From the pages of:
By Donald Dale Jackson
Published in 1987
World's fastest literary gun: Louis L'Amour
The novelist who made the modern Western a national pastime is now planning a center to preserve America's heritage of local history.
Right now, as you're reading this, Louis L'Amour is tapping at his electric typewriter in a room in Los Angeles the size of a volleyball court. While birds chirp in the yard outside his window and traffic hums on nearby Sunset Boulevard, L'Amour is writing a best seller. It's not that he needs the money or acclaim that successful authors receive; he has all that and more. L'Amour is writing because he wants to know what's going to happen next. There's a hero in a jam out there somewhere, in Arizona or Siberia or Texas, and L'Amour has to get him out of it. He can't wait to get to the typewriter every day just to find out how he's going to do it.
Louis (pronounced Louie) L'Amour is a publishing phenomenon of colossal proportions. For more than 30 years, since Hondo in the early 1950s, he has been writing Western novels that sell with the volume and regularity of Scout handbooks. Presidents from Eisenhower to Reagan have delighted in his sagas of heroes and villains stalking each other across his authentically rendered landscapes of the American frontier. His stories, appearing first in now extinct pulp magazines, moved without breaking stride through the genre paperback category to movies (The Burning Hills, Heller in Pink Tights) and hardcover bestsellerdom (Jubal Sackett, Last of the Breed), a progression one editor compares to vaulting from the ghetto of publishing to a Fifth Avenue penthouse. In recent years honors and awards have been showered on him - a Congressional Gold Medal, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, honorary degrees - and even critics, the last converts, have become semi-respectful. Louis L'Amour has become part of our cultural consciousness. "He's the only movable piece of Mount Rushmore," said his old friend Saul David, once his editor and now a movie producer.
But there is another side to the man behind the monumental reputation that most of his ardently loyal fans know nothing about. In his own quiet and low-key way L'Amour has established himself recently as a cultural and literary philanthropist. A man who educated himself through a lifetime of omnivorous reading, he now helps encourage others to read as a member of the executive council of the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress. "In an electronic world there's a question whether people will still read," he says. "My education, from books, didn't depend on a power source." John Cole, who directs the Center for the Book, values L'Amour's participation "because he was in many ways shaped by the books he read, and he takes it farther in his feeling for books and his promotion of reading."
Another cherished L'Amour project is a "Library of Americana" he hopes to build (quite possibly on his ranch) in a part of the West he loves, the Four Corners region. "The idea is to assemble local publications from all around America - memoirs, local histories, historical-society booklets, newspaper pamphlets - there are thousands of them. It's history that the historians never see. I'D include the basic books on American history and the historical and genealogical manuscripts that readers send me." He envisions an archive where scholars can study the story of America as recounted by ordinary Americans, and hopes that it will be in place within five years. He is also involved in an attempt to develop an authentic re-creation of a late 19th century Western town, a privately financed "Western Williamsburg" that would be a living, functioning museum of the frontier, with stores and stage stations and a working ranch.
(NOTE FROM LOUISLAMOUR.COM: Neither the Library of Americana nor SHALAKO, the authentic Western town, were able to come to fruition during Louis' lifetime.)
Though he recoils in protest when called philanthropic, L'Amour sponsors several outstanding high school students honored annually by the California-based American Academy of Achievement. The institution brings teenage high achievers to a three-day seminar where they meet with Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners and other innovators. He has also supported and encouraged promising Navajo artist Clifford Brycelea, hosting an exhibition of his work. Brycelea's mystical paintings hang in his home and one is on the cover of L'Amour's most recent book, The Haunted Mesa.
Still ruggedly handsome in his late 70s, L'Amour is tall and broad-shouldered with eyebrows that peak in gray-brown arrowheads. He wears Western shirts and string ties and cowboy boots, and speaks in a measured, confident baritone. His manner is sober, self-contained and unaffectedly modest. "I've seen him at banquets where everyone is preening his tail feathers," says an editor he knows, "but not him, he doesn't need to." L'Amour looks like he might once have been a tough hombre - he was a prizefighter and a seaman among other things as a young man - and he would be no pushover even now. Though he lives among the Hollywood glitterati, there is nothing Hollywood about him.
