This Day In Writing History
On March 28th, 1909, the famous American writer Nelson Algren was born. He was born Nelson Ahlgren Abraham in Detroit, Michigan, to a German Jewish mother and a Swedish father who had converted to Judaism. When Nelson was three, his family moved to Chicago.
The Abrahams first settled in the South Side. When Nelson was eight, they moved to an apartment in the North Side. Nelson would remain a lifelong White Sox fan.
As a child growing up in Cubs country, the other kids teased him frequently for being a White Sox fan. The teasing would increase exponentially during the Black Sox Scandal of 1920, when it was revealed that eight White Sox players had been bribed to throw the World Series.
In 1931, Neslon Algren graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a Bachelor's degree in journalism. Unfortunately, with the Great Depression in full effect, all he could do to make ends meet was drift around the country looking for work like so many others did.
Two years later, Algren wrote his first short story, So Help Me. At the time, he was working at a gas station in Texas. Before his planned return home to Chicago, he found a typewriter in an abandoned classroom and decided to take it, as very few publications accepted handwritten manuscripts.
Algren was caught, arrested, convicted of theft, and sentenced to prison. He was released after serving five months of a possible three and a half year term. While in prison, he was moved by the scores of men who were also incarcerated for taking desperate measures in desperate times.
He found kindred spirits among the outsiders, misfits, failures, and other tragic characters spawned by the Depression. They would strongly influence his writing. In 1935, his short story The Brother's House, was published by Story magazine. It won him his first of three O. Henry Awards.
That same year, Algren published his first novel, Somebody in Boots. It sold only 750 copies before going out of print, which didn't bother the author because he considered it primitive - his worst work.
His second novel, Never Come Morning (1942), courted many good reviews. Ernest Hemingway wrote of it, "I think it very, very good. It is as fine and good stuff to come out of Chicago..." The novel also courted controversy.
Never Come Morning told the haunting, tragic, and lyrical story of Bruno "Lefty" Bicek, a small time hoodlum and aspiring prizefighter from the "Polish Triangle" - the Polish section of Chicago's North Side. Algren tells the story without pronouncing any moral judgement on his characters.
Growing up desperately poor, Bruno dreams of escaping the slums by becoming a boxing champion, but ultimately realizes that he was born a thug and will be a thug until the day he dies - a revelation that comes when he fails to save his girlfriend Steffi Rostenkowski from being gang raped by his thug buddies.
Algren's grim and frank depictions of the Polish Triangle as a cesspool of crime, corruption, misery, and hopelessness outraged Polish-American groups in Chicago, who accused him of being a Nordic Nazi sympathizer, not realizing that he was actually Jewish and a leftist. Nevertheless, the pressure groups succeeded in getting Never Come Morning banned by the Chicago Public Library.
In 1949, Nelson Algren published his most famous novel, The Man With the Golden Arm. It would win him the National Book Award. In this classic novel, the Polish-American protagonist Francis Majcinek, known as Frankie Machine, is a professional card sharp and aspiring jazz drummer who longs to escape the seedy world of professional gambling by becoming a professional musician.
When he served in World War 2, Frankie took shrapnel in his liver and was treated with morphine. Now he's a morphine addict - a habit he refers to as the "thirty-five-pound monkey on his back." He keeps his friends and wife in the dark about his habit, which is a source of shame for him.
Speaking of his wife, Frankie is trapped in a miserable marriage to wheelchair-bound Sophie, whom he thinks he crippled in a drunk driving accident. Her paralysis is actually psychological, and she takes her frustration out on Frankie, using guilt to keep him from leaving her. The stress adds to his drug habit.
After Frankie ends up accidentally killing his drug supplier "Nifty Louie" Fomorowski, he and his friend, petty crook Sparrow Saltskin, cover up Frankie's involvement in the crime. Then, Frankie's life takes a turn for the better when he has an affair with his childhood sweetheart, Molly "Molly-O" Novotny.
Molly was also trapped in a rotten marriage until her abusive husband got arrested. Reunited with Frankie, she uses her love to help him beat his drug addiction. Unfortunately, Frankie screws up again, but in a different way - he gets busted for shoplifting.
While Frankie serves his time, Molly moves away and they lose contact. After his release, without Molly to lean on, Frankie goes back on the needle. After his friend Sparrow breaks down during an intense police interrogation over the death of Nifty Louie, Frankie must go on the lam.
While on the run, Frankie finds Molly working at a strip joint. He hides out at her apartment and, with her help, kicks his drug addiction once and for all. The cops learn where he's hiding and he's forced to flee again. He barely escapes from them.
Hiding out in a sleazy flophouse, Frankie realizes that he'll never be free or have his Molly again, so he commits suicide, hanging himself in his room. The novel ends with a poem for Frankie called Epitaph.
