Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Depression Blues: Edward Anderson

Though few would write so movingly about the Depression, Edward Anderson, the author of Hungry Men and Thieves Like Us, received neither the recognition nor the financial reward he deserved. Part black-Irish and part-Cherokee, Anderson was born in 1905 in Weatherford, Texas. Leaving school at an early age, he became a printer’s apprentice- his father’s trade- then a cub reporter for an Ardmore, Oklahoma newspaper. Within a few years Anderson  worked on more than ten newspapers- “Legalized prostitution,” he would call it- within the Oklahoma-Texas area. When he tired of journalism, Anderson found occasional employment as a trombone player. 

Trim and muscular Anderson had high Indian cheekbones and dark hair. Like that other hobo-writer, Jim Tully, Anderson was, for a short time, a boxer with at least one professional bout under his belt. At twenty-five, he quit his job as a Houston copy editor to fulfil his dream of joining expatriate American writers in Europe. Shipping out on a freighter from New Orleans, he arrived to find the Lost Generation were mostly on their way back to America. 

He returned to the States to find the Depression in full swing. Unable to find employment, Anderson began a two year odyssey, riding freights, sleeping in parks, asking for handouts and working as an itinerant odd-jobber. Back in Abilene, he wrote  a story entitled “The Guy in a Blue Overcoat” about a 23 year-old hobo, and met John H. Knox, the son of a preacher who wrote poetry and sold stories to the pulps at a rate of two cents a word. Knox, whose family residence housed Abilene’s largest personal library, introduced Anderson to the world of books. Prior to acquainting himself with Knox’s library, Anderson’s reading had been confined to Tully and Jack London; now he was reading Knut Hamsun, Gorky and Marx. It was Anderson’s desire to write about the lives of hoboes, but the pulps were after stories about detectives, cowboys and athletes. Either the pulps thought it wrong to give hoboes a status beyond their worth, or they thought readers wanted to escape from a society that produced hoboes. Consequently, Anderson’s first published effort for a pulp magazine would be a boxing story.

In 1934, after finding  employment as a printer, he met federal employee Polly Anne Bates. Though interested in the arts, Anne came from a family of law enforcers. Her uncle was Gus T. Jones, an FBI agent who helped hunt down Dillinger, Machine Gun Kelly and Butch Cassidy. Anne’s father, despite his hatred for J. Edgar Hoover, also worked for the FBI. Edward and Anne married in August, and moved to New Orleans where Anderson worked for yet another local newspaper where  Anderson would rifle through the paper’s files in search of material. Meanwhile, Anne looked after their new born daughter and  made occasional trips to the police station to gather information that went into stories Edward was writing in the evenings for magazines like True Detective and Murder Stories. Soon he was selling articles with titles like  “Uncovering the Vice Cesspool in New Orleans: The Shameful Facts Behind the War between T. Semmes (Turkeyhead) Walmsely and Huey (Kingfish) Long”; “Tough Guy! The Career of Dutch Gardner”; and “The Kiss of Death and New Orleans’ Diamond Queen.” An  article for True Detective about Henry Meyer, the official state hangman was returned saying it might work better as a short-story. The article became “The Hangman,” which marked the start of Anderson’s career as a fiction writer.  In an era of proletariat fiction, Anderson’s portrait of life on the road impressed White Burnett and Martha Foley at Story magazine enough to give him $1000 and a Doubleday/Literary Guild book contract.

Moving to another apartment- Anne was pregnant again- Anderson, over the following seven months, put the finishing touches to Hungry Men. Written in a calm, observational style, its energy and emotional impact overshadowed any stylistic deficiencies. Less a novel than a series of vignettes strung together through its main character, the book sold moderately well, and was praised by Raymond Chandler as well as the New Republic who cited the book’s “firm quiet realism.” Most critics ignored it, and those who did review it thought Anderson was another  writer chronicling the Depression, such as the British reviewer who said,  “[Anderson’s] style, the extreme nakedness of presentation, the slang, ‘like an animal talking,’ owes everything to Mr. Ernest Hemingway.”

Derivative it might have been, but Hungry Men was less influenced by Hemingway than by Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun, a Nobel prize winner who, unfortunately, wound  up publicly defending Hitler and  the Nazi’s occupation of his country. Like his predecessor, Anderson would also find himself in murky political waters,  though this would not become immediately apparent.  At the time, Hungry Men, which follows protagonist Acel Stecker as he goes from freight trains to breadlines, from hobo jungles and Hoovervilles to political demonstrations, fit in perfectly with New Deal politics, while rejecting the need for social revolution.

At the time of publication, the novel’s most severe critic turned out to be hobo and author of Waiting For Nothing, Tom Kromer. He  attacked Anderson’s novel for its politics and lack of realism. Published two years before Hungry Men, Kromer’s Waiting For Nothing was considerably more revolutionary in tone and outlook.  According to Kromer, Anderson’s view of “life on the stem” was too sunny and romantic. So perturbed was Kromer that, in an October, 1936, issue of Pacific Weekly he published a piece which purposely appropriated the title of Anderson’s novel. In three pages of newsprint, Kromer rewrote Anderson’s novel. Covering the same time-span, Kromer, in his hard-bitten approach, rejects Anderson’s ending in which Acel and his small band of musicians, having refused to play the Internationale, decide to call themselves “The Three Americans” and learn to play patriotic and off-colour ditties. Instead, Kromer depicts a hundred flophouse stiffs joining locked-out motormen in the streets during the 1934 Los Angeles Yellow Car strike. Kromer was particularly annoyed by the way Anderson sought to sanitise and depoliticise the hobo. In his  review, he wrote, “You’ll see no Jesus Christ looks in the eyes of Edward Anderson’s Hungry Men, no working stiffs dying of malnutrition on lice-infested blankets of three-decker bunks in the missions, no soup-lines that stretch for blocks in the city streets and never start moving. In a word, you find no Hungry Men.”

On the other hand, Louis L’Amor, at the time another gentleman writer of the road, and not yet Ronald Reagan’s favourite author, praised Anderson’s Hungry Men, saying, “It seems highly improbable that a revolution will take place in this country at the present time..., although the subject is interesting...one wonders what will become of a country where young men such as Stecker are forced to wander helplessly, driven by the police, in fear of chain gangs, and out of work through the force of economic changes over which they have no control.” While it’s impossible to ignore Hungry Men’s  sense of  social justice, it’s apparent that Anderson believed rugged individualism and a benevolent state could combine to defeat Depression poverty. Finding Anderson’s perspective politically naive, Kromer offered the opinion that the former would appeal only to those who’ve been conned by the system: “If you have read all the Horatio Alger novels and would like to get the same story with a depression slant, you will not be able to put it down.”

With the money he received from Burnett and Foley, the Andersons purchased a car and drove to Kerrville, Texas, where they rented a cabin. Situated a thousand feet above Huntsville, Kerrville was famous for sunlight and Guadaloupe water, supposedly beneficial for those recovering from tuberculosis. It was in Kerrville that Anderson would write his second novel, Thieves Like UsThis time Anderson based his characters on the exploits of real criminals: Bonnie and Clyde, recently gunned down in Athens, Louisiana, not far from Anderson’s home town; John Dillinger who had just been killed outside the Biograph in Chicago; and bank robbers Anderson had interviewed in Huntsville prison, a research expedition that allowed him to record their stories and note their speech patterns and ways of viewing the world.  Talking to prisoners had served Anderson well when it came to creating a character like T-Dub, whose manner of speaking- “it’s raining cats and nigger babies”- and perspective came from Anderson’s research. Anderson was now reading Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Upton Sinclair, Zola, Dostoevsky, and James Farrell, and would spend evenings testing dialogue on Anne, asking her what the girl, Keechie, would say in a given situation. The novel’s title derives from a line delivered by T-Dub in which he refers to those in respectable professions- bankers, politicians, police officers- as “just thieves like us.” It’s this perspective, and the portrayal of those drawn by circumstances into illegal activities, that makes Thieves Like Us a classic hardboiled proletariat novel. According to Chandler, the novel was better than Steinbeck, and “one of the best stories of thieves ever written...one of the forgotten novels of the 30’s.”  Having ignored Hungry Men, Saturday Review was now calling  Anderson “the most exciting new writer to appear in American letters since Hemingway and Faulkner.”

