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Rex Stout on the Air

This blog post was written by Matt Barton, curator of the Recorded Sound Section.

Rex Stout, 1965. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection. hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c14620

Rex Stout (1886-1975) remains well known as the creator of Nero Wolfe, the blunt, erudite and mostly housebound detective with a passion for orchids and fine food. Stout wrote thirty-three novels and forty-one novellas from 1934 to 1975 detailing the exploits of Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, his investigator/leg man and the narrator of the stories. A measure of Stout and Wolfe’s enduring popularity are the fact that all his books remain in print, and all are available as audiobooks, voiced by the same actor, Michael Prichard.

The character of Nero Wolfe had a mixed radio career. Stout licensed the characters for broadcast for the first time in 1943, but exercised no control over the scripts, and the first two attempts at a Nero Wolfe radio series on the NBC and Mutual networks rarely reflected his best plots and prose. Much better was the NBC series of 1950-1951 notable for Sydney Greenstreet’s portrayal of Wolfe, whom Stout thought ideal, and the writing of Alfred Bester, then a few years from fame as an innovative science fiction author. Unfortunately, Greenstreet’s health was declining, and he had to give the series up in the spring of 1951.

Stout himself had a significant presence on the radio as a personality and commentator, and as the host and interlocutor of pro-democracy and interventionist programs in the years leading up to World War II and for its duration. Afterwards, he remained a frequent interview subject and participant in roundtable discussions, and the Library’s recorded sound holdings have more than forty examples of his radio work as a panelist, interviewer and interviewee.

He brought a varied background to writing and radio work, as portrayed in this 1942 newspaper article recounting his career:

Rex Todhunter Stout can boast – and does – of having inhabited pretty nearly every corner of these United States. He knows his Far West as well as he knows his Middle West and the East. Has also traveled abroad extensively and sojourned for awhile in Paris. His own account of his varied career goes somewhat as follows: two years in the U.S. Navy (1906-1908); bookkeeper, three years; a cigar clerk, five months; a flamingo hunter, one week; a short story writer, six years; a tennis tournament player, three hours; a hotel manager, eight months; and inventor and purveyor of a banking system for schools, ten years; writer, since he penned a burning love note to a classmate in a Topeka, Kan., school at the age of eight.[i]

His friend the historian Jacques Barzun said that “Rex in the chair at a meeting of the Author’s Guild is Nero to the Life.”[ii] Still, as a broadcast personality, Stout was nothing at all like Nero Wolfe, though he shared his erudition. He spoke learnedly but without affect or condescension.

Motion Picture Reviews, November, 1939.

Starting in 1939, he was an occasional guest panelist on Information Please, a sort of literary precursor to Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me. He did well in the fast paced, quick question and snappy answer format, though on one show he answered a difficult question about a lobster recipe without realizing that it came from his Wolfe novel Too Many Cooks. He would prove to be more engaging on programs where he could develop his thoughts, or explore a single topic with one or more other participants.

In 1941, he hosted Speaking of Liberty, a weekly 15-minute series on NBC of chats with authors and authorities in different fields, all relating to the World War in which America was still uneasily neutral. As with most radio of the time, these discussions were tightly scripted, though Stout and his guests were able to read their lines with some zest, and the encounters sometime went beyond simple back-and-forth dialogues. On the second program, which aired on April 24th, 1941, Stout’s guest was Edmond Taylor, author of The Strategy of Terror, an account of Nazi propaganda methods. Stout allowed Taylor to use him as the stooge in this demonstration:

EDMOND TAYLOR: I’d like to mention something that I meant to tell you before we went on the air. Your face is dirty.

REX STOUT: My what? You’re crazy! I washed my hands and face less than an hour ago.

ET: Oh, your hands are alright, but your face is very dirty

RS: I don’t believe you. I looked at the mirror in the washroom.

ET: Maybe you did, but I’m looking straight at you right now, and frankly you’re a sight! You must have been eating mud pies! “Dirty” is putting it mildly.

RS: Well for–Mr. Cross is there a mirror around here anywhere?

MILTON CROSS: I don’t know but I’ll try to find one.

RS: Anybody got a mirror?

ET: Don’t bother Mr. Cross. Propaganda, Stout.

RS: What do you mean, “propaganda?”

ET: I mean, that was it, and it worked. You noticed I didn’t say your hands were dirty, or you had a button missing from your coat. One glance would have shown you that I was lying. But you can’t glance at your face. You knew very well your face wasn’t dirty, but in ten seconds, I had you yelling for a mirror.

