STEPHEN MACK JONES: THE PRINCE AND THE POSER
Updated: Nov 22, 2021
I was gobsmacked when he said this. Left reeling from such a stunning and profoundly insipid question. We had been friends for several years; talking in deliberately cagey ways about our side-hustle writing, trading quips that might soon became character dialog, exchanging agent and publishing info/rumors and snobby ruminations on bourbon. Hours passed as we geeked out on “definitive canon” episodes of Star Trek: Discovery, The Mandalorian, or old episodes of The Rockford Files, Columbo, or Spenser: For Hire.
But now . . .
. . . now, I was shaken to my core by his seemingly innocent question.
“Really?” my now ex-friend said, genuinely surprised by my assertion. “Elmore Leonard was from Detroit?”
The horror . . . the horror!
Yes, Elmore Leonard was from The D! Oh, sure—he may have been born in the “Crescent City” (New Orleans), but his roots run deep and damned strong in the fertile noir soil of the “Motor City.” The very same man who graduated from University of Detroit Jesuit High School and University of Detroit and who wrote Westerns at night after writing Chevrolet commercials for Campbell Ewald Advertising Agency by day. Yeah. That Elmore “Dutch” Leonard! The same guy who gave you classic Westerns like 3:10 to Yuma, Hombre, and Joe Kidd. For decades, he made his home in the bucolic suburb of Birmingham, Michigan, a short fifteen miles northwest of The D (thirty minutes by car if, for whatever reason, you decided to drive the stop-light-littered length of Woodward Avenue north from the towering glass cylinders of General Motors Global Headquarters).
Legend has it his writing discipline was both astounding and endearingly blue collar for its workman-like commitment. Not to say there was anything production-line assembly about it. No. His writing was his job—and in Detroit, you show up for your job. On time. Every time. So the story goes, Leonard would toddle off to his kitchen in the wee hours of the morning, making himself a thermos of coffee and a sandwich wrapped in wax paper. Then, he would head off to write—longhand on yellow legal pads! At noon, he would unwrap his sandwich, pour himself another cup of coffee and stare out at his garden. Forty-minutes later, he was back to the business of giving you his best in Glitz, Killshot, Get Shorty, Freaky Deaky, Out of Sight, Be Cool and a host of other enviable crime fiction reads.
A well-known, immensely talented, and highly respected NYC newspaper columnist and novelist once told me Leonard had extended an invitation to him for a lunchtime bite to eat. The lunch consisted of a bag of microwaved popcorn, slid between them on Leonard’s kitchen island. And when the popcorn was gone, well, it was as if a shop whistle had blown, signaling Leonard back to his pen and legal pads.
Hollywood often depended on Leonard to boost star-powered employment and box-office revenues.
Ask John Travolta, George Clooney, Jennifer Lopez, Robert De Niro, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Cedric the Entertainer, or Justified’s Timothy “Raylon Givens” Olyphant.
Leonard wasn’t simply a prince in the pantheon of noir. He was The King, baby!
I finally got my bearings after my ex-friend’s disbelieving question of Elmore Leonard’s long and enviably productive life in Michigan and said, “So, I guess I shouldn’t bring up geniuses like Loren Estleman then, huh? Or Steve Hamilton? Or Karen Dionne? Or the incomparable Jim Harrison?”
“Wow,” this poser-of-a-friend said. “So, I guess a few great writers do come out of Michigan—”
“Yeah!” I said. “Lots of great writers, sir! A lot!”
If memory serves, fed up, I told my recently banished friend that the depth and breadth of his ignorance was more than I could bear. (Not to mention, you simply don’t wear a Superman t-shirt with Henry Cavill as Superman when everybody knows the real Man of Steel will forever be Christopher Reeves!) I ended by telling him maybe he should stop being a poser and just go back to teaching his stupid little doctoral classes in theoretical particle physics.
Some people, man . . .
Just in case you’re curious, Elmore Leonard’s son, Peter, continued the adventure of his father’s stylish US Marshall Raylon Givens in 2018’s Raylan Goes to Detroit, of which Carl Hiaasen (Squeeze Me) said, “Clearly, great storytelling runs deep in the Leonard family.” August is a big fan . . .