Over 160 films have been made of his novels, more than any other author. In the 1920s, one of Wallace's publishers claimed that a quarter of all books read in England were written by him. He is most famous today as the co-creator of "King Kong", writing the early screenplay and story for the movie, as well as a short story "King Kong" (1933) credited to him and Draycott Dell. He was known for the J. G. Reeder detective stories, The Four Just Men, the Ringer, and for creating the Green Archer character during his lifetime.
Edgar Wallace was born at 7 Ashburnham Grove, Greenwich (London), on April 1, 1875. His biological parents were actors Richard Horatio Edgar (who never knew of his existence) and Mary Jane "Polly" Richards, nee Blair. Born Mary Jane Blair in 1843, Liverpool, to an Irish Catholic family, Mary's family had been in show business for some years, and she grew up to be a theatrical "Jane of All Trades" - stagehand, usherette, bit-part actress. Though pretty and talented, Mary was not a great success. During 1867 she ended her theatrical career and married. Also born in Liverpool during 1838, Captain Joseph Richards of the Merchant Navy was likewise from an Irish Catholic family - his father John Richards was also a Merchant Navy Captain, and his mother Catherine Richards came from a mariner family.
Mary soon became pregnant - but during January 1868, when she was eight months pregnant, Joseph Richards died at sea aged 30 years, from a sudden illness. By the time his posthumous daughter Josephine Catherine Richards was born a few weeks later, during the spring of 1868, Mary was destitute. Assuming the stage name "Polly" Richards, Mary began theatre work again to support herself and her daughter. In 1872, Polly met and joined the "Marriott" family theatre troupe, becoming part of the "family" due to the great affection that developed between her and the "Marriott" women - the troupe was managed by Mrs. Alice Edgar (who continued to use the stage name Alice Marriott), her husband Richard Edgar and their three adult children, Grace Edgar, Adeline Edgar and Richard Horatio Edgar. Intelligent, shrewd and dominating, Alice's great worry was her only son. Usually playing the "romantic lead" due to his tall, dark, handsome looks and physique, Richard had a charming personality, but was indolent. Alice wanted to marry him to a sensible young woman and produce grandchildren.
Seeing a way to demonstrate her gratitude for the warmth and kindness bestowed upon her and her little daughter, Polly actively sought to locate a suitable bride for the languid Richard. In 1873, she met a suitable young woman in Dundee named Jennifer Taylor, and hastened to introduce her to the Edgar family. Jenny was a willing nominee and after intense match-making by Polly, Alice, Grace and Adeline, Richard was encouraged accordingly and he and Jenny were betrothed during the spring of 1874. In July 1874, the "Marriott" troupe experienced its greatest commercial success ever and so a "come one come all" back-stage party was held at which everyone drank "not wisely but too well". As a result of this extreme intoxication, Richard Horatio Edgar and Polly ended up having a "Boris Becker broom cupboard" style sexual encounter, which everyone was too drunk fortunately to notice.
The following morning Polly was mortified and deeply ashamed, but Richard Horatio Edgar was apparently so inebriated he did not even remember the incident. A few weeks later in August 1874, Polly realised she was pregnant. Since she had been celibate since the death of her beloved husband Joseph in 1868, Richard had to be the father. She was horrified, realising that when the truth was revealed it would destroy the troupe and tear the Edgar family, "her" family, apart. Polly acted decisively. During the autumn of 1874, she invented a fictitious obligation in Greenwich that would last at least half a year, and obtained a room in a boarding house where she lived by her meagre savings through until Edgar's birth on April 1, 1875.
During her confinement she had asked her midwife to locate a couple of sufficient kindness and generosity to entrust with her child's upbringing for the pittance Polly could afford to contribute. The midwife introduced Polly to her close friend, Mrs Freeman, a stout, jolly mother of ten children ranging from their early twenties downwards, whose husband George Freeman was a Billingsgate fish porter (fishmonger). The Freemans were a loving couple and excellent parents. On April 9, 1875, Polly took Edgar to the Freeman family and made arrangements to visit as often as she was able without eliciting interest/suspicion by the Marriotts, since by the time she returned to London during April 1875 Jenny Taylor and Richard Horatio Edgar, oblivious to the existence of his son, had been married a month.
Known as Richard Freeman, Edgar had a happy childhood, forming an especially close bond with 20-year-old Clara Freeman who became like a second mother to him. His foster-father George Freeman was an honourable and kind man and determined to ensure Richard received a good education, the family being influenced perhaps by the unfortunate circumstances of Edgar's conception. From 1875-8 Polly visited as often as she was able, bringing her contribution, but maintained a certain emotional distance.
By 1878, Polly was faced with a serious dilemma. After their marriage, Richard and Jenny had relocated to Scotland, where their children were born, including Edgar's paternal half-brother, George Marriott Edgar (1880-1951), who was renowned under his stage name of Marriott Edgar as a poet, comedian, and scriptwriter for Stanley Holloway, for whom he wrote the famous Holloway Monologues, including The Lion & Albert.
