Sunday, May 6, 2018

"Out of My Own Self I Dare to Phrase It": Mystery Writers and Partners Richard Wilson Webb and Hugh Wheeler

In February 1945 Richard "Rickie" Wilson Webb was writing Hugh Callingham Wheeler nearly every day from the port of Hollandia, New Guinea, where Rickie was posted as a Warrant Officer.  Before the Second World War Hollandia was part of the Dutch East Indies, but during the war the town was captured and occupied by the forces of Imperial Japan, who built an important air base there.  Seized by the Americans during the Battle Hollandia in April 1944, what was left of the town was converted into the cite of a major American naval and air base; and it served as General Douglas MacArthur's headquarters until the General made his famed "return" to the Phillipines at Leyte Island in October.  (Today Hollandia, known as Jayupura, is part of Indonesian New Guinea.)

Hollandia (upper left)

Mattie E. Treadwell in The Women's Army Corps evokes the harsh living conditions at Hollandia that were endured by WACS (and many others) during the American occupation:

Rain was continual in some seasons, clothing was generally wet from perspiration, and heat prevented more than a few hours of sleep at night....everyone shortly turned yellow from the required atrabine [a drug used in the Pacific Theater to treat malaria]....Men and women alike began to get skin diseases....

path of the righteous
baptism of American troops in Hollandia
New Guinea, Sept 5, 1944
Rickie Webb, who evidently was sent to Hollandia in 1945, complained about all of these things in his letters to Hugh Wheeler, as he discussed the couple's latest Patrick Quentin and Jonathan Stagge crime novels (these likely written entirely by Hugh) and his own plans for reviving the Q. Patrick mysteries--Q. Patrick once having been entirely Rickie's own writing baby, so to speak. Rickie, who as a Philadelphia pharmaceutical executive in the 1930s had been prominent in the promotion of Benzedrine in the US, always kept his eye in the main chance.  That was how he found Hugh, I think!  (Interestingly, in one letter Rickie praises the mystery element of Jane Austen's Emma, just as PD James would some 75 years later).

In addition to these other topics, however, there is also in Rickie's wartime letters a great deal simply about his desire to come back home to hearth and Hugh, let us say, at Twin Hills Farm, the couple's eighteenth-century farmhouse in the Massachusetts Berkshires. 

For a time Hugh served in the Army Medical Corps. "I never even left Fort Dix [New Jersey]," Hugh later recalled of his war service. "They just asked me if I wanted to be in the Medical Corps and handed me a white coat."  Yet in 1945 Hugh was receiving Rickie's mail forty miles away from Fort Dix at the Lumberville, Pennsylvania house of his friend Princess Caracciolo (the former Dorothy Adrian of Poughkeepsie, New York, not to be confused with Margaret Clarke of Peoria, Illinois, also a Princess Caracciolo).  This is just as well, for Rickie's letters to Hugh might well have raised official eyebrows at Fort Dix. (Incidentally, the Princess appears to have served as a basis for the character Princess Patricia Walonska--nee Cheney--in Q. Patrick's Death for Dear Clara.)

Hollandia (Jayupura) today, with its harbor, so strategic in World War 2

Rickie's sentiments about Hugh range from the the mundane--he hungrily looks forward to making pot roasts in the pressure cooker with Hugh again--to the elevated.  Sentimentally he twice asks Hugh to be his Valentine on February 14, while typing his lovelorn missive to his man in bed.  (He managed to secure a rare typewriter for this one occasion, and he hoped to get proficient enough with it finally to help Hugh with typing their books.) 

In yet another letter after praising Hugh in the highest terms for his varying sterling qualities in a manner reminiscent of William Shakespeare in his Sonnets, Rickie strikingly quotes to Hugh from Robert Browning's 1855 poem One Word More, which the great poet dedicated to "E. B. B."--his famed wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning.  The poem addresses the expression of one person's deepest, inner love for another--a love so personal and so precious it is hard to give true voice to publicly. (Certainly a feeling a gay man would have appreciated in 1945.)

These lines below Rickie quoted in the letter, either from memory or having drawn them from a copy of Browning he had with him in the jungle:

There in turn I stand with them
and praise you.
Out of my own self I dare

to phrase it.
But the best is when I glide 
from out them
Cross a step or two of 
dubious twlilight
Come out on the other side,
the novel
Silent silver lights and darks
undreamed of
Where I hush and bless myself with silence.

--from One Word More (1855), by Robert Browning, dedicated to Elizabeth Barrett Browning

It's a poignant episode in a poignant letter.  Sadly, Rickie and Hugh's personal relationship, then of over a dozen years' standing, would take some hard hits in the late forties, so that their ship of love foundered in the early Fifties. 

Rickie left Twin Hills Farm and his writing partnership with Hugh (which Rickie himself had started) and moved to France, where he died in 1966.  From what I can tell he never quite recovered, either professionally, physically or emotionally, though the two men did get on better terms again.  (I will have more to say on this.)

For Hugh, movie-star-handsome, prodigiously talented and much-adored in his circle, life prospects only ascended ever higher, however, as he continued the Patrick Quentin series of mysteries to  acclaim until 1965 and in the Sixties and Seventies achieved the pinnacle of his career success as a distinguished and lucrative writer for film, stage and screen. 

Ultimately Hugh won three Tony Awards before the curtain finally was brought down on his life in 1987. The best known of his Tony wins is for his "book" for the hugely successful dark musical Sweeney Todd, which was adapted into a popular film, netting Hugh a place in the no-doubt coveted Johnny Depp Zone.

People have commented on how the Patrick Quentin novels from this period of Rickie and Hugh's impending breakup are darker than the Golden Age norm, in that the marriage of series amateur sleuths Peter and Iris Duluth suffers grave emotional strains and stresses.  Peter and Iris don't just wittily banter between cocktails, as was the wont of mystery couples from that era, they fight and get hurt--and there's always a danger that the psychic wounds inflicted by one spouse upon another won't ever heal.  I would argue that the troubled fictional relationship of Peter and Iris to some extent reflects the contemporaneously deteriorating real-life relationship of Rickie and Hugh.

a prematurely aged Rickie Webb (45) and a seemingly eternally youthful Hugh Wheeler (34)
(photos taken on the same day in 1947)


  1. You did it again, Curt! That's why you are the best researcher in our beloved field of Golden Age detective fiction. Thanks for showing the first clear shot of Webb after his twenties, and of course I hope that you'll write the first much needed complete biography and critical study on that wonderful literary collaboration!

    1. Thanks, Mauro, it's been an ongoing process, hasn't it? I am definitely working on a book. I'm afraid a full book on them might be too specialist, but am planning on giving them much attention in a larger-scale book. Doing talks now.

  2. Nice article - maybe the start of a series? I've always been in awe at your ability to find never-seen-before pictures to illustrate your posts, and this time is no exception - I was familiar with Wheeler's face but never had I seen Webb's prior to reading your article. I may be wrong but it seems to me Wheeler was the tandem's public face, so to speak. It seems for instance that it was he who went to France to accept the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière that they won for Pilgrims; he alone at any rate appears on the picture taken on that occasion. (Maurice-Bernard Endrèbe on the other hand claimed to have met BOTH Quentins, so maybe it was just Webb being camera-shy)

    1. Hugh Wheeler got his picture taken quite a bit, it's surprising that there are almost no photos of him on the internet. It's also surprising that he's been so little written about too though. I hope to rectify both these matters!