1932)
The Studio Murder Mystery (February 7, 1932)
The Skull Murder Mystery (March 1932)
The Cole Case (The Cole Murder Case) (April 3, 1932)
Murder in the Pullman (May 22, 1932)
The Side Show Mystery (June 11, 1932)
The Campus Mystery (July 2, 1932)
The Crane Poison Case (July 9, 1932)
The Trans-Atlantic Murder Mystery (August 31, 1932)

As far as it is known, none of Van Dine's screen treatments has been published in book form, and none of the manuscripts survive. Short films were popular then, and Hollywood made hundreds of them during the studio era. Except for a handful of famous comedies, short films are not often discussed in more recent film reference books like features and animated cartoons often are.

Late career and death

From a monetary perspective, Wright was fortunate in his experiences with Hollywood, and he was lionized on his visits to the movie capital. All but two of his novels were made into feature-length films, and the role of Philo Vance was played in different film versions by stars as popular as William Powell (before his Nick Charles period), Basil Rathbone, and Edmund Lowe. Louise Brooks, Jean Arthur, and Rosalind Russell also appeared in the S.S. Van Dine movies.

On April 11, 1939, at age 50, Wright died in New York of a heart condition exacerbated by excessive drinking, a year after the publication of an unpopular experimental novel that incorporated one of the biggest stars in radio comedy, The Gracie Allen Murder Case. 

He left behind a complete novelette-length story that was intended as a film vehicle for Sonja Henie and was published posthumously as The Winter Murder Case. Max Perkins generously referred to Wright at the time of Wright's death as a "gallant, gentle man" who had been tormented by the pressures of a market-driven age.[10] His portrait, painted by his brother in 1914, hangs in the permanent collection of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.


"S.S. Van Dine". Goodreads. Retrieved 8 February 2014.

Biographical information for this entry is taken from John Loughery, Alias S.S. Van Dine: The Man Who Created Philo Vance.

Hefner, Brooks (2012). "'I Used to Be a Highbrow, but Look at Me Now': Phrenology, Detection, and 

Cultural Hierarchy in S. S. Van Dine". Clues: A Journal of Detection. 30 

Willard Huntington Wright (1917). Misinforming a Nation.

Willard Huntington Wright, “The Detective Story,” Scribner’s, November 1926, pp. 532-538. [1]

Shavit, David (Spring 1999). "'The Greatest Morale Factor Next to the Red Army': Books and Libraries in American and British Prisoners of War Camps in Germany during World War II" 

Libraries & Culture. 34 (2): 113–134.

Symons, Julian (1974). Bloody Murder (revised ed.). London: Penguin. ISBN 0-14-003794-2

S. S. Van Dine. "Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories Archived 2007-06-26 at the Wayback Machine," The American Magazine, September 1928.

Masschelein, Anneleen and Dirk de Geest (2017). "So You Think You Can Write...Handbooks for 

Mystery Fiction," in Crime Fiction as World Literature, edited by Louise Nilsson, David Damrosch and Theo D'haen. New York: Bloomsbury. pp. 95–96. ISBN 978-1501319334. Retrieved 14 June 2017.
Loughery, p. xxii.

Dolmetsch, Carl (ed.) (1966). The Smart Set: A History and Anthology. New York: Dial Press.
Loughery, John (1992). Alias S.S. Van Dine: The Man Who Created Philo Vance. New York: Scribners.
South, Will (2001). Color, Myth, and Music: Stanton Macdonald-Wright and Synchromism. Raleigh: North Carolina Museum of Art.
External links

Works by Willard Huntington Wright at Project Gutenberg

Works by Willard Huntington Wright at Faded Page (Canada)

Works by or about Willard Huntington Wright at Internet Archive

Works by or about S.S. Van Dine at Internet Archive

Works by S.S. Van Dine at Feedbooks

Bibliography of UK first editions.

Biography, at

Contemporary biography, Louise Brooks Society.

The papers of Willard Huntington Wright at the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia.

S. S. Van Dine on IMDb

Philo Vance novels by S. S. Van Dine