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- March 04, 1985
- Vol. 23
- No. 9
After 35 Years Paying Dues, the Master of Low Life Has a Best-Seller, Glitz
So when he walks through the door on this wet, bleak February evening, he blows right past the best-seller racks and then stops, nonplussed, looking around. He's wearing his usual outfit—drab dove-gray raincoat, faded blue jeans, glossy white running shoes, brown horn-rims, Kangol touring cap covering the bald spot—and he just stands there, a mild-mannered night bird in from the cold.
"Where are the books?" he asks.
"How could you miss them?" the young guy behind the counter says, grinning. That's when Dutch does an unrehearsed double take, spotting the massed array of his latest novel, all blue and black and glitzy neon white, up there on the best-seller rack. Then he sees the sign.
"What's that! Twenty percent off?" The tone is Jack Benny mock outrage.
"You're a best-seller now, Dutch," the kid says. "Better get used to it."
Actually, Elmore "Dutch" Leonard, 59, doesn't mind the markdown a bit. It's a small price to pay for the sales it will bring, along with the celebrity and the deep-down, soul-satisfying delight of finally making it to the pinnacle of a tough, often indifferent profession. He's been working toward that summit for nearly three and a half decades.
As usual with a Leonard novel, the reviews of his new thriller, Glitz, were almost universally excellent. "The best the genre has to offer," raved Newsweek. "The kind of book that if you get up to see if there are any chocolate-chip cookies left, you take it with you so you won't miss anything," enthused Stephen King. "So smooth is the weld between action, character and dialogue that one hesitates to try to crack it open with analysis," wrote Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in the New York Times. "With Glitz, Elmore Leonard's luck should change for good, whether he needs it or not."
He needs it.
Harry Truman was President when Dutch Leonard sold his first story to Argosy magazine for $1,000 in 1951. In the years that followed, he produced some of the finest writing ever seen in two distinct genres but remained what is called in the trade a solid "mid-list" writer, which in today's ambience of easy labels, hysterical hype and the instant-household-name syndrome might just as well have read "loser."
Of his 23 published novels in those 34 years, eight were Westerns written in a time—now lamentably gone—when oats were a major part of the American reading diet. He also wrote some 30 Western short stories. Out of his early work came four memorable movies: 3:10 to Yuma, in 1957, with Glenn Ford and Van Heflin; The Tall T, the same year, with Randolph Scott and Richard Boone; Hombre, in 1967, starring Paul Newman, and Leonard's favorite, Valdez Is Coming, with Burt Lancaster, in 1971.
When Westerns lost their appeal in the early '60s, Leonard stuck to his guns—but traded in his metaphorical Colt .44 six-shooter for a 9 mm Beretta Parabellum. Shifting from the violent past to the sleazy present, he began a series of tough, spare, well-wrought crime stories that reviewers and publishers alike found hard to label. The dialogue was as crisp and gritty as anything in Hammett or Chandler, but the tone of the books less hard-boiled. The central characters weren't world-weary private eyes, but housewives, cops, car thieves turned stickup artists, con men with consciences. Even his bad guys—mean bozos from the Florida Everglades or Detroit's low-life Cass Corridor—had mothers and hopes and a sense of the ridiculous. What would you call these books? Soft-boiled?
"Publishers kept telling me I was hard to sell," Leonard recalls. "I'd tell them, 'Why don't you just say what I'm doing and sell it? I'm not the new Raymond Chandler, the new Dashiell Hammett. Hell, I hardly ever read those guys, even when I was a kid. Just call them Elmore Leonards."
From now on, they will.
Still, it was enough to drive a man to drink, and in Leonard's case it did. "I'd been drinking since I was a kid," he says, "and for 20 years I was a happy drunk. Then I started to get wild." In the early '70s he joined Alcoholics Anonymous, fell off the wagon three times in the next three years and saw his 27-year first marriage break up. Then he got his life back together. "I had my last drink at 9 a.m. on Jan. 24, 1977," he says quietly. "I think it was Scotch and ginger ale."
He had reached more than the bottom of the bottle; he had come to the bottom of his life. Elmore John Leonard Jr. was born Oct. 11, 1925 in New Orleans. His father scouted new dealership locations for General Motors, and the job kept the family nomadic. Detroit, when Elmore was 10 years old, was his first permanent home. Too small and slight for athletic success—today he is a wiry 5'9"—he found his dreams in other arenas.
