The Pittsburgh Woman of Mystery Who Inspired Batman
    Mary Roberts Rinehart

    Mary Roberts Rinehart

    When Mary Roberts Rinehart and her husband went into debt due to the 1903 stock-market crash, Mary was inspired to embark on a writing career to help her family, which included three young sons. Success was almost instantaneous. By 1909 her mystery novels The Circular Staircase and The Man in Lower Ten were best sellers, with decades of lucrative play and movie adaptations of her works ahead. This propitious beginning paved the way for a life of travel, prosperity, adventure, and continuous literary, theatrical, and movie achievements.

    Roberts Rinehart eventually became known as America’s Agatha Christie, although her works were famous well before Christie’s first novels began appearing. She originated the “Had-I-but-known” school of mystery writing and concepts such as “The butler did it.” She wrote of spooky mansions where groups of people shiver in the dark over phantom menaces and mysterious doings (mixed with a bit of comedy)—in novels, plays, and movies years before the similar Cat and the Canary (1927, 1939) and Old Dark House (1932) films. And along the way, she managed to provide the inspiration for the creation of one of the nation’s iconic fictional heroes, Batman.

    Roberts Rinehart eventually enjoyed luxurious homes in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Bar Harbor, Maine. Her lucrative career as a celebrated writer allowed her to pursue a wide array of interests. An examination of photographs in the University of Pittsburgh’s Mary Roberts Rinehart Papers collection reveals the startling breadth of her activities with her family—deep-sea fishing, flying in a stunt plane, horse riding, hunting, playing tennis, swimming, boating—and of her travels (e.g., Shepperd’s Dell, Oregon; Glacier Park, Montana; Eatons’ Ranch, Wyoming; the West Indies, Mexico, and South America). Mary was an avid and expert angler, and the Rineharts spent winters on Florida’s Useppa Island, where she joined the Izaak Walton Club, an early conservation group, and befriended Herbert Hoover and Zane Grey; she wrote of her fishing adventures there in “The Gold-Button Fish” for Good Housekeeping magazine (August 1932).

    Mary Roberts Rinehart

    Clockwise from top left: Mary Roberts Rinehart writing an early story at her typewriter; the Rineharts’ home—where The Circular Staircase was written—at 954 Beech Avenue in Allegheny City (the Allegheny West neighborhood of Pittsburgh); Cassella, the Rinehart family estate in Glen Osborne, ca. 1911-20; the Rinehart memorial park on the site of that estate today; Mary in Hollywood cavorting with actor Douglas Fairbanks and director Cecil B. DeMille, 1920s; the writer in her equestrian, angling, and aviation roles.

    Her celebrity and association with movies also brought her to California. Several University of Pittsburgh photos are inscribed by her: “Cecil B. DeMille, Doug Fairbanks & myself” and “In Hollywood for 3 years in Twenties”; Samuel Goldwyn chose her as a featured novelist for his Eminent Authors Pictures series (e.g., Dangerous Days, 1920). During World War I, she was a war correspondent in Europe for the Saturday Evening Post (1915) and then returned for the War Department (1918); the Pitt collection contains her membership card in the American Red Cross Nursing Service dated 6/14/18—appropriately, since in 1896 she had received a nursing degree in Pittsburgh.

    At this point it should be obvious that Mary Roberts Rinehart had a significant Pittsburgh connection. Born in Allegheny City in 1876, Mary Ella Roberts graduated from the Pittsburgh Training School for Nurses at the Homeopathic Hospital of Pittsburgh (today’s Shadyside Hospital) in 1896, and shortly afterwards married physician Stanley Marshall Rinehart; within six years the Rineharts had welcomed three sons—Stanley Jr., Alan, and Frederick. The family resided at 954 Beech Avenue (now in the city’s Allegheny West neighborhood). Pittsburgh annexed Allegheny City in 1907, and within a few years the Rineharts moved north to the Sewickley area—more exactly, Glen Osborne—as did many former Allegheny City residents. Today, Glen Osborne embraces Mary Roberts Rinehart Nature Park, situated on part of the old Rinehart estate. In 1922, the family moved to Washington, D.C., when Dr. Rinehart was appointed to a post in the Veterans Administration; the Osborne/Sewickley home was sold in 1925. Mary’s husband died in 1932, but she continued to live in Washington until 1935, when she moved to New York City. She also maintained a vacation home in Bar Harbor, Maine.

    Roberts Rinehart’s writings were accepted by major magazines (Munsey’s, All-Story, Blue Book) early on—and subsequently she achieved fame and fortune from her lifelong contributions to the Saturday Evening Post, Good Housekeeping, and the Ladies’ Home Journal. In 1908 her first mystery novel, The Circular Staircase, was published, followed by the equally well-received The Man in Lower Ten (a 1909 book, initially serialized in All-Story Magazine in 1906), with its significant train trip to and from Pittsburgh. Both tales were written in the Beech Avenue home—and both were financial and popular triumphs. For the rest of her life, Mary was able to interest theatrical, movie, and broadcast producers in many of her properties, thereby maintaining a luxurious lifestyle (notwithstanding personal tragedies such as her father’s suicide in 1895, her husband’s death in 1932, a 1947 attempt on her life by a trusted servant, and her fight with breast cancer in the late 1930s).

    A lobby card/poster from Roland West’s 1926 silent film.

