The Hollywood Ladies of Série Noire




LAST YEAR MARKED the 70th anniversary of French publisher Gallimard’s crime fiction imprint Série Noire, a book imprint that more than any other, in any country, put together what was classic and cool about the genre. The books were, for the most part, hardboiled and American (Série Noire wouldn’t publish a native-born writer till the 1960s). They had uniform covers, stark black with yellow lettering for title and author. Série Noire predated Fawcett’s Gold Medal paperback original imprint of the 1950s and Black Lizard of the 1980s, two other publishing lines that helped define the American hardboiled sensibility.

And, like Gold Medal and Black Lizard, Série Noire predominantly published men. I’d expected the gender imbalance to be high, but even I was stunned when, after counting every title Série Noire published in its first 70 years — roughly 3,000 or so — I discovered a mere 119 books on their list were by women. Not quite 4 percent overall.

Perhaps I ought not to have been stunned. The tropes of noir — jazz, smoking, cars — were predominantly seen as male territory. A 1971 short film marking Série Noire’s first quarter-century demonstrates this point quite neatly. The lone woman writer included, Janine Oriano, was held up as token, and after publishing three crime novels with Série Noire she jumped ship, reverted to her maiden name of Boissard, and found international success writing the multi-book L’Esprit de famille saga and other romantic novels. It’s a better climate now for female writers in France, but as shown by the recent disaster at the Angoulême Comics Festival, where the director scoffed at criticism for another all-male shortlist, the climate has too much room for improvement.

The systemic imbalance also overshadowed some intriguing individual choices of women on Série Noire’s list. Elisabeth Sanxay Holding was an early entrant, with the excellent suspense novels The Blank Wall and The Innocent Mrs. Duff. It’s likely the endorsement of Raymond Chandler — also a founding Série Noire author, revered in France then and now — pushed Holding upon the imprint’s founder, Marcel Duhamel. Dolores Hitchens is well represented, and no doubt the publication of Fool’s Gold caught Jean-Luc Godard’s attention so that he could (very, very loosely) adapt it into Bande a part a few years later. (A later Godard film, Made in USA, features Anna Karina lounging on a bed, a copy of the Série Noire edition of a Horace McCoy novel on her chest.) Novels by Craig Rice, Margaret Millar, and Dorothy Hughes are also on the list.

Yet two of the first three women published by Série Noire are all but forgotten. If their names ring a bell, it’s because they wrote the scripts for films like “Fallen Angel” or “The File on Thelma Jordon” or “The Damned Don’t Cry.” Their novels were few and far between. Their careers were over, more or less, by the 1960s. I’m not sure why Série Noire singled out Gertrude Walker and Marty Holland for their list over better-known peers. It’s possible that their selection was, ironically, gendered — their work was thought of as “masculine” by the house’s editors and French critics of the time. But after reading their work and sifting through their lives, I’m convinced they don’t deserve to be left on crime fiction’s cutting room floor.

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Long before Gertrude Walker published her first novel, So Deadly Fair, she accumulated enough adventures to fill a multitude of books. Like most of Hollywood, Walker came from New York by way of some place else, the someplace being the small town of Uhrichsville, Ohio, where her father, Raz, worked as a tailor, and her mother, also Gertrude, raised the kids. Young Gertrude’s birth date can’t quite be pinned down: when her first novel was published she claimed her year of birth was 1920; the Social Security Death Index listing upon her death in December 1994 had it a decade prior. Most likely the real answer is even earlier, since Walker graduated from high school — fifth in her class — in 1924.

(Confusingly, there was another Gertrude Walker from Ohio who ended up in Hollywood, and married an actor named Charles Winninger after years of being his mistress. That Walker died a year after our Gertrude. IMDb has, regrettably, conflated the two women. You wouldn’t see that mistake on Dorothy B. Hughes’s or Vera Caspary’s IMDb pages.)

She enrolled at Ohio State University as a journalism major and had lined up a newspaper gig for after graduation when, a few months before she was supposed to start, James Thurber gave a speech at the school. Thurber’s advice to the class, that the “only way to become a writer was to flunk out of college, receive 1,000 rejection slips, and work excruciatingly hard” resonated deeply in Walker’s bones. Never mind that Thurber did not follow his own advice, Walker did: she dropped the newspaper job and took up theater acting.

