Forgotten authors No. 55: Hugh Wheeler

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The Independent Culture

Some writers are forgotten because they are chameleons. Tracking their work becomes a slippery business. They change names, switch genres and leave behind their work scattered through library systems and traceable only by ISBN number. In the history of this column, one name has remained on my list from the outset. Hugh Callingham Wheeler was also known as Patrick Quentin, Jonathan Stagge and Q Patrick, and facts about him are hopelessly few, perhaps because he remained single and lived privately.

I know Wheeler was born in Hampstead, London, in 1912 and died in 1987. He emigrated to America at the age of 22 and remained there all his life, writing almost 40 novels. His "Puzzle" titled books became one of the best-loved series in the US and several were produced as movies, including Black Widow, starring Ginger Rogers, Gene Tierney and George Raft. It seems surprising that they have now vanished so completely.

However, Wheeler's greatest love was playwriting. His first production, Big Fish, Little Fish, starred Jason Robards and was directed by Sir John Gielgud. He was a man of easy wit who wrote for television and produced screenplays including (with Jay Presson Allen) Travels With My Aunt and the hilarious Black Flowers for the Bride, starring Angela Lansbury as an imperious countess whose arrogant family is brought low by a social-climbing chauffeur.

Most of all, though, Wheeler is remembered for his brilliant partnership with Stephen Sondheim, having produced adaptations and books for A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures and Sweeney Todd. He also produced the book for Leonard Bernstein's hard-to-stage Candide.

Sweeney Todd captures effortlessly the gloomy grotesqueries of the Victorian era. Wheeler opened the show with an immense front-drop of George Cruikshank's etching of The British Beehive, showing the structure of the social classes within the empire. The play is harshly critical of the hypocrisies that could lead one man to elevation and another to penury. Sondheim remains a notorious perfectionist, reworking material again and again until he finds lasting forms, but perhaps he met his match in Wheeler, who enjoyed working beside such talented composers.

Wheeler also wrote theatrical versions of We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Little Prince. Unusually, he's a writer who found longevity in collaboration rather than single authorship.