"I loved to play guns," he says. "There's a picture of me taken around 1934. I'm in Memphis, wearing a tough-guy cap cocked sideways on my head and a blazer, and I've got my foot up on the bumper of an old Oakland car. I'm carrying a cap pistol, pointing it like Bonnie Parker did in a famous photograph. I must have seen the picture in the paper and thought, 'Boy, I'd like to be one of those guys.' "
Pictures meant a lot to young Dutch—he'd picked up the nickname from the knuckleballing Dutch Leonard who pitched for the Washington Senators—especially moving pictures. "I learned to write in scenes from watching the movies," he says. "I'd 'tell' movies to my friends—Captain Blood with Errol Flynn, Lives of a Bengal Lancer. They couldn't get enough of it. Then I read a serial version of All Quiet on the Western Front in the Detroit Times. I must have loved it because I wrote a World War I play that was put on in our fifth-grade classroom, using the desks as No Man's Land. The hero is caught on the wire under the German guns, and the coward redeems himself by going out and bringing the good guy in."
Leonard the schoolboy didn't write much after that; World War II intervened, with its own definition of No Man's Land. For Dutch it was the South Pacific. "I joined the Navy in '43 and ended up as a storekeeper's mate with a SeaBee unit in New Guinea and the Admiralty Islands," he says. "We maintained airstrips for Aussie and U.S. Navy fighters. The closest I came to action was when some Jap planes dropped eight-pound antipersonnel bombs near us. The only other adventure was when I was stateside and got a tattoo." He laughs happily. "It says 'Dutch' on my left shoulder, in script, the Palmer method. Cost a dollar. Red and blue ink, but the red has faded."
Like Thomas Heggen's Mister Roberts, Leonard had sailed from Ennui to Apathy, with a few stops at Tedium. Civilian life was more of the same: four years at the University of Detroit majoring in English and philosophy, then a job writing ad copy for the Campbell-Ewald agency in Detroit. "Hell, I've written elephant blankets. You know, when the circus comes to town, there's a Chevy logo on the sides of the animals as they parade past. 'Jumbo Savings, Buy For Peanuts.' Later I even wrote things like This Side Up' on box tops."
Dutch's real writing in the '50s came slowly and painstakingly. "When I started out," he says, "I couldn't afford to be a literary writer, ending up in the quarterlies, so I picked a genre. Westerns felt most comfortable because I'd always loved Western movies. The best of the lot I saw—a good lot—were The Plainsman, with Gary Cooper, John Wayne's Red River and parts of My Darling Clementine, with Henry Fonda, Victor Mature and Walter Brennan. Shane could have been a great Western except for Alan Ladd. It should have had someone like Gregory Peck—big and sad and quiet, like he was in The Gunfighter. That's what I had a feel for in those days."
Working full-time at the agency, he did his own writing each morning between 5 and 7 a.m. "I'd come down in the dark into the living room—that Michigan cold—and I wouldn't even let myself heat the coffee water until I'd started writing." He shudders even now when he thinks of it, but he set himself a goal of two pages a day before heading for the elephant blankets. "I'd write in longhand, one word after the other in pencil on a yellow pad, then rewrite on the typewriter. I'm so damned glad I did it. I studied hard, I worked hard, I learned what I could and couldn't do. I can't do description well, so now I don't do it at all."
Actually, Leonard's evocation of places like Detroit, Miami and Atlantic City are just fine. He learned the minimalist trick by studying Ernest Hemingway, who himself claimed to learn description from the Impressionist landscapes of Cézanne. "Lately I've been rereading Hemingway's short stories," Leonard says, "certain that I'll find things I've always known were in there—flies, sweat, maybe snow-flakes. The color of the old man's hat in 'A Clean Well-Lighted Place.' It's there, but not on the page."
He sold his stories to the pulps and two of his books as paperback originals to Dell, where his editor was Donald I. Fine. But the Western market was about to dry up. "I'd gotten advances for some of the paperback originals of as much as $4,000," he says. "Then, in 1961, Ballantine offered me $1,250 for Hombre, which was later selected as one of the 25 best Westerns ever written." Buy For Peanuts, indeed. Leonard began looking East.
