Friday, September 4, 2020

The Merape Papers: The Crippled Muse (1951), by Hugh Wheeler

After his 1951 publication, under his own name, of The Crippled Muse, a novel about a "poetess" (as many reviewers insisted on calling her) who has "gone silent," if you will, for some thirty-five years, Hugh Wheeler as such went silent himself, not publishing again under his own name until his first two plays were performed in 1961.  During this ten-year gap there came, rather than anything under his own name, seven Patrick Quentin crime novels, which were written by Hugh solo, his partner of nearly two decades, Richard "Rickie" Webb, having left their home and the United States in 1951, the same year that The Crippled Muse, ironically dedicated to Rickie, was published.  After the success of Hugh's first play, Big Fish, Little Fish, he published only one additional Patrick Quentin crime novel, in 1965; after Rickie's death the next year no more original Patrick Quentins were ever to appear again.  Hugh, now in his fifties, had won the favor of a munificent new muse and devoted himself, in the writing line, solely to play and screen writing, with astonishing success in the Seventies, when his books for a variety of smash Broadway musicals netted him three Tony Awards.  

American edition
Back in 1951, however, Hugh must have found the critical response to The Crippled Muse somewhat disappointing, and perhaps this led to his multi-year silence.  Muse was published as a mainstream novel and reviewed as such, although notices in the heavyweight Saturday Review and New York Times Book Review essentially dismissed it as just a slick piece of mystery fiction.  The reviewer in NYTBR even went so far as casually to "spoil" the central mystery of the plot (Don't you hate that?), while in the Saturday Review English professor Walter Havinghurst complained that the novel's " all but crowded out by its plot" (though he allowed that "no one is likely to put this novel down.")

I think the problem was that The Crippled Muse really is a crime or mystery novel, after all, misleadingly marketed as a "straight" novel.  There are two mysteries, a literary one and a murder one (which becomes one of double murder before the story is over), but they are intertwined and the mystery problems are the most interesting part of the book. 

There is a great deal of literary name dropping in this novel, most notably, I think, to the great American fiction writer Henry James, whose novella The Aspern Papers, about an academic trying to wheedle letters from a famous dead writer out of an old woman, seems to me an obvious influence on The Crippled Muse.  But when I was reading Muse I soon found my visions of The Aspern Papers departing, because Muse simply does not have that sort of power and serious intent.  As a crime novel, The Crippled Muse is quite good; as a "serious" novel, it's, well, a good crime novel.  It was not until Hugh started writing plays that he made a real break from the demanding muse of popular mystery.

The Crippled Muse depicts five hectic days spent on the Italian isle of Capri by Horace Beddoes, a priggish young professor of English at Wentworth College in Ohio.  A couple of mysteries concern Horace right from the get-go.  How on earth, at age 28, has Horace "for some time" been a full professor at Wentworth?  And, is Wentworth College the same Wentworth College in Rickie and Hugh's  Q. Patrick mystery Death and the Maiden (1939), and, if so, how did the school move from New York to Ohio?


Horace is at Capri because he hopes to meet reclusive expatriate Ohio poet Merape Sloane, the subject of his dissertation (which Hugh calls a thesis) and write her authorized biography.  And what a story there is to tell about Merape!  A young, tubercular, lame woman, Merape had been taken to Capri in the 1910s by a beneficent believer in her poems in order to restore her health.  At Capri Merape made an improbable  recovery and her poems became world-renowned.  However she soon stopped writing and largely withdrew from the world.  When the novel takes place at the mid-century, she is attended by two women, a lesbian couple, Liz Lewis and Loretta Crane, who act as Merape's gatekeepers.  Horace hopes to crash through and solve the central mystery of Merape's life: why she stopped writing at the very height of her success.

In Capri, however, Horace is crushed to find that Merape has authorized another man to write her biography.  Worse yet, this individual is Michael McDermott, the author of "two novels of the fashionable-dirty school which Horace had not read, but which had mushroomed to success from ecstatic critical acclaim.  His latest novel, Horace believed, dealt with a delicate twelve-year-old boy's infatuation for a one-armed Mexican field-worker."  When Horace first meets Mike he sees a "young man, dressed in a black shirt and black pants," with "startling red hair worn in bangs and the round disingenuous eyes and face of a very clever and corrupt baby."  

