Forgotten History: Black novelist was the ‘hidden figure’ behind a Humphrey Bogart film

Willard Motley’s bestseller, “Knock on Any Door,” was adapted as a 1949 hit movie starring Bogart, with the famous line: “Live fast, die young and have a good-looking corpse!” 

Willard Motley, a talented Black writer from Chicago, has been largely ignored by scholars of 20th century literature, and particularly among Black and gay writers, despite having two of his most popular novels made into hit movies.

The reason, some critics argue, is that he refused to conform to the predetermined role of Black authors, insisting on writing about white, ethnic protagonists instead of focusing on Black characters and race in America. Nevertheless, his life and work deserve a fresh look and proper credit.

Born in 1909 on the city’s South Side, Motley grew up in the middle-class, mostly white Englewood neighborhood, and was raised by his grandparents. He and Archibald Motley — who would go on to become a famous artist synonymous with the Harlem Renaissance — were raised as brothers, but his older relative was, in fact, his uncle. Archibald encouraged his nephew’s artistic creativity and strengthened his belief that he could pursue a career in writing.

Willard Motley (left), a Black writer born in Chicago in 1909, had his bestselling novel, “Knock on Any Door,” adapted as a 1949 hit movie starring Humphrey Bogart and John Derek.
(Photo: Carl Van Vechten Collection/Wikimedia)

Personally, I’d never heard of Motley until a good friend and film buff told me “Knock on Any Door” was based on a bestselling novel written by a Black man who was also gay. Though vaguely aware of the Humphrey Bogart film noir vehicle, I’d never seen it. My friend loaned me his DVD of the 1949 movie, and after watching it, I wanted to get to know the writer behind the story of Nick Romero, the altar boy from a poor Italian immigrant family who turned to a life of crime and ended up killing a cop. Bogart played the lawyer who defended him.

According to the Willard Motley Collection of the Northern Illinois University Libraries, which houses his manuscripts, diaries, correspondence and most of his papers, Motley started writing at an early age. When he was 13, he sent a story to the Chicago Defender — the city’s oldest Black newspaper — and it was published. The paper recognized Motley’s talent and gave him an opportunity to write a weekly column for children under the pen name “Bud Billiken.”

Motley also wrote for Englewood High School’s newspaper and yearbook. But when he graduated in 1929, he didn’t have enough money to attend college. It was the start of the Depression, which crushed the dreams of millions of Americans and hit the Black community particularly hard.

After high school, Motley traveled to New York and California in search of material for his novels and clarity on what he wanted to do with his life. He was sure that he wanted to write but needed to figure out how to accomplish this lofty goal as a Black man living in tough economic times. He returned to Chicago and moved to a slum in the Maxwell Street neighborhood, surrounded by the real-life characters on whom he would later base his fictional protagonists.

Motley published short fiction as well as nonfiction pieces in Hull-House Magazine, where he had become an editor. He also participated in the WPA Federal Writers Project and started working on the novel that would become his most significant success, “Knock on Any Door,” which was published in 1947. 

“Knock on Any Door” was a critical and commercial success, selling 47,000 copies in the first three weeks after its publication. By 1950, the popular novel had sold 350,000 copies. Motley reportedly refused to have his photo printed in the book because he didn’t want to be pegged as a “Negro Writer.” He wanted the freedom to create characters and topics not focused on race, as was expected from Black writers. In addition, he downplayed his sexual identity because of the cultural climate of the era, as well as an uptick in the government’s persecution of gays amid the so-called “Lavender Scare.”

Bogart’s independent film production company acquired the rights to Motley’s “Knock on Any Door,” the basis for its first movie. Originally intended as a vehicle for Marlon Brando, a newcomer ended up playing the lead role of “Pretty Boy” Nick Romano. Handsome lead actor John Derek shot to stardom with the release of the movie, and critics praised his performance. But according to Derek’s biography, the actor initially felt nervous about his portrayal of the young criminal, and corresponded with Motley in search of guidance he wasn’t getting from director Nicholas Ray. Ultimately, the actor delivered the novel’s most famous line with aplomb: “Live fast, die young and have a good-looking corpse!”