But the Marriott troupe was slowly dispersing, as Grace and Adeline married and Alice Marriott's health necessitated retirement. Polly took up new employment with the Hamilton troupe but now in her late 30s was increasingly limited as to the roles and backstage work she could do, forcing a commensurate decrease of earnings. In short, she could no longer afford even the small sum she had been paying the Freemans to care for Edgar.
Arriving with the news and a distraught offer to place Edgar in a workhouse, Polly found the Freemans fiercely opposed to any such action, doting on the boy. Polly left abruptly, perhaps overwhelmed by emotion. She never visited again, perhaps because of shame. Her actions led to tragic consequences for her and Edgar decades later.
Edgar had inherited his father's swarthy handsomeness and was extroverted. However, his usual response to any problem seems to have been to withdraw from it, either literally, mentally or emotionally. By his early teens he had held down numerous jobs and was an ardent if not very good racehorse follower. In 1894 he had rashly become engaged to a local Deptford girl, Edith Anstree, and typically sought to escape, without facing the problem properly but not wishing to hurt her feelings.
In 1885, when she was sixteen, Josephine Catherine Richards had become engaged to William Henry Donovan, and Polly felt honour-bound to inform her of the half-brother living in Deptford.
Considering the "Marriott" family's welfare, Josephine agreed the secret must not be revealed and apparently felt it too dangerous to arrange a meeting between her and Edgar. She married Donovan during 1886 and had their only child, named Alice Grace Adeline Donovan in honour of her foster-grandmother and aunts, in 1887. Like her father, Joseph Richards, Josephine died young of a sudden illness in 1894 at the age of 25 years.
Unaware that the half-sister he did not know existed had just died, Edgar enlisted in the Infantry preparatory to leaving for South Africa.
However Edgar found Army life unappealing. Soldiering was hard on his feet and ears, and indeed by the time he died was well-known for never partaking in any physical exercise (which probably contributed to his early death). He wangled a transfer to the Royal Army Medical Corps, which was less arduous but more unpleasant, and so transferred again to the Press Corps, where at last he found his metier.
By 1898, he was a war correspondent for the Daily Mail in the Boer War, as well as a poet/columnist for various periodicals - a similar sequence to that which P G Wodehouse would experience a couple of years later. He also met the author and poet Rudyard Kipling whom he greatly admired.
With Edith Anstree out of sight and out of mind, he met one of his avid readers, a girl of similar age, Ivy Maude Caldecott, whose father was a Methodist minister, Reverend William Shaw Caldecott. He forbade any contact between the two. For some years Reverend Caldecott had desired to return to England unencumbered by his family and fondly imagined them unaware of this. His wife Marion Caldecott knew he would eventually seize upon an excuse to desert them. So, when Ivy defied her father's wishes and married Edgar Wallace, Marion sided with her daughter. Infuriated, Caldecott did indeed book passage back to England, but was further outraged by the lack of penitently weeping family on the Cape Town docks, the realisation they were gladder to get rid of him than he was to go an unpalatable epiphany. Many years later, Ivy would bear the brunt of his vindictiveness.
In 1900, Ivy had their first child, Eleanor Clare Hellier Wallace, and Edgar met one Harry F. Cohen, a financier. With Cohen's complicity, Edgar came up with an ingenious way of scooping the press-hating General Kitchener in 1902 with the signing of the Treaty ending the Boer War Impressed, Cohen appointed Edgar editor of the Rand Daily Mail with a £2,000 per annum salary. Edgar had become successful, but it was all about to go horribly wrong.
Superstitious, Edgar viewed any "economising" as a sign his luck was about to end, and thus had been living in excess of a £2,000 per annum salary since the first day of his employment. Then, he and Ivy were devastated when the two-year old Eleanor died of meningitis, going from healthy to dead in less than 24 hours. Reeling from the shock, Edgar was as grief-stricken as Ivy, but he was also unemployed and seriously indebted. Eleanor's death caused Ivy to loathe Johannesburg, so Edgar promptly sold their house and put them aboard a liner for England whilst keeping Ivy completely unaware of their financial situation. When they arrived, Edgar possessed only 12 shillings.
His one prudence since the mid 1890s had been to "keep in" with his colleagues at the Daily Mail and so he presented himself at their office with the tale of his daughter's death and his wife's fragile health. The newspaper's new proprietor Alfred Harmsworth, later Lord Northcliffe, promptly hired Edgar as a sub-editor. Despite the annual wage being only £750, Edgar promptly took Ivy and began living in excess of his means. She was not aware of what was happening and Edgar ignored the letters of his South African creditors.