 Despite his two novels, Anderson was pretty much broke. After a stint with the Work Projects Association writing about Abilene tourist sites for a Texas guidebook, the Andersons moved to Denver where Edward found work with the Rocky Mountain News and wrote for a local radio show, The Light of the West, dramatising the region’s historical events. There Anderson received a telegram offering him  a screenwriting job in Hollywood. It looked as though Anderson’s fortunes were about to change. He was sure his background as a journalist- writing stories, taking photographs, doing background work, rewriting- would stand him good stead  in Hollywood, just as it had the likes of Hecht, Fowler and James M. Cain.

Taking the train west, Anderson and his family arrived in Los Angeles in 1937. Fritz Lang’s film You Only Live Once had just been released and crime stories with a social angle were in vogue. An optimistic Anderson installed his family in The Seaforth, an apartment complex on the corner of Clinton and Norton, a few blocks from where the film adaptation of his latest book would eventually be made.

It was Ad Schulberg- the mother of Budd Schulberg- who had sent the telegram. Separated from her husband, B.P. “Ben” Schulberg, Ad had set herself up as a Hollywood agent. Meanwhile, Adolph Zukor had given her husband a budget, the promise of producing eight films a year, and an office off Melrose Avenue. With Ad representing Anderson in negotiations with Paramount, the writer must have thought it odd that, whatever  their marital status, a Schulberg sat on each side of the bargaining table. Unfortunately, the deal did not bring Anderson the riches he imagined. Anderson was to be paid $150 a week, not much compared to the $5,200 per week Dorothy Parker and Alan Campbell were making, but not bad when compared to the $25 a week Anderson had been earning as a journalist.

Installed in William Saroyan’s old office, Anderson started off writing a football movie on which the former had been working, a dreamchild of Paramount story editor and pigskin-obsessive George Auerbach. The problem was, Anderson had no idea how to adapt a story for the screen. Though he embarked on a crash course in the art of writing for the movies,  no screen credits would be  forthcoming, which meant  his chances of advancing in Hollywood remained negligible. Auerbach sympathised, believing Anderson’s problem was that he had come in “through the backdoor,” by which he meant it had been Ad Schulberg who had landed him the job in the first place.  

When his contract expired, Anderson moved to Warners. At least it was a studio known for  gangster films and a solid roster of writers. On the downside,  Jack Warner expected his writers to arrive at 8:30 in the morning and stay until 5:30, work six days a week, and could  churn-out twenty to thirty pages a day.  Anderson’s first assignments were a series of B features alongside Bryan Foy.  Foy was the son of Eddie Foy, Jr., of the Seven Little Foys vaudeville team, and a former gag man for Buster Keaton. Such was Foy’s position that he was referred to as the “keeper of the B’s.” The result of their first effort was Siberia, which was probably where Anderson must have felt he’d been sent.  With his career going from bad to worse, Anderson ended up working on a series of Nancy Drew mystery films. Not quite what the writer had in mind when he contemplated a career in Tinseltown. On the other hand,  writing Nancy Drew scripts- from 1938-1939 there were four such films, directed by William Clemens and starring Bonita Granville as the teenage detective- wasn’t much different from writing for the pulps. 

He quickly grew to  detest Hollywood. Ill at ease amongst the rich and famous, he began to drink even more than usual. Despite his good looks and athletic appearance, he didn’t possess the personality necessary to get ahead in Hollywood. Nor did he care for his colleagues or employers. Instead, he gravitated towards hard-drinking ex-newspapermen like Hecht, Fowler and Charles MacArthur. He and Fowler had much in common. Both had arrived in Hollywood from Denver; both were fascinated by boxing; and both were former press agents. 

In March, Anderson received notice that the rights to Thieves Like Us had been sold to Rowland Brown for $500: Anderson was to receive $250 on signing the contract and a further $250 thirty days later. Nevertheless,  Anderson took a job at the Los Angeles Examiner,  only to be fired not long afterwards for making jokes about the so-called international Jewish conspiracy. Indeed, Anderson was becoming increasingly anti-semitic, even attending a Los Angeles American Nazi rally.  Not that anti-semitism was uncommon in Hollywood.  Myron Brinig’s early apocalyptic Hollywood 1933 roman de clef Flicker of an Eyelid, with its unflattering portrayal of the notorious L.A. poet Jake Zeitlin, was criticized as being anti-semitic. Likewise, Jim Tully’s Hollywood novel Jarnegan portrays Jewish movie moguls in a unflattering manner. Since most Hollywood producers, as well as many of its agents and actors, were Jewish, anyone with a grievance had a ready-made target.  This was, of course, helped by the fact that a handful Jewish studio executives- Harry Cohn, Jack Warner, Louis B. Mayer- were themselves borderline anti-semites.

Without a job, and hoping to get out of L.A., Anderson found work on the Sacramento Bee. But Anne had problems living in a house that belonged to a Japanese couple who had been interned at the start of the war. So quickly had they been spirited away that all their belongings remained in the house.   It wasn’t long before Anderson quit his job at the Bee to  devote more time to writing. While Anne went out to work, Anderson began a novel  about the west, Mighty Men of Valor. Then he heard screenwriter Niven Busch (Duel in the Sun) was in the market for a western about Fort Griffin, an old outpost near Abilene where a small war with the Commanches had been fought. But neither Anderson’s novel nor his treatment would come to anything. During this period Anderson produced two other  stories, one about Sam Houston, the other about a settler who mistreats his family. Neither sold. Increasingly difficult to live with, Anderson was now drunk most of the time, leading to the couple’s separation. They eventually got back together, divorced, and remarried. When, a few years later, Anderson came down with a bad case of the DT’s, followed by a bout of pneumonia, Anne decided, when he recovered, she would leave for good. Though Anderson tried to quit drinking and joined AA, he was, for Anne, beyond redemption, so she divorced him for a second, and final, time. 

Over the years, Anne remained bitter that Edward received only $500 for the film rights to Thieves Like Us. Particularly when she remembered all the lines of Keechie’s that she had edited or, in some instances, composed. Buying the rights was a gamble for Rowland Brown, a director-writer hoping to ease his way back into the frontline.  Known for his gangster films and portrayal of underworld figures as representatives of  the capitalist ethic, Brown had hit his peak in 1932, directing and writing the underrated but influential Hell’s Highway. As an indication of how fickle Hollywood could be, Brown, three years before securing the rights to Thieves Like Us, had garnered an Academy Award  for Angels With Dirty Faces. Yet by 1939, when he purchased Anderson’s novel, he was already yesterday’s movie news.

At least Brown’s script remained true to the spirit of the book, incorporating, as it did, large chunks of its dialogue and observations. If Brown was to fail, he was going to do so without sacrificing his artistic and political integrity. Unfortunately, he immediately had problems with the film, failing in his attempt to cast his friend Joel McCrea as Bowie. When Paramount refused to allow McCrea to do outside work, Brown must  have realized his project was going to flounder.  In 1941, Brown, his career nearly over- he did go on to receive a story credit for  Phil Karlson’s Kansas City Confidential- sold the film rights and script to RKO for $10,000. Not a bad return on his $500 investment. Despite Brown’s track record, RKO wanted another director. Either they considered Brown past his sell-by date, or, having seen his script, and knowing his reputation, they were concerned about the film’s politics. It could be they realized that Brown had no intention of implementing the changes demanded by the Breen Office, or had refused  to kowtow to Washington’s insistence that representing judges and prison guards as evil or cynical was counter-productive to the war effort.

At this point, RKO hired Dudley Nichols (Bringing Up Baby, Stagecoach) to rewrite the script. In 1944, Brown, for some reason, was rehired. But RKO balked at the director’s suggestion they shoot the film in Mexico. Just when it looked like  the studio was about to write-off the project, John Houseman appeared on the scene.  Hired as a studio producer, Houseman came out of  Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre and had been involved with films like Citizen Kane and Letter From an Unknown Woman. Houseman would begin his tenure at RKO by resurrecting Thieves Like Us for a young director, Nicholas Ray, who, at the time, was a protege of Houseman’s, and known for his New Deal theatre and radio work. It would be Nicholas Ray’s first film. “I found the book,” said Houseman, “and gave it to Nick to read, and he fell madly in love with it.” To persuade the studio that the film merited resuscitation, Houseman explained to his employers that Ray, who had submitted a 196 page treatment to the studio, had worked with Alan Lomax and the Department of Agriculture and knew the milieu in which the film was set.

