Edgar Wallace: Soldier, Journalist, Crime Novelist & Playwright — Part 2

Songwriter, Screenwriter and Co-Creator of King Kong…

Edgar Wallace. Image: dnn.de

The Daily Mail employed Wallace as their principle correspondent in South Africa. By the end of the Boer War, and after a scoop about the signing of the peace treaty, Edgar Wallace was the most famous war correspondent in Britain.

By the end of the war Wallace had also married Ivy Caldecott, whose mother, a British missionary, had helped Wallace get his early poems and articles published.

Another great patron of Wallace’s was the financier Harry Freeman Cohen (who was a friend of Alfred Harmsworth, the owner of the Daily Mail), who’d had a hand in getting Wallace the peace treaty scoop. Soon after the end of the Boer War Cohen turned a failing Johannesburg newspaper, The Standard and Diggers News, into the Rand Daily Mail, employing Wallace as its editor.

Cohen pumped $500,000 into the paper, paying Wallace some $4,000 salary — plus a huge expense account — at the same time giving Wallace a free hand editorially.

Wallace would usually spend the mornings organising the following day’s paper, and the afternoons either playing cards for very high stakes, or going to the races.

The trouble was Wallace was not a good gambler, running-up huge debts, debts that worried Ivy almost to the point of suicide. But this attractive, yet dreadfully withdrawn young woman played the editor’s wife to perfection, throwing lavish dinner parties for politicians and visiting theatre companies. Wallace even had an idea for a play about Cecil Rhodes, but nothing ever came of it. The trouble was Wallace never gave Ivy enough house keeping money, so the household bills didn’t get paid. It was all going to end in tears; which it did a few months later when Wallace fell out with Cohen.

Wallace had planned to publish a piece about secret government loans (loans guaranteed by Cohen) for the development of gold mines in the Transvaal. Cohen insisted, as the newspaper’s owner, that the piece should not be published. Wallace refused and walked out. It was a convenient excuse for Wallace and Ivy to leave South Africa, which they did on the next boat heading for the UK, leaving behind some very angry creditors.

Back in London Wallace made his way to the Daily Mail office, where Harmsworth made a great fuss of his ex-war correspondent, immediately re-employing him as a reporter for seven-hundred-and-fifty-pounds a year, which was better than nothing, enabling Wallace to move Ivy (who was now pregnant) out of furnished rooms into a nice little town house in the fashionable Elgin Crescent.

Wallace was good at his job but was bored to tears writing long pieces about London housing conditions and the travails of the poor.

What Wallace needed above all else was to earn some big money to pay off his debts in South Africa and his mounting debts in the UK.

A year earlier, in 1903, novelist Erskine Childers had scored a huge hit with his gun-running adventure, The Riddle of the Sands, which caught the public’s imagination. With this one book the thriller was born.

Wallace studied Childer’s novel — as he had the popular song earlier — and then wrote The Four Just Men, which, to cut out the middle man, he published himself.

The book proved to be a huge success, but due to over expenditure on advertising (which included hundreds of huge bill posters all over London, plus full page ads in all the daily papers), and several sales gimmicks, that included a substantial financial prize for suggesting the unwritten end of the pre-published novel, Wallace lost a great deal of money, most of which had been borrowed. The novel soon found another publisher, with Wallace’s losses soon cleared.

Over the years The Four Just Men has proven to be an endurable story of four powerful men righting the wrongs of the world by means good and bad. There have been several films and TV series made from the title, with, in my opinion, the 1959 TV series — starring Jack Hawkins, Dan Dailey, Richard Conti, and Vittorio de Sica — still the best and most faithful representation of Wallace’s concept. The most obvious spin-off today is the Mission Impossible franchise.

Wallace wrote several sequels to that first title, but it would not be until 1909, when he published the first in the series of the Sanders of the River stories, that he at last began to make real money. The trouble was his lifestyle always outpaced his income.

Suddenly Wallace was in demand, or to be more precise, his style of writing, which is fast paced, graphic, and in places very funny, with dialogue that jumps off the page, all of which is due not only to his talent as a story-teller, but to his chosen method of writing — dictation.

