Elmore Leonard Biography

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Elmore John Leonard, Jr., was born in New Orleans on October 11, 1925, to Elmore John and Flora Rivé Leonard. His father traveled widely for his job, and the family moved several times before finally settling in Detroit in 1934. Leonard attended the University of Detroit High School, where he earned the nickname “Dutch” as a baseball player (after the Washington Senators pitcher Dutch Leonard). After being rejected by the Marines for his poor vision, he was drafted by the Navy in 1943 and served with the Seabees in New Guinea and the Admiralty Islands. After World War II, he enrolled at the University of Michigan, where he majored in English and philosophy. He married Beverly Cline in 1949, graduated in 1950, and took a job with an advertising agency that same year, first as an office boy and then as an advertising copywriter, specializing in advertisements for Chevrolet trucks.

Leonard had always loved literature, and he began to train himself to be a writer, deciding to begin with Westerns because he enjoyed reading them and believed there was a ready popular market for the genre. He studied Western films, travel magazines, and histories and also the novels of Ernest Hemingway, upon whom he began to model his writing style. He published his first story, “Trail of the Apache,” for which he was paid a thousand dollars, in the December, 1951, issue of Argosy. Within little more than a year, he had published nine more stories and his first novel, The Bounty Hunters (1953). He kept his full-time job during these early years, doing his writing from 5:00 to 7:00 a.m. every morning before work.

By 1961, Leonard had published more than two dozen short stories and four more novels, all Westerns—The Law at Randado (1954), Escape from Five Shadows (1956), Last Stand at Saber River (1959), and Hombre (1961)—and decided to quit his job and become a full-time writer, although he and his wife by then had four children. Ironically, the market for Western writing seemed to have dried up at just that moment; Leonard failed to publish another novel in the following eight years, and he was forced to earn a living as a freelance writer of advertisements and educational films. In 1965, he sold the film rights to Hombre for ten thousand dollars and was again able to devote himself to writing fiction full time.

The resulting novel was completed in 1966 and was rejected by eighty-four publishers within three months. After revision, Leonard finally published his first non-Western novel, The Big Bounce, in 1969. It was made into a film that same year, and most of his novels since have been sold to Hollywood. Leonard then began writing screenplays himself, selling a screenplay of his next novel, The Moonshine War (1969). He also produced two more Westerns, Valdez Is Coming (1970) and Forty Lashes Less One (1972).

A turning point in his career came with Fifty-two Pickup (1974), the novel that firmly established his direction as a writer of contemporary crime fiction. His personal life took a turn as well; his marriage broke up after twenty-five years, and he joined Alcoholics Anonymous. In 1977, he managed to quit drinking, and in 1979 he married his second wife, Joan Shepard. As his personal life recovered, so did his literary fortunes improve, and in the mid-1970’s he rapidly produced a series of novels in which he began to define his own distinctive approach to crime fiction: Mr. Majestyk (1974), a novel based on one of his own screenplays; Swag (1976); The Hunted (1977); and Unknown Man No. 89 (1977). All of these works appear regularly on lists of Leonard’s best books and constitute a distinct middle period of high-quality output. The Switch (1978); his eighth Western, Gunsights (1979); and Gold Coast (1980), the first of his novels set in Florida, are generally considered to represent a brief decline in his writing during a period of transition that was to lead to his best work.

Leonard’s novels had always been notable for their realism , and in 1978 he spent two-and-a-half...

(The entire section is 1,888 words.)