In a community of resplendent egos and serial marriages, L'Amour has kept a clear head on his priorities. He takes more pride in his family and his 10,000-volume library than in any of his million-sellers. L'Amour waited until he was established and well into his 40s to marry because he had seen too many other writers take less fulfilling jobs to support their families. He and his wife, Kathy, who handles his business affairs, were married 31 years ago. Their children, 26-year-old Beau and 23-year-old Angelique, aspire to show-business careers.
You don't talk numbers with L'Amour. We count too much, he believes, and we tyrannize ourselves with digits. In his youthful rambling days he was once hired as a ranch hand over two better-qualified men who happened to be in their 40s - too old - and the memory rankles. He has known many people who decide that it was time to die when they reached 75. Don't ask his age. "I conscientiously object to anyone telling his age," he declares firmly. "You can't judge people by age." Indirectness works better: "Are you older than Ronald Reagan?" "A little," he allows.
The trouble is that L'Amour's numbers are impossible to ignore. He has written 101 books, which probably equal the total lifetime output of any other 12 writers; more than 30 of his novels and stories have been sold to the movies; an estimated 182 million copies of his books are currently in print worldwide. L'Amour himself overcomes his anti-numerical bias long enough to report that Bantam Books distributes more than ten million of his books in hard and soft covers each year.
The numbers of course translate into large houses, several cars, and lunches at the Polo Lounge in Beverly Hills, not far from his spacious hacienda-style house, but money has little to do with his remarkable productivity. "He just keeps going and keeps going," his friend Daniel Boorstin the Librarian of Congress, says in amazement. "He never rests on his laurels." One reason is his belief that "nature has no place for non-producers"; to stop producing is to die. Another is that he truly enjoys his work. "I love to tell stories and I have a lot more to tell," L'Amour declares. "I can't imagine not working." He writes seven days a week. And when he finishes a book, as he does two or three times a year, he rolls a fresh sheet into the typewriter and launches into another the same day. A vacation form his typewriter, he says, would be an ordeal he couldn't bear.
L'Amour's hole card as a writer may be his natural affinity with his audience. "Writing is sharing," he says. "I'm working for the reader." He once wrote that his books are for the "people who do the work of the world, who struggle to make ends meet, who build, the people who do." His readers reciprocate; they send him family archives, genealogical records and manuscripts they hope he can use, sometimes addressing them only to "Louis L'Amour, Author, Los Angeles." "He writes as if he's talking t people just beyond the campfire of his typewriter," says Saul David.
Books surge and spill and twine through almost every room of his house. They march along one entire wall of the large living room and collect in piles on every flat surface. They stand guard in the home gymnasium where he tries to work out daily, and gather in stacks atop the glass table in his sun-washed family room. They parade in shelves along the hallways and take over completely in his cavernous bedroom. And he knows where everything is.
"These are all on archaeology," he says, indicating several shelves in the living room, "Here's one on the fall of the Byzantine Empire and - I love these volumes - Leland's Itinerary in England and Wales." But there's not much fiction: "I only read fiction on planes," he explains. "Two long shelves hold the myriad works of Louis L'Amour. "It makes me feel good to see them, but I'm more conscious of what I haven't done."
When Boorstin, the author of a recent book on exploration, visited L'Amour, he was delighted to discover the "best collection of Marco Polo books I ever saw in private hands." A map case in a broad, sloping corridor leading to his workroom contains nautical charts and a complete set of U.S. Topographic maps. Beyond are his trophies - awards, keys to a score of cities, framed honorary degrees - "That's a thrill for a guy who didn't get out of the tenth grade" - and a white football signed by his fans who play for the Dallas Cowboys.
