April 8, 1918-September 23, 1992
Born near Pinckney, obtained degrees at the University of Michigan and Michigan State University and taught at both.
The signature work of most popular authors corresponds to a genre – biography, history, detective novel, romance. Those who craft cowboy sagas rarely stray beyond arid prairies and craggy buttes. Despite scoring his biggest successes with Westerns, Glendon Swarthout resisted categorization. He even made famous – and infamous – a ritual of modern American youth.
Home in Swarthout’s early life was the countryside near Pinckney and then the small city of Lowell. He remembered his childhood, a little tongue-in-cheek, as “unremarkable. I tipped over a high chair and broke my nose. I required the average number of diapers. World War I ended. At age four I suggested to a friend that we steal a loaf of warm bread from the bakery wagon that peddled our street, and eat the entire loaf. This we did. We had bellyaches of epic proportions, we learned a lesson, and I lost a friend because his parents told him that if he ever played with me again I would kill him, and if I didn’t, they would.”
A successful student in all but math, he was a scrawny high school string bean, dropped from the football team after a week, weighing 99 pounds. Books and music were his playing fields. His talent on the accordion led to engagements with dance orchestras, which provided a modest income and, like many of his experiences, fodder for later fiction. Between his junior and senior years, he played with Jerry Schroeder and the Michigan State College Orchestra at a Charlevoix resort for $10 a week.
When Swarthout was 14, his grandfather brought out of storage a Colt revolver and cavalry saber, carried by Glendon’s great-grandfather during service in the 10th Michigan Cavalry in the Civil War. The weaponry touched off his imagination. As the oldest son, Glendon was allowed to choose between the two weapons when he turned 21. He chose the revolver and kept it on the wall over his desk ever after. Late in life, he wrote that the weapons “enlisted me in the 10th Michigan Cavalry. For a seven-year hitch. I rode every road in the south, galloping, galloping. I yelled and waved that saber and skewered the foe by regiment. I hauled out that Colt and mowed ‘em down, and U.S. Grant himself patted me on the back.”
Two other experiences of youth cultivated the artist’s imagination. He attended almost every Saturday’s movie, often a “hell-for-leather Western.” Once, his parents took him to see a live program celebrating the old West, which included Native Americans performing dances. Swarthout was spellbound by the costumes, chants and drumming.
For three summers during his undergraduate college career, he was lead singer for a four-member band that played the Pantlind Hotel in Grand Rapids. The band played five nights a week, the future author reaping a handsome $60 weekly and his own room at the hotel. Majoring in English, Swarthout acquired a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Michigan in 1939.
He initially put his writing ability to work churning out advertising copy in support of Cadillac and Dow Chemical Company for a Detroit firm, Macmanus, John and Adams. He married Kathryn Vaughn, whom he had known since the age of 12 and wooed as an undergrad, on December 28, 1940. Not long after, he quit the copywriting life and became a traveling correspondent, wandering with Kathryn across South America and dispatching tales of their adventures to 22 small newspapers back in the States for $212.50 a month.
While anchored in Barbados in December 1941, the couple learned of the attack on Pearl Harbor and immediately decided to return home. It wasn’t easy. A series of short hops across the sea was necessary to avoid patrolling U-boats. The Swarthouts’ sister ship was torpedoed. The journey to New York City took five months.
Too light at 117 pounds to qualify for Officer Candidate School, Swarthout joined his wife on the assembly line at an auto factory converted to bomber production at Willow Run – two words that would become the title of his first published novel in 1943. A commercial and artistic clunker, the now hard-to-find book Willow Run was written off by Swarthout as his “training novel.”
Swarthout qualified for the infantry, enlisting in the Army in 1943. Anticipating intense combat in what would become the battle of Anzio, Italy, Swarthout was instead pulled from the front after 17 hours by headquarters, which needed a writer to record incidents and heroes in the coming campaign to qualify recipients for the Congressional Medal of Honor, Silver Star and other commendations, the “largest piece of luck” in his life to that time besides meeting Kathryn.
Swarthout did see six days of combat, landing with the infantry at St. Tropez, collecting eyewitness testimony to support often posthumous medals. The assignment – and meditations on the nature of courage – would become part of the storyline in They Came to Cordura. Reflecting on his wartime experience, he said once, “I met and came to know heroes. I wrote about incredible deeds on the battlefield. I came to believe profoundly that heroism lies latent in all of us, and all we need to evoke it is the right circumstances.
Swarthout went back to school, obtaining a master’s degree from the University of Michigan in 1946. Son Miles was born on May 1 of the same year. Swarthout taught freshman English at the university, finding he liked it but “ended many a class wet with sweat” because the students were so bright.
He won an $800 Hopwood Award from the university’s English Department to craft a novel. After teaching for two years at the University of Maryland, Swarthout took the family to Mexico and wrote for six months. Reviewing the manuscript, he decided it was lousy, “burned the manuscript for hot water for a shower, took that shower, packed us up, and it was Gringoland again.”
In the fall of 1951, Swarthout began teaching at what was then Michigan State College. He received a doctorate in literature from MSC in 1955. He began to sell short stories to magazines, including Cosmopolitan, The Saturday Evening Post, and Esquire. He had found his professional path: he would teach college students and write fiction on the side.
Swarthout sold a story, 1954’s “A Horse for Mrs. Custer” to Columbia Pictures for $2,000. It was good enough to become a film, Seventh Cavalry, starring Randolph Scott. It was a better story than movie. The story’s haunting evocation of the aftermath of the battle of the Little Bighorn puts it several notches above standard Western fare.
