Elmore Leonard archive goes to South Carolina

Susan Whitall
The Detroit News

Shrimp and grits, Ernest Hemingway and simple Southern hospitality helped convince Detroit author Elmore Leonard to place his archive of papers at the University of South Carolina.

The university announced its acquisition of the Elmore Leonard archive Wednesday in Columbia, S.C. All five Leonard children flew in to be present: daughters Jane Jones and Katy Dudley and son Peter from Metro Detroit; Chris Leonard from Tucson, Ariz., and Bill Leonard from Denver. Also in South Carolina for the announcement were: Otto Penzler, owner of New York's Mysterious Book Shop; longtime researcher Gregg Sutter; and Dan Schechter, the director of the Jennifer Aniston film "Life of Crime," based on Leonard's novel "The Switch."

The author died in August 2013, at 87. He'd spent more than 60 years as a writer, starting with the Western stories and potboilers he wrote in the dawn hours before his advertising job at Detroit's Campbell-Ewald. At the time of his death, he was one of the most acclaimed crime novelists in the world, and a Hollywood favorite.

Included in the Elmore Leonard archive, which will reside at the University of South Carolina's Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, are more than 450 drafts of manuscripts written on his beloved yellow legal paper; all 45 of his novels; magazine stories; research files; and his many awards.

Among the articles is "Squad 7," a nonfiction story Leonard wrote for The Detroit News' Sunday Magazine in 1978. Some vintage Leonardiana he used in future novels, such as the then-popular (and sometimes fatal) Detroit dance, the "freaky deaky," came out of that story.

There are also the items museums refer to as "realia" — two of his typewriters, his desk, several Hawaiian shirts and a pair of his well-worn old sneakers.

Neither the Leonard family nor the University of South Carolina disclosed the terms of the acquisition. "Libraries acquire things in many different ways, sometimes it's a gift, sometimes it's a gift-purchase," says Tom McNally, dean of libraries at the U of SC. "We never indicate which."

Why the University of South Carolina, for an author known as "the Dickens of Detroit"? In May 2013, just months before his death, Elmore traveled to Columbia, S.C., with his author son Peter Leonard, to accept the university's Thomas Cooper Medal. The hospitality and the Southern delicacies tickled him. "I can't remember the last time I had shrimp and grits," he told Peter.

"We went out to dinner with the dean of libraries, Tom McNally, and it was a really fun night," Peter Leonard recalls. "My father took comfort in the food and the hospitality."

While he was known for his keen observation of the folkways of Detroit's criminal class, Leonard was born in New Orleans, and had a lingering fondness for Southern food and manners.

What cinched it was when Elmore was given a tour of the U of SC's libraries the next day, especially the climate-controlled Rare Books and Special Collections. There he met one of the nation's premier Ernest Hemingway collectors, Dr. Edgar Grissom of Mississippi. Dr. Grissom, a retired trauma surgeon, showed the author his papers and rare first editions relating to Hemingway, some of which weren't even in the official Hemingway bibliographies. The author of "The Sun Also Rises" was one of Leonard's most cherished literary idols.

Leonard was also excited that the university libraries had a George V. Higgins collection — Higgins wrote the dark 1970 crime novel "The Friends of Eddie Coyle," a novel that influenced Elmore deeply. Peter Leonard recalled that his father's agent at the time, H.N. Swanson, told Elmore to read the Higgins novel, "before you write another word."

With crime star James Ellroy's archive, and another significant acquisition pending (can you say, "The Thin Man"?), the U of SC is positioning itself to have the largest collection of crime novelists' papers in the world.

"Let's say you want to do research on the most important crime fiction writers, you're going to come here," says McNally. "We're going to have the manuscripts. It's one thing to have the books, but manuscripts are unique, to see the words (Elmore) crossed out and the ones he kept. These kind of collections are rapidly disappearing, so people like me are out there fighting for them before they're gone."

South Carolina's literary archives also includes the largest collection of F. Scott Fitzgerald's papers, thanks to the efforts of U of SC English professor (and Fitzgerald scholar) Matthew Bruccoli.

When McNally heard that Elmore's papers did not yet have a home, he acquired his phone number and started calling. That led to the Cooper medal, and the visit to Columbia.

