Louis Dearborn L'Amour, born March 22nd, 1908 in Jamestown, North Dakota, is an American author whose writings largely involved western fiction. However, he also wrote science fiction, historical fiction, and some nonfiction.
L'Amour was born in Jamestown, North Dakota to Louis Charles LaMoore a large-animal veterinarian, local politician, and farm equipment manager. Although the area around Jamestown was mostly farm land, cowboys and livestock often traveled through Jamestown on their way to or from ranches in Montana and the markets to the east. L'Amour played "Cowboys and Indians" in the family barn, which served as his father's veterinary hospital, and spent much of his free time at the local library doing more than his share of reading, particularly G. A. Henty, a British author of historical boys' novels during the late nineteenth century. L'Amour said, "[Henty's works] enabled me to go into school with a great deal of knowledge that even my teachers didn't have about wars and politics."
After a series of bank failures devastated the economy of the upper Midwest, Dr LaMoore and his wife, Emily, took to the road. Removing Louis and his adopted brother John from school, they headed south in the winter of 1923. Over the next seven or eight years, they skinned cattle in west Texas, baled hay in the Pecos Valley of New Mexico, worked in the mines of Arizona, California and Nevada, and in the saw mills and lumber camps of the Pacific Northwest. It was in colorful places like these that Louis met a wide variety of people, upon whom he later modeled the characters in his novels, many of them actual Old West personalities who had survived into the nineteen-twenties and -thirties.
Making his way as a mine assessment worker, professional boxer and merchant seaman, Louis traveled the country and the world, sometimes with his family, sometimes not. He visited all of the western states plus England, Japan, China, Borneo, the Dutch East Indies, Arabia, Egypt, and Panama, finally moving with his parents to Oklahoma in the early 1930s. There, he changed his name to Louis L’Amour and settled down to try and make something of himself as a writer.
He had success with poetry, articles on boxing and writing and editing sections of the WPA Guide Book to Oklahoma, but the dozens of short stories he was churning out met with little acceptance. Finally, L’Amour placed a story, “Death Westbound,” in a magazine that was very much the Playboy of its day. Several years later, L’Amour placed his first story for pay, “Anything for a Pal,” published in “True Gang Life.” Two lean, disappointing years passed after that, and then, in 1938, his stories began appearing in pulp magazines fairly regularly.
Along with other adventure and crime stories, Louis created the character of mercenary sea captain, Jim Mayo. Starting with “East of Gorontalo,” the series ran through nine episodes from 1940 until 1943. Surprisingly, given his later career, L’Amour wrote only one story in the western genre prior to World War Two, 1940’s "The Town No Guns Could Tame."
World War II
L'Amour continued as an itinerant worker, traveling the world as a merchant seaman until the start of World War II. During World War II, he served in the United States Army as a transport officer with the 3622 Transport Company. In the two years before L'Amour was shipped off to Europe, L'Amour wrote stories for Standard Magazine. After World War II, L'Amour continued to write stories for magazines; his first after being discharged in 1946 was Law of the Desert Born in Dime Western Magazine (April, 1946). L'Amour's contact with Leo Margulies led to L'Amour agreeing to write many stories for the Western pulp magazines published by Standard Magazines, a substantial portion of which appeared under the name "Jim Mayo". The suggestion of L'Amour writing Hopalong Cassidy novels also was made by Margulies who planned on launching Hopalong Cassidy's Western Magazine at a time when the William Boyd films and new television series were becoming popular with a new generation. L'Amour read the original Hopalong Cassidy novels, written by Clarence E. Mulford, and wrote his novels based on the original character under the name "Tex Burns". Only two issues of the Hopalong Cassidy Western Magazine were published, and the novels as written by L'Amour were extensively edited to meet Doubleday's thoughts of how the character should be portrayed in print.
After the War
In the 1950s, L'Amour began to sell novels. L'Amour's first novel, published under his own name, was Westward The Tide, published by World's Work in 1951. The short story, "The Gift of Cochise" was printed in Colliers (July 5, 1952) and seen by John Wayne and Robert Fellows, who purchased the screen rights from L'Amour for $4,000. James Edward Grant was hired to write a screenplay based on this story changing the main character's name from Ches Lane to Hondo Lane. L'Amour retained the right to novelize the screenplay and did so, even though the screenplay differed substantially from the original story. This was published as Hondo in 1953 and released on the same day the film opened with a blurb from John Wayne stating that "Hondo was the finest Western Wayne had ever read". During the remainder of the decade L'Amour produced a great number of novels, both under his own name as well as others (e. g. Jim Mayo). Also during this time he rewrote and expanded many of his earlier short story and pulp fiction stories to book length for various publishers.
