Who Was That Lady?: Craig Rice: The Queen of Screwball Mysteryby Jeffrey Marks
Craig Rice, the author of fourteen novels, countless short stories, and a number of true crime pieces, once rivaled Agatha Christie in sales. She was on the cover of Time Magazine in 1946. However, the past fifty years have seen her fall into relative obscurity. Rice made for an interesting subject for a biography because nearly every identification point about the author was in dispute: her birth, her real name, her number of marriages, number of children, her canon of fiction, and the cause of her early death. Marks had to wade through years of research to come up with the answers to those questions. Following a trail that went from Venice, Italy to Venice Beach, CA, he talked to a number of her contemporaries, her family, and friends to come up with an engaging book that reminds readers why Rice remains the undisputed queen of the comedic mystery.
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"Her publisher swears that she was born in a horse-drawn carriage at the corner of Chicago's Michigan Avenue and 12th Street."
If all unhappy families are unhappy in their own fashion, then the lack of parental role models in Georgiana Craig's family set them apart. To understand Georgiana's demons (and canon), one must understand her family as well. The impact is obvious. While the debate of nature vs. nurture in the development of personality continues, young Georgiana's family history most definitely played a part in her later writing.
Georgiana's mother, Mary Walker Randolph, had been born into a doctor's family in 1882. Her own mother, Mary Aglae Keen Randolph, died of typhoid just a month after the birth of her second child (also named Mary). Doctor and Mrs. Robert Innes Randolph lived in Manhattan, where Randolph had a successful medical practice as a general practitioner. Upon his wife's death, he sent his daughters to live with his mother-in-law, Mary Morris Walker, in Chicago. Randolph's own poor health prevented him from raising the children without assistance.
Randolph, born in 1852 in Washington, D.C., was descended from the Virginia Randolphs (from which Thomas Jefferson hailed). Fifty years after his death, Georgiana's mother still fondly remembered stories that her father had told about his efforts for the South in the Civil War, alongside three of his four brothers. Randolph's part in the war could have only been minimal due to his young age, but the family maintained a sense of history through the stories.
Theirgrandmother, yet another Mary, had considerable financial means, and raised Mary Randolph and her older sister, Ethel. Dr. Randolph moved his practice to Chicago after a period of time, and continued to treat patients there until 1889, when at the age of thirty-seven he died of a heart attack. Mary Randolph was only seven at the time of his death. By all accounts, Mary never missed her parents or showed emotion regarding their early passing. She took well to being raised by her grandmother.
The woman who would give birth to one of the funniest crime novelists of the twentieth century considered herself a serious artist. At the tender age of sixteen, Mary Randolph enrolled in the Art Institute of Chicago. The Art Institute (which resides with the Chicago Art Museum) offered a single course of study while allowing for areas of artistic concentration, ensuring that each student became well versed in all areas of the arts.
While studying sculpting at the institute, Randolph met another young artist, Harry Moshiem Craig. Throughout 1897 and 1898, the pair studied the classical arts curriculum of the school. Craig (whom Randolph nicknamed Bosco for an unknown reason) was studying to be a painter. With his dark curly hair and boyish face, Craig appeared the likable rogue who didn't take life too seriously. Randolph was striking even as a young woman, with beautiful cheekbones and a slender, striking figure. She became a favorite subject of Craig's. The pair hit it off immediately, and were known to court off the Institute's campus.
In the fall of 1899, Craig dropped out of the Institute, most likely for lack of funds. His departure turned Randolph's romantic attention in other directions. A few months later, at the age of eighteen Mary married Joseph Davoll. Little is known of Randolph's first husband beyond his name. The marriage was not a success and ended in divorce in less than a year, a shocking occurrence at the turn of the century in polite society. It is known that Randolph left school to become the dutiful housewife, which most likely didn't sit well with the well-to-do artist. The couple didn't remain in contact after the split. Randolph was not the kind of woman who looked back after making decisions. She rarely spoke of him again.
Randolph soon re-enrolled in the Art Institute, having missed the artistic outlet and the association with people of similar interests. The domestic demands of nineteenth century matrimony were not for her. Randolph found a second home at the Institute when she returned. She also resumed seeing Bosco Craig.
In 1906, Randolph and Craig married. Mary Craig inherited a substantial sum from the wealthy grandmother who had raised her, and so the Craigs decided to travel Europe to practice their respective arts. Young, in love, and well-to-do-what better combination for open-ended travel? They made no plans to return to the States when they took off. The Craigs' itinerary included the great art capitals of Europe, including London, Paris and Munich.
Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Cezanne all lived in Paris, and the pull of the artistic capital drew in the Craigs. The art world had changed dramatically in the decade before the Craigs' descent on Europe. Picasso left behind the work of his "Blue Period" to start painting what would later be called Cubism. Chagall and others transformed the art world, heralding the age of modern art. Europe offered more than could be hoped for in the Midwest, even Chicago.
Mary Craig basked in the creative genius of Europe. Living amongst these artists encouraged her to strive to better her work and be more critical of her own attempts. She was very productive in Europe, though she often destroyed a work that she didn't like. Working with clay and granite made her relatively stationary, as it was nearly impossible to lug the oversized art around the world. Bosco Craig's painting supplies were much more mobile. Hence, Mary Craig trashed many of the less-than-stellar works for ease of travel.
After two years of studying art in Europe, Mary Craig found herself pregnant, and returned to Chicago in early 1908 to have her first child. She traveled alone. Bosco Craig remained in Europe, painting and enjoying life. He trusted that the independent Mrs. Craig would be fine on a long ship journey home while pregnant. Though no correspondence exists between the couple, solitary travel was not a good sign for the relationship. The serious Mary Craig and carefree Bosco Craig were not well suited for living together. Mary Craig hadn't yet forsaken her family duties, though. She divided her time between her sister and Craig's mother in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin.
Georgiana Craig was born on June 5, 1908, at St. Luke's Hospital in Chicago. Contrary to her daughter's publicist's later stories of birth in a horse-drawn carriage and a mother unwilling to leave the Art Institute, Mary Craig made it to the hospital for the birth of her daughter. Hospitals were still a luxury for childbirth at the turn of the century, but Craig expected and received the very best in medical care. Georgiana Craig's story only underscores the rift between the generations, and the hard feelings over Mary Craig having put her career before her first-born child.
Wanting to rejoin her new husband in Europe as soon as possible, Mary Craig returned to the continent as soon as she medically could. Alone. She left the baby with Bosco Craig's mother, Mary Church Young Craig, in Fort Atkinson. A baby would slow her progress and interfere with the couple's travel and pursuit of the arts. Having no parents of her own, the new mother seemed unconcerned about the maternal role in childrearing. After all, she had been raised by a grandmother and had turned out fine. Although she had been raised in a household of women, Mary Craig had wanted a boy, a male heir. The reasons for this are not clear, but interviews with her make the preference for men apparent. Her quick departure from Chicago underscored this disappointment in little Georgiana's gender.
Like many traditional families of the day, Bosco Craig's mother didn't live alone. Also living at her home in Fort Atkinson were Craig's half-sister and her husband, Nan and Elton Rice. Bosco Craig had been the only child of Mary Church Young Craig's second marriage (to Samuel Craig); however, her previous marriage to James Young had produced three daughters: Mary Eloise Young, known as Mame; Nancy Church Young, known as Nan; and Jessica Young, called Jesse. Although Bosco Craig's half-sisters were a generation older than he was, all three remained close to home and watched him as he grew up. The sisters spoiled their younger brother terribly, being more like aunts than sisters to little Bosco.
Nan and Elton Rice had been unable to conceive a child of their own, and started raising their half-niece as the daughter they couldn't have. In their forties, the pair had given up hope of having a child. The couple poured out their love on this pseudo-orphan, quickly spoiling her.
Nan Rice was a small, slight woman who had been called Chip by her father because of her diminutive stature. She and Elton Rice made an unusual couple for their day-extremely well-educated and independent-minded. Nan Rice had been a Montessori-type schoolteacher long before women worked prior to marriage, and Elton Rice had retired from the white-collar world of banking.
In addition, Nan Rice was an ardent feminist, teaching Georgiana that she could be anything a man could be. Mrs. Rice marched as a suffragette and followed politics closely. The couple were also devout Democrats, who kept a picture of FDR enshrined in the living room during the 1930s. They didn't participate in organized religion, which made them even more unique in the small town of Fort Atkinson. As a result, Georgiana was never baptized or christened after her birth. Quite an unusual set of circumstances for the first years of the century.
Despite some difficulties in caring for a newborn without the birth mother, Nan and Elton Rice adapted well to the situation. Mary and Bosco Craig would not visit Georgiana until she turned three. When the Craigs returned to the U.S. in 1911, they reclaimed their daughter on a quick trip to Fort Atkinson and moved to Chicago, where they continued to pursue their interests in painting and sculpture. Mary Craig enrolled once more at the Art Institute, to apply some of the techniques she had learned in Europe.