    A lobby card/poster from Roland West’s 1926 silent film.

    The story of Roberts Rinehart’s connection to Bob Kane’s Batman begins with her first blockbuster mystery, The Circular Staircase. The author’s movie writing/story credits, starting in 1914, numbered an amazing 32 in the silent-film era alone. The Selig Polyscope Company produced a 1915 silent film version of Staircase, an “old dark house” murder mystery, thus predating the similar films mentioned above. In 1920, the novel’s dramatic adaptation, which she wrote in collaboration with Avery Hopwood, began a long run on Broadway. This version was called The Bat, and it added the character of a mysterious costumed criminal to the frightful (and sometimes comedic) night endured by a motley assemblage of characters in a shadow-engulfed old mansion. After tryouts in Washington, D.C., and Atlantic City, N.J., under the title Thief in the Night, Mary insisted her new play be instead called The Bat—which opened at Broadway’s Morosco Theatre in August 1920. The play closed in September 1922 after a then-phenomenal 867 performances; six road companies toured the United States, and The Bat also had about a year’s run in London. Theatrical revivals followed in 1937 and 1953, but the motion-picture versions of the play are what mostly captivated a wide public—and in turn became major sources for the Batman character created by Bob Kane in 1939.

    The Bat Whispers: Poster for the updated sound-film version (United Artists, 1930) of The Bat, also directed by Roland West.

    The Bat Whispers: Poster for the updated sound-film version (United Artists, 1930) of The Bat, also directed by Roland West.

    The Bat was made into a 1926 silent film by Roland West; in 1930 West’s sound revision of his movie, now titled The Bat Whispers, appeared. This second rendition is noteworthy for its shadowy expressionistic photography, use of the tracking/moving camera, and revolutionary production in two formats, one in standard 35mm and the other in “Magnifilm” widescreen 65mm. Rinehart/Hopwood’s The Bat would remain before the public in numerous adaptations throughout the years, such as the excellent 1959 Vincent Price feature film of that title and two “playhouse” television presentations (1953, 1960).

    Bob Kane, notorious for embellishing his creative contributions regarding his Batman character, related the story of his influences on many occasions, such as in an interview with Stan Lee (The Comic Book Greats video series, 1991) and for The Family Channel’s The Two Masks of the Caped Crusader, to coincide with the 1989 release of Tim Burton’s Batman movie. Kane invariably stated that his three main inspirations for “The Bat-Man” (besides money) were Leonardo da Vinci’s sketches for a bat-winged flying apparatus; the 1920 film The Mark of Zorro (a wealthy young wastrel is secretly a masked, black-clad, caped vigilante—ditto for Bruce Wayne, described in his second Detective Comics issue as a “bored young socialite”); and the movies of Mary Roberts Rinehart’s play The Bat.

    The cover of Detective Comics #29 featuring Bat-Man.

    The cover of Detective Comics #29 featuring Bat-Man.

    It is unclear if Kane was recalling one or both of the Roland West films. While he often cites The Bat (1926, silent), he also mentions the star of The Bat Whispers (1930, sound), Chester Morris, who was not in the 1926 version, and sometimes identifies the 1930 film by name—even while referring to bat-symbol projections seen only in the 1926 movie. In addition, The Bat and its ads/posters imply a bat-winged criminal, while the stealthy figure of The Bat Whispers seems to be wearing a simple cape; the costume in Kane’s first Batman tales often displayed bat wings.

    It should be pointed out that many familiar elements of the Batman character from the beginning were the ideas of Bill Finger, Kane’s “ghost writer”: Batman as a dark, mysterious detective; various costume elements; the Bruce Wayne name; and many of the famous villains, including (with Kane and ghost artist Jerry Robinson) the Joker, whose appearance was exactly based on a horrific character in another famous silent film, The Man Who Laughs (1928). In his earliest stories Batman left handwritten notes emblazoned with a bat silhouette, and his ultimate nemesis began leaving a Joker playing card at his crime scenes—ideas clearly borrowed from the villain’s practice in Rinehart’s Bat movies, as were depictions of the costumed character scaling buildings on a rope. The Bat film also utilizes a projected circular bat symbol, which the criminal flashes to terrorize the house’s occupants—an eerie forecast of one of Batman’s trademarks.

    Mary Roberts Rinehart, who passed away in New York City in 1958, was ultimately responsible for hundreds of best-selling novels, magazine stories, plays, essays, movies, and radio/television dramas. Fittingly, the Rinehart family also established a major U.S. publishing empire: After 1929 Mary supported, and published with, her sons’ firm Farrar & Rinehart, which became Rinehart & Company in 1946 and Holt, Rinehart, and Winston in 1960. Today Mary Roberts Rinehart is recognized as a major 20th-century mystery writer—whose creations were seminal factors in bringing to life one of the world’s most famous superheroes.

    Greg Suriano is The Strip!’s editor, a writer on cultural themes, and an aficionado of the sequential arts.
    Batman, Joker, and related characters, published images, and elements copyright© and trademark DC Comics. Photographs of Mary Roberts Rinehart and related archival images from the University of Pittsburgh ULS Digital Collections: Mary Roberts Rinehart Papers. Movie/theater programs, posters, and related items, and photos of the Rineharts’ Allegheny City home and current Glen Osborne site provided by Greg Suriano.

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