Louis L'Amour (1908-1988) was a prolific western writer who once said "I write my books to be read aloud and I think of myself in that oral tradition." He wrote over 400 short stories and 100 novels, as well as numerous television scripts and screenplays. His books have been translated into 10 languages. At the time of his death in 1988, there were over 200 million copies of his books in print.
Louis Dearborn LaMoore was born in Jamestown, North Dakota in 1908, the youngest of seven children. His father, Louis Charles LaMoore, was a veterinarian and enjoyed sports, especially boxing, which he taught his three sons. His mother, Emily Dearborn LaMoore, had been trained as a teacher before her marriage, and loved to read and tell both family and western stories to her children. As a boy, he heard stories of the family's French-Irish forefathers, rugged westward-moving frontiersmen and women whose roots in America could be traced back to the early 1600s. His grandfather had fought in the Civil War and his great-grandfather, had been scalped by the Sioux. These stories laid the foundation for his interest in westerns. When the family moved to Oklahoma in 1923, young Louis left school at the age of 15, to work and travel. He also changed the spelling of his surname back to its original form, from LaMoore to L'Amour.
During what he later referred to as his "yondering" years, L'Amour went through an incredibly varied series of jobs and experiences. He joined the circus and became an elephant handler, he worked as a fruit picker, a gold prospector, a longshoreman, a lumberjack, and a miner. He skinned cattle in Texas, lived with bandits in Tibet, and served on an East African schooner. He was an avid reader and collector of rare books. He also boxed professionally and won 51 out of 59 matches.
Began Writing Career
L'Amour returned to his family's home in Choctaw, Oklahoma briefly in the late 1930s to pursue his dream of a writing career. As he once said, he "wanted to write from the time I could walk." Since 1816, 33 members of his family had been writers, and he was confident he could do it as well. He hung around the University of Oklahoma during this time and some of the faculty members recommended books to him. "I read Balzac, Victor Hugo and Dumas before I ever read Zane Grey," he once told a reporter.
L'Amour sold his first short story, "Anything for a Pal," to True Gang Life magazine in 1935. A small publisher in Oklahoma published a book of L'Amour's poetry, Smoke from This Altar, in 1939. World War II interrupted his plans. He entered the army as a tank officer in the transportation corps in 1942. The mission of his unit was to destroy enemy transportation in France and Germany.
After his honorable discharge from the army in 1946, L'Amour settled down in Los Angeles to write. He published short stories between 1946 and 1950, including some detective and adventure fiction for pulp magazines. While he had not planned to write westerns in particular, he found that he sold more work to western magazines than to the others. He wrote several western stories for Standard Publications' pulp chain under the pen name, "Jim Mayo." He also contributed short stories to Collier's, the Saturday Evening Post, and Argosy.
In 1950, L'Amour wrote four Hopalong Cassidy novels under the pen name Tex Burns under a work-for-hire agreement with Doubleday. A man named Clarence Mulford had written the original 28 Hopalong books between 1907 and 1941, and handpicked L'Amour to be his successor. L'Amour long denied having written the Hopalong Cassidy novels because they weren't his idea; they were just books he wrote because he needed the money. The pen name was the publisher's suggestion. The truth finally came out in June 1991, when the author's family released The Rustlers of West Fork, published by Bantam. The other three Hopalong books were to follow before the year 2000.
First Novel Published
His first novel, Hondo, was published in 1953 by Fawcett Books. It was based on his short story, "The Gift of Cochise," which had run in Colliers in 1952. It was his most popular book, selling 1.5 million copies. John Wayne purchased the movie rights and starred in the film as well. Fawcett also contracted L'Amour for future western novels. In 1962, Wayne also starred in How the West Was Won. Over 45 of L'Amours novels and short stories were made into feature films or television movies. Among them were Stranger on Horseback, (1955) starring Joel McCrea, The Burning Hills, (1956) starring Tab Hunter and Natalie Wood, and Shalako, (1968) starring Brigitte Bardot and Sean Connery.
In 1955, L'Amour signed a contract for two books per year with Bantam. The company later extended it to three books. From then on, he wrote three books a year until the very end of his life. He researched—and actually traveled to—the locations he wrote about in his books and he would study the people who lived there, even describing the way they talked and the food they ate. L'Amour once said, "I go to an area I'm interested in and I try to find a guy who knows it better than anyone else. Usually it's some broken-down cowboy." He also researched the legends of the old West, not only in books, but through oral history. "I've known five men and two women who knew Billy the Kid well. I talked to the woman who prepared his body for burial."
A Style All His Own
Though he lived most of the year in Los Angeles until his death in 1988, L'Amour also purchased some of the land about which he wrote. He purchased Maggie Rock, along with most of the 1,800 acre Colorado ranch surrounding it, in 1983. L'Amour had a personal library that contained over 10,000 books that he referred to frequently. He was especially interested in history and archaeology. L'Amour believed that his books could instruct his readers as well as entertain them. "The best writing is the simplest writing," he told Richard Louv of the San Diego Tribune in 1988. "If you can read something and it's so simple and clear that you think you could write it better, you can bet you can't."
