Mystery Writers of America: A Historical Survey
by Barry and Angela Zeman
Thomas Cope wrote in the New York World-Telegram, Monday, March 26, 1945, in part ...
"A dark deed was done at the cross-roads of America today. A small distinguished band of experts in murder gumshoed into a dingy office near Times Square. A silken-voiced young woman with beautiful, deadly eyes fished a legal document out of a wastebasket with a false bottom.
"The assembled experts gloated over the vellum which set forth articles of incorporation under the laws of the State of New York. Then with legal grins they elected officers pro-tem and disbanded, each in search of a bottle of Scotch for the first annual party, to take place somewhere, somehow, next month.
"Thus was born Mystery Writers of America, Inc...."
The late Lawrence Treat, former President of Mystery Writers of America and one of its founders, in a letter to one of the authors of this article gave a bit more intimate detail: "Once upon a time, a writer, an editor and a writer-editor had lunch together. (Treat, Marie Rodell, and Clayton Rawson - in that order.)
"Clayt told about the British crime writers who met irregularly and had a ritual involving a pledge always to play fair with their readers, and to make various other promises for the good of their craft. He suggested that we do something of the sort here, in America. Thus with or without, but probably with, the requisite number of martinis, MWA started.
"We decided to invite a few writers to meet and discuss, chosen for no reason other than they happened to be friends and available. The meeting was at Baynard Kendricks' apartment. Present, besides Baynard and the three of us, were Brett Halliday (Dave Dresser), Helen Mcloy (who later became Mrs. David Dresser), Ed Radin, Ken Crossen, Dick Burke, and Kurt Steele. Ten in all.
MWA's first officers, 1945: (l-r) Baynard Kendrick,
President; Marie Rodell, Secretary; Ken Crossen,
Executive Vice President; Clayton Rawson, Treasurer
"Baynard, unleashing a thunderhead of energy, took charge. We decided to invite a larger group in a week or two and to rent a room at the Roosevelt Hotel for the occasion. Before that meeting, we were uncertain whether to make our budding organization a kind of social club, or whether to address our economic problems head on ..."
Dorothy B. Hughes, distinguished author and well-known critic of mystery novels wrote in the April 1974 issue of the national newsletter of MWA, The Third Degree (hereinafter to be referred to as TTD): "There was ... a full scale meeting at the Kendrick apartment (ed., or did she mean the Roosevelt Hotel Meeting?). Even Erle Stanley Gardner was there; he flew in that day from the Bahamas where he was doing a special story on the Oakes murder."
Howard Haycraft, (author of Murder For Pleasure, published in 1941 and generally considered to be the standard and definitive history of the detective story) had his recollections: "Although I am proud to have been one of the Founding Fathers and (I think) one of the incorporators on file in Albany, I cannot claim to have been present at the actual conception. This ... occurred paradoxically when two mystery editors (both, it is true, part-time writers of mystery fiction) named Rawson and Rodell came to the conclusion that an organization of crime and mystery writers could accomplish a number of things both pleasant and profitable."
Baynard Kendrick, in turn, remembered that 54 people attended an early organizing meeting. Erle Stanley Gardner had furnished the drinks, and the percepts and principles of the organization were to be formulated that night. He said that among others who attended were Dorothy B. Hughes, Anthony Boucher, Rex Stout, Stuart Palmer, the Q. Patrick team, Fred Dannay and Manfred Lee (Ellery Queen), Helen Reilly, Octavus Roy Cohen, Leo Zagat, Roger Torrey, Kurt Steele, Edward D. Radin, the Lockridges, and Howard Haycraft. He also recalled that the first four officers were elected, namely himself for President, Ken Crossen for Executive Vice President, Clayton Rawson for Treasurer, and Marie Rodell for Secretary - elected pro-term, and later, permanently for the first year.
These were the final years of World War II and Helen McCloy mentions in a TTD article that Dick Lockridge, Howard Haycraft and Stuart Palmer were still in uniform when attending these first meetings.
According to Howard Haycraft: "The pre-incorporation group never quite "froze"; writers and editors came and went at various stages of the discussions. In addition to those already mentioned, ... others sent their endorsements by mail."
An early meeting
Molly Haycraft, Howard's widow, recalls that some of those meetings took place in their apartment in the wholesale meat market area of Manhattan. The smell of blood was always in the air. MWAers must have liked the aroma because when they rented an early headquarters office, it was located over a butcher's warehouse.
At length - on February 28, 1945 - articles of incorporation were filed at Albany.
Howard Haycraft wrote later, "The name of the organization was a cooperative effort, the result of weeks of debate. The slogan "Crime Does Not Pay - Enough," however, was pure Clayton Rawson (but I must take the "punishment" for the doggerel Latin - Qui Fecit? - on the early letterheads)."
The Third Degree, MWA's newsletter, was born then, too. Rawson (well known editor and creator of the "Great Merlini") both named it and served as its first editor. The first mailing list of prospective members was taken from Haycraft's landmark work, Murder for Pleasure.
For the first issue of The Third Degree - Volume 1, Number 1 - Haycraft wrote an article outlining the concept of the Mystery Writers of America to prospective members. His eloquent explanation is reproduced here almost in its entirety:
"The London Detection Club was founded in 1928 by a group of English detective story writers headed by Anthony Berkeley (otherwise known as Francis Iles) who is still the club's Honorary Secretary. In 1929, Berkeley published his masterpiece, The Poisoned Chocolates Case, in which members of the club appeared thinly disguised as fictional characters. The first President (or Ruler) of the club was G. K. Chesterton who served until his death in 1936. He was succeeded by his lifelong friend E. C. Bentley, the celebrated author of Trent's Last Case, who is the present Ruler. The present Secretary is the Anglo-American John Dickson Carr.
"The London Club maintained (at least in pre-blitz days) membership headquarters and a professional reference library, supporting same (while keeping dues and fees at a nominal level) by the occasional publication of anthologies, to which the members were called upon to contribute their writings with royalties going to the club's treasury.
"Mystery Writers of America, Inc., has similar plans and, also like its London counterpart, will hold periodic social, lecture and instructional meetings and issue bulletins and professional manuals. Mystery Writers of America, Inc. will go beyond the London group in its plans to make annual awards for the best first mystery (American)of each year and the best and worst mystery review (ditto) of each season. The "Oscar" for the last named purpose has been tentatively christened the Edmund Wilson Memorial Award. (Author's note: Edmund Wilson was notorious for his anti-detective story sentiments. Naming this award for him was a form of revenge.)
"The principal difference between the two organizations lies in the respective conceptions of membership. The London Club follows the French Academy conception, with membership limited to a chosen few. The founders of Mystery Writers of America, Inc., on the other hand, and after due consideration, decided to open active membership to all writers of good repute in the mystery field, including fiction, fact, books, magazines, moving pictures, and the radio. It is confidently believed that this broader and more democratic base will give the club wider influence and greater usefulness than would otherwise be the case. In addition, associate membership is available to interested editors, critics, publishers, actors, directors - even accredited fans who have demonstrated their loyalty as "friends of the mystery". Associate members share all the privileges and benefits of active memberships except that they do not attend business meetings and do not vote.
"Mystery Writers of America, Inc., does not have an initiation ritual to compare with the famous oath of the London club, with its sonorous invocation against "mumbo-jumbo and jiggery-pokery" and similar sins of mystery writing. But it does have a Latin motto of which the older organization might well be envious - Qui Fecit?. Or, in plain, American, Whodunnit."
Well, the 'worst' award wasn't named the Edmund Wilson Memorial Award after all, thank goodness. It would've been a shame to glorify the name of someone who held a view that detective stories could never be considered legitimate literature.
Although written mystery stories have been traced to as far back as 1211 (to a book which, when translated from the original Chinese, is entitled Records of Trials Held Beneath a Pear Tree, by Keui Wan Yung), and Ellery Queen had argued that stories with overtones of detection had origins in Biblical times, Edgar Allen Poe has long been called the "Father of the Detective Story." Edgar Allen Poe ... to mystery fans, his very name conjures the mysterious. Calling an award for mystery writing an 'Edgar" seemed a natural thing to do to the group of editors and writers who conceived, gestated, and brought the infant organization to life in the dark wintery beginnings of the year 1945 in Manhattan. Since those days, Edgar has become a much coveted award within the mystery genre.
Said Dorothy B. Hughes when reminiscing in an April 1974 TTD: "... a new idea was conceived by MWA. An award for the Best Mystery of the Year. (And, as we know from that idea came not just one award by many, to honor the various aspects of the genre.) ...
"Our award was to honor the mystery writer who didn't have a chance at the Pulitzer or National Book Award; our award was one to which all in our field might aspire and some, hopefully achieve. It was yet another step in dignifying the mystery writer, in enhancing his work, and, let's face crass materialism (or, back to the original slogan, "Crime Doesn't Pay - Enough,"), anything that enhances the author and his work means more money in his pocket."
An early Edgar
Lawrence Treat said, "Mystery writers all over the country were enthusiastic and we set up chapters in Chicago (the Midwest Chapter) and California. Leslie Charteris was (Southern) California's first President. Shortly afterwards San Francisco set up a second (Northern) California chapter, with Tony Boucher as the centerpiece."
In 1971, the New England Chapter was started by Helen McCloy and Elizabeth Pratt. As writers across the country heard about MWA, more chapters were formed. At present, MWA is comprised of eleven regional chapters: New York, SoCal, NoCal, Midwest, New England, Rocky Mountain, Southeast, Southwest, Northwest, Florida, and the most recently organized chapter, Mid-Atlantic.
Ultimately, MWA created three types of membership, rather than just the two mentioned in Haycraft's article.
- Members published in the mystery genre within any media were classified as 'Active.'Only 'Active' members are allowed to hold office or vote on issues.
- An 'Associate' membership was formed for non-writing persons in a related field, such as: editor, agent, publisher, bookseller, and so on.
- Later, an 'Affiliate' section was added in order to allow fans or unpublished mystery writers to be able to join MWA if they wished. Upon publication, of course, the 'Affiliate' classification would immediately be changed to 'Active.'
TTD - MWA's monthly national newsletter - has become MWA's main source of recorded history. Like Moses creating the Pentateuch, the editors compiling each issue are recording precedents, marking milestones, establishing traditions, spreading marketing news, inciting rebellion against industry injustices, and - most importantly - keeping MWA's farflung membership connected. Many of TTD's editors were stars in the mystery writing firmament. Each regional chapter today also has its own newsletter, but all are linked by the TTD.
Lawrence Treat remembers that Baynard Kendrick was elected president by acclaim and committees were set up to give substance to the organization. The group rented a desk in an office in the old General Motors building. A secretary, Miss Catherine Mason, was hired, but budget restriction allowed for only part time.
