Authors’ Note: More than fifty-seven years have passed since Raoul Whitfield’s death, and still very little is known about his life. No archived letters have turned up to shed light on this mystery man. During these years only three substantial articles have been written about him.
The foundational essay by Prof. E.R. Hagemann, “Raoul F. Whitfield, A Star with the Mask,” published in The Armchair Detective (13:3, Summer 1980), contained more conjecture than fact, Hagemann himself admitted. William F. Nolan’s article in his anthology, The Black Mask Boys (New York: William Morrow & Co., 1985), broke new ground, but some of it has dubious value.
More recently, Douglas Ivison’s “Raoul Whitfield,” was published in American Hard-Boiled Crime Writers, edited by George Parker Anderson and Julie B. Anderson (Detroit: The Gale Group, 2000; vol. 226 of the Dictionary of Literary Biography). Unfortunately, Mr. Ivison’s essay offers nothing in the way of original research. It is simply a lame rehashing of what Messrs. Hagemann and Nolan have written, and therefore perpetuates the misinformation of his predecessors.
The following essay not only breaks new ground through extensive research, but provides supporting documentation and citations from newspapers, the U.S. Census and vital statistics on birth, death and marriage certificates, as well a documents from various government sources. In addition, the authors present the first Raoul Whitfield bibliography, listing 371 stories and serials, more than double the number of stories Hagemann and Nolan believed Whitfield had written. Except for those titles that appeared in Black Mask, most other citations are published here for the first time, and have been verified by examining either magazine issues or microfilms from the Library of Congress.
Coming to the Black Mask
It has become popular for critics to refer to Raoul Whitfield as Black Mask’s forgotten man, and that his writing career, like that of his friend and colleague Dashiell Hammett, lasted exactly eight years. They tend to view Whitfield only from his Black Mask period, 1926–1934, when, in fact, he began selling short fiction to the pulp story magazines in 1924, and had more than 40 stories published before his first one appeared in Black Mask.
During his writing career, Whitfield published over 300 short stories and serials, and 9 books. Only two of his books were original novels. Two others were based on serials and connecting stories that appeared in Black Mask; and the remaining five were story collections for young readers culled from the pages of Boy’s Life, Battle Stories and other pulp magazines between 1926 and the early 1930s.
The legendary Black Mask, which was launched by H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan in 1920, is remembered today for having taken the detective story out of genteel drawing rooms and putting it on the streets. Tough dialogue and lean narrative replaced the long-winded, florid prose popular with Victorian- and Edwardian-era scriveners. Even mainstream magazines were beginning to publish tougher stories with an edge from writers like Ernest Hemingway.
Literature, after World War I, was becoming more realistic, reflecting the changing patterns of the times and of society. It wasn’t a conscious effort on the part of Black Mask’s founding editors to create a new literary form now called the “hard-boiled school of American detective fiction”; Mencken and Nathan used the magazine to publish the overflow of fiction that was being submitted to The Smart Set. When they tired of reading mysteries and westerns, they sold the magazine to another publisher, and the new editors evolved Black Mask in that direction after readers responded favorably to tough stories delivered by a handful of writers who became synonymous with the magazine.
Editor Philip C. Cody, who piloted Black Mask from the April 1, 1924 through the October 1926 issues, praised Dashiell Hammett’s compact narrative style and hard-hitting dialogue, and made it known to his growing stable of contributing writers that he expected better-written stories, to set the magazine apart from competitors. Cody had only begun to succeed with his plans by bringing aboard new writers like Erle Stanley Gardner and Raoul Whitfield, when internal politics removed him from the editorial chair.
Joseph T. Shaw took over the magazine’s reins with the November 1926 issue. He saw no reason to tamper with Cody’s vision and set out to refine the Black Mask style over the next decade.
Yet, on another level, literature was changing, and not just in the pulp fiction magazines. In cities like New York and Chicago, where clusters of writers got together, literary revolutions had been occurring since the mid-1910s. Critics call them a “renaissance,” and books have been written documenting how they started and evolved. It was a phenomenon that occurred every generation or two in the first half of the 20th century, and perhaps a little earlier.
At Black Mask, a small group of writers arrived unexpectedly on its doorstep approximately around the same time, and submitted stories about the seamier side of life—political corruption, gangsters, private detectives with fists bigger than brains, and the dark side of criminal behavior that rose up from the gutters and flourished when the Volstead Act enacted by Congress in October 1919 launched Prohibition. This social climate provided unlimited fodder for the vivid imaginations of Carroll John Daly, a New York-based hack writer, Dashiell Hammett, an ex-Pinkerton Detective Agency operative, and Erle Stanley Gardner, one of California’s most feared trial attorneys at the time. And then came Raoul Whitfield.
Whitfield’s first contribution to Black Mask (“Scotty Troubles Trouble,” March 1926) fit perfectly into the emerging “hard-boiled” mold of tough-talking heroes and non-stop action. The “Scotty” stories also ushered in a new genre in pulp fiction. During their several meetings in 1973–74, Prudence Whitfield told Keith Alan Deutsch of Black Mask Magazine, Inc., that Raoul considered himself to be the inventor of the Flying Ace stories. Within a few years numerous pulp magazines were launched to cater to readers who craved flying adventures and battle stories. Even magazines like Boy’s Life printed them regularly, especially those contributed by Whitfield.
They certainly appealed to Black Mask readers, and Whitfield rapidly became one of that magazine’s most popular and frequently published writers. Over the next eight years he sold the magazine 90 stories and serials. His productivity was eclipsed only by Erle Stanley Gardner, who appeared 103 times, but over a longer span of eighteen years. Had Whitfield continued to write at relatively the same pace as he did during his early years, his cumulative book and story credits would have been huge.
