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Hall of Fame Honorees

Calder Baynard Willingham, Jr.

The novels and screenplays of Calder Baynard Willingham, Jr. earned this Rome, Georgia, writer a place of esteem and influence among American storytellers. A witty redheaded Southerner who preferred the "ribald genius" of Erskine Caldwell to the "murky, pretentious ... almost wholly unreadable" style of William Faulkner, Willingham published ten novels, including two classic tales set in Georgia, Eternal Fire (1963) and Rambling Rose (1972). In addition, Willingham's screenwriting for some of Hollywood's best directors produced several memorable American films, among them his own 1991 cinematic adaptation of Rambling Rose, Willingham's quasi-autobiographical valentine to love and memory in Depression-era Georgia.

"I was born in Atlanta but grew up in Rome from the age of three, all through the Depression years," Willingham wrote in "Georgia," a 1955 travel essay commissioned by HOLIDAY magazine. A graduate of Rome's Darlington School, he moved to New York after attending The Citadel and the University of Virginia, and met with immediate literary celebrity when he published his first novel, a story of corruption and sadism in a Southern military college. The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice tried unsuccessfully to prosecute the publisher of End as a Man (1947) for obscenity, and the novel's success led him eventually to a parallel writing career as a playwright and screenwriter. End as a Man was, the author later reflected, "an adolescent horror story." His subsequent novels, on the other hand, explored a quite different theme, a theme that he described as, "What is this thing called love?" Of these later novels perhaps the most widely known is Rambling Rose, because of the Hollywood movie (scripted by Willingham from his novel) which garnered Academy Award nominations for Laura Dern and Diane Ladd, its mother-daughter stars. Eternal Fire, a darkly comic myth of romance in the 1930s South that Willingham set, like Rose, in a fictionalized Rome he called "Glenville," is widely acknowledged to be Willingham's masterpiece.

It was his 1953 stage play of End as a Man, however, that caught the attention of Hollywood. A project that he scripted and staged with Actors' Studio alumni, the New York theater production of End led to Willingham's writing a 1955 teleplay version (The Bold and the Brave) for the Philco Television Hour and, ultimately, a screenplay for Sam Spiegel's 1957 movie version (which was retitled The Strange One). From that point on, in addition to writing his own novels, Willingham's career involved adapting screenplays from others' works for such notable directors as Stanley Kubrick, Robert Altman, Mike Nichols, Richard Fleischer, Elia Kazan, Arthur Penn and Marlon Brando. His screenwriting credits included Paths of GloryThe VikingsThe GraduateOne-Eyed JacksLittle Big Man and Thieves Like Us, and his uncredited work included varying degrees of involvement in such productions as SpartacusThe Bridge over the River KwaiLolitaPatton, and Malcolm X.

Wilingham always considered film work of lesser literary importance than his fiction. He called screenplays work "writing to order," and likened his role to that of "a tailor." A "writer's writer" is how his friend and fellow American novelist Herman Wouk described him in a 1969 article praising Willingham's novel Providence Island. Fellow Southern author Shelby Foote admired Willingham's "sense of the ridiculous" and told an interviewer that Willingham was perhaps the best of all among a generation of writers that included Norman Mailer, James Jones, Gore Vidal and Truman Capote. The journalist (and novelist-to-be) Tom Wolfe called Willingham the "great comic genius of American fiction" and his 1951 book of short stories, The Gates of Hell, "the most undeservedly neglected book" since World War II.

For his own part, Willingham chose as his models the nineteenth-century novelists Nikolai Gogol, Leo Tolstoy and Mark Twain, and the modern writers who inspired him most were Theodore Dreiser and fellow Georgian Erskine Caldwell. In a 1979 foreword to a volume of Caldwell's fiction, Willingham wrote that Caldwell possessed "the rarest gift of the storytelling artist, the gift of character . the eerie, near schizophrenic ability to put himself in a thousand skins, to create characters who, no matter how extreme or archetypical, give a powerful impression of living and breathing human beings." Debunking the appeal of William Faulkner, whose work he called dazzling but "almost wholly unreadable," Willingham said Caldwell, not Faulkner, was "a creator of legends and a maker of myths."

Like Caldwell, Willingham wrote about sex with a frankness and a sense of humor that unnerved critics and delighted readers. Film producer Barry Mendel, who was Willingham's agent and friend, wrote recently, "Before a combination of movies, writers like Grace Metalious and Philip Roth, and the so-called Sexual Revolution brought sex into the cultural mainstream, as a serious writer who wrote about sex comically and explicitly, for its own pleasure and as a window into the inner lives of his characters, Willingham won loyal fans and admirers who had never read anything like it." It was the maverick's dedication to his characters, their warts as well as their beauty marks, and the master craftsman's sense of the ribald and the ridiculous that informed reviews of Willingham's fiction, good and ill, with comments that border on astonishment. "Calder Willingham," wrote the New York Times' reviewer of Rambling Rose, "is something else. I declare, they should put him in the budget."