Making $300 a week, Ray wanted Robert Mitchum for the part of Chicamaw. Mitchum had  read the book and liked it. Moreover,  as a child of the Depression, he had first-hand knowledge of boxcars, soup kitchens and Hoovervilles, having even  served time on a Georgia chain-gang for  vagrancy. However, the studio refused to let their $3,250 per week star take the role. With a reputation as a troublemaker, the studio thought they should keep a tight rein on him. Had Mitchum landed the part, the film’s ambiance would have been decidedly different. Even so,  Ray’s casting- Howard Da Silva as Chicamaw, Cathy O’Donnell as Keechie and Farley Granger as Bowie- was nearly perfect.

Though the war was over, Ray’s film was still having problems with the Breen Office as well as with  Howard Hughes, who was again head  of the studio. Hughes had little interest  in the film,  while  the Breen Office maintained  that “one very objectionable, inescapable flavour of this story is the general indictment of Society which justifies the title.” This helps explains the film’s various titles, as well as the contrasting approaches taken by Ray and his producers, and, ultimately, the film’s depoliticalisation.  

Originally Ray had wanted to call the film Little Red Wagon.  Then Ray, who considered himself a leftist, changed the title to I’m a Stranger Here Myself, so  shifting the subtext  from a song of experience to one of innocence. Other titles booted around by the studio included The Narrow Road, The Dark Highway, The Twisted Road, Never Let Me Go, and Hold Me Close. Finally, Houseman polled preview spectators: the film would be titled They Live By Night. Though depoliticised, the film still looked as though it would never reach the screen. It was only when Dore Schary, another Hollywood liberal, took over as head of production in 1947 that it was finally given the green light.

Upon completion of the film in 1947, Bantam republished Anderson’s novel under the title Your Red Wagon in a print run of 270,000 copies. However, the author, no longer owning his novel, would receive no money from the film tie-in. Though the film had been ready for release in 1947,  thanks to further discussions between the director,  Houseman, Schary and Hughes over the title, it would be  another two years before the film would hit the screens. On its release in Spring, 1949, Ray’s movie, rewritten by Red River scenarist Charles Schnee from the director’s adaptation, had little box office impact. Film goers were looking for more urbane material. Even though Anderson’s novel and Brown’s script are prefaced by a passage from Solomon- “Men do not despise a thief, if he steal to satisfy his soul when he is hungry; but if he be found, he shall restore sevenfold; he shall give all the substance of his house.”- Ray prefaces his film with “This boy and this girl were never properly introduced to the world we live in.” It’s an  indication that Ray’s film will lack the urgency of Anderson’s novel and Brown’s script. Without Brown’s politics, Ray could bend Anderson’s text- flexible because its politics had been diluted-  into his own brand of cinematic lyricism.

Ray’s capitulation over the sound track is another indication of how his film strayed from the novel and Ray’s original concept; namely, to use the music as a defining  element around which the action would take place. In a sense, what Ray envisioned,  Robert Altman would accomplish in his remake, blurring background and foreground through the utilization of radio drama fragments- Gang Busters, Romeo and Juliette- as well as music. Had Ray stuck to his original idea, viewers might have been treated, as was his intention, to Leadbelly singing “Midnight Special,” as well as an assortment of other folk music of the era. All that remains is a radio fragment, extraordinary in itself, of Woody Guthrie singing “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad.”

Newspaper columnist Louella Parsons predicted the film would be a success. Having read her column, Anderson decided  Hollywood owed him something beyond the $500 he’d originally received for the film rights. Now making  $30 a week as a Forth Worth journalist, Anderson wrote to Howard Hughes, asking for more money.  Hughes simply handed the letter to his legal department who, in a terse and formal reply, rejected Anderson’s request.

For some twenty years, the world forgot the novel and its author. By 1964 RKO had allowed the book to fall into public domain. Though the studio hadn’t reregistered the title, it retained adaptation and foreign rights. Then independent producer Jerry Bick, having paid 25 cents for a copy of the novel in Needham’s Bookfinder in L.A., purchased the rights to Anderson’s book from RKO. It was said that John Ford was interested in remaking the film as well. The fact that the conservative Ford was amenable to the book’s “social significance”- saying it couldn’t  be avoided- is another indication of the pliability of Anderson’s novel.

Bick, who produced Altman’s The Long Goodbye, had been paying the options on Anderson’s novel since 1967. In 1972, he purchased the story for $7,500, and immediately sent the book to writer Calder Willingham. Altman, having come across the book a year earlier,  was also interested in adapting it. When he, Bick and Willingham met, Altman made it clear that he intended to use his own scriptwriter, Joan Tewkesbury. Rather than follow Ray’s film, Tewkesbury returned to the novel, extracting and cutting where necessary. Though she hadn’t read Willingham’s script, the Screen Writer’s Guild insisted the latter be credited for the work he’d done.  

Altman shot his version in Mississippi, in places like Jackson, Vicksbourg and surrounding   small towns. The film was finished  at the end of 1973, and greatly differs from Ray’s version. With his own historical sense, Altman was able to strip away Ray’s sentimentality and romanticism, replacing it with a stony-faced and laconic stoicism. Both are excellent movies. Ray’s might be the more touching, but Altman’s, with its humour, brutality and finely drawn characters, is the more believable. Where Altman seeks realism, Ray opts for romance. One imagines that Anderson would have preferred Altman’s adaptation, which, other than the ending, sticks closer to his novel.

There’s no telling what Anderson thought of Ray’s film when it opened in Forth Worth in 1950. Certainly critics were ambivalent.  Not long after its premier, Anderson was back on the road, moving from one small-town newspaper to another. He stayed in San Antonio for a few years, then he went to El Paso, Laredo, and finally Brownsville, where, between 1960 and 1963, he covered municipal politics for the Herald. Obsessed by Fidel Castro- he believed  America was pushing Cuba into the arms of Russia- and having developed an obsessive interest in the philosophy of Swedenborg, he drank- though apparently not to excess- and, in a Brownsville dancehall, met Lupe, a Mexican dancer whom he would marry.

Lupe could barely speak English, but Anderson’s border Spanish must have sufficed. A modest woman, Lupe wore no make-up or jewellery, and neither drank nor smoked. She had a child from a previous relationship, and before long she and Anderson had a new-born son. But Anderson was still reluctant  to settle down. While Lupe remained in Brownsville, Anderson continued to wander while showing  further signs of mental  instability. Not only did he want  to write sermons and promotional material for young evangelists, but, in a letter to his daughter, he said, “It is also my discovery...that the United States is unprecedented, perhaps, since the Egyptians, in the worship of ‘graven images,’ automobiles, that is. Their adoration of the scarab (beatle) is historic and it is not accidental. I hold, that the most popular car in the world today is the Volkswagen, known also as the ‘beatle.’” Now living off social security checks, Anderson claimed to be working on a book that would expose the corruption of the clergy. He moved to Cuero, a small port town near Corpus Christi, where he wrote articles for the Record. It would be his fifty-second newspaper. Crankier than ever, he still ranted  about Zionism, believed Charles Lindberg would one day lead the nation, expressed admiration for Robert Kennedy and Helen Keller, and began work on a Swedenborgian text, entitled “O Man, Know Thyself.”

When he tired of Cuero, Anderson returned to Brownsville, where he died in September, 1969. He was sixty-four years old. Three years later Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us would be released. After Anderson’s death, his agent Alex Jackelson was said to have several unpublished Anderson manuscripts in his possession, including a novel alternatively titled Several Hundred Wives and One Hell and Many Heavens. Begun fifteen years before his death and rewritten several times, it is the story of a group of indigents along the Mexican border during the time of Pancho Villa and is imbued with a Swedenborgian optimism. Anderson also had thoughts about reigniting his Hollywood career, as indicated by a synopsis sent by Anderson or his agent during the 1960s, to Warners where it still sits in the studio’s archives.