Of the magazine’s original “hard-boiled” quartet (Hammett, Whitfield, Gardner and Carroll John Daly), only Hammett and Gardner achieved wider popularity, but in different ways. Hammett became a literary cult figure and the subject of a new biography every ten years or so. Gardner became one of the most successful and highest-paid mystery novelists of the century.
Like most Black Mask contributors, however, Whitfield was a writer of the second rank; he craved the literary limelight, according to one historian, but never achieved lasting success. His stories represented everything that was good and bad in hard-boiled detective fiction: He could tell a blood-splattered, action-filled story with the best of his contemporaries, but his staccato writing style—an obvious imitation of Dashiell Hammett’s lean, crafted prose—could rarely be called distinguished.
By the time Whitfield should have been producing more polished work and maturing as a writer, he got out of the game. “He was bored with writing; plotting came too easily,” Prudence Whitfield explained to Deutsch. But there were other reasons over which he had no control.
Fragments of Biography
Raoul Falconia Whitfield was born in New York City on November 22, 1896, into a family that was socially prominent and financially comfortable. Messrs. Hagemann and Nolan have variously given his birth year as 1897 and 1898. However, an examination of his New York City birth certificate (NYC #50974) proves that he was born in 1896, as well as 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.
His father, William H. Whitfield, was in the U.S. Civil Service and was moved about at the government’s discretion. Sometime before 1900, perhaps when Raoul was two or three, William Whitfield moved his family to Manila, where he had been assigned to an unknown position with the Territorial Government. 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.
City directories were distinct from telephone directories. They began to be published in the U.S. in the mid-1700s, and can be of inestimable value in finding out where a person lived during certain periods of his life. Not only did city directories list a person’s home address, but their professions and in many instances whom they worked for, as will be shown later.
During his years in the Philippines, young Whitfield accompanied his father on frequent trips to Japan and China. These broadened his knowledge of that region, and later provided background for his endless stream of pulp stories. One senses that Raoul Whitfield was more at ease writing stories with a Philippine or South Pacific setting, particularly in and around Manila, where his family had lived. There he set such pulse-pounding action tales as “The Sky Jinx,” “Kiwi,” and “Hell’s Angel” (all from Adventure) and the more than two dozen mystery stories featuring “Island Detective” Jo Gar.
But like other prolific pulp writers of his day, Whitfield easily transferred his stories to diverse locales. South of the Mexican border proved fertile ground for air adventures such as “South of Tia Juana,” “Rio Red,” and “El Jaguar’s Claws,” and for a number of crime stories in Everybody’s. He also turned out innumerable yarns featuring aerial combat and the hazards of flying over enemy territory during World War I. Tales such as “Sky Eggs,” “Traffic Trouble,” “Flaming Flight,” “The Suicide Air Patrol” and “The Sky Trap” are typical examples.
The aircraft Whitfield flew during the War were extremely primitive compared to today’s high-tech military hardware. But he professed to know first-hand what it felt like to engage enemy planes at short range and stare into the barrel of a machine gun five-thousand feet above the ground. He realistically conveyed the terror pilots experienced when bullets ripped through the flimsy fabric covering of an aircraft’s fuselage and wings, or when they knocked out the engines, before the planes spiraled toward earth and certain death. Whatever stylistic limitations Whitfield had, he could spin yarns of breathless adventure.
In 1916, Raoul Whitfield became ill and was sent to New York for treatment. One wonders whether that illness was a variant of the tubercular bacillus that triggered his attack of tuberculosis two decades later. It took years of treatment to put Hammett’s tuberculosis into remission. After Whitfield’s health improved, he drifted to California and he began a short-lived career as a bit-part actor in the silent movies. He was well suited for this profession: handsome, muscular, a six-footer, who looked and dressed like a “Dapper Dan.” Writing about him in Hammett: A Life at the Edge, William F. Nolan said: “Photos show [Whitfield] with cane, elegant leather gloves and a silk scarf around his neck, looking aloof and imperious. His mustache is carefully trimmed, his dark hair slicked back and parted in the middle. Every inch the gentleman.”
But acting didn’t appeal to Whitfield. The Great War, as it was then called, was going full tilt in Europe and he saw this as an opportunity to get involved in some real action. Although Whitfield claimed to have served in the ambulance corps (the American Field Service), his name does not appear on any of the records, according to the National Personnel Records Center, St. Louis, Missouri. The enlistment date of his joining the ambulance corps was recorded by William F. Nolan as having taken place on May 22, 1917 (Los Angeles, California), but that he soon realized he’d have a better chance of joining the war if he became a flyer. Nolan states that Whitfield transferred to the U.S. Army Air Corps and received his pilot training at Kelly Field in San Antonio, Texas, and that he was in France by the summer of that year. We suspect Nolan obtained this information sixty years later from first wife Prudence. Whether she remembered those details correctly or embellished upon them is an open question. 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. His service number was 1163772.
His assignments, Whitfield said, were frustrating. First he shuttled cargo in unarmed De Havillands to the front lines; then he was given the job of towing targets for aerial gun practice at St. Jean de Monts. Eventually, Whitfield became a fighter pilot and his combat record and enemy kills were sufficiently distinguished to earn him the “Croix de Guerre.” We’re willing to accept his having shuttled cargo and towing practice target, but not being a fighter pilot. And it may well be that the “Croix de Guerre” was given to his group as recognition of service to France, but not to him personally. Then there’s the fact that he was in the service barely eleven months. So whatever air combat flights he may have had appear to be mainly flights of his imagination.
