Rex Stout

Born - Dec 1, 1886   |   Died - Oct 27, 1975   |   Genres - Mystery, Crime

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Author Rex Stout enjoyed four decades of fame growing out of his most successful literary creation, the fictional detective Nero Wolfe, beginning in 1934.

Born in Noblesville, IN, he was raised in Kansas, one of nine children of John Wallace Stout, a newspaper editor, and the former Lucetta Todhunter. A precocious reader who had gone through the Bible twice by the age of five, Rex Stout was also a math wizard as a boy, and managed to finish high school at age 16. He was accepted to the University of Kansas at Lawrence but was unable to attend due to lack of funds, and spent the years 1902-1904 working as an usher and bookkeeper. He sold his first piece of writing, a poem, in 1904, but a career in that field still seemed a long way off. Stout joined the navy in 1905 and was fortunate enough to be assigned to serve on the presidential yacht of Theodore Roosevelt. He was discharged after two years and spent the next four years drifting between jobs in as many as a dozen states. He periodically sold poems and short stories, but it wasn't until 1912, when he moved to New York, that Stout's first literary career began. From 1912 through 1916, Stout published four novels and numerous short stories. He seemed headed for a richly productive writing career, but this came to a halt when he married in 1916. It was at this time that he also joined his brother in a revolutionary business venture that held out the opportunity of teaching children good savings habits. Stout's brother had devised a system (which eventually became commonplace throughout the country, but especially in the Northeast) by which elementary school children could participate in savings programs and bank accounts. Rex Stout was responsible for dotting the "i's" and crossing the "t's" that made the idea work, and for the next ten years this business was the main focus of his professional life.

Rex Stout resumed his literary career after selling out his interest in the company to his brother. During a two-year stay in Paris at the end of the 1920s, Stout authored the novel How Like a God. The couple returned to the United States in 1929, and Stout authored two more novels, Seed on the Wind (1930) and Golden Remedy (1931). During this period, however, Stout and his wife discovered their basic incompatibility, and they were divorced in 1931. Stout's next two novels, Forest Fire (1932) and The President Vanishes (1933), coincided with his second marriage, to Pola Hoffmann. His early-'30s novels earned Stout decidedly mixed reviews, with many critics dismissing him as a failed rival of William Faulkner, Joseph Conrad, and Ernest Hemingway. The President Vanishes, however -- which was originally published without an author credit -- did become the first of Stout's books to be adapted into a movie, at Paramount in 1934. Written as an expression of his admiration for newly elected Franklin D. Roosevelt, and originally credited to an anonymous author, the book was an odd choice for a film -- most of the studio chiefs feared or despised Roosevelt's New Deal policies (though his massive popularity prevented them from saying this outright). The resulting movie muddled the politics somewhat, though it did provide a good vehicle for performances by a brace of excellent character actors and was a decent creative platform for director William Wellman. The underlying literary rights to the movie seem to have lapsed, and it has been decades since it was seen.

In 1934, Stout published Fer-de-Lance, the first of his novels featuring the character of Nero Wolfe. It was an instant success, introducing the cerebral yet hedonistic, somewhat overweight sleuth Nero Wolfe, whose taste for the finer things in life included gourmet cooking, fine wines, imported beers, and the raising of orchids, and his more physically adept assistant, Archie Goodwin. Residing in a brownstone building on West 35th Street in Manhattan, Wolfe and the details of his life and work captured the imagination of readers throughout the country and around the world as few fictional detectives since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes had managed to do, and soon Columbia Pictures was knocking on Stout's door to buy the film rights to the book. Fer-de-Lance was filmed in 1936 as Meet Nero Wolfe, with portly Edward Arnold -- the screen's quintessential man of means -- playing the corpulent detective and Lionel Stander as Archie Goodwin. Stout wasn't too pleased with the results of the movie, which played fast and loose with details of the character; nor was he happy with the second (and last) movie in the series, The League of Frightened Men (1937), in which Walter Connolly took over the role of Nero Wolfe. It was clear after this that the era of the Great Depression and the influence of the Production Code -- which seemed to preclude showing Wolfe's taste for beer -- made it impossible to bring the character to the screen intact. Stout stayed clear of film adaptations of his books for the remainder of his life, though that didn't stop the movies from occasionally acknowledging the character's popularity -- in the 20th Century Fox production of Home Sweet Homicide (1946), the mystery writer Marian Carstairs (Lynn Bari) explains that she named her fictional detective "Bill Smith" as a response to such distinctively named sleuths as Nero Wolfe. During the 1960s, Stout even turned down overtures from Orson Welles (who would seem to have been born to play the role of Nero Wolfe), according to an interview because Welles was regarded as a genius, and Stout regarded geniuses as undependable. He wrote a total of 34 novels devoted to the detective, and did allow for radio adaptations as early as 1943.

He was preoccupied with propaganda work on behalf of the United States government during World War II and, late in the war, also became involved with efforts to secure a lasting peace. After World War II, Stout was closely involved with the struggle for authors' rights, and also aligned himself with various leftist publishing and political organizations, in addition to heading the Authors' League and serving as president of the Mystery Writers of America. He was denounced as a communist in 1950, to which he replied by using his position as head of the Authors' League to attack the red-baiting tactics of the right. The attempt to smear him was of little consequence, and the Nero Wolfe books were still selling strongly when Stout published his last one, A Family Affair, in the year of his death.

Soon after he passed away, the rights to the Nero Wolfe books and character were licensed to television, and an excellent pilot film entitled Meet Nero Wolfe was shot in 1977, starring Thayer David -- the actor passed away before the series could go into production, however, and when it did start filming, William Conrad (who had already essayed the role of Frank Cannon, a corpulent detective with a taste for good food and fine wine), played the part, with Lee Horsely as Archie. Other attempts to adapt the character to the small screen have met with greater enthusiasm from the fans, especially the A&E cable network's production The Golden Spiders: A Nero Wolfe Mystery, starring Maury Chaykin.