Anderson’s literary accomplishments would continue to go largely ignored. If anything, his lack of recognition was as much the result of not belonging to any literary group or movement as to his literary inactivity or mental problems. Neither a Black Mask hardboiler, a Hollywood backslapper, nor a well-connected East Coast journalist, Anderson remained a literary outsider throughout his life. Moreover, he was never able to crank out paperback pulp fiction or brain-numbing film adaptations. Though his literary gifts were suited for the 1930s, his fiction would be lost amidst the more extreme stylisations that would come, then, finally, recycled in an age of tough love and trickle down economics. While one cannot help but be moved by his fiction, Anderson’s life was shaped by the same circumstances that moulded the lives of his characters: another  victim of hungry men and thieves like us.
http://www.facebook.com/facebook-widgets/share.php

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Harry Whittington: The Last of His Kind

The days of the hard-working pulp writer might be over, but the image of someone sitting behind a typewriter, tobacco-stained fingers hammering out stories for which he or she is paid by the word, is still a romantic one. These days fiction writers are lucky if their work nets them anything approaching  minimum wage, while only a fraction can be said to make a decent living from their writing.  Nevertheless, back before the internet, when television was in its infancy, before the decline of national newspapers and the corporatisation of publishing, when paper was cheap and there was still a functioning working class, writers willing to do the hard graft could sustain themselves in a world of pulp magazines and cheap paperback houses.     
Perhaps that’s an exaggeration. Because even then only a select few were able to succeed in that  world.  Harry Whittington was certainly one of them. Over the course of four decades, he made a living churning out hardboiled crime stories, mysteries, westerns, soft-core porn, southern historical novels and soap operas. He could do this because he was well-versed in the market and how to write for it. From reading the likes of Hammett, Chandler and Cain, he realized early on the importance of both plot and those who inhabit the plot.  Perhaps he sensed that it’s the plot that turns the pages, but it’s the characters who leave a lasting impression. Which is as  true for Chandler’s The Big Sleep, Hammett’s Red Harvest, or Whittington novels like Web of Murder, Strange Bargain or Any Woman He Wanted.  

Whittington- not  the Harry Whittington wounded by former VP Cheney in that famous quail-hunting incident, though that Whittington and the incident could have come straight from one of writer-Whittington’s novels-  was the last of his kind.  From the early 1950s to the mid-1980s  he might have been the hardest working writers in Noirville, racking-up some 180 novels. In churning out his high-octane books, he deployed over twenty noms-des-plumes: Whit Harrison (for suspense and westerns), Clay Stuart (southern novels), Steve Philips (police procedurals), Hondo Wells (westerns), Tabor Evans (westerns), Harriet Kathryn Myers (nurse romances), Hallam Whitney (southern novels), Ashley Carter (southern historical- Falconhurst series),  Harry White (westerns), as well as Howard Winslow, Henry Whittier, Curt Colman, John Dexter, Kel Holland, Blaine Stevens and Suzanne Stephens. Whittington novels like The Devil Wears Wings, Fires That Destroy,  A Moment to Prey and A Ticket to Hell are tense affairs, with knuckle-crunching dialogue. But even though companies like Black Lizard,  Stark House and 280 Steps have reprinted several of his best novels, Whittington has never achieved the same status as Hammett or Cain, nor gained the same cult following as Thompson and Goodis.  

Born in Ocala, Florida on February 4th, 1916, Whittington, at an early age, fell in love with literature, particularly writers like Dostoyevsky, Gorky, Maupassant, Balzac, Flaubert, Balzac, Dumas, Anatole France, who wrote about the world as they saw it, and knew how to create complex narratives that could twist and turn in any direction.  It’s ironic that Whittington, given his love for these more literary types, would opt for “non-literary” pulp fiction.  But Whittington,  desperate to make writing his life, was willing to take his accolades and paychecks wherever he could get them. This after putting in more than a decade in the straight world, in a St Petersburg publicity agency, as an assistant manager of the town’s Capital Theater, followed by stints in the post office, and as the editor-in-chief of periodicals like The Advocate. 

No overnight success, Whittington set his sights on the paperback and pulp magazine market. Unable to find a publisher for his first novel, The World Before Us, he turned to westerns, publishing Vengeance Valley in 1944. No doubt he would have loved to have been a Dostoyevsky or Balzac, and maybe, in a way, he was. At least in so far as they wrote for a living and knew the importance of simply telling a good story. And, even though he hoped to be the next Scott Fitzgerald “with a touch of Maugham,”  the more Whittington moved in the direction of pulp fiction, the more he would come to respect others who wrote for that market.  In his essay, “I Remember It Well,” which prefaces the Black Lizard reprints of his work, he cites Day Keene, Gil Brewer, Talmage Powell and Fred Davis, who also wrote  by the word, putting in eight to ten hours a day in to make a living during those final  dog-days of pulp magazines.  To illustrate the competitive camaraderie amongst those writers: Whittington claimed he’d taught Brewer and Keene everything they knew about writing; meanwhile  Brewer claimed he’d taught Whittington as well as Keene everything they knew about writing, only to be contradicted by Keene who claimed he had taught both Brewer and Whittington everything they knew about writing. Probably they had all influenced each other.  Regardless, the onset of the paperback original meant it was no longer a matter of getting paid by the word.  Thanks to the exigencies of publishing, one now had to work to contract, which, of course, meant less autonomy for the likes of Whittington. 

It was was a hard road to travel, but a road nevertheless. As Whittington said half-jokingly in  “I Remember It Well,” he hadn’t realized  when he began publishing in the late 1940s that most successful writers in America were either college professors, ad men, reporters, lawyers, dog catchers or politicians. Not entirely true, but his point is well taken. Many successful writers had other jobs and, unlike Whittington, didn’t have to meet the demands entailed in scratching for a living. Naive he might have been, but nothing was going to hold Whittington back. Consequently, he quit his job to be a full-time working writer. Still it would be  seven years before he sold his first story, to United Features in 1943 for $15. It would still be another five years before he could sell stories on a regular basis.  

According to Whittington, he might never have entertained the notion of writing crime and suspense stories had he not attended  a 1949 writers’ conference in Chicago, where he was told by an editor that these were the very stories publishers were looking for. On the bus journey back to Florida, hemmed against a window by an overweight woman, Whittington plotted his first crime story. He claims he arrived home on a Monday, wrote the story that night, posted it on Tuesday,  and by Friday had a check for $250 from King Features, a long-standing Hearst outlet.  Fanciful or not, it illustrates Whittington’s writing speed and methodology,  while indicating the kind of money that could be made from writing pulp fiction. 

Whittington, who would write 30 novelettes for King, dove headlong into the beast that was the burgeoning paperback market. Companies like  Fawcett, who paid writers “not by royalty but on print order. Foreign, movie and TV rights stayed with the author. They were insane.”  It was a business model that seemed to work, at least for the likes of Whittington and Brewer. No matter that they drove themselves into the ground trying to fit into that system, which had the potential of paying well, however much it curtailed their options.  Of course,  there was a price to be paid for their servitude. To deal with the pressure entailed in churning-out books, working to deadlines, scrounging for contracts, and making promises that were difficult to keep, some would turn to alcohol or pills.  I don’t know if Whittington, who certainly liked to portray alcoholics in his fiction, was as much of a  drinker as Brewer or Thompson, but if so, it would have been understandable.  

Most likely more workaholic than alcoholic, it took Whittington, by his own admission,  thirteen years to master  the art of creating a compelling narrative. But once he did, he would immodestly say,  “I could plot, baby. I could plot.”  More importantly, he could also now sell practically anything he wrote, and live well off the proceeds.  Believing that not planning a novel was unprofessional, he admitted to having a range of experiences and knowledge of various locales that fit the sort of writing he was doing. Though he wanted to make the reader feel what his characters felt,  he had the wherewithal to move outside his own experiences, that it wasn’t simply a case of writing about what one knows. As he said,  “you don’t have to die in a fire to write about arson.” 

Whittington’s success eventually led to Hollywood. However, he had problems adapting  to the studio system. After all, Whittington had always worked on his own, while in Hollywood he was expected to be part of a team. Even so, his treatment for Trouble Rides Tall with Gary Cooper became a TV series, The Lawman. While IMDB lists ten film credits associated with his name: from the short The Wonderful World of Tupperware (1959) to TV work on Lawman, The Alaskans, Cheyenne, The Dakotas; and films like Desire In the Dust (1960, based on his novel), Black Gold (1962, based on his story), Adios Gringo (1965, based on his novel Adios), Fireball (1969), Dead in the Water (1991, based on his novel Web of Murder).  Undeterred, Whittington returned to Florida where he wrote, produced and directed  The Face of the Phantom, a horror movie no distributor wanted to take on. For the next eight years, Whittington wrote a number of scripts, but couldn’t sell any of them.  

