Published in World's fastest literary gun: Louis L'Amour The novelist who made the modern Western a national pastime is now planning a center to preserve America's heritage of local history. Right now, as you're reading this, Louis L'Amour is tapping at his electric typewriter in a room in Los Angeles the size of a volleyball court. While birds chirp in the yard outside his window and traffic hums on nearby Sunset Boulevard, L'Amour is writing a best seller.
It's not that he needs the money or acclaim that successful authors receive; he has all that and more. L'Amour is writing because he wants to know what's going to happen next. There's a hero in a jam out there somewhere, in Arizona or Siberia or Texas, and L'Amour has to get him out of it.
He can't wait to get to the typewriter every day just to find out how he's going to do it. Louis pronounced Louie L'Amour is a publishing phenomenon of colossal proportions. For more than 30 years, since Hondo in the early s, he has been writing Western novels that sell with the volume and regularity of Scout handbooks. Presidents from Eisenhower to Reagan have delighted in his sagas of heroes and villains stalking each other across his authentically rendered landscapes of the American frontier.
His stories, appearing first in now extinct pulp magazines, moved without breaking stride through the genre paperback category to movies The Burning Hills , Heller in Pink Tights and hardcover bestsellerdom Jubal Sackett , Last of the Breed , a progression one editor compares to vaulting from the ghetto of publishing to a Fifth Avenue penthouse.
In recent years honors and awards have been showered on him - a Congressional Gold Medal, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, honorary degrees - and even critics, the last converts, have become semi-respectful. Louis L'Amour has become part of our cultural consciousness. But there is another side to the man behind the monumental reputation that most of his ardently loyal fans know nothing about.
In his own quiet and low-key way L'Amour has established himself recently as a cultural and literary philanthropist. A man who educated himself through a lifetime of omnivorous reading, he now helps encourage others to read as a member of the executive council of the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress. It's history that the historians never see. I'D include the basic books on American history and the historical and genealogical manuscripts that readers send me.
He is also involved in an attempt to develop an authentic re-creation of a late 19th century Western town, a privately financed "Western Williamsburg" that would be a living, functioning museum of the frontier, with stores and stage stations and a working ranch.
Though he recoils in protest when called philanthropic, L'Amour sponsors several outstanding high school students honored annually by the California-based American Academy of Achievement. The institution brings teenage high achievers to a three-day seminar where they meet with Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners and other innovators.
He has also supported and encouraged promising Navajo artist Clifford Brycelea, hosting an exhibition of his work. Brycelea's mystical paintings hang in his home and one is on the cover of L'Amour's most recent book, The Haunted Mesa.
Still ruggedly handsome in his late 70s, L'Amour is tall and broad-shouldered with eyebrows that peak in gray-brown arrowheads. He wears Western shirts and string ties and cowboy boots, and speaks in a measured, confident baritone.
His manner is sober, self-contained and unaffectedly modest. Though he lives among the Hollywood glitterati, there is nothing Hollywood about him. In a community of resplendent egos and serial marriages, L'Amour has kept a clear head on his priorities. He takes more pride in his family and his 10,volume library than in any of his million-sellers. L'Amour waited until he was established and well into his 40s to marry because he had seen too many other writers take less fulfilling jobs to support their families.
He and his wife, Kathy, who handles his business affairs, were married 31 years ago. Their children, year-old Beau and year-old Angelique, aspire to show-business careers. You don't talk numbers with L'Amour. We count too much, he believes, and we tyrannize ourselves with digits. In his youthful rambling days he was once hired as a ranch hand over two better-qualified men who happened to be in their 40s - too old - and the memory rankles.
He has known many people who decide that it was time to die when they reached Don't ask his age. The trouble is that L'Amour's numbers are impossible to ignore. He has written books, which probably equal the total lifetime output of any other 12 writers; more than 30 of his novels and stories have been sold to the movies; an estimated million copies of his books are currently in print worldwide. L'Amour himself overcomes his anti-numerical bias long enough to report that Bantam Books distributes more than ten million of his books in hard and soft covers each year.
The numbers of course translate into large houses, several cars, and lunches at the Polo Lounge in Beverly Hills, not far from his spacious hacienda-style house, but money has little to do with his remarkable productivity.
