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The WADSWORTH CAMP Mystery

Why have the details surrounding one of Northeast Florida's most prominent writers been scrubbed from the public record?

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Charles Wadsworth Camp wrote six mystery novels, but the man is himself something of a mystery. Camp was born on Oct. 18, 1879 in Philadelphia, and died on Oct. 30, 1936 in Jacksonville. In the last years of his life, Camp lived in a cottage on First Street in Jacksonville Beach.

Yet there are no photographs and almost no biographical information about him on the Internet. Is Charles Wadsworth Camp’s minimal Internet presence due to lack of interest in his work, or is a lack of interest due to his minimal Internet presence?

Almost all references to Camp appear in the numerous biographies of his famous daughter, Madeleine L’Engle Camp, who won a Newbery Medal award for her classic children’s book, A Wrinkle in Time (1963). L’Engle, who, like her father, dropped one of her names from her byline, simply going by Madeleine L’Engle, probably learned to love the written word from her father, a well-known author in his own right who usually wrote under the shortened named Wadsworth Camp. There are movies based on his work and his books are still available, including in newer editions. The House With the Hidden Door was most recently printed in 2012. Today, many e-book editions of Camp’s books are available online at no cost. Prices of hardcover and paperback copies vary widely.

Camp’s The Abandoned Room (1917) is a little gem of a murder mystery with supernatural overtones. The story moves briskly and the denouement is no less satisfying than many of the Sherlock Holmes adventures. The Gray Mask (1920) is a fun crime serial, part Dick Tracy and part Green Hornet. Camp was also a drama critic, a war correspondent, and the author of a non-fiction book about his time in 305th field artillery during World War I, when his lungs were damaged by mustard gas on the battlefield. Some of Camp’s novels were serialized in magazines like Colliers and Metropolitan before being published in book form. This was true for many famous writers in Camp’s day, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edna Ferber, Jack London, and even Theodore Roosevelt.

The Gray Mask first appeared in Collier’s Magazine in 1915. The film version came out the same year. The book version of Gray Mask was published in 1920.

The movie Love Without Question (1920) was based on Camp’s mystery novel The Abandoned Room (1917).

In 1922, actor/playwright Thomas F. Fallon wrote a play called The Last Warning, a murder mystery based on Wadsworth Camp’s story, The House of Fear. A silent film version by Universal Pictures, also called The Last Warning, followed in 1929. The Last Warning was the last picture directed by the gifted German filmmaker Paul Leni, known by film buffs for directing the classic old-dark-house movie, The Cat and the Canary (1927, Universal). A remake of the movie, titled The House of Fear (not to be confused with the 1945 movie, Sherlock Holmes and the House of Fear, which was promoted as The House of Fear), came out in 1939. To make matters even more convoluted, some sources call the original story Backstage Phantom, but all currently available versions of the book are called The House of Fear. It is, of course, possible that the story was reprinted at some point under the name Backstage Phantom.

The UCLA Film & Television Archives has a print of The Signal Tower, based on Camp’s story of the same name, which first appeared in the May 1920 issue of Metropolitan Magazine. That particular issue is notable for also including a article called “Spiritualism – Truth or Imposture?” in which George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, Sir Oliver Lodge, G.K. Chesterton and Sir William Barrett debate the reality of the spirit world. It calls up a line from Camp’s mystery novel The Abandoned Room, where he wrote, “’No one,’ the doctor answered, ‘can say what psychic force is capable of doing. Some scientists have started to explore, but it is still uncharted country.’” The Signal Tower featured acclaimed actor Wallace Beery, who later won an Academy Award for his role as a boxer in The Champ and portrayed Professor Challenger in the 1925 film version of Arthur Conan Doyle’s dinosaur adventure, The Lost World.

L’Engle’s obituary in The New York Times states that her mother “came from Jacksonville, Florida and was a fine pianist; her father was a World War I veteran who worked as a foreign correspondent and later as a drama and music critic for The New York Sun. He also knocked out potboiler novels.”

Though L’Engle passed away in 2007, it seemed plausible that her website’s managers could point us in the direction of more information about Camp. Sadly, an email to the Madeleine L’Engle official website was also a disappointingly fruitless quest to find out more about her mysterious mystery novelist father.

The reply from L’Engle’s website came back the next day: “We are not aware of any resources online about Mr. Camp. Sorry. Thanks for your interest.”

L’Engle’s granddaughter, Léna Roy, who is also a writer, was also unable to provide any additional details.

