Raoul Whitfield: An
introduction appears in several
Raoul Whitfield’s work released
by Otto Penzeler's MysteriousPress.com
By Boris Dralyuk
“Just the regular
words one human uses on another — when there’s hate.”
— Death in a Bowl (1931)
Raoul Whitfield’s subject is the human. More
often than not, it is the killing of a human. Not of a man or a woman,
a gangster or a moll, a bystander or someone who has it coming – but
simply a human. Human is a broad, indiscriminate category. It is a
species of animal, and sometimes hardly even that. Whitfield’s humans
may be as insensate and insignificant as grains of wheat: “The roar of
the plane’s engines filled the bowl of humans, beat down upon it.” The
bowl in question is the iconic Hollywood amphitheater, but it’s really
an oversize ceramic mortar; some human is about to get crushed.
Not that humans don’t come in all shapes and sizes. The most discerning
of Whitfield’s creations, the half-breed detective Jo Gar, does “not
believe too much in the similarity of humans” (“Death in the Pasig”
), but the differences are mostly a matter of physiognomy. Humans
have plenty in common otherwise. In Death
in a Bowl
(1931), the director Ernst Reiner looks down at Maya Rand, his star,
and concludes, “She was very beautiful, but very difficult to work
with. For that matter all humans were difficult to work with.” What
most of them share is a tremendous capacity for craven self-interest,
greed, and deceit. “So many humans like to tell lies,” complains Ben
Jardinn, the P.I. tasked with solving Reiner’s brother’s murder, “It’s
hell finding out what really happens.” Or as another eye, Mel Crozier,
puts it in The Virgin Kills
(1932), “Any human being can lie – they can lie in groups.”
This odd usage of the word “human” is a stylistic signature that runs
across Whitfield’s work, whether it was published under his own name or
under those of Ramon Decolta – the pseudonym he used for the Jo Gar
stories – and Temple Field – which he used for the novels Five (1931) and Killers’ Carnival (1932). Of
course, with the Black Mask
school, style is always more than style. All these “humans” are up to
Whitfield’s characters engage in a kind of hardboiled anthropology, and
the results of their fieldwork are anything but encouraging. Mal
Ourney, the self-appointed avenger of Whitfield’s first novel, Green Ice
(1930), sums it up nicely: “I got the idea that just a few humans were
using a lot of other humans as they wanted, then framing them, smashing
them – rubbing them out.” The situation to which Ourney refers is a
specific one, but it is also indicative of the general state of things.
This, gentle reader, is a vision of humanity. It is a vision that found
its ultimate expression in a style of prose perfected in Black Mask.
This vision was shaped by the experience of mechanized warfare in the
1910s, by first- and second-hand glimpses of gangland atrocities in the
1920s, and by the onset of the Great Depression in the 1930s. It is
characterized by a pervasive sense of distrust and calls for a
toughness bordering on cruelty. And yet, as Carolyn See eloquently
notes with regard to Whitfield’s Jardinn, “the reader knows that this
toughness, too, is only appearance, an individual’s defense against an
intolerably meaningless world.”  Unlike his more radical
contemporary, Paul Cain, whose antihero Gerry Kells is simply an
element of the “intolerably meaningless world,” Whitfield equips his
protagonists with a moral compass and a compulsion to set things right.
The fact that these characters’ task is essentially Sisyphean — that
they operate in a world that cannot truly be righted — lends
Whitfield’s best fiction a sense of human tragedy absent from Cain’s
uncompromisingly bleak Fast One
Whitfield broke into Black Mask
in March 1926, with the third-person aviation adventure “Scotty
Troubles Trouble.” The February 1934 issue marked his final appearance
in the magazine’s pages — a standalone first-person private-eye tale
titled “Death on Fifth Avenue.” All told, he managed to place ninety
stories with Black Mask,
exploring a vast variety of settings, characters, and narrative
perspectives. In the 1970s, Whitfield’s first wife, Prudence, told
Keith Alan Deutsch that Raoul saw himself as the originator of the
“flying ace” genre. This may be true, but it is only a small part of
his contribution. Whitfield’s characters — most notably, the Island
detective Jo Gar, the conscientious gambler Alan Van Cleve, the dogged
avenger Mal Ourney, and the prototypical Hollywood P.I., Ben Jardinn —
have real depth and continue to resonate with modern readers.
They set a high standard for generations of hardboiled protagonists to
II. Whit and Dash
It is now customary to weigh the lesser-known Black Mask
boys against the two that made it, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond
Chandler. To weigh them, that is, and find them wanting. Since Chandler
put his own unmistakable spin on the Black
house style, it is Hammett’s work that generally serves as the gold
standard for the pure hardboiled mode. And none of the other pulpsters,
the majority of critics have it, quite measures up. This opinion took
hold in the early 1930s, when a couple of Hammett’s colleagues followed
him into the hardboiled market – and it has hurt no one as consistently
as it has Raoul Whitfield.
Even those critics who appreciated Whitfield’s novels compared him
unfavorably to Hammett. Burton Rascoe’s otherwise glowing review in the
August 1931 issue of Arts &
Decoration, which praises Black
Mask’s editor Capt. Joseph T. Shaw for sponsoring Hammett and
Whitfield, demonstrates this tendency:
Another writer Mr.
