Glendon Swarthout

Larry King interviews Glendon Swarthout at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Phoenix, Arizona on 12/6/1985 during Larry King's national radio show tour.

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Born near Pinckney, Michigan, on the 8th of April, 1918, Glendon was the only child of Fred and Lila Swarthout, a banker and a homemaker.  Swarthout is a Dutch name from the area around Groningen, in the Netherlands, and his mother's maiden name was Chubb, from English farmers out of Yorkshire.  Glendon's academic career was stellar, especially in English, and his writing aspirations were encouraged, for he was a high school debate champ.  In math, however, he floundered, and only a kindly lady Geometry teacher passed him with a D so that he could graduate from Lowell High School.  He took accordion lessons and occupied his free time with books, for at 6', 99 lbs., sports weren't his forte.  The summer of his junior year he got a job playing his instrument in the resort town of Charlevoix, on Lake Michigan, with Jerry Schroeder and his Michigan State College Orchestra, for ten dollars a week. 

Graduating in 1935, he moved down to Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan and got into music more seriously, forming and singing lead for a four-piece band who played "hops" and three summers in a row at the Pantlind Hotel in Grand Rapids, the largest hotel in Michigan outside of Detroit.  He majored in English at the U. of M., pledged Chi Phi, and dated Kathryn Vaughn, who he had met when he was thirteen and she twelve, at her folks' cottage on Duck Lake, outside of Albion, Michigan.  They were married on December 28, 1940, after both had graduated from the U. of M. and Glendon was writing ad copy for Cadillac and Dow Chemicals at MacManus, John & Adams in Detroit.  After a year of that, Glendon  decided the way to become a writer was to see the world as a journalist. So he signed up twenty-two small newspapers and headed off with his bride on a small freighter for South America, sending home a weekly column of their adventures.  While in Barbados, they heard that Pearl Harbor had been bombed and tried immediately to get home, but it took them five roundabout months avoiding German U-boats to get up the  East coast to Manhattan.

Glendon was turned down for OCS due to still being lightweight at 117 lbs, so the couple both went to work at Willow Run, the new bomber plant outside of Ann Arbor.  Working long days as a riveter on B-24's, Glendon wrote his first novel at night in six months.  Willow Run, about people working in a bomber factory, was published after a rewrite to okay reviews, but Glendon realized it was a lousy book, unworthy of his budding talents.  He always acknowledged it as his training novel, though, a rite of passage all professional writers must go through. 

He was fit enough for an infantry company, however, as the war wore on, and shipped out for Naples as a replacement for the 3rd Division, Audie Murphy's already war-weary outfit.  Awaiting the Anzio breakout on the beach in Italy, he was called out of the line, for his Army ID labeled him a "writer" and Division headquarters was looking for one.  It was probably the luckiest break of his entire life.  The 3rd Division exploded out of Anzio and took Rome, and Glendon later landed in the second wave at St. Tropez and saw his only combat for six days with the Battle Patrol, the advance, probing troops of the division, getting eyewitness statements for a couple of posthumous Medals of Honor as the unit moved rapidly north into France.  When the famed 3rd was about to invade Germany, Glendon ruptured a   disc in his spine, unloading a truck.  He was shipped home a Sergeant and eventually discharged without surgery and suffered back pain for the rest of his life. He eventually underwent back surgery on two imploded spinal discs. 

In his post-war years, Glendon returned to the University of Michigan, earning a Master's and began to teach college.  His son was born and he won a Hopwood Award for $800 for another novel, promoting him to the University of Maryland for a couple of years where he ghosted Congressmen's speeches and wrote more unpublished fiction.  A six months' sabbatical in Mexico produced yet another novel which he also didn't find up to his rising standards, so he burned that manuscript to take a hot shower.  That autumn, he began teaching at Michigan State University and over eight years earned his Ph.D. in Victorian literature in 1955, while Kathryn got her Master's degree and a teaching certificate and commenced teaching 2nd grade. 

Glendon began to sell short stories to national publications like Cosmopolitan and Saturday Evening Post.  He was paid $2000 in 1955 for one of these stories, "A Horse For Mrs. Custer," which became a Randolph Scott low-budget Western for Columbia Pictures the following year (see Seventh Cavalry).  The day after he finished his last doctoral exam he started writing a novel called They Came To Cordura.  Its setting was Mexico in 1916 during the Pershing Expedition to capture Pancho Villa, and some of its fictional Cavalry troopers had been put up for Medals of Honor for their valor during the actual last mounted Cavalry charge the U. S. Army ever conducted.  The book was quickly sold to Random House and then to Columbia Pictures in 1958, becoming one of their major motion pictures starring Gary Cooper and Rita Hayworth a year later (see film listings).   This bestseller and the movie money enabled Glendon to become a professional writer at last.  He was thirty-nine years old.

