FORGOTTEN BOOKS UPDATE ~ JOHN WHITLATCH!
As blog buddy James Reasoner recently said, “You have to love the Internet.” In James’ case, his postings regarding a specific hardboiled author generated unexpected contact from one of the author’s surviving relatives.
In my case, a recent Forgotten Books posting on author John Whitlatch bemoaned the fact that nobody in the mystery field appears to know anything about Whitlatch beyond his novels and their gorgeous, if lurid, covers. Several blog followers also commented on the lack of information regarding Whitlatch.
While my posting on Whitlatch was several months ago, I recently received and email from a friend and former co-worker of Whitlatch’s. He offered to share information about the elusive author, whom he judged as a man who had a good sense of humor who was a down-to-earth nice guy.
A phone call later, I was chatting with Bob Miller. He worked with Whitlatch in the 1960s when they were both claims adjusters for the same insurance company working out of Gower street in Hollywood. Bob remained friends with Whitlatch, and an ardent reader of the author’s work, until Whitlatch died in the late 1970s.
Apparently a force in the insurance business, Whitlatch became the head claims adjuster for All-State Insurance, working out of the company’s headquarters on Wilshire Boulevard in LA. He reportedly had a framed picture of the Chicago All-State building hung on the wall behind his desk. The picture had a hand-drawn arrow pointing to one specific window in the building, which Whitlatch claimed was the office of “the idiot I work for.”
While working as a claims adjuster, Whitlatch also attempted to branch out into private business. For several years, he operated a self-service laundry on Ventura Boulevard – in the San Fernando Valley – with his wife, Geraldine. However, the business was forced into bankruptcy when long-term street repairs closed down easy access to the business.
Crippled with a bad limp, Whitlatch didn’t let his physical infirmities keep him down. Miller remembers Whitlatch’s visits to the ranch where Miller’s father-in-law trained and bred horses. Whitlatch always managed to get around and showed an interest in everything.
During the time of his visits to the stables, Whitlatch began writing spec movie scripts. Miller’s father-in-law had contacts in the movie industry through several of the horse owners for whom he bred and trained. He allowed Whitlatch access to those contacts, and while Whitlatch never sold a script, he did receive encouragement and praise for his writing.
On one stable visit, Whitlatch witnessed Miller’s father-in-law putting Vicks in a mare’s nose, so she would accept a foal that wasn’t hers (the Vicks working to distort the mare’s olfactory senses so she couldn’t tell the foal wasn’t her own). Whitlatch was to later use the scene in one of his novels.
A perfectionist when it came to insurance work, Whitlatch was a taskmaster – never letting correspondence or reports leave the office that weren’t letter perfect. But while he found insurance work financially rewarding, he longed for the day he could quit to write full time.
Miller remembers the day Whitlatch called him full of excitement. He had just sold his first two novels. Pocket Books had given him a contract for two of his completed manuscripts and planned to publish both novels simultaneously – a first for the publishing house.
Whitlatch did eventually leave All-State to write full time and had a handful of other novels published, but there was bad news on the horizon. About two years after Whitlatch left All-State, Miller received a phone call from his friend. Whitlatch told Miller he had been diagnosed with a brain tumor and had been given six month to two years to live.
Whitlatch’s final book, Shoot-Out At Dawn, was a non-fiction account of what took place at a remote Southern Arizona cabin in 1918, written with Tom Power, one of the survivors of the event. Whitlatch died shortly after it was published by Phoenix Books in 1981.
From other sources , it appears Whitlatch’s wife died a few years ago. They had no children. Clearly, Whitlatch will remain an enigma, but thanks to Bob Miller, those of us who have admired Whitlatch’s novels have been given a glimpse into his background.