In 1903, Edgar experienced another profound event, when his mother Polly, whom he had never known, came to him. By now 60 years old and terminally ill, it cannot be doubted that Polly hoped for some financial assistance. Alice Marriott and Josephine were long deceased and Polly had been unable to work for some months. She had been aware of her son's illustrious career as a Colonial correspondent since the late 1890s - and like Ivy and everyone around Edgar, did not know that in fact he was impoverished. Still grieving for Eleanor and ignoring his financial situation, Edgar reacted with uncharacteristic harshness, giving Polly a few pounds and turning her away. Stoically accepting this rejection, Polly used the money to travel to Bradford, where she collapsed and died in the Bradford Infirmary.
She was only saved from the ignominy of a pauper's grave when her former son-in-law, William Henry Donovan, though long remarried since Josephine's death, learned of it and hastened to pay for her interment. When Ivy, out at the time, returned home and Edgar, already regretting his actions, related what had happened, Ivy chastised him for his harshness and emphasized that he had not given Polly any chance to explain. Usually a generous person, Edgar agreed he had been hasty and, unaware his mother was already dead, decided that as soon as he had some spare time he would find his mother again. But events would thwart him until 1908.
The first distracting event was Ivy's second pregnancy during 1904 - to which she reacted not with joy but with anxiety and stress. Edgar went to Europe as a correspondent during the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War. Whilst in the Balkans he met British and Russian spies and was inspired. Returning to England in 1905 he had in his head The Four Just Men, the prototype of modern thriller novels, about four young, handsome, immensely wealthy vigilantes (including a European Prince) who kill people in the name of Justice. Upon returning, he was able to meet briefly his healthy baby son, Bryan Edgar Wallace, before Ivy left with Bryan for South Africa, where her ill mother Marion Caldecott, mistakenly believing she was terminally ill, had expressed a wistful desire to see her grandson. This meant Ivy was not present to restrain Edgar's enthusiastic excess.
Writing the story of the Four Just Men (FJM) who would kill the Foreign Secretary if he tried to ratify an unjust law, Edgar had to create his own publishing company, Tallis, to publish it. Undeterred, he decided to manage a 'guess the murder method' competition in the Daily Mail with a prize of £1,000. Edgar intended to advertise the book on an unprecedented scale, not just in Britain itself but across the Empire. He approached Harmsworth for the loan of the £1,000 and was promptly refused. Edgar wasn't really suited to editorship as he preferred to spend his afternoons at the racecourse or poker table: Harmsworth in turn was irritated by the fact that Edgar was so difficult to find instead of being on the other end of a telephone like the other editors.
Unfazed, Edgar pressed ahead - his alarmed workmates at the Mail prevailed upon him to lower the prize money to £500: a £250 first prize, £200 second prize and £50 third prize, but were unable to restrain him in the privacy of his home. Edgar had advertisements placed on buses, hoardings, flyers, and so forth, running up an incredible bill of £2,000. Though he knew he needed the book to sell sufficient copies to make £2,500 before he saw any profit, Edgar was confidently aware this would be achieved in the first three months of the book going on sale, hopelessly underestimating the expanses.
Enthusiastic, but without any substantial managerial skill, Edgar had also made a far more serious error. He ran the FJM serial competition in the Daily Mail but failed to include any limitation clause in the competition rules restricting payment of the prize money to one winner only from each of the three categories. Only after the competition had closed and the correct solution printed as part of the final chapter denouement did Edgar learn that he was legally obligated to pay every person who answered correctly the full prize amount in that category; if 6 people got the 1st Prize answer right, he would have to pay not £250 but 6x£250, or £1500, if 3 people got the 2nd Prize it would be £600 and so on.
Additionally, though his advertising gimmick had worked as the FJM novel was a bestseller, Edgar discovered that instead of his woefully over-optimistic three months, FJM would have to continue selling consistently with no margin of error for two full years to recoup the £2,500 he had mistakenly believed he needed to break even. Horror was added to shock when the number of entrants correctly guessing the right answer continued to inexorably rise. Edgar's response was to simply ignore the situation, but circumstances were ominous. Newspaper companies were expected to be standards of truth and accountability: any that even mistakenly published articles that were found to be incorrect, inaccurate or misleading could lose money seriously.
As 1906 began and continued without any list of prize winners being printed, more and more suspicions were being voiced about the honesty of the competition. In addition, for a working-class Edwardian family, £250 was a fortune and since those who were winners knew it (courtesy of the published solution) they had been waiting impatiently for the prize cheque to hit the doormat. Friction already existed between the autocratic Harmsworth and his elusive editor, and Harmsworth, having refused the initial £1,000 loan was furious at having now to loan Edgar over £5,000 to protect the newspaper's reputation because Edgar couldn't pay.