The 1960s proved to be Whittington’s most prolific decade. His largest flurry of novels began in 1964 after he was contracted to produce a 60,000 word novel, for which he was paid $1000.  According to Whittington, he handed in a novel per month for the next 39 months. Those  39 novels have been referred to as Whittington’s “lost novels,” because they have been difficult to track down.  Published under various pseudonyms, most were adult-themed narratives (thanks to Whittington aficionado David Laurence Wilson, pretty much all of these books have now been accounted for).  Around this time he was also contacted to write a series of tie-in novels based on The Man From Uncle under the name Robert Hart-Davis, for which he was paid $1500. Not surprisingly, Whittington ended up mentally and physically exhausted.  Burnt out, he quit writing and found employment with the Department of Agriculture.  Though even during his eight year tenure with the Department he managed to churn out the odd novel. Eventually, Whittington, thanks to his wife, located a new agent who, after suggesting he change to writing name to Ashley Carter, negotiated contracts for some eighteen antebellum plantation novels  featuring Falconhurst, a series begun by  Kyle Onstott and, then, Lance Horner, as well as at least seven in the Blackoaks series, about a Mandingo slave, and six Longarm westerns under the name Tabor Evans.  

Despite his output, Whittington was smart enough to sometimes stand back to let his material crystallize on its own.  For example, having  signed a contract with  Fawcett in 1952 to write a novel for which he received a $1000 advance, Whittington produced  My Bloody Hands, about a crooked cop fed up with the corruption around him, including his own. However, he and his editors knew the novel wasn’t quite right, so Fawcett told  him to keep the advance and work on something else. Four years later, while visiting  a prison with a friend  who was interviewing an inmate for True Detective, Whittington, noting his surroundings, realized the  protagonist of My Bloody Hands shouldn’t be a corrupt cop but a citizen on the take and content to keep on doing so.  So he went home, changed the title, and, over the next month, finished the novel, which included an opening set in a similar prison. Consequently, he would say he was never sure if Forgive Me Killer took one month or four years to write. As for his usual working process, Whittington normally started with the climax, crisis or denouement and worked backwards, teasing and terrifying the reader, while establishing the plot that would unlock the story. Consequently, the novel’s shape would dictate its effect. Whittington liked to quote Spillane: “The first page sells the book being read, the last page sells the one you’re writing.”

For someone so intensely involved in the writing process, Whittington’s work, despite dubious portrayals of women, could be oddly political. As he once said,  “Not one of my heroes is ever permitted, by his own disenchanted sanity, to believe in the sanity of the social order around him.”  Regardless of how dangerous their situation, Whittington’s protagonists have only themselves to rely upon, and their true selves cannot help but be revealed. Faced with that moment of truth, Whittington’s libertarian heroes  “[Cannot] put on a happy face. He is pushed to the place where he can trust only himself, even when he recognizes the impossible odds he faces.”  

Like many other noirists,  Whittington would find greater favor in France.  Though, come the 1980s, with no new Whittington novels in sight, pundits there were beginning to think he had ascended to noir heaven, his death unnoticed by unappreciative Americans. Meanwhile, French periodicals like 813 and Magazine Litteraire were celebrating him,  the latter calling him  a “master of the roman noir,” and the best of the second generation of crime writers. Of course, Whittington was no stranger to French crime readers, with numerous novels published by Gallimard’s Serie Noire, beginning with You’ll Die Next (Carré Noir) in 1954,  followed by the likes of Hell Can Wait, published in 1956, four years before it appeared in the U.S., and The Humming Box in 1957. And from 1951 onwards, French magazines Le Fantome and Verrou had been publishing translations of his stories. Rafael Sorin in Le Monde compares him to Goodis, Tracy and Gault, adding , “Even the most minor of Whittington’s earliest narratives reread today does not fail to charm. Whittington, who acknowledges the influences of Cain, Frederic Davis and Day Keene is the most violent writer of this genre. His tomb of death can be the appliance freezer, alligators, mosquitoes carrying fatal virus. But his worst enemy is la femme. She who kills for money and devours those who succumb to her charms.”

But Whittington also had his American admirers.  Anthony Boucher- writing in the  New York Times of You’ll Die Next: "I couldn't have held my breath any longer in this vigorous tale whose plot is too dextrously twisted even to mention in a review." - and the eccentric suspense writer Harry Stephen Keeler, who said,  “Whittington is only writer I know who can make a sex scene last six pages without ever going out of bounds.” But it would only be in the 1980s,  thanks to Black Lizard, that his novels Forgive Me, Killer, The Devil Wears Wings, Fires That Destroy, A Moment to Prey, A Ticket to Hell and Web of Murder were reprinted, that Whittington would be rehabilitated for a new readership. While articles acknowledging his influence and the quality of his work began to appear   in magazines like The West Coast Review of Books, Twentieth Century Crime and Suspense Writers, Twentieth Century Western Writers. 

Given today’s market, it’s doubtful anyone, no matter how committed, could repeat Whittington’s accomplishments.  Whether in terms of output or the quality of what Whittington, on the top of his game, could produce. Today, despite the internet, there aren’t the same outlets and few if any that can pay the same rates, if at all. Likewise, there’s considerably less money to spend on writers unconnected  to corporate publishers. Consequently, few, given the choice or chance, would seek to travel down that road.  Even back in the 1980s Whittington, reflecting on his most prolific years, maintained there were fewer than “500 people in the U.S. make their living from full-time freelance writing,” which made him, since 1948, one of “fortune’s 500.” Though he described writing as “a blast,” he admitted there was a downside, saying, “With all the fallout, fragmentation, frustration and free-falls known to man, I’ve careened around on heights I never dreamed of, and simmered in pits I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, and survived.” 

With these recent reprints and laudatory words, Whittington, who died in 1989 at age 74, might yet receive the recognition he clearly deserves. As hardboiled pundit Bill Crider said about Whittington’s A Night For Screaming, he could begin “with a tense situation and then dial up the tension on every succeeding page. He can put his protagonist into a situation that seems as bad as it can get, and then he can make it worse. And after that, he can make it worse still.” So welcome to  Whittington’s world, as psychologically gripping and off-kilter as Jim Thompson or David Goodis, and, plot-wise, as unrelenting as James M. Cain. And even though he never did become the next Fitzgerald,  when it came to hardboiled noir,  Whittington, at his best, was as good as anyone and far better than most.
http://www.facebook.com/facebook-widgets/share.php

Monday, June 05, 2017

Alfred Hayes: From Communist Poet to Noir Screenwriter and Novelist

There’s no end to the stories. Talented writers- whether Chandler, Hammett, Fitzgerald, Faulkner or Fante- churning out mediocre screenplays in Hollywood, burnt out before, during or after their tenure. It’s become something of a cliché: the celebrated noirist who fades into literary obscurity, their posthumous careers resurrected by the New York Review of Books or some small press fascinated by such figures. Of course, there are exceptions, writers who were moderately successful, even feted in their time who became part of the studio mincing machine, who, however embittered, survived and had post-studio careers, producing work every bit as good as that which they’d produced before arriving in Tinseltown. 

Alfred Hayes was one such writer. Screenwriter, novelist, playwright and poet, Hayes was the author of two extraordinary noir novels- In Love (1953) and My Face For the World to See (1958), which NYRB have republished. Both were written while he was still working in Hollywood, not long after producing screenplays for two classic examples of film noir, Fritz Lang’s Clash By Night (1952) and Human Desire (1954). If that were not enough, Hayes contributed to two Italian renown neorealist films- Roberto Rossellini’s Paisan, where he collaborated with Frederico Fellini, and Victoria De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. And when his Hollywood career ended, Hayes went to write more novels, stories, plays and poetry, all of it of a fairly high quality. One of the few writers whose literary career was not adversely affected by his experience in the studios, Hayes seems to have benefited from the terseness and conversational style that screenwriting demands, as demonstrated in the condensed, hardboiled style of Hayes’s post Hollywood work. 

Born into a Jewish Whitechapel family in 1911, Alfred Hayes, aged three, emigrated to New York with his family. Earning a BA at the City College of New York, Hayes’s ambition was to be a newspaperman. And for a shot time he did pounded the crime beat  at the New York Daily News and the New York American.  Before that he found work as a delivery boy, waiter, process server, bootlegger and book thief. Joining the Communist Party and the John Reed Club during the Depression, he gained a reputation as a poet, contributing to periodicals like New Masses and the Partisan Review, albeit one with a penchant for gambling, pin ball machines and pool halls. Regardless of what job he was holding down at any particular time, or hustling his poetry, Hayes,   having cultivated an intense, poetic stare, preferred the company of pool hall bums and cab drivers rather than New York leftist intellectuals. Likewise, historian Alan Wald, in his book Exiles From the Future, calls Hayes the Byron of the Pool Halls. Someone working for New Masses describes, in Archie Green’s 1993 Wobblies, Pile Butts, and Other Heroes, Hayes as “[Dark], Dantean, witty, conscious to imperiousness that he personified a new sort of ‘young generation,’ the lyric poet of the New York working class, the strike front, the writer of sketches that bite into memory.” Many years later, Fritz Lang thought Hayes was “a very interesting man- very intense- determined to do something good.” Hayes’s early years as a newspaperman were cut short when, during World War II, he was drafted, serving in the entertainment division of the Army Special Services where he worked mainly as a museum guide. It was in that capacity that he met Roberto Rossellini with whom he would later collaborate.