That same year a company profit-sharing plan enabled Leonard to quit Campbell-Ewald, and he planned to write fiction full-time. Without the strong plot lines of the classic Western to fall back on—and with four children to support—he found himself writing free-lance ad copy and educational movies for Encyclopedia Britannica Films. "I did one called Frontier Boy, another on the French and Indian War," he says. "It was worthwhile. Taught me a lot about screenwriting. But for five years I wrote no fiction."
Then, in 1966, Hombre was sold to Twentieth Century-Fox for $10,000, giving Leonard the breather he needed to write another novel. It was called The Big Bounce, and it established the form of his later success. It's the story of a likable loser—a guy who wanted to play major-league baseball but couldn't hit a curve, tried the Army but was rejected with a bum knee—who finally turns to burglary. "My agent, Marguerite Harper, was in the hospital," Leonard says, "so she sent the manuscript on to H.N. Swanson, who'd handled my earlier books in Hollywood. Swanie got right on the phone to me. 'Did you write this book?' When I told him yes, he said: 'Kiddo, I'm going to make you rich.' Well, we got 84 rejections in the next three months, but Swanie finally sold it to Fawcett Gold Medal on the strength of a Warner Bros, option, and it became a dreadful movie with Ryan O'Neal." But Leonard's new career was under way.
Swanson, now 85, had handled such writers as F. Scott Fitzgerald, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler and John O'Hara during their Hollywood years, and he found plenty of script work for Dutch. Still, it wasn't until 1980 that Leonard's novels really took off. That was the doing of Don Fine, who had left Dell to start his own publishing firm, Arbor House. Leonard had written nine novels during the '70s, but along the way he fought his battle with booze. By 1980 he felt ready for the big push. Beginning with City Primeval in 1980 and following through with four books in the next three years—Split Images, Cat Chaser, Stick and LaBrava—Fine did his part by making calls to all the top reviewers, sending them manuscripts, keeping them informed of Leonard's every move. It paid off.
With critical praise reechoing from coast to coast, it was only a matter of time before Dutch Leonard had a bestseller. By then movie money was already pouring in: $350,000 for screenplay and rights to Stick, $400,000 for LaBrava last year and $450,000 for Glitz. Leonard loves the money but not the way director-star Burt Reynolds filmed Stick, which is due out in April. "I work very hard to create believable people in credible situations," Dutch says. "You won't find them in Stick, the movie. They've put in scorpions and machine guns—it's a cross between Sudden Impact and that new TV series Miami Vice. Wait a minute—I like Miami Vice."
For all that, Leonard couldn't be happier. Ensconced in a well-appointed red brick home in an elm-lined suburban neighborhood surrounded by books and video cassettes of his favorite films, Leonard writes every day from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. at a 200-year-old desk in his study. He has no use for word processors, long handing his "sound" on yellow pads, which he transcribes on a reconditioned Olympia. His sidekick these days is a young film writer, Gregg Sutter, who showed up for an autograph and later offered to go to the library if there was anything Leonard needed. He now does the preliminary legwork on any new book.
Another reason for Leonard's happiness is a warm, petite blonde named Joan Shepard Leonard, whom he began dating after his 1977 divorce and married two years later. Four of Dutch's five children live nearby, as do two of Joan's from an earlier marriage, and when things get lonely there are three grandchildren to spoil. So far, however, the big bucks and reviewer raves haven't spoiled the essential Dutch Leonard. Oh, he did trade in his 1980 Saab for a $20,000 slate-blue turbo-charged model, but all his ambitions are not yet fulfilled. "I'd like to see a really great movie made from one of my books," he says, "and I'd like to write books even better than what I've done so far. For all the praise, there are weak spots in Glitz that I should have spent more time on."
His next project? An Elmore Leonard set in New Orleans, the author's birthplace and a city he wants to know better. "Hollywood guys say New Orleans is a bummer, a 'you-all' type of town that hasn't even produced a successful TV series. They're wrong," says the man with the golden ear. "You don't hear any 'you-alls' down there. It's an Irish sound similar to what you hear in Brooklyn—just listen to Randolph Scott some time. He's from New Orleans, and you'd swear he was born in Flatbush." Another possibility on Leonard's mind is a return to his first love, the Western. Already, with Gregg Sutter's help, Leonard is researching the northern ranges of the Old West—Wyoming and Montana—for a possible television series. If anyone can bring the Western back from the dead, it will be the quiet-spoken Lazarus who wouldn't die with it.
March 30, 2015
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