Helen McCloy later wrote that the "members of the first Board of Directors were invited to serve by letter from Marie Rodell. Among them were Mignon G. Eberhart, Anthony Boucher, Mabel Seeley and Brett Halliday, who was also chairman of the first Contract Committee." Most of the early founding members served on the Board of Directors (or an early adjunct group called the Advisory Council which was dropped in the 1950's).
Helen continued, "Ellery Queen was our second President, followed by Hugh Pentecost, Judson Phillips, Lawrence G. Blochman, John Dickson Carr and then myself as the first woman President." The Presidents are a virtual 'Who's Who' of the genre and include among many others, Dorothy Salisbury Davis, Mary Higgins Clark, Georges Simenon, Anthony Boucher, John D. MacDonald, Raymond Chandler, Rex Stout, Kenneth Millar, Ross MacDonald, Hillary Waugh, Ed Hoch, John Lutz, Thomas Chastain, the Lockridges, Ross Thomas, Elmore Leonard, and most recently Stuart Kaminsky. These individuals are only a handful of the 50 outstanding writers who have served as President.
As to which economic issue the group determined to confront? ...
"First and foremost was the rental library situation," states Lawrence Treat. "At that time, before the mass production of paperbacks, a paperback involved a limited print run ... and our main sales for our two-dollar books were to rental libraries. It was common to find a book that had gone out thirty or forty times and grossed ten dollars or more for the store, but had brought the writer no more than the twenty cent royalty for a single copy. Consequently, when that second meeting of twenty or thirty writers met, revolt was in the air and the economic issue superseded all else. We were resolved to get a bigger slice of the rental pie. Besides that, we aimed at a model contract in which we'd got a fair share of all subsidiary rights. If we didn't get rich, we at least expected to get justice."
Dorothy B. Hughes wrote in a 1974 issue of TTD: "To you mystery writers of today whose books retail at $4.95 and $5.95, the idea that actually sparked MWA must seem incredible. All that editor Marie Rodell wanted to do was raise the price of mysteries from $2.00 to $2.50, and to split the fifty cents, half to the publisher, half to the author. There is no possible way that today's authors can understand the 'horror-stricks' which seized all - well, almost all - connected with mystery publishing at the idea that a mystery could be priced at more than the rockbound standard $2.00."
In a photo accompanying the article, Random House publisher (and later well-known panelist of the popular TV show, "What's My Line?"), Bennett Cerf, is being be-headed. Helen McCloy explains that at one of MWA's first big meetings, at the Hotel Gotham, "... Bennett Cerf, with his usual good grace, permitted us to take a photograph of mystery writers guillotining him symbolically as a protest against the terms then imposed upon them by publishers."
Hugh Pentecost was appointed first chairman of a grievance committee which was established to examine professional complaints from members and to report to the Board on whether or not informal action, legal action, or no action at all was indicated.
According to Lawrence Treat, "A publisher, Ziff-Davis, signed our model contract and writers flocked to the Z-D banner, which waved for a couple of years until Z-D gave up its mystery line, for reasons I don't know, but which may have had something to do with breaking the solid front of publishers, who would neither sign our model contract nor even think about our share-the-rental program, because it involved (perish the thought) some bookkeeping. The rental book stores had the same allergy to our plan."
And through it all, MWA prospered. The membership swelled as writers who had served in the war came home and joined. The camaraderie was infectious as they met in various places, wherever they could go that didn't strain post-war finances. For a while they met in a dank restaurant called Cheerio.
George Harmon Coxe remembers being assessed an emergency hundred bucks per member for some financial crisis, but that it was repaid faster than expected. "At another point," he said, "an internecine warfare involving certain principles that was unnecessarily protracted by the arbitrary attitude of one or two board members could have sank the organization, but it didn't."
To bolster the treasury, they set up the MWA anthology series. The first anthology, published in 1946 by Duell, Sloan, and Pierce, was entitled Murder Cavalcade and was edited, uncredited, by Ken Crossen. Richard Lockridge wrote the foreword. For this volume, as well as many of those following, the proceeds went to MWA. The authors and editors traditionally donated their time and the work produced. The profits from these anthologies and also from the Mystery Writers Handbooks enabled MWA to keep the dues down to a minimum, a matter of importance to struggling writers.
George Harmon Coxe
It was Clayton Rawson's idea to have an annual banquet in which they would give the Edgar® to the best first novel, but in those early days, not to the best novel. They worried that writers who felt slighted would resign.
Dorothy Salisbury Davis, a member since 1951 and someone who has held every post and received nearly every honor MWA offers, including Grand Master, recalls that there was a long ongoing fight within MWA about giving a Best Mystery Award, "because it was believed that you could not, or should not, choose one book for such a distinction. In the early years, many felt we were not competent to judge this award. But, suddenly, ... they felt it was time." In 1953 Charlotte Jay won the first Best Novel Award for Beat Not the Bones.
"Prima donnas abounded, we were the young Turks and we exploded on all fronts. Several times MWA almost broke up because of minor disagreements that heated up from sheer exuberance, but we survived," said Lawrence Treat.
Will Osborne and Hugh Pentecost in a skit
He added, "In order to attract an audience (to the Awards dinner), we wrote and produced a skit, but for the two months or so before the banquet nobody wrote anything else. We were setting up the banquet, writing the skit and rehearsing it. After a couple of years of howling successes, we realized we no longer needed a play every year."