Many publishers in the 1950s and '60s refused to publish more than one or two books a year by the same author. Louis's editor at Gold Medal supported his writing up to three or four but the heads of the company vetoed that idea even though Louis was publishing books with other houses. Louis had sold over a dozen novels and several million copies before Bantam Books editor-in-chief Saul David was finally able to convince his company to offer Louis a short term exclusive contract that would accept three books a year. It was only after 1960, however, that Louis' sales at Bantam would begin to surpass his sales at Gold Medal.
L'Amour's career flourished throughout the 1960s and Louis began work on a series of novels about the fictional Sackett family. Initially he wrote five books about William Tell Sackett and his close relatives, however, in later years the series spread to include other families and four centuries of North American history. It was an ambitious project and several stories intended to close the gaps in the family's time line were left untold at the time of L'Amour's death. L'Amour also branched out into historical fiction with The Walking Drum, set in the 11th century, a contemporary thriller, Last of the Breed, and science fiction with The Haunted Mesa.
Even before its peak in the 1980s, Louis's success caused jealousy among other writers in the western genre. Rumors circulated that he was somehow the "creation" of Bantam Books, that their editors told him what to write and gave him preferential treatment when it came to pay and advertising. L'Amour actually found it nearly impossible to take direction from anyone, as was proved by his rocky relationships with many Hollywood studios when he was hired to develop scripts and story ideas ... he often ended up returning the money he had been paid, no matter the financial hardship he was in, just to get out from under the control of others. There was no real credibility to the claim of preferential publicity either. In fact, it was only after Bantam was inspired by Louis' British publisher, Corgi, that they bothered to make much of an effort. L'Amour had learned the art of selling to the public on a shoe string by managing boxers in the 1930s and he used those skills to make dozens of local book promotions seem like an ongoing national campaign.
The jealousy and misinterpretation hit its peak with the claim that Bantam was somehow "cheating" by keeping all of L'Amour's books in print, thereby forcing other authors off the shelves. In reality no publisher can afford to keep a book in print if it is not selling and no book store would keep a book on the shelves more than a brief amount of time ... anything that does not sell can always be returned to the publisher for a full refund. Popular writers who have a great number of titles always make the available amount of shelf space an issue for other writers, other publishers and the bookstore in general.
L'Amour eventually wrote 89 novels, over 250 short stories, and (as of 2010) sold more than 320 million copies of his work. By the 1970s his writings were translated into over 20 languages. Every one of his works are still in print.
In the '60s, L'Amour was going to build a town that resembled those of the 19th century western frontier. It was to be named Shalako after the main protagonist of one of his westerns of the same name. It would have offered itself as a filming location for Hollywood motion pictures concerning the Wild West, and a tourist attraction. However, funding for the project fell through, and Shalako was never built.
In 1982 he won the Congressional (National) Gold Medal, and in 1984 President Ronald Reagan awarded L'Amour the Presidential Medal of Freedom. L'Amour is also a recipient of North Dakota's Roughrider Award. In May 1972 he was awarded an Honorary PhD by Jamestown College, as a testament to his literary and social contributions.
L'Amour died from lung cancer on June 10, 1988, at his home in Los Angeles, and was buried in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California. His autobiography detailing his years as an itinerant worker in the west, Education of a Wandering Man, was published posthumously in 1989.
"His death was a tragedy to anyone who admired literature, he showed people what a good story can do, whether it was an escape from the everyday life or just a bedside companion. His stories painted a picture in your mind that pleased anyone 8-80 years old, male or female. His writings could teach life lessons or bring people closer together like it did between my father and I. His work can take you on an adventure unlike others the average person is subject to. In a world that is so "high-tech" its a great feeling when you pick up a L'Amour book and are taken on an adventure filled ride through the world of literature." - S.J. Reese
He died doing what he loved, writing a book at his ranch in Hesperus, Colorado. He acquired the ranch from a family local to the San Juan region. He intended to turn the ranch into a replica old western town that would serve as a tourist attraction and a set for filming. However, his death put an end to that idea.