Saturday, February 9, 2008

Two Writers Gone

Two writers have passed on, one a novelist and the other a television writer.

Phyllis A. Whitney was a well known novelist who wrote mysteries for both adult and young adult audiences. She died yesterday at the age of 104.

Phyllis A. Whitney was born on September 9, 1903 in Yokohama to missionary parents. Most of her young life was spent in the Far East, in Japan and China. She was thirteen years old when she became a fan of mystery novels. Her parents eventually returned to the United States, where Whitney graduated from Chicago's McKinley High School. Her first novel, A Place for Ann was published for the juvenile market in 1941. She published her first book for adults, Red is for Murder, in 1943. In addition to writing, Whitney had a variety of careers. She was a children's book editor for both the The Chicago Sun and the The Philadelphia Enquirer. She taught writing for children at Illinois' Northwestern University and New York University.

For most of Whitney's early career, she wrote books written not only for children, but more specifically for girls. This would change with the publication of The Quicksilver Pool in 1955, whereupon she started writing more often for adult audiences. Many of her works were period pieces, such as Skye Cameron, set in 1800's New Orleans, and The Quicksilver Pool, set in Staten Island during The War Between the States. Her last novel, Amethyst Dreams, was published in 1997.

Over the years Whitney won several awards. including the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Juvenile Novel for The Mystery of the Haunted Pool in 1961 and Grand Master Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Mystery Writers of America. She also served as President of the Mystery Writers of America for some time.

Given that most of her books were either written for young girls or women (she was once dubbed "Queen of the American Gothics" by The New York Times), I never have read any of Whitney's books. Having an interest in the history of the mystery novel, however, I am familiar with her work. There can be no doubt that she was a very accomplished writer. She has a loyal following and many of her books remain in print to this day. Indeed, the longevity of her career (56 years) must be ascribed to more than her long life.

Television writer and former UCLA instructor of playwriting and theatre arts Robert Guy Barrows died January 31 at the age of 81. The cause was complications from intestinal cancer.

Burrows was born February 9, 1926 in Fort Collins, Colorado. During World War II he served in the U.S. Army in the 10th Mountain Division in Italy. He graduated from the University of Colorado of Boulder in 1950 with a degree in English literature. He received a master's degree from the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1954. He taught at New York University from 1957 to 1962, and at UCLA from 1964 to 1970.

Burrows broke into television in 1964 with an episode of the short lived Western series Destry. For the next several years he wrote episodes for such series as The Fugitive, The Green Hornet, The Big Valley, Mission: Impossible, The Man Who Never Was, The Virginian, Daniel Boone, and Bonanza.

Burrows also became of some repute in 1968 when he produced Beat poet Michael McClure's play The Beard. The play, portraying a fictional meeting between Billy the Kid and Jean Harlow, was filled with obscenities and included a climax that was essentially simulated sex. Burrows, McClure, and actors Richard Bright and Alexandria Hay were arrested twelve different times for lewd conduct. Burrows himself was charged with producing a play without a police permit. The charges that Burrows produced the play without a police permit were eventually dropped. In 1970 the California Supreme Court ruled that theatrical performances were protected by the First Amendment and thus could not violate the lewd conduct law.

Although I would not say he was one of the all time great writers for television. Burrows was quite capable of churning out fairly good episodes for TV series. A case in point is his episode for Mission: Impossible, "Snowball in Hell," in which the IMF must neutralise a former prison warden from the tropics who has a substance which would make it possible to create inexpensive nuclear weapons. Not only was it one of the more interesting episodes of Mission: Impossible, but it was also one of the more original.Although he was hardly prolific as a television writer (his career in TV lasted only through the Sixties to 1971), he was a competent writer who deserves to be remembered.

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