Lauded by the likes of Julian Maclaren Ross, Angus Wilson, Elizabeth Bowen, Stevie Smith and Antonia White, Hayes would end up publishing seven novels, a book of short stories, and three volumes of poetry, as well as having a hand in at least a dozen films. Not only Clash By Night and Human Desire for Fritz Lang- the latter being an adaptation of Zola’s La Bete Humaine, and the former a version of Clifford Odet’s play- but Bicycle Thieves and Paisan, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award. Not to mention Nick Ray’s classic modern western The Lusty Men (1952), which he wrote along side fellow noirist Horace McCoy. If that wasn’t enough, Hayes also penned the lyrics for I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night, which Earl Robinson put to music, and, in later years, would be sung by the likes of Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger and Joan Baez. It wouldn’t be the first time Hayes worked with Robinson, having previously written a poem Into the Streets May First which Aaron Copland would orchestrate.  

Influenced in the early days by fellow screenwriter, newspaperman and story writer Ben Hecht and New York neighbour and friend Kenneth Fearing, as well as poets like Hart Crane, Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, Hayes, by working in Hollywood was able to eventually harden his prose, and move beyond the literary awkwardness of his early work. Though not without its vernacularisms, Hayes’s poetry would remain more classically oriented and self-conscious than Fearing’s.   

According to Wald, Hayes though a committed communist, was not much of an activist. His most radical act it seems was moving furniture back into the homes of evicted Depression-hit families. As with many, the Spanish Civil War and the Moscow trials led to Hayes’s disillusionment with the party. Even so, he  begged Fearing to accompany him to the Soviet Union so he could assess what was going on in person. Despite the political turmoil of the era, Hayes, unlike some, did not turn to the right, but apparently remained for the remainder of his career on the humanitarian left.


After serving in the army, and with two neo-realist films and a book of poems- The Big Time (1944) under his belt, Hayes arrived in Hollywood, his communist past behind him, and, if his second novel Shadow of Heaven (1947) is anything to go by, something of a mea culpa already in place, which would no doubt work to his benefit during  Hollywood witch-hunts of the early 1950s. In Shadow of Heaven, Hayes paints a portrait of Harry Oberon, a decent forty-year old union organizer in Pennsylvania’s anthracite region, who believes in the cause of labor and fervently works to put those beliefs into practice, only to realize the class struggle hasn’t achieved all that much. Disillusioned, he puts his youthful Marxism behind him, saying, “The placards fell, the captains scattered, the speeches ended…leaving only the photographers…as though it were done for the photographers.”  Meanwhile, Harry has grown tired of his girlfriend, Margaret, a woman not easily scorned, and nearly becomes involved with another woman, Janet, a war widow imprisoned by her father-in-law. Janet grows increasingly unstable. Eventually Harry is involved in a road accident which kills Margaret and places Harry at death’s door. Written in a stream of consciousness style, Shadow of Heaven combines Faulkner’s multiple viewpoints with the class politics of Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle. Hayes rejection of his past political affiliation is ironical given that he had recently worked with leftist Italian neorealist directors Rossellini and De Sica. Or maybe Hayes’s change of direction was the result of a dialectic played out before him in Italy, resulting in his own brand of  bleak humanism. In any case, this path would lead to his later noir fiction, hard-bitten perspective but always perceptive when it comes to insights into human behaviour.

There was a second book of poems, Welcome to the Castle (1950), as well as  three novels- All Thy Conquests (1946), Shadow of Heaven (1947), The Girl on Via Flaminia (1949)- under his belt by the time he arrived in Hollywood.  Hayes originally intended to spend twenty weeks in Hollywood, earn some money, then return to New York. At first he was able to do so, but he wound up staying in and around Tinseltown for the rest of his life, working, from the late 1940s to 1960, for such studios as Warner Brothers, RKO,Twentieth Century Fox, MGM, United Artists and Columbia. When studio work dried up, Hayes turned to TV, writing for Alfred Hitchcock, Mannix, Logan’s Run and Nero Wolfe. What makes Hayes unique was that during his stay in Hollywood, he would go on to produce more novels, including some of his best work, In Love and My Face For the World to See. And when his studio work dried up, he would go on churning out novels like  The End of Me (1968) and The Stockerbroker, the Bitter Young Man, and the Beautiful Girl (1973). In all those books, as well as his best screenplays, Hayes had an eye out for  the underdog and those on the margins, his  class analysis now replaced with a more existential perspective regarding character development. At the same time, he would grow increasingly hardboiled, cynical and embittered, befitting the mood and protagonists in his later novels. Picture Dix Steele in Dorothy B. Hughes In a Lonely Place, or Nick Ray’s adaptation, and you get the idea. Come to think of it, My Face For the World to See bears certain resemblances to In a Lonely Place which appeared some ten years before Hayes’s novel. 

1946, the year before Shadow of Heaven, the same year Rossellini’s Paisan hit the screens, saw the publication of Hayes’s first novel, All Thy Conquests. Set in Italy, it deploys a Dos Passos-like newspaper montage and, like Shadow of Heaven, multiple viewpoints. It’s probably Hayes’s most ambitious and self-consciously literary novel. Taking place at the end of WW2, revolving around an actual event- a trial in Rome that that unfolded in the aftermath of the Nazi massacre of 335 Italian civilians in the Ardeatine Caves on March 24, 1944- the novel focuses on the occupying Allies, and evokes the chaos of Italian life at the time. Told from the perspective of both Italians and occupying Americans, All Thy Conquests, though light years away from his future tendency towards minimalism, highlights the desires of both the occupying forces and the local population, and questions whether the Allies were liberators or conquerors. With the war affecting everyone, Hayes tells his tale with no small amount of compassion. The book was relatively well-received, with John Hersey saying that Hayes “has written a kind of impression of failure—a many-toned failure: Failure to purge the Fascists or their ideas; failure to live up in personal terms to the demands of democracy.” 

Girl on Via Flaminia (republished by Europa Press) appeared in 1949. Italy was clearly a formative experience for the not quite forty-year old Hayes, for this novel also takes place in that country, and, though told in a simpler and less literary manner, offsets the desires of the occupying forces against those of the local population. The novel centres on a Roman family  reduced to poverty by the war, surviving by renting rooms upstairs while turning their downstairs into a cafe for American soldiers. Adele procures girls for the soldiers while her husband reads his newspaper and her son looks on in disgust. An American private arranges with Adele to meet a young woman at the house. The young woman regards the soldier with contempt, and is disgusted by his sense of entitlement. But she agrees to the arrangement because she wants to go to America. As for the soldier, he merely wants companionship- “She was hungry, I was lonely.” Needless to say, things do not end well. Already, Hayes is writing about vulnerable young women and hard-bitten characters. Hayes received plaudits for the novel, and it might have even the case that, at the time of their appearance, he received more recognition for his first two novels than for his later work. So straightforward is the novel that it reads like a play. Which is what it would soon become,  followed, in 1953, by a film adaptation, Act of Love, directed by Anatole Litvak, starring Kirk Douglas. Though someone at United Artists decided to switch the locale to Paris, presumably thought to be a sexier setting than Rome. Probably best known as Brigitte Bardot’s first appearance in an English-speaking film, Act of Love doesn’t have the toughness, much less the politics of the novel,

With Hollywood  taking up much of his time, it would be four years before Hayes published his next novel, In Love (1952). It would be the first of the author’s noir classics, appeared. Set in late 1940s New York, and reading as though imagined by Edward Hopper- “I assume that in any mirror, or in the eyes I happen to encounter, say on an afternoon like this, in such a hotel, in such a bar, across a table like this, I appear to be someone who apparently knows where he’s going, confident of himself, and aware of what, reasonable to expect when he arrives, although I could hardly, if now you insisted on pressing me, describe for you that secret destination”- it centres on a middle-age man in a bar who relates the story to a woman he doesn’t know about his relationship with a young woman, divorced with a child:
“I’ve often wondered why I impress people as being altogether sad, and yet I insist I am not  sad, and that they are quite wrong about me, and yet when I look in the mirror it turns out to be something really true, my face is sad, my face is actually sad, I became convinced (and he smiled at her, because it was four o’clock and the day was ending and she was a very pretty girl, it was astonishing how gradually she had become prettier) that they are right after all, and I am sad, sadder than I know.”