That phase lasted a few years until Walker got a part playing a 14-year-old girl in a show at the Shubert Theater on 44th Street, the heart of the Manhattan theater district. Upon seeing her, Shubert himself remarked: “You’re the oldest soubrette I ever hired.” On to phase two: singing at New York’s nightclubs, at least until the 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. shifts proved too tiring and the shorter hours in Los Angeles more enticing. Walker changed coasts and her act attracted the attention of an agent: he wanted to know who wrote Walker’s material.

“I do,” said Walker.

“Get away from that piano and take up writing.”

Again, Walker listened to an older man’s advice, and entered the bowels of Hollywood screenwriting with a staff job at Republic Pictures. Her first story credit was for Danger: Women at Work!, a low-budget, hour-long 1943 comedy about women going to work while the men were off serving overseas in World War II. Walker then got an “additional dialogue” credit on a screenplay for Mystery Broadcast (1943) by her friend Dane Lussier, and got a story of her own (the screenplay co-written with Lussier) produced later that year with Whispering Footsteps, another hour-long low-budget film.

That film is watchable, nowhere near great, though Walker’s script is well paced and tight, if you don’t think about the premise too closely. A bank clerk in Indiana named Marcus Aurelius Borne — Mark, mercifully, for short — hears of a murder on the radio, and the description of the killer exactly matches his own. When the murderer strikes again, the town grows more suspicious of Borne, as does the investigating detective, who follows him nearly to the point of stalking. The ending is too pat, but Whispering Footsteps has a decent frisson of fear, in addition to appearances by “Our Gang” child star Juanita Quigley and her older sister, Rita.

The most interesting element of the film is the character of Helene LaSalle, played by Joan Blair. She’s new in town and unabashedly romancing the married bank chief, and the interaction between her and Borne has more layers than is proper in a B-film. Genuine, if uneasy friendship, between a man and a woman? The wattage is low-grade Stanwyck, if that, but there’s something memorable about Walker’s script, if not Blair’s performance. Something about it must have stuck with Walker, as the bones of Whispering Footsteps would be repurposed more than three decades later.

In the meantime, Walker stuck with Republic for a few more B-films, with titles like Silent Partner, Railroaded!, and Crime of the Century. In between scripts, she polished what would be her first novel and sent it around to New York-based publishers. Many said no, but Putnam said yes and published So Deadly Fair in 1948 with an infuriating back cover description: “[W]ho would have ever thought that a woman who looks like this could have written a novel of obsession and revenge so pulsating with violence, so glittering with the terrible beauty of human fright, and the choked breathlessness of relentless pursuit?”

So Deadly Fair owes a great debt — perhaps too great — to James M. Cain’s novels. Walter Johnson , who narrates his story in first person, doesn’t fall off a hayloft, but he does leave behind a Minneapolis-bound freight train to stick around Middletown because he feels like it. And there’s an attractive woman named Elizabeth Frazer, who decides, for kicks, to frame him for the murder of her husband. Revenge is, indeed, a dish best served cold, and Johnson enacts his plans after a decade-long prison stint, changing his identity and finding Elizabeth (her own identity changed) through some highly improbable coincidence. The plot messiness does not detract from So Deadly Fair’s sheer entertainment value. It’s a fun read.

Why was it Série Noire’s first choice of a novel by a woman? Certainly, it passes hardboiled muster. (Kirkus, in its review, concluded: “For the some that like it hot, this electrifies rather than edifies.”) There’s death and sex and betrayal and all the ingredients of quality noir. Or maybe it’s because of passages like this, early in So Deadly Fair:

I’ve never read many stories. I never needed to — I was always in the midst of one. And you don’t read stories and you don’t write stories when you’re in the midst of them. And you don’t write them at all until you’re out of them. And if you’re not a writer you don’t get out of them. I wasn’t a writer because I had taken that walk to the principal’s office and hadn’t gone in, and because I had taken that walk to the hospital and had gone in. And because, hell, I didn’t want to write! But I wanted damn badly to find out what that woman looked like.

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As Walker bounced around from journalism to nightclub singing to script and novel writing, her fellow founding lady of Série Noire, Marty Holland, forged a more direct path to Hollywood. Like Walker, the former Mary Hauenstein was Ohio-born and raised — in Beaverdam, closer to the Kentucky State line. Like Walker, and most likely every other woman in Hollywood, her birth date is a fuzzy construct (1919 according to her obituary, but early census records add a few years). Things go blank until Hauenstein, now Mary Holland, moved to Los Angeles in the early 1940s to work as a studio typist.