Three guesses on this one.  Or how about two.  Surely it's no other than Truman Capote, who had variously awed and outraged the literary world with his debut novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, which was published in 1948, when Capote was only 23.  Much of the notoriety of the outre southern Gothic novel had to do with the photograph on the back of the dust jacket, which is provocative to say the least (see below).  Rooms made the New York Times bestseller list, sold more than 26,000 copies in hardcover and gained Capote a great deal of publicity, drawing the ire of rival gay author Gore Vidal, who took a potshot at Capote in his Edgar Box mystery Death Before Bedtime in 1953 (reviewed by me here).  So here's Hugh Wheeler doing the same thing two years earlier in Muse.  Jealous much, boys?

literary prodigy Truman Capote

I don't have any evidence that Hugh and Tru knew each other, although Rickie Webb's former collaborator Mary Lou Aswell was an editor and friend of Capote--and an important person in his life.  In any event, karma got Hugh in the end re: Capote.  In 1963, dancer, choreographer and director Bob Fosse and Hugh were staying in Jamaica, where for two months they had been working on a script for a stage musical version of Truman Capote's short novel Breakfast at Tiffany's, when Fosse was informed that Capote had decided that stage star Gwen Verdon, playing the beloved lead character of Holly Golightly, was too old for the part.  (Verdon, Fosse's wife, was thirty-eight.)  When Fosse returned from Jamaica, he and Gwen had Tru over for breakfast to give Gwen the once-over, as it were, but all to no avail.  The project was shelved, to be revived a few years later, sans Hugh and Fosse and Vardon, in a production starring 30-year-old Mary Tyler Moore (!) as Holly Golightly and a new book by Edward Albee (!); it ignominiously closed during previews.  

Interestingly Hugh also worked on the screenplay for Bob Fosse's Cabaret, both in its stage and film incarnations.  In his own words Fosse considered Hugh's doctoring of Jay Presson Allen's screenplay "close to a total rewrite" and was impassioned about Hugh getting shared credit for the screenplay, but Allen refused to share credit with Hugh and had the technicalities on her side, as the basic structure of the film had not been changed, even if everything had been rewritten.  So Hugh missed his chance at an Oscar nomination and had to content himself, poor boy, with his three Tonys.  (And let's face it, nothing ever was going to beat The Godfather for the adapted screenplay award that year.)

Anyway, back to The Crippled Muse! On the evening of Horace Beddoes' first meeting with the dreadful Mike McDermott, Mike is bashed with a champagne bottle and pushed off a cliff into the sea. When his body is subsequently discovered the next day, it is decided that he met with an accidental death.  Horace, who happened to stumble on, and dispose of, the bloody champagne bottle, knows that Mike was murdered, but he keeps quiet, already "corrupted," as it were by the carefree Capri atmosphere.  

Happily for Horace,with Mike out of the way he is offered the chance to write Merape Sloane's biography, his dream of a lifetime.  However, there are all those Capri women about him, distracting him in various ways.  There's his nosy, cat-loving landlady, Mrs. Clara Pott, for example, the widow of the man who "rescued" Merape Sloane from rural poverty in Ohio and took her for restoration to Capri.  And then there's the charming but aging Duchesa Gordoni and her handsome kept boy, a Latvian gigolo named Askold.  ("He has another name," explains the Duchesa.  "But no Christian could pronounce it.")  

Vittoria Carpaccio (c.1465-1525)

In the younger set there's Pamela Fishbourne-Grant, an ingenuous English rose who first met Horace when he was doing post-graduate work in London in 1945.  She has come virtuously to Capri to take care of her dissolute father but finds the isle alien ground. 

But most of all, there's intoxicating Girlie Winters--"big-bosomed, blonde, luscious as a Carpaccio courtesan."  (To Horace "[i]t was as if his most private dream of Woman had miraculously taken on bodily form.")  How with a distraction like Girlie on his hands will Horace ever get his biography written?  Or figure out--out of Horace's own self-preservation, if for no other reason--who killed Mike McDermott?

As usual, Hugh excels with his portrayal of women characters, although the most convincing sexual episode takes place when Askold, whose tastes lie more with men than women (he had been intimate with Mike), comes on to Hugh, hoping that the American will take him back to that land of moolah, milk and honey, the good old U. S. of A.  But Horace, a literal straight man to all these colorful Capri characters, of course is not interested in that.  

Hugh Wheeler as Patrick Quentin

Which brings us back to writer Christopher Fowler's reiterated complaint of the last decade, that Hugh Wheeler was not being honest with his readers by trying to hide his "natural instincts"--i.e., his homosexuality. 

It is true, I think, that Hugh could have gone farther than he did in portraying male homosexual relationships in Muse.  Both Truman Capote's Other Voices, Other Rooms and Gore Vidal's The City and the Pillar had been recently published in January 1948, for example, but there was always the danger that too frank a depiction of the" love that dare not speak its name" would limit a writer's career as someone who was "too interested" in the subject.  As a writer of popular mysteries, Hugh probably felt like there were limits.  Later in his career, his stage plays and screenplays often would deal with unorthodox sexuality, although Hugh has been recurrently accused by some of soft pedaling the subject, or, even self-hatingly presenting homosexuality in a negative light.  

The late gay scholar Drewey Wayne Gunn wrote dismissively about The Crippled Muse in his book Gay American Novels (2016), pronouncing: "It is puzzling why a gay writer should feel compelled to introduce gay characters in order to derogate them."  Of course at the time Hugh was writing Muse he was having a very hard time of it with his partner Rickie Webb.  I think it's possible that Hugh, a very handsome and much desired man, may at times have felt exploited in his relationships and friendships.  It's an attitude one finds as well in his play Look: We've Come Through (1961) and his film script for Nijinsky (1980), as I recollect. 

On the other hand, this aspect of the novel which so vexed Professor Gunn didn't seem to bother blogger  John Norris at all, when he rave reviewed Muse seven years ago.  Hugh himself was appalled by the frankness and coarseness of the controversial, pathbreaking gay film The Boys in the Band (1970), the trailer for the 2020 version of which has just been released; but he certainly dealt with the subject of homosexuality in the films Something for Everyone (1970) and Cabaret (1972), the former of which notoriously scandalized film reviewer John Simon, who penned a review oozing with disgust for homosexuality. 

In the mysteries which Hugh wrote, with Rickie and alone, homosexuality often is sublimated in depictions of relationships between older women and younger men.  Hugh himself of course was in a relationship of two decades with an older man, Rickie Webb, his former mentor, which was the pivotal relationship of his life, even though it was never acknowledged during their lifetimes, nor for long afterward.  One might argue that Hugh's dedication of The Crippled Muse to Rickie was more of a kiss-off than a kiss.  Happily, the two men achieved some measure of a reconciliation before Rickie's death, though it's doubtful that Rickie ever fully reconciled himself to his loss of the younger man as a companion.  Hugh Wheelers don't come into your life every day, or every decade, or, all too often sadly, over an entire lifetime.


  1. Have you ever thought, Curt, that the novel was dedicated to Rickie because, in a way, he's the crippled muse? Just as Hugh was about to publish this book, Rickie had ceased writing, or contributing to the conception of the Webb-Wheeler novels. It is not a completely rash hypothesis, I think. Describing the fate of a poetess who had stopped writing, maybe Hugh also wanted to describe, metaphorically, the condition of his friend. In that simple and bare dedication, “To Rickie”, I also read a certain sadness.
    The novel has a subtlety of its own, but it also contains a big mistake which, however, British and American readers will probably not notice. After Mike McDermott's death, an inquest is held to ascertain the cause of death. But in the Italian judicial system does not exist, and it never existed, anything like that. Hugh should have checked better.

    1. He also gets the date of the sinking of the Lusitania wrong!

      I think there's a lot about the relationship with Rickie in this book, some of which can't be discussed without getting spoilerish. I also see something of Rickie and Hugh in the novel's major same-sex relationship, the one between the lesbian couple. But, again, it's not a very positive view of the relationship isn't it, if you see Rickie as Liz and Hugh as Loretta?

    2. Oh, and Horace must be some prodigy to be a full professor at the age of 28, for some time no less. I didn't get my dissertation in until I was 32, though to be fair I wasted four years in law school before that. So I could have just had my dissertation done by 28 I suppose.

    3. Three years in law school and one year off!

  2. Angus Wilson, the Emglish novelist and short-story writer, was another gay writer at the time who seemed to "feel compelled to introduce gay characters in order to derogate them." One of his early novels, Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, involves a psychologically blocked historian.
    It may be coincidence, but a couple of years earlier "Nicholas Blake", aka the poet C. Day Lewis, had written a book, Head of a Traveller, featuring a (male) poet who has abandoned poetry. Was fear of creative impotence a common theme among writers just after WWII, perhaps?

    1. I don't know. Maybe there was a general lack of confidence after World War Two. Maybe it was a generational thing. Cecil Day Lewis was three years younger than Richard Webb, Hugh's partner. I've never read Angus Wilson, but I just looked up his first novel and I think I see what you mean. Of course the Fifties were a time when it was hard to take on an unambiguous pro-homosexual stance, if you will. Like the lesbian pulp fiction of the time, which usually has unhappy endings for the queer characters.

    2. Wilson is obviously gay now and probably was at the time to aanyone who thought about it. To be fair, he derogates most of his characters - or emphasises their flaws - so he isn't actually any more unfair to the gay ones.

  3. Re: Mike's 'startling red hair'...Hugh seemed to have a thing about red hair - if someone has it in one of his books [Jake in 'Puzzle for Pilgrims', the pianist in 'Family Skeletons', Mike here] you can bet they're going to be a bad lot, though not necessarily the villain of the piece.

    1. Well, I hadn't spotted that, but I'm only now rereading all the PQ books, having done QP and Stagge. Can't explain why that would be. I certainly know he had a lot of blonds with crew cuts!

  4. Good catch about the inquest, Mauro! Always dangerous to try to write about foreign legal systems.
    I wonder whether, when The Crippled Muse was published, whether there was any reference (or mentioned in reviews) that this was by the author of the Patrick Quentins?
    In Norway it was published by a different publisher, and without any reference to Patrick Quentin.

    1. I remember Mauro had mentioned that to me earlier in an email, about the inquest. Hugh had traveled to Italy without Rickie in 1949 and they had gone there together a year or two earlier.

      American reviews definitely mentioned that Hugh Wheeler was a mystery author. I don't believe any I've seen mentioned Patrick Quentin by name. In the U. S. the mystery writer label remained affixed to him for the rest of his life, sometimes as a put-down.