Harmsworth's irritation simmered as instead of appropriate gratitude and contrition, Edgar recovered his ebullience and confidence, and also seemed not to be in any hurry to repay the loan. During 1907 Edgar travelled to the Congo Free State, to report on how the native Congolese were being horribly abused by representatives of King Leopold II of Belgium. In the same year Ivy was again pregnant, but Bryan was two - the age Eleanor had died - making her anxious and stressed again. Meanwhile, there were during 1906-1907 two libel suits in the courts against the Daily Mail, involving Edgar. The first and most serious concerned the Lever Brothers, against whom Harmsworth had led a crusade when he learned they intended to raise soap prices. But upon the brothers publicly apologising and abandoning the idea, Harmsworth continued to gloat and approve scurrilously libellous articles, provoking the brothers into a libel suit.
Part of the case concerned an article in which Edgar had grossly inflated the figures by quoting an "unnamed washerwoman" he'd invented, as he was hopeless with money and had no idea of fiscal prudence. To Harmsworth's dismay, the Lever Brothers were awarded damages of £50,000 (the equivalent of approximately £3.6 million today). At the same time, a Navy Lieutenant named St. George-Collard began another suit after Wallace repeated an incorrect claim that he had been disciplined for brutality towards enlisted seamen before, and won £5,000.
Though the £50,000 was entirely his own fault, Harmsworth was enraged to be £60,000 out-of-pocket for three incidents all involving Wallace, and so upon the latter's return from the Congo, dismissed him. Unlike in 1902, in 1908 there was no way to hide the calamity from Ivy, emotionally vulnerable from giving birth to the couple's third child Patricia Marion Caldecott Wallace, and soon they had to move to a virtual slum. Ivy and Edgar had never been truly compatible with each other in personality anyway, and 1908 marked the start of the slow disintegration of their marriage.
But again, Edgar found opportunity in the shape of Mrs Isabel Thorne, who edited a minor magazine; she initially approached him about "romance" serials but he admitted he was not good at such - his teenage handsomeness and early marriage to Ivy meant he had little experience of romance. Then he began to relate his adventures in Africa, and Mrs Thorne realised that his rather ingenious and imaginative tales were his metier. She hired him to write a serial for her magazine, and so began during 1909 the Sanders of the River stories which were serialized for years and which he eventually compiled into novels. The movie of the same name is remembered today mostly because it co-starred Paul Robeson as a tribal chief.
At the time there was nothing strange about a series of stories portraying as a positive and likeable protagonist the governor of an (unnamed) British colony in West Africa, who relies upon gun boats cruising along a major African river to enforce British rule and who - while not gratuitously cruel - does not shrink from using brute force on occasion. More recently these stories have been charged with exhibiting racist and pro-imperialist attitudes. Certainly, they take for granted the justness of colonialism and European rule in Africa - in which they but reflect the mindset of their era and are little different from attitudes of such contemporary writers as H. G. Wells, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Jules Verne and numerous others.
As shown in the listing of Wallace's output featured below, the two ten year periods from 1908–1918 and 1922–1932 were the most prolific of his life, but for different reasons. In the first period, he wrote mainly in order to satisfy creditors. Edgar sold the rights to his novels very quickly - FJM for £75, its sequel for £80, and so forth - merely for an income and to provide token amounts to his creditors, many of which were from South Africa. Also in 1908, he recalled his determination to find his mother, not knowing of her death. Instead, he located his niece, A. Grace Donovan, who by then was in her 21st year of life and, after losing her mother at seven years of age, eager to meet maternal relatives.
Through Grace, Edgar learned of his father and mother, his maternal half-sister and the paternal semi-siblings of whom he would only ever meet one, Edgar Marriott. He also learned of Polly Richards' sacrifices to ensure the emotional well-being of the Marriott family. Edgar Wallace could not cope with emotional trauma, and his conscience excoriated him as he recalled his treatment of his mother, who had then left and promptly died. Though he and Grace Donovan remained lifelong friends, he never recovered from his guilt feeling. As his personal stress increased, his writing output also increased: he produced some of his most famous work during the 1908-1918 period.
Edgar was one of those people who did best with the least time to "think" and this was an asset for his writing, though it must be admitted that most of what he wrote was adequate rather than excellent. As time went on, he and Ivy became more and more separated: though too honourable to indulge in a physical betrayal of his wife, he began what today psychologists would term an "emotional" (very possibly non-sexual) affair with another woman. Edgar's meeting of minds and minor flirtation with Mrs Edith Cockle, nee Anstree - his first fiancee - soon fizzled out. Spurred by guilt over his actions, Edgar was motivated to "woo" Ivy with sufficient success for her to become unexpectedly pregnant during 1915, though the marriage had been moribund for several years.
However, at this time Edgar hired a new secretary, a timid, quiet 15-year-old girl named Violet King. Whereas Ivy had tolerated Violet's predecessors with relief, she perceived that Violet would be her successor. Ivy knew that as Violet matured from girl to woman she would be more ideally suited to Edgar's temperament than Ivy herself had ever been. Ivy also knew that when Edgar inevitably became adulterous with Violet, he would condemn himself over his betrayal of Ivy.
