The Boston Globe: A Reading Life
The unclassifiable Leigh Brackett
It's 1944, and Howard Hawks has just hired William Faulkner to write the screenplay for Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep. Thinking about who to bring on as collaborator, he remembers reading an outstanding hardboiled novel titled No Good from a Corpse. "Get me that Brackett guy," he tells an assistant. Surprised when an attractive young woman shows up, he hires her anyway, beginning a long relationship.
But it gets better.
When Humphrey Bogart got his copy of the script, feeling that some of his dialogue was too gentlemanly, went to Brackett to discuss it with her, he found that the parts he disliked had been written not by Brackett as he assumed but by Faulkner. The good stuff was hers.
Brackett would go on to write Rio Bravo for Hawks, in collaboration with Jules Furthman, who had polished the script for The Big Sleep. She followed up with two other John Wayne vehicles for Hawks, Hatari! and El Dorado. In the early 70s she was tapped by Robert Altman to do a script for his remake of Chandler's The Long Goodbye. Months before she died in 1978 at the age of 62, she turned in the draft of the screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back, the film of which was dedicated to her.
In between, Brackett wrote further mystery novels such as An Eye for an Eye, The Tiger Among Us and Silent Partner as well as numerous mystery short stories; further scripts and screenplays including two episodes of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents"; a novelization of Rio Bravo and a highly original Western about mountain man Jim Beckwourth, Follow the Free Wind, that won the Spur Award from the Western Writers of America. A brace of the mystery stories have been collected, along with No Good from a Corpse, by Dennis McMillan in an elegant hardback named for the novel (Dennis McMillan Publications: Tucson, AZ, 564 pp., $35).
But Leigh Brackett, first and foremost, was a writer and lover of fantasy and science fiction.
Her first published story came in 1939, in legendary editor John Campbell's Astounding Science Fiction. Its title is recalled in an anthology of twenty stories released last year, Martian Quest: The Early Brackett (Haffner Press: Royal Oak, MI, 478 pp., $40). The story, like many others, shows the powerful influence of Edgar Rice Burroughs, especially his John Carter of Mars stories, and of lifelong friend and mentor Henry Kuttner. Interestingly enough also, in light of Brackett's later achievements in the Western, it's virtually a transliteration. A stranger with a mysterious past rides in from off planet to a farming community in the reclaimed Martian desert, meets a fine woman, encounters distrust and rejection, solves the community's deadly problem and saves all.
Throughout her life Brackett would return again and again to imaginative literature, producing some dozen novels, among them Shadow Over Mars, The Starmen, The Sword of Rhiannon, The Big Jump (this one packaged as an Ace Double with Philip K. Dick's first novel, Solar Lottery), The Ginger Star and its sequels, and the instantly-acknowledged classic The Long Tomorrow, telling the story of a rural, religious-based culture that develops following destruction of the cities in nuclear war. Two collections also appeared. The Halfling and Other Stories came from Ace Books in 1973. And from Doubleday in 1977, the year before Brackett's death, came The Best of Leigh Brackett, edited by husband Edmond Hamilton — paired with Brackett's own editing of The Best of Edmond Hamilton.
The couple had married in 1946, moving four years later from Southern California to an abandoned farmhouse without electricty and with only a well for water outside Kinsman, Ohio. Brackett's first novel, The Starmen, came from pioneering sf publisher Gnome Press in 1952; a year later, her most popular novel, The Sword of Rhiannon (backed by Robert E. Howard's Conan the Conqueror), issued from Ace. In this same period she published well over a dozen new stories in Astounding, Planet Stories, Startling Stories and other science fiction pulps.
While Hamilton, a prolific writer whose career began in 1926, had branched out to write for such comic books as Superman and Batman, he continued turning out space opera novels (The Sun Smasher, Quest Beyond the Stars) and celebrated short stories such as "Fessenden's World" and "What's It Like Out There?"
In his introduction to The Best of Leigh Brackett, Hamilton wrote of the time before his wife's return to Hollywood to write Rio Lobo:
"I have always admired the ease with which Leigh can move from one kind of fiction to a completely different kind. In eighteen months, in 1956-57, she wrote not only The Long Tomorrow but also two novels of crime and suspense, The Tiger Among Us, which became an Alan Ladd movie, and An Eye for an Eye, which formed the pilot for the 'Markham' series on television."
In October, 1977, Robin Smiley published a wonderful feature on Leigh Brackett in his excellent Firsts: The Book Collector's Magazine (P.O. Box 65166, Tucson, AZ 85728). It's to Robin that I owe much of the information herein, but it's to Michael Moorcock that I want to give the final word. Mike became a fulltime writer for comics and pulps while still in his teens, met Leigh Brackett and Edmond Hamilton not too terribly long after, and, while authoring close to a hundred books including the vastly influential Elric series, went on to become not only the strongest influence on the 60s New Wave that so revolutionized science fiction but also, with novels such as Mother London and his Pyatt series, a major contemporary novelist.
In a memoir about Leigh Brackett reprinted in Martian Quest, Mike writes:
"With Catherine Moore, Judith Merril and Cele Goldsmith, Leigh Brackett is one of the true godmothers of the New Wave. Anyone who thinks they're pinching one of my ideas is probably pinching one of hers."
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