Back at the typewriter, he completed another novel while still teaching Honors English at Michigan State.  Where The Boys Are was set on the Michigan State campus and was the first comic novel about the annual spring break invasion of the beaches of southern Florida by America's college kids with beers in hand and hormones raging.  MGM bought it immediately and that best-selling novel became the biggest grossing low-budget movie in that famous studio's history.  Glendon went on to write many more novels, some of which were made into films.  He worked on the screenplay of only one, They Came To Cordura, at Columbia Pictures in Los Angeles for six months, before moving the family out of freezing Michigan winters to the warmer climes of Arizona, where he continued to teach English at Arizona State University for four years before retiring to write full-time.  

Many of his novels were set in either Michigan or Arizona, and some utilized his war experiences, too.

Besides the films actually made from his novels, several others have also been sold for filming but never made, among them: The Eagle And The Iron Cross (Sam Spiegel, 1968), The Tin Lizzie Troop (Paul Newman, 1977), and The Homesman (Paul Newman, 1988), as well as a number of film options, now lapsed, on his many stories.  Besides a Hopwood Award and a Theatre Guild Award for his one play, Glendon was twice nominated by his publishers for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction (for They  Came To Cordura by Random House and Bless The Beasts & Children by Doubleday), received an O' Henry Prize Short Story nomination (in 1960 for "A Glass of Blessings"), a Gold Medal from the National Society of Arts and Letters in 1972, won Spur Awards for Best Western Novel of the Year from the Western Writers of America (for The Shootist and The Homesman), a Wrangler Award for Best Western Novel of 1988 for The Homesman from the Western Heritage Association, and finally the Western Writers' Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Achievement at the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City in June of 1991.

After a long, distinguished writing career, world travel, and fifty-one happy years of marriage in a loving family, Glendon Swarthout died at his home in Scottsdale, Arizona, on September 23, 1992, from emphysema due to his life-long smoking.  His great storytelling legacy will live on through late-night television and in libraries around the world. 

SIGNIFICANCE

Anyone born during the first quarter of the 20th century was inevitably marked by the great economic depression of the 1930's; then WW II, like all wars, profoundly and permanently changed society.  Both of these major influences color Glendon Swarthout's 16 novels, particularly those set in the Midwest.  Welcome To Thebes (1962) and Loveland (1968) and Pinch Me, I Must Be Dreaming (1994) depict how the problems of adults affect their children, especially youth trying to adapt to an adult world.  Although They Came To Cordura (1958) is set in Mexico at the time of the 1916 border dispute with Pancho Villa, its analysis of the roots of courage clearly grew out of Swarthout's wartime experiences.  Teaching freshman honors English classes gave Swarthout insight into the mating rituals of college students on the beaches of Ft. Lauderdale over spring break, and his hit Where The Boys Are (1960) definitely presaged the anti-war protests which erupted on American college campuses later in the decade.  A Christmas Gift (1977, also known as The Melodeon) is an exception to Glendon's other work in several respects.  It suggests a farewell tribute to his Michigan ancestors and his awareness of their tradition of understanding and concern for others.

With the conspicuous exception of A Christmas Gift, all of Swarthout's novels are infused with a sardonic spirit, usually in respect to examples of the cruelty and viciousness of which man is capable. His biggest bestseller, Bless the Beasts & Children is a good example of this distinguishing literary trait.  Another common theme running through his writings is his study of courage, the extraordinary heroism otherwise common, ordinary men are sometimes capable of, given the right circumstances.  In setting free a doomed herd of buffalo, the group of mentally disturbed teenagers in Beasts echo the valor under harrowing conditions Glendon learned about first-hand, writing and researching medal-of-honor citations among his fellow soldiers on the Italian front during WW II.  The tone of Swarthout's writing is fundamentally dispassionate, however, and written in a clear, linear, pictorial style, which is why so many of his stories adapted well to film.  Glendon was a great admirer of Somerset Maugham (studied along with Ernest Hemingway and Joyce Cary as part of his doctoral thesis in Literature) and humorist Charles Portis, whose influence is clear in his writing.

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