When Raoul Whitfield returned home early in 1918, it has been alleged that he “drifted” around the Orient for several years in search of adventure, before his father encouraged him to learn the steel business from the ground up. We suspect that journey to the Orient is apocryphal. He worked briefly as a laborer in a Pennsylvania steel mill, a job he might have obtained through his father’s political and business connections. He claimed in an autobiographical profile in the March 7, 1931 Argosy that he performed “experimental engineering work.” This is also hard to believe because he had no academic credits to qualify him. Even his statement about having been educated at Lehigh University (Pennsylvania) was a fabrication. The university confirmed that he had never been a student.
But he didn’t see this work as a career any more than acting. “The truth is,” he admitted later, “I was born to be a writer,” which may be closer to the truth than anything he wrote about himself.
Working in a steel mill was just one of several transient jobs Whitfield held before he launched his full-time writing career. Other jobs, according to the dust jacket caption for Death in a Bowl (1931), were fire fighter in the Sierra Madre range, a bond salesman and a newspaper reporter. We have been able to verify (through the 1922 Pittsburgh City Directory) that Whitfield did work as a bond salesman for Redmond & Co., Investment Securities, 498 Union Arcade, Pittsburgh, Penna., and lived in the suburb of Lake McKeesport.
When and for how long Whitfield was a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post is also an open question. This information is not listed in subsequent issues of the Pittsburgh City Directory.
William F. Nolan states Whitfield worked at the Pittsburgh Post in the mid-1920s (perhaps after his stint as a bond salesman?), and that it was there that he met and married co-worker “Prudence Van Tine,” his first wife. Unfortunately, that simply isn’t possible. A Pittsburgh contact located and photocopied for us the Whitfields’ marriage license application and their marriage certificate, which reveal that Raoul and Prudence were married on April 28, 1923. The marriage license application shows a number of curious and contradictory pieces of information.
First, Raoul Whitfield gives 27 West 84th Street, New York City, as his place of residence, his occupation as writer, and his middle name as “Fauconnier.” The bride-to-be gives her name as Prudence Ann Smith, residence as East McKeesport, Penna., and that she was “unemployed.” This casts doubt on Mr. Nolan’s information that the two met at the Pittsburgh Post, which we believe he also obtained from a conversation or exchange of letters with Prudence Whitfield sometime in the late 1970s. This raises the question: Where did the Van Tine name come from, which Prudence used on several future documents? That’s one of several oddities about Prudence Ann Smith Whitfield we will discuss later.
Whitfield stating he was a writer could mean that he was working as a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post, but we can’t confirm that. However, it is certain that he was in the early stages of developing his writing career, for he was to make his published debut with “The Sky Climbers” in the May 22, 1924 issue of Street & Smith’s Sport Stories. By August and September of that year Whitfield became a regular contributor to Breezy Stories and Droll Stories. The best that one could say about these stories is that they are the early work of someone learning to become a professional writer.
Averaging 2,200 words in length, these were general fiction experiments—sometimes with a slight mystery—not the action tales he would grind out later. But it was a productive period for a beginning writer. Breezy Stories published 29 Whitfield stories between the August 15, 1924 and April 1, 1926 issues. Droll Stories published seven, and Telling Tales two.
Nineteen Twenty-Six can be considered his breakout year. He cracked Black Mask with eight of his 35 sales in 1926. Twenty of these appeared in Street & Smith’s Sports Story Magazine, which rapidly became a very active market for him. He had sold 20 stories to the magazine in 1925 and 11 in 1924. Other first-time sales were made to Blue Book, Boy’s Life, Open Road for Boys and Edwin Baird’s Real Detective Tales & Mystery Stories. Whitfield sold 50 stories in 1927. Eight again went to Black Mask, and he added Adventure, Battle Stories, Everybody’s, Sunset, and Top-Notch to his growing list of markets.
Sometime in 1926 or 1927, it has been said, Prudence Whitfield encouraged their move to Florida’s west coast, so Raoul could settle in and earn a living as a full-time writer for the story-hungry pulps.
He was twenty-nine when the first of his many air adventures appeared in Black Mask; but it wasn’t long before his interests turned to writing crime stories.
Frederic Dannay, late founder and editor of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, once described Whitfield at work: “[He] always wrote easily and quickly, with a minimum of correction. He had a particular talent for starting with a title and writing [a story] around it… He would place neat stacks of chocolate bars 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.”
This picture of Raoul Whitfield’s writing habits was undoubtedly provided to Dannay by Prudence Whitfield. She lived in New York from the mid-1940s on, and met with Dannay when the latter tried to jump-start renewed interest in Whitfield’s fiction by reprinting several stories in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. It was a futile effort because nothing came of it in terms of book reprints or anthologies of his uncollected stories.
Prudence Whitfield also had in her possession several of Raoul’s unpublished manuscripts, which she lent to Keith Alan Deutsch on the promise that he would not copy them, which he didn’t. Of these, he remarked, “I recall very few typos or cross outs. It appeared that he could just knock them out—of course I do not know how many drafts came before—but Prudence said he didn’t favor fiddling.”
According to other reports, Whitfield rarely touched up his stories with more than a few penciled corrections. That lack of rewriting and polishing is very evident in much of his fiction; whereas Hammett was known to rework his stories over and over, to achieve a certain level of perfection, Whitfield either lacked the patience or the interest. But unlike Hammett, who became completely impotent of story ideas, and left behind nearly two dozen unfinished manuscripts, including a novel, Whitfield conjured up plots effortlessly, easily drawing on his familiarity with the South Pacific and his wartime experiences for much of his writing career.