Another is that he truly enjoys his work. And when he finishes a book, as he does two or three times a year, he rolls a fresh sheet into the typewriter and launches into another the same day. A vacation form his typewriter, he says, would be an ordeal he couldn't bear. L'Amour's hole card as a writer may be his natural affinity with his audience. Books surge and spill and twine through almost every room of his house. They march along one entire wall of the large living room and collect in piles on every flat surface.
They stand guard in the home gymnasium where he tries to work out daily, and gather in stacks atop the glass table in his sun-washed family room. They parade in shelves along the hallways and take over completely in his cavernous bedroom. And he knows where everything is. Beyond are his trophies - awards, keys to a score of cities, framed honorary degrees - "That's a thrill for a guy who didn't get out of the tenth grade" - and a white football signed by his fans who play for the Dallas Cowboys.
L'Amour is expecting his movie agent - he has no literary agent - but when he answers the door it turns out to be the laundry deliveryman. L'Amour," the man replies with a smile. Later he leads the way into his workroom - "A writer's dream room," he calls it - where a capacious desk sits between a fireplace and a window beyond which Sunset Boulevard traffic roars.
The floor-to-ceiling shelves contain about 8, books. Once, for a People magazine story, he composed several usable passages while at a desk set up on a traffic island on Sunset Boulevard. His father was a veterinarian and farm-machinery salesman of French-Irish extraction who Anglicized his name to La Moore, a change that young Louis reversed when he set out on his own at He aspired to write from childhood - one brother became a journalist and two sisters also wrote - and after souring on school, he embarked on a year odyssey of Jack Londonesque adventure that makes his book-jacket biography as readable as his novels.
A six-footer in his teens, young L'Amour baled hay, worked as a circus-elephant handler, hoboed to New Orleans and shipped out as a seaman at He knew how to box and fought professionally between voyages. He saw criminals beheaded in China, biked across India following the trail of Rudyard Kipling's character Kim, and survived a shipwreck in the West Indies - a story he's saving for his autobiography.
I was all over the West that way. Once I met an year-old Indian who was supposed to have killed several men. He taught me bout herbal medicine. I was 18 and looked There were several times I went three and four days without eating. I didn't beg or steal, just went without. I'd like to recover for my readers what it's really like to be hungry. I have a penchant for stories about survival, lessons in survival.
I've been a survivor most of my life. Wherever he rambled, he never swerved from his vision of himself as a writer. He submitted stories to magazines during his knock-around years and finally began to sell - a boxing article, then a piece of poetry.
By the late s he had published his first book, a collection of poems called Smoke from This Altar, and was contributing regularly to Western pulps. When World War II broke out, he served two years stateside and two years overseas.
He returned to writing after the war, besieging editors with adventure tales, sports stories and detective yarns as well as Westerns. When the pulps suddenly folded he was hired to write Hopalong Cassidy novels under the name Tex Burns, an episode he would just as soon forget. But he found his home range as a writer - sage brush and box canyons, the Kiowa Trail and Rivers West, the lonesome land of saddle tramps and gunfighters.
L'Amour would become the laureate of the lariat. He knew exactly how to go about it. Loitering around bookstores, he listened to customers' requests and noticed that they often had trouble remembering the name of an author they liked. There are lots of other things competing for people's entertainment time - they don't have to read my books. You've got to start with something happening. He sought out old gunfighters and outlaws "I knew 30 or 35 of them personally" , mined the files of small-town newspapers and interviewed ranchers.
I heard that when Zane Grey traveled the West he always 'made his own campfire,' kept his distance. I wasn't like that. I was one of them. I got a call - the word was out that I was in town - and a voice said, 'This is Louis L'Amour, you've never heard of me but I want to see you right now. He said he was going to be the next great Western writer and we'd do well to take him on.
I read it while he waited. It was Hondo, and it knocked me out. I signed him to a long-term contract on the spot. From his first novel, L'Amour has connected with readers primarily through his storytelling talent and his recognition of the continuing power of the West and the frontier in our imagination.
L'Amour tells his stories in a direct, fast-moving style, shorn of interior monologues and elaborate descriptive passages. Though his villains commonly come to a violent end, he shuns vivid depictions of violence, preferring to concentrate on the suspense that he usually establishes, true to his convictions, on the first page.
L'Amour heroes are often in a fix when we meet them, and their troubles worsen fast. Jubal Sackett starts this way: Somewhere near, an enemy lurked, waiting. Yesterday morning, watching my back trail, I saw a deer startle, cross a meadow in great bounds and disappear in the forest.