L'Amour is expecting his movie agent - he has no literary agent - but when he answers the door it turns out to be the laundry deliveryman. "Oh, I thought you were my agent," he blurts out. "I'd like to be, Mr. L'Amour," the man replies with a smile. Later he leads the way into his workroom - "A writer's dream room," he calls it - where a capacious desk sits between a fireplace and a window beyond which Sunset Boulevard traffic roars. "It doesn't bother me, it's like the sounds of the sea." Teetering piles of papers, magazines, pamphlets and clippings are stacked on the floor, tables and desk. The floor-to-ceiling shelves contain about 8,000 books. "I'm in my own world here, I can transport myself to another time and place and put myself there." He is not fussy about where he works. Once, for a People magazine story, he composed several usable passages while at a desk set up on a traffic island on Sunset Boulevard. "The funny thing was that a guy leaned out of a truck and said to me, 'You've got to be Louis L'Amour, right?' "
L'Amour grew up as the youngest of seven children in "a house full of books" in Jamestown, North Dakota. His father was a veterinarian and farm-machinery salesman of French-Irish extraction who Anglicized his name to La Moore, a change that young Louis reversed when he set out on his own at 15. He aspired to write from childhood - one brother became a journalist and two sisters also wrote - and after souring on school, he embarked on a 20-year odyssey of Jack Londonesque adventure that makes his book-jacket biography as readable as his novels. A six-footer in his teens, young L'Amour baled hay, worked as a circus-elephant handler, hoboed to New Orleans and shipped out as a seaman at 16.
He noticed everything, read constantly, went everywhere - China, India, Singapore, Europe, Egypt, South Africa. He knew how to box and fought professionally between voyages. "I got $25 for my first fight," he recalls. "My biggest purse was $1,800 in Singapore - I won by a knockout in seven rounds." In Shanghai he was once matched with an enormous 250-pound Russian who succumbed to a L'Amour belly punch.
He saw criminals beheaded in China, biked across India following the trail of Rudyard Kipling's character Kim, and survived a shipwreck in the West Indies - a story he's saving for his autobiography. "You soften the hard edges of memory," he says now, "but there was a time when I could handle myself on the toughest streets in the world - Malay Street in Singapore, Blood Alley in Shanghai, Grand Road in Bombay, District Six in Capetown."
L'Amour, the rover, returned frequently to the United States, where he worked as a miner, lumberjack and ranch hand, always moving on after a few weeks or months. "I did a lot of mining-assessment work, a few days at a time for miners with claims. I was all over the West that way. Once I met an 80-year-old Indian who was supposed to have killed several men. He taught me bout herbal medicine. He was shrewd. He got a couple of college boys to grubstake him with $200 and then scared them so much talking about the men he murdered that they took off."
The worst times were when he was "on the beach" - on shore, in San Pedro, California, between ships and broke. "I slept in boxcars and under piles of lumber, and took jobs on one else wanted. I was 18 and looked 24. There were several times I went three and four days without eating. I didn't beg or steal, just went without. I'd like to recover for my readers what it's really like to be hungry. I have a penchant for stories about survival, lessons in survival. I've been a survivor most of my life." L'Amour chronicled some of his experiences on the beach in San Pedro in is 1980 book Yondering.
Wherever he rambled, he never swerved from his vision of himself as a writer. He submitted stories to magazines during his knock-around years and finally began to sell - a boxing article, then a piece of poetry. By the late 1930s he had published his first book, a collection of poems called Smoke from This Altar, and was contributing regularly to Western pulps. "I needed quick checks, and the pulps paid in 11 to 14 days," he remembers. When World War II broke out, he served two years stateside and two years overseas.
He returned to writing after the war, besieging editors with adventure tales, sports stories and detective yarns as well as Westerns. When the pulps suddenly folded he was hired to write Hopalong Cassidy novels under the name Tex Burns, an episode he would just as soon forget. But he found his home range as a writer - sage brush and box canyons, the Kiowa Trail and Rivers West, the lonesome land of saddle tramps and gunfighters. L'Amour would become the laureate of the lariat.
He knew exactly how to go about it. "No one ever went into writing with a more calculated career attitude than I did," he says. Loitering around bookstores, he listened to customers' requests and noticed that they often had trouble remembering the name of an author they liked. "I concluded it was important to keep your name in front of the public," he says, "Never give them a chance to forget you." He also decided that a novel's action should start on page one, line one. "Too many writers talk about what they're going to do before they say it. There are lots of other things competing for people's entertainment time - they don't have to read my books. You've got to start with something happening."
