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, several classic Hollywood films were brought to the screen with Willingham's scriptwriting, as well as his own novel Rambling Rose, a 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).
Willingham's career from that point on would include 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 classic films such as Paths of Glory, The Vikings, The Graduate, One-Eyed Jacks, Little Big Man and Thieves Like Us. Willingham's script work also included varying degrees of involvement in such productions as Spartacus, The Bridge over the River Kwai, Lolita, Patton, and Malcolm X.
Willingham, however, considered his film work to be of lesser literary importance than his fiction. He called screenplays "writing to order," and likened his role to that of "a tailor."
But where his novel writing was concerned, Willingham was a "writer's writer," according to American novelist Herman Wouk, in a 1969 review of Willingham's novel Providence Island. Willingham's fellow Southerner Shelby Foote admired his "sense of the ridiculous," and Foote told an interviewer that Willingham was perhaps the best of a generation that included Norman Mailer, James Jones, Gore Vidal and Truman Capote. Journalist 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.
Willingham chose as his literary models nineteenth-century novelists like Nikolai Gogol, Leo Tolstoy and Mark Twain, and the modern writers who inspired him most were Theodore Dreiser and another Georgia author, Erskine Caldwell.
In a 1979 foreword to a Caldwell book, 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." While William Faulkner, said Willingham, was dazzling but "almost wholly unreadable," Erskine Caldwell was a genuine "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, has written: "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 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.
The following titles, along with other variant printings, periodical publications, and prepublication proof editions of Willingham's works may be found in the Hall of Fame collections of the Hargrett 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
The Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Georgia holds Calder Willingham's manuscripts, screenplays and personal correspondence in its collection.