Friday, January 26, 2018

When Murder Stalked the Halls of Ivy...

Regular readers of this blog might recall a 2016 post about mentions of Grinnell in recent fiction. The subject came to mind again recently as I read Dean Bakopoulos's Summerlong, which situates its entire plot in Grinnell, Iowa. So far as I know, except for the occasional geographical and topographical references to Grinnell, Summerlong's plot and its characters are entirely fictional. The situation was different for another novel that seventy years ago took Grinnell as its focus. This post examines that mystery—Prominent Among the Mourners—and how it represented the town of Grinnell and the college where most of the action takes place.
Newspaper advertisement from Des Moines Register, March 1, 1947
Prominent Among the Mourners did not once use the name "Grinnell," but nevertheless produced a sharply critical and extremely precise narrative image of Grinnell College and its small-town context. Published in 1946 by J. B. Lippincott as part of its "Main Line Mystery" series, Prominent was authored by "Carolyn Thomas," a pseudonym that seems to have been derived from the names of two people who had lived in Grinnell in the early 1940s: Thomas William Duncan (1905-1987) and his wife, Actea Carolyn (Young) Duncan (1913-1990). Reported by a female narrator who arrives in Larkinville (founded by J. B. Larkin), a small Iowa town, to begin a job in the publicity department of Larkin College, Prominent narrates a series of homicides that interrupted placid, small-town Iowa life; in this respect the novel is perfectly ordinary.

Along the way, however, the mystery's narrator and central character authors some serious character assassination whose waves lapped the Grinnell College pond for some time after publication. According to long-time Grinnell College historian, Joe Wall, Prominent Among the Mourners "was the conversation piece on campus" when Wall arrived back in Grinnell in 1947 to begin teaching. Wall claimed that at the time the book "was virtually required reading for all new faculty members" (Grinnell Herald-Register, May 11, 1978).

But townsfolk as well as college personnel were attracted to a book so closely identified with their home turf. According to a February 9, 1947 article in the Des Moines Register, Grinnell's Stewart Library, which then rented books at two cents a day, could not keep the mystery on the rental shelves. "So heavy has been the demand," the Register wrote, "that the library is keeping no reservation list. Library patrons have to be there when it hits the rental shelf" or miss their chance to check it out.
Gravestone of the Duncans, Masonic Cemetery, Las Cruces, New Mexico
I do not intend to use this post to spoil the mystery for any readers anxious to explore the tangle of a serial homicide in fictional 1940s Grinnell. In my opinion—and I have read more than my share of murder mysteries—Prominent is not badly written, especially in its first half. But what caught my attention was the way in which the author—later revealed to have been Mrs. Duncan—so precisely plots the places and persons of early 1940s Grinnell. Despite affixing fictional names throughout, Prominent provides a surprisingly transparent map of Grinnell as it existed seventy-five years ago when the Duncans lived here. Margaret Matlack Kiesel, who grew up in Grinnell and attended Grinnell College, some years ago wrote up a key to the persons and places identified in Prominent, and I have made use of her work, only occasionally differing from her conclusions.
Let's begin with the places. Much of the college's recent building has hugged Eighth Avenue and extended to the north, a part of town wholly undeveloped in the early 1940s. But to many of today's Grinnell citizens, what seems most changed in the college's landscape is the band of land along Sixth Avenue. Before there was a Burling Library (1959), and before there was a Roberts Theater and Fine Arts Complex (1961; 1998) occupying the north side of the Sixth Avenue bow, four old buildings—all erected on the heels of the 1882 Cyclone—dominated the college landscape: Goodnow Hall (1885; renovated 1995); Chicago (Magoun) Hall (1883); Blair Hall (1882-86); and Alumni Hall (1882).
