Brackett, Leigh (1915–1978)
Brackett, Leigh (1915–1978)
American author and screenwriter who was dubbed the "Queen of Space Opera" for her contribution to the science-fiction genre. Name variations: George Sanders, a pseudonym used for the mystery novel Stranger at Home. Pronunciation: Lee BRACK-it.
Born Leigh Douglass Brackett on December 7, 1915, in Los Angeles, California; died on March 18, 1978, at age 63; only child of Margaret (Douglass) Brackett and William Franklin Brackett (a certified public accountant); attended private girls' schools; completed four years of high school in three years and refused a college scholarship; married Edmond Hamilton (a science-fiction writer), on January 1, 1947 (died 1977); no children.
Discovered fantasy-science fiction by reading E.R. Burroughs' The Gods of Mars "on or about" her eighth year; began writing and submitting novels to editors (1928); sold first story to Astounding (1939); published first full-length novel, the mystery No Good from a Corpse (1944); collaborated with William Faulkner on screenplay of The Big Sleep (1944); won 1963 Silver Spur Award from the Western Writers of America for Follow the Free Wind, the only western she wrote; was working on the screenplay for George Lucas' Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back when she died (1978).
No Good from a Corpse (NY: Coward-McCann, 1944); (mystery) Stranger at Home (NY: Simon and Schuster, 1946); The Sword of Rhiannon (NY: Ace Books, 1953); The Galactic Breed (NY: Ace Books, 1955); The Long Tomorrow (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1955); The Tiger among Us (Garden City: Doubleday, 1957); Rio Bravo (NY: Bantam Books, 1959); The Nemesis From Terra (NY: Ace Books, 1961); Follow the Free Wind (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1963); People of the Talisman and The Secret of Sinharat (NY: Ace Books, 1964); The Coming of the Terrans (NY: Ace Books, 1967); The Ginger Star (NY: Ballantine Books, 1974); The Best of Planet Stories No. 1 (NY: Ballantine Books, 1975); (trilogy) The Book of Skaith (Garden City, NY: Nelson Doubleday, 1976); (edited by Edmond Hamilton) The Best of Leigh Brackett (Garden City, NY: Nelson Doubleday, 1977).
In 1939, Leigh Brackett was 23 when she sold her first story, "The Martian Quest," to Astounding. Most of her tales were published not in book form but in "the Pulps," magazines—like Astounding, Startling Stories, and Planet Stories—which were the lifeblood of an American subculture of science fiction and fantasy. Through these publications, authors enjoyed a highly interactive relationship with the fans who read their stories, and, largely due to this alliance, science fiction developed throughout the mid-20th century into a specialized genre with particular tenets and traditions. Leigh Brackett was at her most successful and prolific during the height of this literary renaissance, from 1939 to 1974, publishing over 50 stories in more than 13 magazines. She was so much a part of the scifi world that Brackett's fans adoringly named her the "Queen of Space Opera," and her work would help shape the genre.
Born in Los Angeles, California, on December 7, 1915, Brackett was the first and only child of Margaret Douglass Brackett and William Franklin Brackett, a certified public accountant and amateur writer. When Leigh was not yet three years old, her father died at age 30, a victim of the 1918 flu epidemic. After his death, she and her mother moved to the beach area of Los Angeles, into the home of Brackett's maternal grandparents. Though they did not get along well when Brackett was very young, Brackett's relationship with her grandfather, Archibald Douglass, mellowed into a happy one; he served in loco parentis, offered his support by providing a home that she loved, and would later underwrite her budding career until it took off in her mid-20s.
Although she spent most of her childhood at her grandparents' home at the beach, Brackett did a good deal of traveling. During visits with wealthy relatives in San Francisco, she was introduced to the American upper class, which she met with some distaste. Her Great Aunt Sarah took Leigh and Margaret Brackett on trips around much of the country; still, Leigh preferred the beach. "The company of Ladies can become trying," wrote Brackett in Speaking of Science Fiction, "especially when one's own feet and hands grow too large and capable, and one's skin lacks that transparent pallor. I just never made it in that league. Druther go fishing." If not fishing, Brackett was reading, writing, swimming, or acting, living an active physical life atypical of the women in her family. She would later tell Juanita Roderick and Hugh G. Earnhart in a 1975 interview:
I guess that I was liberated on the day I was born, because my mother was a feminine, helpless little person and all the women of my family were professional ladies with a capital "L." A lady never did anything for herself; somebody always did it for her. They looked down on me a great deal because I was big and husky and active, running up and down the beach, playing with the boys and doing things. Oh, goodness, I got so many lectures. I think I was just the opposite type, that's all, and possibly became even more opposite because I so despised their attitude. I thought it was ridiculous.
In several of her autobiographical accounts, Brackett tells of her first reading of Edgar Rice Burroughs' science-fiction classic The Gods of Mars. This was her first encounter, at about age eight, with space. "Suddenly, at one blazing stroke, the veil was rent and I had a glimpse of the cosmos," she later wrote. "I cannot tell you what a tremendous effect that idea of Mars, another planet, a strange world, had on my imagination." The impact of The Gods of Mars would remain with Brackett her entire life, and she would write many stories set on that planet.