These skits, copies of which remain in the MWA archives, were written by such noted authors as John Dickson Carr, William Roos, Hal Masur, and Clayton Rawson. Many of them appeared in print in the Unicorn Mystery Book Club News from 1948-52. One skit by Carr was a hilarious Sherlock Homes parody.
The Edgar® Awards Dinner moved from the Henry Hudson Hotel to the Astor to the Biltmore, touched down briefly in the glamorous Stork Club, Toots Shor's Restaurant, and filled other places to overflowing - but it never missed a year since 1947. In the recent past, the event has been held at the Sheraton Centre Hotel in Midtown. No matter where the gathering has been, the evening has always had panache.
The Awards banquet and all its attendant problems have been handled by a series of hardy volunteers. Veronica Parker Johns filled this position in the early years, and Hal Masur, Mary Higgins Clark, ad Marilyn Granbeck Henderson, former Regional Vice President of the Southern California Chapter, each served for a long period.
Bela Lugosi: "I never drink ... wine ... "
In the May, 1952 issue of the TTD, the editor writes "... although the attendees who came to see the Edgars® awarded came without diamonds, the audience scintillated anyhow - with sparkling wit. On the menu reposed items such as 'Forbidden Fruits en Compote, John Dickson Carrots, Cracked Alibis, Smothered Gasps and Sugared Reviews.'" That banquet, MWA's sixth, was attended by 400 and that night the first Edgar® was awarded for the Best Crime-Mystery Television Show.
Many notables have been entertained or received special awards at the Edgar® Awards Banquest, such as: Bela Lugosi; Charles Addams; Margaret Truman in 1980 (having just entered the genre with Murder at the White House); Edward Gorey; Eleanor Roosevelt, who accepted an award for the late FDR; Issac Bashevis Singer; William Styron, who presented a Reader's Award to Eudora Welty; and Kareem Abdul-Jabar, someone's special guest at the 1992 dinner.
At the 1956 dinner, held in the Sheraton-Astor Hotel on the night of April 19th, Screen Gems presented a private premiere of a new half hour weekly television film series entitled, "The Mystery Writers Theater," hosted by George Sanders. This screening was an adaptation of a short story by Craig Rice. The entire series was based on material obtained through MWA.
Edgar® stories abound. Ms. Gloria Amoury, executive secretary of MWA for many years recalled (in a 1970 issue of TTD) being telephoned by John Ball in 1966, on the eve of her first Edgar Awards® dinner. He lived on the West Coast and was a nominee for Best First Novel for his book, In The Heat of the Night. He said to her 'If I'm the winner in the category I'll come to the dinner. If I'm not, I won't. Will you tell me whether or not I've won?" Torn by MWA's desire to keep the winner a secret and the equally strong desire to have all the winners at the dinner, she could only think to reply, "I can't tell you if you've won, but if you decide to come you'll find the trip worthwhile."
Many have found the trip worthwhile. As James Reach, a onetime MWA President commented in the 1968 Annual, a publication produced to accompany the Awards Dinner, "Our Edgars are as prized in publishing circles, as coveted, as are the Oscars by film-makers."
In the first year, Edgar® winners were presented with a special leather-bound edition of Poe made for the occasion by Viking Press. In the second year, the award was a special Limited Edition of 12 copies of Howard Haycraft's Art of the Mystery Story. The small ceramic statuettes of Poe, designed by Peter Williams, appeared in the third year.
Although the awards criteria have remained sensitive to changing conditions and needs of the passing years, in general terms, as outlined by Hillary Waugh in the Jan. 1963 TTD:
- The Edgar® is for the best work in a field of the mystery involved writing in various categories.
- The Raven is for the best work in a field of the mystery NOT involving writing.
- Scrolls are given in recognition for being a nominee.
- The Grand Master's Award goes to an author who has made a significant contribution to the mystery over many years.
Of all the awards MWA bestows at the Edgar Awards® Banquet, none is more prestigious and coveted than the Grand Master. This award was established in 1954 to recognize not only important contributions to the mystery over time, but a significant output of consistently high quality as well. The first recipient was Dame Agatha Christie.
Thomas Chastain, former MWA President and long time Board Member, was particularly pleased that "MWA has tried hard to recognize, while they were still alive, truly deserving writers. Very few great mystery writers have been overlooked, even those not active in MWA." Tom remembers with pride that he was able to get W. R. Burnett, the creator of Little Caesar, accepted for Grand Master status.
Nearly fifty Grand Masters have been named. Each was meticulously chosen by their peers as the best of the best. Consider ... Raymond Chandler, Erle Stanley Gardner, John Dickson Carr, Ellery Queen, Georges Simenon, Ross MacDonald, James M. Cain, Rex Stout, Mignon Eberhart, Graham Greene, John D. MacDonald, Dorothy B. Hughes, Dame Ngaio Marsh, Daphne DuMaurier, John Le Carre, Julian Symons, Hillary Waugh, Ed McBain, Elmore Leonard, Phyllis Whitney, Tony Hillerman, Dorothy Salisbury Davis ... and more ... mystery's Hall of Fame.
