How the mystery novel queen was nearly murdered | Daily News


How the mystery novel queen was nearly murdered

Late in the morning of June 21, 1947, Mary Roberts Rinehart sat in the library, speaking to her butler. She had hired him earlier that summer and hoped he would suit, unlike the other butlers who had come and gone. Eaglesgate was a lot of ground to cover—literally, what with the hilltop manse, the guest houses dotting the carriage roads, and the long way down to Eden Street, one of the main streets of Bar Harbor, Maine. But an able butler could do it.

Rinehart had purchased the sumptuous, seven-acre estate, then known as Farview, ten years before. She’d rented in Bar Harbor for two successive years, falling ever more in love with the island resort town by Frenchman Bay. When Rinehart learned the estate was for sale at an absurdly low price—this was the height of the Great Depression—she pounced. Rinehart was not born rich, but the success of her novels, plays, and stories, beginning with The Circular Staircase (1908), catapulted her several rungs up the economic ladder. She could afford several houses, and to employ several servants.

Lingering grief

Her husband, Stanley, had been gone for five years, spurring her to relocate from a gigantic apartment in Washington to one on Park Avenue in New York City, and to give up another home in Wyoming because the mountain air worsened her heart condition, and she could no longer climb stairs as well as before. Her three sons were grown, and the eldest and youngest, Stanley Jr. and Ted, had become her publishers since co-founding Farrar & Rinehart in 1929. A new house could not assuage lingering grief and loneliness, but a new place to entertain guests for elaborate summertime parties could act as balm. And for the next decade, Eaglesgate was that balm.

At nearly seventy-one, Rinehart was closer to death than to her peak, but she was still regarded as the Grande Dame of American mystery fiction, even as the current genre kings & queens gravitated towards the harder-boiled, and to more realistic depictions of life and of people. When she published, her books sold, and sold well, most recently The Yellow Room (1945), a patented concoction of murder, mystery, suspense and romance set in a town distinctly resembling Bar Harbor.

Rinehart was also about to reveal in the July 1947 issue of Ladies Home Journal that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer in 1936, the second year she rented in Bar Harbor, and had undergone a successful mastectomy. “It wasn’t easy to write this story,” she told an interviewer, “but one out of every three cancer deaths is needless…could I continue to be silent?” For that interviewer, Gretta Palmer, it was important to depict Rinehart as “a woman whose abounding vitality is a contagion to all who visit her” and to “realize that she is alive as anyone that you will ever know.”

Cancer didn’t kill Mary Roberts Rinehart, though it came close. Then death tried to come for the famed mystery writer again in Bar Harbor.

Anodyne platitude

Blas Reyes had had enough. He was quitting, and this time he meant it. He had tried to several times before, but Mrs. Rinehart never took his declarations terribly seriously. He would fulminate, she would give an anodyne platitude, and the next morning, Reyes would be right where he was supposed to be—in the kitchen, responsible for the generally excellent meals served to Mrs. Rinehart and her guests.

Reyes joined the Rinehart household in 1922, after Dr. and Mrs. Rinehart relocated to Washington from Glen Osborne, Pennsylvania for the doctor’s new job with the Veterans Administration. Reyes was previously employed as a butler by an Army general living in the Adams Morgan neighborhood, and when the Rineharts hired him, he took on that position, as well as head chef.

The life of the Rineharts was several strata removed from the life of Blas Reyes. In 1907, at the age of twenty-four, he had emigrated from the Philippines to San Francisco. Reyes was among the first of a large wave of Filipinos arriving on American soil after a new immigration law, passed earlier that year, loosened the heinous restrictions of the quarter-century-old Chinese Exclusion Act.

From San Francisco Reyes made his way to Washington, where by 1910 he worked for a man named Albert Whelan, residing with his wife and sister-in-law in Georgetown. Records don’t indicate when Reyes stopped working for the Whelans and started with the Army general, but it seems to coincide with the start and end of his marriage to Ada Smallwood, also a servant, with whom he had a son, James Blas Reyes, in 1913.

Confidence increased

Working for the Rineharts altered Reyes’s life even more. He met his second wife, Margaret Cody—always Peggy—when the Irishwoman was hired as a maid by Dr. and Mrs. Rinehart in 1926. His confidence increased with every compliment he received for the meals he prepared for holiday dinners. One Christmas Eve, the menu Reyes prepared, including a dish of sweet potatoes and marshmallows, was so well-received by the Rinehart guests that Reyes came in to a champagne toast, bowing to accept his congratulations.

But Reyes always felt that Stanley Rinehart, the doctor, was his employer. He felt more ill at ease with Mrs. Rinehart, with taking orders from a woman. But after Dr. Rinehart’s death in 1932, there was no way Reyes could move back the clock. Peggy certainly did not want to leave. Yet Reyes felt restless, which emerged in his habitual need to resign his post. This carried on for a decade and a half.

Now there was a new butler at Eaglesgate. Reyes was no longer the highest-ranking servant. He was sixty-four. He had worked for both or one Rinehart for a quarter of a century. He was tired. He was old. He complained that he wanted to go home. He had worked through World War II, when anti-Asian sentiment was at high pitch. The new butler was the last straw.

Blas Reyes resigned one more time on June 20, 1947. This time, Mrs. Rinehart did not wave away his declamation. This shocked Reyes. He went back to his quarters and told Peggy they had to leave Eaglesgate immediately. Peggy refused. This was her home, and she had no quarrel with Mrs. Rinehart. Reyes started drinking and kept at it. A disagreement devolved into a fight.

Right mind

There was no resolution the next morning. Reyes’ resignation would stand, and Peggy did not want to go. She could not stop crying. Even when Mrs. Rinehart discovered her and asked what was the matter, Peggy’s tears didn’t stop. It hurt to explain to her employer what was happening, that she’d fought with her husband, that he was prepared to leave the premises, but she would not. Mrs. Rinehart seemed taken aback. She thought his declamations had been like all the other ones, and that Reyes would resume his post.

Many would say, later, that Blas Reyes could not have been in his right mind. Perhaps that was so. It could explain the inexplicable, account for the unaccountable. Had Mary Roberts Rinehart known what was in the heart of her longtime chef and sometime butler, would she have been in the library on the morning of June 21, 1947?


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