The King of Thrillers
David Stuart Davies writes on that most prodigious of writers, Edgar Wallace. ...
"An intellectual is someone who has found something more interesting than sex."
During his life, Richard Horatio Edgar Wallace (01 April 1875 – 10 February 1932) wrote 175 novels, 24 plays, numerous articles in newspapers and journals and over 160 films have been made of his novels. Perhaps one his most famous achievements was as the co-creator of King Kong, writing the early screenplay for the 1933 movie which was deemed culturally, historically and aesthetically significant by the Library of Congress in 1991 and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. He is now remembered for the J. G. Reeder detective stories, The Four Just Men, The Ringer, and for creating the Green Archer character.
Edgar Wallace did not start his life with this name due to the unusual circumstances around his conception and early life. His mother, Mary Jane Richards was an actress, and after the death of her husband at sea whilst she was pregnant with a daughter, she needed to support herself and her unborn child. After the birth of her daughter Josephine Catherine Richards, Mary joined the Marriott Family Theatre Troupe and began earning a living through acting. The troupe was managed by Alice Edgar, (who went by the stage name Alice Marriott, hence the troupe name), her husband Richard Edgar and their three children Grace, Adeline and Richard Horatio Edgar. Mary Jane Richards sought to repay the kindness the family had shown her and helped to find a wife for Richard Horatio Edgar, and he was married in 1874. However, during a very drunken back stage party Mary and Richard ended up having a sexual encounter. Everyone at the party was too drunk to notice, and Richard was so drunk that the next day he did not even remember the incident.
A few weeks later Mary discovered she was pregnant, and having been celibate since the death of her husband she knew Richard must have been the father. She realised that the news of the pregnancy would destroy the troupe. As such she invented a commitment in Greenwich that would keep her away from the troupe for at least a year and a half, and survived on her savings. She gave birth without the troupe's knowledge, and Mary’s midwife helped her find a suitable home for baby Edgar, who on the 09 April 1875 went to live with the Mr and Mrs Freeman under the name of Richard Horatio Edgar Freeman. Edgar enjoyed a happy childhood with his foster family and his mother visited as often as she was able. However, work slowly dried up for Mary Jane Richards, and her lack of earnings meant she could no longer afford the small sum she paid the Freeman family. She informed them that the boy would have to go into the workhouse, to which the Freemans were fiercely opposed and adopted the child. Mary Jane left, overwhelmed by emotion, and did not see her son again until 1903.
In 1885 Richard Horatio Edgar Freeman’s half sister Josephine became engaged, and Mary Richards informed her daughter that she had a half brother. Josephine agreed that it would be too dangerous to arrange a meeting as the secret of Richard’s birth must not be revealed. She married in 1886, had a child in 1887 and died at the age of 25 in 1894 of a sudden illness. Richard never even knew that he had a half sister, let alone that she had just died. He had enlisted in the Infantry to escape a rash engagement to a local Deptford girl, Edith Anstree, but found army life not to his liking. He transferred to the Royal Army Medical Corps, which was even more unpleasant, so transferred again to the Press Corps, where he found his calling. Richard adopted the surname Wallace, taken from the author of Ben-Hur, Lew Wallace, and due to the fact that there was already a Richard Wallace in the Press Corps he used his middle name, and Edgar Wallace was born.
By 1898 Edgar Wallace was the war correspondent for the Daily Mail in the Boer War, and was also a poet and columnist for various periodicals.
Whilst in Johannesburg, Edgar Wallace met one of his readers, Ivy Maude Caldecott, whom he went on to marry. In the same year the couple had their first child, Eleanor Clare Hellier Wallace, and Edgar impressed Harry F Cohen, who appointed him editor of the Rand Daily Mail with a £2,000 per annum salary. Edgar's success was short lived, due to his view that economising was a sign that good luck was about to end. He lived in excess of his salary, and debts mounted. Edgar and Ivy suffered a tragedy in 1902 when two-year-old Eleanor suddenly died of meningitis. They left Johannesburg and headed to England. Edgar kept his financial situation a secret from Ivy and, despite the generous salary he had been earning, arrived in England with only twelve shillings.
Edgar had kept contact with his colleagues at the Daily Mail since the 1890s, and he went to them with the tragic story of his daughter’s death and wife’s fragile health. He was hired as a sub-editor with a wage of £750 per annum, but again he lived in excess of this without Ivy’s knowledge and ignored the mounting letters from South African creditors. In 1903 Edgar's mother, whom he had never known as she disappeared when he was a child, returned. Now 60 years old, unable to work for many months and terminally ill, she no doubt sought financial help as she was aware of her son's successful career. She did not know that due to Edgar's way of life he was in fact broke. Still grieving, he reacted with out-of-character callousness, gave her £2 and sent her away. His mother took the money but only managed to use it to travel to Bradford, where she collapsed and died.
Ivy became pregnant again in 1904 and gave birth to Bryan Edgar Wallace, and Edgar went to Europe as a correspondent during the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War. During this time he met British and Russian spies who inspired him to write The Four Just Men, the prototype of modern thriller novels. He set up his own publishing company, Tallis Press, to publish the book, and ran up great debts in advertisements on buses and flyers, meaning the book would have to make £2,500 before any profit was seen. He had also run competitions in the Daily Mail with money as prizes, and although the advertising had worked and the book went on to become a bestseller, the costs of advertisements and increasing competition winners meant that £5,000 had to be loaned to Edgar to protect the newspaper's reputation, as he couldn’t pay.