In 1951, MWA cooperated with Scholastic Magazine to give a mystery writing award at the Edgar® dinner as part of the National Scholastic Writing Awards. Accordingly, in 1952, a first prize of $25 and a scroll were awarded for the winning short story; the second prize was a set of autographed books and a scroll for a winning radio script. (The second prize of autographed books has a value now worth much more than the $25 awarded to the first prize winner.)
Over the years Special Edgars® have been awarded as a way to recognize excellent work that isn't already within the scope of an established category. For example, a Special Edgar® was awarded in 1980 to Chester Gould, the creator of Dick Tracy.
John Dickson Carr (r) presents Manfred B. Lee, half of
Ellery Queen, with the Best Short Story Edgar® for ten
years of editing Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, 1950.
Until a recent decision to make the mystery play award more or less permanent, the theater medium received Special Edgars. Of the eight given from 1948 to 1985, some were truly notable. In 1949, Sidney Kingsley received one for his play, Detective Story; in 1952 and again in 1961, Frederick Knott received Edgars® for Dial 'M' For Murder and Write Me A Murder respectively; in 1954, Agatha Christie received one for Witness For the Prosecution; in 1974, a special Raven was awarded to the Royal Shakespeare Company for its revival of the turn-of-the-century play, Sherlock Holmes; and in 1979, Ira Levin was awarded his second Edgar® for Death Trap. Mr. Levin's first Edgar® was a Best First Novel award for A Kiss Before Dying.
With the goal of promoting the mystery in mind, in 1954, MWA established an award for the Best Dust Jacket. According to Dorothy Salisbury Davis, the motive behind the award was to "improve the jacket art - and it did! When it no longer needed, jackets having now become an important part of packaging and promotion, the award was dropped. The last one was given in 1973."
Joe Gores, in 1970, broke all previous records by becoming the first author to receive in the same year two Edgars® in two major categories: Best First Novel and Best Short Story. He was serving as Regional Vice President of MWA's Northern California Chapter at the time. He was also the same member who spent the morning before winning his two Edgars® lending a hand in the pre-dinner chores by rolling and ribboning the numerous scrolls to be handed out that night.
As the Edgar's recognition grew, so also did the events surrounding the day it was awarded. Writers would travel across the nation, sometimes across an ocean, to be on hand for the evening. In 1968, in an inspired effort to provide writers who were briefly visiting New York for the awarding of the Edgars® with an additional benefit from their MWA membership, Hillary Waugh began to present craft sessions. Not believing in the adage that 'those who can't, teach', he persuaded masters of the genre to donate their time and expertise for the good of their craft by participating in panel discussions. These sessions were so successful that they because the forerunner of an event that would become a new tradition within the Edgar® Week activities: the MWA/John Jay Symposium and Workshop. Lately John Jay College has not participated but we hope to bring them back into the field.
In 1979, the first MWA/John Jay College of Criminal Justice Symposium was presented. John Jay was one of the first institutions of higher learning devoted entirely to the education of those pursuing criminal justice as a career. The symposium was the idea of Flora Rheta Schreiber, the author of Sybil, who was not only a Professor of Speech and English, but also the Director of Public Relations and Assistant to the President of John Jay College, Dr. Gerald Lynch.
One day during a lunch with Lucy Freeman, Flora proposed a day-long symposium as a joint venture with MWA to which the John Jay College would contribute the location, a cocktail party afterward, and some of the panelists. The MWA Board of Directors and John Jay officials hardily approved. Lucy and fellow MWA member Tom Chastain co-chaired this first symposium and were assisted by Dorothy Salisbury Davis, Gloria Amoury, Brian Garfield, Ed Hoch, Otto Penzler, Chris Steinbrunner, Eleanor Sullivan, and Hillary Waugh, and were aided and abetted by professionals from John Jay College, including Sharon Nettles, who has been an MWA member ever since.
Criminology experts drawn from the John Jay staff and notable authors combined to make star-studded panels that were formidable in their collective experience and knowledge. The New York Times, other newspapers, and the Associate Press reported the event. The sessions were taped, parts of which were subsequently broadcast over national and local radio. Dorothy Salisbury Davis for many years organized and shepherded the symposium, ensuring its continued success and relevance. Without her guidance and persistence, the Symposium would not have been held every year since then, constantly offering innovative craft sessions as well as educating mystery writers in the latest technologies and trends in crime.
The vigilance in the publishing world, the awards, the dinners, the meetings, the annual, the newsletter, the anthologies, and also the regional chapters that began forming all over the country - these functions of MWA were run by legions of member volunteers, Board members, and a series of intrepid executive secretaries / administrators from a central location known with varying degrees of humor as 'Headquarters'.
According to Lawrence Treat: "We were growing, we were stabilizing. We moved from our patch of wall space on 57th St. to the majesty of our own cubicle on Butcher's Row, Reade Street, where we had to run the gauntlet of great sides of beef and climb a narrow staircase to the sanctum sanctorum where Dorothy Gardiner, our ill-paid but patriotic secretary, did a monumental task in public relations. She knew and loved everybody, and everybody knew and loved her. When she finally gave up because she could no longer afford the luxury of sustaining MWA, we thought the world would collapse.
"It didn't, and somehow we went through a succession of offices and a succession of secretaries. At various times we had a long, narrow railroad apartment on West 26th Street, where roaches crawled the length of our directors' table and made faces at us; and apartment on East 40th St. with a bathroom, on the walls of which most of us placed our signatures and our hand prints, all of which vanished when the building was torn down.