Several years after The Man With the Golden Arm was published, the legendary director Otto Preminger decided to adapt it as a feature film. Unfortunately, the stifling Production Code was still in effect, and the Code forbade any stories dealing with drugs.
In 1953, Preminger successfully defied the Production Code to adapt the risque romantic comedy The Moon is Blue, which had been a hit Broadway play. When the PCA (Production Code Administration) once again denied him a Code Seal for The Man With the Golden Arm, Preminger released it without one.
He had several key factors working in his favor. The Legion of Decency didn't condemn the film. Theater owners, granted independence from the studios in a landmark Supreme Court antitrust decision in 1948, didn't care about the Code Seal anymore. Last, but certainly not least, Preminger had cast legendary singer Frank Sinatra in the lead role.
The film adaptation of The Man With the Golden Arm was a cinematic milestone in that it finally cajoled Hollywood to amend the Production Code, which hadn't changed in over 25 years. It was also the first Hollywood feature film in over two decades to deal with drug addiction as its main theme.
Even anti-drug propaganda films like Reefer Madness (1936), Marihuana (1936), and The Cocaine Fiends (1935) had to be made by low budget exploitation filmmakers and booked into small, local theaters; the Production Code forbade studios from making drug movies, and first run theaters, mostly owned by the studios themselves, were prohibited from booking movies without Code Seals.
Despite Frank Sinatra's excellent performance as Frankie Machine, Nelson Algren hated Otto Preminger's adaptation of his novel. He had been brought in as a screenwriter, then quickly replaced by Walter Newman.
Although an acclaimed film and a big hit at the box office, the screenplay took extensive liberties with the novel and featured a completely different ending. To make matters worse, Algren, believing he had been duped into selling the adaptation rights for far less than they were worth, sued producer-director Otto Preminger for his fair share. He lost.
During the 1950s, Nelson Algren ran afoul of McCarthyism - the government's relentless and mostly illegal persecutions of suspected communists and communist sympathizers. Algren never joined the Communist Party because of negative experiences he and his friend, legendary African-American novelist Richard Wright, had at the hands of party members.
However, Algren had belonged to the John Reed Club, a social club for left-leaning artists, writers, and intellectuals. He had also belonged to a committee that protested the persecution of alleged spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were both executed. So, the FBI began surveillance of Algren, who had been deemed a subversive.
The FBI's dossier on Nelson Algren would clock in at over 500 pages long, but never contain any concrete evidence against him. Still, the government denied him a passport until 1960. He had wanted to visit his girlfriend, legendary French writer and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, in Paris. By the time he finally got his passport, their relationship had begun to wane.
In 1956, Algren finally followed up The Man With the Golden Arm with another classic novel. A Walk on the Wild Side opens in South Texas during the early years of the Great Depression, telling the story of Dove Linkhorn, another casualty of the Depression and of his own upbringing.
At 16, Dove is illiterate. His father refused to allow him to go to school because the principal was Catholic. So, he learned about life from the movies and from the hobos, pimps, prostitutes, hustlers, and bootleggers who lived and worked nearby.
Another denizen of the town is Terasina Vidavarri, the owner of a bleak little cafe who teaches Dove how to read. Terasina was once raped by a soldier. She and Dove become lovers, though he rapes her as well.
Dove begins hopping trains to look for work. His surreal, poetic, tragicomic adventures find him working everywhere from a steamship to a brothel to a condom factory. He also gets caught up in petty crime and has many affairs before ultimately returning to Terasina's cafe.
This novel was most famous for containing Nelson Algren's "three rules of life," which were "Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom's. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own."
A Walk on the Wild Side was adapted as a feature film in 1962, but because the Production Code was still in effect, the novel was bowdlerized and changed considerably for the screen. Despite the efforts of the great director Edward Dmytryk behind the camera and Laurence Harvey in the lead role, the film was a bomb at the box office.
Bosley Crowther, the celebrated film critic for The New York Times, described it as a "lurid, tawdry, and sleazy melodrama."
In 1975, Nelson Algren was commissioned to write a magazine article on the trial of boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, who had been convicted again for a double murder he didn't commit. Carter wouldn't be acquitted until 1985, when his convictions were overturned after a Federal Appeals Court determined that he'd been the victim of racism and malicious prosecution.
While researching his article, Algren visited Carter's hometown of Paterson, New Jersey, and liked it so much that he decided to live there. He spent five years in Paterson before moving to Long Island, where he died at home of a heart attack. He was 72 years old.
Quote Of The Day
"A certain ruthlessness and a sense of alienation from society is as essential to creative writing as it is to armed robbery." - Nelson Algren
Today's video features rare footage of Nelson Algren chatting with Studs Terkel at a party in Chicago, circa 1975. Enjoy!