Rex Todhunter Stout, perhaps the most prolific of American mystery authors, was born in Noblesville, Indiana, on December 1, 1886. The son of John Wallace Stout and Lucetta Todhunter Stout, he descended from five generations of Quakers and had an impressive legacy of ancestors, including Mary Franklin, Benjamin Franklin’s sister, and Joshua Hoopes, a member of the Pennsylvania Colonial Assembly. His father, known as a disciplined and exacting man, worked as a teacher and educational administrator as well as publisher and traveling salesman, never truly finding a vocation that could provide him a professional home. John Stout’s success was often marginal, causing numerous upheavals and moves during Rex Stout’s boyhood. His mother, one of nine children, completed college along with seven of her siblings, a rare accomplishment before the turn of the twentieth century. Lucetta Todhunter Stout encouraged her children to aspire to exceptional achievement and self-reliance.
In 1887 the Stout family relocated to Wakarusa, Kansas, where Stout would spend his early childhood years. His accomplishments during his early childhood made him known as a phenomenon throughout the state of Kansas, as he began to read at the age of eighteen months, had read the Bible in its entirety by the age of five, and by ten was touring the state of Kansas, giving mathematical demonstrations as a prodigy. The family later relocated to Topeka, Kansas, where Stout attended and graduated from Topeka High School at the age of sixteen and considered and rejected the idea of attending college at the University of Kansas, Lawrence, before enlisting in the United States Navy, where he worked as a yeoman on President Theodore Roosevelt’s yacht.
Shortly thereafter, Stout began writing poetry and then short stories and novels, presented serially in magazines. By the age of twenty-six, he had already received respectable reviews as an author. In 1916 Stout met and married Fay Kennedy, the sister of a high school classmate. Concerned that his work as an author was hampered because of financial need, Stout teamed with his brother in developing a banking system designed for children. The development of this banking system gave Stout the financial freedom to allow for a period of European travel during which time he began his writing in earnest, no longer feeling compelled to write because of financial necessity.
After the stock market crash, Stout settled in Brewster, New York, and began the building of his estate, High Meadow. During this time, a change in lifestyle and personal direction undermined and eventually ended his first marriage. Shortly after his divorce in 1932, Stout married Pola Weinbach Hoffmann, a textile designer, a second marriage for both parties. They had two daughters, Barbara and Rebecca.
In 1934, after the birth of his first daughter, Stout published his book Fer-de-Lance, in which the often-quoted and illustrious detective genius, Nero Wolfe, and his irascible sidekick, Archie, are introduced. Criticism of Stout’s work frequently notes that by combining the more articulate and thinking man’s character of Wolfe, reminiscent of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s character Sherlock Holmes and of the British school of mystery writing, with the detective Archie, based on the mostly American school of “hard-boiled” detective novels, that Stout was able to assimilate the best qualities of both genres of mystery fiction. The result is a fascinating and often humorous blend of two very different characters working together to solve crimes. Wolfe, the master genius who chose almost never to leave his house, was a connoisseur of fine beer, a gourmet cook, and an orchid aficionado. Archie, on the other hand, besides providing the locomotion by which Wolfe could gain access to locations outside of his own famous West Thirty-fifth Street brownstone walk-up, also provided the romantic entanglements and the “man about town” attitude that made him the sort of charming rogue who could infiltrate the best houses of the city, finding women eager to share information with him.
John McAleer notes in his 1977 biography, Rex Stout, that Stout may have been using the characters of Wolfe and Archie to work though relationship issues with his own dictatorial and perfectionist father. McAleer also states that both Wolfe and Archie serve as vehicles for Stout to reveal his true self, with Stout aligning himself more greatly with Archie during the beginning novels of the series and gradually completing the metamorphosis to Wolfe as an expression of his own author’s voice. Stout experimented with other detective characters in several novels, but these never gained the popular success or acceptance of the Wolfe mysteries.
Stout’s work style was remarkable; he rarely worked on any book more than forty days. He did very little rewriting and preferred to spend his leisure time pursuing a variety of hobbies and causes, both personal and political. He was an accomplished gardener and constructed the furniture for his home in Brewster. He twice served as the president of the Author’s Guild and continued throughout his life to champion a variety of causes; most notably he wrote United States propaganda materials during World War II as chairman of the War Writers’ Board.
Rex Stout’s contribution to the mystery novel may be second only to Doyle’s contribution of Sherlock Holmes. Stout’s death in 1975 at his estate in Danbury, Connecticut, silenced an important voice in American mystery writing.