"We had offices wherever we could find them at our meager price. We met at a spacious loft over Louis' Restaurant in the theater district; we had a room at the old Hotel Seville where we rubbed elbows with drug addicts, were almost involved in a murder case, and where for lack of space we stored our books in a sub-subcellar and they emerged as a pulpy mess. We had a posh address on East 19th Street, we hitchhiked with the Overseas Press Club from its own building in the Murray Hill district to a vast loft on West Fortieth, and through it all we spawned chapters and cocktail parties and controversies and near deficits."
Since the President of MWA has been a largely honorary title bestowed in recognition of writing achievement and leadership, the chief executive of the organization has been, from its inception, the Executive Vice President. He or she, along with the administrative director (nee executive secretary) runs all of the day to day operations of MWA. The job is thankless and non-paying. (One of the major mysteries in MWA is why anyone accepts this job.) The Executive V.P. acts as decision maker, peacemaker, organizer, referee, flak catcher, and psychologist.
Many 'household names' have put in their time of servitude (some more than once) as Executive Vice President for example: Larry Blochman, Wm. S. Ballinger, Richard Martin Stern, Herbert Brean, Will Ousler, Lewis Thompson, Henry Klinger, Dorothy Salisbury Davis, Hillary Waugh, Bruce Cassiday, George Chesbro and most recently, Thomas H. Cook, a man much too nice and gracious to deal with 2000 mystery writers, and Walter Wager, a true gentleman and tireless leader who has taken us through difficult times into a new and stronger future.
All policy development and decision making is done by the Board of Directors, elected from regional chapters and through national at-large elections. MWA is structured to maximize democratic decision making processes that reflect its nationwide composition of what are essentially self-employed creative people.
The MWA chapter meetings have always been shaped to meet the needs of the membership. An early New York meeting was a craft session that drew nearly 100 attendees to listen to an all-star panel of Edward D. Radin, Moderator; John Dickson Carr; Hugh Pentecost; and Ellery Queen (both Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee) discuss the making of the mystery story.
Most chapters concentrate on monthly dinner meetings with speakers providing information helpful to writers, such as background ideas and details about police and FBI work, criminal defense or prosecution, forensics, and private investigation. Editors, agents, and publishers also speak to the groups occasionally.
Market discussions have always been popular at meetings. John Creasey, the famous British mystery novelist and eventual president of both the Crime Writers Association and MWA, spoke at a New York area meeting in October of 1951. He had by then already published 273 mystery titles using nine pseudonyms and sometimes wrote two full length books a month. He told how he was rejected 700 times by English publishers before he sold anything, and gave a detailed talk on the foreign market at the time. Information such as this was difficult to obtain on the average mystery writer's budget and developed writers' loyalty to MWA.
The Southern California chapter mixed fun and travel into their early meetings. For a number of years in the early 1950's MWA's first Affiliate (non-writing) member E. T. (Ned) Guymon, Jr., threw big holiday parties for the chapter members at his home in San Diego. Most members drove down from Los Angeles for this bash, but some, like Raymond Chandler, came from nearby La Jolla.
TTD reports a number of these as the best SoCal meeting of each year, crediting the lavish spreads and free-flowing drink with enticing the members. Just a few of those attending (other than Chandler) were Stuart Palmer, Kenneth and Margaret Millar, and often some out of town visitors like Larry Blochman and Fredric Brown.
E.T. Guymon, reputed to have the most extensive mystery library
in the country, never missed the opportunity of having his
guests inscribe his copies of their fist editions.
As one of MWA's services to members, the various chapters periodically organize workshops for aspiring writers. The Midwest Chapter has, for the last fifteen years, presented an annual intensive, day-long educational seminar for both members and non-members. Called "A Dark and Stormy Night" by its creator the late Mary Shura Craig, a former President of MWA, it has been sold out every year except for its first two. According to Barbara D'Amato, who, with Marion Markham and Stuart Kaminsky, assisted Mary Craig in putting the seminar on a solid footing, the event has seen many of its participants go on to be published, leading the chapter to feel it had done well in developing new mystery writers.
MWA's skills in watching over the membership's well-being sharpened with use. Presidents over the years have issued calls to monitor situations important to writers. For example in the 1970 Annual, outgoing President Stanley Ellin urged a monitoring of Capitol Hill curtailing of the right to freedom of speech, specifically when it came to endangering privileged information by subpoena of press documentation. Robert Bloch, during his Presidency, campaigned for revision of copyright laws. In addition, he counseled the organization to keep an eye on raising the film industry (through scripts) from "the mire of mindless mayhem which sometimes threatens to engulf it."
Bloch also urged acceptance of "pay-TV," certain that it could only open enormous new markets for the mystery writer. This certainly relevant advice today, but he had the foresight to think of it twenty years ago.
Chris Steinbrunner noted that just as movie studios lose no opportunity to exploit their Oscars, MWA should be making more of a fuss over the Edgars® give to the film industry since so many mystery writers participate in that market. Presidents and directors have never hesitated to consult experts, explore issues, or mediate problems on behalf of the membership.
MWA member, attorney, and creator of the Scott Jordan novels, Hal Masur so frequently advised (unpaid!) the membership, of the advisability of contracts, legal relationships, copyrighting, and publishing details, that he received a special Raven award in 1991 for his contributions to MWA, its members, and to the genre.
