In 1961 Twentieth Century-Fox bought a script for Marilyn Monroe’s next picture. The project was called “Illicit,” and they paid the then magnificent sum of $150,000 for the rights. However, the studio suspended Monroe for unreliability, then the actress died of an overdose in 1962 before production had been planned, so “Illicit” was never made. Its plot concerns a wife whose husband takes her so much for granted that he’s irritated when she seduces him away from his work. When they go to Greece on business, he makes her pretend she’s his secretary and lends her as such to his client. The client character, who’s attractive and rich, calls the deal off when she reveals she’s married, but later he follows them home with a new deal – he wants her. In fact, he treats her so much better than her husband does that she leaves with him.
“Illicit” was written by Vera Caspary, and represented her most lucrative movie sale, though she had sold scenarios and scripts since the 1930s. Caspary had originally hoped the film would be bought for Doris Day, but in the event, “Illicit” exists only in the studio files and Vera’s archived papers, where I read it.
Independence and its disastrous opposite were Caspary’s themes during the half-century she supported herself with novels, plays, and screen writing. It would have been intriguing to see Monroe – or Day either – play a protagonist written by a successful woman writer whose characters often look out for themselves.
Among Caspary’s produced screen credits are scripts for the musical comedy Les Girls (1957), starring Gene Kelly, Mitzi Gaynor, and Kay Kendall, and the still-available Letter to Three Wives (1949) whose cast of recognizable stars included Ann Sothern and Kirk Douglas. In Les Girls, one of three friends writes a scandalous memoir about their showgirl days, then has to defend it against libel charges in court. Each witness relives their experiences, and all remember them differently. In Three Wives, the local seductress tells each of three women that she’s had an affair with one of their husbands, but doesn’t say which one.
Laura and Fritz Lang’s Blue Gardenia were adapted from Caspary’s work by others, and like Three Wives, are available on DVD. Laura is the story of a skeptical cop who falls in love with the upper-class woman whose murder he’s investigating. Blue Gardenia is about a lonely telephone operator who goes out with the wrong man, and becomes the prime suspect in his murder. Raymond Burr plays one of his pre-Perry Mason villain roles in this film, and Nat King Cole sings the title song.
Caspary died in 1987, and after her death received minimal critical attention. She can be found in encyclopedias of mystery writing and women writers, but wrote her own life story, The Secrets of Grownups. In the 21st century I’ve worked to bring attention back to her career and to bring some of her writing back into print. Two of her forties mystery novels are in the Femme Fatale series from The Feminist Press. These include her break-through novel, Laura, directed by Otto Preminger as one of the first classic films noir, and Bedelia, a very readable black widow novel. A collection of her 1940s and 50s magazine stories were reprinted for the first time in 2009 by Crippen & Landru, a press specializing in stories by important writers. This collection is called The Murder in the Stork Club (a real life racy New York nightclub where Caspary was paid to research the story on location).
This year, my detailed study about Vera’s modernization of the “sensation” novels of Wilkie Collins came out. Victorian-era Collins, of course, is considered to have launched in the mystery novel in English, and as I argue at length, he invented a method of having characters take turns narrating the story that made a fresh play on novels in letters and established a form for mystery writing that still is used today. Vera applied his narrative approach for Laura, and in that book and two later ones she also adapted characters and scenes from Collins’s great casebook novels, The Woman in White and The Moonstone. The dual study is called Wilkie Collins, Vera Caspary, and the Evolution of the Casebook Novel (McFarland).
Vera’s work has held up well, and her out of print novels and autobiography can still be found online. Her play version of Laura still has occasional productions, and the three DVDs mentioned above are easy to find too. (Vera also has a Facebook page.) It’s my hope in restoring her work to bring attention back to a successful crime writer well worth readers’ time.
A. B.(arbara) Emrys writes weird tales, some of them criminal, as well as writing about mystery. She is the guest editor of an upcoming issue of Clues: a Journal of Detection on paranormal mysteries, and a member of Sisters in Crime.