Friday, February 10, 2017

John Marshall O'Connor (1909-1975), Author of Anonymous Footsteps (1932)

John Marshall O'Connor (1909-1975) published a single known detective novel, Anonymous Footsteps, called "an entertaining and absorbing yarn" by the New York Times Book Review, with his friend and recent Dartmouth classmate Walter P. Chrysler, Jr.'s short-lived publishing firm, Cheshire House, in 1932, when O'Connor was just 23 years old.  Three years earlier, when O'Connor was a student at Dartmouth, an earlier Dartmouth alumnus, Clifford Orr, had scored a hit with his detective novel, The Dartmouth Murders (reprinted by Coachwhip), reviewed here, which won attention at the time as an early college mystery.  (It was later filmed as well.)

Both Orr and O'Connor had been extremely active in the staging of plays at Dartmouth, Orr as a writer and O'Connor as an actor, and both had served as presidents of the the college's theatrical troupe, the Dartmouth Players.  O'Connor's father, a doctor who died when John was twelve years old, had played football at Dartmouth and later served, before embarking on a medical career, as Dartmouth's football coach.  O'Connor's mother was a daughter of a former mayor of Salem, Massachusetts, where she returned from Manchester, New Hampshire to raise her two boys, John and Raymond, after her husband died.

Cheshire House went defunct after the publisher's father, the great auto magnate Walter P. Chrysler, Sr., withdrew his support from the firm over his outrage that his son had commissioned a book on a scandalous, then current criminal case in Hawaii, the vigilante murder of Joseph Kahahawai, who had been accused of participation in the rape of a Hawaiian socialite.

John M. O'Connor as Dickon Sowerby
in children's theater adaptation
of The Secret Garden
In addition to writing a detective novel, however, O'Connor had taken up acting in children's theater, performing in such plays as Alice in Wonderland, The Secret Garden, Huckleberry Finn and Aladdin. There he met and married actress Philippa Bevans (1913-1968), to whom he had dedicated Anonymous Footsteps.

The couple would divorce in 1941, with Bevans going on to establish a successful career in film, stage and television.  She was best known for playing Henry Higgins' landlady in the original stage production of My Fair Lady, launching a long line of "matron" roles in her middle age. (More on Bevans and genre work is coming soon.)

O'Connor's acting career never really took off after children's theater, though he did appear, in small parts, on Broadway in two plays. After serving in the Second World War, O'Connor got an MA and PhD at Columbia University and taught for eleven years at Rockland Community College in New York.  His health having drastically declined in his sixties, O'connor died in 1975, at the age of 65.

My copy of Anonymous Footsteps has notes and memorabilia about the author collected by a woman who grew up with him in Salem and in Andover, Massachusetts, where she attended Abbot Academy and he Phillips Academy.  It's a interesting little personal story that I discuss in greater detail in the introduction to the novel.

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