Shaw has nurtured and developed in Black Mask is Raoul Whitfield and
before the field gets too crowded with people congratulating Mr. Shaw
on his discovery and shouting applause to Whitfield, I want to get in a
yell for him. Take a look into his new novel. Death in a Bowl
(Knopf). If you get that far, you will be glued to your chair until you
finish reading it. So far Whitfield seems a notch below Hammett as a
character creator and he is not as careful a writer as Hammett; but he
is inventive and dramatic and his hard-boiled people are hard-boiled
There were, of course, a few dissenting voices, like that of the New York Herald Tribune’s Will
Cuppy, who declared Green Ice
“by several miles the slickest detective job of the season,” besting The Maltese Falcon. But such voices
were far between.
Cap Shaw himself gave in to the temptation to stack Whitfield against
Hammett. Drafting an introduction to his Hard-Boiled Omnibus
in 1947, Shaw characterized Whitfield as a “hard, patient, determined
worker. His style from the first was hard and brittle and over-inclined
to staccato. Later, he became more fluent.” When he writes that
Whitfield rose to stand “shoulder to shoulder with the best of them,”
it’s clear he has Hammett’s lanky frame in mind.
Shaw then relays a fascinating anecdote about Black Mask shoptalk:
Long and fascinating
were the discussions between Whit and Dash. Whit maintained that, given
characters and a general plot, it was a cinch to write a detective
story. When in a spot, all you need do is use the well-known props. A
good writer should produce a novel without any of these appurtenances
to achieve effect. And Dash’s comeback, “All right, if you want to make
it the hard way, try writing a book omitting every word that has the
letter ‘f’ for example.”
It appears that Whitfield had all the “well-known props” at hand, but
aspired to get along without them, to be a “good writer.” As Shaw put
it, “Whit was ambitious. He wanted to invade other fields than that of
crime detection and criminal conflict.” This version of Whitfield — the
competent, workaday storyteller reaching beyond his hard-won skills and
meager talents — doesn’t quite jibe with the other, more intimate
account that emerged at around the same time.
The only substantial description we have of Whitfield’s actual process
comes from his first wife, Prudence, who took it upon herself to
preserve her former husband’s legacy after his death in 1945. Between
1947 and 1949 Pru managed to republish six of Whitfield’s stories in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.
Frederic Dannay, one half of the Queen franchise and the primary editor
was himself an advocate of Whitfield’s work. He mined his conversations
and correspondence with Pru for valuable, if not always reliable,
information, which he then doled out in headnotes to the stories. Here
is Pru’s vivid description of Whit at work, care of Dannay:
always wrote very easily and quickly, and with a minimum of correction.
He had a particular talent for starting with a title and writing around
it. His wife has said that once he had a title, he had the story. He
would place neat stacks of chocolate bars (which he ate by the
thousands) to the right of his typewriter and a picket fence of
cigarettes to his left. He wrote and chain-smoked and ate, all in one
unified operation. He could be surrounded by a cocktail party going at
full blast — and keep right on writing. 
More on those cocktail parties later. First, another tidbit from Pru
The fact is, Raoul
Whitfield needed very little to start him on a story. An incident which
most people would consider trivial, a newspaper account buried on an
inside page, a casual remark by a stranger — these were the fragile
details out of which he wove flashing designs. 
Place this next to Pru’s image of “Hammett writing laboriously, alone
in a room, with dirty dishes strewn all over the kitchen floor,” 
and a neat dichotomy begins to take shape: Dash slaved away on
masterpieces, while Whit dashed off “flashing
Shaw’s Whit is yeomanlike and ambitious, while Pru’s hums along like a
well-oiled machine; neither can really match Hammett, the inspired
In truth, Whitfield was no less agile a hardboiled stylist than
Hammett. On that score, one could cite the unfailing instincts of
French connoisseurs: The first hardboiled novel translated by Marcel
Duhamel, the editor of Gallimard’s Série Noire, was neither Red Harvest nor The Maltese Falcon, but Whitfield’s
Green Ice (Les Émeraudes sanglantes,
Gallimard, 1931).  As Jean-Paul Schweighaeuser writes in Le roman noir français
(1984), for France, “Raoul Whitfield led the way.”  Meanwhile, F.
Scott Fitzgerald — a native-born cognoscente of the genre — was ready
to declare Whitfield “as good as Hammett” when suggesting neglected
books to Malcolm Cowley in the April 18, 1934 issue of New Republic. 
Or one could take Dash’s own word for it. He and Whitfield had a
profound appreciation for each other’s writing. It was Hammett who
recommended Whitfield’s Black Mask
“Crime Breeder” series to Blanche Knopf for hardcover publication as Green Ice. Some years earlier,
Dannay reports, Whitfield had gone to bat for Dash in the magazine
Whitfield was writing
prolifically and being published like mad, but Hammett’s stories were
appearing only now and then. Whitfield, who was surely one of Hammett’s
first boosters, used to write many letters to editors asking: “Where is
this man, Hammett? Why don’t you accept more of his stories?” 