At one point in May 2013, gingerly holding a Hemingway first edition, Elmore told son Peter how he used to rewrite Hemingway stories "the way I'd want to do it," with more of the humor he felt was lacking in his hero's prose.

Just touching the Hemingway papers seemed to have an effect on the author. "My father was usually a pretty low-key guy, but I could see that all of this moved him," Peter says.

When the two Leonards were on the plane back to Detroit, Elmore put aside the book he was reading. "That was something, at the university," he told his son. "I was impressed. That's where I want my papers to go."

Peter suggested they talk to the University of Michigan before making a final decision. But a somewhat low-key visit he made to Ann Arbor, when he had to scramble to find a parking space, was in stark contrast to South Carolina's hospitality.

The university will have a number of Leonard manuscripts online, according to McNally, as a guide to scholars who will get an idea of what they have. "Then we can scan copies for them, depending on what people need — we know not every scholar can come here."

"My dad was meticulous," says Peter. "He had a notebook for every novel, with the names of characters, plot points, and manuscripts for every book."

Much of the collection still needs to be documented and organized, although McNally says that Leonard's daughters Katy and Jane, who typed his hand-written manuscripts, had things in good shape. At one point, when visiting the Leonards in Detroit to go over the material, McNally told the family to assume his answer to anything they offered to him was "yes."

That is, until the offspring, who inherited their father's brand of humor, told him Leonard preferred to buy a certain kind of underwear in bulk, and would he like to have those? "'You have found the one thing I will say "no," to,'" McNally recalls, laughing.

McNally clearly became fond of Leonard, even though he only met him once. On Tuesday night, he plans to recreate the leisurely May 2013 dinner that so touched Leonard, when he talked and smoked long into the night in the Columbia restaurant's private balcony.

"I will have almost all of the same people there, except of course Elmore. We hope that it is quite a rowdy affair of Elmore stories. When he was here for dinner and went out on the balcony, he started to light his cigarette, but I stopped him and asked if I could light it. I said, "I just want to be able to say, 'I lit Elmore Leonard's cigarette."

For his part, Peter Leonard likes to remember the banging sound of his father's VW Cabriolet Beetle engine in his driveway when he arrived for dinner every evening.

There was also his father's quintessentially Detroit work ethic and laser-sharp power of concentration, a gift when you live in a house with five noisy children.

"One time at the house, we had the Jimi Hendrix' 'Axis Bold as Love' album playing and a bunch of us we were watching the University of Michigan football game," Peter says. "He was sitting at the breakfast table, smoking and writing on his yellow pad. He wrote eight pages of 'Valdez is Coming' that day, in the middle of all that. And they were good pages."



University libraries compete for the papers of authors, but the deeper we go into the digital era, there are fewer physical archives to be had, so competition can be fierce. Here are where you can find some Michigan-related author archives.

Ernest Hemingway isn't a native Michiganian but famously grew up spending his summers on Walloon Lake, and captured the look and feel of his beloved northern Michigan in his Nick Adams stories. Although the University of South Carolina has a substantial Hemingway collection, the bulk of his papers are at the John F. Kennedy presidential library: http://www.jfklibrary.org/Research/The-Ernest-Hemingway-Collection.aspx

Poet/novelist Jim Harrison, a Michigan native (and MSU grad) has his collection of papers in an archive at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids: http://www.gvsu.edu/library/specialcollections/jim-harrison-papers-5.htm

Another literary great who graduated from Michigan State, Pulitzer prize winner Richard Ford ( "Independence Day") did put his archive at his alma mater in East Lansing.

John D. Voelker was the Michigan supreme court judge who wrote the much-lauded, gritty crime novel based in northern Michigan,"Anatomy of a Murder" (later, an Otto Preminger movie) under his pen name of Robert Traver. Voelker's papers are at Northern Michigan University: http://archives.nmu.edu/voelker/

Tom Hayden isn't a literary figure so much as a political activist, although the Detroit native (and graduate of Royal Oak schools, and U-M) was a co-author of the Port Huron Statement, the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)'s 1961 manifesto. The University of Michigan recently announced that it had acquired Hayden's papers for its Joseph A. Labadie Collection: http://www.lib.umich.edu/news/library-acquires-papers-activist-tom-hayden

U-M's Bentley Library holds the papers of poet/activist John and his ex-wife, photographer/activist Leni Sinclair. http://bentley.umich.edu/exhibits/sinclair/