Tuesday, July 5, 2022

The Mystery of Mother Love: Cornell Woolrich, Milton Propper, Todd Downing, Hugh Wheeler, Richard Webb and Rufus King

"[Woolrich] had an unnatural relationship with his mother....the true picture of a homosexual's relationship with his mother....A combination of dependence, adoration, hatred.  All the things you'd expect."--Mystery editor Lee Wright in a 1979 interview with author Francis Nevins

"He is a good, a nice young man but badly controlled by his mother.  You have the expression--a mama's boy?"--Miss Fernandez in "Let Her Kill Herself" (1956), by mystery writer Rufus King

The consensus on gay men--whose "abnormality" in their eyes was a condition that had to be explained and pathologized--used to be that they were unable to develop "normal" relationships with women due to an imbalance in their own parents' relationships, the mothers being "strong" and the fathers "weak" or "distant" and the mothers dominating their sons to an unhealthy degree.  

Angel of Death
Katherine Hepburn in
Suddenly Last Summer (1959)

Gay men were "mama's boys," in other words, who, if not actual "sissies" and "inverts" altogether more effeminate than masculine, were so under the ball-crushing weight of their mother's thumbs that for them relationships with other women become impossible.  In this context I always think of Katherine Hepburn as genteel iron lady Mrs. Venable in Suddenly Last Summer, the 1959 film adaptation of Tennessee Williams' 1958 one-act play, and her dead gay son, never actually seen in the play or film, Sebastian.  That's a codependent relationship which leads to some dire results indeed!  On stage there have been a long line of distinguished Mrs. Venables, including Patricia Neal, Maggie Smith, Elizabeth Ashley and the recently deceased Diana Rigg.  

Of course straight men can be mama's boys just like gay men--hence the trope of the wife having to deal with her meddlesome mother-in-law.  Back in the Fifties Hugh Wheeler wrote a superb short story, adapted as an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents starring William Shatner, about this phenomenon, called "Mother, May I Go Out to Swim?"  However, it is true that if you look at certain famous gay, or reputedly gay, male vintage mystery writers, you do often find that the men had very close--and sometimes personally disabling--relationships with their mothers.

Probably the most famous "queer" male American mystery writer was Cornell Woolrich (1903-1968), except for the needling fact that we don't really know whether he actually was gay.  A queer, very queer fellow, yes indeed, but, gay?  Well, we just don't know, as I pointed out in my Crimereads article on him from last January.  

Cornell Woolrich in 1925
He was in his early twenties
and writing his first novel

Cornell's relationship with his mother seems almost like the textbook case of a smothering mama (at least later in life; when he was a child she seems to have been rather neglectful),  Yet frustratingly we almost never hear from his mother, Claire, at first hand, and get her side of the story.  She likely would have responded that her boy was a mess and needed a mother's steady hand.  And it's true that Cornell was one messed up dude, physically as well as psychically.  

If Cornell was gay in a repressive era, that was the least of his problems, in my view.  Right now I lean to his having been more likely asexual.  Cornell actually was married, briefly, but his wife annulled the union on account of his having been unable to consummate it.  It seems unlikely that he had any other serious intimate relationships, although a couple of hearsay accounts claim that he cruised men.

"Dependence, adoration, hatred," Lee Thayer called it, when discussing Cornell Woolrich's attitude to Claire with Francis Nevins.  "All the thing's you'd expect" with "a homosexual's relationship with his mother."  How does this Thayer's sweeping generalization stand up with some other gay male American/Anglo-American vintage mystery writers?

Milton Propper 
in his early twenties
after he had published
his first novel

Mystery writer Milton Propper (1906-1962), a brilliant young Jew from Philadelphia--people joked that he was still wearing short pants when he enrolled in college at the age of 16--was said to have had a very close relationship with his beautiful and charming mother Helen, to whom he dedicated his first detective novel.  He also dedicated a detective novel to his smart sister Madelyn, but, even though he published 14 of them between 1929 and 1943, he never got around to dedicating one either to his father Jake or his brother Walter, neither of whom, according to a cousin, was that bright a bulb in the family chandelier.  

Milton's mother died in 1944 and, coincidentally or not, Milton's life went decidedly downhill after that and he committed suicide in 1962, having never published another book.  While he was known to have been gay and to have picked up men, whether he had any stable intimate same-sex relationships is unknown.  

