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.