Yet this really is the life that Carolyn Wells knew, and she wrote it.
|Carolyn Wells (1862-1942)
Ida Wells died in 1902 and her father passed away at the age of 75 four years later, but Carolyn remained at home with her mother until 1918, when at the age of 55 she wed a friend of some years standing, 62-year-old widower William Hadwin Houghton, a relation of the publishing Houghtons and an executive in Valentine & Co., a large paint and varnish company. (Valentine was the parent of Valspar, a subsidiary of Sherwin-Williams.)
The onetime Paris representative of the company and a supporter of women's suffrage going back to the 1890s, Houghton was a longtime member of a social circle in New York that included numerous literary types. Carolyn's marriage to Houghton ushered in the happiest time of her life, but it was sadly short-lived. Houghton died the next year, after just a year and seven months of marriage. In Rahway Carolyn's mother also died in 1919, an ill-starred year all over the world.
|no doubt Bridget kept the Venetian vases
at the Hotel des Artistes clean
"She loves to clean silver, make sandwiches and dust books," Carolyn wrote of industrious Bridget. "She attends to accounts and does errands better than I could myself." The highly useful Bridget was to remain with Carolyn until her mistress' death in 1942, when she reaped a considerable windfall as the principal legatee in Carolyn's will.
During the 23 years of her life that spanned from Houghton's death to her own, Carolyn penned nearly 70 detective novels, most of them tales of the exploits of her great detective Fleming Stone, one of the blandest, though best-known, fictional sleuths in between-the-wars America. These tales almost invariably take place among millionaire sets in sprawling country homes in New England or tony townhouses in New York, with occasional trips to the shore in New Jersey.
|Wells' brother, William Farrington Wells
Wells wrote about "white-collared murder"
The author was a member of the Colony Club, a social organization of New York's elite women founded by Florence Jaffray Harriman, and she was a friend not only of inventor Thomas Edison (her brother, William Farrington Wells, was a Rutgers-educated electrical engineer who became vice-president and general manager of the Edison Electric Illuminating Company of Brooklyn), but of Republican presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover.
To the latter man, then the newly-elected American president, Carolyn dedicated one of her detective novels, The Tapestry Room Murder (1929). (Like Woodrow Wilson, Hoover was a detective fiction fan, showing that love for the stuff knows no political boundaries.) Wealthy inventors also pop up in her mysteries. When it came to the rich and privileged people of the northeastern United States, Carolyn knew her stuff.
|Darena, Long Island summer home of her friends
George Barton and Katherine Richards Gordon French
Coming from a highly musical family, Katherine Richards Gordon was an accomplished pianist and vocalist, but she gave up a career when in 1905 she married Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad executive George Barton French. GB French was also a scientific researcher, and in his later years he retired from the railroad business to devote himself to experimental research. He gave much effort to improving hearing aid technology, in 1930 writing in the Scientific American:
|garden at Darena
Surveys show that there are in excess of ten million people in the United States with defective hearing, including three million school pupils in need of treatment and efficient hearing aid to enable them to keep up with their classes.
One of those people suffering from defective hearing was Carolyn Wells, who over the years became increasingly deaf after being struck with scarlet fever as a child. (The same epidemic killed one of her sisters.) Clearly this was another connection between Carolyn and the Frenches.
described as a "gorgeous shingle style home, with a gambrel roof whose proportions should be studied by all the speculative home builders on the East End, dormers with sunburst patterned trimwork, third story eyebrow windows and extensive porches."
Darena was built around the turn of the century and purchased by George French in 1914. It reminds me of Carolyn's description of her own family home in "gay and airy" Rahway, with its "broad lawns, big trees, flower gardens and pleasant verandas."
The Frenches were highly active in Southampton society until George's death in 1937. For many years Katherine French was choirmaster and organist at St. Andrews Dune Church in Southampton, a shingled beauty erected in 1879.
Perhaps this gives some idea of Carolyn Wells's standing during her life and illustrates that, like other writers, she probably followed the motto of write what you know, at least as far as social milieu goes.