Sorry, Not Sorry: The Career of Mystery Writer Lucille Fletcher
Updated: Feb 3
By John C. Alsedek:
As a kid, I was of course very familiar with The Twilight Zone episode "The Hitch-Hiker," which was easily one of the spookiest shows of the whole series. As I got a little bit older and discovered film noir, one of my fave films was Sorry, Wrong Number, starring Barbara Stanwyck and Burt Lancaster. And then I got a little older still and came to the realization that both "The Hitch-Hiker" and Sorry, Wrong Number had originally been radio plays—and had both come from the pen of the same writer, the great Lucille Fletcher.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Violet Lucille Fletcher excelled in school. While attending Bay Ridge High School, she was the president of the Arista honor society and the editor of the school magazine. As a senior, she won the regional competition of the National Oratorical Contest on the Constitution of the United States; her prizes included a gold medal, $1,000 in cash, an all-expenses-paid trip to South America, and a spot in the national championship. While Fletcher didn’t win, her entry entitled "The Constitution: A Guarantee of the Personal Liberty of the Individual" finished third. Upon graduating high school, she continued her education at Vassar College, completing her bachelor of the arts degree with honors in 1933.
The following year, Fletcher went to work at CBS Radio, where she served as a copyright clerk and publicity writer, as well as working in the music library. It was here that she met up-and-coming composer Bernard Herrmann, who was the conductor of the CBS orchestra. They began dating and, though her parents didn’t wholeheartedly approve, were eventually married in October 1939; they would eventually have two children before divorcing in 1948.
However, by that point, Lucille Fletcher had long since left her office job behind and was one of radio’s top writers. Her first exposure came in March 1940 with one of her published stories, "My Client Curly," for the Columbia Workshop radio drama series. Three more Fletcher scripts soon followed: "The Man with the One Track Mind" (June 1940), "Carmilla" (July 1940), and "Alf, the All-American Fly" (September 1940). And then came the show that truly put Lucille Fletcher on the map: on November 17th, 1941, Orson Welles’ radio company performed her script "The Hitch-Hiker."
The basic plot of "The Hitch-Hiker" had come to Fletcher the previous year when she and Herrmann were driving cross-country; it concerns a man (played by Welles himself) who keeps seeing a mysterious stranger along the side of the road as he drives from New York to California. At its core, it’s a ghost story—one specifically created to take full advantage of the still-young medium of radio. According to Fletcher, “It was designed to provide a vehicle not only for his (Orson Welles) famous voice, but for the original techniques of sound which became associated with his radio presentations. . . . Orson Welles and his group of Mercury Players made of this script a haunting study of the supernatural, which can still raise hackles along my own spine.”
The success of "The Hitch-Hiker" opened more doors for Fletcher, and she became a regular contributor to what would become the longest-running and most-celebrated anthology series in radio history, Suspense. Among the scripts she penned for Suspense are such classics as "Fugue in C Minor," "Dark Journey," "The Thing in the Window," and her most popular creation, "Sorry, Wrong Number."
One of the most taut, engrossing stories ever done on radio, "Number" tells the tale of a bedridden woman who overhears the wrong telephone conversation—and tells it in real time, further increasing the tension. Starring Agnes Moorehead (whom Welles called “America’s greatest actress”), "Sorry, Wrong Number: first aired on May 25th, 1943, and would be broadcast live six more times in the next five years. It also spawned the previously mentioned 1948 film version and won Fletcher the Edgar Allan Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America.
With radio on the decline due to the advent of television in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Fletcher moved from radio drama to novels, writing a total of ten between 1948 and 1988. Two of these later works would end up being adapted for the silver screen: Blindfold, starring Rock Hudson, and Night Watch, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Laurence Harvey. She also adapted Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights into a libretto for ex-husband Bernard Herrmann, who used it to complete Wuthering Heights: Opera in 4 Acts and a Prologue. Though Herrmann never got to hear the work performed, Fletcher said that the opera was “perhaps the closest to his talent and heart” of all his works.
And speaking of Bernard Herrmann and his works, like Lucille Fletcher, Herrmann was a Twilight Zone alum, composing some of the show’s finest music, including its original theme. We’ll be taking a look at the career of one of Hollywood’s greatest composers next time. Until then, thanks for tuning in!
SUSPENSE writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado John C. Alsedek shares the history of early radio and television and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment in his ongoing series for Flapper Press.