Grinnell College Front Campus (ca. 1900)
All these buildings were still in use in 1942 when the Duncans reached Grinnell. Today Goodnow is the only one still standing, but this fine Richardsonian structure plays no part in the action in Prominent. Blair Hall is gone, but it, too, made scant appearance in the mystery. Alumni Hall (Music Building) and Chicago Hall (christened Burmal Hall in the novel) both have parts to play in Thomas's mystery. The first makes only a brief showing in Prominent, and plays no direct role in the plot. Nevertheless, the building's description leaves little room to doubt the author's impression:
[The Music building] stood at the east edge [of campus], over by the railroad track. A warehouse of a building, it was two stories high, with a steeple like a dunce cap (Prominent, p. 144).
Alumni Hall (ca. 1910) (
A great deal of the mystery's action is situated in Burma Hall, the fictional stand-in for Chicago Hall. The home of most college administrative offices, "Burma Hall" is the scene of numerous meetings, at least two murders and two assaults. Even without these elements of plot, however, the building evokes little appreciation from the novelist:
Alumni and faculty were given to drooling about dear old Burma, but to an objective eye the most charitable estimate was that it constituted a fire hazard...Burma looked old, too—old and secretive…The building towered massively, its juttings [sic] and cornices casting gargoyle shadows… (Prominent, p. 25).
Chicago Hall, 1915 postcard (
Prominent is quite right to say that most Grinnell College administration offices were housed there.  As a consequence, the book's central character, the newly-arrived publicity director at "Larkin College," has reason to spend time in this building without, however, developing any affection for it:
I hoped I would never have to work at night in my office; the old walls of Burma were surely alive with mice. Probably even rats in the basement, where the back files were kept…I didn’t think it deserved such a cheerful title as basement; dungeon would have been better. It was a huge, cavernous place, floored with dank concrete and hard-packed earth…The whole basement, for my money, looked the way those midnight broadcasts sound. I mean the ones where werewolves howl and Frankenstein slides down the aerial (Prominent, p. 25).
Another building to play an important part in the plot was the college library. Grinnell's Carnegie Library, situated just north of Herrick Chapel in the 1200 block of Park Street, was erected in 1905 with monies supplied by Andrew Carnegie. What had begun as a spacious destination for the college's 29,000 books over the years became a cramped and cluttered facility; by the time Burling Library opened in 1959, the library collection totaled more than 120,000 volumes used by 875 students and some 90 faculty members (see Waldo Walker on "Carnegie Hall" in Digital Grinnell).

Construction presently underway on campus has razed part of Carnegie Hall, but when originally constructed the library building formed a"T," with a west wing that ran north-south parallel to Park Street, and a perpendicular east wing (now razed) intended mainly for book shelves. Beneath the east wing architects had created basement space for the archives as well as storage space for oversize books and old issues of periodicals.
Carnegie Library, ca. 1925, looking northwest (a detail from this image:
Susan Eyerly, the mystery's narrator, made several trips to the library basement in search of clues to the murders. Her description brings dust to the reader's throat:
I entered the building and descended the stairs to the basement. It was crowded with stacks that contained musty, out-of-date volumes...The huge volumes containing the Everton News [the concocted substitute title for the Des Moines Register] were arranged with the name of the paper and the inclusive dates stamped along their spines...The smell of dust and yellowed newsprint floated up from the bound papers like the moldy stench of charnel shrouds. I stared at the shadowy library stacks, and those dim galleries seemed as intricate and thickly-coated with the years as a catacomb (Prominent, pp. 89, 169, 173).
A 1957 photograph of the Carnegie basement demonstrates that the novel's description was not far off the mark (even if the photo does not reveal the dust).

Carnegie Library Basement (ca. 1957)
Immediately across the street from the library still today stands a house at 1205 Park Street. It was at this address—fictionalized as Lowell Street—that Prominent has the newly-arrived college publicity director take a room.
As we lurched away [from the train station], I glanced at the New Marshall [Monroe] hotel...We crawled north along a wide avenue, elm-shaded. Big old houses stood well back from the sidewalk, triumphs of gingerbread and widow's walks...We paused for an east-and-west highway [US 6]...crossed the highway and passed the campus: mellow old buildings, great shade trees...The cab halted at a large frame house on the west side of the street. It was white-painted, with green shutters; and a vine-sheltered porch rambled around the east and south sides...There was an old stable behind... (Prominent, pp. 5-6).
