A talented writer who explored the literary territory of Randolph County and the Mississippi, Harry L. Hamilton, Jr. used his childhood on the banks of the river as fodder for the novels, plays, and film scripts that he produced during his renowned and varied creative career.
Harry Lacy Hamilton, the eldest son of Harry Leonard Hamilton and Margaret Greenwalt, was born in Chester in the summer of 1896. Harry’s father, grandfather, and uncles were all commercial fishers who spent their lives on the Mississippi River, first in their native Jersey County and then, by the turn of the twentieth-century, on Randolph County’s riverbanks. Harry’s mother, Margaret, had deep Randolph County roots, with familiar Chester surnames like Segar and Servant on her family tree. Harry Sr. and Margaret’s family grew quickly. Harry Jr. was followed by five more siblings: Theda, Lawrence Clark, Jessie Clyde, Ray, and Howard.
Young Harry spent most of his formative years in Chester, but his family also experimented with life further south. In 1910, census takers found fourteen-year-old Harry living in Fulton County, Arkansas, just south of the state’s border with Missouri. There, his paternal grandparents, Sylvester and Amy Hamilton, had established a farm. Harry and his mother and siblings rented the house next door. Unusually, the census document contains a handwritten note in the margin about Harry’s family: “Mrs. Mabel Hamilton’s husband is permanently located in Illinois where she will join him.” Indeed, Harry Sr. was enumerated on the census in Chester, still working as a fisherman, and the rest of the family soon abandoned their farming enterprise and returned to live with him in Illinois.
The census record reveals that Harry hadn’t been attending school while living in Arkansas, but back in Chester, he enrolled again at the local high school. His time away from his studies had put him behind many of his classmates, and he was already twenty when he graduated in 1916. The same year, Harry unexpectedly found himself in a dangerous situation. In May 1916, Harry and two friends, Homer Hylton and Paul Knollenberg, were wading along the shallow banks of the river late at night. Suddenly Homer, who couldn’t swim, found himself in deeper water. Harry noticed that his friend was sinking under the surface and tried to come to his aid, even though he was also a poor swimmer. In his panic, Homer grabbed Harry so tightly that his arm became pinned and he was unable to move. Both men nearly drowned. Harry managed to call out to Paul, who swam nearly fifty feet out into the river to reach them. Paul was able to wrench Harry out of Homer’s grasp and towed both of them to shallow waters. Harry managed to wade to the shore while Paul carried Homer to the riverbank.
The incident received a great amount of press – so much so that the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission took notice. Later in life, Harry was a little dismissive of his own contribution in the matter. “I got [a] medal for not knowing how to swim,” he later told one newspaper reporter. But the commission recognized both Harry and Paul’s efforts to save their friend. The incident was recounted in detail in the fund’s 1916 report. Both Harry and Paul received Bronze Medals from the commission – awards that also came with $1,600 dollars for the men to use toward furthering their education.
Before Harry could enroll in college, though, global conflict intervened. As World War One raged on in Europe, Harry enlisted in the army in the summer of 1918, serving as a private in a medical department. His time in the war was relatively short – he was discharged that September – but the experience was formative. In 1919, the Broadway Music Corporation published a pair of songs with lyrics written by Harry. The first, “My Swanee Home,” was inspired by his childhood along the river, and serves as a sort of preview for the focus of his later creative work. The other, “The Boys Who Couldn’t Come Home,” was a popular tune inspired by his military service. The song plays on familiar themes of the time, depicting cheering crowds welcoming soldiers home from the war. But the chorus reveals that Harry understood the complex emotions faced by those whose family members didn’t return: “My boy was one of those who went away, He was my pride and joy / I loved him just as ev’ry other mother loves her boy / He gave his life to Uncle Sam, He’s sleeping o’er the foam / So while you’re cheering, don’t forget the boys who won’t come home.”
