Thursday, March 22, 2012

Virginia Swain

Virginia Swain (b. Kansas City, Missouri, 13 February 1899; d. New Milford, Connecticut, 7 April 1968) 

Virginia Maude Swain was the only child of Raymond Swain (b. 1870), a cattle salesman, and his wife, Laura Belle Rodgers (b. 1875), who were married around 1895. She was born and raised in Kansas City, Missouri, where she attended the Central High School. Virginia Swain was briefly married to a man surnamed Jewell, but they were divorced in 1920. She studied journalism at the University of Missouri, achieving a bachelor’s degree in 1923.

From 1923-1925 she work as a reporter and feature writer on The Des Moines Register.  There she met Phil Stong (1899-1957), who was on the editorial staff.  They were married in Cleveland, Ohio, on 8 November 1925.  They had no children. The couple soon moved to New York, where beginning in 1927 Virginia worked on the staff of McClure’s Magazine, writing a number of features. Later she worked in the editorial department of The Saturday Evening Post
Her first novel was Linda (1928), a murder mystery about a young girl at college.  This was followed by a second novel, Foolish Fire (1929), and a quiz book, compiled with Harold Matson, Name Your 10—and Count your Points:  Match Yourself against Experts (1932). 

The success of her husband’s first published novel, State Farm (1932), and the popular film of it released the next year, allowed the Stongs to buy three hundred and twenty acres of the Iowa farm that had formerly belonged to Phil Stong’s grandfather.  The couple settled in Washington, Connecticut, but managed the Iowa farm from Connecticut

Swain’s next novel was a fantasy. It was accepted by the publisher Farrar & Rinehart, who held a contest to find a title for the book, issuing some galleys that called special attention to the $25 prize money for the best title.  The novel was published in February 1938 as The Hollow Skin, the winning title submitted by Ruth Bernhard.  The Hollow Skin is a bizarre story, lightly written but with very deft touches of characterization and an engaging narrative.  It tells the story of a young Albany medical doctor, Lex Drummond, who after being spurned by his lover and suffering from bronchitis seeks recuperation by means of a visit to his uncle, Dr. Simeon Stuart, in the Bahamas.  (Swain did visit the Bahamas at least twice, in 1928 and 1930, and these visits doubtless contributed local color to her novel’s setting.)  Here Drummond becomes enamored with a young woman named Valentine, who arrived on the same boat as Drummond and who is the ward of the mysterious and unpleasant Percy Isher.  Strange deaths happen at the Isher residence, and before reaching its end (I do not wish here to spoil the strange dénouement concerning Percy Isher) the novel turns from being one primarily of romance and detection to being one of horror. 

Swain published infrequent short stories, one a weird tale, “Aunt Cassie”, which appeared in her husband’s idiosyncratic anthology of weird and fantastic fiction, The Other Worlds (1941).  While her husband praised the story as being original, it is one of those clichéd stories wherein the reader figures out the inevitable ending long before the characters in the story reach it.  

Swain’s final novel, and her final book The Dollar Gold Piece (1942), was first serialized in abridged form in The Woman’s Home Companion (August through October 1942) before appearing in full in hardcover.  It is a novel of the pioneers of Kansas City in the boom year of 1887.  

As Swain’s own literary career stalled, her husband’s success continued.  In addition to many successful novels (some of which, like State Fair, were made into films), Stong published a large number of popular children’s books.  In 1957 he died suddenly of a heart attack in the workroom of their home in Connecticut.  Swain took over the long-distance management of her late husband’s Iowa farm, outliving him by eleven years. She died in a Connecticut hospital at the age of 69, leaving behind the nearly-complete manuscript of her final work, The Farm House Cook Book, which remained unpublished. 

NB: John Norris has also written on The Hollow Skin at his Pretty Sinister Books blog.


  1. Thanks for all of this on Swain. Interesting couple - Phil and Virginia. A shame she didn't surpass the oddness of THE HOLLOW SKIN.

  2. Did Virginia ghost write for Phil?