So prolific was his early output in magazines like Air Trails, War Stories, Everybody’s Magazine, Triple-X, Boy’s Life and Battle Stories that he sometimes appeared in the same issue under his own name and under the pseudonym of Temple Field. Still later, when he created his “Island Detective” Jo Gar for Black Mask, he used the byline of Ramon Decolta. Perhaps he chose a Spanish name to lend a dash of authenticity to the tales. It was a strict editorial policy among pulp fiction magazines never to feature more than one story under the same byline in a single issue, which forced prolific writers to invent pseudonyms. Unless an author later revealed his or her pseudonyms, or a researcher had access to a magazine’s surviving card files, it becomes difficult today to identify the writers behind pseudonyms or “house names” decades after their stories were published.
Reader interest in Whitfield’s air-action stories, especially those about World War I, continued for more than a decade after the war ended. Some were collected into popular books for boys as late as 1930–33.
Singling out his flying Scotty stories, Keith Alan Deutsch says, “[they] are idealized versions of his image as a flying ace the same way Hammett said [Sam] Spade was an idealized image of the detective all the Pinkertons wanted to be.”
Whitfield’s writing career essentially came to an end in the February 1934 Black Mask with “Death On Fifth Avenue.” It was his 90th story for that magazine. He wrote only a handful of stories over the next few years—”The Mystery of the Fan Backed Chair” and “The Great Black”—the only Jo Gar stories to appear under his own name. These were also his only appearances in a national slick-paper magazine. He seemed disinclined to write anywhere near his earlier pace.
It’s curious to note that in many ways Whitfield’s life mirrored Hammett’s—the flash of a potentially brilliant writing career on the horizon, followed by years of heavy drinking and a decline in story output. Whitfield developed tuberculosis in 1933, but was unable to shake its debilitating effects as Hammett did. Mounting evidence at this late date suggests that heavy drinking ruined his writing career and that TB did not set in until the early 1940s.
The Hammett Connection
According to Prudence Whitfield, Raoul Whitfield and Dashiell Hammett had a very close friendship that Hammett’s many biographers have only touched upon in passing—possibly because the letters they exchanged no longer exist. Whitfield was known to have been an avid reader of pulp fiction magazines. He greatly admired Hammett’s early stories in Black Mask and sent editor Philip C. Cody several letters encouraging him to publish Hammett yarns more often. Those letters, apparently considered fan mail, were forwarded to the author, and launched a lengthy friendship between the two men.
They corresponded for several years before meeting in San Francisco for the first time. By then, Whitfield’s own career was well under way and Hammett admired his colleague’s ability to sit before his typewriter and crank out stories in a single session—whereas Hammett agonized over his plots. Prudence Whitfield told Keith Alan Deutsch that Raoul wrote fast, and plots came very easily to him. “She remembers Dash always worrying over his stories while Raoul came to his rescue. She made it clear that writing was more important to Hammett than to Raoul,” Deutsch added.
Hammett and Whitfield met as often as their schedules allowed—usually in San Francisco and New York bars where they held endless discussions about writing detective fiction and the appropriate number of bodies that needed to be served up to satisfy bloodthirsty readers. Needless to say, the volume of spirits they consumed flowed as freely as the talk.
Prudence Whitfield was a frequent participant at these drinking sessions. “She liked to go to bars and drink while I listened and wrote,” Deutsch said. “Perhaps the drinking explains something about both Hammett’s and Raoul’s later abandonment of fiction writing.”
Rumors have also persisted for years that Prudence became one of Hammett’s lovers, along with Peggy O’Toole and Lillian Hellman—a suspicion that now bears fruit in Selected Letters of Dashiell Hammett 1921–1960, edited by Richard Layman (Counterpoint Press, 2001).
Deutsch says, “In re a Hammett affair, obviously she did not tell me about it… but I find it believable based on her memories of ‘Dash.’ Although she made it clear that Raoul had been Hammett’s closest California friend and his writing mentor, and that in those early years Hammett looked up to Raoul, she always spoke of Hammett as if Raoul was very much taken (‘in love’) with Dash—this may have been part of her projection about her own feelings toward Hammett. In any case she made it clear that they were all very close.”
In 1929, perhaps as a gesture to repay his colleague for years of plot development assistance, Hammett introduced Whitfield to Blanche Knopf, his editor at Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., and helped launch his brief but crowded book career. Green Ice was published in 1930 to mixed reviews. Hammett, who had earlier that year agreed to write a bi-weekly book column for the New York Evening Post, praised the book’s style, even though he had reservations about the story.
“The plot does not matter,” Hammett wrote. “… What matters is that here are 280 pages of naked action pounded into tough compactness by staccato, hammerlike writing.” Conventional mystery stories didn’t appeal to Hammett and he routinely trounced those he reviewed.
Will Cuppy, in the Herald Tribune, said Green Ice was superior to Hammett, and rated the book “by several miles the slickest detective job of the season.” But not all reviewers were kind to Whitfield. A critic in Judge attacked him as a blatant Hammett imitator: “Mr. Whitfield has evidently dosed himself thoroughly in the best detective writer of the times… and has helped himself to the master’s style, tricks, and ideas—right down to the commas. Furthermore, he has gotten Knopf to publish Green Ice and they even used Hammett’s type on the thing.”