During 1916, Ivy had her last child, named Michael Blair Wallace by Edgar in belated homage to his mother, Polly. Assuring herself that Violet liked and was liked by her children, and aware they would all be at school soon, Ivy showed kindness towards Edgar to the end, gently withdrawing from his life before filing for divorce in 1918 and telling him that he was not to blame. There was also her own personal discomfort as the inescapable reality was that Violet was the same age as Edgar and Ivy's eldest daughter Eleanor, and what she could have been had she lived - that constant reminder of dreams forever lost - upset Ivy more than anything.
With Ivy living in Tunbridge Wells and the children at school, Edgar could finally concentrate on his writing and from 1918 drew closer to the intelligent, ever more capable Violet. He married her in 1921. Violet did not have any intention of disrupting her and Edgar's life much and so was shocked and upset to become pregnant, having her only child, Penelope Wallace, in 1923, though Edgar was delighted. This gradually spurred his second ten-year writing boom, this time because of personal confidence, rather than stress. His output is often compared to that of other prolific authors, such as Isaac Asimov.
There is a famous anecdote in which Sir Patrick Hastings, a visitor to his home, actually observed him dictate the novel The Devil Man in the course of a weekend. It became a standing joke that if someone telephoned Edgar and was told he was writing a novel, they would promptly reply, "I'll wait!". There is a tall tale according to which he invented and patented a "plot wheel". This fictitious Edgar Wallace Plot Wheel is an invention of Stephen King, who features it in his short story "Dolan's Cadillac", included in the volume Nightmares and Dreamscapes (1993), and in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000). It is said that Wallace was the first British crime novelist to use policemen as his protagonists, rather than brilliant amateur sleuths as most other writers of the time did. However, his heroes were far from ordinary - they were mostly special investigators of some sort who worked outside the normal police force, such as Mr J G Reeder who worked for the obscure Public Prosecutor's Office (then part of the Crown Prosecution Service. Most of his novels are independent stand-alone stories; he seldom used series heroes, and when he did there was little point in maintaining their order as there was not any continuity from book to book.
At the beginning of this period of increased output, Edgar experienced one more terrible emotional shock, with the death of Ivy Wallace. Experiencing ill-health, she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1923, and wrote a letter to Edgar requesting "a loan for minor surgery" with such successful obfuscation that Edgar did not realise she was seriously ill. Though the tumour's removal was initially successful, it returned terminally by 1925. Aware even in extremis that Edgar was incapable of coping with emotional trauma, Ivy again wrote for a loan and downplayed her condition so well Edgar believed she had a minor chest infection. The frantic summons of a doctor got Bryan to her deathbed so she did not die alone like Polly Richards, but she succumbed to breast cancer during 1926.
It was ironic that only months after Ivy's death, Edgar finally achieved tremendous fame and fortune. Ivy had been his staunchest supporter and loyal helpmate, being a de facto single parent. Even after she divorced him, Ivy kindly never stopped encouraging him - and Violet - to believe in his future success. As well being a prolific novelist, Edgar was also a noted playwright, in fact rather better at dramas than novels. Some of his plays are listed below; but he also kept up his journalistic and columnist work. His route to fame and fortune on an international scale came about by virtue of his play The Gaunt Stranger and a controversial journalistic article he wrote in the mid-1920s named The Canker In Our Midst.
Once alternative lifestyles and sexuality became more accepted, the article led to accusations of homophobia, though Edgar had many friends and colleagues in the show business world who were non-heterosexual. The article was actually about paedophilia: Edgar was trying to make the point that the licentious excess traditionally associated with the show business world, partly what had led to it being treated as synonymous with prostitution and immorality in the 19th Century, caused some show business people to unwittingly leave their children vulnerable to predators. However, the article was completely tactless, over-simplistic and almost childishly naive besides being hectoring and scolding in presentation.
Amongst those outraged were theatre mogul Gerald du Maurier, father of the more famous authoress Daphne du Maurier of Jamaica Inn and Rebecca fame. He telephoned Edgar to deliver a rebuke; when he confirmed his identity as du Maurier, Edgar cheerfully asked, "Oh, you got my letter then?" The two increasingly confused men had a cross-purposes conversation which resulted in du Maurier inviting Edgar for a meal, at which he intended to reprimand him. When Edgar arrived, he thought du Maurier had telephoned about the letter he had sent regarding his play, The Gaunt Stranger (which du Maurier interestingly never did receive).
By the meal's end, du Maurier had accurately realized Edgar's enthusiastic if rather childish personality, and saw that in his own blundering way, Edgar had not been malicious but rather trying to help. He also realised that The Gaunt Stranger was going to be a sure-fire hit to the extent he insisted on only one change - that of the title to The Ringer. As always, Edgar turned the play into a novel, and it has been serialised or made into films several times, unfortunately always with an element of rushed mediocrity. But The Ringer was the catalyst that propelled Edgar from being popular in England to fame and fortune in Hollywood.