Lives are thrown into disarray by the intervention of a millionaire who offers the narrator’s girlfriend a thousand dollars to spend the night with him. At first the woman treats the offer as a joke, but it turns serious. His Italian novels might have been influenced by Pavese or Moravia, but In Love occupies the same literary space as Patrick Hamilton or David Goodis. In Love has often been compared to the film Indecent Proposal, and there is a similarity, though Hayes’s novel, unlike Adrian Lyne’s 1993 film is no celebration of consumerist ethics in a gotta-get-the-money era, but more about the personal and destructive toll that money brings.  It’s also an interesting, if somewhat ambivalent, depiction of a vulnerable woman: 
She was very hesitant about ending the little fiction now. She did not really feel that she was ending it. Rather she was extending the definition a bit. It was only that she wanted everything: the proper marriage and the improper love; the orderly living room and the disorderly bedroom; the sprinkler on the lawn and an appointment somewhere between two and four.” 

And as for the narrator and his laissez faire attitude:
“She thought I was so right for the role she wanted me to play… I was after all an artist, that odd creature among men. I was not predictable like Howard was. I would not really harm her as he would she he ever suspect her or doubt her. I had a fatal but very accommodating tendency to forgive. I hardly ever meant anything too seriously. I did not condemn her for some natural desire she might show nor look at her horror stricken when she admitted to some unorthodox sexual yearning. I was soft. My pride was of a thinner nature than his. I was perfect for that sort of afternoon when one was bored and had done all the possible shopping that could be done. I was a nice repository for her sense of sin...She would quickly establish me as an exciting stopover on her way home. I was what she could use to reconcile herself to what she thought of intermittently as dull...”

In Love would be the first of Hayes’s masterpieces. As evocative and affecting as it is, his next novel, published five years later, My Face For the World to See is even better.  As mentioned, Hayes’s 1958 novel bears a certain resemblance to Dorothy B. Hughes’s  In a Lonely Place, with a protagonist who is a screenwriter easy to anger who, by chance, meets an aspiring actress. Both books- Hughes’s and Hayes’s- are amongst the best Hollywood noir novels one is likely to find, evocative of a certain time, place and culture. In Hayes’s novel, the married screenwriter- his wife is living in New York- attends a Hollywood party, where he rescues the young actress from suicide by drowning. It’s a slow-burning novel that, with some finely wrought prose:
“At this very moment the town was full of people lying in bed thinking with an intense, an inexhaustible, an almost raging passion of becoming famous if they weren’t already famous, and even more famous if they were; or of becoming wealthy if they weren’t already wealthy, or weather if they were.”
Above all, Hayes's novel is about power. Power that men hold over women, power that the young hold over the old, the power of Hollywood and the movie industry, the power to conform to what is acceptable.  Only gradually does the reader discover who the young is and what she wants out of life:
“I thought: she shouldn’t sleep with anybody if she doesn’t wish them to know her secrets. It was something more than her nakedness… She slept like someone who could not go any further, and had already come too far. I stretched myself out beside her, a stranger, a spy, sharing the warmth of her bed. Morning seemed immeasurably far.”
In the end the title says it all. Everyone in this book has a multiplicity of faces, public as well as private. The face that the woman wants the world to see no matter that it conflicts with the horror of her private face. Though the male protagonist might be the most deluded of all, thinking his public face is the same as private face, the implication being that he’s about to take a fall.

While writing and  publishing his two classic noir novels, Hayes was also busy working for the studios. It would be Fritz Lang who would best exploit Hayes’s screenwriting talents in the Jerry Wald-produced Clash By Night (1952) and Human Desire (1954). Both are set in the Pacific Northwest, though Lang and Hayes transport Zola's novel to America’s railway yards. But the change in setting by no means lessens the natural melodrama and romanticism of Zola’s novel, while Gloria Grahame, always willing to mix sensuality with vulnerability, might be the perfect Hayes heroine. Watching Grahame relate her sexual adventures to her husband, played by Paul Douglas, one can hear echoes of Hayes’s women in My Face For the World to See and In Love. Set amongst fisherman, with, as Lang described the opening documentary-like sequence, “three-hundred feet of introduction,” Clash by Night features Barbara Stanwyck as another typical Hayes female- free-living, on a collision course with respectable society. While Robert Ryan, as the typical alienated man of the post-war era, his cynicism bordering on psychosis, often declaring, on the one hand that “somebody’s throat has to be cut,” while, on the other hand, saying to Stanwyck, “Help me, I’m dying of loneliness,”  might be the doppleganger of the narrator in My Face. 

Then there’s Nicholas Ray’s modern day western The Lusty Men (1952), with Robert Mitchum, Susan Hayward and Arthur Kennedy.  Of course, it’s been said, by me for one, that westerns are often be called film noir on horseback. So the noir threesome- Ray, McCoy and Hayes- makes sense. And since Hayes had little experience of rodeo life, it also makes sense that McCoy, from Texas, should be relied upon for some cowboy-reality. But who wrote which lines? My bet is that McCoy had a major input in the early scenes that take place in Mitchum’s former home with the old man who’s looking to see his property if only he can find a buyer, and perhaps the kitchen scene with Michum and Hayward, in which Mitchum says, “Some things you don’t do for the cash… Some things you do for the buzz.”  As well as some of the dialogue which deploys rodeo parlance. While the final scenes between Kennedy, Hayworth and Mitchum sound like the of thing Hayes would have written. Likewise, Hayward declaring her independence: “I’m no fun. Blondie with her dress cut down to her knee-caps, she’s fun… Men, I’d like to fry them all in deep fat.”  And in typical Hayes fashion, and against the Hollywood grain, Mitchum for once doesn’t end up getting the girl. According to  Eisenchitz’s Ray biography Hayes definitely wrote four scenes: the early scene in which when Hayward comes  to ask Jeff to discourage her husband from continuing in to participate in rodeos; the after dinner outdoor meeting between Mitchum and Kennedy in which the two characters discuss the best horse Mitchum ever rode in a rodeo; the scene in which Kennedy comes home and shows Haworth the check from riding in the rodeo and to inform her that they would be leaving to go on the rodeo circuit with Mitchum; and the tete-a-tete between Mitchum and Haworth in the barn.

Hayes made  other contributions to Hollywood films, supplying the story for Fred Zinnemann’s 1951 Teresa, for which he received an Academy Award nomination,  his second nomination after Paisan in  1946, a film that consisted of six vignettes about  the allied invasion of Italy from 1943 to of 1944. Then, in 1957, probably at a time when he had just finished writing My Face...,  there was Hatful of Rain, also directed by Fred Zinnemann, starring Don Muarry and Eva Marie Saint about returning Korean War vet addicted to morphine and its effect on his family; and Island in the Sun, directed by Robert Rossen, starring Harry Belafonte, Dorothy Dandridge, James Mason and Joan Fontaine. A controversial film at the time of its release because of  its subject matter, interracial marriage on a Caribbean island, and its depiction of the ex-pat community.  

Hayes also worked on Daniel Mann’s Mountain Road, released in 1960- a year that also saw the publication of collection of stories, The Temptations of Don Volpi. Starring James Stewart, Mountain Road is about an army major stationed in East China ordered to blow up various installations to halt the progress of the Japanese army. This was followed by four more screenplays: Joy in the Morning (1965) starring Richard Chamberlain and Yvette Mimeux, directed by Alex Segal about two lovers whose families knew each other in Ireland but want better for their children;  The Double Man (1967), a spy drama directed by Franklin J. Schaffner starring Yul Brynner and Britt Ekland; and Lost in the Stars (1974) directed by Daniel Mann from Maxwell Anderson’s play, with music by Kurt Weil, from Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country, with Brock Peters and Melba Moore, about a black South African minister searching for his son in the back streets of Johannesburg. He also worked uncredited a number of films, including The Barbarian and the Geisha (1958), directed by John Ford, starring John Wayne. 