Todd Downing (1902-1974), who authored nine detective novels between 1933 and 1941, lived most of his life in the town of Atoka, Oklahoma and was one-eighth Choctaw (through his father) and half-Yankee (through his mother).  Although his father was an important man in local politics and a tribal leader, the Downing household was decidedly gynocentric, dominated by his outspoken, long-lived maternal northern-born grandmother, Awilda, and his mother Maud.  

His elder brother Gordon having died as an infant, Todd's only sibling was his lesbian sister Ruth, who graduated from Columbia University with a degree in social work and long lived with a female companion.  The family was, quite frankly, better educated and more cultured than most of the town of Atoka, and they always stood somewhat apart from it, leading to a certain insularity on their part.

Todd Downing in his early twenties 
when he was a college instructor

I've never actually received any confirmation that Todd was gay, but his writing and his personal collection of books are hugely suggestive in this context.  Todd never married or, indeed, had any intimate physical relationships of which we know. During the Forties, after he gave up writing and college teaching as a profession, Todd, now himself in his forties, moved from his parents' home in Atoka to Philadelphia and worked with an advertising firm.  In the early Fifties he taught at some private schools before moving back to Atoka after the death of his father to live, yes, with his mother until her death a decade later.  He lived alone at the family house and taught at Atoka High School until his own death, another decade after his mother's passing.

Now we come to some gay writers who had--like Cornell Woolrich, who was active as a crime writer from 1934 to 1968 (although his greatest years were in the Thirties and Forties)--far greater longevity within the mystery genre: Anglo-American partners Richard Wilson Webb and Hugh Callingham Wheeler, who wrote as Q. Patrick, Patrick Quentin and Jonathan Stagge.

Hugh Wheeler
in his early twenties, when
he began writing crime fiction
with his partner Richard Webb

Handsome Hugh Wheeler (1912-1987)--who floated through life, seemingly, on a cloud of serene self-confidence--is the only one of these men who seems not to have been arguably mother-dominated in any sense.  His closest family relationship was with his only sibling Jack, his elder brother.  

He and Richard Wilson Webb (1901-1966) are also the only men among this group, apparently, who ever were able to maintain long-term sexual relationships.  They themselves lived together  as partners between 1933 and 1951, although the relationship became "open," at least on Hugh's part, when they were parted during World War Two.  Hugh lived with another man, whom he met during the war, from 1951 (after Rickie moved out) until his death in 1987, although he had additional, more transitory relationships as well.  

Richard Wilson Webb's health severely declined after the war, but he too seems to have lived with another man in France, a Frenchman named Jean, in the fifteen years that lay between his breakup with Hugh and his own death in 1966.  Webb seems to have been much closer to his mother (he compared Hugh's face to hers, a great compliment in his eyes) and even to have disliked his father.  There's a highly suggestive short story by him in this context.  

Richard Wilson Webb
in his twenties around the time 
of the publication of his first
detective novel

Rickie also grew up in the youngest in his family, with a bunch of sisters and one significantly elder brother.  I tried to communicate a few years ago with the son of this brother, Rickie's only nephew as far as I know, a retired law professor who is now in his nineties; but he pointedly refused, via email, to talk with me.

Now we come to Rufus King (1893-1966), the elder of the lot and the only one old enough to fight in the Great War, which he did, most heroically.  Courtesy of a recent interview which I conducted, I now have more information on the author concerning this subject.  

I've written a bit now about Rufus' interesting family background, but I will recap here briefly.  He was the only child of a New York doctor, Thomas Armstrong King, and Amelia Sarony Lambert, a great-niece of once-famed celebrity photographer Napoleon Sarony.  

The family maintained two residences, one the Lambert family home at 141 Lexington Avenue in Kip's Bay, described in a 2017 New York Times article as the "least fashionable neighborhood of Manhattan," and the other an 1818 Georgian home at the small upstate New York town of Rouses Point, two miles from the Canadian border on Lake Champlain.  It's a lovely home but no one was exactly beating down the doors to live in Rouses Point.