Brackett attended private girls' schools from grammar level to high school, where she was taught by Catholic nuns. An avid reader, she was an erratic student who excelled only when interested in the subject. Her attitude about herself as an autonomous person—equal to all others regardless of gender—was cultivated and strengthened by her teachers. Writes Rosemarie Arbur in her essay Leigh Brackett: No "Long Goodbye" Is Good Enough: "We may assume that her teachers not only imparted a strict, no-nonsense approach to the proprieties of written English but also stood as role models—dedicated professionals and figures of authority, almost all women." Brackett was 13 when she began to submit, in longhand on lined paper, "heavy problem novels," short stories, and poems to editors. More than ten years would pass before any of her work made it into print.
In school, Brackett was introduced to the study of speech and drama, for which she developed a great passion. With a love of acting, she hung around theaters (taking delight even in sweeping the stage) and sometimes took on roles designed for men which she performed with zeal. At one point, to the horror of her family, she considered acting as a career. Brackett won a scholarship to college, but refused the opportunity for more schooling, eager to explore other avenues of life. A budding novelist, she was hooked on science fiction, later telling Roderick and Earnhart:
Everyone warned me, "You'll starve to death. It's not a very respectable field, you know. I mean, only nut cases write for it and only nut cases read it."… My aunt used to say, "Why don't you write nice stories for the Ladies' Home Journal?" I used to say, "I wish I could, because they pay well, but I can't read the Ladies' Home Journal and I'm sure that I couldn't write for it."
In 1939, her first published works, "Martian Quest" and "The Treasure of Ptakuth," were bought by John W. Campbell for the magazine Astounding, which later became Analog. In the late 1930s through the 1950s, Astounding was the most popular and interactive of the science-fiction magazines. As its editor, Campbell had great influence in shaping the literature of the genre and fueling its surrounding subculture. Many of Brackett's peers were surprised that he took an interest in her work. Prone to discount stories by women in favor of works by men that had a more "masculine" feel to them, Campbell tended to select material for Astounding that portrayed women as helpless and dimwitted, which Leigh Brackett was not about to do.
At that time, science fiction was a male-dominated genre to the extent that both the profession and the content of the stories was more often than not anti-female. Many critical essays disputing the ability of women to contribute to the field of science fiction were published in the 1930s, '40s and '50s. Technology and the future were considered inappropriate topics for women, and nearly all of the heros of science-fiction stories and novels of Brackett's era were male. Undaunted, Brackett considered herself a writer, not a "woman writer" or even "a woman." "I was always me," she wrote, "an individual, free-standing and in the round…. I have always re fused to be bound by stereotyping, or limited by any other limitations than my own. To me, sex has never been of the slightest importance out-side the bedroom."
Brackett's refusal to write stereotypical females limited her access to Astounding. She sold only one more story to Campbell, though she generally sent her manuscripts to him first. Most of Brackett's work was published in Planet Stories, a popular but not as respected magazine. She also wrote often for Astonishing Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories, Super Science Stories, Amazing, Strange Stories, Comet, Tops in Science Fiction, Startling Stories, Space Stories, Fantasy and Science Fiction, Venture Science Fiction, and Great Science Fiction Magazine. Her success helped break down the gender bias in the science-fiction field. Though, in concert with the times, most of her protagonists were male—a fact that feminist critics often rue—she created strong women characters within her stories. "Her heroines," wrote critic Tom Milne of her sword and sorcery tales, "never melt, simper, faint or whimper."
I used to get letters in the letter columns of the old mags when I first began, saying that a woman couldn't write science fiction, and I thought it was just about as sensible as saying that a one-legged man is incapable of playing the violin.
In addition to her reputation as a prolific, respected science-fiction writer, Brackett established herself as a screenwriter, beginning with her 1946 work for Howard Hawks. Brackett's first full-length novel, the mystery No Good from a Corpse, brought her to Hawks' attention. In need of a writer for The Big Sleep, he read Brackett's classic hard-boiled prose style in this story of a private detective on the case of a murdered femme fatale and decided she was the "right man for the job." Recalled Brackett in 1972: "Hawks liked my dialogue and called my agent. He was somewhat shaken when he discovered that it was Miss and not Mister Brackett, but he rallied bravely and signed me on anyway, for which I have always been extremely grateful." Brackett collaborated on the project with William Faulkner, both of them working on separate parts of the book in separate offices. Asked to comment on the completed script, Humphrey Bogart criticized Brackett about lines he found too genteel; as it turned out, these lines were Faulkner's contributions. Bogart nicknamed Brackett "Butch" and brought her any dialogue he thought needed to be roughed up. Brackett would write five films for Hawks, three of them Westerns. During her career, she was to write more than 20 screenplays and teleplays, ending with Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back on which she was working at the time of her death.
