The Elmore Leonard Story

MGM/Jersey Films/Kobal Collection
John Travolta, Rene Russo, and Danny DeVito in the film version of Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty

Elmore Leonard, who died two summers ago, aged eighty-seven, became famous as a crime novelist, but he didn’t like being grouped with most of the big names in that genre, people such as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett or, indeed, any of the noir writers. He disapproved of their melodrama, their pessimism, their psychos and nymphos and fancy writing. He saw in crime no glamour or sexiness but, on the contrary, long hours and sore feet. His criminals didn’t become what they were out of any fondness for vice. They just needed work, and that’s what was available. They are not serial killers (or only one is), but bank robbers, loan sharks, bookies.

Leonard’s father worked for General Motors, and Leonard spent most of his early years in Detroit, his mind occupied mainly by sports and girls. He also liked to read: adventure books and, later, the novels that his sister received from the Book of the Month Club. (Hemingway became his idol.) After graduating from high school in 1943, he was drafted and went with the Seabees to New Guinea and the Admiralty Islands, where, he said, he mostly handed out beers and emptied garbage. Once he got back from the war, he went to the University of Detroit on the GI Bill, majoring in English and philosophy. (His entire education was acquired in Roman Catholic institutions, to which, he later said, he was very grateful, since they taught him to write a proper English sentence.) After graduation, he got a job right away, working for Campbell-Ewald, the ad agency that handled Chevrolet. But he soon came to hate advertising, and he thought he might try writing stories for magazines.

Stories about what? During Leonard’s youth, Wild West movies—My Darling Clementine, Red River—were immensely popular, and he adored them. In the 1940s and 1950s, there was also a big market for western novels and, in the magazines, for western stories. Leonard made a schedule for himself. He would get up early, go down to his basement, and, from five to seven, write stories before going to work. The third one he sent out, “Trail of the Apache” (1951), got taken by Argosy, a popular men’s magazine. In the decade that followed, Leonard sold many more stories, and several novels. A couple of the stories were also made into Hollywood films. Riding high, he quit Campbell-Ewald in 1961, hoping to become a full-time writer. But his family was growing—he and his wife eventually had five children—and he got sidetracked doing freelance jobs to make money.

Meanwhile, his market changed. In the 1960s, westerns were disappearing from both film and print. (The genre was being absorbed by TV.) Leonard’s agent, a smart woman named Marguerite Harper, told him to get out…

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