What the college now calls Macy House still stands at 1205 Park, although it, too, has seen renovation and alteration over the years, including the demolition of the old stable out back and erection of a sizable addition to the west in 2008. Nevertheless, the structure is still recognizable from its description in Prominent
1205 Park Street; the large addition on the west was added in 2008 
According to the novel, it was Professor and Mrs. Boy Crandall who lived in this house and from whom the newly-arrived Susan Eyerly rented a room. However, when the Duncans arrived in Grinnell in 1942, 1205 Park Street was actually home to Professor Charles Payne (1879-1947) and his wife, Ina Chatterton Payne (1896-1976). Like Charles Payne, Boy Crandall was a distinguished scholar, long-time chair of the department of history, and disabled, which meant that he did much of his teaching at home. 
Professor Charles Payne (1936 Cyclone)
Like her fictional alter-ego, Carrie Crandall, Ina Payne was considerably younger than her husband, and, like Carrie, had indeed once been her husband's student, having graduated from Grinnell in 1918. She later took an MA from Radcliffe College, and from 1923 to 1925 was a member of the Grinnell College History faculty. In the summer of 1925, she married Charles Payne, and for the next twenty-two years devoted much of her life to caring for her invalid husband.
Ina Chatterton, Instructor in History, 1925 Cyclone
Immediately south of 1205 is 1131 Park Street, presently known as Harry Hopkins House, but in the early 1940s it was the home of English professor Stuart Gerry Brown (1912-91), whose avatar in Prominent was Scott Gerard Ball, depicted as a sociologist. The novel spares no efforts to criticize Ball, whom the prose regularly likened to a terrier:
[Ball was a] slightly-built man of thirty. He had dark hair and a fox-terrier face; and outsize shell-rim glasses weighed down his small, sharp nose. His voice reminded me of a terrier’s, too: it yapped…Ball has charm when he chooses, which is when he thinks it will do him good…His charm is treacherous. He’ll give you a magnetic smile and you won’t catch on till you notice the knife handle sticking out of your back...Scott Gerard Ball had been straining like a leashed terrier. When the president paused, Ball reared up, yapping furiously…Scott’s canine face twisted in a sneer” (Prominent, pp. 16, 21-22, 20, 30-31).    
1946 Cyclone
Like Scott Ball, Stuart Brown was divorced and had remarried. His stepson, Robert Walstead, lived with the Browns, but in July 1942 died in the garage that formerly stood behind the house at 1131 Park. 
1932 Sanborn Insurance Map for 1131 Park Street, showing garage at rear of property
According to newspaper reports, 11-year-old Robert Walstead died by accident. Absent from his step-father and friends only for minutes, the boy somehow fell from the roof of Brown's car in the garage, and died immediately.
Grinnell Herald-Register July 6, 1942
In the most vicious part of the book, Prominent rewrote this story so as to savage Scott Gerard Ball (and, by implication, Stuart Brown), suggesting that the fictional step-father had driven the boy to his death:
Scott’s stepson, Charles, had died a year ago last August 15 on his twelfth birthday….It seemed that Scott had burned with jealousy at Elsie’s affection for the boy…Charles lived with his father—Elsie’s first husband—in Chicago, but he always spent summer vacations in Larkinville…Charles had been vacationing a year ago when he fell from a high rafter in the old barn behind Ball’s house. A broken neck…It was thought strange that so sturdy and well-coordinated a lad should have lost his head and fallen. But both Scott and Elsie had been so devastated that nobody supposed it wasn’t an accident. …did Scott Ball kill his stepson?...What if the lad had been driven to suicide by Scott’s acid tongue? (Prominent, p. 127). 
Throughout the novel Carolyn Thomas mocked the ambition she witnessed in Stuart Gerry Brown, but it seems that Brown's ambition was not misplaced. A member of the English Department at Grinnell, Brown left the college in 1947 to become Professor of Citizenship and American Culture at the Maxwell Graduate School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University where he taught for twenty years. In the mid-1960s he moved to Honolulu, becoming graduate professor of American Studies at the East-West Center of the University of Hawaii. Along the way he authored a dozen books and became a policy adviser to two presidential candidates—Adlai Stevenson and Robert Kennedy. His extensive archive, which includes substantial correspondence with former colleagues at Grinnell, is housed at Syracuse University and attests to the broad contacts Brown had in both academia and politics.
Tanager Magazine Staff, 1944 Cyclone (Theobald in center of back row)
If Prominent Among the Mourners vilifies Stuart Brown, the book goes to great lengths to praise John Theobald (1903-1989), fictionalized in Prominent as Philip Hadley. 
[Hadley was]...a fair slender his middle thirties. He had a sensitive face with a firm mouth...He had a natural reticence that made talking about himself difficult...[he] rushed over everything that reflected credit on himself, such as the honors with which he'd been graduated from Oxford and his volumes of published verse. He had been born of British parents in the Malay States where his father was a civil servant. He had been sent back to England to a public school and Oxford, and after graduation he taught in Canada... (Prominent, pp. 7, 23).
Thomas made small alterations in the biography of the fictional Hadley, but the portrait is unmistakably copied from Theobald.  Born in the Indian sub-continent (rather than the Malay States) to missionary parents (rather than civil servants), John Theobald was indeed educated at Oxford, and had immigrated to the United States and Canada, having held teaching positions in both countries before arriving at Grinnell in 1941. According to a 1982 biographical essay, Theobald did not take well to the Grinnell campus, finding it "as stimulating as tundra." Philip Hadley had a similar impression of Grinnell. When the novel's narrator asks Hadley how long he had been at Larkin, he replies:
Two years. And that’s a year and eleven months too long. I knew before I’d seen my first October here that it wasn’t the spot for me…I’m angling for a job at a university on the west coast (Prominent, p. 20). 
His fictional alter-ego was said to have had a disastrous romantic engagement with a student, but John Theobald in fact became attached to a Grinnell student with whom he developed a lasting romantic attachment. Mary Lee Nugent, daughter of an Algona, Iowa dentist, came to Grinnell in 1939 and majored in English. Like Theobald, she loved poetry, and managed to win several campus poetry prizes, including the 1942 Selden Whitcomb Poetry competition. She and Theobald married (John had been previously married and divorced) in December, 1943, a few months after Mary Lee's graduation from Grinnell. 
1943 Cyclone
Like Stuart Brown, Theobald soon left Grinnell, departing for San Diego in 1945. He worked briefly in industry, but soon accepted a position at San Diego State University where he taught until he retired in 1969. An accomplished poet, Theobald authored several books of poetry, and published English translations of French poetry. Acquainted with many well-known poets, he enjoyed conversations with Robert Frost and his 1950s correspondence with Ezra Pound was published. In Southern California he was perhaps best known for a series of radio programs he generated, including a 14-part series on poetry and another series entitled "The Nine Ultimate Questions." He died in California in December 1989.
John Theobald, ca. 1982 (
One oddity is that, although in the novel Carolyn Thomas has Philip Hadley living in the Crandall house at 1205 Park (that is, in the Payne house), in 1942 John Theobald in fact was renting space in Stuart Gerry Brown's home at 1131 Park, just across Seventh Avenue. The following year Theobald resettled at 919 Seventh (now demolished), a house situated behind 1205 Park and adjacent to the alley; perhaps Theobald found Brown every bit as grating as Philip Hadley found Scott Ball, and moved to escape immediate contact. However, although he moved closer to the Paynes, he was not rooming with the Paynes as Prominent had him doing.
