It’s a film image possibly more famous than any other – a giant ape clutching a damsel in distress atop New York’s Empire State Building.

But the story of author – and former Birmingham Post writer – Edgar Wallace has been lost to history with most of his novels now out of print.

Now writer Neil Clark has written the life story of the incredible wordsmith, who churned out more than 170 books and once wrote a novel in just a weekend.

His association with the 1933 film became a defining point of his life – but it also represented the end of a long and illustrious career during which he was described as “one of the most prolific writers of the 20th century”.

Sadly, Wallace was to die from undiagnosed diabetes in the early stages of the drafting process for King Kong in 1932, aged just 56, and never got to see the incredible impact the film would have.

The movie’s publicity declared: “The strangest story ever conceived by Man… the greatest film the world will ever see”.

 

Film historian Denis Gifford said: “For once the catch-lines were right. In the history of horror movies, indeed of movies, King Kong still towers above them all.”

Mr Clark said: “Edgar Wallace was once the most popular writer in Britain and it’s a great pity that in recent years he has tended to be neglected.

“Wallace packed into his relatively short life enough achievements to fill several lives, in addition to being a best-selling author he was also a very successful playwright with a string of West End hits in the 1920s, a film director, and incredibly prolific journalist, newspaper editor – and Hollywood script writer. He even stood for Parliament.”

Born into terrible poverty as the illegitimate son of a travelling actress, Wallace left school at 12, joined the Army at 21 and was a war correspondent during the Second Boer War for Reuters and the Daily Mail.

Mr Clark explained: “What makes his achievements even more remarkable is his very unpromising beginnings. He was the illegitimate son of an impecunious travelling actress and looked after by foster parents when he was just nine days old – and he left his council school at the age of 12 without any qualifications.

“Yet by sheer hard work, talent and an incredible optimism, he rose to become the most popular author not just in Britain, but arguably the world too. Edgar Wallace’s story is in many ways, the ultimate rags to riches tale.”

Wallace worked as a printer’s assistant, milk roundsman, newspaper seller, plasterer’s labourer, soldier, a ship’s cook and captain’s boy on a Grimsby fishing trawler, boot and shoe shop assistant, rubber factory worker, newspaper reporter, foreign correspondent, racing tipster, columnist, special constable, film producer and director.

During the First World War Wallace hit hard times and was rescued by the Birmingham Post.

Mr Clark explained: “Other newspapers to which Wallace regularly contributed either closed down or reduced the size of their editions.

“Help was at hand, however, in the shape of Charles Hyde, the owner of the Birmingham Daily Post, who appointed Wallace the newspaper’s military correspondent.

“Although he couldn’t report from the frontline, he could produce a daily column summarising the war news and giving the readers his own particular take on developments. The only caveat was that the column must pass the military censor.

“Wallace’s first article appeared on the second day of the war, and over the next four years and three months, he was to pen, by his own estimate, one-and-a-half-million words for Hyde’s newspaper on the Great War.”

Once Wallace hit it big, he cut a flamboyant figure, chain-smoking cigarettes from his trademark 10-inch long cigarette holder and being chauffeur-driven round London in a yellow Rolls-Royce. Wallace’s last piece of work still lives on, and to date has had two remakes, in 1976 and 2005.

In Birmingham, the film was remembered for many years with an 18ft fibreglass statue at the Bull Ring, installed in 1972 and created by pop artist Nicholas Munroe.

Mr Clark, who became friends with the author’s daughter, Penny, and runs the Edgar Wallace society, said he first thought about writing a biography 20 years ago.

He added: “Wallace deserves more recognition for the great pleasure his work gave to millions of people.

“He really was Britain’s Number One Entertainer in the first third of the 20th century and among his many devoted fans were King George V and Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin.”

n Stranger than fiction: the life of Edgar Wallace, the man who created King Kong, published by The History Press and written by Neil Clark is available on Amazon.