Charles Ray Willeford III was born in Arkansas in 1919. In The Burnt Orange Heresy (1971), a crime caper about an art critic who schemes to steal a painting from a secretive artist, the hero muses that men who grow up without fathers never develop a superego. Willeford echoed the thought in I Was Looking for a Street (1988), a memoir of his youth, in a free-verse poem musing on the father who died in 1921 when Willeford was two, a father he knew only from faded photographs and family stories. Willeford’s mother died six years later, and he lived with his grandmother until he was thirteen. Worried that she could no longer support him after losing her job, he left home and took to the road, riding freight trains and taking odd jobs to survive. In 1935, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, where he served on and off until 1956, including service in World War II, for which he earned the Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart, and Luxembourg War Cross.
Between army hitches, Willeford studied art and art history in Peru and published a book of poetry, Proletarian Laughter (1948). In 1953, he published his first novel, High Priest of California. Like most of Willeford’s early work, it was published as a paperback original in a cheap pulp edition. Willeford’s publishers had a tendency to illustrate his work with scantily clad women, to use misleading cover teasers, and to change his titles without notice—for example, The...
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