The American crime writer’s son, himself a writer, remembers him as a down-to-earth and fun dad
We lost a good one. I remember when I was nine years old, going down the stairs to the basement to watch my father write. He sat at a small red desk in a cinder block room painted white. He wrote longhand on unlined yellow paper. His typewriter was on a metal stand next to the desk. Across the room was a red wicker waste basket that had half a dozen balls of crumpled yellow paper on the floor around it, scenes that didn’t work, shots that didn’t make it. In retrospect it looked like a prison cell, but my father didn’t seem conscious of his surroundings, or of me standing at the bottom of the stairs; he was deep in concentration, midway through a western called Hombre that would be made into a movie starring Paul Newman.
Growing up, Elmore was a blast. We’d play hide and seek with guns. My brothers and sisters and I would hide somewhere in the house and when Elmore found us we’d shoot him. He loved the game as much as we did; he was a kid at heart.
On family trips to Florida, Elmore would make up songs. A couple of his favourites were: “It’s a blue and green, keen kind of a day”, and “Why did I ever go to your high school?” My father would belt out the lyrics as we sped along Interstate 75, and we would sing with him.
There were always a lot of people hanging out at the Leonard house. I was one of five kids and we would all invite friends over for lunch on Saturday. Elmore would fry hamburgers in an electric skillet and serve them with a slice of red onion. It was the Elmore Burger.
During those lunches the phone would ring and it might be Clint Eastwood, or Steve McQueen calling to discuss script revisions. Elmore would take the call, and my sister Jane would run upstairs, unscrew the mouthpiece on another phone and listen to the conversation.
Elmore was the coolest guy I knew. He wore sleek Italian loafers and drove a Fiat in Detroit, a city where the Big Three [General Motors, Ford and Chrysler] were revered. When he wrote, Elmore wore jeans and Birkenstocks, Nine Inch Nails and Drive-by Truckers T-shirts. He was friends with Steven Tyler, and invited Aerosmith over to his house to swim and play tennis.
Unlike most dads, Elmore didn’t preach or give a lot advice. “You can be whatever you want,” he would say. “Just do it well.” When my brother Chris couldn’t figure out what to do after college, Elmore sent him a postcard that showed a photograph of hunters standing next to a pile of dead seals. On the back my father wrote: “Chris, have you considered a career in killing baby seals? I hear there’s good money in it.”
In 1985 my father was on the cover of Newsweek magazine, which was very prestigious at the time. All Elmore said was, “After writing 23 books they’re saying I’m an overnight sensation.”
I spent a lot of time with Elmore the past couple years, having dinner with him a few times a week, during and after his divorce. I’d see his VW convertible pull up in the driveway. He would come into the kitchen and do a little tap dance. We’d talk about writing, what we did that day, Elmore excited about his new book, Blue Dreams, lighting up a Virginia Slim, sipping red wine and telling me about Kyle McCoy, his bull rider character, and Celeste, Kyle’s bull rider groupie – still having fun writing at 87.
One evening I told him I went to a bookstore earlier, browsing in the suspense thriller section. I took a book off the shelf and opened it to the prologue. I recited the opening line: “The wind howled like a beast in pain.” Elmore took a beat and said: “Never open a book from the wind’s point of view.”
We travelled together, to book festivals and speaking engagements. Whenever we flew economy class I would approach the gate agent and say I was travelling with an elderly gentleman who needed assistance, so we could board first. The agent would say, where is he? I’d point to Elmore a few feet away, a vacant look on his face. In a feeble voice he’d say: “Are we in the airport.”
Wherever we went his fans came to meet him and get his autograph on their cracked, dog-eared copies of Swag, Glitz and Split Images, Get Shorty, Freaky Deaky and 40 other books. He gave everyone as much time as they wanted. He appreciated his readers and loved the letters he received, especially from convicts.
I have a big framed photograph of my father on the wall next to my writing desk. The photo was shot by Annie Leibovitz for an American Express ad. I feel Elmore looking over my shoulder when I’m working. I can hear him say: “If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.”
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