[A new critical-biographical essay on Whitfield,
which corrects some of the material in this article,
is available here.]
Raoul Whitfield: Black Mask's
Raoul Falconia Whitfield [November
22, 1896 - January 24, 1945]
By Peter Ruber & Victor
(reprinted with permission from http://pulprack.com)
[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
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
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.]
* * *
1. 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
Deutch 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.
2. 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
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
* * *
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
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 frabrication. 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
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
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
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
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
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
Airtrails, 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
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 1930-1933.
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.
3. 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
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
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
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
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
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
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 1701-1702) 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'
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
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
4. 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
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
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
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
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
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,
5. 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
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
"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
"'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
"'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
"Not unexpectedly, Whitfield's novel is replete
with the cliches of its genre, including the classic, 'You dirty
"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
* * *
[Authors' Note: After nearly seventy years of
relative obscurity, some of the Jo Gar stories finally appear in a
collection of their own. Keith Alan Deutsch, owner of Black Mask
magazine copyrights and Black Mask Press, Inc., has partnered with
mystery-book publisher Crippen & Landru, and has released the Jo
Gar stories under a joint imprint. See the link to the book, below.]
Copyright 2002 by Peter Ruber and Victor A. Berch
Raoul Whitfield: A Bibliography in Progress
Click here to see
this listing of Whitfield's work, from The Pulp Rack site.
Jo Gar's Casebook
Written by Raoul Whitfield, edited by Keith Alan Deutsch, published by
Crippen & Landru. Click here to
purchase from Amazon.com.
Tough Guys and Dangerous Dames
This anthology of 24 hard-boiled stories, edited by Robert E. Weinberg,
Stefan R. Dziemianowicz & Martin H. Greenberg, includes Whitfield's
"The Magician Murder" from the November 1932 issue of Black Mask.
Click here to check
its availability from Amazon.com.
Selected Letters of Dashiell Hammett 1921-1960
This volume, edited by Richard Layman and cited in above, is available
from Amazon.com. Click here.
"The Flying Fighter"
A downloadable e-text of this story, from the July 22, 1928 issue of Sport
Story Magazine, is available from the Adventure House site: http://www.adventurehouse.com/e_texts/adventure_house_pdf_pulp_texts.htm
"Scotty Scouts Around"
You can read this story online at the Black Mask Magazine site, which
is run by Keith Alan Deutsch. This story originally appeared in the
April 1926 issue of Black Mask. To Read the story click
The Black Mask Boys: Masters in the Hard-Boiled
School of Detective Fiction
This study by William F. Nolan is an excellent introduction to various
writers for Black Mask magazine. Click here to check
its availability at Amazon.com.
Hammett: A Life on the Edge
A biography by William F. Nolan. Check availability at Amazon.com by
American Hard-Boiled Crime Writers
This work, cited above, is pricey, according to Amazon.com (click here). Volume
226 of the Dictionary of American Biography, your best bet may
be to check your local library or try inter-library loan.