The typical L'Amour hero was much like the author in the days of his youth: an adventuresome young man with a lot of spirit. The stories alluded to the far-off, long-ago days when right and wrong were clear, and heroes and villains were just as distinguishable. L'Amour looked like the cowboys he wrote about, which is not surprising, as he immersed himself in the lifestyle. He often dressed the western part, with hand-tooled boots, ten-gallon hats, and braided-leather bolo ties. He was a loner, who loved to travel as much as he loved to read.
When L'Amour passed away, Stuart Applebaum, his editor at Bantam, told the Los Angeles Times, "His readers felt that he had walked the land his characters did. His stories were as authentic as a textbook, but a hell of a lot more entertaining to read. That combination of story-telling magic and unbeatable authenticity in background, place and time made his fans await eagerly each new book."
On February 19, 1956, he married Katherine Elizabeth Adams. At the time, he was establishing his career and she was a young actress who had played a few roles in the theatre and had made a few television appearances. Kathy L'Amour gave up her career to travel with her husband and serve as his personal assistant. "I feel that the most rewarding, the most adventurous, the most exciting, the most fun thing I ever did in my life was to marry Louis," she told the Los Angeles Daily News in 1993. The couple had a son, Beau Dearborn in 1961, and a daughter Angelique Gabrielle in 1964.
In 1960, L'Amour began a series about a family. The Daybreakers was the first novel in the Sackett family saga. The books followed the fictional family through several generations and across the U.S. frontier from the 1600s to the 1900s. The Sacketts was the first adaption of L'Amour's work for television, and aired as a miniseries in 1979. There were 18 Sackett novels in all.
Top Fiction Writer
By the mid-1970s, L'Amour was outselling popular authors like John Steinbeck and James Michener, and had won several awards as well. In 1969, he won the Golden Spur Award from the Western Writers of America for Down the Long Hills. In 1972, the state of North Dakota presented him with the Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award. The Western Writers of America considered Hondo and Flint to be among the top 25 western novels of all time. In 1981, he was given the Golden Saddleman Award by the Western Writers of America for his contributions to the genre.
Fans of his novels included U.S. Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan. In fact, it was President Reagan who presented L'Amour with the Congressional Gold Medal in 1982. L'Amour joined the ranks of others like Charles A. Lindbergh, Thomas A. Edison, Marian Anderson, and Dr. Jonas Salk, who had also won the award. In 1984, President Reagan also presented L'Amour with the Medal of Freedom. He is the only novelist in the United States to have won both the Congressional Gold Medal and the Medal of Freedom.
L'Amour began experimenting with fiction set in different locales. In 1984, he wrote The Walking Drum, a novel set in medieval Europe and inspired by Celtic folklore. In 1987, he wrote The Haunted Mesa, which explored the fate of the Anasazi, an ancient cliff-dwelling race who inhabited the American Southwest before the Navajo, and vanished long before the white man came to the area. The Last of the Breed, (1986) concerned a Native American pilot shot down over Siberia.
Popularity Continued After His Death
Although he was a non-smoker, L'Amour died of lung cancer in Los Angeles on June 10, 1988. His doctor thought the cancer may have resulted from exposure to harmful dust when he worked as a coal miner. His editor at Bantam Books noted that just a few hours before his death, he was proofreading his autobiography, Education of a Wandering Man.
L'Amour's popularity continued into the 1990s, when many of his books were published posthumously, including Lonigan, a short story collection and The Sackett Companion, which recounted the research his did in writing about the fictional clan. The publisher Dell developed the Louis L'Amour Western Magazine, a bi-monthly publication featuring the works of new western writers. The late 1990s saw the publication of two short story collections, Monument Rock, (1998) and Beyond the Great Snow Mountains, (1999).
As president of Louis L'Amour Enterprises, his wife continued to keep the L'Amour empire thriving, with the help of their children. Son Beau takes care of the audiovisual side of the business, including a radio show, BDD audio editions and film rights. The family planned to release new books from L'Amour's old manuscripts through the year 2000. They also started an upscale book club, the Louis L'Amour Collection, which offers leather-bound editions of his works. His books still sell millions of copies per year.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, June 13, 1988.
Booklist, April 15, 1999.
Chicago Tribune, June 13, 1988.
Houston Chronicle, June 9, 1991.
Los Angeles Daily News, June 13, 1993.
Los Angeles Times, June 13, 1988.
Los Angeles Times Magazine, November 8, 1998.
Orange County Register, June 13, 1988.
Plain Dealer (Cleveland) April 13, 1994.
San Diego Union-Tribune, June 26, 1988.
San Francisco Chronicle, June 13, 1988.
St. Petersburg Times, June 13, 1988.
USA Today, May 26, 1987.
"The Official Louis L'Amour Website -Biography," Random House, Inc.,http://www.randomhouse.com/features/louislamour/biography.html (October 27, 1999).
"Louis L'Amour (1908-1988) -the Un-Official Tribute Site, "Unofficial Louis L'Amour Tribute Website,http://louislamour-fan.com/ (October 27, 1999). □