Not so much ‘a life less ordinary’ as ‘a life less known’, David Goodis, apart from a few years, led a sedentary and quite anonymous existence. Personal information on him is very limited and most comes from a few sources. A large proportion of what there is to know about David Goodis was printed in Philippe Garnier’s un-translated French biography, published some 20 years ago. This contains testimony from some of Goodis’s friends and relatives.
There is only a very small amount of surviving correspondence (most of his personal papers were either deliberately destroyed or are lost) and a couple of interviews he gave to newspapers, together with quite a long legal testament, related to a court case that he gave in the year before he died.
My own modest recent researches have filled a few gaps in and so, as that work continues, this is a précis of the salient facts about the private life of David Goodis.
Born in 1917, in the suburban Jewish area of Logan in Philadelphia, David Loeb was the child of a reasonably well-to-do, middle-class family. His father was a successful salesman and his mother an intelligent, attractive woman who came from a large and reasonably prosperous local family, the Halperns.
David also had a brother, Herbert, who came along five years later and, as far as one can tell, theirs was an uneventful, pleasant family life. David was close to his family on his mother’s side and saw a lot of his cousins who lived nearby.
David was a slight but intelligent boy with a ready wit and showed, from quite early school days, an aptitude for writing, authoring and editing the school and then university magazines. Even before he graduated from TempleUniversity in Philadelphia, he was already submitting stories to pulp fiction magazines and he completed a novel. This serious, non-crime book, Retreat from Oblivion, was published in 1938, whilst David had begun working for a local advertising agency as a copywriter.
In his late teens and early twenties, David was a popular young man, who joined a large circle of mainly Jewish friends, attending big band dances and jazz concerts. Indeed, David was something of a jazz aficionado and was even known to have ‘jammed’ with famous outfits like the Duke Ellington Orchestra, playing along with a comb and paper or kazoo. It was also at this time that he developed a reputation as a renowned practical joker, who would do outrageous things to amuse his friends.
As a first novel, Retreat from Oblivion was an earnest, not at all embarrassing first novel, which depicted, through its representation of the Spanish Civil War, its young author’s strong, liberal sentiment. Unfortunately, the book was a flop but Goodis was already generating large numbers of stories which were being published successfully in pulp magazines of every conceivable genre. Somewhere during this time, he moved to New York and whilst still writing pulp fiction, also got a job cranking out radio scripts for various radio serials, including most notably,a children’s series called Hop Harrigan of the Airways, in the early 1940’s.
Of course, by now the war in Europe was raging and although Goodis tried to enlist, he was rejected on medical grounds by the US military. Instead, his contribution to the US war effort was to churn out vast amounts of pulp war stories, particularly ones about aviation, his particular speciality.
Also during this major development phase of Goodis’s burgeoning career, he had his first taste of Tinseltown and spent some fruitless time in LA, writing a script for Universal Studios, which was dutifully rejected. Perhaps the most telling occurrence of this time in Goodis’s life was his meeting and marrying his first and only wife, the attractive and very assertive Elaine Astor. He had apparently known Elaine from his salad days in Philly but, for whatever reason, they both found themselves in California where they got married in 1943. It seems that the newlyweds divided their time between the East and the West Coast and, for at least some time, lived with Goodis’s parents.
The marriage, despite Goodis’s ardent attraction to Elaine, was not a success and, notwithstanding his desperate attempts to keep her, she left him to re-establish herself permanently in California. They were eventually divorced in 1946.
Goodis was deeply affected by the breakdown of his marriage and it is no coincidence that there is a recurring female character (vivacious, sexually domineering, aggressive) in numerous Goodis novels that bears more than a passing resemblance to the appearance and alleged character of Elaine.
David Goodis’s emotional turmoil did nothing to stop the upward trajectory of his writing career and in the immediate post war period, he wrote his first full length crime novel, which was snapped up pre-publication, by Warner Brothers. The title of the novel became The Dark Passage which, when bought for serialisation by the prestigious magazine Saturday Evening Post, became a big, popular and critical success. Warner Brothers put the film adaptation into production as the next vehicle for the golden screen coupling of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall and Goodis got his dream ticket to Hollywood, in the form of a very well paid screen-writing contract.
This, for David Goodis, was to be the peak of his career and he would never, ever have it so good again.
Unfortunately, despite his own dedication, Goodis’s screen-writing gig was largely a bust. He toiled over projects that were never produced and after three years he still had only one screen credit to his name, on an OK’ish 1947 melodrama, The Unfaithful, directed by Vincent Sherman.
Still, while the work wasn’t great, Goodis himself seemed to enjoy the experience of being in California. In fact, he deliberately developed an idiosyncratic public profile in Hollywood that explicitly celebrated the fact that he was a fish out of water in the glamour and artificiality of America’s film-making capital.Friends and relatives talk about his penchant for consciously cheap, second hand suits, his battered car and his predilection for practical jokes in the most inappropriate places. No-one seems to think Goodis was a parsimonious man but he certainly demonstrated a perverse streak that actually belied the very healthy salary (something in the order of $1000 a week) that he was receiving for his fruitless labours.
He himself said “I certainly wasted an awful lot of time in Hollywood, although I had a lot of fun there as well”. The fun part of it is a bit more difficult to specify, although it seemed to alternate from very upstanding pursuits, such as helping to stage amateur theatre productions to less salubrious pursuits in the gin joints and dives of the City of Angels.