Hammett’s review of Green Ice
in the New York Evening Post
gives us a good sense of just what he saw in his friend’s work: “The
plot does not matter so much. What matters is that here are two hundred
and eighty pages of naked action pounded into a tough compactness by
staccato, hammerlike writing.” 
No, it wasn’t just the ease with which Whitfield spun his plots.
The plots didn’t matter nearly as much as the “hammerlike” style, and
the world of “naked action” it depicted. To be sure, Whitfield was
capable of lyricism, and the language of the Jo Gar tales, like the
detective himself, is redolent of “the climate of the Islands”
(“Signals of Storm” ). But it is Whitfield’s command of the
tough, laconic mode that sets him apart. The following passage from
Green Ice, in which Mal Ourney peruses a newspaper account of a
gangland murder, distills the hardboiled to its essence: “‘Angel’
Cherulli had been found in an alley behind his club, with a flock of
thirty-eights in his stomach and chest. There wasn’t a clue. He had
many enemies. The rest of the story was just writing.” Nothing else
need be said. Each declarative sentence carries a load. Neither Ourney
nor Whitfield is about to waste precious time on “just writing.”
And therein lies a key animating tension of hardboiled prose: It
is a literature that aspires to silence. A protagonist boiled hard
enough has no use for words at all. Action alone counts. At its best,
the action of hardboiled fiction reflects not only the unrelenting
brutality of life as its authors see it, but also a kind of
transcendent mindfulness beyond matter, a presence in the moment. There
is a strangely meditative quality to Whitfield’s most frantic and
violent scenes, even if the Buddha ends up as collateral damage:
Van Cleve turned his
back. He took two steps towards the door that led from the library to
the living room and the phone. Then he leaped to one side. Barney’s gun
crashed, and the Buddha on the library table shot jade chips across the
amber light from the table lamp. Dale Byrons screamed. (Killers’ Carnival)
The finest hardboiled stylists — like Whitfield, Hammett, and the
consciously “ultra-hardboiled” Paul Cain — are true modernists; their
dissatisfaction with language’s insufficiency, its inability to capture
“naked action,” drives them toward ever-greater experimentation,
ever-greater refinement. Ultimately, it drives them to silence.
The Rest of the
Raoul Whitfield’s road to Black Mask
has been difficult to trace, and his life after he left the magazine
proved sensational enough to inspire a detective novel. The scholars
brave enough to delve into his biography — and there haven’t been many
— have had to rely mostly on Whitfield’s own statements and the
recollections of Prudence, substantiating whatever they could with
other documents. E. R. Hagemann, whose pioneering articles on Whitfield
appeared in The Armchair Detective
in 1980 and 1981, and William Nolan, whose short essay on Whitfield in The Black Mask Boys
(1985) filled in a few important blank spots, were later interrogated
and amended by Peter Ruber and Victor A. Berch in their article “Raoul
Whitfield: Black Mask’s Forgotten Man.” Unfortunately, Ruber and
Berch’s piece is itself not wholly accurate. The following sketch of
Whitfield’s life draws on all of these previous efforts to reconstruct
Whitfield’s life, as well as on newly discovered material.
Raoul F. Whitfield was born in New York City on November 22, 1896, and
that middle “F” is the first trap to ensnare his biographers. Ruber and
Berch, who examined Whitfield’s birth certificate (NYC #50974), have
uncovered “the interesting fact that his real middle name was
‘Falconia’ — not the artistic invention of ‘Fauconnier,’ which he
tacked onto his byline to make his name sound exotic or unique.” The
spelling of “Falconia” is also born out by Whitfield’s California death
certificate, but not by his World War II draft card — on which a clerk
has rendered it “Falknia” — or by census and marriage records for
various years. The variants include Whitfield’s preferred “Fauconnier,”
“Faulkener,” “Falconier,” and simply “Falconer.”
None of this is surprising. Clerks regularly make hash of names, and
families themselves have been known to adjust them willy-nilly. Nor is
“Fauconnier” particularly “exotic or unique”; it is simply French for
“falconer.” A part of Whitfield’s family descended from Pierre
Fauconnier, a sixteenth-century Huguenot refugee to London whose
great-grandson — also named Pierre — arrived in New York in 1702 and
became a major figure in the colonial administration. Subsequent
generations adopted the Anglicized spelling “Falconer.”
Whitfield inherited his protean middle name from his maternal
grandmother, Anne Eliza Whitfield, nee Falconer. The 1880 U.S Census
has the forty-two-year-old Anne living in New York City with her
husband, sixty-five-year-old James Madison Whitfield, a prosperous
“manufacturer of plumbing materials” (pull pumps for ale and
soda-water, to be exact). Their son, William Falconer Whitfield, was
born on August 13, 1869, and went on to marry a namesake, Mabelle
Parisette Whitfield, on October 18, 1895. Mabelle was born on April 7,
1872, to Charles H. and Emilie Louise Whitfield, nee Hadley. In their
article, Ruber and Berch ask, “Could Raoul Whitfield’s parents have
been cousins?” They were: Various volumes of Trow’s New York City Directory
for the 1850s and ‘60s list Mabelle’s father, Charles H. Whitfield, as
a plumber at 262 Water Street, working alongside his brother James M.
