Online journal of mystery, suspense and horror
Theatre, Radio, and Live Television

November Feature Article

Lucille Fletcher: Radio's First Queen Of Screams

Two of the most famous radio plays of all time - ‘’The Hitchhiker’’ and ‘’Sorry, Wrong Number’’ were written by Lucille Fletcher. In addition to these two classics, she wrote dozens of other quality scripts for programs such as the anthology series Campbell Playhouse and Suspense, wrote a libretto for the opera ‘’Wuthering Heights,’’ composed by her husband at the time, Bernard Herrmann, and six novels. Her daughter, Dorothy, is also a published novelist.

How did it all begin?

In 1934, Lucille Fletcher was an extremely well read, attractive Vassar graduate (BA, 1933). She'd been born on March 28, 1912 to Mathew Emerson (a marine draftsman) and Violet (Anderson). Looking for a stepping stone to the hoped-for career of a music critic, she acquired a job at CBS - earning $15 a week as a receptionist/clerk-typist for W. Clark Harrington, head of CBS Music Clearance.

It was an hour ride by train from her parent’s home in Brooklyn, where she lived, to the Columbia Broadcasting System headquarters on 51st street.

One day, Lucille attended the performance broadcast of an episode of CBS’ series ‘’Music in the Modern Manner,’’ which featured the radio composing debut of Bernard Herrmann.

Bernard Herrmann, at age 23, was a composer for programs for CBS, working under Johhny Green. He scored the series ‘’Music in the Modern Manner’’ and wrote original music for several other programs as well. He was also the rehearsal conductor for the CBS Orchestra.

Two days after the performance of ‘’Music In The Modern Manner,’’ Lucille saw Herrmann at a subway station, and complimented him on his work. They travelled together to the CBS building, and Lucille was ‘’…struck by his knowledge and talent and excitement…’ ‘’ Two weeks later they met again in Harrington’s office. Herrmann paid little attention to her until one day he saw her crying over the death of her Boston terrier. Herrmann commiserated with her and, that night, walked her to the subway. He also escorted her to her parent’s doorstep in Brooklyn. This was the start of a five year courtship.

This courtship continued despite the opposition of Lucille’s parents. Her father, Mathew, an ‘’explosive, intimidating man’ did not like Hermann’s politics or his piano playing, her mother found (like many others throughout Herrmann’s life!) Hermann’s personality abrasive and mystifying. Both of them didn’t like the fact that he was a Jew. Despite these objections from her conservative Protestant parents, Lucille continued to date Herrmann.

They discussed books, recordings and story ideas; both relished the macabre and poetic in classic English and American literature. Lucille wrote, ‘’It was a return to the very intellectual atmosphere of Vassar College, but in many ways he was far ahead of much that I had learned there.’’ He was also very supportive of her writing ambitions.

Although Herrmann wanted to marry her early on in their relationship, Lucille put it off. Her wages helped to support her parents (she must have gotten a scholarship to Vassar), and Herrmann could not afford to support her and his mother and sister at the same time. There was no thought of them living together, or of going to a hotel on occasion – ‘’he was an old-fashioned moralist, conservatively brought up, and so was I.’’

Soon, Fletcher changed jobs, and worked in the CBS music library for about a year. It was a ‘’huge place, humming with activity and all sorts of people. Jazz arrangers, symphony conductors, and bandleaders were going in and out, copyists sat at long tables extracting parts from new scores that had just been composed for the Chesterfield Hour or ‘’Andre Kostelanetz Presents,’’ and in another section stacks and stacks of opera scores, symphonies and song files were kept on file.’’

By the fall of 1937, Lucille was writing publicity for CBS and articles for Movie Mirror, the Detroit Free Press, and the New Yorker.