As a result of MWA vigilance, the 1951 Tax Bill became law without the original provision to withhold 20% of book royalties on account of income tax. The royalties clause was knocked out of the original House bill by the Senate Finance Committee after a campaign by MWA pointing out the irregularity of the proposal.
TTD often carries articles spotlighting the state of the industry. In 1977 Marilyn Granbeck Henderson reported that West Coast writers were turning to historical romances to keep their babies in shoes, while Dorothy Salisbury Davis reported the East Coast publishing trend toward 'Big Book' mysteries. Keeping fingers on the pulse of the industry often meant interviewing editors (plying them with food and drink to loosen lips), tracking purchases in Publisher's Weekly, and polling agents for hints of publishers' want lists ... information that kept the membership knowledgeable of the prevailing winds of publishing.
Helen McCloy said, "It was through MWA that I met Fred Dannay. He told me that Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine was starting a mystery short story contest and asked me if I would submit a story. I sent him "Chinoiserie," which has now been republished more than anything else I ever wrote. It was even made into a radio play in the largely Chinese city of Singapore. I owe all this to MWA, through whom we met, for the story had been rejected previously by every other magazine in New York and London."
In 1956 MWA offered the struggling mystery writer the benefit of advice from the more experienced in the genre by publishing a Mystery Writers Handbook, edited by Herbert Brean. The handbook was redone in 1976, this time edited by Lawrence Treat, and totally revised again recently by Sue Grafton.
From headquarters can be received many items of information necessary to the craft, such as an organization chart of a major city police department. Available to members are a number of databases of special interest to mystery writers, for example: a list of many of the nation's mystery bookdealers.
"MWA didn't change [things] overnight, but, right from scratch, MWA did what it particularly set out to do. It dignified the mystery author. It gave him pride in his work, in his very name 'mystery author,' and naturally that pride rubbed off on all connected with the medium," said Dorothy B. Hughes.
Phyllis Whitney, past president of MWA and one time Grand Master, said in the 1975 Annual commemorating the 30th birthday of MWA, "Our worth and dignity (as mystery writers) are no longer assailable. I like to believe MWA has had a hand in these happenings. Mystery writers can now talk to other mystery writers, and we know much more about what is going on ..."
In the 1970 Edgar® Awards Dinner Annual, the new President Robert Bloch wrote, "Until MWA was created, ... the only spot in New York which had a welcome mat out for mystery writers was Bellevue Clinic. It still does, but MWA is much more fun. Usually."
Bloch continued, "I feel that the greatest benefit offered by MWA comes in the form of personal contact, personal involvement, personal friendship with one's fellow-fictioneers. Writing is, as we all know, a lonely trade. The road from hard knocks to Fort Knox is a rugged one, and whether we go the route or not it's a comfort to share good company along the way."
Robert Bloch wasn't the only to consider his mystery writing peers good company. In 1962, TTD reports that member Hal Masur "was called to Washington for a week by the Joint Chiefs of Staff who wanted the creative imagination of a detective story writer in solving certain war game problems. He worked with Rod Serling, John Ford, and Milton Caniff. On different days they lunched with Generals LeMay and Weaver and Admiral Anderson."
And some members are more qualified than others ...
In February of 1962, Dan Marlowe's book, The Name of the Game is Death, was published by Fawcett. The book, a story of a bank-robber and murderer, was called by Anthony Boucher in his New York Times book review column the story of a 'completely callous and amoral criminal.' In July, Marlowe received a phone call, followed by a letter, from a self-proclaimed frustrated writer and fan named Carl Fischer. Fischer admired the book and asked how certain information had been obtained.
Marlowe answered the letter in great detail and forgot the matter until November 6, when two FBI men showed up on his doorstep saying that the protagonist in Marlowe's book mirrored uncannily the life of a bank-robber and murderer, Bobby Randall Wilcoxson, who was being currently characterized as the "Most Wanted Man Since Dillinger." The fan letter writer, Fischer, was thought to be Wilcoxson's partner, Albert Nussbaum, who had just been captured the previous Sunday. After some follow-up, the FBI captured Wilcoxson on November 10th, and credited the Fischer/Nussbaum fan letter for providing useful clues. The late Al Nussbaum became a well-liked, active member, former regional vice-president of MWA, and author of How to be Sneaky, Underhanded, Vile and Contemptible For Fun and Profit, among other works.
Another legendary member was Cornell Woolrish a.k.a. William Irish, who died a millionaire and alone in a hotel room where he'd lived his last 40 years - a shy, alcoholic, revered story-teller - forever to be known by his art instead of his life. Michael Avallone, in the November 1968 issue of TTD, wrote poignantly of his lonely death and related that out of the handful of people who showed up for his funeral, MWA members apparently outnumbered all others.
MWA has not been without its controversies. For example, Dorothy Salisbury Davis recalls that in the 1950's, convicted murdered Caryl Chessman spent his time writing books while waiting on "Death Row" in California. When he applied for MWA membership, some members argued for months about whether or not he should have it. The Board voted on this issue at a monthly meeting in New York when Herb Brean, then Executive Vice-President, was out of town. When he returned, he called for a new vote to be taken, this time by polling all Board members throughout the country by written ballot. Chessman was rejected as a prospective member and at least one key Board member resigned over the affair, never to return. Chessman also lost his appeals and was eventually executed for his crimes.
MWA has served as historian for the American mystery, procuring and storing in its library the important documents and markers of the passing years and the changes within the profession. As one example, James M. Cain, who was awarded the Grand Master by MWA in 1970, was interviewed on tape by members Hillary Waugh, Stanley Ellin, and Chris Steinbrunner for the MWA library archives.