Harry’s wartime service also fueled his desire to see more of the world. One profile of the author, written in 1962, noted, “Wanderlust hit him after his discharge and he got a job on a freighter to France where he got another job demonstrating the Charleston and Black Bottom in a Paris café.” Indeed, Harry often said that his extensive and unusual work resume had been just as important as his education in shaping him as a writer. His other jobs included working as a “rivet-bucker in a stockyard in East St. Louis” and a “counterman in a lunch room in Tucumcari, New Mexico.” But from the start, writing was his passion. As a teenager, he even managed to sell a pair of scripts for short films. One, “A Border Romance,” was purchased by the Lubin Manufacturing Company and turned into a silent film starring Romaine Fielding. Another, “An Orange Grove Romance,” was bought by the Kalem Company; the silent film version featured two of the studio’s brightest stars, Carlyle Blackwell and Alice Joyce.
In the early 1920s, Harry was finally ready to use the educational funds that had been provided to him by the Carnegie commission. Appropriately, he decided to head to Pittsburgh and enroll in the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University). As a student in the drama department of the College of Fine Arts, Harry turned his focus to playwriting. By the end of his freshman year, one of his plays, Fingerbowls and Araminta, had been performed by a student theater group. Harry’s creative output during his time at Carnegie Tech was impressive. More than a dozen of his original plays were produced by the drama department during his three years at the university, including You’re Next and Rabbit Feet. Harry graduated in June 1924, and his senior week was highlighted by a special performance of one of his new plays, From Now On. In 1925, the Pittsburgh Press called Harry the most “outstanding student-playwright produced by the institute during its history.”
Harry’s time at Carnegie didn’t just give him significant experience writing and directing his own work – it also gave him two important collaborative relationships. Hubert Osborne, a Canadian-born professor in the drama department, became both a mentor to and creative collaborator of Harry’s. After leaving Carnegie Tech in 1925, Osborne went on to teach at Yale; he was also the writer of numerous original works for both the stage and the screen, as well as an important interpreter and adapter of Shakespeare. Even more important to Harry’s blossoming career was the friendship that developed between Harry and his roommate, Norman Foster Hoeffer. After graduating, Norman pursued an acting career and dropped his surname. As Norman Foster, he headed for Broadway. In 1926, he was cast in The Barker, which ran for more than 200 performances. The play garnered him some attention, but much more important was the attention he got from one of his co-stars: Claudette Colbert. Norman and Claudette announced their engagement in 1927 and married the following year.
While Norman’s star rose in New York, Harry headed south, where he took a teaching job in Alabama. While working as head of the department of literature at the Alabama Polytechnic Institute, Harry helmed a play at the Little Theater of Montgomery. He was quickly named the theater’s director, serving in the role from 1927 until 1931. He spent his summers traveling and working in New York, returning each winter to Alabama to oversee productions at the growing theater. The Little Theater flourished under his direction, putting on an impressive variety of productions, from traditional theater (Chekhov, Turgenev) to popular Broadway hits and even Harry’s own plays. At times his life in Montgomery and his life in New York conflicted. In 1929, Harry planned to mount a production of one of his student plays, From Now On, in Alabama. However, Harry had recently sold an option on the play to a Broadway producer, who intervened at the last minute to prevent Harry from producing his own version in Montgomery.
More and more, Harry found himself so occupied with writing that he found it difficult to balance his creative work with his job at the Little Theater. While he was in Alabama, he and Norman Foster had begun collaborating on plays of their own, sending drafts back and forth through the mail. At the end of the 1930-31 theater season in Montgomery, Harry decided to head to California to spend the summer with Norman. (Papers reported that he would be living at Norman Foster and Claudette Colbert’s home “on Vine Street in Hollywood,” though in reality, Claudette likely wasn’t around. The couple never shared a home during their unusual marriage; they separated in the early 1930s and divorced in 1935.) The entire community of Montgomery mourned Harry’s loss. The Montgomery Advertiser reported, “In addition to his work in the Little Theater Mr. Hamilton has been a factor in the cultural life of Montgomery and has been extremely popular socially.” In July 1931, following a farewell party thrown by his “wide circle of friends,” Harry boarded a ship bound for California, traveling via the Panama Canal.
In Hollywood, Norman Foster was now a bona fide movie star. He was fresh off the successes of Young Man of Manhattan (co-starring his wife and brand-new ingénue, Ginger Rogers), It Pays to Advertise (co-starring Carole Lombard and Louise Brooks), and No Limit, in which he shared the screen with Clara Bow, Thelma Todd, and Dixie Lee (who had just married Bing Crosby). Norman and Harry’s creative partnership resulted in a number of plays, and one of them, Savage Rhythm, was optioned by Broadway producer John Golden. The play, which featured an entirely African-American cast, was set along the Mississippi and depicted the story of a young black woman who leaves her rural hometown for success as a singer in New York, only to return and discover difficulty finding a place in her home community. The play initially received some favorable reviews, but it was only “mildly received” by theatergoers. The production closed in January 1932 after only twelve performances.
