This Day In Literary History
On October 11th, 1925, the famous American writer Elmore Leonard was born. He was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, but due to his father's position as a site locator for General Motors, the family moved frequently. In 1934, the Leonards finally took up permanent residence, settling in Detroit, Michigan.
Growing up during the Great Depression, Elmore Leonard became fascinated with gangsters - the folk heroes of the time. He read sensational accounts of the exploits of famous gangsters such as Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker in the newspaper. He was most interested in their guns.
Leonard's writings would become famous for their incredibly accurate depictions of the mechanics of all sorts of firearms, yet throughout his entire life, he never had any interest in owning a gun.
With his father rarely home, he found father figures in the heroes of the big screen. Movies were his passion, and fortunately for him, they were an affordable pastime, even during the Depression.
It was in the movie theater that his pitch perfect ear for dialogue and his knack for creating memorable characters began to develop. He would entertain his friends by telling them stories – vivid accounts of the movies he'd seen, including actual dialogue.
For his fifth grade class project, he wrote and directed the class play, recreating a grim scene from Lewis Milestone's classic 1930 film adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque's classic antiwar novel All Quiet On the Western Front (1929).
Leonard also became an avid baseball fan, his favorite team being, of course, the Detroit Tigers, who won their first World Series championship in 1935. His friends gave him the nickname Dutch, after the famous pitcher Dutch Leonard, (no relation) a right-handed knuckleballer.
After graduating high school in 1943, Elmore Leonard joined the Navy and served with the Seabees in the Pacific. In 1946, he enrolled at the University of Detroit. He determined to make his dream of becoming a writer a reality.
He supported himself by working as an advertising copywriter - a position he took while a senior at university, where he would graduate with a degree in English and philosophy.
Though he originally wanted to write crime fiction, Leonard began his literary career writing pulp Westerns, which were the most popular and biggest selling stories at the time. In 1951, he sold his first short story, a Western called Trail of the Apaches, to the famous pulp fiction magazine Argosy.
He would publish some 30 pulp Western short stories, two of which, The Tall T and 3:10 to Yuma, would be adapted as feature films. His first published novel, The Bounty Hunters (1953) was a Western, and he would write four more Western novels.
By the 1960s, the popularity of Western novels had begun to decline rapidly, so Elmore Leonard switched genres and started writing the kind of novels he would become famous for - quirky crime thrillers. His first, The Big Bounce, was published in 1969.
The Big Bounce told the story of Jack Ryan, an aspiring baseball player turned petty crook who gets a chance to go straight when he's hired by Walter Majestyk, (no relation to the title character of Leonard's 1974 novel) a justice of the peace, to work at his beach resort.
Jack falls for Nancy, a psychotic young siren who gets her kicks by seducing married men, taking them for what she can get, then breaking their hearts - and their windows. When Nancy learns of Jack's shady past, she manipulates him into stealing $50,000 from her current patsy, a married millionaire.
The Big Bounce would introduce Elmore Leonard's trademark literary style - gritty realism and razor sharp dialogue. He is rightfully considered one of best writers of dialogue there is.
His skill with dialogue would bring him success as a Hollywood screenwriter. He adapted his own novels for the screen and wrote original screenplays. His best known original screenplay was for the acclaimed 1973 Western feature film, Joe Kidd.
Joe Kidd starred Clint Eastwood as the title character, a gunfighter and ex-bounty hunter hired by wealthy landowner Frank Harlan to be part of his posse, who are hunting Luis Chama, a fugitive Mexican revolutionary-bandito.
As he partakes in the mission, Joe Kidd begins to understand who the real bad guys are. Chama's major crime turns out to be organizing a peasant revolt against the wealthy landowners, who are evicting the poor people from land that is rightfully theirs.
Elmore Leonard's most popular feature film screenplay adaptations of his own novels include Mr. Majestyk and 52 Pick-Up, both of which were published in 1974. Mr. Majestyk is Vince Majestyk, a Vietnam veteran now living a quiet life in Arizona.
Majestyk owns and operates a melon farm. When a two-bit hood tries to coerce him into paying protection money, Majestyk drives the punk off his land with a punch in the face and a shotgun.
The hood files assault charges and Majestyk is taken to a local jail. He later finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time - aboard a prison transfer bus with Frank Renda, a notorious mafia hit man.
The mobsters attack the bus to break Renda out, but Majestyk drives off in the bus, with Renda still in handcuffs. He plans on trading Renda to the police in exchange for his freedom.
Renda vows revenge and orders his men to destroy Majestyk. What Renda and his mafia cohorts don't know is that Mr. Majestyk is a highly trained soldier - a former Army Ranger - and is about to take them to war.
In 52 Pick-Up, Harry Mitchell is a wealthy businessman whose wife, Barbara, is running for office. He becomes the target of blackmailers who claim to possess evidence of him cheating on Barbara.
Knowing that he can't go to the police, Harry decides to handle the situation his own way - by trying to turn the blackmailers against each other. But these psychopathic criminals are smarter than he thinks. And much more dangerous...
More of Leonard's novels would be adapted as memorable feature films, including Rum Punch, (as Jackie Brown) and Get Shorty, and its sequel, Be Cool, both of which feature one of his most popular characters, Chili Palmer - an affable gangster who wants out of the loan sharking business.
In Get Shorty, Chili has his heart set on becoming a movie producer. In Be Cool, having tired of the movie business, Chili decides to return to loansharking, only to get mixed up with the music industry.
Leonard's final novel, Raylan, was published in January of 2012. It features U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, the iconic character and star of the TV series Justified, in a new adventure.
This time, Raylan is on the trail of drug trafficking brothers Dickie and Coover Crowe. What the marshal doesn't know is that the Crowe brothers are trafficking a new cash crop - human organs for transplant operations harvested from unwilling donors.
Elmore Leonard died in August of 2013 at the age of 87.
Quote Of The Day
"My most important piece of advice to all you would-be writers: when you write, try to leave out all the parts readers skip." - Elmore Leonard
Today's video features a 2006 interview with Elmore Leonard, where he discusses the craft of writing. Enjoy!