There is some Jacksonville-related information in a 2004 New Yorker profile of L’Engle by Cynthia Zarin, which details the spectacle of an alligator climbing up the steps of L’Engle’s Florida home (she later moved back to New York). Zarin wrote, “Madeleine L’Engle Camp was born in 1918 in New York City, the only child of Madeleine Hall Barnett, of Jacksonville, Florida, and Charles Wadsworth Camp, a Princeton man and First World War veteran, whose family had a big country place in New Jersey, called Crosswicks. In Jacksonville society, the Barnett family was legendary: Madeleine’s grandfather, Bion Barnett, the chairman of the board of Jacksonville’s Barnett Bank, had run off with a woman to the South of France, leaving behind a note on the mantel.” Zarin continued, “Madeleine found Florida stultifying and surreal. One afternoon, she watched an alligator pick its way up the porch steps.”

Some might say she’s lucky she wasn’t in Florida during the vote recount/hanging-chad debacle, which was stultifying, surreal, and felt like an alligator creeping ever closer.

Another bit of Wadsworth Camp trivia involves singer/musician Rudy Vallee. In a 1932 interview with Sidney Skolsky, Valle said his favorite book was The Guarded Heights by Wadsworth Camp. This nugget of information may be related to the cinema. Sidney Skolsky is widely credited as the first person to use the term “Oscar” for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences Award.

Other films based on Camp’s work are A Daughter of the Law (1921) and Hate (1922).

The Office of Vital Statistics in the Arlington section of Jacksonville provided Folio Weekly with a copy of the official death certificate of Charles Wadsworth Camp. The trade/profession section contains one word: Writer.

According to this document, a Dr. E.C. Swift attended the ailing author from Oct. 29, 1936 until his death at 1:40 p.m. on Oct. 31. This differs from information available on sites like IMDb, which always lists his last day of life as Oct. 30. It is, of course, possible that someone, likely a member
of his family, wanted to avoid any mention of Halloween.

Though the cause of death is blocked out to all but family members, it’s relatively easy to discover that Camp died from pneumonia at age 57. The most common story goes like this: Because Camp’s lungs were already weakened by mustard gas he inhaled in WWI, he was especially vulnerable to respiratory disease. But in the previously mentioned New Yorker profile, Zarin quotes a member of Camp’s family as saying, “He used to smoke Rameses cigarettes … he used to drink a lot … . Uncle Charles was not ailing in his life. He was a big, handsome man in a white linen suit, smoking cigarettes on the porch and drinking whiskey. He was a favorite of my mother’s, and she was a talker, and she never mentioned anything about him being gassed in the war.” So perhaps Camp’s medical problems were related to something other than mustard gas. On the other hand, many people choose not to talk much about war experiences, and millions who smoke and drink live to a ripe old age. The truth is left behind in the sands of time.

The death certificate lists Camp’s residence as “Red Gables” in Jacksonville Beach, and says he’d lived in this area for three years before his death, which means he probably didn’t write any mystery books here. He was also a critic and an editor, however, so it’s quite possible he did some work in Jacksonville.

Some biographical material can be found in one of L’Engle’s non-fiction books, The Summer of the Great-Grandmother. L’Engle tells us that her mother, Madeleine Hall Barnett and her father, Charles Wadsworth Camp, were married in Jacksonville and went to nearby St. Augustine for a brief honeymoon, where they spent at the Ponce de Leon hotel. They then moved to New York, where Camp worked as a newspaper critic, writing reviews of plays, operas and concerts; consequently, many of their friends were musicians. Camp dressed elegantly every evening, whether he was dining at home or taking a horse-drawn trolley to a theater or concert hall.

In the book, L’Engle tells this story:

“One hot summer evening, long before I was born, my mother walked through the hall and glanced at the etching of Castle Conway and said, ‘Oh, Charles, it’s so hot. I wish we could go to Castle Conway,’ ‘Come on!’ he cried, and swept her out of the house without toothbrush or change of clothes, and into a taxi, and by midnight, they were on a ship sailing across the Atlantic. In those days, a trip could be as spontaneous as that. My parents were not poor, but neither were they, by today’s standards, affluent. Father was a playwright and journalist, and their pocketbook waned and swelled like the moon; this must have been one of the full-moon cycles.”

Though there are occasional glimpses of the man in the pages of history, Charles Wadsworth Camp remains as enigmatic as ever. For now, in honor of Jacksonville Beach, his last home, here is another quotation from his only daughter:

“If I frequently use the analogy of the underwater area of our minds, it may be because the ocean is so strong a part of my childhood memories, and of my own personal mythology. If I am away from the ocean for long, I get a visceral longing for it. It was at the ocean that I first went outdoors at night and saw the stars. I must have been very little, but I will never forget being held in someone’s arms — Mother’s, Father’s, Dearma’s, someone I loved and trusted enough so that all I remember is being held, and seeing the glory of the night sky over the ocean.” – Excerpt from The Summer of the Great-Grandmother (1974, Farrar, Straus & Giroux), Chapter 8, by Madeleine L’Engle. 

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