Though his first Broadway production wasn’t a success, Harry established himself within the creative world of New York. He studied at Columbia University, took a job teaching at Long Island University, and continued collaborating with both Norman Foster and Hubert Osborne. He also found a significant new creative partner: the famed poet Countee Cullen, who was one of the most important voices of a new generation of black artists in the 1920s and 1930s that became part of a movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. Cullen published his only novel, One Way to Heaven, in 1931, and the following year he worked with Harry on a stage adaptation. The play, Heaven’s My Home, was never published or produced, but the partnership demonstrates how involved Harry had become with some of the city’s most prominent writers. Meanwhile, he and Norman continued to write plays and scripts, with one paper reporting that the pair were “manufacturing screen stories at the rate of one a week.” One of their collaborations, The Sun Worshippers, was optioned by producer Arthur Hammerstein (uncle of Oscar II), but it was never staged on Broadway. Another, 1935’s Man with Nine Lives, a mystery about the murder of a drama critic, also never made it out of previews.
Meanwhile, both Harry and Norman were both carving other career paths. Norman divorced Claudette Colbert in 1935 and married Sally Blane, an actress most famous for being the younger sister of Loretta Young. He was still acting in films, but he was beginning a transition to directing and screenwriting that would last for the rest of his career. Harry was also building the foundations for a new stage of his own creative career. In 1936, Bobbs-Merrill published Harry’s first novel, Banjo on My Knee, a tale inspired by his years living along the Mississippi River. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch called the novel a “sweet, sentimental yarn,” describing it as the “story of poor whites living in flat-boats along the Mississippi along the Tennessee shore. Pearl, the heroine, wedded to Ernie, the world-rover, elopes with an itinerant photographer from New Orleans. The father-in-law, Old Newt, philosopher, musical genius and diamond-in-the-rough, follows with his hound dog, Lena, and his one-man-band contraption, determined to salvage the family honor. While seeking Pearl in the great city, Newt makes a hit as a performer in night clubs. Finally Pearl is discovered, happily quite undamaged; and all ends well.” Harry based one of the main characters, Newt Holley, on a man who had worked in Chester with his father, Newton Holley.
The novel was a hit. Almost immediately, Hollywood came calling. In March 1936, Harry sold the film rights to Banjo on My Knee to Twentieth Century Fox for $10,000. The studio assigned Nunnally Johnson to write the screenplay, with the famed novelist William Faulkner making uncredited contributions to the script. John Cromwell (father of the actor James Cromwell) directed the film, which was produced by powerhouse studio executive Darryl F. Zanuck. The film’s cast was populated by some of the most famous actors of the era. Barbara Stanwyck played the role of Pearl, with her frequent co-star, Joel McCrea, as her husband, Ernie. Walter Brennan played Pearl’s father, Newt, and Buddy Ebsen conveniently took on the role of Buddy.
The film premiered in December 1936, and Harry remembered the film’s preview night as one of the highlights of his career. “My mother, father, and brother were with me,” he recalled. “Barbara Stanwyck linked her arm through mine and thanked me for writing her a good part, and Walter Brennan, who nearly stole the picture, congratulated my parents on having me for a son. Nothing has happened to me to top that.” The film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Sound Recording in 1937, losing the Oscar to San Francisco, a romance about the 1906 earthquake. (Walter Brennan picked up the Best Supporting Actor Award at the same ceremony for his performance in another film, Come and Get It.)
