Black Mountain College, Black Mountain, NC 28711
Yale University, 38 Hillhouse Ave, New Haven, CT 06520
James Leo Herlihy (February 27, 1927 – October 21, 1993) was best known for his novel Midnight Cowboy (1965) made into a film by John Schlesinger. Herlihy’s agenda was the alienation engendered by the social and political machinery of modern America. His books and plays were peopled with derelicts dreamers and the displaced whose lives were recounted with a grim realism illuminated by humour sympathy and bursts of fantasy. Herlihy was a close friend of playwright Tennessee Williams, who served as his mentor. Both spent a significant amount of time in Key West, Florida. Like Williams, Herlihy had lived in New York City. Apart from Key West, the primary home of Herlihy was in the Silver Lake district of Los Angeles.
Midnight Cowboy tells the story of a naive Texan Joe Buck who migrates to New York in the hope of making a fortune as a gigolo servicing rich bored housewives. He falls in with Enrico “Ratso” Rizzo, a tubercular cripple, and the two form an unlikely alliance against the hardships of a New York winter without money or proper housing. But Ratso’s streetwise nous proves as unreliable as Buck’s sexual allure and together they sink into poverty apathy and illness.
Another fine novel by Herlihy also memorably filmed was All Fall Down (1960) which concerns the eccentric family of a retired socialist evangelist with a clairvoyant wife and a petty criminal elder son. The story is told through the eyes of the younger son, a truant who spends most of his time noting down overheard conversations and the rest in hero worship of his brother with whom he gets his first taste of sex, drugs, alcohol and cars.
A construction engineer’s son, James Leo Herlihy was born in Detroit on February 27, 1927, and raised in Detroit and Chillicothe, Ohio. He started to write scenes for his own puppet shows at the age of seven. Young Jim was educated at the John J. Pershing High School in Detroit before doing his National Service with the US Naval Reserve. He then decided to go to Black Mountain College in North Carolina: “Because I don’t like to play by the rules and the only one they have there forbids the possession of firearms on campus.” Two years later he joined the Pasadena Playhouse where his first play, Streetlight Sonata, was produced in 1950.
For most of the next decade Herlihy worked as an actor on the West Coast writing in his spare time and keeping afloat with a series of such jobs as soda-dispenser, snake exhibitor, and picnic plate wrapper.
He became an RCA fellow at Yale Drama School in 1956 and his first Broadway play, Blue Denim, opened two years later on Broadway. It dealt with a pair of adolescent lovers facing pregnancy and abortion and was made into a film the following year. He directed actress Tallulah Bankhead in a touring production of his play Crazy October in 1959.
One of his first books to receive critical attention was a collection of short stories, The Sleep of Baby Filbertson (1959). The hero of the title story was a grossly fat spoiled 19-year-old whose overprotective but unloving mother makes him share in her barbiturate addiction as they travel around America.
All Fall Down was published in 1960 to considerable critical acclaim.
Herlihy appeared as a guest star in "A Bunch of Lonely Pagliaccis," a 1962 episode of the TV series Route 66. He acted in the movie In the French Style (1963) with Jean Seberg. Herlihy also acted in Edward Albee's play The Zoo Story in 1963 in Boston and Paris.
From time to time Herlihy returned to the stage as an actor. In 1963 he starred in Edward Albee's play The Zoo Story in 1963 in Boston and Paris.
Midnight Cowboy came out in 1965 and two years later another collection of short fiction, A Story That Ends with a Scream.
According to author Sean Egan in his biography of James Kirkwood Jr., Ponies & Rainbows, Herlihy co-wrote the play Utbu (Unhealthy To Be Unpleasant): A Play In Two Acts (1966) with Kirkwood but demanded his name be taken off the credits.
His short stories were collected in A Story That Ends in a Scream and Eight Others (1967), a collection which included plays.
In 1968, Herlihy signed the "Writers and Editors War Tax Protest" pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments as a protest against the Vietnam War. He later also became a sponsor of the War Tax Resistance project, which practiced and advocated tax resistance as a form of protest against the war.
Herlihy had a number of small film roles notably In the French Style (1968).
Three of his one-act plays, titled collectively Stop, You're Killing Me were presented by the Theater Company of Boston in 1969.
Herlihy’s third novel The Season of the Witch (1971) chronicled the experiences of a teenage girl and her bisexual boyfriend who join a commune and seek escape in a haze of pot smoke. It was his last novel, he declared. Taking up the antiestablishment causes of the 1970s he turned to peace campaigning making occasional television reports and short documentary films criticising the government.
Some of his plays were produced in London including (at the Soho Theatre in 1970) Bad Bad Jo-Jo, the story of a megalomaniac writer who is duped and then murdered by an enemy posing as a fan. Another short play, Terrible Jim Fitch, was produced by BBC2 in its 30-Minute Theatre slot in 1971 starring Nicol Williamson and Marianne Faithfull.
Herlihy acted in the 1982 film Four Friends directed by Arthur Penn
Though serious and politically committed, James Leo Herlihy was no slave to his art: “Writing can be a poison,” he said, “if you can’t enjoy just living.”
Herlihy committed suicide at the age of 66, after taking an overdose of sleeping pills in Los Angeles.
My published books:
BACK TO HOME PAGE