Irving Wallace, On-screen

Before he made it big as a novelist, Irving Wallace spent the better part of a decade writing scripts for Hollywood films. His credits were unremarkable, and he found the work intellectually and financially unfulfilling. Nevertheless, Wallace would maintain connections to Hollywood for the duration of his career, and he apparently had few reservations about adapting his books for film and television. Starting with The Chapman Report in 1962 and continuing through CBS’s serialization of The Word in 1978, several of Wallace’s novels went on to enjoy a second life on the big and small screens.

Whatever their merits as art or entertainment, these adaptations highlight the cultural (and commercial) cachet of the Irving Wallace brand in the 1960s and 1970s. Whether in print or on-screen, his work seemed guaranteed to attract a large audience. 

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Advertisement for CBS’s television adaptation of The Word, from the Los Angeles Times, TV Times, Nov. 18, 1978. Irving Wallace collection.)

Irving Wallace Meets James Baldwin

In 1973, fresh off the publication of The Word, Irving Wallace gave a lengthy interview to the Journal of Popular Culture in which he discussed his approach to research and writing, his popular success, and his frustrated relationship with literary critics. The interview offers a clear picture of Wallace’s sharp intellect and wide-ranging curiosity; one minute he’s discussing a recent academic study on the social effects of pornography, and the next he’s meditating on the lingering influence of America’s puritanical culture. The interview confirms my growing sense that Irving Wallace was more thoughtful, funny, humane, and self-aware than the label “popular novelist” would indicate.  

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By far my favorite part of the interview, however, is Wallace’s recollection of an all-night, cocktail-fueled conversation he once had with the writer James Baldwin, in Cannes. In the interview, Wallace remembers telling Baldwin that he had just finished writing The Man, in which an African American man is elected President of the United States: 

[Baldwin] looked at me with disbelief. “The hell you have. What credentials do you have to do that? How can you write about a black man?” I said, “The same way you were able to write about a white man in your last novel.” He said, “Fair enough.”

According to Wallace, he went on to stress how, as a white writer with a massive audience, he could impact white attitudes about race more readily than Baldwin could hope to — and, moreover, that he had a moral obligation to try. 

Baldwin’s reply? “I hope it works.”

For me, this exchange offers a new glimpse into the politics of Wallace’s work, and offers yet another potential avenue which scholars might use to approach him, his work, and his audience. 

Archival Oddities, Vol. 1

There is great deal of satisfaction that comes with entering the world of an archival collection, creating order out of disorder, and preparing materials for use by future researchers. Yet the joy of archiving also stems from encounters with strange and unexpected materials, like this tiny artifact from the Irving Wallace collection:

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Central to Wallace’s novel The Word is the discovery of a lost gospel–the Gospel According to James. As a gift to people who assisted him throughout the writing and publishing process, Wallace had one hundred of these mementos printed and distributed. Wallace’s gospel is thirteen pages long and light as a feather. As for its content, the tiny book makes a big claim: the resurrection never happened, Wallace’s James insists, because Jesus survived the crucifixion as a mortal.

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Selling Wallace

Part of what makes the Irving Wallace collection so fascinating is the view it affords of the publishing world of the 1960s-1970s. Wallace’s books were big business for his publisher, Simon & Schuster, as evidenced by the million-dollar advances which they regularly gave him. Simply put, by the time of the The Word‘s publication in 1972, Simon & Schuster knew that Wallace books would sell–and sell and sell. And like any popular product in which a company stakes its money and its name, Simon & Schuster released The Word with a focused and aggressive advertising campaign.

Thanks to documentary evidence in the Wallace collection, we have a clear picture of how The Word was sold to a broad reading public. The publisher dedicated $100,000 to a promotional campaign which included prodigious radio and newspaper buys, as well as what now sound like delightfully quaint ways of selling books: counter and floor displays (see below), mobiles, and streamers. The Word was serialized in at least one magazine (Ladies’ Home Journal), and surely benefitted from the near-universal attention it received from critics in national and regional newspapers.


It is difficult to imagine such resources being devoted to selling a single book nowadays. I have a sense–despite the continued success of the Stephen Kings and James Pattersons of the publishing world–that we are a much more fragmented reading society today than we were in 1972, when your local bookstore was likely to have an Irving Wallace floor display in the window. 

All in the Family

It took a village to produce an Irving Wallace best-seller. From copy editors to publicists to research assistants, Wallace relied on a far-flung network of skilled professionals to realize his vision on the page. Among the more intriguing members of this network was Wallace’s wife, Sylvia. As the former editor of Hollywood fan magazines Modern Screen and Photoplay, Sylvia was once a rising star in the West Coast publishing world. Like so many women of her generation, however, Sylvia faced strong pressure to stay at home and raise children. After the birth of her second child, she left her career as an editor and devoted her efforts to advancing her husband’s writing career.