At the height of his creative powers Wallace could, over a couple of days, dictate a play, a novel, and a couple of newspaper articles to three secretaries and two Dictaphone machines. The secretaries would then, like those young typists back in South Africa, prepare the manuscripts for publication or production. It was a prodigious working method that kept his name in front of the public. Wallace turned the writing of adventure into an industry.

By the 1920s Wallace thought of himself more as a playwright than a novelist with, at one period, several plays running simultaneously in the West End of London, and on Broadway.

Although no Shaw, his plays (invariably staged at London’s Wyndham’s Theatre) were well received by the public and the critics. They were also well constructed and invariably police thrillers, with The Calendar (1929), The Flying Squad (1929), and The Case of the Frightened Lady (1931) perhaps his most popular and enduring. There can be no doubt that Edgar Wallace created the blueprint for all the TV cop shows we have today.

For a brief period Wallace dabbled in politics standing as the Liberal candidate for Blackpool; he lost.

There’s another tenuous link with the northern seaside resort of Blackpool. Wallace’s half brother — on his father’s side — was Marriott Edgar (also known as Edgar Marriott) who wrote all the Will Hay films of the 1930s and 1940s, and those superb monologues for Stanley Holloway, most notably Albert and the Lion.

It was inevitable that Hollywood soon became interested in this one-man-writing-machine, and by 1925 film options of his plays and novels were being bought left, right and centre, with a film version of his novel, The Green Archer, the first to hit the screens. Over the next forty years there would be more than fifty film adaptations of his work.

By 1931 Wallace was ‘chained-up’ (as he described it) in the RKO studios, with just one secretary, where he was asked to produce at least one scenario a day, which he did only on the understanding that he could be served tea and biscuits at any hour of the day or night — the RKO bosses agreed.

Although some film historians disagree, it was Wallace’s own scenario that was the genesis for King Kong, and that, with Merion Cooper (an executive writer at RKO) he had, by February 1932, already written half of the final screenplay when he became ill, and on the first night of his new play, The Green Pack, suddenly died. The chances are (due to the fact that he could only work in over-heated rooms, and smoked those sixty cigarettes a day) he caught a chill, which, because of his smoke damaged lungs, turned to pneumonia.

Wallace’s body was returned to the UK aboard RMS Berengaria, and when the great liner sailed into Southampton “…her flag was flying at half mast as the bells of Fleet Street tolled, and Wyndam’s was dark.”

Edgar Wallace may have made a lot of money throughout his life but on his death left debts of one hundred-and-forty-thousand pounds; although in the years after his death his estate has prospered hugely.

There’s a moral in there somewhere.

Read Part 1

I must acknowledge Margaret Lane, whose 1938 biography of Wallace, The Biography of a Phenomenon, is essential reading.

Margaret Lane in 1935. Image: wikipedia

Margaret Lane was a British journalist, biographer and novelist, and was born on 23rd of June 1907, the daughter of Harry George Lane, also a journalist. She was educated at St Stephens College, Oxford, and St Hugh’s College, Oxford.

After university, she worked as a reporter for the Daily Express from 1928 to 1931, and then as a special correspondent for the International News Service from 1931 to 1932, then as a journalist for the Daily Mail from 1932 to 1938.

Lane wrote two biographies of Beatrix Potter: The Tale of Beatrix Potter: a Biography in 1946, and The Magic Years of Beatrix Potter in 1978. In 1984, the BBC produced a two-part television dramatisation of Potter’s life based on Lane’s books.

Lane also wrote biographies Samuel Johnson, and the Brontë sisters.

Although not as prolific as Wallace she nevertheless wrote more than two dozen books, including novels, travelogues and children’s books.

In 1934, she married Bryan Wallace, Edgar Wallace’s son; the marriage was dissolved in 1939.

In 1944, she married Francis Hastings, 16th Earl of Huntingdon (1901–1990). They had two daughters, the writer Selina Hastings (Lady Selina Shirley Hastings, born 1945), and Lady Caroline Harriet Hastings (born 1946).

Margaret died in 14 February 1994.

Playwright, Historian, Biographer & Freelance Writer Living and Working in Shakespeare’s Stratford

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