Whitfield and their father, George B., in the family’s plumbing concern.
In addressing Raoul Whitfield’s “social status,” William Nolan writes
that “the Cleveland Press
identified him as ‘Andrew Carnegie’s nephew.’”  The relationship
was a bit more distant than that. Carnegie’s wife Louise was the
daughter of John William Whitfield, a New York City importer of “fancy
dress materials,” who was a son of George B. Whitfield — making him a
brother of Raoul Whitfield’s paternal and maternal grandfathers, James
and Charles. Marriage between cousins in the rarified heights of New
York society was a common occurrence. But leaving the mating habits of
the moneyed aside, one thing is for sure: The young Raoul would not
We know that Raoul’s father, William Falconer Whitfield, was attached
to the Territorial Government in Manila. Records show he was an
accountant. Raoul accompanied his father to the Philippines, making
trips to Japan and China, soaking up the local color he’d later use in
his brilliant Jo Gar tales. Here’s how Raoul summed up his travels in a
headnote to “Delivered Goods,” which ran in the November 1926 issue of Black Mask:
“Have chased around China, played in the Philippines, hummed at
Honolulu.” And here he is again, with a bit more detail, in a 1931
self-profile for The Argosy
(“The Men Who Made the Argosy,” March 7, 1931): “To Guam, Manila and
Japan at the age of eighteen. Several months in Hawaii on return.” 
Ruber and Berch write, “We know this happened before 1900 because the
elder Whitfield was not listed in the New York City Directory for that
year, nor did his name turn up in the U.S. Census for 1900.” But that
doesn’t jibe with Whitfield’s account; he would have been a toddler.
And sure enough, the 1905 New York Census has the Whitfields boarding
at 140 West 93rd Street, while the 1910 U.S. Census has the family
living at 251 West 88th Street. The Hagemann papers at UCLA also hold a
1981 letter from the Director of Alumni Relations of New York’s
prestigious Trinity School, which affirms that Whitfield attended the
institution from 1904 to 1912, leaving after the eighth grade.
Raoul’s return to the States via Honolulu in 1916 was precipitated by
an illness, the nature of which remains unclear. He claims to have
spent the next year or so puttering around Hollywood, appearing now and
again on the silver screen. Whitfield’s biographers find this credible
enough, with Nolan writing in The
Black Mask Boys:
Whitfield was a
handsome fellow, inclined to be photographed with a rakish scarf at his
neck. A tall six-footer, he sported a fashionable cane and
custom-leather gloves, parted his dark, slicked-back hair in the
middle, had a cleft chin (a la Cary Grant) and a neatly trimmed
Although no records, much less footage, of Whitfield’s first stay in
Hollywood have turned up at this point, there’s no reason to disbelieve
him. The star system hadn’t yet taken hold in 1916, and actors often
appeared in films without credit.
Whitfield’s next adventure — his stint in the Great War — left much
more of a mark on him and his writing, and has inspired much more
controversy among his biographers. The most colorful summaries of
Whitfield’s military service belong to his own pen. Here, for example,
is a typically laconic passage from his self-profile in The Argosy:
Came the World War.
Enlisted in American Ambulance Service, and was in the first uniformed
unit to march into Allentown, Pennsylvania. Transferred to Air Service.
Ground school training at Princeton. Air training at Kelly Field, San
Antonio, Texas. Commissioned and ordered overseas. Crossed doing
sub-watch in the crow’s nest. Trained, instructed and ferried various
types of ships at Issoudoun, Orly, Romorantin and St. Jean de Monts,
France. Several soft crashes and one not so soft. Up front on the
Nancy-Toule sector, eleven days before the armistice was signed. 
From the very start of his writing career, so much of which was bound
up with aviation, Whitfield claimed to have flown during the war. He
stuck to his guns like a flyboy in a dogfight. Here is a portion of the
1926 headnote to “Delivered Goods”:
…served my time
overseas in the Big Show. Started in the Ambulance and was taken into
the Air. Trained at Kelley [sic] Field, San Antonio. Know Kelley Field?
Went over on the rough-riding “Louisville.” Ferried planes to the Front
from Romorantin; towed targets at St. Jean de Monts; mixed in a bit
myself. Wings and bars ‘n’ everything. I still like joy-hopping. 
Not everyone, however, is willing to buy Whitfield’s version. Ruber and
Berch speculate that he’d fluffed up his record in order to lend
greater credulity to his aviation tales. They write, “Whitfield also
claimed that he was a second lieutenant, but the National Personnel
Records Center states Whitfield was discharged on April 2, 1918 as a
Private First Class in the Flying Cadets, United States Army, hardly
the rank of a fighter pilot.” This, however, is not the whole story. He
may have been discharged on April 2, but, according to several reliable
sources, was commissioned again as Second Lieutenant in the Aviation
Section of the Signal Reserve Corps in May of that same year.  A
story in the Washington Post,
dated February 24, 1919, has “Lieut. Raoul F. Whitfield” returning to
New York aboard a U.S. cruiser after a stormy voyage. This matches
Raoul’s statement in the Argosy
profile: “One crash after the armistice; homeward bound in charge of
troops (believe it or not) on a flat-bottomed freighter that took
eighteen days between Brest and New York.” Whatever else we can pin on
Whitfield, he wasn’t lying about his rank or service.