The chief protagonist was a typical Wallace anti-hero vigilante, one Henry Arthur Milton, aka The Ringer, a legendary assassin who killed for personal vengeance. The drama's main character was Inspector Wembury of Scotland Yard, who is having a very bad day. It is his first day as the new commander of Deptford Division; his immediate superior, the brutish, inappropriately named Chief Inspector Bliss, is back from America full of ideas like Tommy guns on the streets of London and a British FBI: his fiancee has just taken a job as secretary to a local lawyer Maurice Meister, an outwardly respectable but actually murderous criminal who Wembury knows - but cannot prove - was responsible for his fiancee's impressionable younger brother ending up doing a 4-year jail term for a robbery.
Wembury's day is made miserably complete when the news is received that The Ringer, having been "confirmed" dead in Australia, is back in London and desiring vengeance against Maurice Meister, for Henry Milton left his only sibling, a much younger sister, in Meister's wardship when he left London and after Milton was supposedly confirmed dead her body was found floating in the River Thames. The Ringer was successful with audiences and critics alike and made a great profit for both Edgar and Gerald du Maurier. Shortly before Ivy's death, he had met one Sir Ernest Hodder-Williams, one half of the famous publishing company Hodder-Stoughton Ltd. Recognising Edgar's literary talent, but also his personal flaws, Hodder-Williams quickly signed him to a contract and kept him busy, but introduced Edgar to the concept of royalties. Thanks to Hodder-Williams, Edgar now kept the copyright to his work.
In 1927, famous because of The Ringer, Edgar secured an extraordinary deal - unprecedented for its time - with a cinematic company, British Lion. He was appointed Chairman of the Board (a nominal job for which he had not to do anything) and in return for giving British Lion first option on all his output, Edgar's contract gave him, incredibly, an annual salary, plus a substantial block of stock in the company, plus a large stipend from everything British Lion produced based on his work, plus 10% of British Lion's overall annual profits! Additionally, British Lion employed his elder son Bryan E. Wallace as a film editor, bringing a second strand of income from the company into the family. Thus, by 1929, Edgar's earnings were almost £50,000 per annum, (equivalent to about £2 million in current terms).
There is not any suggestion, however, that Wallace ever resorted to illegal drugs such as cocaine or heroin, and he was known to be a virtual teetotaller. Though he didn't know it, he was also suffering from Diabetes and this led to ever more sudden mood swings, bouts of melancholia and, mercifully brief, periods of paranoid suspicion about his family. Many of those suspicions concerned Violet, who was entirely blameless. Violet Wallace was an honourable woman, too much so to have an affair, but she was only human. After a while of enduring Edgar's temper tantrums and hysterical accusations and self-pitying moping, she began to stay longer at her office or on the film set: it is hardly surprising she craved laughs and pleasant conversation with youthful, handsome colleagues instead of being harangued by Edgar.
There was also Edgar's children - by 1931 Michael, the youngest, was in his mid-teens and well had his father's measure; Edgar had always excelled at the "fair weather father" type of playing and doling out money and laughs, whilst floundering at the important things a father is - a guide, an instructor, an adviser, confidante and protector. A good father disciplines and teaches his children morals and good conduct, whereas both Edgar's wives were de facto single mothers and his solution to any problem had been to hand out a £5 note or reach for his chequebook.
Only with 7-year-old Penny could Edgar maintain the illusion of omniscience. Indeed, he was estranged for several months from his eldest son Bryan until the latter's stepmother Violet persuaded Bryan to be "the bigger man" his father would never be and reconcile despite Edgar being the one most at fault. Thus the boom-time in Hollywood was just what Edgar needed as an excuse to get away but also validate his self-belief in his silver-screen talent. Hollywood was churning out films rapidly and was desperate for someone who could produce material at great speed yet have it (mostly) make some kind of sense.
Never one to just have one iron in the fire, Edgar used his new wealth and fame to venture into politics in 1931, even as he prepared to travel across the Atlantic Ocean. When he was elected Chairman of the Press Club, he had invented the prestigious Luncheon Club event bringing together his two greatest loves - journalism and horse-racing. He became active in the Liberal Party and contested Blackpool in the 1931 general election as one of a handful of Independent Liberals who rejected the National Government, and the official Liberal support for it, and strongly supported free trade.
In the event, he lost the election, probably because of his reputation for gambling. Not particularly bothered, Edgar cruised to America in November 1931. In Hollywood he began as a script "doctor". One of his first successes was the 1932 film adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles. His later play, The Green Pack had also opened to excellent reviews, boosting his status even further. His ultimate objective was to get his own work on Hollywood celluloid, namely The Four Just Men and Mr J G Reeder. Also he encountered another middle-aged man in Hollywood who was Stanley Holloway's scriptwriter, none other than his own half-brother Marriott Edgar.
