His father worked for General Motors and the family moved between Texas, Oklahoma, Michigan and Tennessee six times in nine years, finally settling in Detroit in 1934, when Elmore was nine. In high school a friend teased him about his first name and started calling him Dutch, after the knuckleball pitcher for the Washington Senators. The nickname stuck. When he was 17 he tried to enlist in the Marines but was rejected because of an eye problem. A year later he joined the Navy reserves and wound up maintaining airstrips in New Guinea. In 1949 he enrolled at the University of Detroit and married his college sweetheart, Beverly Cline. By 1965 he was the father of four.
Leonard had various jobs before he could live off his writing. He worked for an advertising firm, became a copywriter, wrote for industrial movies and short films for the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Before his early novels started appearing in 1954-56 he wrote for pulp magazines like Dime Western and Zane Grey’s Western. And what he learned about writing he never forgot. “I think the mistake most beginners make, they’re more concerned with creating something that sounds like writing, with clever images, descriptive passages, than they are with discovering their own basic attitude about putting words on paper. They want to have written before they know why they want to write or realize it’s going to take at least ten years to begin to learn how and to realize that style comes out of attitude, not the clever arrangement of words.”
A prolific writer who writes in long hand and never uses a computer, Leonard’s novels have been translated into sixteen languages including Czech, Greek, and Hebrew. All of his work is still in print, and 27 of his stories have been made into movies for either television or features, including the westerns Hombre (Paul Newman), Last Stand at Saber River( Tom Selleck, ’97), Valdez is Coming (Burt Lancaster, 1971), The Tall T (Randolph Scott and Richard Boone), Joe Kidd (Clint Eastwood), 3:10 to Yuma (Glenn Ford and Van Heflin in 1957; Russell Crowe and Christian Bale in 2007) and the crime films Get Shorty (John Travolta), Be Cool (Travolta and Uma Thurman), Jackie Brown (based on Leonard’s Rum Punch, starring Pam Grier), Out of Sight (George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez)), 52 Pick Up (Roy Scheider), Mr. Majestyk (Charles Bronson), The Big Bounce (Ryan O’Neal), The Moonshine War (Alan Alda and Richard Widmark), Stick (Burt Reynolds), Cat Chaser (Peter Weller), Maximum Bob (Beau Bridges), Glitz (Jimmy Smits), Gold Coast (David Caruso), The Touch (Christopher Walken), Pronto (Peter Falk). Killshot, starring Mickey Rourke and Joseph Gordon-Levitt and executive produced by Quentin Tarantino is in the can and awaiting a release date.
A former heavy drinker and a member of A.A., it was his personal battle with alcohol which led to the disintegration of his first marriage after 27 years. His experience with the bottle brought out some of his sharpest, most descriptive writing. In Freaky Deaky he describes the ritual upchucking the morning after: “…being sick was part of waking up…cleaning up a bathroom looked like somebody’d been killing chickens in it.” Then, once the mess was cleaned, came the day’s first drink: “Vodka sitting on the toilet tank while you took a shower, something to hold you till the bars opened at seven.”
In 1977 he took his last drink and married for the second time to Joan Shepherd in 1979. When she died of lung cancer in 1992, Leonard, acknowledging that he “needed to be married,” found the woman who would become his third wife in his backyard. She was Christine Kent, who was in charge of the gardening crew that took care of his flower beds. He was taken by her knowledge of movies and books and eight months after his second wife’s passing they were married.
Leonard brought Christine to my house in June 1995 when I invited them to join an “O.J.” dinner my wife and I planned. This was during the O.J. Simpson trial and my wife was pretty into it. She’s a woman who doesn’t normally watch much television, but this trial altered her routine and I’d often find her sitting in front of the TV talking back to the lawyers or witnesses. We’d see Lawrence Schiller and Dominick Dunne at the trial—Schiller wrote Simpson’s I Want To Tell You book and would later write his own best-selling book about the trial; Dunne covered it for Vanity Fair—and since I knew both of them, I suggested we invite them for dinner, include Elmore Leonard since he made his living writing about bad guys, and see what we might learn of what was going on behind-the-scenes. When all three accepted I mentioned it to Diane Keaton when we spoke and she invited herself. “I want to hear what they have to say,” she said.