Whence Novels Come
By Ron Hansen
The origin of the novel I just finished was a 2007 senior seminar on film noir and its literary roots. Among the titles we considered were Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon and John Huston’s 1941 screen version of it with Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre; Geoffrey Homes’s Build My Gallows High and Jacques Tourneur’s 1947 film adaptation as Out of the Past, with Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas, and Jane Greer; and James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice as well as his Double Indemnity.
Researching the latter, I found a stray comment that noted Cain’s hard-boiled novel, and Billy Wilder’s movie, were “based on the Snyder/Gray case.” Such an elliptical footnote would have caused me a good deal of library dredge work when I first began teaching, but Google investigated the worldwide web for me with just a few key strokes.
I found out that Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray became lovers in 1925. She was pretty flapper with a home in Queens and was unhappily married to Albert Snyder, a gruff, old-fashioned, he-man who was the art editor for Motorboating magazine. Judd was a small, congenial, finely-tailored corset salesman for the Bien Jolie brand and was married to a rather drab housewife named Isabel. They lived in East Orange, New Jersey. Each couple had a daughter; each had a mother-in-law in the house. Soon Ruth and Judd were having regular rendezvous at the old Waldorf-Astoria, the site of the current Empire State Building at Fifth Avenue and 34th Street in Manhattan. Judd’s cover was that he was making sales calls; Ruth told her husband that she was shopping or at the movies with friends. Albert seems to have been shockingly incurious, for often she was out all night.
Ruth would have divorced her husband, but she feared losing her child, so instead she tried to poison him, or gas him as he napped on the sofa. In the meantime, she also purchased an insurance policy with a double indemnity clause for accidental death. With Albert out of the way, the widow would get $96,000, the equivalent of more than a million in today’s dollars. After more than four of Ruth’s attempts at murder failed, she began hounding Judd to do the deed, and finally he relented, hiding upstairs in the Snyder house as the family attended an evening card party, and then, in an alcoholic stupor, hammering Albert in the head with a sash weight as he slept. And Ruth made sure he was dead this time by also strangling her husband with a noose of picture wire.
Hoping to make it seem Albert was killed in the midst of a burglary, the couple crazily tossed the house as thieves never would, and Judd loosely tied up Ruth with ropes and a handkerchief gag before fleeing to his hotel room in Syracuse. The police got to the Snyder home around eight in the morning and within a few hours recognized that Ruth was lying about the incident and the “giant Italian” who knocked her out. Around midnight on Sunday, she confessed to the murder, and just two hours after that the police were waking Judd Gray in his hotel.
Soon Ruth was recanting her confession and cooking up wild variations on what happened in the night of Sunday, March 20th, 1927. But once Judd was arrested and had sobered up, he decided to admit his guilt and tell the whole truth, undermining Ruth’s rather cobbled-up version of the events.
There were twelve major newspapers in New York City then, and each found its circulation double when there was an article about Ruth and Judd. And so the couple became the focus of endless stories. Palm-readers discussed the lines in Ruth’s hand that hinted at this horrible fate; their faces were examined by phrenologists to determine the hidden malignancies that caused the lovers to murder. Cornelius Vanderbilt III wrote an editorial in the New York Daily Mirror in which he castigated the couple for the homicide based on “a wild surge of guilty passion,” a phrase so juicy and apt that I adopted it as my book’s title.
The April murder trial in Queens County was a standing-room-only cause célèbre that was crowded with the famous and the uppercrust of society. It was a place to be seen. Damon Runyon wrote about it; H. L. Mencken; Will Durant and Jimmy Durante. Judd’s testimony and demeanor won him favor, while Ruth’s histrionics and lies caused her to be despised, especially by women. Within a month, Ruth and Judd were found guilty of first degree murder and imprisoned in Sing-Sing, and in January, 1928, less than nine months after their crime, both were put to death in the electric chair.
Screenwriter William Goldman once observed that most movie pitches involve someone saying his project was “just like” a particular box office hit, “but completely different.” My initial, mercantile notion was that a historical novel based on the Snyder/Gray case would be just like Double Indemnity, but completely different. After all, James M. Cain devotes no more than twenty pages to Phyllis Nirdlinger inveigling insurance salesman Walter Huff into helping her kill her husband, while for me the gradual transition of Ruth and Judd from illicit lovers to murderers was the most intriguing part of the tale. And I would be as journalistically correct as possible in my presentation, for in dealing with such seemingly preposterous and fantastic situations, the reader needs the solid foundation of fact in order to have trust in the author.
Yet there was a great deal to be imagined. We know they first met in Henry’s Restaurant on 36th and Sixth Avenue in June, 1925, but what was said there? Judd dined with Ruth and others some weeks later and she complained of a sunburn. He had an ointment in his office and they went there that night, and in the intimacy of applying balm to her shoulders and back they seemed to have fallen into lovemaking. What is contained in the preceding two sentences necessarily becomes fifteen or more pages in a novel, with little to go on beyond what was suggested in the courtroom testimony and in Judd Gray’s pencil-written prison memoir, Doomed Ship.
The emotional and psychological stages fascinated me. How do you get from a solid marriage to adultery to murder? And Ruth struck me as one of the most alluring, crazy, and riveting women I’d ever encountered. She’s a drama just by herself.
Because of the fame of the trial, the court transcript was available to me, and I of course had many newspaper articles to peruse, but some of a novelist’s research involves riding the train from Pennsylvania Station over the East River and into Jamaica, as Ruth would have done hundreds of times, to looking up old Bien Jolie corset ads on the internet, or of walking through the museum exhibit in the new Waldorf-Astoria to find out how the old rooms were decorated or why the tin roof oxidized to green. A lot of the job of a fiction writer is interesting and joy-producing; but a lot of it is just a daily grind that involves regularly getting into your project, with grand hopes but few expectations, and sticking with it to the end.
To get a sense of the Jazz Age, I naturally returned to F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Beautiful and Damned and The Great Gatsby, so there was a great sense of rightness when my agent informed me that Fitzgerald’s publisher, Scribner, would be bringing out A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion sometime in mid-2011. And now I’m hoping to develop other scraps of information into a novel.