By 1968, the MWA library was reputed to be one of the most extensive collections of mystery fiction and the repository of much reference information useful to mystery writers. Editors and movie people looking for backlist books for reprint or film sales often used the MWA library. The sheer volume of books outgrew the limited space at each of MWA's headquarters over time. Today, the bulk of this collection, as well as MWA office files and archives from its first forty years, is housed as part of the 20th Century Special Collection at the Mugar Library, Boston University.
The headquarters library still contains hundreds of novels and reference books, and is used extensively by its members, editors, publishers, and movie people. The reference section of the MWA library was formally established in 1968 as the "Anthony Boucher Memorial Reference Library" in memory of Tony Boucher's distinguished work as editor, critic, author, longtime member and co-founder of MWA.
In conjunction with the growth of MWA over the years has been the creation of other mystery connected events:
1970 marked the first of many annual Anthony Boucher Memorial Mystery Conventions, now known as the BoucherCon. The idea originated with Len and June Moffatt, editors of a fanzine devoted to John D. MacDonald, and Bruce Pelz, science fiction enthusiast, who had wondered why there had never been a gathering of mystery fiction readers who were eager to communicate with mystery writers and editors. The first one was held in Santa Monica, CA, over Labor Day weekend at the Miramar Hotel, with a $4 admission charge ($7 at the door).
Robert Bloch attended as guest of honor. Awards were given to the best mystery novel and short story of the year, selected by a popular vote from the readers, rather than they mystery writers' fellow pros. These awards were called the 'Maze' awards, although later they were changed to 'Anthony's'. Over 100 people attended and it was deemed a success by its sponsors.
The BoucherCons over the years have brought fans such joys as listening to Brian Garfield talk about the making of the movie from his book, Death Wish; former bank robber and MWA member Al Nussbaum's uninhibited discussion of his life behind bars; Walter Gibson revealing how "the Shadow" first began; and the American premiere of Sax Rohmer's 1924 play, "The Eye of Siva," a rousing melodrama with death ray, mummy case and a Fu Manchu-like villain. MWA publicized and actively supported the early conventions and continues this tradition today.
October of 1975 brought the first World Congress of Crime Writers, brain child of Julian Symons of Great Britain's Crime Writers Association. MWA members joined writers from almost 40 countries for this landmark gathering of mystery professionals in London. The benefits of the week of fellowship were enlightening.
Before the delegates returned to their respective homes, a second Congress was scheduled, to be hosted in New York by MWA in 1978. The late Thomas Chastain, former MWA President, remembered the second Congress as his first introduction to MWA. "The writers who attended it were an astounding group of people," Tom fondly recalls. "I can't think of another time when so many distinguished writers were present at the same time."
That Congress was led by then Executive Vice President Frank Bandy, ably assisted by Dorothy Salisbury Davis and Brian Garfield, among others. Hillary Waugh chaired the Edgar Awards® held during the same week, adding to the lustre of this world gathering.
The third and fourth Congresses were also successful. We hope more will be held in the future.
... A young model, Ms. Innes McDade, while attending the first MWA/John Jay Symposium in 1979, asked the members of a panel this question: "What prompts writers to want to make death so entertaining?"
Robert L. Fish, noted novelist, Sherlockian, and short story writer, answered quickly that "Death is the last joke."
Frederick Dannay explained that murder mysteries were "safety valves" for readers, "Taking care of their frustrations and aggressions."
John Jay Professor Marlene Park agreed, saying crime novels "link the past with the present, forbidden desires are acted out, the world of the id predominates."
Professor Isidore Singer said, "Crime is the greatest story in the world, starting with Cain and Abel. It appears in all the fairy tales. I counted fifteen crimes committed in Little Red Riding Hood."
Frederick Dannay had this to add: "It can be summed up in two words - Royalty Checks."
... which brings to mind something Lucy Freeman mentioned in a TTD column. A small Manhattan party given during a particularly steamy August in 1978 was attended by Ken Follett and some other MWA members. Chris Steinbrunner walked into the room carrying a bag of peanuts given to him by someone who knew Chris was on a diet. Stanley Ellin looked at the peanuts, paused, then said. "Publisher's royalties?"
... which is where MWA came in ...
List of MWA presidents • Banquet programs and invitations from the archives
Much of the information in this article was gleaned from old yellowed back issues of TTD. Among other sources were articles published in MWA's Edgar® Dinner Annual, and, of course, personal reminiscences of many members. Accounts differ on the details of MWA's founding, but as any good investigator knows, perfectly reliable sincere witnesses rarely see things the same way. At least the key elements have emerged with some consistency. It would seem logical to presume that a professional writers' group would record events as they happened, but little appears to have been written down until years later, as newer members begged for information. Maybe the founders were too busy living history to record it.
This article is not, nor was it intended to be, the complete history of Mystery Writers of America. Compiling a thorough account of a fifty year association of thousands of mystery writers and then compressing it into article length, compares successfully with the idea of collecting every ale recipe in Great Britain - while traveling on hands and knees. Unfortunately, because of limitation of both space and time, uncounted fascinating people and important events have been omitted. To those who were instrumental to the success of MWA, but who nevertheless remained unmentioned, sincere apologies are offered.
- Barry and Angela Zeman
last updated April 3, 2000