Mystery Writers Read by the Hoovers: Part I

Lou Henry Hoover and Herbert Hoover sitting and reading at Camp Rapidan. (31-1930-70)
Lou Henry Hoover and Herbert Hoover sitting and reading at Camp Rapidan. (31-1930-70)

By Thomas F. Schwartz

A previous blog post described the friendship the Hoover’s shared with mystery writer Mary Roberts Rinehart. A review of the books they owned and provided for guests at Camp Rapidan shows a number of leading mystery writers that interested Bert and Lou Hoover. A gift of four mystery novels were sent to the Hoovers on June 3, 1929, by mystery writer S.S. Van Dine, a pseudonym used by the American art critic Willard Huntington Wright.

An oil portrait of Wright painted by his brother, Stanton MacDonald-Wright, is part of the collections of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. A respected art critic, Wright suffered from a cocaine addiction that required a long absence from work. During this time in rehab, he read popular crime and mystery novels to pass the time. Eventually, he decided to try his hand at writing a mystery novel. Thus began the adventures of his fictional detective Philo Vance in The Benson Murder Case (1926).

The book sold so well that Wright continued to write others under his pen name S.S. Van Dine. The box sent to the Hoover’s contained The Bishop Murder Case, The Benson Murder Case, The Canary Murder Case, and The Greene Murder Case some of Van Dine’s early works. All of Van Dine’s titles contain the key descriptive noun of six letters—Bishop, Benson, Canary, and Greene—a defining feature of all future Philo Vance novels.

Philo Vance is a wealthy playboy and dilettante in matters of art and culture.  His vast knowledge of esoteric matters is often the key to solving the mystery. The Hoovers’ interest in art and world cultures may have been a reason they were drawn to the Philo Vance mysteries. These mysteries also contain useful explanatory footnotes as well as floorplans of the crime scene, much like the board game CLUE. As followers of Hollywood film, the Hoovers also may have seen the film adaptations since all four mysteries were turned into films with leading stars playing the lead of Philo Vance. Basil Rathbone, who would later be identified with his portrayal of another detective, Sherlock Holmes, played Philo Vance in the film adaption of The Bishop Murder Case. William Powell, who is best known for his role of film detective Nick Charles in The Thin Man series, played Philo Vance in the film versions of the three remaining Van Dine novels sent to the Hoovers.

White House physician, Dr. Joel Boone, recalled Hoover’s time at Camp Rapidan was often spent reading, “Westerns or detective yarns when he was very tired, otherwise more serious materials, often related to his responsibilities.” A jigsaw puzzle was always out for guests to pass the time as well as well-stocked bookshelves representing a variety of topics, including murder mysteries.  What has survived as an inventory of books owned by the Hoovers indicates some of the leading crime novelists: Marjorie Allingham, Dorothy L. Sayers, Dashiell Hammett, and Ellery Queen, a pseudonym for writers Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee.

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