Department of English
Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University
Sorry, Wrong Number
(March 28, 1912 – August 31, 2000)
NotesSorry, Wrong Number was first written and performed as a radio play, broadcast on May 25, 1943.
Miss Fletcher once
described ''Sorry, Wrong Number'' as an experiment in radio sound effects.
''I grew up in an era when the radio was a wonderful medium for the
imagination,'' she said. ''You could get any effect you wanted with
Her daughter Dorothy Herrmann said Miss Fletcher got the idea for the drama after an obnoxious well-dressed woman refused to permit her to go ahead on a supermarket checkout line on Manhattan's East Side when Miss Fletcher was buying some milk or cereal for one of her children, who was sick.
''No, you cannot,'' the woman said. ''How dare you?''
The drama, Ms. Herrmann said, was Miss Fletcher's act of revenge.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Miss Fletcher once said: ''Writing suspense stories is like working on a puzzle. You bury the secret, lead the reader down the path, put in false leads and throughout the story remain completely logical. Each word must have meaning and be written in a fine literary style. Mysteries are a challenge, a double task for the writer, for the reader is aching to solve the puzzle before you do.''
—Lawrence van Gelder, "Lucille Fletcher, 88, Author of 'Sorry, Wrong Number,'" The New York Times, 6 Sep. 2000.
Kurt Andersen: Suspense was an anthology show that ran on CBS radio from 1942 until the very end of the golden age of radio in the fall of 1962. I think the narrator of Suspense very early on in the show’s run said it was about presenting a precarious situation and then withholding the solution until the last possible moment.
Kurt Andersen: Lucille
Fletcher who wrote the script wrote Mrs. Stevenson as, frankly, not a
terribly likeable woman.
Dorothy Herrmann: My mother came from a working class family in Brooklyn and she won a scholarship to Vassar College. And as a poor scholarship student she felt that these very rich girls who came to school in their limousines—she felt that they snubbed her. And, to make matters worse, she had a boyfriend who was an upperclass young man who was studying at Dartmouth. And he had a mother who was very much like Mrs. Stevenson. And she looked down on my mother. And this made my mother very miserable. So I think that she was taking a revenge on a lot of people in her radio play.
Kurt Andersen: When she’s [Mrs. Stevenson's] attacked in her bedroom Agnes Moorehead screams. And she worked it out so that her scream would be the exact pitch of the whistle of the train that was going by her home. I think it was one of the first times that someone had had the audacity to go on radio, this national network, and present a story in which the killers get away.
Dorothy Herrmann: I think my mother took delight in the end of Mrs. Stevenson, that she’s trapped by her own invalidism and her own neuroticism, and also the fact that nobody will believe her.
—Kurt Andersen, "Sorry, Wrong Number," Studio 360, WNYC, 26 Nov. 2015.
A clerk-typist for CBS radio in New York city, Lucille Fletcher prepared the manuscripts of other playwrights and soon realized that she could probably do better. Her first story was about a man who drove across the country while being stalked by the same hitchhiker everywhere. [...] The success of The Hitch-Hiker raised Fletcher's status at CBS from clerk-typist to scriptwriter. she didn't waste any time. Her next radio play, Sorry, Wrong Number, premiered in 1943 on Suspense and quickly became one of the most legendary radio plays of all time, second perhaps only to The War of the Worlds.
Marooned in her bedroom, Mrs. Stevenson attempts a kind of remote control over her narrowly confined world by telephone. Although Mrs. Stevenson reaches out to others, the unfriendly phone system refuses to provide her with a dialogic partner. She is trapped in a monologic system that not only isolates her but persecutes her for speaking.
Agnes Moorehead was widely praised for her performance in the story. [...] Mrs. Stevenson is not only neurotic and paranoid but also irritable, sarcastic, ill-natured, and mean. [...] She is an acoustic spectacle, an eruption of female hysteria, and Moorehead's ability to capture the unacceptable side of the female speaking subject seized the imaginations of listeners everywhere and spurred many to phone CBS requesting additional performances of the radio play.
What was it about Moorehead's voice that aroused such fascination? The suggestion that a woman cannot be safe even in her own home was certainly relevant and compelling; however, as Allison McCracken suggests, Mrs. Stevenson might be the victim of the story but she was also its "monster." [...] Together, Lucille Fletcher and Agnes Moorehead test the very limits of deviant female subjectivity with their hyperbolizing of Mrs. Stevenson as the madwoman in the attic, creating in the guise of a thirty-minute radio play the anatomy of a screaming woman.
Sorry, Wrong Number was written specifically for Moorehead because Fletcher wanted an ornery voice for Mrs. Stevenson. Moorehead delivered. [...]
[...] Not only does she violate the convention of "The Good Wife" as someone who should speak in a low, soft, soothing, and pleasant voice, but Mrs. Stevenson also complicates the position of listeners by implicating them in her own predicament. As Suspense's narrator explains during the program's introduction, Sorry, Wrong Number is a story of a woman who "overheard a conversation with death." Mrs. Stevenson herself, in other words, is a listener. She is engrossed by a mystery, a murder plot, much the same way the radio audience is tuned in to CBS's thriller. [...]