Fine Arts Department, 1946 Cyclone (John Ryan, far right)
Another faculty member whom Prominent gored was long-time professor of Speech John Ryan (1877-1951), whose alter-ego in the novel is Brian Kilpatrick. Described as a "handsome old gentleman" with "heavy white hair and a bushy white mustache," Kilpatrick suffers the novelist's ridicule for his pomposity and sense of self-importance. Although Ryan himself had no speech defect, Brian Kilpatrick invariably uttered "a fizzing noise that sounded like carbonated water." Prominent has Kilpatrick live in a house at "the southwest corner of Ninth and Emerson, a tall old dwelling with bay windows and gingerbread trim," where yet another homicide occurs. John and Elsie Ryan, however, lived at 1233 Broad, on the southwest corner of 8th and Broad, a house that much better corresponds to the novel's description than does the cottage on the southwest corner of 9th and Broad.
There are other college personalities who appear in Prominent under fictitious names, and Carolyn Thomas labored hard to replicate their characters and mannerisms: the college president, named Herron in the novel, but undoubtedly modeled on former president John Nollen rather than Samuel Stevens who was president when the Duncans reached Grinnell; Persis Maxey, a stand-in for Adeline Pruyn, administrative assistant to President Stevens; Leo Shadwell, an interfering alumnus and college trustee from Everton (Des Moines) who was said to have given the college $150,000 for a music building—perhaps a caricature of Fred Darby, class of 1895, who in the early 1940s gave the college $125,000 for a gymnasium (although Darby did not live in Des Moines); and so on. Lining up these characters with their real-life equivalents is fun, and Maggie Kiesel's key can be a big help.

But here I turn attention to how the novel describes the town of Grinnell under its pseudonym of Larkinville, founded by "J. B. Larkin." The physical description of Larkinville—even allowing for exaggeration—comes very close to 1940s Grinnell. Early in the book the author has Susan Eyerly walk through the downtown business district "...with its old facades in red brick and sandstone, its John Deere implement dealer, its J. C. Penney store [914 Main]" (Prominent, p. 8). To file news of the murders Eyerly is obliged to visit the downtown telephone exchange to make long-distance calls, just as 1940s Grinnellians had to do. "It's that old brick building on the corner of Fourth and Emerson," Prominent reports (p. 57). There was no telephone building at Fourth and Broad (Emerson Street in Prominent), but there certainly was a telephone exchange in the 1912 brick building of the former Interior Telephone Company on Fifth Avenue.
Interior Telephone Company building, 815 Fourth Avenue (
Elsewhere the novel has one of the characters laud the fact that Larkinville is "a good place to raise children" because "crime is non-existent...Nobody locks doors or bothers with car keys" (Prominent, p. 37), comments often heard in Grinnell, at least until relatively recently. 

In general, however, the novel casts a disparaging glance over the town, often disdained for its small-town attitudes. For example, at one point Susan Eyerly takes a nighttime stroll
through the deserted business section...They didn't actually take up the sidewalks in Larkinville [at night], but they might as well have. A few dim street lights guided my steps, but the store windows were shrouded in darkness. Not even a night light burned in the back of the hardware and grocery stores (Prominent, p. 58).
The novel's local newspaper, titled Larkinville Gazette (presumably a stand-in for the twice-weekly Grinnell Herald-Register), comes in for some heavy criticism, too. Eyerly calls it
a horrible example of what journalism should not be. In any given issue—it was published Tuesday and Friday—I could discover so many instances of literary ineptitude that I was thinking of compiling a list of prize specimens to send to my newspaper friends (Prominent, p. 79).
Advertisement for the Pup above the Raven (Scarlet and Black, October 5, 1945)
Other local businesses also come in for some unfriendly commentary. Several times in the novel Eyerly eats at the Old Crow Restaurant, evidently a pseudonym for the Raven, a well-known establishment at 924 Main Street in 1940s Grinnell. The Raven advertised often in the student newspaper, and was a popular spot to visit with bowling downstairs and pool tables upstairs.
