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November 30, 2017

Happy Birthday, Rex Stout

Happy Birthday, Rex Stout

By: David Heighway, Hamilton County Historian

When discussing celebrities from Hamilton County, we sometimes have to be a little cautious.  Some of them were move-ins like William Dudley Pelley, some were passing through like Richard Bennett, and some left early like Lillian Albertson. Among the last group was Rex Stout, born in Noblesville on December 1, 1886, and gone before he was a year old.  If nothing else, we can claim his birthday as a definite Noblesville event.  Despite the slight connection, he later developed an amiable relationship with the community.

Stout was, of course, the mystery writer who created the detective Nero Wolfe and his assistant Archie Goodwin.  The stories have been described by some critics as a bridge between “classic” detective novels such as those written by Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, and “hardboiled” detective novels such as those written by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.

Rex’s parents were John Wallace Stout (April 8, 1848-September 8, 1933) and Lucetta Todhunter Stout (February 27, 1853-December 10, 1940).  They were Quakers and native Hoosiers.  His father had been born in Bartholomew County and moved around Indiana as he got older.  He was School Superintendent in Tipton and Greenfield, and later moved to Kansas where he was involved in law and politics.  He came to Hamilton County in August of 1884 to be editor of the Republican-Ledger newspaper, purchasing it in partnership with W. W. Montgomery.  His first co-editor was Cassius M. Puntenney who had been his law partner in Kansas.

When the family arrived in Noblesville, they leased a house at 1151 Cherry Street, which was where Rex was born.  The structure is still standing today and local research says that it was built by Daniel Craycraft in 1875.  It was featured for the month of May in the 1969 county history calendar created by the Hamilton County Historical Society and the Hamilton County Artists Association.  The artwork was by Steve Miller.

When Stout heard about the calendar, he wrote a letter in response: “My daughter asked,  ‘What are you beaming about?’  and I said,  ‘Get a whole picture of a calendar given to a picture of the house you were born in and you’ll beam.’  Now the whole month of May belongs to me and I have documentary evidence.”  He sent money for 25 copies of the calendar and a $40.00 donation for the two organizations.  Collected editions of the calendar series are available for study in the Indiana Room.

The announcement of Rex’s birth in the December 3rd, 1886, edition of the Republican-Ledger has an interesting wording.  It says, “Mrs. Losey entertained a few chosen friends Saturday.  The husbands were left at home to eat cold dinners – Republican-Ledger, last week.  Wednesday evening, a son was born to J. W. Stout.  Mrs. Stout was at the party named above.”  The terse language suggests that Mr. Stout might have had an issue with his wife going out to socialize when the birth was imminent.

Rex’s father was only able to publish the Ledger for two years.  It struggled financially and Montgomery pulled his money out of the partnership.  The elder Stout sold the paper in August of 1887 and returned to Kansas.  Copies of the Republican-Ledger from 1884-1887 are available on microfilm in the Indiana Room.  It’s surprising that the family was not able to become part of the prosperity of the Indiana industrial boom which happened when natural gas was discovered in 1887.  Rex would later joke that he moved out of Indiana to get away from Indiana politics.

In correspondence with the editor of the Ledger in 1965, he wrote, “It gave me special pleasure hearing from you.  Since I was born in Noblesville and since my father was editor of the Noblesville Ledger in 1885 – a mere 80 years ago –, our communication has special meaning. … How I wish I could show him your letter!”

The first biography of Rex Stout was written by John McAleer and published in 1977, a copy of which is available at HEPL.  The author collected information about Noblesville from Irene Miller.  She passed along some stories which appear in a slightly altered form in the book.  Fortunately, Mrs. Miller wrote them down as she originally told them.  A copy of this paper is in the Rex Stout vertical file in the Indiana Room.