Around this time the studio jobs were beginning to dry up.  Mel Brooks tells the story about a time when he and Hayes were both working at Columbia, going for  lunch and returning to find Hayes’s name was no longer on his cubby-hole wall. According to Brooks, that was how they fired you at Columbia; they simply disappeared your name while you were out eating lunch. So Hayes turned to television, writing, between 1962 and 1965,  episodes for Alfred HItchcock,  Mannix, Logan’s Run, and Nero Wolfe, which, in 1981, would be his last TV work. Between 1965 and 1981,   Hayes churned out another  two novels which one might categorize as something between noir and grise, with a dash of social commentary thrown in for good measure. The End of Me (1968), probably  his most bitter book, centres on Asher, a Hollywood screenwriter. In his late 50s, Asher  discovers his second wife, an inveterate social climbing is having an affair with her tennis partner. Fed up with his marriage, Asher returns to his native New York where he visits his aunt who asks him to help Michael, her grandson and an aspiring poet. Though he reacts rudely to him, Asher agrees to read Michael's poetry, which turns out to be concerned exclusively with sex, inspired, Asher realizes, by Michael's Italian girlfriend and law student Aurora. Asher meets her and is teased and tormented by her, aided and abetted by Michael, who orchestrates a series of bizarre events to humiliate his uncle. Asher becomes increasingly obsessed with Aurora. Stripped of any sense of dignity by Aurora and Michael, Asher realizes that, even though his time is up, the future does not bode well for Michael's generation. It's also  another Hayes riff on obsession, but now some distance from the romantic love of his earlier novels, perhaps in the hip-lit of the 1960s, out of fashion. Yet Hayes’s novel does well to mix light and dark, along with a new twist on an old Tinseltown blague, as much as comment as a wisecrack, one which reflects Hayes’s Hollywood career, summed up by the joke that Asher tells Aurora:  a man goes into a butcher’s shop and sees two signs. One says writer’s brains: nineteen cents a pound. The other sing says producer’s brains: seventy-nine cents a pound.
      “I waited. She sipped her drink.
      ‘Now you are supposed to say to to me,’ I said patiently, ‘why producer’s brains cost seventy-nine cents a pound and writer’s brains cost nineteen cents a pound.’
     ‘Well,’ the butcher said, do you know how many producers to kill to get a pound of brains.?’”

With his studio career behind him, The End of Me reads like a novel written by a screenwriter, or, at any rate, someone who knows the value of economic writing, apparent from the opening lines:
“I crawled out of the bus away from the window and I began to run. My only safety lay in flight. If I stopped I’d howl. I knew I must not stop. The thing was in my gut. In my parched...constructed throat. Humped raw cringing wounded to death I’d howl into the night. Affrighting these houses. These well-kept lawns. These softly polished pianos. The dens would shiver. Rugs cringe. If I stopped.”
The sentence describing his situation and his past life, including his failed marriage, come in short, sharp bursts, with a first person narrative and dialogue- in fact, the novel is mostly dialogue- snappy and roundabout, as though Pinter had been schooled on the streets of New York:
“So this man went into a barber shop.”
“What man?”
“This man.”
“What did he go in for?”
“Will you listen for pete’s sake.”
“I am listening. I am definitely listening.”
“This man went into the butcher shop.”
“Where?”
“Where what?”
“Is the butcher shop?”
“Oh boy, tell you a joke.”
“Is it a joke, Asher?”
“It started out as a joke. Now I don’t know. It may never make it.”

Hayes was no hardcore noirist, though he did have a tendency to portray vulnerable, but resilient women, unstable but doing their best to survive. Not quite classical femme fatales, but not far off. At least that's the case in Hayes’s final novel, The Stockbroker, the Bitter Young Man, and The Beautiful Girl (1973). A novel of sexual suspense, The Stockbroker… revolves around a young man, Arthur Lewis, who meets the beautiful girl, Phyllis, who, reminiscent of  In Love, is accompanied by a savage protector, who makes sure Arthur’s advances are nullified. Ten years later the young man meets her again. The woman is still accompanied by her protector, surely her husband, but this time Arthur manages to seduce her, realizing, in yet another In Love riff, he has seduced the woman to get at her over-protective paramour. However, like Michael in The End of Me, the older man knows all about the arrangement. 

As usual, Hayes's crisp sentences and perceptions, particularly when it comes to the vagaries of personality and power, make the novel worth reading: 
    “To be poor; to be shy; to yearn and to suffocate; to be excluded; to feel that in the mysterious allotments of luck and charm and easy fortune one has been deliberately neglected; to know that there is somewhere a point from which all things start, and to be unable to find that point, and to, finally, despair of finding it: so Arthur Lewis had been when he was young.

Isolated and alienated, Arthur, in this novel about class and social difference which depicts life as moving between  realism to absurdity and  tragedy to comedy, likes nothing better than to comment on the world around him: 
"The chair he sat in was in the darkest corner of that world. In one hand was the bitterest of highballs; in the other, a dying cigarette. The women, with their undressed shoulders and their long white powdered necks, went by, the silk always a little too tight about their hips; and sometimes a girl’s eye, very blue and pencilled, shadowed by some indecipherable thought, would settle briefly on him as he sat sunken in that excluded chair, and she’d stare a moment, as though startled at what, glowering and now a little drunk, inhabited it. And then, perhaps, she would smile a little, uncertainly, her eye so accidentally caught: and then hastily she’d turn away.”

Beyond the novels, the stories and the screenplays, Hayes penned two Broadway plays, Journeyman, adapted from a novel by Erskine Caldwell, and Tis of Thee, a musical. But my take on Hayes is that he was a frustrated poet, whose reputation reached its apogee in the years preceding the war, but fell rapidly once he decided to concentrate on screenwriting. Over the years,  would publish three volumes of poetry: The Big Time (1944), Welcome to the Castle (1950) and Just Before the Divorce (1968). His poetry bears the influence of his friend Kenneth Fearing, but with a social conscience compromised by a certain self-consciousness and classical disposition. 

Though are moments when he overcomes his retention and speaks straight from the heart. For instance, in the section entitled The Pier, from his first book of poems, Welcome to the Castle, which takes place in Italy:  “The charitable blonde in salvation blue/Dispenses hot coffee in the lily cups./She, too, has come to say good-by/And cheer the sullen embarking troops./Bawdy whistles greet her and enthusiastic whoops.” Then, in New York, in the  section entitled The Bronx Express: “The iron door hisses as it closes./Inside, and pressed against a schoolgirl’s thighs,/I find myself among the coughs, the colds, the fetid human breath, the unwiped noses, staring again into a stranger’s eyes.”

Hayes’s most renown and repeated poem must surely be I Dreamed I saw Joe Hill Last Night, about the martyred Wobbly, so revered in the labour movement, which would bring Hayes some unexpected royalties over the years, wouldn't be the first Hayes poem set to music.  Before that there was  Into the Streets May First!, published in 1934, set to music by Aaron Copland, and deemed too avant garden for the working by the CP: "Into the roaring Square!/Shake the midtown towers!/Shatter the downtown air!/Come with a storm of banners,/Come with an earthquake tread..."

Other poems in Welcome to the Castle are more Fearing-like: “At half past one/The nightboy in the empty elevator/Seduces blondes he cannot have by day/The groceryman imagines he spots burglars/And reaches in a nightmare for a gun/A gun that isn’t there/At half past one/While cleaning women scrubbing corridors/Wipe out the office cuspidors/And wheeze on chapped rheumatic knees/Down disinfected stairs..."
But its his noir novels and a handful of screenplays that, for me, are most interesting, and which alone should have made his name.  Perhaps if he had been less wary of publicity, perhaps the result of his earlier leftist politics, and less reluctant to compete in the literary world, he might have been more successful. But Hayes, who died in Sherman Oaks (some say Encino) in 1985, was known to be difficult, alienating  friends, producers and agents. No wonder his once promising career gradually fizzled out and he ended up in near-obscurity, so much so that  Halliwell, in his Film Guide, would refer to Alfred Hayes as “Arthur Hayes.” Even so, Hayes, says Wald, stayed friends with a number of  Hollywood leftists, and despised the blacklist. Yet his “friends remember a great sadness about him.“ Hollywood might have made him embittered, cynical and hard-edged, but it barely affected his  prose. Why, then, did he then turn into one of the literary missing? It could have been the result of his decision to become a screenwriter, or perhaps it also had to do with changing tastes or misinterpreting the mood and literary tastes of the era at a time when meta-fiction was in vogue and  hardboiled, hard-bitten fiction, or stories of romantic love, couldn't be bought for love or money. Such is the way of the world. Hayes no doubt would have agreed.
http://www.facebook.com/facebook-widgets/share.php