Answer Man cannot say with certainty that the handsome white house across from the Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria was the setting for military intrigues.
Did U.S. officers use it for secret meetings in the months leading up to the United States’ entry into World War II? Or is such thinking more appropriate for the fevered imagination of a pulp novelist?
Of course, if anyone possessed a fevered imagination, it would be the man who built the house in the 1930s. His name was Walter Karig. Years after that war ended, he was the book editor for The Washington Post. While this endears Karig to Answer Man, it is probably the least interesting thing about this fascinating Washington character.
Karig was born in New York in 1898. In World War I, he served in both the French Foreign Legion and the Free Polish Legion.
For nearly his entire life, Karig wrote pretty much nonstop. He was the Washington correspondent for the Newark Evening News and England’s Guardian, among other papers. He contributed to the Saturday Evening Post and Colliers. He wrote novels, too, employing various pseudonyms at a time when a fast-typing wordsmith could make a living churning out genre fiction.
The blurb on one of his detective novels from 1942 reads: “Keats Patrick occupies himself with newspaper work when he isn’t turning out thrillers for eager mystery fans. ‘The Pool of Death’ shows his intimate knowledge of Washington, his flair for plots that stump the expert armchair detective, and his mastery of the difficult art of giving bored mystery readers something absolutely new.”
Walter Karig was Keats Patrick, a name inspired by daughters Keating and Patricia.
Although you may not have heard of Keats Patrick, you’ve probably heard of another of the pseudonyms Karig used: Carolyn Keene, the “author” of the Nancy Drew mysteries.
There was no Carolyn Keene, of course. It was the name on the series of books that began in 1930 with “The Secret of the Old Clock.” They were actually first written by Mildred Wirt, a University of Iowa-trained journalist who proved adept at hewing to the outline provided by publisher Edward Stratemeyer.
Wirt wrote the first seven Nancy Drew books, earning $100 per title. When the fee was reduced to $75 later in the Depression, she demurred, choosing to concentrate instead on the many other writing projects she was involved in. Karig was brought in. He wrote or co-wrote three books: “Nancy’s Mysterious Letter,” “The Password to Larkspur Lane” and “The Sign of the Twisted Candles.”
Karig let slip to the Library of Congress that he had written a handful of the enormously popular titles. This later caused consternation in the Nancy Drew universe. The whole point of inventing Carolyn Keene was so she could be given life by a succession of nameless ghostwriters.
“How many times the Stratemeyer Syndicate has rued the day that Walter Karig ever wrote any books for it!” wrote Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, daughter of the publisher who had invented the teen sleuth. Legal action was threatened. A chastened Karig wrote a letter of apology, and Wirt returned to write additional books.
Karig wrote other novels under his own name. The one that garnered the greatest attention was called “Zotz!,” about a mild-mannered college professor who had discovered a magic coin that enabled him to make all sorts of mischief. (It was later made into a movie starring Tom Poston.) It was, of all things, an allegory about Washington bureaucracy.
Karig knew something about Washington bureaucracy. From 1942 to 1954, he was an officer in the U.S. Navy, holding a succession of jobs that involved writing and public relations. He was an aide to Adm. Chester Nimitz. He was in charge of the Navy Narrative History Project, overseeing production of a multivolume set of battle reports. (He and his co-authors donated royalties from that project to the U.S. Naval Academy Museum, which used the money to buy four nautical-themed paintings.)
Karig was technical director of the documentary “Victory at Sea.” He spent months in Micronesia, returning with material for a book titled “The Fortunate Islands.”
Did Karig engage in more clandestine activities? Answer Man doesn’t know. His octogenarian daughter Keating Carrier remembers men in uniforms meeting at the house.
“A lot went on in this house that my mother and I were sent out of the area for,” she said. “He’d have dinner parties that we weren’t supposed to know about.”
She still lives in the house on Seminary Road with her daughter, Birdie Carrier. Rooms are painted with murals depicting the surrounding countryside, of which there was a lot more in the 1930s. (Karig was a trained artist, too.) Keating said the house was filled with the smell of her father’s Fatima cigarettes and the sound of his fingers pounding away on a Royal typewriter.
Capt. Walter Karig died in 1956, felled by a heart attack at the age of 57. He is buried with his wife, Eleanor, at Arlington National Cemetery, undoubtedly the only writer whose work includes both “The Sign of the Twisted Candles” and the Battle of Leyte Gulf.