Brackett made lasting friendships with people in the science-fiction world. Her friends were almost all male, and almost all famous. Ray Bradbury was one of her closest, and the two spent hours reviewing each other's work, playing volleyball at Muscle Beach, and talking endlessly about science fiction. She was also close with Henry Kuttner, a reader for Astounding, who became somewhat of a mentor. Kuttner helped perfect her writing style by providing lengthy criticisms of her unpublished work. As her success grew, she met more and more members of the science-fiction community, fans and professionals alike. In 1940, Brackett's agent introduced her to science-fiction writer Edmond Hamilton, whom she married in 1947.
For the first few years of their marriage, the couple lived in Los Angeles and spent much of their time writing. Their free time was spent renovating a dilapidated farmhouse in Kinsman, Ohio. Around 1950, they moved into the farmhouse, visiting California in the summertime. Although they were life partners, they collaborated on only one, unpublished, writing project. Careful to retain their individuality, they did not review each other's work until it reached the last draft, minimizing any influence; but they did sometimes seek advice when stumped. Their writing styles remained entirely different. In 1964, Brackett and Hamilton were co-guests of honor at the World Science Fiction Convention. Brackett edited Hamilton's anthology, The Best of Edmond Hamilton, while Hamilton edited The Best of Leigh Brackett. Their fondness for each other is reflected in their many interviews.
Unlike much of the science fiction of her day, Brackett's stories centered around her characters and their surroundings rather than around the stories' plots. A one-draft writer, she would begin a story without a written outline, create the setting, and then let the story unfold. Remarks one of her characters in The Ginger Star: "The land shapes us. If we were in another place, we would be another people." Watching many of her contemporaries focus on plot, Brackett was well aware that her science fiction was both culturally and stylistically in the avantgarde. The qualities which excluded her from the higher-class pulps made her work extremely valuable as literature.
In stories replete with heroics, Brackett created characters, often cunning and physically strong, who inhabit imaginative, even impossible, settings that take on a super-reality through her narrative. Nowhere is this more evident than in her "Skaith" trilogy, featuring the character of Eric John Stark. Said to have been her favorite character, Stark appears in more than five of her works. He is born to human parents in a mining colony in Mercury's Twilight Belt. Shortly after his birth, his parents are killed in a mining accident and Stark is abandoned on the harsh planet. He is found and fostered by the native "sub-human aboriginals clawing a precarious existence out of the sun-stricken valleys," who call him N'Chaka, the Man-Without-a-Tribe. He lives with them, learning to love and survive, until he is found by ruthless Earthmen who slaughter his foster family out of greed. They cage him and torment him, but he is rescued by Simon Ashton, an ambassador for the Ministry of Planetary Affairs on Earth. Ashton searches Mercury Metals and Mining's records to find N'Chaka's parents and his true name. The Man-Without-A-Tribe becomes Eric John Stark, and his adventures in space begin. Highly intelligent, he possesses finely tuned "animal" senses acquired while living on Mercury, instinctive sympathy for alien races, an almost perfect physique, and a knack for survival. By occupation, Stark is a mercenary, and he uses all of his attributes to investigate, fight, rescue and stay alive. Brackett was writing a fourth book featuring Stark, the ultimate space hero with a touch of sensitivity, when she died.
During her career, Brackett frequently ventured from science fiction to radioplays, teleplays, screenplays, poetry, mystery novels, and a western Follow the Free Wind, which won the 1963 Silver Spur Award for the year's best western. She wrote seven mystery novels, including one under the pen name George Sanders. She offered the following words to her successors: "My advice to young women, who might be doubtful about taking up science fiction as a career, is simply this…. if you want to write sci ence fiction, write it, and why the hell be doubtful?" Leigh Brackett died in 1978, the year after her husband's death.
Arbur, Rosemarie. Brackett, Bradley, McCaffrey: A Primary and Secondary Bibliography. Boston, MA: G.K. Hall, 1982.
Brackett, Leigh. The Ginger Star. NY: Ballantine Books, 1974.
Carr, Terry, ed. Classic Science Fiction: The First Golden Age. NY: Harper and Row, 1978.
Del Rey, Lester. The World of Science Fiction, 1925–1976. NY: Garland, 1980.
Roderick, Juanita and Hugh G. Earnhard, Interview with Leigh Brackett as part of the Youngstown State University Oral History Program, October 7, 1975.
Staicar, Tom, ed. The Feminine Eye: Science Fiction and the Women Who Write It. NY: Frederick Ungar, 1982.
Walker, Paul, ed. Speaking of Science Fiction. Oradell, NJ: Luna, 1978.
Hamilton, Edmond, ed. The Best of Leigh Brackett. Garden City, NY: Nelson Doubleday, 1977.
Mallardi, Bill and Bill Bowers, eds. The Double Bill Symposium. Akron, OH: DB Press, 1969.
Nearly complete American science fiction periodical collections are located at Eastern New Mexico University and Temple University Library.
The Big Sleep, screenplay by Leigh Brackett and William Faulkner, Howard Hawks Production, 1944.
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, science-fiction screenplay by Leigh Brackett, George Lucas Film, 1980.
Tanya Carelli , freelance writer in science fiction and women's history, San Diego, California