Given Motley’s early success, his second novel was a disappointment; it was not well received by critics. In “We Fished All Night,” published in 1951, Motley focused on three Chicago men and how their lives were affected by World War II. America had entered the war after the December 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor, and though the war’s impact on the protagonists promised a gritty framework, critics thought the themes of the novel — postwar social change, politics, culture, religion, post-traumatic stress disorder, ethnic and racial minorities, and labor unions – were too broad.

Disheartened by the novel’s chilly reception, Motley reportedly moved to Mexico in 1952 to make a fresh start. At the time, Mexico was a haven for victims of communist scaremongering, racism, and U.S. laws limiting the freedom of gays.

Motley’s third novel, “Let No Man Write My Epitaph,” (1958), picks up the story of Nick Romano’s son, who becomes a drug addict. Columbia Pictures adapted the sequel to Motley’s first novel into a 1960 film starring Burl Ives. Its soundtrack, sung by jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, was a big hit, and the album, “Ella Fitzgerald Sings Songs from the Soundtrack of ‘Let No Man Write My Epitaph,’” was released to critical acclaim.

Motley continued living in Mexico, writing both fiction and nonfiction stories while working on his final published novel, “Let Noon Be Fair.” 

He died in Mexico City in March 1965 at the age of 55 — allegedly from intestinal gangrene — just two weeks after he completed the manuscript for “Let Noon Be Fair.” His final novel, set in a fictional fishing village of his adopted country, delves into America’s exploitation of the Mexican community and its residents, thanks to tourism. The novel was published posthumously in 1966. “The Diaries of Willard Motley” was also published posthumously, in 1979, but much of his work remains unpublished.

Toward the end of his life, Motley’s sharp decline in popularity had made it difficult for him to make a living. His naturalistic style of writing, with white characters as his protagonists, was no longer selling.

All artists ride a wave of fluctuating cultural currency, and contemporary Black writers like Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes were publishing successful books about Black characters navigating race in America. Notably, Baldwin and Hurston also published “white-life” novels — “Giovanni’s Room” (1956) and “Seraph on the Suwanee” (1947), respectively — but unlike Motley, their primary focus was on race in midcentury America.

In his book “Abandoning the Black Hero: Sympathy and Privacy in the Postwar African American White-Life Novel,” John C. Charles argues that novels with white protagonists written by Black authors have been undervalued and also “understudied” because they don’t fit into a box that aligns with preconceived notions about black literature. Motley refused to fit into this box because his novels didn’t focus on Black characters or Black life. He insisted on writing on his own terms. 

Motley wasn’t the only Black writer to achieve fame telling stories with white protagonists. In 1946, Frank Yerby’s “The Foxes of Harrow,” a historical saga set in the South, sold more than a million copies in its first year and was later made into a movie starring Maureen O’Hara. However, like Motley, Yerby is now largely forgotten.

In the book “Willard Motley: A Creative Client,” lawyer Walter Roth observed that, despite his success, Motley wasn’t making much money when his firm started representing him in the late 1950s. Roth also represented Motley’s estate for about a decade after the author’s death, preserving his papers for literary scholars. He said Motley’s diaries show he strived for “equality and acceptance as a member of the human race (not limited to one race in particular). He fought for this to the bitter end,” Roth wrote.

In addition to his published novels, Motley left behind at least nine unpublished book-length works and several short stories, published and unpublished, and primarily housed in the Northern Illinois Library. Some of his magazine clippings and correspondence are also now part of the Chicago Public Library’s Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature.

Among Motley’s papers is his FBI file. In the mid-20th century, it was not unusual for prominent Black artists, writers, activists, and suspected communists to be spied on by the federal agency. Under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Motley’s file was opened, revealing the pettiness of his surveillance from 1951 until his death in 1965.

In the end, Motley was a literary paradox: a talented Black writer who was a closeted gay man, raised in a middle-class, predominantly white neighborhood, writing about straight white characters who were mostly hardscrabble poor or working-class. Was it a disavowal of his blackness? Perhaps the more accurate characterization is that he was a major creative talent who stayed true to his convictions on artistic freedom. 

Responding to critics wondering why a Black writer of his era would eschew the issue of race, Motley reportedly declared: “My race is the human race.”

Carol J. Kelly is a freelance writer/editor with extensive experience at leading newspapers, including The Wall Street Journal and The Boston Globe. She’s currently writing a memoir focusing on her mother. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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