The critic was obviously unaware that Hammett had pushed both book and author on Knopf. Knopf had been doing extremely well with the sale of Hammett’s books, and saw an opportunity to cash in on more hard-boiled authors it hoped to groom for its stable. The publisher’s faith in Whitfield’s future potential was slightly misplaced, however. The Knopfs could no more anticipate that his writing career would fizzle out in three years, anymore than they could predict Hammett’s tailspin.
Despite Hammett’s glowing review, Green Ice is not a very good novel. It wasn’t planned as a novel; Whitfield had hastily cobbled together five Black Mask stories featuring private-eye Mal Ourney, which ran consecutively from December 1929 to April 1930—”Outside,” “Red Smoke,” “Green Ice,” “Oval Face” and “Killer’s Show”—and packed it off to Knopf, who then immediately put the book into production without the editorial refinement Blanche Knopf contributed to Hammett’s novels.
Death in a Bowl, one of the first detective novels dealing with the seamier side of Hollywood, followed in 1931. It wasn’t much better than Green Ice, and certainly not near the league of Hammett’s longer work. The action is labored, the dialogue between characters is stilted, and it almost takes super-human determination to read beyond page 100.
“I think Whitfield knew he was a born short storyteller,” said Deutsch, “not a novelist of great merit. And that he enjoyed good living much more than good writing.”
While Whitfield was working with Knopf on several future books, he was dusting off earlier material from Black Mask and Boy’s Life and selling collections to rival publisher Farrar & Rinehart, under his Temple Field pseudonym. Farrar published Five in 1931, and Killer’s Carnival in 1932. Meanwhile Knopf published a second Whitfield book late in 1930 called Silver Wings, a collection of air adventures, which was touted as a “collection of thrilling aviation stories for boys… based on personal experience.” How much personal experience was combined with Whitfield’s flamboyant imagination is left for readers to discern. Also, in 1930, Penn Publishing Co., Philadelphia, a firm that published quite a few boys’ adventure series, brought out a collection of Whitfield’s air stories as Wings of Gold.
Whitfield hit the jackpot with Death in a Bowl, which Knopf brought out in 1931. It had appeared the previous fall as a 3-part serial in Black Mask for September through November, and was reprinted several times.
As Death in a Bowl was finishing its magazine run, Raoul and Prudence Whitfield were sailing for the French Riviera, their home for the next two years. From there, while they made journeys into Italy, Sicily and Tunisia, Whitfield continued sending stories to Black Mask and working on his novel, The Virgin Kills.
At home, Whitfield’s Death in a Bowl was harvesting a fair amount of critical acclaim. The Detroit News called Whitfield “one of the few American authors who knows what a detective is and what makes his wheels go round…. He has… proved himself a master of his subject.”
Knopf then released Danger Zone, and Farrar & Rinehart published Five, his sixth book in less than two years, and he was having a banner year in Black Mask with 18 stories in 1931. All indications were that Whitfield’s literary career was in high gear. His books were going into multiple printings; several were being reprinted by Grosset & Dunlap in cheaper editions; London publishers were taking notice, and the money was rolling in.
By the time he returned to the U.S., in 1932, two more books were scheduled for publication—The Virgin Kills at Knopf, and Killer’s Carnival (a patching together of six connecting Black Mask stories) at Farrar & Rinehart, under the Temple Field byline.
Then, unexpectedly, Raoul and Prudence separated and were divorced the following year. Reasons for the separation aren’t immediately clear. However, the recent publication of Selected Letters of Dashiell Hammett 1921–1960 suggests a relationship between Hammett and Prudence Whitfield that went beyond mere friendship—that she was in fact one of Hammett’s longtime lovers, as stated earlier.
While Hammett and Hellman freely had relationships with other partners, without sparking jealous tantrums, Raoul Whitfield may have been less tolerant of his wife’s continuing liaisons with his friend and literary colleague. Possibly they grew apart because he, too, had a roving eye. None of the Hammett-to-Prudence Whitfield letters (whom he always addressed as “Prue”) provides voyeuristic details, but they are obviously affectionate in nature. Those included in Selected Letters were written during the early 1940s, and are only a small selection of the more than 120 letters Hammett is known to have sent Prudence over the years.
(Sometime in 1980, when Prudence Whitfield was in her 85th year, she retained Sotheby’s to auction off all her letters from Hammett. Purchased in lots by several well-known booksellers, the letters soon disappeared into the hands of private collectors. A few have since shown up on the Internet in full-text form by other antiquarian booksellers at individual prices ranging as high as $3,500.)
Not long after Raoul and Prudence separated, William F. Nolan writes in Hammett: A Life on the Edge (New York: Congdon & Weed, 1983), “Raoul Whitfield had received an offer from Hollywood on his novel Death in a Bowl and had gone to work for Warner Brothers. He earned a screen credit in 1933 for Private Detective 62, the William Powell crime drama that Hammett had created in 1931. Although Whitfield reworked the plot and added new material from a Black Mask story of his own, he retained Hammett’s premise—the corruption of a private detective. The fact that Whitfield received the story credit on this film did not disturb Hammett; he had often worked on screen projects without recognition, and would again. It was the money the job brought him that counted, not the final credit. With books, he felt, it was different. They were important; films were not.”
We have a number of problems with Nolan’s ambiguous statement, and wonder about his sources of information. We have not found any supporting evidence to link Death in a Bowl to any movie sale. Nor evidence to support the contention that Private Detective 62 was based on a movie scenario or script once penned by Hammett.
