The Randolph Society Foundation Board is pleased to announce that Harry L. Hamilton, a talented novelist, playwright, and screenwriter, will be inducted into the 2019 class of honorees.
Harry Lacy Hamilton was born in Chester in 1896. His father, Harry Hamilton Sr., was a second-generation commercial fisherman who worked on the Mississippi, and his mother, Margaret Greenwalt, was descended from several established Chester families. The eldest of six children, Harry briefly moved with his family to Arkansas as a teenager, where his grandparents purchased a farm near the Missouri border. However, his father’s job working on the river ultimately kept the family in Randolph County, where Harry graduated from Chester High School in 1916. The same year, he was recognized by the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission for the bravery he demonstrated when he helped save a friend from drowning in the Mississippi.
After serving in the army in World War I, Harry used his Carnegie prize money to enroll at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh. A natural born storyteller, Harry studied drama in the College of Fine Arts, writing more than a dozen plays that were performed by his fellow students, including his roommate, the future film star and director Norman Foster. When Harry graduated in 1924, one local newspaper heralded him as the most “outstanding student-playwright produced by the institute during its history.”
Degree in hand, Harry moved south to Alabama, where he took a teaching job. He also became the director of the Little Theater in Montgomery, a role that allowed him to continue to write and produce his own plays. A collaboration with Norman Foster soon vaunted him to a new level of creative success. Their original play, Savage Rhythm, premiered on Broadway in 1932. Harry left Montgomery, establishing himself first in New York and then in California, where he continued to write plays and short stories. In 1936, he published his first novel, Banjo on My Knee, which was inspired by his childhood living along the Mississippi. Twentieth Century Fox soon purchased the film rights to the novel, adapting it as a movie starring Barbara Stanwyck, Joel McCrea, and Walter Brennan.
While working as a screenwriter for Paramount, MGM, and Republic Pictures, Harry also continued to write novels. He produced four more books during the course of his career: All Their Children Were Acrobats (1936), the story of a circus family; Watch Us Grow (1940), the tale of an Arkansas town along the Mississippi; River Song (1945), a sequel to Banjo on My Knee; and Thunder in the Wilderness (1949), a historical romance set in eighteenth-century Kaskaskia. Harry traveled the world during his writing career, but his success selling short stories and serials also enabled him to put down roots in the seaside city of Long Beach, where numerous members of his family eventually joined him. Following a Thanksgiving meal with friends and family at the home of a niece in 1975, he passed away at his home at the age of 79.
Just before his death, Harry was planning a trip to return to Chester to celebrate the bicentennial. He considered his childhood in Randolph County to have been one of the most formative experiences of his life: “I’ve always been glad I grew up in a small town like Chester. Kids in big cities miss many of the basics and associations which form your character.” Chester hasn’t forgotten Harry, either, celebrating his life in tributes and keeping a collection of all of his novels in the town’s public library so that local citizens can be inspired by the writer who dreamed his way from the Mississippi to Broadway and Hollywood.