‘Live Fast, Die Young, Leave a Good-Looking Corpse’: Coined by a Chicago Writer

Willard Motley came up with one of the most famous lines in American literature for his popular debut novel—which was turned into a movie starring Humphrey Bogart—but has since faded into obscurity. Nelson Algren was a fan, but not of his writing.

Willard Motley

Over at Writers No One Reads—in this case, it is true for me—Dmitry Samarov introduces us to a long-mostly-forgotten Chicago writer, whose place in history is likely guaranteed by a single sentence:

Motley’s most popular novel, Knock on any Door, sold 47,000 copies in its first three weeks of release. Its hero Nick Romano famously said, “Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse.” The book was adapted into a 1949 film directed by Nicholas Ray and starring Humphrey Bogart.

He’s also somewhat historically notable as the first author of the Bud Billiken columns in the Defender, but it took an endless repository of Chicago literary history like Bill Savage to bring Willard Motley to Samarov’s attention. Bill Granger made a similar plea for Motley in the Tribune:

Motley wrote of the city and its people with brutal honesty and with exquisite sympathy. There are sections of “Knock On Any Door” that might move you to tears and other parts that will move you to anger. It is an out-of-print book, much revered by those who first came to it as young people, and much neglected by the Chicago literary establishment. It can be purchased through secondhand booksellers. It is a book that deserves better by a true Chicago writer who deserves better.

(According to Granger, the line is “live fast, die young, and be a good-looking corpse”; cultural telephony has apparently improved the line a bit.) But Motley’s never quite re-emerged from the shadows of his early success. Nelson Algren was a friend of Motley’s (“Willard Motley was a gentle little fellow whom everybody liked, because Willard liked everybody"), who liked him very much as a person, but not as a writer (“he was a modest sort of fellow who wrote a number of books and the more books he wrote the more reason he had for modesty"), and gives a clue to why Motley’s star dimmed in reviewing Motley’s diaries for the Tribune in 1979:

Motley’s heroes and heroines, in literature as in life, were white. He never became involved in black politics. he wrote about white people for white people. He was a white writer.

Which white writer never became clear because he kept switching. Copies of Farrell, Sandburg, Dreiser, and Sandburg, among others, lay on his desk.

[snip]

Motley’s dependence on others is not the point. The point is that, whomever he imitated, he never caught the feeling. He never caught the passion of Wright. He never caught the passion of Sandburg. He never caught the passion of Farrell. When he wrote like himself it came out like this:

“Grandeur came and sat like a king on the seat of his thinking.”

Whatever that may mean.

Algren also criticized Motley for writing about sex “like a man who had never experienced a strong sexual urge.” This is perhaps unsurprising, given that Motley was generally considered to be a closeted homosexual; not everyone thought Motley’s writing was asexual:

When I began reading Knock on Any Door, I was amazed. Along with being a thief, Johnny is a hustler and one of the book’s main characters is a gay man who pays him for sex and takes care of him. The novel is infused with a gay sensibility—you can’t beat Motley’s lush, erotic descriptions of male beauty—and Grant Holloway, Nick’s john, is the moral center of the work.

Motley worked hard, spending years on skid row researching his novels, but he was not the sort of writer to write what he knew: a middle-class gay black man from Englewood, son of a Pullman porter, Motley wrote his novels about poor white ethnics.

For what it’s worth, my favorite Chicago author no one reads was also a closeted gay author, but his oblique approach to sexuality resulted in a fine work (and arguably the first American gay novel): Bertram Cope’s Year. Henry Blake Fuller is actually reasonably well known for The Cliff-Dwellers, the novel from which Chicago’s Cliff Dwellers Club gets its name, but it’s frustratingly broad in the way that a lot of turn-of-the-century realism is. Bertram Cope’s Year, on the other hand, is a legitimately good read beyond its mostly overlooked historical importance.

 

Photograph: Library of Congress

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