He learned how to gather the raw material that yields story ideas and the authenticity he prizes. He sought out old gunfighters and outlaws ("I knew 30 or 35 of them personally"), mined the files of small-town newspapers and interviewed ranchers. "They'd be standoffish at first, but I'd keep talking and they'd warm up and tell me wonderful stories. I heard that when Zane Grey traveled the West he always 'made his own campfire,' kept his distance. I wasn't like that. I was one of them."
Saul David vividly recollects their first meeting in the 1950s, when he was the editorial director of Bantam Books. "That was the heyday of the paperback Western. We had lost Luke Short, our Western Star, and I was in California looking for a new one, staying at the Beverly Hills Hotel, naturally. I got a call - the word was out that I was in town - and a voice said, 'This is Louis L'Amour, you've never heard of me but I want to see you right now.' He came up with an envelope, made a pitch and told me to read his samples. He said he was going to be the next great Western writer and we'd do well to take him on. I read it while he waited. It was Hondo, and it knocked me out. I signed him to a long-term contract on the spot." David's boss in New York had doubts about their new author's name - L'Amour on a paperback sounded like "a Western written in lipstick," he said - but no one had the grit enough to ask him to change it, "I didn't want to get punched out," David explains.
From his first novel, L'Amour has connected with readers primarily through his storytelling talent and his recognition of the continuing power of the West and the frontier in our imagination. "I think every American has a bit of the frontier in him, a feeling for it," he says.
L'Amour tells his stories in a direct, fast-moving style, shorn of interior monologues and elaborate descriptive passages. Though his villains commonly come to a violent end, he shuns vivid depictions of violence, preferring to concentrate on the suspense that he usually establishes, true to his convictions, on the first page. L'Amour heroes are often in a fix when we meet them, and their troubles worsen fast. Jubal Sackett starts this way:
"A cold wind blew off Hanging Dog Mountain and I had no fire, nor dare I strike so much as a spark that might betray my hiding place. Somewhere near, an enemy lurked, waiting. Yesterday morning, watching my back trail, I saw a deer startle, cross a meadow in great bounds and disappear in the forest. Later, shortly after high sun, two birds flew up suddenly. Something was following me."
The critics, who generally ignored L'Amour until his books began appearing in hard cover, fault him for stilted dialogue and one-dimensional characters while praising his narrative drive and historical accuracy. L'Amour's characters are never profane, explicit or even implicit sex goes unmentioned, and his heroes, like their creator, are often extraordinarily well read for all their machismo. In recent novels his Western backdrops have given way to exotic venues like Medieval Europe (The Walking Drum) and Siberia (Last of the Breed), but the fast-paced story lines as well as the historical validity have remained constant. "If my book is set in 1600, I write so that someone who lived then would recognize the road I'm describing," he says. "I want the details to be right."
There was a time when critical neglect riled him. "If you write about a bygone period east of the Mississippi River, it's a historical novel," he once grumbled. "If it's west of the Mississippi it's a Western, a different category" - different and disparaged, he might have added. But he has reached a mesa where war parties can't hurt him. "There are the remains of a small chip on his shoulder about the critics, but that is all," David says. L'Amour notes that Shakespeare and Dickens were both derided as lowbrow hacks by contemporaries, and he is fond of an Arabic proverb he applies to critics: "The dogs may bark, but the caravan goes on." He rejects generic pigeonholing and he declares unequivocally that his work is literature: "I don't give a damn what anyone else thinks, I know it's literature and I know it will be read 100 years from now."
To satisfy his readers both current and unborn, L'Amour is up at 6 and at the typewriter by 7 every morning, batting out the five to ten pages he produces daily. He halts at noon and resumes for an hour and a half after lunch before he quits and heads for his gym to lift weights and pedal a stationary bike. He never works from a plot outline, preferring to improvise as a story unfolds. "I start with a character and a situation, but I don't know what's' going to happen until I write it. Sometimes things happen that surprise me."
He believes he may only now be achieving "full command" of his craft; indeed, his current books are among his best. "It's like a ballet dancer who learns technique and becomes a superior technician, and then the change comes," he says. "The dancer becomes the dance. It's not the technique anymore, the music is part of her. I feel that as a writer, that it's all there now - I am the writing."