While legally the birth parents could take their child wherever they chose, uprooting the three-year old from the only home she knew had a tremendous psychological impact on Georgiana. The loss of security and sense of home traumatized her in an emotional upheaval akin to losing one's parents. Even as an adult, she would mention the abandonment, and it was the major theme in her fiction. She didn't take well to the new family situation or to Chicago. Nan and Elton Rice were heart-broken over the loss of the child they now considered their own.
Despite this domestic instability, Georgiana remained a precocious child and learned to read by the age of four. The little girl questioned everything, and possessed a vivid imagination. She was a bookish child, hampered by a number of allergies and illnesses. Photos taken at the tine show a thin and gangly Georgiana with thick dark hair like her father, and chubby cheeks that dimpled when she smiled.
Living in Chicago didn't suit Georgiana's parents, either. After three years in the United States, they decided to return to Europe to paint and sculpt-again without their daughter. They left Georgiana with the Rices for a second time. They assumed that the couple would be willing to take the child back on the same terms as before: raise her until we want her back. By age six, in effect, Georgiana had been orphaned three times, and in the process left with absolutely no sense of belonging or family. She clung to Nan and Elton Rice when she returned to them, afraid of losing them again. Despite an inquisitive nature that presumed a certain independence, Georgiana was extremely needy emotionally, and demanded a great deal of attention from the Rices. As an only child, she was able to receive most of the family's focus.
Nan and Elton Rice were happy to take back Georgiana. Shortly after, the Rices left retirement for a more bucolic existence. They moved to Washington state (near the Canadian border) to run a commercial apple orchard. Records do not make clear whether the Rices owned or merely tenanted the farm, but they were responsible for the crop of apples grown there. The couple dabbled in horticultural science as they farmed.
The farm life agreed with Georgiana; she was a sickly child who needed a great deal of medical attention. She had contracted a number of respiratory infections. The girl had suffered from a number of allergies to foods including strawberries, which made her break out in hives. The quiet atmosphere of the orchard allowed Georgiana to grow and be nurtured by the Rices without outside influences.
Mary and Bosco Craig's timing for leaving America couldn't have been worse. They arrived in Europe in early 1914. Secret alliances conceived by the heads of state in Europe, and the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand, began a chain of events that led to the outbreak of fighting in the Balkans, quickly engulfing the continent. When war broke out in Europe in August, 1914, the Craigs hurriedly decided to move to Bombay, India. They had spent just a few months on the continent that had afforded them so much pleasure before the start of World War I and a forever-changed Europe. In Asia, they continued their artistic pursuits, but the challenge of their life, along with the lack of artistic outlets, took a toll on the couple.
In 1918, Mary Craig returned to the United States when she became pregnant for a second time. A deadly flu epidemic had swept the Far East, killing millions of people globally. Craig wanted to be far away from possible infection when she gave birth. By this time, traveling with Bosco Craig had lost its appeal, and she started making plans to remain in the United States after the birth of her second child.
Bosco Craig decided to stay in the Far East, and continued to travel extensively in the Orient. Without his wife's money, the charming rogue had to make a living on his own. In order to support the lifestyle Mary Craig had provided, he gave up his painting career to become a land broker. He had never been very serious about his art. Mary Craig considered herself a sculptress above all else, including mother. Later in life, she reflected that Bosco Craig could have been a good painter if he had bothered to apply himself, but no one can really verify that assumption. The only known remaining work by Craig is a striking portrait of his wife, presently held by Craig's son-in-law, Howard Metcalfe.
Mary and Bosco Craig's son, Christopher, was born in February of 1919. Without seeing each other again, the Craigs divorced soon after. By this time, Georgiana was almost eleven and had little memory of her birth parents. Her life was with the Rices, who took care of her scraped knees and colds. However, on her way to live in Santa Fe, Mary Craig stopped in Washington to retrieve her daughter. With the birth of her second child, the long-awaited son, Craig had decided to settle down and raise both children by herself. Whatever reception she was expecting, it certainly wasn't the outburst that young Georgiana provided.
"Go to hell," she told her mother. While few stories of Georgiana Craig's youth remain, the family was clear that she adamantly refused to move again.
Georgiana's decision to stay was the opening salvo in what would be a lifelong battle between mother and daughter, played out over decades, across continents, and in the news media.
Georgiana had been raised to think independently, and the child harbored extreme bitterness over being left by her birth parents. Raising her voice and cursing, she expressed her determination to live with the Rices. With the exception of the few years in Chicago, Nan and Elton Rice had raised Georgiana from a few days old. She gave her undivided love to these people, not the Craigs. Mary Craig left the farm with only baby Christopher. Scorned, she took her daughter's words seriously and didn't maintain maternal relations with the girl after that fight. Even in later years, she barely acknowledged the fact that she'd had a first-born daughter.