A few years in, Holland made the switch to screenwriting with considerable fanfare. Her novel-length treatment for Fallen Angel was sold to 20th Century Fox, that sale written up by the Los Angeles Times, Variety, and other publications. The trades announced each new cast member with the usual faux-breathless excitement as it became clear Otto Preminger, coming off the hit that was Laura, was on board to produce and direct, and that Dana Andrews would play the antihero, Eric Stanton. Linda Darnell joined up as the “bad” girl, Stella, while it took more time to settle on Alice Faye as June (Emmie, in Holland’s novel), the wife he originally marries to steal her fortune; at one point Anne Baxter was attached to the role, which would have been interesting, to say the least.

Marty Holland

The film and novel version of Fallen Angel came out within a couple of months of each other in 1945. (Série Noire’s translation, as La resquilleur, appeared in 1953.) Isaac Anderson reviewed the book for his New York Times “Criminals at Large” column and was somewhat dismissive of its merging of James M. Cain-style noir and a more overtly romantic tone that dominates the second half of the book. (Will Cuppy, writing for the New York Herald Tribune, more or less panned the book: “Miss Holland sustains a hard-boiled mood in some pages better than others as she approaches a dubious solution.”) It might even be said that Holland kind of gives Stanton a happy ending, at stark odds with the sense of doom that permeates the first 50 pages of the book. Needless to say, there are significant differences between the novel, published in hardcover by E.P. Dutton, and Preminger’s film version, with a script by Harry Kleiner.

Contradicting the consensus theory that Holland changed her name from Mary to Marty to hide her gender and come off as “more masculine,” her photo is on the back cover of first editions of Fallen Angel, and all reviews and news of the time referred to her as “Miss Holland” or “Miss Marty Holland.” Perhaps Marty, that gender-neutral name, sounded more hardboiled than did Mary. It was distinctive enough that searches for “Marty Holland” in major newspaper archives only yielded results about her and her work, and nobody else.

Once Fallen Angel, book and film, were released, Holland remained in the public eye for the rest of the 1940s. James M. Cain, her clear inspiration, blurbed Holland’s next novel, The Glass Heart, and wrote a screenplay adaptation. At one point Robert Montgomery was set to film it, but instead chose to make The Lady in the Lake (based on Chandler) and then Ride the Pink Horse (based on Dorothy B. Hughes) instead. As odd as the mix of noir and romance was in Fallen Angel, Holland’s brew for The Glass Heart was even weirder, with the antihero, this time named Eric Blair, caught up in strange romantic entanglements with a murder-minded landlady, a religious-minded lass, and a woman acting the part of femme fatale, if not all that convincingly. When I first read The Glass Heart a few years ago, the only way I could describe it to people was “screwball noir.” The book has yet to be turned into a film, and frankly, I’m not sure if it would work.

By 1948, a new treatment brought Holland more money and attention when it became the basis of The File on Thelma Jordon, starring Barbara Stanwyck. A year earlier, the trades duly reported that Holland was working on, then completing, a novel called The Scar of Encounter, which Rita Hayworth might or might not be attached to. It’s not clear whether Scar was something that didn’t see the light of day or was retitled The Darling of Paris and published as a paperback original by Avon in 1948.

After Thelma Jordon was released, Holland’s output slowed. She published a novella, “Terror for Two,” in the January 1951 issue of the extremely short-lived Scarab Mystery Magazine (that issue was Scarab’s second and last), and then, in the fall of 1952, Holland’s novella The Sleeping City appeared in Thrilling Detective, with the enticing subheading “A Novel About the Mob and a Moll.” Then Holland stopped publishing, and faded into obscurity.

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Gertrude Walker kept doing what she did best — working in Hollywood — after So Deadly Fair was published. The LA Times reported in December 1948 that she sold a treatment called “Case History” to Warner Bros., a “story of a Modern Bad Girl.” (That story drew heavily on the life of Virginia Hill, mob mistress of Bugsy Siegel.) Two years later, it became the basis of The Damned Don’t Cry, a pretty good film noir featuring Joan Crawford, whom Walker had been friends with dating back to the early 1930s. Holland’s last film credit was for the story and screenplay of the B-film Insurance Investigator (1951).

Walker continued to produce in the 1950s, but her attention turned to television and the theater. Her 1951 play, “April Song,” premiered at the Gourgen Theater in Hollywood, but its premise, of a woman posing as a man in the letters she writes to a Swedish young man, didn’t really rate in the LA Times review. The paper gave a more favorable review of Walker’s 1954 effort, “Face Value,” which premiered in Laguna Beach. Walker had signed on to finish the incomplete job of Ernest Pagano after his sudden death, and the story, of women at a beauty farm, created enough comedy for strong notices that summer. Walker also wrote television scripts for Screen Directors Playhouse, Front Row Center, and The New Adventures of Charlie Chan.