Advertisement from the Scarlet and Black, November 12, 1943
Having heard someone remark that "Eating's a problem in Larkinville," Eyerly and a friend visit the Old Crow:
It was a place of chromium and white leather, with Bing Crosby crooning from a juke-box, and students milling about...Our food came. My milkshake was too thin, my sandwich soggy. Bing Crosby yielded to the Andrews' Sisters... (Prominent, pp. 8-9).
Eyerly also dines at Candy Kitchen, evidently referencing Candyland on 4th Avenue where the daily special yielded "underdone chop and overdone vegetables" (Prominent, p. 202). The novel also has her eat at a "greasy spoon down on the highway [US 6] which was heavily patronized by students...I studied the grease-stained menu. 'What's good?'...'Nothing's good, but the egg sandwiches are edible'" (Prominent, p. 98), the novel reports. The book gives no name to the "greasy spoon," but it seems likely that Thomas was referring here either to the White Spot (910 Sixth) or to the Dixie Inn, both of which were located at the intersection of 6th Avenue and Broad Street—White Spot on the southeast corner, the Dixie on the southwest. Dave Adkins reports in his memories that the White Spot "had great hamburgers and tenderloins and was a place where students worked and hung out and everyone stopped after a game or a movie for a snack" ( The Dixie stood just across Broad Street on the lot once occupied by Pizza Hut.
Scarlet and Black, September 23, 1941
As the earliest Grinnell reports of Prominent noted, the author displayed considerable animus toward both the  town and the college—especially toward what the author called "the malicious temper of an ingrown college" (Prominent, p. 19). Adding unnecessarily that at faculty functions one encountered "an unusually high rate of halitosis" (p. 39), Thomas discerned among the college faculty "the smell of antagonism. Old hatreds; smoldering feuds; personality antipathies coiled for action" (p. 29). In those around her she saw "egotists like Kilpatrick who croak louder in a little puddle. Or tadpoles like Scott Ball who think they stand a better chance of growing into frogs where there aren't any big fish to gobble them" (p. 37). In her view, the college faculty had had to endure stunted dreams, and let the bile of disappointment flow freely in their behavior:
Once they had been men with brilliant futures. They had been going to head departments at Chicago and Harvard and Stanford...but unaccountably things had not worked out that way. In their forties and fifties and sixties they found themselves stuck in a small college in a small town. That was a very bitter faculty at Larkin... (Prominent, p. 124). 
The town of Larkin hardly fares much better in the mystery's description. Thomas reports a deep distrust between townsfolk and the college whose large claim on land goes untaxed. Locals were said to be deeply biased against foreigners, especially those hired to teach at the college. She finds repugnant the extent to which Larkinville lays claim to a New England heritage: "For a hundred years this retrogressive town had fed on rich Midwestern soil, but it still thought beans and cod would taste better" (Prominent, p. 73).
Actea Carolyn Young (later Duncan), 1931 Roosevelt High School Yearbook
In this context it is ironic to learn that when still a  high schooler, the future Carolyn Duncan (Actea Young) imagined that she might attend Grinnell College. However, in a 1947 interview with the Des Moines Register Thomas claimed that she "didn't have Grinnell in mind at all" when writing Prominent, pointing out that some of her friends thought the mystery was situated at Drake where she had once been a student. In fact, she asserted that she had had no specific campus in mind, rather a "composite campus" (Des Moines Register, August 28, 1947, p. 1).
Des Moines Register, August 28, 1947
The evidence reported above rebuts this claim, although one can understand why, on the heels of publication, the author might wish to sidestep some of the vitriol that the book generated. There can be no doubt, however, that the Duncans did not enjoy their time in Grinnell, and that they made haste to depart, leaving town in 1944 for Colorado, then California, and finally New Mexico. In later interviews Thomas Duncan alleged that it was the climate that obliged them to leave town, and that, in any case, he was eager to devote more time to his novel Gus the Great, a book he did finish and publish to considerable success in 1947. But in Grinnell, the Duncans will always be remembered for the serial-murder mystery, Prominent Among the Mourners.