350 W 60th St, Chicago, IL 60621
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Cementerio Municipal La Leona, Ayuntamiento, Carolina, 62190 Cuernavaca, Mor., Mexico
Willard Francis Motley (July 14, 1909 – March 4, 1965) was an African-American author. Motley published a column in the Chicago Defender under the pen-name Bud Billiken. Motley also worked as a freelance writer, and later founded and published the Hull House Magazine and worked in the Federal Writers Project. Motley's first and best known novel was Knock on Any Door, which was made into a movie by the same name (1947). Perhaps the longest-running gay correspondence in the Ted Pierce papers is the one between Pierce and Willard Motley.
Motley was born and grew up in the Englewood neighborhood, South Side, Chicago, in one of the few African-American families residing there. His father was a Pullman porter. Motley graduated from Lewis-Champlain grammar school, and Englewood High School, on Chicago’s South Side, where he played football. He is related to the noted artist Archibald Motley. The two were raised as brothers, although Archibald was in fact Willard's uncle.
Motley moved to Madison hoping to go to the university. However, his dream could not be realized because his funds were too low, and at 135 pounds he did not make the football team. Yet he did meet Ted Pierce. Over the years, Motley would visit Pierce in Madison and often went to UW football games on those weekends.
He was hired by Robert S. Abbott to write a children's column called "Bud Says" under the pseudonym "Bud Billiken", for the Chicago Defender. He traveled to New York, California and the western states, earning a living through various menial jobs, as well as by writing for the radio and newspapers. Returning to Chicago in 1939, he lived near the Maxwell Street Market, which was to figure prominently in his later writing. He became associated with Hull House, and helped found the Hull House Magazine, in which some of his fiction appeared. In 1940 he wrote for the Works Progress Administration Federal Writers Project along with Richard Wright and Nelson Algren. In 1947 his first novel, Knock on Any Door, appeared to critical acclaim. A work of gritty naturalism, it concerns the life of Nick Romano, an Italian-American altar boy who turns to crime because of poverty and the difficulties of the immigrant experience, who says the famous phrase "Live fast, die young and have a good-looking corpse!" It was an immediate hit, selling 47,000 copies during its first three weeks in print. Motley’s 1947 novel Knock on Any Door, dealing with juvenile delinquency, was set in part on Chicago’s skid row, where the hero, though supposedly not gay, makes money through sex with men. It also became a movie in 1949 starring John Derek and Humphrey Bogart, but Motley did not like it, nor did the critics. In response to critics who charged Motley with avoiding issues of race by writing about white characters, Motley said, "My race is the human race."
by Carl Van Vechten
His second novel, We Fished All Night, was not hailed as a success, and after it appeared Motley moved to Mexico to start over. His third novel, Let No Man Write My Epitaph, picks up the story of Knock on Any Door. Columbia Pictures made it into a movie in 1960. Ella Fitzgerald's music for the film was released on the album Ella Fitzgerald Sings Songs from "Let No Man Write My Epitaph".
Motley wished to explore homosexuality more explicitly in his work. In a 1960 letter to his agent, he said, “For three or four years I have been considering writing a homosexual book and have taken a lot of notes.” Motley critiqued Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar as a gay novel on the grounds that in the end the protagonist kills his friend “because the friend has called him a queer when the homo made a pass at him.” Motley died in 1965, and never wrote the book.
On March 4, 1965, Motley died in Mexico City, Mexico at age 55. One final novel, Let Noon Be Fair, was published the following year. Since 1929, Chicago has held an annual Bud Billiken Parade and Picnic, (which served as his pen name during his early career at the Chicago Defender) on the second Saturday of August. The parade travels through the city's Bronzeville, Grand Boulevard and Washington Park neighborhoods on the south side. The bulk of Motley's archive is held in Rare Books and Special Collections at Northern Illinois University.
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