But she didn’t entirely leave novels behind. Diamonds Don’t Burn, published in the UK in 1955, drew upon Walker’s side hobby as a jeweler. She had, according to her late-in-life friend Kathy Lubinsky, studied gemology at the Gemology Institute of America, and was proficient enough to give her handmade jewelry as gifts. Diamonds Don’t Burn bears the knowledge of one with experience in the trade, as well as one with experience writing crime stories. And as with So Deadly Fair, the premise — an adulterous woman returns home from her Manhattan tryst with the wrong bag, filled with diamonds stolen by a killer — eventually loses steam, but the novel offers some nifty suspense and credible attempts at empathy for a murderer.

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Holland, according to her niece Sue Tarvin, lived in Los Angeles for the remainder of her life. She sold scripts that didn’t get produced. She worked in television but didn’t get credit. She kept writing fiction. Série Noire brought out French editions of both Fallen Angel and The Glass Heart, the latter published as Pas Blanc! in 1957. And, after her death from cancer in 1971, when she was in her mid-50s, it came out that Holland left behind one last parting gift: a novel, Baby Godiva, printed in 2011.

I say “printed” because it was brought out through CreateSpace and the quality is, shall we say, lacking. But the critic Woody Haut, who reviewed Baby Godiva for his blog and for Crime Time, vouches for its significance. While it “might not be as tightly constructed as Fallen Angel and The Glass Heart, it’s a more ambitious effort,” Haut said, adding that Baby Godiva is “also about the sexual politics of the time, the curse of beauty and how society can so easily manipulate the emotionally immature and uneducated.” It was, after a fashion, a reworking of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. I don’t think as well of it as Haut does, but I do admire the ambition and attempt on Holland’s part to broaden her emotional scope.

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Walker had one more novel in her, and its path to publication was strange. One clue to the origin of Suspect (sometimes titled The Face of Evil) is in its dedication: “To Alan Vincent, the best editor. Many thanks for your help. In memory of the frenetic days at Warner Brothers when we were both writing for, if not posterity, at least money.” Suspect was published in July 1978 as a mass-market paperback by Major Books, based in Canoga Park, California. It’s set in Malibu, not Indiana. It features beaches and bars, not snow and banks. The hero under siege is named Sandy Novak, not Mark Borne. There’s a lot more sex and sleaze. But it is, more or less, the same story as Whispering Footsteps, released 35 years later.

What’s stranger is the novel works better than the movie. The sleaze helps. Sandy’s voice is more like Walter Johnson’s in So Deadly Fair and it works with the Malibu backdrop. The villain is a more overt serial killer, fitting in light of the many such psychopaths on the loose or caught in California throughout the 1970s. The terror is palpable and, while over the top, still on the edge of realism. Suspect would make a good movie. A better one than Whispering Footsteps, in fact.

It seems likely Suspect got published because Alan Vincent needed a manuscript and called in a favor, or Walker decided to call in a favor and dusted off an old treatment. There would be no other novels. Walker instead devoted more time to painting and watercolors and lived out her final years in a rest home in Palm Springs, where she died, in her 80s, in December 1994.

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The dual histories of Gertrude Walker and Marty Holland indicate the ease with which culture forgets about women in the creative arts. Hollywood, in particular, grapples with that problem today, what with laser-focused coverage of the dearth of female directors and show runners. But women were always there, fighting for equal pay, an end to discrimination, and their general right to exist and thrive in a male-dominated culture.

Three-quarters of a century ago, women benefited from greater opportunities because men were fighting a world war. It’s hardly coincidental that Holland and Walker, along with Vera Caspary, Dorothy Hughes, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, and Charlotte Armstrong, found and sought fortune in Hollywood in the 1940s. But those fortunes declined when World War II ended — just as it did for so many women, expected to slide back into the housewife and homemaker slot in planned suburban communities, as Cold War fear gripped the masses.

Those other women crime writers didn’t stop when the film industry closed their doors. Some moved to television. Some increased their book output, while others turned more to criticism or short stories. All kept writing till their deaths, whatever decade. But because Walker and Holland produced so little after their wartime heyday, their foothold in culture is on shaky foundation.

Their stories and lives matter. Série Noire may not be known for its championing of women, but they did Walker and Holland — and by extension, us — a great favor by anointing them as their pioneering female writers.

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Sarah Weinman is editor of Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & 50s (Library of America) and Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories From the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense (Penguin).


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