Saturday, November 4, 2017

Rex Stout and Nero Wolfe

A colleague of mine once told me that whenever he was doing research in the library, after he had located the desired book, he turned around and selected a volume at random from the opposite shelf.  He called this ‘serendipity research’ and claimed it frequently gave him new insight into the topic he was researching.

I’ve tried this method a few times myself, but unfortunately, I have a mind like a ping-pong ball.  I start out researching British logistics in the Revolutionary War and end up reading about sewage treatment plants in Mozambique.  The problem seems to be that I will read anything from soup cans to westerns—anything but romance novels, that is.  (My taste in westerns is old-fashioned:  the hero is only allowed to kiss either the schoolmarm or his horse.  I recommend the works of James Reasoner, a grade school classmate.)

Now that I’ve retired from the classroom, I've decided to give myself a small gift:  I’m going to buy and reread all of the Nero Wolfe books by Rex Stout—in order.  After a protracted search, I think there is space on the top of the second bookcase in the guest bedroom.  I thought I had located space for another entire bookcase, but The Doc stubbornly insists that the guest bedroom should contain at least one bed.

If you have never read any of these books, I envy you the enjoyment of first discovering the brilliant armchair detective, Nero Wolfe.   When Stout created the characters of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin—Wolfe’s assistant and narrator of the stories—the American version of the mystery was still new.  In the early 1920’s, Carroll John Daly invented the hard-boiled detective story, and when he did, murder left the British vicar’s rose garden to enter the seedy dark alley of the American metropolis.

Enough has been said about Nero Wolfe—the character—what drove me to the library stacks this week was trying to figure out who Rex Stout was.  Who was this man who wrote his books on a schedule of thirty-eight days, completed them on time, and never did re-writes?  And most importantly, how did he come up with Nero Wolfe?  There have been some fantastic answers proposed:  Was he the result of an illicit affair between Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler?  Or was he the son of Arsene Lupin?  Just as most people mistakenly "identify" Harper Lee with "Scout" in To Kill A Mockingbird instead of “Boo Radley” because the story is written in the first person, by the same token Rex Stout is frequently miss-identified with Nero Wolfe, yet his personality is much closer to that of Wolfe's assistant, Archie Goodwin.

An American detective needs an American origin, and I think I have some of the answers—and if I am correct Wolfe’s origin is as surprising as one of the endings in the detective’s most infamous murder mysteries.

Rex Stout came from a long line of hardy Quakers, and his American roots dated back over 400 years.  Growing up, he heard fascinating stories about his ancestors. In 1642, Penelope Van Princin was scalped and partially disemboweled, yet she somehow survived to have 19 children, and lived to see her 109th birthday.  A century later, another ancestor, Regina Harman, spent 19 years as a captive among the Native Americans;  still another ancestor was the sister of Benjamin Franklin.

Stout was born in Indiana in 1886 and after graduating high school early, drifted to New York City—the future home of Nero Wolfe—to enlist in the Navy in July of 1905.  As a condition of his being accepted in the Navy, Stout had to have his tonsils removed.  He paid a doctor two of his last three dollars so he could undergo the tonsillectomy while reclining in a barber chair—in order to report for duty the following day (after he had spent the night "recuperating" in agony on the floor of the barber shop where the surgery had been done!).

The next day, Stout passed his physical and enlisted for four years.  This was a time of transition for Navy, and the receiving ship where Stout was trained was one of the last three-masted vessels still in service.  After training as a yeoman pay clerk, Stout was assigned to the USS Mayflower, the presidential yacht, which was frequently used by President Theodore Roosevelt.

Roosevelt was a former Assistant Secretary of the Navy, a naval historian, and an ardent—if frequently sea-sick—sailor.  The president had received the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating a settlement to the Sino-Japanese War aboard the yacht.  Accompanying Roosevelt, Stout traveled 20,000 miles aboard the Mayflower, visiting such as exotic ports as The Canal Zone, Havana, Guantanamo, Argentina, and making four separate trips to Puerto Rico.  While on shore leave in Santo Domingo, Stout was in a brawl that resulted in his being shot in the leg. 

The presidential yacht could barely make 20 knots, and the president frequently passed the time by reading and discarding popular fiction books.  Rex Stout frequently snatched up these books and read the British detective stories of Anna Katherine Green, Israel Zangill, and Lord Godfrey Benson. 

Stout (pictured at left on the Mayflower) later confided that he wasn’t too impressed with President Roosevelt.  He disliked his choice in literature (he was dismayed to find that Teddy disliked Thomas Paine), he hated the President’s overtly macho attitude, and on at least one occasion, he disliked the president's losing his temper.  Teddy Roosevelt demanded that his yacht be run to strict regulations and Stout thought the ship exhibited a little too much, pointless ‘spit and polish’.

Decades later, Stout would admit that he patterned the New York policemen, whom he called the “flat-footed myrmidons”, after some of the worst officers of the Mayflower.  But, what if that was not the only inspiration he got from the ship?

Nero Wolfe was obese, sedentary, and the antithesis of archetypal virile male.  In short, he was the opposite of Teddy Roosevelt who championed the vigorous life.  Whereas Wolfe was contemplative and given to long periods of reflection, Teddy was impulsive and quick to act.  Roosevelt delighted in long hikes while Nero Wolfe never left his beloved brownstone residence.  Roosevelt had a rifle range and a boxing ring on the White House lawn.  The closest Nero Wolfe got to outdoor activity was raising orchids in a hothouse on the top floor of his brownstone (In a private moment, Rex Stout admitted to hating orchids, but liking lilies).  Teddy Roosevelt was practically a teetotaler, while Wolfe consumed five quarts of beer a day (though frequently promising to restrict his consumption in the future to only two quarts a day).

Roosevelt’s family was wealthy, and the president never gambled, eschewing all non-physical games.  While on board the Mayflower, Stout was paid $26.20 a month, and estimated he earned another $150 a month playing whist (with the officers).

Teddy Roosevelt loved the military.  He formed his own volunteer regiment of cavalry to fight in the Spanish American War, rising to the rank of Colonel and being awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his exploits on the San Juan Hills.  Rex Stout, after serving two years in the navy, secured a bogus letter showing his acceptance into law school and purchased his discharge for $80. 

In short, I maintain that President Theodore Roosevelt was the inspiration—more like the "anti-inspiration"—for Nero Wolfe.  Now, as I reread the 33 novels and 39 various novellas and short stories, I frequently find Teddy Roosevelt hiding in Nero Wolfe's mirror.

Nor is that the last influence I discovered at the library.  Rene Magritte, the Belgian surrealist painter, named several of his paintings after detective stories by Dashiell Hammett and Rex Stout.  His painting, The Companions of Fear, painted during World War II was influenced by the Nero Wolfe story, The League of Frightened Men...

But, that’s a story for another time.


  1. Haven't seen the Nero Wolfe TV series nor read the books. Makes me want to start reading them. Thanks. - Tom

  2. Plausible. I wish I could read faster - I read about as fast as I can talk, and it would take me years to read all those novels!