Mystery & Suspense writer

A Son's Rememberance

By Jerry Lewi

~~Charlotte Armstrong (Charl as the family called her) was born on May 2, 1905, to Frank Hall Armstrong and Clara Pascoe Armstrong. She was born in Vulcan, Michigan on the Upper Peninsula. The Armstrongs lived there because Frank Armstrong was a mechanical engineer who worked most of his life in and around coalmines. His specialty was mine safety and he invented several machines that assisted in blasting coal with greater safety to the miners than traditional explosives. A younger sister, Eleanor (“Spig”) Armstrong was born in 1908. She lived in Green Bay, WI, with her husband George Burridge. They had three daughters, Ann Burridge Alderks, Belle Burridge Scott, and Jennifer Burridge Bagley.

~~The Armstrong girls lead an active life in their little town, had quite a number of friends considering the size of the town. The high school graduating class consisted of eight students. My mother often told the story, with some degree of pride and a little bit of embarrassment, of how she voted for herself as class president, not considered cricket in those days. She was outed when she won the election unanimously. After high school, Charl went to a school to a college preparatory school, Ferry Hall, outside Chicago. She stayed there a year, then went to the University of Wisconsin for two years, a finally to Barnard College in New York where she graduated in 1925. She was always interested in writing and set out at a very early age to make a career of it.

~~Her first job out of college was at the New York Times in the classified ad department. There she met another aspiring writer, Joseph (Jack) Lewi. They found each other attractive and married on January 21, 1928. During that time, she had poems published in the New Yorker magazine, her first published work, if you don’t consider plays written as a child. They had three children – myself first followed by my sister , Jacquelin Bynagte and my brother Peter Lewi. Her initial aspiration was to be a playwright. Her first ventures were produced in summer stock in 1933 on Cape Cod, MA. The Happiest Days made it to Broadway, where it flopped. In 1941, Ring Around Elizabeth also made it to Broadway. Alfred Bloomingdale of the department store family produced it. Later, he created the Diner’s Club, the first successful universal credit card. The play starred Jane Cowl. Many thought her too old and beyond her peak for a successful play. Unfortunately, that was the case and the show folded after a week. But a curious thing happened. Somehow, this play that deals everyday problems in a middle class American family became a hit on the amateur circuit where it has been performed many times. Several years ago, with my prompting, it was produced at a dinner theatre near my home in California. I had the pleasure of watching rehearsals and seeing the play. The cast and the producers were most gracious to my family and seemed to enjoy the play as much as the audience. A friend who saw the play paid me a supreme complement when she said, “Jerry, I think I would have liked your mother.”

~~Well, after two unsuccessful plays, my mother decided something else was needed. So, she started writing mysteries. The first was published in 1941 and was titled Lay on MacDuff. Shakespeare fans and scholars will recognize this as a quote from MacBeth, so I must digress a bit to tell you Charl was a big Shakespeare fan. Later she did extensive research on her own to try to determine who the Bard really was and who really wrote all the good stuff. Her idea with this first mystery was to create a recurring character, a professor who dabbled in crime named MacDougal Duff. Duff was featured in two other mysteries whose titles also came from Shakespeare that I would call conventional who-dun-its as it was your job as the reader to figure out who the criminal was based on clues sprinkled throughout the story. How our mother, an apparently traditional housewife and mother, came up with the sometimes rather grisly crimes has always been a mystery (pardon the play on words) to the family. These three books were published and were moderately successful but clearly not major hits. At the urging of her agent, Bernice Baumgartner of the literary agency of Brandt & Brandt, she changed genres to suspense and was immediately successful in selling The Unsuspected to be serialized in the Saturday Evening Post in 1945. Shortly after that, Warner Brothers bought the rights and produced the film starring Claude Rains. It was directed by Michael Curtiz. Curtiz and Rains had a similar arrangement in Casablanca only a few years earlier. Following The Unsuspected, Charlotte went to write 27 full length novels, a number of short stories and screenplays while continuing her life as wife and mother. Right after the success of this first suspense story, the family moved to California in 1946. After a couple of years as an unreconstructed New Yorker (her words) she succumbed and happily lived out the rest of her life in Glendale, CA, in a house that was subsequently named “The Charlotte Armstrong House” in recognition of her career. In recent years, Charlotte Armstrong’s literary works have received a lot of acclaim. Here’s a recap of past and more recent information about her and her work. It started in 1965 when the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center  at Boston University asked if they could be the repository of all her work. Charl quickly agreed and over the years, the Gotlieb Center has been collecting and receiving all her work and has proven to be the best source of this body of work. A number of years later, Charl’s sister, Eleanor Armstrong Burridge, and her husband, George Nau Burridge, compiled a history of the Pascoe family, Charl and Eleanor (Spig)’s mother’s side of the family. In 2003, Jeffry Marks wrote a book, Atomic Renaissance, about mystery writers of the 1940s and 1950s and asked for personal information. My siblings and cousins compiled a memoir about our mother.

~~This was followed in 2008, by Rick Cypert’s book, The Virtue of Suspense, a biography of Charl that included both professional and personal information. Some notable recent releases of her work include the French movie version of The Chocolate Cobweb, Merci Pour La Chocolat, produced by noted director Claude Chabrol, who passed away in 2011. The movie has been very popular in France and is widely available in DVD. It is particularly noteworthy to the family, as this book was written in 1948, one of earliest, and has been printed in France many times over the years. I once asked a French-born friend why the French love that book and she explained probably because of the romance and intrigue involved. In 2008, residents of Norway, MI, near Charl’s birthplace of Vulcan put on a three-day event, The Charlotte Armstrong Festival that portrayed her early growing up years as one of Vulcan’s favorite daughters. My sister and I attended this event and were overwhelmed with the outpouring of love for our mother. The driving force behind this was Marcia LeMire of Norway, a devoted fan of my mother. In 2011, inspired by this festival, in collaboration with Marcia LeMire and the Jake Menghini Museum in Norway, we published Charl’s biography of her father , Frank Hall Armstrong, I Knew a Fellow Six Feet High, a loving tribute about this remarkable man. The book was written in 1956, shortly after her father’s passing. Shortly after that, we put together a collection of writings by and about Charl and her family, titled, Charlotte Armstrong, A Master Storyteller Remembered. Both these books are available through the Jake Menghini Museum, Norway, MI. And, most recently, and perhaps most exciting, 13 of her novels have been released in e-book form by Mysterious Press.  Finally, here are some of her own words about writing, written as part of an autobiography about 1965:

~~"I cannot here put down all the theories I have evolved about the kind of work I do. Devotees of the suspense story know that they can be good or bad and they come in variety. People who never read them tend to call them all ‘mere escape.’ I wonder if these people find reading a task and cannot read for fun. Or think that they ought not? If they suppose a suspense novel to be easy to do and therefore somehow ‘cheap,’ they should try to do one. The form is related to, and has the stricture of drama. Therefore it has form, which not every novelist bothers about. The fact is, they are stories, and story-telling is an old human delight that began in the caves on antiquity.

I do believe that if you are any kind of story-teller, you are not excused from looking all about you, as well as within. You are not let off trying to understand as many kinds of human beings as you meet, in as much depth as you are able, and yourself, besides. Boredom is forbidden you. When an occasion is boring, you must simply busy yourself figuring out why. You are not – and for this Praise Be – ever going to come to this end of what is to be seen that might tell, or what is to be learned about how to tell it better. And you are not, if you are my kind of story-teller, permitted to leave your readers wondering what happened.

I am committed to ‘telling,’ which is communication. As for ‘self-expression,’ I can’t help thinking that the phrase must be imprecise. I challenge anyone not to express himself, no matter what he does.

"I consider myself a very very lucky woman. Without missing any of the dear and basic human relationships, marriage, home, children, I have also been doing all my life myself what I always wanted to do. And I still may. "

Our mother died much too soon in 1969, but it gives us comfort and pleasure to know her work is still being produced as well as being archived in many ways.