Marriott's most famous Monologue for Holloway was The Lion & Albert, in which he named the epnymous lion Wallace, in what is now generally recognised to be a fraternal in-joke. Marriott would outlive his elder half-brother by 19 years. At the start of 1932, Edgar Wallace began work on a screenplay known today as King Kong. However, he then began to suffer sudden, severe headaches, finally summoning a doctor. That physician, amazed that Edgar had lived so long and was in such (relatively) good shape, almost immediately informed the astonished Edgar that he had diabetes and that the doctor could not believe he had not been blind or sight-impaired for years.
Almost as if the diagnosis released the disease's restraint, Edgar's condition deteriorated drastically within days and newspapers on both sides of the Altantic carried banner headlines declaring, Wallace Gravely Ill. Violet booked passage on a liner out of Southampton, but received word that Edgar had slipped into a coma and died on February 7, 1932 in Beverly Hills. It was journalism and newspapers that had always meant the most to him in terms of his accomplishments; indeed, for all his faults Edgar was a generous man and he spent his money for the benefit of impoverished journalists and many other worthy charities. His coffin aboard the ship to Southampton was draped with the Union Jack and floral wreaths, as it traversed London the flags on Fleet Street's newspapers flew at half-mast and the bell of St. Bride's tolled in mourning.
Unfortunately, his tendency to cause drama wherever he went was far from ended. Once the funeral was finished and Edgar buried in Fern near Little Marlow, England, there was an unpleasant surprise for his five main heirs: Violet, Bryan, Patricia, Michael and Penelope.
At the time of his death, Edgar had been earning £50,000 a year for over two years, yet incredibly was indebted for more than £140,000 and did not have any cash to his name. His will left Violet three-sevenths of his estate and each child one-seventh each, which in March 1932 was nothing but debt, much of which were still left over from his six years in South Africa, 35 years earlier. Acting with the help of Theodore Goddard and Sir Patrick Hastings, King's Counsel, the inheritors managed to reduce the debt by negotiation with many creditors to receive a smaller lump sum and a deferred payment: a royalty cheque for £26,000 during 1933 also helped. By the beginning of 1934, the estate's debt was reduced to £38,000 thanks to effort by Violet and others.
Just like Ivy Wallace, Violet Wallace also never lived to enjoy the fruits of her labours. Though a quarter-century younger than Edgar, she outlived him by only 14 months, dying suddenly in April 1933 at the age of 33 with the estate still deep in debt. Her own will had left her three-sevenths of Edgar's estate to one heir, Penelope, who became the chief benefactor and shareholder of - again, virtually nothing. Penny Wallace was a distraught 10 year old girl who cared nothing for her financial situation. Her only family were three semi-siblings brought up with endless wealth, now penniless and scrambling to earn a living, plus her 47-year-old cousin A. Grace Donovan and sundry half-uncles and aunts she'd never met. The little girl was deeply devastated. It was March 1934 when the debt was finally cleared (admittedly in only two years and a month) and the four children finally received their first income dividend.
In December, 1932, his story and screenplay for King Kong were "novelized" or transcribed by Delos W. Lovelace, a journalist and author himself who knew Cooper from when they worked on the same newspaper, and appeared in book form under the title King Kong. Lovelace based the transcription largely on the Ruth Rose and James A. Creelman screenplay. This "novelization" of King Kong, attributed to Wallace, Cooper, and Lovelace, was originally published by Grosset and Dunlap. The book was reissued in 2005 by the prestigious Modern Library, a division of Random House, with an Introduction by Greg Bear and a Preface by Mark Cotta Vaz, and by Penguin in the US. In the UK, Victor Gollancz published a hardcover version in 2005. The first paperback edition had been published by Bantam in 1965 in the US and by Corgi in 1966 in the UK. In 1976, Grosset and Dunlap republished the novel in paperback and hardcover editions. There were paperback editions by Tempo and by Futura that year as well. In 2005, Blackstone Audio released a spoken-word version of the book as an audiobook on CD with commentary by Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, and Harry Harryhausen, among others. Harryhausen stated that he had read the original screenplay by Wallace. There were also German and Czech versions of the novel in 2005.
On October 28, 1933, Cinema Weekly published the short story "King Kong", credited to Edgar Wallace and Draycott Montagu Dell (1888-1940). Dell had known and worked with Wallace when both worked for UK newspapers. This can be called a "story-ization" of the Wallace and Cooper story which relied on the Rose and Creelman screenplay, but which like the Wallace treatment, begins at the island. Both Wallace and Cooper had signed a contract which allowed them to develop the story in a book or short story or serial form. Walter F. Ripperger also wrote a two-part serialization of the Wallace and Cooper story in Mystery Magazine titled King Kong in the February and March issues in 1933.
