Alexander Woollcott? Karl Harriman? Marie Belloc-Lowndes? Nancy Vincent McClelland? Kenneth Herford?
Dear Quote Investigator: I recently watched an excellent British film from the 1950s called “So Long at the Fair” and was fascinated by the plot [SLW] [SLI]. When I searched the net I discovered that I was not the only person intrigued by the story. It is a famous contemporary legend under the name “The Vanishing Lady” and “The Vanishing Hotel Room”. The central plot existed several decades before the film was made, and the tale is so compelling that it has been retold many times.
The great Snopes website that specializes in urban legends has a page dedicated to the yarn [VLSN]. Belloc Lowndes’ 1913 novel The End of Her Honeymoon contains the tale. Ernest Hemingway told a version in his 1926 work The Torrent of Spring. The anthology series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” televised the story in 1955. In 2002 the plot was recounted as a “true story” on the TV program Beyond Belief
I was hoping that you would be able to follow the evidence uncovered by Alexander Woollcott the famed writer for The New Yorker magazine. He composed his own account of the legend for the “Shouts and Murmurs” section of the periodical in the 1920s, and he then attempted to track down the origin. He found a very important clue that he described in his book While Rome Burns [WRB]:
… the entire story had been dashed off by Karl Harriman one hot summer night in 1889 to fill a vacant column in the next morning’s issue of the Detroit Free Press.
Unfortunately, no one has ever found this article in the Detroit Free Press. Does this article really exist? I know that you usually investigate quotations and not legends, but maybe the research techniques that you use could be employed to help solve this mystery.
Quote Investigator: The trail of clues offered by Woollcott is somewhat cold since his book was published in 1934. Yet, QI is captivated by this question and will try to discover something for you. But perhaps this task is too large for QI alone.
The brilliant urban-legend researcher Bonnie Taylor-Blake and QI worked together on this difficult investigation. She is an expert in this area and had already made progress on this puzzle when QI joined her.
The earliest instance of the legend located by Taylor-Blake and QI was not written by Karl Harriman.
Instead, the author was an extraordinary woman named Nancy Vincent McClelland who wrote a version in an article titled “A Mystery of the Paris Exposition” in The Philadelphia Inquirer dated November 14, 1897 [VLPI]. In that year McClelland graduated from Vassar and began working for The Philadelphia Press, later going on to become a noteworthy advertising writer in the 1910s and a famous interior decorator by the 1930s. The illustration above is from the article.
Taylor-Blake and QI also found a version of the legend in the Detroit Free Press in 1898 titled “Porch Tales: The Disappearance of Mrs. Kneeb,” but the story’s byline designates Kenneth Herford as the author and not Karl Harriman [VLDF]. We hypothesize that Herford is a pen name for Harriman. We also hypothesize that the date 1889 given by Alexander Woollcott in While Rome Burns is a transposition error for the correct date 1898. This is a very short summary of our findings.
A more complete description of our investigation and the results are published in “FOAFtale News: Newsletter of the International Society for Contemporary Legend Research” [VLFOAF]. Here is a link to the text. Please scroll down to the report called “On the Trail of The Vanishing Lady”.
(The statement of the “Dear QI” question for this blog entry was inspired by email exchanges between QI and Bonnie Taylor-Blake.)
[SLW] Wikipedia entry: So Long at the Fair. (Accessed 2010 September 13) link
[SLI] IMDB: Internet Movie Database entry: So Long at the Fair. (Accessed 2010 September 13) link
[VLSN] Snopes entry: The Vanishing Hotel Room. (Accessed 2010 September 13) link
[WRB] 1934, While Rome Burns by Alexander Woollcott, Pages 87-94, Footnote Pages 93-94, The Viking Press, New York.
[VLPI] 1897 November 14, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Inquirer Sunday Magazine, “A Mystery of the Paris Exposition”, Page 28, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
[VLDF] 1898 September 18, The Detroit Free Press, “Porch Tales: Disappearance of Mrs. Kneeb” by Kenneth Herford, Page C3, Detroit, Michigan. (ProQuest)
[VLFOAF] 2010 September, FOAFtale News, “On the Trail of The Vanishing Lady” by Bonnie Taylor-Blake and Garson O’Toole, Number 76, International Society for Contemporary Legend Research. link