This movie was based strictly on a Whitfield novelette called “Man-Killer,” which appeared in the April 1932 Black Mask. Whitfield was hired by Warner Brothers to work with screenwriter Rian James to expand the story into a full-blown feature-length movie. The plot of “Man-Killer” mirrors the Private Detective 62 storyline, according to the movie’s synopsis which appeared in The American Film Institute Catalog (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993, page 1701–02) and the New York Times review (July 7, 1933, page 20). It was interesting to note that the Times stated the film was “based on a story by Raoul Whitfield,” but does not credit Rian James, a well-known film writer, for having written the screenplay.
The New York Times critic wrote:
“Raoul Whitfield, one of the most expert practitioners of the school of hard-boiled detective fiction, studies the fine old American institution of the double-cross in this new film at the Radio City Music Hall… Mr. Whitfield contemplates the shady activities of private detectives, and presents their adventures in homicide, blackmail and perjury amid a wealth of entertaining detail.”
Vanity Fair (on July 11, 1933, page 15), though praising William Powell’s ability to rise above the mediocre story, called the film “episodic and disconnected,” adding the “dialog in general is all right.” The magazine did credit Rian James’ screenplay.
For the curious: According to the film’s production records, the alternate working titles were Private Detective and Man Killer, and that the film was shot over twenty-one days at a cost of $260,000.
Following his stint at Warner Brothers, it has been said that Whitfield found a contract writer’s job at Paramount Studios, but no information is available to verify whether Whitfield ever wrote any original screenplays or adaptations for the studio. Possibly on that occasion then, and again in 1935, he was occupied as a script doctor.
We did find that prior to working on Private Detective 62, Whitfield was hired in August 1932 by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Corp. to work on Sax Rohmer’s The Mask of Fu Manchu, starring Boris Karloff, which was experiencing script and directorial problems as the cameras started rolling. The American Film Institute Catalog on page 1337 says:
“According to various news items…the film began production under the direction of Charles Vidor in early Aug 1932, with a script by Courtenay Terrett. On the third day of production, filming stopped for several days, then resumed on 11 Aug, when it was reported that Raoul Whitfield was to write the screenplay. On 13 Aug, a news item reported that M-G-M had decided to bring in Charles Brabin to work on the picture along with Vidor; however, on 17 Aug HR [Hollywood Reporter] reported that Vidor had been fired and that Brabin would be sole director commencing the next day. At that time, Bayard Veiller was announced as Terrett’s replacement. As Irene Kuhn, Edgar Allan Woolf and John Willard are the only writers credited on screen and in reviews, it has not been determined what contributions of Terrett, Veiller and Whitfield were retained in the released film.”
During this year-long separation from Prudence, before the divorce decree became final, Whitfield lived at the Montecito Hotel Apartments, located at 6650 Franklin Avenue, Los Angeles. By a curious coincidence, his neighbor at that address was Paul Cain (a pseudonym of George Sims), whose stories were just beginning to appear in the pages of Black Mask. One wonders, if Cain’s serial novel Fast One may not have been written on a bet with Whitfield. Cain, who wrote screenplays under the name of Peter Ruric, was certainly aware of Whitfield’s presence in the pulp fiction magazines, and a contest of this sort between two writers would have been a welcome challenge, and certainly not unusual.
Almost immediately after their divorce became final, and barely a week after the release of Private Detective 62, Whitfield surprised friends by marrying socialite Emily Davies Vanderbilt Thayer on July 19, 1933. The New York Times reported that the wedding was “extremely quiet and took place at the home of the bride.” The paper also noted that the new Mrs. Whitfield was the former wife of William H. Vanderbilt and Sigourney Thayer,” and is “one of the leaders of New York’s social intelligentsia.”
Playwright Lillian Hellman observed that Emily Whitfield was “a handsome, boyish-looking woman [seen] at every society-literary cocktail party.”
The newlyweds honeymooned throughout the Southwest and purchased the Dead Horse Ranch near Las Vegas, New Mexico. “The ranch was large enough,” William F. Nolan commented, “to accommodate its own polo field and golf course, and Whitfield settled here to live ‘the good life.'”
Knopf published Danger Circus that year, his last book; and according to bibliographic records, he published only 8 stories that year, all in Black Mask. Those which appeared in the early months of 1933 are presumed to have been written in the Fall of 1932. Late in 1933, Whitfield delivered his 89th and 90th stories to Black Mask and disappeared from the publishing scene. He would write only three more stories over the next four years.
Whether he succumbed too completely to the “good life” on his wife’s money or if his creativity was drained from years of heavy drinking is not known; but it’s definitely suspected that alcohol had affected his interest in writing. Hammett stopped writing pulp fiction in 1930, after the publication of The Maltese Falcon, and overindulged his whims writing occasional screenplays in Hollywood (in between bouts of heavy drinking), letting his reputation support him.
A Tale of Three Wives
Whitfield’s second marriage wasn’t destined to last either. Emily filed for a divorce in February 1935. He moved out of the sprawling ranch and returned to Hollywood. During a house-check late on the night of May 24, a ranch employee discovered Emily’s body draped across her bed, her left hand clutching the .38 caliber revolver she been accustomed to carrying in recent months. Based on medical evidence, interviews with the ranch staff, and friends who had seen her that day, a coroner’s jury ruled that the bullet wound was self-inflicted.
According to a lengthy New York Times front page feature article on May 25, 1935, and another in the Santa Fe New Mexican, friends said Emily had become increasingly despondent—not just over her pending divorce action—but over her failing eyesight and a desire to see her 9-year-old daughter, who was then vacationing in Cannes, France, with her father, William H. Vanderbilt, the son of Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt who lost his life on the Lusitania. Emily lost custody of the child when she divorced Vanderbilt in 1928. She then married theatrical producer Sigourney Thayer and divorced him in 1929.