Rufus' father's family was New England Yankee of undistinguished lineage as far as I can tell, (Thomas' father, Washington King, was a dry goods merchant of Mooers, another small upstate New York town), while Amelia, through her father's French Canadian Catholic relations, could regard her own family as "artistic."  Among her siblings she had a younger brother and sister, Thomas and Nora, who were actors and artists, although they enjoyed no great success and, indeed, lived with (and off?) Amelia and Thomas, along with their mother, Maggie, for much of their lives.  

Did Amelia regard herself as culturally superior to her husband, like playwright Tennessee Williams' mother Edwina Dakin, and pulp writer Robert E. Howard's mother Hester Ervin?  This sort of thing crops up frequently with the parents of artistically creative men, who often were closer to and fostered in their artistic inclinations by their mothers.  (On the other hand, author Georges Simenon hated his mother.)

Rufus King age 27
when he was working as a 
steamship wireless operator

Thomas King seems to have tried to keep Rufus' nose to a practical grindstone.  After Rufus graduated from Yale in 1914 and declined to enroll in law school at Columbia University, his father put him to work in a silk mill in Paterson, New Jersey.  Two years later, "Rufe," looking for a more adventurous life, heroically rebelled by joining the New York National Guard and serving in the Mexican expedition against Pancho Villa and later the First World War, where he was awarded the Silver Star Medal.  He then became a wireless operator on a steamship, returning to the States in 1920, at the age of 27, only after selling a pulp adventure story to Argosy and determining to make his living from fiction writing.

But where did he live?  Why, with his parents!  We talk about adult children living in their parents' basements today, but of course this was a common enough phenomenon back then too (though you can be sure Rufe was not living in any basement).  

All through the Twenties, as he established himself as a successful pulps writer and novelist (two of his works had been adapted as films by 1925), Rufus lived with his parents in Manhattan and Rouses Point, often wintering with his mother in Florida.  I get the impression much time was spent apart from his busy father, one of whose patients was playwright Eugene O'Neill, but in any event, Thomas King contracted pneumonia from a patient in 1927 and the next year at the age of 62 he died a lingering death from the wasting disease.  He had taken more than ten months to expire.

Amelia herself was 60 at the time and she proceeded to live as before, only she now had control over much of her dead husband's money.  A trust fund had been set up for Rufus by the terms of his father will, giving him no control over the capital, though by this time Rufus was 35 years old.  It seems Rufe was considered too improvident to be trusted with money.

Rufus remained living with his mother at Rouses Point, wintering with her in Florida, even though in 1929 he published a very successful mystery novel, Murder by the Clock, which was successfully filmed in 1931.  He was a very popular mystery writer throughout the Thirties and Forties, with his books reprinted in paperback, and he wrote three Broadway plays, including the book for the mystery-musical hybrid Murder at the Vanities (1933), a big stage hit, adapted successfully as a film in 1934.  

Carl Brisson and Kitty Carlisle in 
Murder at the Vanities (1934)
Liberace would have added some glitter.

Like Cornell Woolrich, Rufus King must have been making a great deal of money by this time (even with his inheritance from his father tied up in a trust), although evidently money went through his hands like water.  (He once bought a Rolls Royce in cash.)  

Like Cornell Woolrich, once again, Rufus chose, despite his success, to continue cohabiting with his mother.  He apparently never left her side, except for short periods. (He seems to have made a trip to England by himself in 1931 and they were necessarily separate, for example, when his plays were going through rehearsal.)  

People at the time seemed bemused by Rufus King maintaining his distant fastness in Rouses Point, seemingly about as far removed from New York City civilization as Manhattan, Kansas.  The situation  is reminiscent of Todd Downing, whom local newspapers dubbed "the hermit of Atoka."

"Anything for a quiet life," quizzically observed one New York newspaper article of Rufus' sticking it out at Rouses Point.  To a newspaper interviewer in 1932 Rufus himself put it this way, typically drolly, of life at his "sheltered nook":

You've got to lead a quiet life to write about crime, says King, whose books are beginning to rival in popularity those by the late Edgar Wallace.  And what he means by quiet is lake, wood, roadhouses, bootleggers, boarder jams, army posts, French-Canadian taverns, baseball, customs jambles, in the summer--hunting, sadness, chills, log fires and peace, in the fall--snow, ice, Belasco winds, drifts, snowshoeing, skiing, mulled ale and a passion for spring, in the winter--with a substrata of auction and contract, dogs, scandal, gossip--and that's all.

