It was 1928, before the stock market crash, when people still had jewels to lose. Emilie Loring’s publisher, Penn, announced a Prize Play competition. All plays had to have three acts and be well adapted to an amateur cast.
At first, she didn’t bite. She was still writing The Solitary Horseman, and when she turned that in to Penn, she left for Blue Hill and started right away on Gay Courage. In late November, though, she remembered the prize play contest and thought, sure, she could write a play in just a few weeks and have it ready to go. It would be fun!
Quickly, she put together a story. “Where’s Peter?” starred handsome Dr. Peter Maxwell who engages a secretary with a secret. Important papers are missing, and there is an old family feud to solve. On the way, the doctor and the secretary fall in love.
“I wouldn’t deceive Doctor Peter in the first place because I think he isn’t deceivable–and second–he’s too–too wonderful.” Where’s Peter? (1928)
Emilie Loring won Fifth Prize in the contest, which made me wonder about the plays that won First through Fourth. I read through their descriptions…
1st: “The Third Floor Front” by Lida Larrimore: “Jack gives Nancy a string of pearls for a birthday present. Mrs. Wilks notices Nancy’s pearls, and Jack is declared a crook, because a pearl necklace has just been stolen from Celia Langdon… ”
2nd: “Horseshoe Luck” by Ralph E. Dyar is all about race horses and oil wells. Nary a pearl in it, that I could see, but the Everett daughters lose a fortune through extravagance, and a prize horse is secretly sold to cover debts before an oil gusher comes in and saves both love and property.
3rd: “References” by Edna B. Longnecker stars Betty Fenton, a rich girl who has no sympathy for the less fortunate. “She misses a string of pearls and accuses Marie, her new maid, of the theft.”
4th: “It Runs In The Family” by James H. Parke has an entire family trying to steal Mrs. Bingham’s prize diamond. Pop steals it first, and then, one at a time, Mom, Ann, and Bill steal the diamond from each other, until it is returned to the safe, none the wiser.
Pearls, long ropes of them, were in fashion at the time, so it’s no wonder they were first among the missing valuables. There were pearls in Emilie Loring’s play, too.
“His mother’s pearls–I remember them, they were a beautifully matched string–“
And they were lost, but not in the conventional way. They were left to a daughter who went missing.
What a theme, I thought. Everyone is so afraid of losing their valuables, from horses to bonds to jewels and documents. It was the twenties, after all, the time of flappers, high living, and gangsters. Best to keep an eye on one’s belongings! I wonder if most of the entries dealt with theft, or if the Penn Publishing Co. just happened to choose five that did?
“Where’s Peter?” was Emilie Loring’s only published play. In a family of playwrights, the way to have something entirely her own was to do something different. My sisters and I do that with needlework. One is a quilter, one knits, another embroiders, and I do cross-stitch.
It’s fun to see what she did with it, though. “Where’s Peter” is both quintessential Emilie:
A designing woman: “Terry and I are sure that Mrs. Belle Steele means to marry Peter if she has to chloroform him to get him. We mustn’t let her.”
An Irish servant: “I’ll kape her out, but you two’s gittin’ worked up over nothing. Mr. Peter’s niver been one to chase the gurls.”
A bit of philosophy: “It really makes little difference where one was born; it is what one has done with one’s life which counts.”
and trademark Baker farse:
“Give us a lift with these books. Be a good egg.”
“How can I be good egg? I have no crackly shell.”
“Why acknowledge being a hum-drum secretary when in reality she is the fiancée of the Crown Prince of Hokipoka?”
“Funny, aren’t you! Take a man’s clothes away and lock him in. Fortunately the room had a balcony. Forgot that, didn’t you?”
There are no descriptions, which seems very strange in an Emilie Loring piece. She made up for it with very detailed stage directions:
Picks up bag from couch and crosses to door, D.L. As he puts hand on knob CYNTHIA BROOKS peers through glass of door, R.C…. At the sound PETER looks quickly at mirror over mantel. Screen hides him from room. The girl stands rigid for an instant. PETER motionless. No sound in the room but the loud tick of the clock. CYNTHIA turns knob of glass door gently. Enters R.C. Leaves door open. Looks back into garden. Round the room. Looks at bookshelves. Gently moves steps in front of shelves. Takes long envelope from purse. Mounts steps. Takes out fourth book form her left on shelf below top shelf. Places long envelope in it. Replaces book. Softly climbs down steps. Replaces them. Exits, glass door R.C., closing it gently behind her. All should be done in furtive haste.
How she must have yearned to write the action in prose!
Bits and pieces of “Where’s Peter” found their way into Emilie Loring’s later novels, from the title line:
“You and I never plan to go anywhere but what just at the last moment someone rushes in and demands, ‘Where’s Chris?'” My Dearest Love
to the Japanese man-servant:
“Delectable feed for honorable doctor. It may be he not return till bewitching hour of midnight.” Where’s Peter?
“Excellency, I shed much smile at return.” Gay Courage
But it stands on its own, and every time I read it, I’m a little sorry she didn’t write more plays. I wonder if she was encouraged or discouraged to come in fifth?