A meeting with her lawyers that afternoon in Santa Fe discussing the divorce proceedings had left her highly agitated. The Times article’s subhead said that she was divorcing Raoul Whitfield because he “depressed her.” No further details were given as to why her husband affected her in that manner, but it was pointed out by several of her friends that Emily had a history of emotional instability which could have been the cause of her three failed marriages.
Authorities told the newspapers that Raoul Whitfield was in Hollywood at the time his wife shot herself and was flying home. Her brother and sister were coming from New York to claim the body. Whitfield became the sole heir to her considerable estate and the Dead Horse Ranch, which newspapers described as being on a large tract of land, with cedar-strewn hills, where blooded cattle were being raised.
Mystery novelist Walter Satterthwait, who lives near the old Dead Horse Ranch, has been tracking the events of Raoul and Emily, and will soon publish an interesting and controversial article about their marriage and her supposed suicide. We’re inclined to support Satterthwait’s theories because of his extensive supporting research.
Raoul Whitfield’s health continued to decline sharply in the years following Emily’s death, and ultimately, in 1942, Whitfield was hospitalized. Hammett, in no great financial shape himself, and stationed in the Aleutian Islands during that stage of World War II, persuaded Lillian Hellman to send Whitfield a $500 check to help him with his mounting bills. Whitfield had gone through his inheritance and was broke. He never left the hospital and died on January 24, 1945.
Recalling his later conversation with Prudence Whitfield, Keith Alan Deutsch passed along some startling information. “Prudence told me that she was Raoul’s “second wife and heir to his literary estate.” Not being aware at the time that Prudence was really Whitfield’s “first” wife, and that the real second wife committed suicide in 1935, Deutsch accepted her statement at face value.
“If this is not true,” Deutsch wrote us, “then she and he either stayed in close contact over the years (perhaps seeing one another) or he was so important to her, she ‘invented’ the ongoing relationship. But in 1973-1974 she was still very devoted to his memory and it was clear that he and their relationship had been a major event in her life.”
We don’t doubt that Raoul and Prudence saw one another again after Emily’s death. But we are left wondering why Prudence considered it necessary to publicly assert that she was Raoul’s second wife? Was it to lay claim to any residual income from her ex-husband’s literary estate? Perhaps. As it turned out, the fragmented details of Raoul Whitfield’s second marriage were not generally known until 1985, when William F. Nolan’s essay on Whitfield appeared in The Black Mask Boys. Based on what he said about Emily we know he dug up at least one newspaper report of her suicide.
Prudence Whitfield also withheld information about Raoul’s third wife, Lois Bell, even though she knew of her existence. That has been confirmed based on this quote from an August 29, 1943, Hammett letter to Lillian Hellman, which was reproduced in Selected Letters of Dashiell Hammett 1921–60: “Prue 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 Prue’s) out of a San Francisco window recently and is pretty badly banged up.”
And again, this quote from an October 27, 1943, letter to Hellman: “Raoul has been for fourteen months, in a lung-hospital in San Fernando. His second wife, you too will remember, committed suicide in Las Vegas [New Mexico]. His third wife recently jumped out of a hotel window in San Francisco, and has just died. This news comes to me from his first wife, who is in a hospital in Pittsburgh, having fallen down cellar steps one night while selling War Bonds.”
There were no reports of Lois Bell’s suicide plunge. War news dominated the San Francisco newspapers. Through other archives, however, we learned that she was born on September 9, 1915, in New Mexico, and perhaps lived near Raoul Whitfield’s Dead Horse Ranch. Lois Bell was nearly twenty years younger than her husband, and was barely twenty-eight when she died on September 27, 1943, according to a death notice in the San Francisco Chronicle. Hammett wrote Hellman that Whitfield was distressed over his third wife’s suicide, and that Whitfield had written, “These things are never easy.”
Prudence Whitfield outlived her husband by forty-five years. She was born in Buena Vista, Penna., on August 19, 1895, and died in New York City on August 16, 1990, just three days before her 95th birthday.
A number of curious things came to light during our research. Raoul Whitfield’s mother’s maiden name was Mabelle Whitfield, according to his birth records and marriage license. Could Raoul Whitfield’s parents have been cousins? Oddly enough Prudence stated on their “Application for Marriage License” that her father was John Grant Smith and that her mother’s maiden name was Mary Ervin Smith. Checking further into the 1900 U.S. Census, her parents’ families had different national origins.
Also, according to the 1900 census, Prudence was the youngest of 5 children. She had a brother named Harry, and 3 sisters named Olive, Elizabeth and Elma. Her father’s occupation was listed as steel mill worker. Due to a clerical error, the census listed her as a male and having the name “Prudent.” This was corrected on the 1910 census, at which time her father’s occupation had changed to that of “agriculturalist,” owner of a home farm in McKeesport, Penna. Her father was still in that profession in 1923, when Raoul and Prudence married.
On her marriage license application filed with the Clerk of the Orphans Court of Allegheny County, Penna. (of which we have a copy), she gave her full name as Prudence Ann Smith; yet in subsequent documents she gave her name as Prudence Van Tine Whitfield, not Prudence Ann Whitfield. Newspaper accounts of Emily Whitfield’s death also refer to Raoul’s first wife by that name. Where did the “Van Tine” come from?
She filed her application for a Social Security Account Number (091-22-8731) on January 30, 1945, six days after Raoul’s death, stating that she was “unemployed” and living at the Fifth Avenue Hotel, New York, N.Y. There are two odd facts on the application: She gave her name as “Prudence Van Tine Whitfield” and claimed her birthdate was August 19, 1901, not 1895, as it was recorded in the U.S. Census, making herself 43, not 49. She gave her “nearly” correct age on her marriage license application, saying that she was “26,” the same age as her intended, though she was really “27.”