In fact, Goodis didn’t waste as much time in Hollywood as it might seem because, whilst getting his name up in lights wasn’t working out, he did produce three very distinctive novels from 1947 to 1950. The first, Behold this Woman was a thinly fictionalised memoir of his marital breakdown, Nightfall a superior crime thriller and he even managed to cannibalise one of his discarded screen plays to publish the detective novel Of Missing Persons. Still, by the time of the latter’s publication in 1950, David Goodis’s adventures in the screen trade were all but over. His contract ended and he returned to his home town of Philadelphia.
It may also be that Goodis wanted to go home because, apart from financially supporting his parents, he needed to lend more practical help. Some years previously, David’s younger brother, Herbert, had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and as his parents got older it seems that they may have found it increasingly difficult to cope on their own. Whatever the reason, Goodis resettled into their family home where he was to spend, apart from brief business trips or holidays, the remainder of his life. His routine was fairly straightforward, he would write in the small room upstairs all day, then visit friends or family in the evenings.
He was an attentive and loyal family member and always was present at the big family social gatherings at weekends. Indeed, according to his cousins, David was often the life and soul of the party, telling jokes and stories and even making up little theatre pieces for the family to act out. He even helped to write part of a family history of the Halperns that they published privately.
As with his LA life, Goodis’s family commitments contrast wildly with the stories and rumours recounted in Philippe Garnier’s book of Goodis louche nightlife. Whatever the detail, Goodis certainly led his own kind of schizophrenic life, frequenting bars and clubs in downtown Philadelphia, maybe to get ideas for his stories or simply to escape the mundane nature of his day to day existence. In fact, in one of the rare interviews that he gave in the late 1940’s, he even commented on his penchant for going into the dock areas of Philadelphia and the Tenderloin of New York to gain inspiration for his stories. There may, of course, have been a more sordid, sexual purpose in these forays but, apart from Garnier’s interview with a black woman who said she had a fairly long relationship with Goodis in the early 1950’s, we know little or nothing about the author’s romantic or sexual encounters after his marriage.
The early 1950’s, in Philadelphia, were the most prolific time for David Goodis as a crime novelist. He would churn out two or three books a year, all of a fairly high standard, several of which were classics of their kind and many of which sold extremely well.
At the end of the 1950’s, there was a new flurry of interest in Goodis’s work for the movies, mainly through Columbia Pictures acquiring the rights to some of his novels. Acclaimed B movie director, Jacques Tourneur made a decent job of adapting Nightfall and then an old friend of David Goodis’s, from college days, Paul Wendkos set about making a film version of The Burglar to actually be shot in Philadelphia. Goodis became attached as the screenwriter and the film was made in 1957. The Burglarwas to be David Goodis’s last direct involvement in film-making and by far and away his most satisfying experience, probably because it was an enjoyable experience working with his old friend, Wendkos and it was shot on home turf, where he felt most comfortable.
The Burglar wasn’t any sort of commercial success but it remains one of the most convincing adaptations of a David Goodis novel, faithful in spirit and tone, to the author’s style and vision. Sadly, this period was to be the last real flowering of David Goodis’s talent. He did have the pleasure of seeing, just a few years later, Tirez sur le Pianiste, the stunning Francois Truffaut version of his masterpiece Down There in 1960 and was persuaded to attend the New York premiere in 1962. However, by then Goodis’s writing had all but dried up. He didn’t publish a book at all from 1957 to 1961 and the publication of the somewhat pedestrian, Night Squad, in that year was, apart from an odd short story, the last thing authored by David Goodis to be published in his lifetime.
No real concrete evidence has been unearthed to explain this steep creative decline and drought but the last ten years of Goodis’s life were ones of little writing and a catalogue of worsening personal circumstances.
His friends and family confirmed that he was not a man who talked ever about himself and did not confide his personal problems in anyone. As his old friend, Paul Wendkos confirmed, “he didn’t talk much, never revealed much of himself, despite a very open, jovial exterior”. The only thing that was widely known was his decision to sue the television station, ABC, for allegedly plagiarising Dark Passage for the substance of the hit TV series, The Fugitive. The law suit was protracted and took an increasing toll on David, physically and mentally. On top of this, the passing away of his father in 1963, then of his mother in 1966 and the responsibility of looking after his brother had a deep effect on David.
In mid-1966, he suffered a bout of mental illness which saw him institutionalised for a few months. It was also there that they detected problems with his heart (he drank and especially smoked very heavily) and, after being taken ill, he died in hospital on January 17th, 1967. David’s last thoughts and concerns, as outlined in a letter he wrote to his lawyer, from hospital, were the future welfare of his brother. Herbert lived on in an institution, paid for by David Goodis’s estate, until he passed away in 1971.
David Goodis is buried in a plot with his brother, father and mother in the Jewish cemetery of Roosevelt MemorialPark in Philadelphia.
US Lion 1954
US Black Lizard 1987
US Vintage 1990
Adrian Wootton is the first Chief Executive of Film London, the body charged with representing and developing the film and media industry in the capital.Prior to becoming the Chief Executive of Film London, Adrian was Acting Director of the British Film Institute (BFI), in addition to having been the Director of the London Film Festival (LFF), the National Film Theatre (NFT) and Head of BFI Exhibition.
Subsequent to his appointment to the BFI, he was founding Director of Broadway Media Centre in Nottingham and Director of the Bradford Playhouse. He regularly broadcasts and reviews films for Radio 4. He recently edited ‘Black Friday & Selected Stories’,a collection of stories by the American crime writer, David Goodis and has also written for several publications including the Guardian, Sight & Sound, the Monthly Film Bulletin and lectured in film and literature.
He is Director of the National Film Theatre’s crime & mystery festival, Crime Scene and Programme Advisor to the London Film Festival, Venice Film Festival and Noir in Fest festival, Courmayeur.
Further details on the work of Film London are available on the website.