In December 1938 Lucille’s father had a stroke, and would be an invalid for his remaining eleven years. Soon afterwards Herrmann gave Lucille an ultimatum – either marry him, or he would break up with her. They got married on October 2, 1939. About 40 guests attended the ceremony, which was performed by Dr. John Paul Jones, a Protestant minister and friend of Lucille’s, and a Brooklyn rabbi. They moved into an elegant apartment on 57th Street, filled with English furniture, paintings, books and scores.

Sometime in late 1940, the couple left for Hollywood on the elegant passenger train called the Twentieth Century. Herrmann had accepted a job writing a film score – the score to Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.

Orson Welles, the wunderkind who had produced and directed the ‘Voodoo MacBeth’ on Broadway for the Federal Theater Project, panicked the country with his Hallowe’en 1939 Mercury Players on the Air production of ‘’The War of the Worlds,’’ was starring as Kane as well as directing.

Lucille and her husband (whom she, like practically everyone, called Benny) would travel many times between New York and California during 1940, sometimes by plane, sometimes by train….once in their 1940 Packard convertible. It was during this trip by car that Lucille spotted ‘’an odd-looking man, first on the Brooklyn Bridge and then on the Pulaski Skyway. We never saw him again. However, I didn’t quite know what to do with the idea until a year later, when…I conceived the idea of doing it as a ghost story.’’ She wrote ‘’The Hitchhiker,’’ which was produced by the Campbell Playhouse, starring Orson Welles, and was voted the best radio play of 1941. Herrmann, who wrote the music for Campbell Playhouse, created one of his most chilling scores for that episode. (After Citizen Kane was complete, the Campbell Playhouse, starring Orson Welles, had returned to the air, broadcast this time from CBS’ Los Angeles affiliate KNX on Sunset Boulevard.)

Lucille had first gotten the idea of writing for radio when one of her ‘short shorts’ was done by comedian Fred Allen. ‘’When I saw how they did it, how Fred Allen’s scriptwriters turned that little story into a radio show, I realized that I might be able to do the same thing and earn more money.’’ As with all of her writing, Benny had encouraged her in her script writing ambitions.

Fletcher enjoyed writing for radio. As Maltin quotes in his book ‘’The Great American Broadcast’’: ‘’The suggestions you could make just by a note, by a sound, by the handling of the material…the swiftness of it…and you had such a short time, twenty-two minutes. The audience provided a good part of it; if you could excite their own imagination, they filled in the rest, so that the sparseness of the medium was to its advantage.’’ Herrmann rented a furnished Spanish-style home in the Griffith Park area of Los Angeles, so that their time spent in California could be more comfortable, for by the summer of 1941 he was scoring his second film, All That Money Can Buy. In early 1942, both scores received Oscar nominations, and that February, Herrmann won an Oscar for All That Money Can Buy. (This marked the last time Herrmann would be nominated for an Academy Award, let alone win one.)

On July 27, 1941, Herrmann’s Symphony was performed in CBS’ Radio Theatre, under Herrmann’s direction. At the same time, Lucille was in the hospital. At five p.m. that day, she gave birth to a 6 3/4 pound daughter, whom they named Dorothy.

In 1943, Bernard Herrmann began working on an operatic version of the Bronte novel ‘’Wuthering Heights,’’ that, with all the demands on his time, would take him eight years to complete. During the making of the film Jane Eyre, which he scored, he became fascinated by the Brontes (and continued to collect ‘Bronte lore’ until his death). Since the scope of the work was too much for him alone, he requested Lucille to write the libretto. They agreed that, like the 1939 film, they would end the opera at the point of Cathy’s death (rather than continue on with eighteen more chapters worth of Heathcliff plotting his own destruction.)

In 1944 Norman Corwin’s adaption of Lucille’s My Client Curley about a dancing caterpillar who becomes an overnight celebrity, became a modestly successful movie under the title Once Upon a Time,’’ starring Cary Grant.

On October 18, 1945, their second child was born – a daughter whom they named Wendy. At this time, however, Herrmann’s was spending more and more time with his work, and less time with Lucille – whose writing career was taking off. Although Herrmann had always been supportive of her writing, he apparently thought it (and the children) should always come second to him and his needs. He expected her (as with all his wives) to take care of him.

In 1947, Fletcher herself began adapting Sorry, Wrong Number for the screen. She of course asked for Agnes Moorehead to play the lead, but producer Hal Wallis opted for Barbara Stanwyck instead. It was a difficult transition to the screen. Lucille said, ‘’Some of the value of the radio show was its intensity, and the fact that by the time it ended, you felt that this woman had dug her own grave. Whereas the [movie] was a complex set of circumstances which aren’t as effective as an intense short story.’’

Fletcher had not enjoyed herself writing the screenplay, and her stresses it precipitated matters between her and Herrmann. They had gone on a disasterous vacation together. Lucille was having trouble with the script and spending all her time on it, while Herrmann wanted her to pay attention to him.

Bernard Herrmann first met Lucille’s cousin, Kathy Lucille Anderson (known as Lucy Two) at his home on Sutton Place. Lucy Anderson was ten years younger than Lucille, a ‘stunning, soft-spoken blonde.’ She had just arrived from Hawaii, where she’d served in the military. She knew little about music, but was ‘fascinated with her cousin’s husband, who was always at his most charming with an attractive woman.’ In the last several months of 1946…

Lucille’s experience in the movies was not as pleasant as she had hoped. ‘’When I got into the movies I was depressed by the enormous amount of people that all had something to say about a script. There was too much money at stake.’’ Compared to movies, the monetary demands of radio were miniscule.

Herrmann went to Reno and obtained a ‘slot-machine divorce’ from Lucille in May, 1948. From Reno he wrote Lucille many letters explaining his position, one of which is very revealing of the relationship between Lucille and Herrmann (at least the way he saw it!) Excerpted from ‘’A Heart at Fire’s Center,’’ Herrmann to Lucille, June, 1948.

…You never had to fight for anything in this world. You always got the prizes-the awards-the medals-the head of the class-later on-you were spoiled by me, who did all your fighting-and now you must learn to fight for yourself-for your children-for your work.

You should have let me see your last film contract [for a film project with producer Hal Wallis after Sorry, Wrong Number, the film was not made] - I would never have allowed you to sign such a contract-especially the clause-that if they did not make the picture-you lost $10,000. Not even a [sic] idiot of an agent would let you sign such a clause...Haven't you any sense yourself...

Although the period before the divorce was rather turbulent, according to Smith, Benny and Lucille patched up their relationship and remained friends until his death on December 23, 1977. The divorce settlement was amicable, with Herrmann retaining much of his large collection of art, furniture and literature.

In January 1949, Lucille married writer Douglas Wallop (author of The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant on which the musical Damn Yankees was based). The couple moved to Arlington, Virginia, where they lived for thirteen years. Dorothy (aka Taffy) and Wendy felt the divorce keenly, and would visit their father during summer vacations from school. Also, Herrmann visited them when he could. (Unfortunately, relationships between the children and their father became strained in the ‘60s).

Shortly after Lucille married Wallop, her father died. Herrmann didn’t attend the funeral (he avoided funerals throughout his life) but sent a large wreath of lilies.

Fletcher is the author of nine novels:

Sorry, Wrong Number (adapted with Allan Ulman) (1949)
Night Man (adapted with Allan Ulman) (1951)
The Daughters of Jaspar Clay (1958)
Blindfold (1960)
…and Presumed Dead (1963)
The Strange Blue Yawl (1964)
The Girl in Cabin B54 (1968)
Eighty Dollars to Stamford (1975)
Mirror Image (1988)

...and Presumed Dead appeared in a Reader's Digest Condensed Book format in 1963. Here's what the publishing blurb had to say:

Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Lycille Fletcher graduated from Vassar College and then went to work as a typist for CBS.