Mary Craig didn't forgive Georgiana for choosing to remain with her half-aunt and uncle, and took a malicious pleasure in spurning her in public at every opportunity. Georgiana, however, tried to forge a relationship with Craig despite wanting to remain with the Rices. She referred to Nan and Elton Rice as her foster-parents, and still called Mary "Mother." Craig, in return, rejected her daughter when she could, to punish her for choosing the Rices over her. On one occasion, she embarrassed Georgiana by turning away from a kiss in others' company. Mary Craig was also known for only speaking about her sons, and not "that girl" as she referred to Georgiana. Even when she was interviewed for Time in 1946, Craig was still hostile about the rejection, referring to her daughter as "George," and saying that she didn't have time to read her daughter's books.
After this episode with Mary Craig, Nan and Elton Rice formalized their relationship with Georgiana by adopting her in 1921. Mary signed the paperwork approving the adoption, and the girl was now officially named Georgiana Craig Rice, called Anna by her adoptive parents. One more name for the child. They continued to live on the small farm, in the Okanogan Valley in Washington State, only a few miles south of the Canadian border. Nan Rice taught herself to graft the apple trees, and experimented with the orchard while raising Anna. The family enjoyed a quiet, bucolic existence. The small town didn't offer a lot in the way of social activities, and kept the family close to home where they could concentrate on Georgiana's education and her emotional needs. Without the distractions, Georgiana was able to grasp a number of subjects and receive the attention and love she needed.
Living in Washington, Georgiana was taught mainly by private tutors who emphasized history, music, and languages. Her sharp intelligence and artistic nature began to show. By the time she reached twelve, Georgiana had a rough knowledge of Latin and Greek. There seemed to be no end to her range of interests or her ability to pick up a subject quickly if she was interested.
Attempts at a more formal education didn't work as well. Georgiana's neediness and desire to cling to Nan and Elton Rice made separation nearly impossible. She wanted to stay at home at all costs. On several occasions, when Georgiana was sent to a boarding school, she ran away or behaved so badly that she was returned home-the end result she desired. Georgiana Rice couldn't stand to be away from her loved ones, not even for short periods of time. Until almost the end of her life, Nan Rice would be a constant companion to Georgiana.
She was happiest as a child in the company of Nan and Elton Rice, and while creating. Georgiana began writing poetry when she was nine years old. When she was only ten, one of her poems won a contest for a Chicago newspaper. Even these poems show a twinkle of the humor and wit that she would use in later years-a play on words, an image to make the reader smile.
It's very hard to think of
The way men do these days;
The way they try to kill each other
In ten thousand different ways.
I don't think God intended
That His children all should fight
And have to keep sentries on guard
Whether its [sic] day or night.
The kaiser wants to rule the world
I think he is a pig;
Or else he's made of sausages,
And they are awfully big.
Nan and Elton Rice exhibited no gifts for the creative arts, but they encouraged their daughter at every opportunity, trying to mold her artistic nature. Georgiana wrote dozens of poems that Nan Rice lovingly bound into small books with pictures to accompany the verse. Georgiana also studied piano, and in those early years hoped to train as a concert pianist. The Rices helped by providing her with lessons and sheet music.
Georgiana's real mother continued to pursue her own creative arts. When she left Georgiana with the Rices, Mary Craig moved to the Chama Valley (about one hundred miles from Santa Fe). She soon met an artist in New Mexico who went by the name Sacha Finklestein. With his penchant for stories and confusing names, the man could have easily posed as Georgiana's father. A Russian by birth, Alexander Illytch Patraeff, he was said to have been in turn a count and a prince in Bessarabia; however, the number of Finklesteins in the royal court was slim. More likely the ethnic surname marked him as being of Jewish heritage, and thus targeted for a pogrom. Many Russian refugees claimed a noble heritage, since the Communists had destroyed any records that might refute such a claim. An aura of mystery surrounded these outcast royals. Finklestein left the country at the onset of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1919 and moved to Paris, where he studied art. Many of the so-called White Russians, the elite of the czarist society, fled the country at this time and sought shelter elsewhere. After a short stay in Western Europe, Finklestein immigrated to the United States.
Finklestein arrived in Santa Fe at the same time as Mary Craig. Like Bosco Craig, he painted and exhibited his work, under the name of F.I. Sacha. Mary Craig enjoyed the time at the artists' community in New Mexico, as she put on two exhibitions of her own sculptures. She felt fulfilled in the company of others artists, as she had been at the Institute and in Europe. Again, she began courting an artist.
