Black Mask Library

Raoul Whitfield: An Introduction

[This introduction appears in several
new editions of Raoul Whitfield’s work released
by Otto Penzeler's MysteriousPress.com and Open Road Media.]

By Boris Dralyuk



I. The Human Element

“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” [1930]), 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 something.

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.” [1] 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 (1933).

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 come.

 

Black Mask


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 Mask 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 people. [2]

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 of EQMM, 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:

Raoul Whitfield 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. [3]

More on those cocktail parties later. First, another tidbit from Pru and Dannay:

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. [4]

Place this next to Pru’s image of “Hammett writing laboriously, alone in a room, with dirty dishes strewn all over the kitchen floor,” [5] and a neat dichotomy begins to take shape: Dash slaved away on masterpieces, while Whit dashed off “flashing designs.”   

Shaw’s Whit is yeomanlike and ambitious, while Pru’s hums along like a well-oiled machine; neither can really match Hammett, the inspired perfectionist.

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). [6] As Jean-Paul Schweighaeuser writes in Le roman noir français (1984), for France, “Raoul Whitfield led the way.” [7] 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. [8]

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 trade:

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?” [9]

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.” [10]

 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” [1930]). 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.

 

Black Mask


III. The Rest of the Story…

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.’” [11] 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 starve.

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.” [12] 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 mustache. [13]

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. [14]

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. [15]

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. [16] 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 believable:

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. [17]

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 trade.

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 by PW)

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 specific memories)

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 byline.” [18]

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 unemployed.

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 birthday.

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.” [19] 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.” [20]

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!” [21] What they did besides talking shop was try to drink one another under the table. [22] 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 return stateside:

Raoul Whitfield, 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 62 (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.” [23] 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.” [24] 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 Again (1940):

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. [25]

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. [26]

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 last wife.

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.” [27] 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.” [28] 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 scrapbook.” [29]

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.” [30] 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 again.’ [31]

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.

Black Mask

Notes
 
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): 81.
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, 1984), 16.
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 (November 1926).
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 1932), 123.
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, 1983), 105-6.
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), 211.
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), 118-119.
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 Further Reading
 
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): 283.

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.: Dell, 1966.

—. 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 Hammett, 1921-1960. 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 Online. http://www.blackmaskmagazine.com/bm_17.html

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, 2011.