Calder Willingham died of lung cancer February 19, 1995, not far from the small community of New Hampton, New Hampshire, where he had lived with his family for more than forty years. His novels have been translated into several languages, including French, Spanish, German, Dutch, Portuguese, Finnish and Swedish.

Bibliography

The following titles may be found in the Hall of Fame Library:

End as a Man. New York: Vanguard, 1947

End as a Man. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1947

End as a Man. New York: Avon, c1950

End as a Man. London: Lehmann, 1952

End as a Man. New York: Avon, c1952

End as a Man. New York: New American Library, 1957

End as a Man. London: Barker, 1963

End as a Man. London: Mayflower, 1968

End as a Man. (New York: Donald Fine, 1986)

Demain Ce Seront Des Hommes. [French.] Paris: Gallimard, 1951

Homens Ate Ao Fim. [Portuguese.] Lisbon: Minerva, 1961

Hombres. [Spanish.] Barcelona : Luis de Caralt, 1969

Geraldine Bradshaw. New York: Vanguard, 1950

Geraldine Bradshaw. New York: Avon, 1951

Geraldine Bradshaw. London: Barker, 1964

Geraldine Bradshaw. New York: Dell, 1964

Geraldine Bradshaw. London : Mayflower Books, 1965

The Gates of Hell. New York: Vanguard, 1951

The Gates of Hell. New York: Dell, 1965

The Gates of Hell. London: Mayflower, 1970

Reach to the Stars. New York: Vanguard, 1951

Reach to the Stars. New York: New American Library, 1953

Reach to the Stars. New York: Dell, 1965

Reach to the Stars. London: Barker, 1965

Reach to the Stars. London: Mayflower-Dell, 1966

Natural Child. New York: Dial, 1952

Natural Child. New York: New American Library, 1953

Natural Child. New York: Dell, 1966

Natural Child. London: Mayflower, 1968

Natural Child. New York: Lancer, 1970

Natural Child. London: Mayflower, 1971

Natural Child. London: Mayflower, 1979

To Eat a Peach. London: Mayflower, 1966

To Eat a Peach. London: Mayflower, 1974

To Eat a Peach. New York: Dial, 1955

The Girl in Dogwood Cabin. New York: New American Library, 1956

The Girl in Dogwood Cabin. New York: New American Library, 1961

Eternal Fire. New York: Vanguard, 1963

Eternal Fire. London: Barker, 1963

Eternal Fire. New York: Doubleday, 1963

Eternal Fire. London: Mayflower-Dell, 1964

Le Feu du Diable. [French.] Paris: Stock, 1964

Fuego Eterno. [Spanish.] Mexico, D.F.: Editorial Grijalbo, 1966

Die Versuchung der Laurie Mae. [German.] Mu¨nchen : Kindler, 1968

Providence Island. New York: Vanguard, 1969

Providence Island. London: Hart-Davis, 1969

Providence Island. London: Mayflower, 1970

Providence Island. New York: Dell, 1970

Die Gestrandeten. Bergisch Gladbach: Bastei Luubbe, c1970

Rambling Rose. New York: Delacorte, 1972

Rambling Rose. St Albans: Hart-Davis, MacGibbon, 1973

Rambling Rose. New York: Dell, 1973

Rambling Rose. St Albans: Mayflower, 1975

Rambling Rose. London: Grafton, 1991

Rambling Rose. New York: Avon Books, 1991

Wie ein Falter im Wind. [German.] Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1979

Wie ein Falter im Wind. [German.] Gutersloh: Bertelsmann, 1972

Ruusu. [Finnish.] Helsinki: Suuri Suomalainen Kirjakerho, 1973

Die Lust der schonen Rose. [German.] Munchen : Heyne, 1992

Rose, la Petite Coureuse. [French.] Paris : Presses de la Renaissance, c1992

Natten med Rose. [Swedish.] Stockholm: Forum, 1992

The Big Nickel. New York: Dial, 1975

The Big Nickel. London: Hart-Davis, MacGibbon, 1976

The Big Nickel. New York: Dell, 1976

The Building of Venus Four. New York: Manor Books, 1977

Additional Links

Manuscript Holdings

The Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Georgia has a collection of Calder Willingham's manuscripts, screenplays and personal correspondence in its collection.

Calder Baynard Willingham, Jr.
INDUCTEE: 2008

Born: December 23, 1922
Atlanta, Georgia

Died: February, 19, 1995
Laconia, NH

University of Georgia Libraries | Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library