Herlihy, James Leo

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HERLIHY, James Leo

(b. 27 February 1927 in Detroit, Michigan; d. 21 October 1993 in Los Angeles, California), author and playwright whose stories, novels, and plays, including Blue Denim (1958) and Midnight Cowboy (1965), were populated with derelicts, grotesques, and unfortunates.

Herlihy was one of five children of William Francis Herlihy, a city engineer, and Grace Elizabeth Oberer, a homemaker. Herlihy became interested in writing at the age of seven. While attending John J. Pershing High School in Detroit, he began writing short stories. After graduating in 1945, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy, receiving his overseas orders just two days before the end of World War II. From 1947 to 1948 he studied sculpture, painting, music, and literature at Black Mountain College, a small, experimental institution in North Carolina whose faculty included the dancer Merce Cunningham, the artist William De Kooning, and other innovative figures in the arts. From 1948 to 1950 he attended the Pasadena Playhouse College of Theatre Arts in Pasadena, California, where he wrote and acted.

As an actor, Herlihy appeared in approximately fifty roles in West Coast theaters between 1948 and 1953. He made a striking actor—six feet tall, 162 pounds with brown hair, blue eyes, and regular features. He was an avid swimmer. His friends, including writers Anaïs Nin and William Goyen, called him Jamie.

Herlihy's early plays include Streetlight Sonata (1950), Moon in Capricorn (1953), Crazy October (1958), A Breeze from China (1958), and with William Noble, Blue Denim (1958). As its title indicates, the latter concerns youths and rebellion—blue jeans and sweatshirts being the school uniform of the day. The play concerns a dysfunctional family in Detroit—an ex-military father who drinks and does not attempt to understand his son; the son, who prefers to spend his time in the basement; a rebellious daughter; and an ineffectual mother. The son Arthur falls in love with a girl, Janet, who convinces him he is someone special. The crux of the play is when Janet gets pregnant and has an abortion. The play featured the film actor Chester Morris as the father, and was made into a film in 1959.

Between 1953 and 1958 Herlihy wrote television scripts. He published his first collection of short stories, The Sleep of Baby Filbertson and Other Stories, in 1959. But it was as a novelist that he most distinguished himself. His first novel, All Fall Down (1960), was about another dysfunctional family, this time located in Cleveland. The novel bore an epigraph from the American novelist and short-story writer Sherwood Anderson, and Herlihy's characters resembled Anderson's grotesques as well as reflecting Anderson's feeling for place. All Fall Down was stylistically distinctive, shifting from narration and dialog to sample pages taken from the younger brother's notebook, a compendium of everything he hears, most of what he thinks, and copies of his mother's correspondence. In 1962 the novel was made into a film, starring Warren Beatty as the older brother and Eva Marie Saint as the mother. In 1963 Herlihy returned to acting, appearing in the role of Jerry in the Boston and Paris productions of Edward Albee's Zoo Story.

Herlihy's second novel, published in 1965, firmly established his place as a novelist. Midnight Cowboy was a departure from his concentration on the American Midwest and the Andersonian style. This time Herlihy explored the neon nightmare world of the big city and the lives of two street people who become friends, Joe Buck from Houston and a physically handicapped swindler, Ratso Rizzo from the Bronx. One source of the novel's interest is the way it moves between Joe Buck's thoughts and expectations and the actual situation. Eventually Joe Buck comes to an insight almost too momentous to acknowledge: "He was a nothing person, a person of no time and no place and no worth to anyone at all." This self-awareness parallels the son Arthur's feelings in Blue Denim. But just as Arthur is redeemed by Janet's belief in him, Joe Buck finds redemption and self-esteem in his attempt to save Ratso's health and life.

Midnight Cowboy was made into a film in 1969, featuring Jon Voight as Joe and Dustin Hoffman as Ratso, with a stellar supporting role played by Sylvia Miles. Directed by John Schlesinger, the movie won the Academy Award for best picture of the year—the first X-rated film to do so. Herlihy had reservations about the film. Voight and Hoffman in no way physically resembled his novel's characters, and Herlihy objected to a popcorn explosion sequence in a movie house that was supposed to parallel Joe Buck's orgasm in the balcony. The scene was not in the novel; indeed, the orgasm took place on a city rooftop. But both book and film portray the poverty and desperation of street people and deal with male prostitution in a way not possible before the 1960s.

Herlihy had published his second collection of short fiction in 1967, A Story That Ends with a Scream and Eight Others. In 1970 Stop, You're Killing Me, a production of three plays—Laughs, Etc., Terrible Jim Fitch, and Bad Bad Jo-Jo—had a run in New York. His last novel, The Season of the Witch, was published in 1971. Herlihy claimed it was written after a seven-year immersion in the so-called "youth culture." It involved draft evasion, homosexuality, the mores of the love generation, and American Diaspora. According to one critic, it was "the first reliable rendering of the New Consciousness," which, "with all its in-group fads, nonce words, and distractions, is still an essentially human and attractive one."

Herlihy taught playwriting at City College of the City University of New York from 1967 to 1968, and was a distinguished visiting professor at the University of Arkansas (1983). He also taught at other schools, including Colorado College and the University of Southern California. In 1981 he appeared in the film Four Friends, directed by Arthur Penn.

In 1980 Herlihy's partner Bill Lord died, an early victim of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). In the following years Herlihy gave hospice to many close friends who had the same disease. In the early 1990s he found he himself had AIDS. He died of a deliberate overdose of sleeping pills at his home in the Silverlake neighborhood of Los Angeles, just one year before the drug treatment known as the AIDS cocktail became available. Herlihy's greatest contribution to the 1960s was his depiction of the alienation of young Americans.

The James Leo Herlihy Papers (1959–1986) are in the Special Collections Department, University of Delaware Library. The collection contains manuscripts, correspondence, notes, and theater memorabilia. Obituaries are in the New York Times (22 Oct. 1993) and the San Francisco Chronicle (23 Oct. 1993).

Robert Phillips

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