This was the enticing opening to the old radio anthology program Escape, this week's offering in our Radio Memories series. Once a week we take a break and tune in to radio's dramatic past, when the medium broadcast plays for the imagination more often than music or news. Escape is one of a handful of series that went almost unnoticed in its time, only to become a favorite among modern-day collectors and fans. In fact if you wanted to introduce someone to what old-time radio drama was all about, you'd do well to give them an episode or two of Escape to listen to... in many ways, it tended to represent North American radio drama at its best.
The episode of Escape we'll be listening to below is entitled "The Vanishing Lady", first broadcast almost sixty years to the day, on January 10th, 1950. You might recognize the plot: on the eve of France's 1889 Exposition (introducing the world to the Eiffel Tower), a mother vanishes from her Paris hotel, her hotel room vanishing with her, leaving her daughter, unable to speak a word of French, panicked and confused in a strange city full of people who suddenly claim to have never seen her before.
After a bit of googling, I was shocked to learn two things about the story this episode is based upon. One: that it is not true! I've encountered this story for years, in one medium or another, always with the caveat that it was an adaptation of an actual event. Turns out that it is an urban legend, one of those stories that we believe to be true because we need to believe that it could be true.
A second surprise was the supposed source: Alexander Woolcott's 1934 collection of short stories "While Rome Burns". I have a beat-up 1942 edition of this collection, and it does not contain any mention of a lady vanishing in a Paris hotel room, even though my copy stresses that "This book is NOT a digest or condensation of the original, it is the COMPLETE book". I wonder if the attribution of the Vanishing Lady urban legend to this anthology is, in itself, an urban legend..! (Maybe Woolcott himself discovered that the story was untrue, and therefore had it removed from later printings.)
Befitting it's Paris setting, there are significant stretches of dialog in this radio play that are spoken in French, which makes listening to the show a different experience for those of us who understand the language... I think we lose out in some ways, because we are prevented from fully sharing the terror of the daughter's point of view. We know what everyone around her is talking about, but for her, and her nightmare, there is no... Escape: