Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Mignon Eberhart in Valentine, Nebraska, c. 1928-1930

Mignon Eberhart
Mignonette Good Eberhart, known to the world as the mystery writer Mignon Eberhart, was born in Nebraska on July 6, 1899 and died in Connecticut on October 8, 1996, age 97, making her surely one of the last Golden Age mystery writers to expire. In 1923, she married Alanson Clyde Eberhart, a civil engineer, and the couple moved to Chicago, where they lived for two years.  The Eberharts then returned to Nebraska, eventually buying a house in Valentine, a town of under 2000 souls located near the South Dakota border, in the Nebraska sandhills region.

Eberhart published her first mystery story, a novelette titled "The Dark Corridor" in Flynn's Detective Weekly in 1925, but her first mystery novel, The Patient in Room 18, only appeared four years later, in 1929.  Room 18 and her next two mystery novels all were written in Valentine.

In the Spring of 1930, Eva Mahoney, an Omaha newspaper journalist best known for an interview with Willa Cather that she had conducted nearly a decade earlier, interviewed Eberhart at "her pleasant little home in Valentine" and found that the young mystery writer had chosen a Nebraska sandhills "hunting lodge for the setting" of her next novel (to be titled The Mystery at Hunting's End).  Explained Eberhart:

That gives me a legitimate right to get my characters off into an isolated region where just anything may happen. (shades of P. D. James!)

The author expounded on the atmospheric advantages of her new mystery setting:

The lodge owner collects antique pewter lanterns as a hobby.  He uses them for illuminating the lodge.  Naturally they don't give much light so I can employ darkened corners and shadows to heighten the horror.

plans of the lodge in
The Mystery at Hunting's End 
Yet Eberhart worried whether the interior design she envisioned for the lodge would allow the characters to do all the things they needed to do in a murder mystery:

I'm having difficulty with that hunting lodge in my new book....It must have a mezzanine or balcony floor.  I don't know how I'm going to have it architecturally correct and still be able to obstruct the view from that balcony.  My husband has promised to come to my aid with a set of blueprints.

Those blueprints apparently helped, because Eberhart's novel appeared later that year.  It's one of my favorite Eberharts, incidentally.

Eberhart claimed that it took her "three months to complete a mystery novel."  During this period every day she would be at her desk promptly at 7:00 a.m. and type until noon or thereabouts.  Before she started the actual writing of a novel she would assemble the characters, block out the plot and make a general synopsis.

Eberhart's first novel was a tremendous success generally, but it went over especially big in Valentine and its environs, Eva Mahoney reported:

Word went round that a citizen of Cherry County had written a thriller. Only one copy had reached the cattle country as yet.  That was owned by the author.  One of the cattle kings asked to borrow it. After he had finished reading it, his 20 cowboys asked the same privilege.  They solved the question of reading priority by shaking dice.

main street in Valentine
the Yeast hardware store was, I believe, located in the stone front building to the right

There's more of interest in this interview, but I will save the rest for later.  What I want to mention here in closing is that I found this fascinating newspaper article in an old clipping tipped into a copy of The Mystery of Hunting's End by a former owner, Helen Bachelor Yeast (1894-1972), wife of Harold Proctor Yeast (1890-1977), owner of a hardware business on Valentine's main street. (the picture of Eberhart shown above comes from this newspaper article)

Helen Yeast also added the following note:

Mrs. Eberhart had used a hunting lodge on lakes south of Valentine, Nebraska, as her locale.  Her publishers asked her to change it, so she substituted Michigan dunes.  See page 13. Mrs. Eberhart lived in Valentine for several years, in an old square house a few doors north of the old Haley house. 

More detail to come.  Mrs. Yeast obviously found quite interesting this article about her one-time Nebraska neighbor turned world famous mystery writer.  I agree with her.

6 comments:

  1. Have yet to read the Eberhart that is on my shelf, Three Days for Emerald's. Have to get to it soon. I enjoyed this post and am looking forward to more detail!

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    1. Thanks, Peggy Ann, more to come this week. Three Days for Emeralds was her last one, published when she was 88 or 89, so keep that in mind! Amazing to think she was published before the Depression Era and still was being published in the Age of Dynasty. She was born five weeks after my own grandmother, about three hours to the north.

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  2. I'll be looking for a copy of this one. I don't know how I spent twenty years driving all over Nebraska - many, many visits to Valentine - and failed to find out about this!

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    1. I wonder, Terry, what they do to publicize the connection there? I was born in Vermilion, South Dakota, about a three-four hours drive from to Valentine I suppose, but my family left there when I was a toddler.

      I like Hunting's End, the setting really makes it. Would love to know which lodge inspired her!

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  3. I don't know, but usually when we hit a town it was to eat somewhere and head for our hotel, as we were working. Not much sightseeing or shopping got done. There may be signs and posters all over the place, I just didn't see them. ... I hunted around online for a bit and found no web site originating in Valentine, or from a Valentine native, mentioning her. I guess they don't consider her tourist-bait.

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    1. That's a shame! Helen Yeast would be disappointed.

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