Edgar was in no hurry to repay the loan, and in 1907 Ivy became pregnant again. Edgar travelled to the Congo Free State to write an article, and while he was gone the Daily Mail lost two libel claims which involved Wallace, so the total loss was now £60,000 (including the loan) - in today’s money over three and half million pounds. On his return from the Congo, Edgar was fired, and he could not hide it from Ivy who had just given birth to Patricia Marion Caldecott Wallace. The couple had to move to a slum and their marriage began to crumble.
Luck struck again in 1909 when Edgar Wallace was approached to write for a magazine, and he began publishing the Sanders of the River stories which later were compiled into novels and also made into a movie. He was unaware that his mother had died after being sent away in 1903, and he wanted to find her, due to the guilt of how he had treated her. He located his niece and learnt of his paternal semi-siblings and the circumstances around his birth. He never recovered from his guilty feelings and as his stress increased he wrote more, producing some of his most famous works.
Despite his marriage being in decline, Ivy became unexpectedly pregnant again and in 1916 she had her last child, Michael Blair Wallace. Ivy left Edgar's life in an act of kindness as they both knew the marriage was over, and in 1918 filed for divorce. Ivy went to live in Tunbridge Wells, and his children went to school, leaving Edgar to concentrate on his writing and on his secretary, Violent King. Violet was the same age that Edgar and Ivy’s first daughter would have been if she had lived, and had been employed by Edgar since 1916 when she was only fifteen years old. In 1921 Violet and Edgar married, and she became pregnant, giving birth in 1923 to their only child, Penelope Wallace. Edgar’s second writing boom began, but this time it was through confidence not stress.
In 1923 Ivy Wallace was diagnosed with breast cancer, but Edgar was not aware of this. He loaned her money for what she described a minor operation, which was initially successful, but the cancer returned in 1925. She played down her condition to Edgar, who believed she had a minor chest infection, but she succumbed to the cancer in 1926 with her son Bryan Wallace, now 22, beside her when she died. Ivy had always been a supporter of Edgar and had encouraged him, even after their divorce. So it is ironic that it was after her death that he rose to international fame and fortune by virtue of his play The Gaunt Stranger. The name was changed to The Ringer and propelled Edgar Wallace from being popular in England to Hollywood fame when it was turned into a novel and filmed several times. The success of The Ringer landed Edgar an extraordinary deal. He was appointed Chairman of the Board for the British Lion Cinematic Company. The contract gave him an annual salary, a substantial block of stock in the company, a percentage of everything produced from his work, plus 10% of overall profits - all in exchange for British Lion having first option on all Edgar's output. This took Edgar's earnings in 1929 to around £50,000 per annum, about £2million in today’s terms. His son, Bryan Wallace, was also taken on as a film editor. Over the next six years a further seventeen of his plays were staged.
Edgar used his new found wealth to venture into politics, and was a parliamentary candidate for Blackpool in the 1931 general election. He was one of a handful of independent Liberals who rejected the National Government and strongly supported free trade. He was not particularly bothered when he lost the election and headed back to America to continue his work in Hollywood. In 1932 he had success with the film adaptation of The Hound Of The Baskervilles, and his play The Green Pack received excellent reviews. However, despite his increasing success, his health was deteriorating, and whilst working on King Kong in 1932, he summoned a doctor for the sudden and severe headaches he was experiencing. The doctor was amazed that Wallace had lived so long, as it turned out that he had diabetes, which was also the reason for the mood swings he had been having over the previous years. He didn’t realise that diabetes was the cause, but he had been experiencing periods of sadness and suspicion about his family, many of which were accusations towards his wife Violet. Violet was not the sort of woman to have an affair, but she had been finding it hard to cope with his temper and hysterical accusations, and she had began to stay longer on the film set or in her office.
Edgar Wallace’s health deteriorated rapidly, and less than a month after seeing the doctor, he slipped into a coma and died. His coffin was brought back to England draped in the Union Jack, and as it was taken through the streets of London, the flags on the newspaper offices flew at half mast. Wallace’s death on 10 February 1932 was not the end of his story, as his most famous work was the 1933 classic King Kong. He had written the initial 110 page draft over the last few months of his life, and created the beauty and the beast theme, the overall plot and structure, many of the key characters, and many of the key events in the story. Wallace never saw his greatest success make it to the big screen.
In death, Wallace finally escaped his debts. However, the same could not be said for his family who inherited his estate. Despite having substantial earnings at the end of his life, he died with debts of more the £140,000, equivalent to more than £5 million today. His estate was shared between his wife Violet and children Bryan, Patricia, Michael and Penelope, but it was nothing but debt. Violet only outlived Edgar by 14 months, and despite a £26,000 royalty cheque, and negotiation with creditors, the debt still stood at around £38,000 when she died in April 1933. She left her share of the estate to her daughter Penelope, who became the main shareholder of nothing. She was only 10 years old when her mother died, and she, along with her half siblings, who had been brought up with endless wealth, were now penniless. The debt was finally cleared by March 1934 and the children received their first income dividend. High demand for Wallace’s work meant it was not to be the last.
TITLES BY EDGAR WALLACE