Swarthout was on the brink of fame. In 1958, They Came to Cordura deservedly became a best seller. An anti-Western of sorts, the novel features a protagonist who tainted by an episode of cowardice under fire in the 1916 American hunt for Mexican revolutionary Francisco (Pancho) Villa and his men. Ironically, Major Thorn is tasked with chronicling episodes of bravery to be used as documentation for the Congressional Medal of Honor. He plunges deeply into the assignment, trying to discern the nature of courage.
The Chicago Tribune called the novel “a strong, harsh, haunting novel which will outlast most of the season’s fiction…An ironic and revealing study of courage and cowardice.”
Again, Hollywood lapped up Swarthout’s story. Cordura became a vehicle for Gary Cooper.
For the only time in his career, Swarthout worked on the screenplay of his novel. He netted a handsome $250,000 from Columbia Pictures for rights to the story. At age 39, Swarthout had won his independence to write for a living.
The author’s next literary adventure put him on a plane to Florida. Listening to his Michigan State students excitedly discuss their plans for beach time during spring break 1958, Swarthout decided to do field research in Fort Lauderdale. The result was Where the Boys Are, a chronicle of riotous young people drinking, playing, romancing and talking deep into the night as they thaw out from the cold northern winter. Swarthout originally entitled the book Unholy Spring, but was persuaded to take a cue from a female college student who, when asked by a reporter for Time magazine why she would go to Florida for spring break replied, “That’s where the boys are.” The novel is credited with turning a Florida spring break from a lark for a relative few to a rite for a few million by the early 2000s.
Narrating the novel in breathy first person is undergraduate Merritt, who describes herself as five-foot-nine and 37-28-38. She explains why so many young people take their spring break in Fort Lauderdale:NWhy do they come to Florida? Physically to get a tan…Also, they are pooped. Many have mono…Psychologically, to get away…and besides, what else is there to do except go home (for spring break) and further foul up the parent-child relationship? Biologically, they come to Florida to check the talent.” The novel proceeds in this tone, with plenty of drinking and necking.
While the 1960 film made from Where the Boys Are (starring Connie Francis and George Hamilton) is remembered for celebrating the lighthearted escapism of spring break, it and the book also contain a somber undercurrent. Merritt suffers an unexpected consequence of the party life, and finds herself alone.
Swarthout was now a major novelist.
In 1959 Swarthout left MSU for a teaching position at Arizona State University, where he continued to teach English. He retired from teaching after four years there, devoting himself full-time to writing.
A novel that demonstrated his reach was Bless the Beasts and Children, published in 1970. Although set in Arizona, it is a Western in geography only. A group of six troubled adolescents are housed at a boys camp that promises, “Send Us a Boy – We’ll Send You a Cowboy!” But these kids are outcasts, one a bed-wetter, all of them unable for one reason or another to win the acceptance of the popular boys.
Swarthout wrote 14 published short stories. One is “Four Older Men,” a sardonic takedown of romance. Looking down on a beautiful young woman and an adoring suitor in a bar in Washington, D.C. who are about to consummate their romance, the omniscient narrator watches them go separate ways after just five pages. The words of author Thomas Wolfe, whose gravesite the woman visited on an early, memorable date play a big role in the split.
One of Swarthout’s Westerns, 1975’s The Shootist, left a deep imprint on American culture. The tale of a dying gunslinger come to town for his final weeks is written in spare prose. Reminiscing about his career without sentiment, the gunman decides on one last showdown – unlike any in Western lore.
The parallel between the circumstances of the protagonist and the actor who played him, John Wayne, are remarkable. John Books is dying of cancer, the same disease that would claim Wayne less than three years after the film’s release. In one of his final roles, Wayne won critical acclaim. Frank Rich said “Wayne makes a terminally ill character seem transcendentally alive.”
Glendon had a writing partner – his wife Kathryn, a poet and longtime columnist for Women’s Day magazine. They co-wrote six novellas for young readers. The New York Times Review of Books included one of them, The Button Boat, in the list of the year’s 20 best books for children in 1969. Son Miles received a Writers Guild nomination for Best Adaptation for the screenplay of The Shootist in 1976.
Despite his unpredictability, Swarthout was a dependable source of cinematic and television material. Over half of the 16 novels he wrote and several of his short stories were optioned, sold, or eventually made into motion pictures or movies for television. He was twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, received an O. Henry Short Story Prize nomination, and was given a gold medal by the National Academy of Arts and Letters.
A lifelong smoker, Swarthout died of emphysema in 1992. He was inducted into the Western Writers Hall of Fame in 2008. In addition to the Swarthout Awards for young writers that he and his wife endowed at Arizona State University, his legacy is an example of hard-to-surpass versatility, and a curiosity about the inner workings of human beings that resulted in vivid, unforgettable characters.
Willow Run (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1943)
They Came to Cordura (New York: Random House, 1958)
Where the Boys Are (New York: Random House, 1960)
Welcome to Thebes (New York: Random House, 1962)
The Cadillac Cowboys (New York: Random House, 1964)
The Eagle and the Iron Cross (New York: New American Library, 1966)
Loveland (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1968)
Bless the Beasts and Children (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1970)
The Tin Lizzie Troop (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1972)
Luck and Pluck (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1973)
The Shootist (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1975)
A Christmas Gift (also known as The Melodeon) (New York: Doubleday, 1977)
Skeletons (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1979)
The Old Colts (New York: D.I. Fine, 1985)
The Homesman (New York: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1988)
Pinch Me, I Must Be Dreaming (New York: St. Martins Press, 1994)