In the same way,  defeatists in this country, for instance, inject the poison of doubt into us. They aren’t stupid enough to try and persuade Americans that they are cowards and quitters or that our navy is no good. More shrewdly they get it into us that the Nazis are too hot to handle and the British are already licked. That was no more true than my statement that your face was dirty, but you began yelling for mirror.

RS: After this, I’ll carry my own mirror.

Programs such as these were good preparation for Stout’s work as the chairman of the Writers’ War Board, a post he assumed days after the attack on Pearl Harbor ended American neutrality.[iii] His Nero Wolfe output fell off considerably during the war years, and he told a reporter:  “Before Munich, it took an average of 38 days [to write a Nero Wolfe story]. Now, I never can tell.” [iv]

Three images depicting panel of experts and others on NBC radio program Information Please, 1941. Clifton Fadiman, lower right. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection. hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c14620

Stout’s friend Clifton Fadiman, was one of the radio era’s most popular public intellectuals. He was editor for Simon & Schuster, book critic for The New Yorker, a judge for the Book of the Month Club, and as host of Information Please for ten years, gave Stout some of his first radio exposure. From 1954 to 1957, Fadiman hosted Conversation on NBC, a weekly panel discussion on cultural topics. On May 6, 1955, he was joined by Jacques Barzun and Stout. By the 1950s, most radio programs were being pre-recorded on tape, and discussion programs were more spontaneous, with any offending or extraneous moments edited out before broadcast. The topic that day was the detective story, its history and future:

JACCQUES BARZUN:  The things you mention Mr. Stout, the introducing of characters, of a deeper psychology, all the things that tended to make the detective story more and more a genuine novel seem to me to depart from the original model and the original pleasure which was pretty much that of a credible puzzle. The riddle is very old literary genre. And in the 19th century it took that form, the pursuing of a criminal.

CLFTON FADIMAN: Are you saying, Mr. Barzun, that the detective story rejuvenates itself by means of blood transfusions from other kinds of novels, the humorous novel, the satirical novel, the psychological novel and so forth?

JB: Yes, and with each transfusion it becomes less and less itself.

REX STOUT: Well, even so you see, I completely disagree with what Mr. Barzun said: that the interesting thing in the detective story was having an inquiry and having a puzzle and of getting it answered ingeniously, isn’t that it more or less it? You see, I just don’t think that’ s true. What are by far the most popular and famous detective stories ever written?  They’re pretty bum stories, the Sherlock Holmes stories. They aren’t very good stories, but what Conan Doyle did was to make Sherlock Holmes live. Actually, if you want to, for amusement or any other reason, take those sixty Sherlock Holmes and analyze them as stories, as plots, at least two thirds are pretty doggone silly. Several of them are so preposterous that no writer writing today, even if he can’t write one tenth as well as Doyle and even if he can’t create a character one thousandth as interesting as Sherlock Holmes wouldn’t dream of using such a shoddy plot.”

It’s spirited discussion, well worth hearing in full. Earlier though, without the need to justify his thoughts, Stout had summed up his feelings of the detective story’s enduring appeal as a guest of Eleanor Roosevelt on her program Mrs. Roosevelt Today on July 30, 1951.  After sharing stories of his membership in the Baker Street Irregulars, the Sherlock Holmes society of which President Roosevelt had been an honorary member, he stated:

“The reason why so many people read so many of them, although so few of them are terribly well written, first, the detective story is a modern version of Jack the Giant Killer, the fairy story of the man who conquers great dragons, great threats.

“Second, the detective story is the triumph of the truth. Different things can happen in the hard-boiled detective story, the English country house detective story, any old kind, but one thing has got to happen in every one of them: truth has to prevail. The truth has to come out. The bad guy has to be caught and the good guy has to conquer, and I think people really love that.

“I think people actually love truth a lot more than a lot of people think they do. I think that people really want truth and love truth, and in a detective story, the truth is the hero of the story.”

If you’d like to listen to Information Please, Speaking of Liberty, Conversation or other programs featuring Rex Stout or Clifton Fadiman, or if you want to know more about the Library’s NBC Collection, don’t hesitate to get in touch with our reference librarians at the Recorded Sound Research Center.

 

[i] “Mystery Writer to Lecture on Local Forum,” Cumberland News, September 29, 1942.

[ii]  John McAleer, Rex Stout: A Majesty’s Life, New York, 1977, 2002

[iii] The records of the Writers’ War Board are at the Library of Congress. For more information: //www.loc.gov/item/mm81046722/

[iv] “Rex Stout Makes His Crimes Pay” Hartford Courant, November 2, 1941.

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