The only serious misdirection in Whitfield’s Argosy
account has to do with his alma mater: “Educated at Trinity School and
Lehigh University.” Trinity, yes. Lehigh, no. A 1981 letter from
the Executive Director of the university’s Alumni Association in the
Hagemann papers states that the group has “absolutely no record of
[Whitfield] ever attending.” What he says about his activities after
1919 and before his writing career took off is difficult to verify, but
In Pittsburgh steel
mills, doing experimental engineering work, for three years. Selling
bonds for three months. On Pittsburgh Post for almost a year. Started
to write fiction and got married. More successful in one than in the
other. Went to Florida and became more successful in the other. Went to
California and stayed married in Hollywood. Wrote. 
Though no one has yet tracked down Whitfield’s reporting for the Post, his fiction — like Green Ice and the story “Inside
Job” (Black Mask, February
1932), which Joe Shaw included in his Hard-Boiled
Omnibus — testify to his first-hand knowledge of the newspaper
Furthermore, Whitfield’s version of events lines up with what Prudence
Whitfield told Hagemann in a 1981 telephone conversation, the notes to
which sit in his papers:
RFW went to
Pittsburgh “to learn the steel business”; he hated it; began to work on
Pittsburgh Post as a reporter (among other things, he covered concerts,
etc); was working for paper when his 1st story was pub (no date given
PW says that during
this time, RFW was writing boys’ stories, girls’ stories, & poetry
(!); … PW says that his interest in poetry was how she met him, for
she, too, was a "poet" & working on the Post (again, PW vague in
She may have been vague, but her memory served her well. If we are to
trust the editors of Street & Smith’s Sport Story Magazine,
the first piece of fiction Whitfield published appeared in their issue
dated March 8, 1924. It was an airplane racing yarn titled “Flashing
Towers.” Soon after, Whitfield began to appear in Sport Story, War Stories, Breezy Stories, Droll Stories, Triple-X Magazine, Air Trails, Boys’ Life, Youth’s Companion, Telling Tales — in short, just
about everywhere, including Everybody’s
Magazine. It was in Battle
Stories, Nolan tells us in The
Black Mask Boys, that Whitfield’s “output was so prolific he was
forced to use a pen name, ‘Temple Field,’ in addition to his own
In her conversation with Hagemann, Prudence was forthcoming about her
former husband, but she was reluctant to reveal much about
herself. Relying on a “Pittsburgh contact,” Ruber and Berch
tracked down the couple’s marriage certificate. Raoul and Prudence were
wed on April 28, 1923. Whitfield’s address is given as 27 West 84th
Street, New York City. Prudence is listed as “unemployed.” The authors
conclude that this “casts doubt on [the claim] that the two met at the
Pittsburgh Post.” But it
should be noted that a groom, especially if he’s boarding in a
stranger’s home, might very well list his parents’ permanent address on
an official document. And a young woman “poet” who makes occasional
contributions to a local paper might very well describe herself as
According to the 1900, 1910, and 1920 U.S. Censuses, which were
conducted when Prudence was still living with her parents in Elizabeth
Township and East McKeesport, Pennsylvania, and before she had taken to
lying about her age, Prudence Ann Smith was the second youngest of five
children born to John G. and Mary E. Smith. The Social Security Death
Index lists her birthdate as August 19, 1895. She passed on August 16,
1990, a few days before she could mark (secretly, no doubt) her 95th
Continuing her recollections of life with Raoul, Prudence told Hagemann
that “some time in late ‘20s, probably 27/28, the Whitfields went to
Florida to live & for RFW to write full-time; they lived in
Pasadena on the Gulf.” This is confirmed by Joe Shaw in a note in the
June 1932 issue of Black Mask:
“When we had the pleasure of [Whitfield’s] first acquaintance, he was
on his way to Florida to hole away from interruption and settle down to
the serious business of making a first-rate newspaperman into a better
writer.”  The couple’s next destination was Hollywood, as Shaw
tells it. A note Whitfield sent to the editors of Everybody’s,
who published it in their first issue for 1928, reads: “In three weeks
I am driving to California, via the Old Spanish Trail, stopping off at
the Border Air Patrol fields, and getting into Mexico at several
points. Shall finish up then, and settle down for six months or so on,
perhaps, a small ranch.” 
The Whitfields lived in Southern California, but took trips to San
Francisco, where Raoul finally met Hammett, with whom he had carried on
a long correspondence. In the May 1948 issue of Ellery Queen,
Frederic Dannay writes: “Whitfield and Hammett talked shop — naturally.
It was terrifying, recalls Mrs. Whitfield, to hear them seriously
debate whether a particular story should have seven murders — or
twenty-seven!”  What they did besides talking shop was try to drink
one another under the table.  Any table would do. According to what
Prudence told Hagemann, Erle Stanley Gardner paid the couple a visit as
well; he came seeking Whitfield’s criticism and advice.