Was there a sudden urgency to acquire a Social Security card so soon after Raoul died? Was she hoping to become beneficiary of any government death benefits that would accrue to the “widow” of a husband who had seen action in World War I? (Social Security cards were optional in those days.) Or was it also a calculated effort to lay claim to any, perhaps all of Raoul’s literary copyrights? She did have correspondence with an Alfred A. Knopf editor relating to copyright renewals for Green Ice and Death in a Bowl. Her right to do this was not challenged. These letters are now archived in the Knopf papers at the University of Texas Library, Austin.
The Mystery Continues
Although our research has cleared up many of the previously published inaccuracies about Raoul Whitfield’s life and literary career, unanswered questions linger on.
Why did Whitfield adopt “Fauconnier” as his middle name instead of using “Falconia,” the one he was given at birth?
When did he really work at the Pittsburgh Post and for how long? Did Prudence really work there as well?
At what address did he live in McKeesport, Penna., when he worked as a bond salesman in Pittsburgh? Did he rent a room from Prudence Smith’s parents on De Soto Street? Or did he live in a nearby rooming house?
What causes/reasons really led up to their separation and divorce? Walter Satterthwait’s article mentioned earlier provides interesting clues.
Why did Prudence adopt the middle names of “Van Tine” in the mid 1930s? Did she remarry and divorce during that decade?
And why did she give William F. Nolan and Keith Alan Deutsch distorted information about Raoul?
The list goes on….
Missing also is information about Raoul Whitfield’s life growing up in Manila, his temporary career as a silent-film actor, his life in the Air Force during the first world war. What kind of a person was he? Aggressive, passive, intense, relaxed, giving, selfish, callous? How did he interact with writers other than Dashiell Hammett?
Did Prudence Whitfield acquire a major hoard of his papers and letters, aside from the several unpublished story manuscripts she showed Keith Alan Deutsch?
Her New York Times death notice said she was the inheritor of her ex-husband’s literary estate. But was she? The notice said she left behind several nieces and nephews—one presumes them to be the children of her brother and sisters. Who and where are they? Did they acquire any or all the surviving Raoul Whitfield papers Prudence Whitfield possessed when she died? Or did they throw them out?
While Raoul Fauconnier Whitfield is well known among historians of detective fiction and collectors of pulp fiction magazines, most readers of today’s mystery and detective fiction evoke puzzled looks when his name is mentioned.
That is mainly the result that very few of his short stories have been included in anthologies over the past fifty years—certainly not enough to make an impact on the reading public. That goes for his early short story collections and novels. His three novels were reprinted by specialty publisher Gregg Press in limited editions in the 1980s, but only Green Ice attracted critical attention.
A January 17, 1989, review in the Pittsburgh Press had this to say under the headline of “Whitfield hammers city life into book”:
“Among the late Raoul Whitfield’s credentials were silent-movie actor, World War I flying ace, famous crime novelist and—last but not least—chronicler of Pittsburgh during the Prohibition era.
“Whitfield’s masterpiece, a book titled Green Ice, is set in Pittsburgh in 1930 and depicts a city that most people either don’t remember or have chosen to forget.
“In Green Ice, Whitfield describes what is now regarded as one of the nation’s most livable cities, as ‘the dirty burg.’
“‘Red flames streaked up into the sky from the plant stacks. Red smoke hung low. The air was heavy, thick with grime.’
“… Crime and violence apparently were rampant in the Pittsburgh in 1930, and corpses abounded in the book.
“An editor in the Gregg Press edition of Green Ice notes that Whitfield was ‘one of the most popular and highly paid writers of his time,’ although ‘less remembered’ than the likes of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.
“In the introduction… author Pete Hamill rates Whitfield’s talent higher than that of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.
“The Nobel Prize-winner’s novel (A Farewell to Arms) seems like a pretty watercolor that has faded from too many summers in a shop window. Green Ice is as hard and fresh as a morning newspaper.
“Not unexpectedly, Whitfield’s novel is replete with the cliches of its genre, including the classic, ‘You dirty double-crosser.’
“A great deal of the dialogue in the book comes from a hard-boiled, gun-toting newspaper editor who at one point threatens a New York City detective in Pittsburgh on a case.
“‘Listen, bull. In this town, I can knock a New York copper cold—and the local force will cheer,’ the editor said.”
Well, saying that Whitfield is better than Hemingway is stretching it by more than a bit; but Mr. Hamill is entitled to his opinions like everybody else. Green Ice has its moments, and is a better novel than Death in a Bowl, though by a very narrow margin.
Like others who wrote for the pulps, Whitfield created a number of series characters, in both his detective and air adventure stories. Only Jo Gar is worthy of standing alongside other great literary detectives. The 26 Jo Gar tales, which include two short serial novels, rank among Whitfield’s best work, and the little half-breed Philippino detective, who stalks the danger-filled back alleys of Manila with a .45 Army colt revolver in his hip pocket, is a man worth reading about and remembering.
Whether that will be enough to resurrect Whitfield or select stories from the hundreds he churned out for the magazines is not guaranteed. Hopefully, the nearly complete bibliography published on this Web site will provide the stimulus for a future Raoul Whitfield revival.
Authored by Peter Ruber & Victor A. Berch. Copyright © 2002 by Peter Ruber and Victor A. Berch. Reprinted with permission of http://pulprack.com.