Wallace had written the initial 110-page screenplay for King Kong in five days in January, 1932. The movie was initially to be called simply "Kong" and this was the name of Wallace's screenplay treatment. To avoid confusion with Cooper's Chang movie, a more Anglicized title was needed. Wallace suggested King Ape. Eventually, the title chosen was King Kong. Wallace began his screenplay with Denham and the party at the island, called Vapor or Vapour Island by Wallace because of the volcanic emissions. Ann Darrow is called Shirley Redman or Zena in Wallace's original script. John or Jack Driscoll is referred to as John Lanson or Johnny in the Wallace script. Captain Englehorn appears in Wallace's treatment, where he is much more domineering. Danby G. Denham is a promoter and a P.T. Barnum type showman who is looking for a giant ape to bring back to Madison Square Garden or the Polo Grounds to exhibit as a sideshow. The movie retains the P.T. Barnum theme when Denham, who evolved into Carl Denham in the Rose and Creelman treatment, refers to Kong as "the eighth wonder of the world", clearly mimicking Barnum's antics of hyping acts. By contrast, a documentary filmmaker would not hype his film in this manner. Wallace had created the major characters, their relationships, and their role in the overall plot in his original screenplay.
In Wallace's original screenplay, Kong encounters the landing party when he rescues Shirley from an attempted rape by one of the crewmen. Denham's crew consists of convicts. Shirley is in a tent when one tries to attack and rape her. Kong then appears and rescues Shirley and takes her away. Wallace noted in a notation on the script that Kong is 30 feet tall, thus establishing Kong as a giant ape. John and Denham and the party then go after Shirley. Dinosaurs and pteradactyls attack Kong and the party. Kong takes Shirley to his hideout in the mountains. Jack rescues Shirley. They use gas bombs to knock out Kong. Kong is brought back to New York. Kong is put in chains. Shirley is attacked by big cats let loose on purpose. Kong kills the cats and wisks Shirley away. Kong climbs the Empire State Building where airplanes shoot at him. Merian C. Cooper sent Wallace an internal memo from RKO suggesting that John persuade the police from shooting Kong because of the danger to Shirley: "Please see if you consider it practical to work out theme that John attempts single handed rescue on top of Empire State Building if police will let off shooting for a minute." Kong is finally killed when lightning strikes the flag pole upon which he is hanging on to. Early publicity stills for the movie have the title as "Kong" and "by Edgar Wallace" and show a lightning storm and flashes of lightning as envisioned by Wallace.
Wallace created the beauty and the beast theme, the overall plot structure and outline, many of the key characters, and many of the key events or episodes in the story. Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack were thrilled with the screenplay and were ready to begin based on Wallace's diary notes in My Hollywood Diary (1932). Wallace's untimely death, however, cheated him of the recognition he deserved for creating the story. Wallace's 110 page script was merely the first rough draft, not a final and completed shooting script.
After Wallace's death, Schoedsack's wife, Ruth Rose, was brought in to work on the evolving script that Wallace had started but was unable to finish or finalize. Rose added the somewhat far-fetched human sacrifice scene on Skull Island to replace Wallace's original attempted rape scene and the wooden, excruciatingly slow, and boring opening scenes before the departure to the island. James Ashmore Creelman, who worked on The Most Dangerous Game screenplay, was also brought in to tidy up the script. What Rose and Creelman did was to merely rework bits of Wallace's original script and to add a few cliched scenes. They were clearly merely working with Wallace's original screenplay,
Many who have read Wallace's original screenplay argue that it was much superior than the watered-down version by Rose and Creelman. Wallace had a small ape peeling a rose which later prefigured Kong's peeling away Shirley's clothes. Wallace also had an underwater scene from the perspective of the dinosaur where the ship was turned over. The ship is filmed underwater from below as the dinosaur is approaching it. The original Wallace screenplay has not been published which takes away from an understanding of how the movie and storyline developed and evolved.
The original Wallace screenplay is analyzed and discussed in The Girl in the Hairy Paw (1976), edited by Ronald Gottesman and Harry Geduld, and by Mark Cotta Vaz, in the preface to the Modern Library reissue of King Kong (2005). In 1959 a mini-revival of his work occurred in Germany and around the Eastern Bloc, and his eldest son Bryan relocated there for some time to edit and direct many of the string of made-for-tv a string of B-movies filmed in that country. These later became a staple of late-night television. In 2004 Oliver Kalkofe - one of the best known German comedy stars - produced the movie 'Der Wixxer' which is an homage to the popular black and white Wallace movies. It featured a large number of well known comedians. Both his elder son Bryan Edgar Wallace and his youngest daughter Penelope Wallace were also authors of mystery and crime novels. In 1969, Penelope founded The Edgar Wallace Appreciation Society which she ran until her death in 1997, the work being continued by her daughter, also named Penelope.
On the aesthetic use of native African characters in his tales: