George Baxt

Author of 'outrageous' mystery novels
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The Independent Online

George Leonard Baxt, writer and screenwriter: born New York 11 June 1923; died New York 28 June 2003.

The writer George Baxt caused a minor sensation in 1966 with the publication of his first mystery novel, A Queer Kind of Death. Its detective hero Pharoah Love was black, spoke hipster jive and drove a Jaguar, but, most startling of all, he was openly gay. "The New York Times reviewed it three times," Baxt recalled,

because they couldn't believe it. The headline was, "Baxt Breaks All the Rules". The paper's critic Anthony Boucher wrote that the book "deals with a Manhattan subculture wholly devoid of ethics or morality. Staid readers may well find it shocking, but it is beautifully plotted and written with elegance and wit."

Wit was something the rotund and jovial Baxt had in abundance, and it permeated most of his crime novels, including a series of "celebrity mysteries" which utilised Hollywood settings and personalities such as Alfred Hitchcock, Marlene Dietrich, Noël Coward and Mae West. In The Greta Garbo Murder Case (1992), the legendary star is offered a role in a film away from her home studio, prompting her to declare, "I vant to be on loan."

Baxt, who had formerly been a high-powered agent for actors and a gossip-feed for the newspaper columnist Walter Winchell, was a dedicated movie buff and knew more trivia than anyone. The writer Clive Hirschhorn, whose books include The Warner Brothers Story (1979), said,

George asked me to visit him so that he could point out the errors in the book. He had found several mistakes regarding early movies and was able to name players in some of the stills that nobody else had been able to do. His knowledge of movies was truly vast - he could name practically all the girls who dance on the aeroplane wings in Flying Down to Rio!

Before writing novels, Baxt had worked in the film industry as scriptwriter on such cult movies as Circus of Horrors and Night of the Eagle.

Born George Leonard Baxt in Brooklyn, New York, in 1922, to Russian and Polish immigrants, he was educated at City College of New York and Brooklyn College. After serving in the US Army during the Second World War, he worked briefly as a disc jockey before joining a casting agency in Manhattan. Eventually he opened his own agency with an office at the Plaza Hotel.

Energetic and enterprising, he knew that the way to get to Winchell was through his tough and protective secretary, so he courted her favour and was able to get stories about his clients - some of them tall tales invented by himself - into Winchell's influential column. Always on the hunt for new clients, he would ride in the elevator in the Algonquin Hotel to find out who was staying there. He began to write television scripts in the early 1950s. "I sold one to Kraft, one to Philco, one to Matinée Theater and a few others," he recalled. "I made sure most of my clients worked in them."

In the mid-1950s, with several of his clients blacklisted because of suspected Communist affiliations, Baxt took up an offer from the producer Hannah Weinstein to come to the UK and work on the television series Sword of Freedom (1958). "I went to England on a three-month contract and stayed five years." The series featured Edmund Purdom as an artist and freedom fighter in Florence during the Renaissance:

A lot of later famous people starred - for instance Joan Plowright played Mona Lisa. I wrote 10 of the 39 episodes. I used to call it The Sword of Boredom.

Baxt's first complete film script was City of the Dead (1960), a story of witchcraft with the singer Dennis Lotis as its hero and Christopher Lee playing a history professor who is secretly the head of a coven. Called Horror Hotel in the United States (and sold with the slogan "Just Ring For Doom Service"), it shared Psycho's device of killing off the heroine midway into the film. When asked by the writer Matthew R. Bradley if the plan was to achieve the same shock effect, Baxt replied, "I think I killed her because I couldn't figure out what else to do with her."

Baxt was then asked to write a horror film "about a circus with lots of gorgeous girls in it". He came up with Circus of Horrors (1960) in which Anton Diffring is a plastic surgeon turned circus master who staffs the circus with female criminals whose faces he has altered. Critics praised the mixture of horror and comedy that Baxt achieved with his screenplay. The Shadow of the Cat (1961) was a thriller in which a cat takes revenge on those who murdered its mistress. The director John Gilling effectively shot much of it from a subjective cat's-eye view, but Baxt was upset that the cat itself was also shown:

I could kill him. My script did not have a cat in it at all. You saw the shadow. That's why it was called The Shadow of the Cat.

Baxt's next two films were among his most admired. Payroll (1962) was a taut thriller in which a security-van driver's widow (Billie Whitelaw) wreaks vengeance on the gangsters who killed her husband. Night of the Eagle (1962), entitled Burn, Witch, Burn in the US, was based on the novel Conjure Wife by Fritz Leiber Jnr, which had already been filmed by Universal as Weird Woman (1944). In this creepier version, Janet Blair played the professor's wife who aids his career by dabbling in voodoo and witchcraft. Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson also worked on the script, though Baxt claimed that 90 per cent of the final screenplay was his. "I think it's a damn good movie," he told Bradley.

Baxt worked uncredited on Robert Fuest's cult movie The Abominable Dr Phibes (1971) starring Vincent Price:

Fuest had good ideas, like playing the organ and coming out of the floor. But I put the thing in with the plugging into the neck, I put in the mad tango that they dance.

He shared story credit on Hammer's Vampire Circus (1971), though all he did was provide the title. "Believe it or not, they paid me £1,000 to use that title."

Baxt had returned to the US in 1962, and wrote several adaptations of classic novels for David Susskind's television series Family Classics:

I made lots of money but little did I know there would be inflation. Well, comes 1965 and I have spent every nickel I had, and no jobs were coming in. So it was June 11 - my birthday - in 1965 that I began writing A Queer Kind of Death.

The book was instantly acclaimed. "I didn't know how outrageous that book was. It really shocked the pants off everyone," Baxt said. The second book featuring Pharoah Love, Swing Low, Sweet Harriet (1967), was considered even better, with Busby Berkeley musicals among the targets of the author's satire. Love was killed off in Topsy and Evil (1968), but managed to return for A Queer Kind of Love (1994) and A Queer Kind of Umbrella (1995). Baxt's other books included The Affair at Royalties (1971) and Burning Sappho (1972).

As well as selling consistently in English-speaking countries, the translated works of Baxt gained fanatical followings in Germany, France and Japan. A few years ago, the actor Laurence Fishburne acquired the screen rights to the Pharoah Love books, and Baxt was disappointed when plans to film A Queer Kind of Death fell through.

The Dorothy Parker Murder Case (1984) was the first of his celebrity mysteries. In 1977, his play Spinechiller was produced in London starring Siân Phillips, and, though its run was brief, Phillips and Baxt began a lifelong friendship. His last book, The Clark Gable and Carole Lombard Murder Case, was published in 1997.

I had lunch with Baxt just once, several years ago in New York, and found him wonderful company with great zest and a rich fund of anecdotes. He could also be caustic, and he had been known over the years to have alienated some of his friends. His family described him as "outrageous and curmudgeonly, a complaining, perpetual nay-sayer", but added that he always remembered to phone on birthdays and give presents to the children.

Tom Vallance