In 1970, Sylvia traveled to London to conduct some on-the-ground research for her husband’s in-progress novel The Word. The documents from this trip reflect Sylvia’s keen eye as an observer of culture. Attempting to document the imagined rituals of one of the novel’s characters (an Oxford professor), Sylvia visited the British Museum and a nearby pub, where, she imagined, the professor might have a hot meat pie and pint of beer at his small round table. These notes, along with Sylvia’s accompanying photographs (see below), form a colorful snapshot of the world Irving Wallace was hoping to re-create on the page. Surely, Sylvia’s research was vital to her husband’s work. 



Evidently, Sylvia Wallace eventually tired of playing second fiddle to her husband. In the 1970s, she broke out with two best-selling novels of her own, The Fountains and Empress, and thus solidified the Wallaces’ reputation as one of the publishing world’s most prolific families. 

Irving Wallace in Europe

Irving Wallace’s novel The Word, published in 1972, tells a story of international intrigue. The discovery of a new gospel in Italy–purportedly written by Jesus’s younger brother, James–sends Wallace’s protagonist, the world-weary New York public relations man Steven Randall, on a wide-ranging quest to confirm the authenticity of the explosive new document. Randall’s resulting journey across Europe–from London to Paris, Amsterdam to Greece–reads like a pulp travelogue through a Europe where mystery and romance lurk around every corner.   

Wallace was well-known as a careful and prodigious researcher. While working on The Word in the mid- to late-1960s, he employed multiple research assistants to conduct library research, interview scholars, and photograph locations that he planned to write about in the book. In 1963, however, Wallace decided to conduct some research of his own, and with his wife (the writer Sylvia Wallace) and two children, he traveled to London and Paris to begin the work that would form the foundation of The Word.

The Word series of the Wallace collection provides some fascinating glimpses of Wallace’s trip, giving us a sense of the headaches and pleasures of European travel in the early 1960s. The journey from Los Angeles (where the Wallaces lived) to Paris required a significant amount of advance planning; hotels had to be booked by letter, itineraries drafted, and personal and professional contacts notified of his family’s impending arrival. I can’t help but imagine the awkward, stuffy dinners that some of these “advance” letters (see below) may have resulted in. Perhaps, too, some formed the basis of lifelong friendships. 

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Advance letter for Irving Wallace’s European trip, 1963.

Whatever the case, it is striking how much the experience of travel has changed since the early 1960s. Lacking our contemporary reliance on Airbnb, Uber, and navigation apps, Wallace’s European adventure was surely a slower and more painstaking journey than most of us would care to put up with today.

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Irving Wallace’s international driver’s license, acquired before his trip to Europe, 1963.


Irving Wallace Comes to Claremont

Irving Wallace (1916-1990) was one of the most widely read novelists of his time. A one-time Hollywood screenwriter, Wallace had a knack for delivering stories with mass appeal. Blending workmanlike prose with meticulous research and can’t-put-it-down plots, Wallace won legions of fans worldwide with titles like The Chapman Report (1961), The Prize (1962), The Man (1964), and The Word (1972). By the time of his death in 1990, Wallace’s books had sold roughly 200 million copies, making him one of the best-selling writers of the twentieth century.

Wallace’s papers first came to Claremont in 1982, in a move that drew the bemused attention of observers. The Los Angeles Times called Honnold Library’s acquisition of the Wallace materials an “odd academic marriage.” What use, the paper asked, did the Claremont Colleges–“a bastion of the intellectually elite”–have for the papers of this “hero-novelist of the reading masses, a man about whose books critics sometimes trot out words such as trashy and vulgar?” To be sure, Wallace never enjoyed great acclaim from critics in his lifetime, and scholarly attention for his work has been minimal since his death. The Times‘s question was a fair one.

It so happened that the library saw the Wallace papers as a test case for its new computer, known as the Claremont Total Library System. The system, one of the first of its kind in the country, enabled electronic searching of Wallace’s prodigious materials. However unlikely the match between Wallace and the Honnold Library was, the sheer size of the Wallace collection presented the library with a unique opportunity to make use of its new technology–or to Wallace, “this damn computer.”


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Irving Wallace in his home office with a Claremont Colleges representative, 1982.

Today, the Wallace collection bears the marks of its early history as a guinea pig for new technology. In order to make Wallace’s papers searchable on the fledgling electronic platform, archivists in the 1980s assigned library-style call numbers to folders of documents. In time, this idiosyncratic system became obsolete, and the Wallace collection is now largely invisible to researchers. Making the collection visible again will require a good deal of reprocessing following standard archival practices. Given that the Wallace collection fills an entire room in the basement of Honnold Mudd Library, the process is sure to be a long but rewarding one. 

I look forward to sharing my thoughts about this process in the weeks and months ahead.      


Beverly Beyette, “Odd Academic Marriage at Claremont Colleges,” Los Angeles Times, March 24, 1983.


Burt A. Folkart, “Irving Wallace; Prolific Writer Reached Billion Readers,” Los Angeles Times, June 30, 1990.