Finklestein and Mary Craig married in or about 1922. Because of his dislike of his own surname at that time, Finklestein adopted the surname Randolph, Mary's maiden name. Mary Walker Randolph Davoll Craig Finklestein became Mary Randolph once more. This name change and Georgiana's adoption added to the confusion regarding Georgiana's real name.
The stories surrounding her name became almost as convoluted as a Craig Rice plot. Critical works in later years would assume that Rice's maiden name was the same as her mother's married name; hence, almost all of the articles about the mystery writer would label her Georgiana Randolph or even Georgiana Walker Randolph. She found this confusion amusing and didn't bother to correct misunderstandings. Instead, she fueled them. Private jokes amused her most, especially when they resulted in public confusion. Later, Rice would add to the doubts by giving out variations of her real name, delighting in fooling people. By the 1980s the subject was so murky that researchers confidently stated that no indication remained of how the author had selected the pseudonym "Craig Rice." They labeled her penname a mystery. How ironic that in fact it was her full, adopted name.
Shortly after the Randolph's wedding, the couple and Christopher set off for Europe, traveling extensively around the continent. While living in Czechoslovakia in 1924, Mary Randolph gave birth to a third child, another son, named Alexander after his father. The growing family bought a home overlooking the Grand Canal in Venice, where Christopher and Alexander were raised.
Georgiana Rice had little contact with her birth family at this point. She didn't know of the birth of her second brother until much later in life. About the same time, the Rices sold the commercial orchard and decided to travel. Georgiana Rice had graduated from Oroville High School in May 1924, and soon the family migrated south to move in with Nan Rice's sister, Mame Young, in San Diego. Young was much older than her sister, and large compared to the diminutive Nan Rice. She had been a schoolteacher, and had moved to La Jolla many years prior. Her efforts on behalf of young Georgiana Rice were needed. Attempts to educate the Rices' daughter were proving futile. Georgiana had grown into a very headstrong young woman, bright and lively, charming and gay, but also incredibly stubborn. Nan and Elton Rice doted on her, not reproaching her behavior, which didn't help the situation.
While living with Mame Young, Georgiana Rice attended the State Teacher's College (later San Diego State University), majoring in letters and science. The Rices and Mame Young all encouraged Georgiana in her studies. By this time, she was showing traces of being the funny young woman remembered by her schoolmates as the class clown. She made more of an impression on the boys in her class with her glamorous looks. Georgiana was still the slender young woman with dark hair of earlier photos, but her cheeks had thinned out, leaving her with the beautiful bone structure of her mother. The attractive brunette wore her hair short to keep the curls under control. She was quite a beauty.
By the mid-1920s, Rice enjoyed the looser, less studious mentality of the flappers on campus, not bothering to spend time on her class work. The post-war years had allowed women a bit more freedom in their actions, along with the right to vote. As a result, Rice became a cut-up in class. Schoolrooms became a theater for her antics.
Rice only lasted a year at the school, mostly because of her failing grades. Not a surprise for a woman who was more interested in entertaining than matriculating. She had tasted the fruits of what her quick wit could get her-unlimited attention and laughter. Grades were secondary at that point. Ironically, Rice received her worst grades in the subjects directly relating to her natural parents: History of Modern Europe and Art Structure.
Although Georgiana Rice didn't fare well in her studies, she blossomed in her creative efforts. She tried any number of the arts before settling down to one. Unsure of her own talents and interests, Rice attempted several artistic endeavors before she discovered her passion for writing. Although she tickled the ivories informally at the parties she was learning to love, Rice had given up hope of becoming a concert pianist. She joined The State College Players at State Teacher's College and participated in the dramas there. At one point, she played the lead role in a performance for a local school, acting the part of beauty in The Prince who Learned Everything out of Books. Finally, Rice worked for a reform newspaper while she was in college, earning a salary of $6 a week. She found that she enjoyed the daily change of work brought on by the news and the excitement of unfolding events, re-creating the scenes for her readers. "I unwittingly uncovered the wrong scandal, got fired, took the scandalous information to a rival paper, got hired at twice the salary," she told Fred Dannay years later. By the time she left, Rice worked as a police reporter for the newspaper at the wage of $22.50. These days of crime, courts, and lawyers made a big impression on her, and she remembered them often in her letters and essays. She regaled friends with the story of this trial or another, using the court cases, which seemed to be burned into her mind as well as the court record. At this point, Rice gave up her aspiration of working on any other creative art, and applied herself solely to writing. After watching their daughter's disastrous freshman year at State Teacher's College, Nan and Elton Rice chose to return to Fort Atkinson. Georgiana Rice followed them to start her career as a journalist.
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