The 1930 U.S. Census has the couple living in New York, but they would
soon sail for Europe — for Paris and Cannes, Prudence told Hagemann,
“where they had a villa.” They also “took trips to Sicily (flew over
there from Cannes ‘in a small plane’), Italy (Naples, esp) &
Tunis.” The March 20, 1932 issue of the New York Times noted the couple’s
whose latest crime novel, The Virgin Kills, was published a short time
ago by Alfred A. Knopf, returned recently from Europe on the S.S. De
Grasse. He says that the trip was delightful, chiefly because there
were only seventy-five people on the boat, and not one of them was a
writer. Mr. Whitfield's modesty is refreshing.
In the June 1932 issue of Black Mask,
Joe Shaw announced that “Raoul Whitfield has hied himself hence to
Hollywood on a long period contract with Paramount on terms that take
all the press out of Depression.” His Hollywood novel, Death in a Bowl,
had been optioned. Nothing came of that. Raoul’s third stay in
Hollywood resulted in “story by” credit, a very slick Warner Bros.
production titled Private Detective
(1933), directed by Michael Curtiz, and starring William Powell and
Margaret Lindsay. The Rian James script centers on a government agent
who gets kicked down to the level of a private dick in a low-class
agency; it was based on Whitfield’s story “Man Killer,” which ran in
the April 1932 issue of Black Mask.
But that was it.
And then came a change. Raoul and Prudence separated in 1932 and
divorced in 1933. He had initiated a whirlwind romance with a socialite
named Emily O’Neill Davies Vanderbilt Thayer — a whirlwind that would
end in a tailspin. The couple tried their hand at collaboration,
adapting Raoul’s European detective story, “Mistral,” which was
originally published in the December 15, 1931, issue of Adventure, into a play in three
acts, which was submitted for copyright on January 11, 1933.
Whitfield and Thayer married on July 19, 1933, and an article in the
New York Times the following day declared that the “wedding will be a
surprise to their friends.” Thayer had previously been married to
William Henry Vanderbilt III and theatrical producer Sigourney Thayer,
who had himself been an aviator in the war. Neither union lasted long.
Thayer is a fascinating figure. Lillian Hellman described her as “a
handsome, boyish-looking woman at every society-literary cocktail
party.”  The “handsome” and “boyish” are good descriptions, judging
by photographs, but they may also be code. Thayer spent some time in
Paris in the late-1920s, where she found her way into Dolly Wilde’s
coterie of lesbian and bisexual intellectuals. Both F. Scott Fitzgerald
and his wife Zelda had been infatuated with and bewildered by Thayer in
those days. In fall 1930, Zelda wrote to Scott from the Prangins Clinic
in Nyon, Switzerland, saying she “was sorry for [Thayer], she seemed so
muddled and lost in the grist mill.”  Thayer may have had serious
literary talent, and she certainly had taste, but her troubles proved
too deep for her to see her ambitions through.
Raoul Whitfield must have represented a new life for her — a chance to
fulfill her promise. He was handsome, smart, successful, and life with
him wouldn’t be dull. The new couple settled in New Mexico, where they
bought an expansive new home called Dead Horse Ranch. They entertained.
Raoul left his typewriter more and more often to join those cocktail
parties going on around him. His production dwindled. Decades later,
Prudence told Keith Alan Deutsch that Whitfield “was bored with
writing; plotting came too easily.” Maybe so — and maybe other things
proved too hard.
During her stay in Paris in the 1920s, Thayer had set her sights on
another author, Thomas Wolfe, who immortalized her a decade later as
Amy Carleton in You Can’t Go Home
Amy Carleton was many
things, but no one could call her good. In fact, if she was not “a
notorious woman,” the reason was that she had surpassed the ultimate
limits of notoriety, even for New York. Everybody knew her, and knew
all about her, yet what the truth was, or what the true image of that
lovely counterfeit of youth and joy, no one could say. 
In a letter to his daughter, Scottie, dated December 1940, Fitzgerald
applauds Wolfe’s depiction of Thayer in a rather vicious manner:
The picture of “Amy
Carleton” (Emily Davies Vanderbilt who used to come to our apartment in
Paris — do you remember?), with the cracked grey eyes and the exactly
reproduced speech, is just simply perfect. She tried hard to make Tom —
sans succès — and finally ended by her own hand in Montana in 1934 in a
lonely ranch house. 
Not quite. According to a number of newspaper accounts, after spending
the evening at Dead Horse Ranch with a friend named Virginia Haydon
Stone, who declined an invitation to stay the night, Thayer retired,
alone, at around 11 p.m. on May 23, 1935. Esequiel Segura, a ranch
employee, found her dead the next morning — “[c]lad in pajamas and a
flowing robe,” as the Associated Press reported in an article printed
in the Washington Post on May
25. She died “of a revolver wound,” the article continues, “which,
authorities concluded, she inflicted while despondent at the prospect
of a divorce from her third husband.” It was Thayer who had filed for
divorce; Raoul had moved out, and was miles away in Hollywood when the
fatal shot was fired.
Whitfield returned to the Ranch via TWA Comet and took over
arrangements for the funeral. According to a New York Times
story of August 28, 1935, Raoul was declared the sole heir of his
wife’s substantial fortune, thanks to a will drawn up in New York on
November 15, 1933.
The events surrounding the couple’s separation and Thayer’s death will
remain a mystery. Indeed, they’ve served as material for an excellent
detective story, Walter Satterthwait’s Dead Horse
(Tucson, AZ: Dennis McMillan, 2007). There’s plenty to speculate upon,
but a few things seem clear. Drinking and jealousy played a factor, and
a younger woman was involved. Raoul had been seeing a local barmaid
named Lois Bell, born September 9, 1915, who would become his third and
Two years after Thayer’s death, Whitfield would publish his final story
— the appropriately named Jo Gar mystery “The Great Black” — in the
August 1937 issue of Cosmopolitan
magazine. The Washington Post
was reprinting some older Gar mysteries in July and August of that same
year. Thereafter, darkness.
Whitfield spent Thayer’s money at breakneck speed. Sometime at the turn
of the decade he was stricken with T.B., perhaps a recurrence of the
illness that sent him back to Hawaii and the States as a teenager. In
his 1942 World War II draft registration card — signed by Whitfield,
but not filled out in his hand — he is listed as a resident of the
Veterans Hospital in San Fernando Valley, Los Angeles. The most
poignant field on the card — “Name and Address of Person Who Will
Always Know Your Address” — lists Raoul’s father, William, who was then
living in Carmel, California, with his wife Mabelle. Lois was no longer
in the picture.
The best sources on Whitfield’s final years are Hammett’s letters. In
the late 1930s and early ‘40s, Dash and Pru became lovers. She kept him
abreast of Raoul’s troubles, while he gave her advice, and passed the
news on to Hellman. In a letter dated August 29, 1943, Hammett writes
Hellman from his post in Alaska: “Pru Whitfield wrote me that Raoul is
dying of T.B. in a San Fernando hospital and that Lois, his third wife,
‘fell’ (the quotes are Pru’s) out of a window in San Francisco recently
and is pretty badly banged up.”  On October 27, he offers this
update: “Raoul has been, for fourteen months, in a lung-hospital in San
Fernando. […] His third wife recently jumped out of a hotel window in
San Francisco, and has just died.”  Lois succumbed to her injuries
on September 27, 1943, eighteen days after her twenty-eighth birthday.
On November 25, 1943, Hammett tells Hellman of a letter he received
from Raoul: “Whitfield, writing me about the death by suicide of his
second wife in succession, says: ‘I feel pretty much lost — I don’t
seem to get over these things easily.’ You can have that for your
Then came the last rally. On February 22, 1944, Hammett tells Hellman
that Whitfield “hopes to be discharged from his hospital next month. He
is broke and I am sending him $500.”  In a letter to Prudence,
dated March 5, he writes:
I had a letter from
Raoul late last month, sounding fairly cheerful. He said he was taking
his test the next day and hoped to be saying goodbye to the hospital in
March. Of you he wrote: ‘Pru is also busy, but she writes quite often
and has really been a big help — though I’ll probably never admit it
Less than a year later, on January 24, 1945, Raoul Whitfield passed
away. On February 10, he was interred in Arlington National Cemetery.
His headstone (section 4, grave 5603), reads “Raoul F. Whitfield,
California, 2. Lieut. Air Service.” He had earned his stripes.
The rest of the story was just writing, but what writing it was.
1. Carolyn See, “The Hollywood Novel: The American Dream Cheat,”
in Tough Guy Writers of the Thirties,
ed. David Madden (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois
University Press, 1968), 205.
2. Burton Rascoe, review of Death
in a Bowl, Arts &
Decoration 35, no. 4 (August 1931): 83.
3. Ellery Queen Mystery
Magazine (October 1947): 16.
4. EQMM (March 1949):
5. EQMM (May 1948): 40.
6. See Marcel Duhamel, Raconte
pas ta vie (Paris: Mercure de France, 1972), 293.
7. Jean-Paul Schweighaeuser, Le
roman noir français (Paris: Presses universitaires de France,
8. F. Scott Fitzgerald, in Malcolm Cowley, “Good Books That
Almost Nobody Has Read,” New Republic
78 (April 18, 1934): 283.
9. EQMM (May 1948): 40.
10. Dashiell Hammett, review of Green
Ice, New York Evening Post,
July 19, 1930, p. 5A.
11. William F. Nolan, “Behind the Mask: Raoul Whitfield,” in The Black Mask Boys Masters in the
Hard-Boiled School of Detective Fiction (New York, N.Y.: William
Morrow and Co., 1985), 129.
12. Raoul Whitfield, “The Men Who Made the Argosy,” The Argosy (March 7, 1931): 428.
13. Nolan, “Behind the Mask: Raoul Whitfield,” 129.
14. Whitfield, “The Men Who Made the Argosy,” 428.
15. Black Mask
16. See, for instance, “Naval and Military Aeronautics,” Aerial Age Weekly 7, no. 8 (May 6,
1918): 402, 414.
17. Whitfield, “The Men Who Made the Argosy,” 428.
18. Nolan, “Behind the Mask: Raoul Whitfield,” 130.
19. Black Mask (June
20. Everybody's Magazine
58, no. 1 (1928): 175.
21. EQMM (May 1948): 40.
22. Nolan, Hammett: A Life at
the Edge (New York: Congdon & Weed / St. Martin’s Press,
23. Lillian Hellman, Pentimento
(Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1973), 130.
24. Zelda Fitzgerald, letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald (Fall 1930),
in Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda: The
Love Letters of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, ed. Jackson R.
Bryer and Cathy W. Barks, intro. Eleanor Lanahan (New York, N.Y.: St.
Martin’s Press, 2002), 94.
25. Thomas Wolfe, You Can’t Go
Home Again, intro. Gail Godwin (New York, N.Y.: Scribner, 2011),
26. F. Scott Fitzgerald, letter to Scottie Fitzgerald (December
1940), in The Letters of F. Scott
Fitzgerald, ed. Andrew Turnbull (New York, N.Y.: Dell, 1966),
27. Hammett, letter to Lillian Hellman (August 29, 1943), in Selected Letters of Dashiell Hammett,
1921-1960, ed. Richard Layman, with Julie M. Rivett, intro.
Josephine Hammett Marshall (Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 2001), 222.
28. Hammett, letter to Hellman (October 27, 1943), in Selected Letters, 246.
29. Hammett, letter to Hellman (November 25, 1943), in Selected Letters, 254.
30. Hammett, letter to Hellman (February 22, 1944), in Selected Letters, 287.
31. Hammett, letter to Prudence Whitfield (March 5, 1944), in Selected Letters, 295.
Works Consulted and
The letters, notes, and drafts quoted in this introduction are housed
in box 34, folder 4, of the E. R. Hagemann Papers and Collection of
Detective Fiction (1672), and box 5, folder 6, of the Joseph T. Shaw
Papers (2052) — both in the Department of Special Collections of UCLA’s
Young Research Library.
Cowley, Malcolm. “Good Books That Almost Nobody Has Read.” New Republic 78 (April 18, 1934):
Duhamel, Marcel. Raconte pas ta vie.
Paris: Mercure de France, 1972.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Letters of
F. Scott Fitzgerald. Edited by Andrew Turnbull. New York, N.Y.:
—. Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda: The
Love Letters of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. Edited by Jackson
R. Bryer and Cathy W. Barks. Introduction by Eleanor Lanahan. New York,
N.Y.: St. Martin’s Press, 2002.
Hagemann, E. R. “Raoul Whitfield, A Star at the Mask.” The Armchair Detective 13, no. 3
(Summer 1980): 179-84.
—. “Ramon Decolta, a.k.a. Raoul Whitfield, and His Diminutive Brown
Man: Jo Gar, the Island Detective.” Armchair
Detective 14, no. 2 (Winter 1981): 3-8.
—. “Captain Joseph T. Shaw’s Black Mask Scrapbook.” The Mystery Fancier 7, no. 1
(January-February 1983): 2-6.
Hammett, Dashiell. Review of Green
Ice. New York Evening Post.
19 July 1930. P. 5A.
—. Selected Letters of Dashiell
Edited by Richard Layman, with Julie M. Rivett. Introduction by
Josephine Hammett Marshall. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 2001.
Hellman, Lillian. Pentimento.
Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1973.
Ivison, Douglas. “Raoul Whitfield.” In American Hard-Boiled Crime Writers,
edited by George Parker Anderson and Julie B. Anderson. Vol. 226 of
Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale Group, 2000.
McCann, Sean. “‘A Roughneck Reaching for Higher Things’: The Vagaries
of Pulp Populism.” Radical History
Review 61 (1995): 4-34.
Nolan, William F. Dashiell Hammett:
A Casebook. Introduction by Philip Durham. Santa Barbara, CA:
McNally & Loftin, 1969.
—. Hammett: A Life at the Edge.
New York, N.Y.: Congdon & Weed/St. Martin’s Press, 1983.
—. “Behind the Mask: Raoul Whitfield.” In The Black Mask Boys: Masters in the
Hard-Boiled School of Detective Fiction, 129-135. New York,
N.Y.: William Morrow and Co., 1985.
Rascoe, Burton. Review of Death in a
Bowl. Arts & Decoration
35, no. 4 (August 1931): 83.
Ruber, Peter and Victor A. Berch. "Raoul Whitfield: Black Mask's
Forgotten Man." Black Mask Magazine
Schweighaeuser, Jean-Paul. Le roman
noir français. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1984.
See, Carolyn. “The Hollywood Novel: The American Dream Cheat.” In Tough Guy Writers of the Thirties,
edited by David Madden, 199-217. Carbondale and Edwardsville, IL:
Southern Illinois University Press, 1968.
Whitfield, Raoul. “The Men Who Made the Argosy.” The Argosy (March 7, 1931): 228.
Wolfe, Thomas. You Can’t Go Home
Again. Introduction by Gail Godwin. New York, N.Y.: Scribner,