[...] The killers can't hear her, and the phone operator and the police ignore her. Her husband, by proxy, will apparently silence her. The audience, however, hears every word. Mrs. Stevenson is up against an information system that will not acknowledge her voice, as if she spoke the wrong language (which, of course, she does). Her distress is not only a result of patriarchy but also of telephony's refusal to admit her into its mediatory network. This is not what Ma Bell (“The Voice with a Smile”) promised. Period ads pitched the phone operator as “alert” and “courteous.” “They’re nice people to do business with,” pledged a 1939 ad for Bell Telephone System. The phone operator with a “smiling voice” was an invitation to talk, someone expected to “exercise a soothing and calming effect” on callers, a woman on hand to help reduce the isolation of other women. [...]
By grounding the story in a succession of telephone exchanges experienced by an isolated woman confined to her bedroom, Fletcher created a narrative that seems ideally suited to the uniqueness of radio drama. In a Life magazine review of the broadcast, Sorry, Wrong Number was called “radio’s perfect script.”43 Fletcher herself had said that she “wanted to write something which by its very nature should, for maximum effectiveness, be heard rather than seen,” a play that could only be performed on the air. In fact, it was originally designed, she wrote, “as an experiment in sound and not just as a murder story.” The telephone was to be the “chief protagonist.” And then along came Agnes Moorehead. “In the hands of a fine actress like Agnes Moorehead,” Fletcher said, “the script turned out to be more the character study of a woman than a technical experiment, and the plot itself, with its O. Henry twist at the end, fell into the thriller category.”
Mrs. Stevenson Goes to Hollywood
Like her counterpart in radio, Barbara Stanwyck’s Leona Stevenson in the film is confined to her bed and telephone. But this Mrs. Stevenson is not invisible. She is, every bit, part of the extravagance that is her luxury apartment. Leona first appears to the viewer in a medium shot, sitting up in bed, clutching a large white phone receiver close to her head. It is evening. The clock on her bedside table reads 9:24. Stanwyck’s Leona wears a nightgown that repeats the pattern of embroidery on the upholstered headboard and drapery, as if one with the interior design of the uptown penthouse room. [...]
[...] On the phone to the operator, Leona hears the click of the receiver on the other extension, and realizes an intruder is in her apartment. She clasps her hand over her mouth and hangs up, holding back further speech. She stifles herself. The woman with the masterful voice no longer speaks. In her dying struggle, Leona pulls the cover from the night table, sending the radio tumbling to the floor. With the collapse of Leona, radio too takes a fall. Two agents of auditory mastery are momentarily silenced—the drama’s protagonist and the very technology that made her possible.
—Jeff Porter, "Sorry, Wrong Number," Lost Sound: The Forgotten Art of Radio Storytelling, U of North Carolina P, 2016.
Mrs. Elbert Smythe Stevenson – "a querulous, self-centered neurotic" (148); "I'm alone all day and night. I see nobody except my maid [...] and the only other person is my husband Elbert—he's crazy about me—adores me—waits on me hand and foot—he's scarcely left my side since I took sick twelve years ago" (157)
1st Operator – "Ringing Murray Hill 4-0098" (149)
Miss Curtis – "Middle-aged, efficient type, pleasant"
(152); "If it's a live call, we can trace it on the equipment. If it's
been disconnected, we can't" (152)
Sergeant Duffy –
"we'll take care of it, lady. Don't worry" (156); "Telephones are
funny things" (157); "Supposing you hadn't broken in on that telephone
call? Supposing you'd got your husband the way you always do? Would
this murder have made any difference to you then?" (157); "Unless, of
course, you have some reason for thinking this call is phoney—and that
someone may be planning to murder you?" (157)
1st Man – "You know the address. At eleven o'clock the private patrolman goes around to the bar on Second Avenue for a beer" (149); "Make it quick. As little blood as possible. Our client does not wish to make her suffer long" (150); "A knife will be okay. [...] remove the rings and bracelets, and the jewelry in the bureau drawer. Our client wishes it to look like simple robbery" (150)
2nd Man, George – "A killer type, also wearing a hat, but standing as in a phone booth" (149); "slow heavy quality, faintly foreign accent" (149)
Mrs. Stevenson's bedroom – "Expensive, rather fussy furnishings" (148)
bed – "A large bed, on which Mrs. Stevenson, clad in bed-jacket, is
phone booth – "In a phone booth" (149)
11:00 p.m. – "At eleven o'clock the private patrolman goes around to
the bar on Second Avenue for a beer" (149)
11:15 p.m. – "At eleven-fifteen a subway train cross the bridge. It
makes a noise in case her window is open, and she should scream" (149)
point of view
symbol, symbolism, symbolic
connection, connectedness; community; company; companionship
detachment; isolation; aloneness
freedom and confinement; possibilities and limitations
woman in peril
illness; disability; invalidism
Sample Student Responses to Lucille Fletcher's Sorry, Wrong Number
Fletcher, Lucille. Sorry, Wrong Number. 24 Favorite One-Act Plays, edited by Bennett Cerf and Van H. Cartmell, Broadway Books, 2000, pp. 147–65.
Fletcher, Lucille. Sorry, Wrong Number and The Hitch-hiker: Plays in One Act. Dramatists Play Service, 1952.
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Last updated September 25, 2018