Riding high on the success of his debut novel, Harry signed a five-year contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and did freelance work for other studios, including Paramount and Republic. He also wrote the screenplay for a 1936 film called I Cover Chinatown, which featured his partner Norman Foster as both star and director. Having left New York behind for California, Harry also collected numerous Hollywood friends, including Loretta Young (Norman’s sister-in-law), Greta Garbo, and John Barrymore. And while he was entrenched in the culture of the movies, Harry was also hard at work on another book. He quickly produced a second novel, All Their Children Were Acrobats, published by Bobbs-Merrill in 1936. The Baltimore Evening Sun called the novel “pleasant reading” featuring the “saga of the Flying Donovans, the home environment that started off on their flying trapezes and their various ups and downs with circus and vaudeville,” but “los[ing] its vitality” after the Donovan children “become glamorous creatures in yellow tights.” The town of Sentinel in the book was based on Harry’s hometown of Chester.
Now past his fortieth birthday, Harry took a leave of absence from MGM in 1937 to head out on a three-month-long trip to American Samoa. While in Pago Pago, he worked on another novel, which would eventually become the book Watch Us Grow (1940). The project, another novel inspired by the Mississippi, took longer than Harry anticipated to complete, and he finished the book during a later trip to France. A critic from the Indianapolis News wrote that the finished novel depicted a “realty development” in a small town along the Mississippi, “the river’s rampage,” and “the effect this crisis has on the personalities of the story’s people.” He elaborates, “The effect is Hollywoodish, for all the villains become virtuous, all the bigoted become tolerant, all the rich become poor, all the poor become rich, all the stern become bewildered and all the spineless become aggressive … Since he is writing brittle comedy with a dash of seriousness, he doesn’t need to create human beings. These are movie characters, but they will divert you for an evening.” Readers were less than diverted; the book was not a commercial success. Harry later joked, “As it turned out at the book store counters, my mistake was not writing it in Little Rock.”
In the 1940s, Harry still did occasional screenwriting work, but he devoted most of his time to finishing two more novels. The first, River Song, was a sequel to Banjo on My Knee. Published in 1945, the book returned to the story of Newt Holley, who was now the grandfather of a pair of equally musical grandsons. Ben Howden of the Los Angeles Times declared that the novel was “highly diverting and not too insulting to readers’ minds,” predicting that it would “make an even better movie than the first novel.” The novel wasn’t made into a film, but, as the nation was still fighting in World War II, a special American Services edition of the text was produced. Two hundred thousand copies of the book were distributed to military personnel serving overseas.
Harry’s final novel, Thunder in the Wilderness (1949), was a tribute to his birthplace. Originally titled As Snow in Summer, the book is a historical romance set in eighteenth-century Kaskaskia. Populated by both French and Native American characters, the novel featured a mixed-race protagonist, Michel Duclos. The Montgomery Advertiser, which never forgot their favorite local theater director, offered a positive review of the book: “Here is an exciting story of the days when bewildered Indian tribes sought to upset the teetering balance of power between French and English, with an eye ultimately to driving the white man back into the sea. Adventure and sudden death, romance and the picture of a man pulled two ways by conflicting blood streams, gallop through it at a furious pace.” The book was so successful in its first edition that a subsequent paperback printing was ordered.
Though Harry never again tackled a novel-length project, he published numerous short stories and serials, including pieces for Esquire and Liberty. He also kept up collaborative work with Norman Foster and did technical work in the camera department at Technicolor Corporation. In the 1960s, Harry told one interviewer that he “paid for his Belmont Shores home with a serial in Good Housekeeping.” Although he continued globe-trotting for most of his life, Harry put down roots in California in the 1940s. After residing for a time at the Hollywood Athletic Club, Harry settled down in Long Beach. Soon his parents, Harry Sr. and Margaret, joined him in the seaside community. His youngest brother, Howard, also moved with his family to Long Beach; so did Harry’s aunt, Doris Hamilton Jackson. Harry’s family remained a central part of his life until the very end. He celebrated his final Thanksgiving dinner with family and friends at the home of his niece, Janet Myers, in 1975. He died suddenly at his home in Long Beach that evening at the age of 79.
Harry never forgot the childhood hometown that had given him so much literary inspiration. Just before his death, he was making plans to attend a bicentennial celebration in Chester in the fall of 1976. He told the Herald-Tribune late in 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. The local library holds copies of all five of Harry’s novels, donated by his brother, Howard. The young man who dreamed on the banks of the Mississippi made it all the way to Broadway and Hollywood, producing books, plays, and films inspired by his hometown that have entertained people both here and abroad for generations.
Harry L. Hamilton was inducted into The Randolph Society in 2019.