The granddaughter and daughter of Rufe's successive trustees suggested that Rufus was a charming profligate, beloved by women and children, who needed looking after by his male trustees and his Mama:

The author was a family friend.  His father, Dr., King, was a friend and client of my grandfather, who was a lawyer and Rufus' trustee.  (Dr. King somehow knew that Rufus needed his money looked after.)  My father, also a lawyer, inherited this position.  As a child and young person, I adored Rufus; he was an enchanting person.  We had an obligatory weekend chez Rufus every summer, at his home in Rouses Point, NY.  My father found Rufus alarming, but my mother and Rufus laughed gaily and understood each other.  When asked, he presented her with a copy of his [mystery novel] Museum Piece No. 13, inscribed.  Knowing him, my mother said, "Now Rufus, please writing something I can show to my dignified friends."  Upon which he wrote, "For Jane, to show to her dignified friends.  With love to her. and nuts to them."

....Rufus said that his "reader" was his widowed mother.  She was given the manuscript halfway through.  If she could guess who the murderer was, he rewrote.

Cornell Woolrich alienated people, Rufus King captivated them.  Woolrich was perpetually unhappy with his lot in life, Rufus King was--well, what, exactly?  The above account paints a picture of a man loving life and even getting along swimmingly with his widowed mother and his trustee's wife and daughter, even if the staid trustee himself found Rufus' gay antics "alarming."  For three years Rufus to much acclaim performed women's parts in drag in productions of the Yale Dramatic Society, while with much valor he commanded field artillery during the Great War.  For several years afterward he was the wireless officer on a steamship and traveled around Latin America.  It's impossible to imagine the neurasthenic Cornell Woolrich, who fearfully lived out his life in a series of New York hotel rooms, doing such things.

Yet there was, it seems, one crippling fear which possessed Rufus: fear of his mother.  

I'll look more at this next blog post, when I go over what happened to Rufus during the last 15 years of his life (1951-1966), after his mother died in 1950 and he left Rouses Point for good the next year.  How much did Rufus' last, motherless years resemble or differ from those of Cornell Woolrich--ten years (1958 to 1968) which were for Woolrich, sad to day, even more dismal than all of his previous ones.

Just Friends
Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift in their rooms during the shooting of 
Suddenly Last Summer (1959)


  1. "author Georges Simenon hated his mother"
    Their relationship seems to have been a bit more complicated than that: his mother lamented to Simenon that her younger son Christian - a Nazi collaborator in WWII who died a French Foreign Legionnaire in Vietnam - had died rather than Georges and he spent a lot of money on her - whether he was trying to buy her love or show off his success or both we can't know.

    1. You could say the same thing about Elton John and his mama. Simenon has some remarkably poisonous bourgeois matrons.

  2. Thanks, love your camp sensibility, that is, including the Katharine Hepburn "angel of death" photo... and you forthrightly confront the mama's boy cliche, so often used to "un-man" the male homosexual...you are refreshingly articulate!

    1. Thank you, DouglasW, I think "queerness" is a fascinating, neglected subject within the vintage mystery field. on account of the closet causing this detail to be buried and subtextualized. The mama's boy theme was coming up so much lately in Rufus King's writing I just started thinking about it with other writers as well.

      I just watched the film The Whole Wide World for the first time, though it came out over 25 years ago, with Vincent D'Onofrio as the pulp writer Robert E. Howard and Renee Zellweger as his kinda-sorta girlfriend Nadalyne Price and it was a really interesting look at the mind of a straight pulps writer and, yes, mama's boy, who committed suicide when his mother slipped into her fatal coma. It's a widespread phenomenon within human relationships and hardly exclusive to gay men. I think it often comes up with artistically creative men, gay or straight. Abraham Lincoln is another one--though of course we know there has been speculation about him too!

      Mrs. Venable is such a classic archetype. The film Suddenly, Last Summer wasn't subtle with those skeletons. I'm not surprised Gore Vidal wrote the screenplay!

  3. An interesting - possibly queer - mama's boy is Henry Higgins in Pygmalion/My Fair Lady. The only woman he treats as an equal is his mother. On the one hand, Shaw couldn't hint at possible homosexuality in a character in a play in Edwardian England; on the other, Higgins may be meant to be a portrait of someone like Shaw himself with an aversion ro all kinds of seuality.