Some of you good people might be wondering: So just who was this Leigh Brackett person and why was she so important?
I’m glad you asked.
Leigh Douglass Brackett Hamilton was born in Los Angeles on December 7, 1915. In the introduction to The Best of Leigh Brackett, her husband Edmond Hamilton relates that as a young girl she played pirate on the beach in front of her grandfather’s house. At least until someone gave her a copy of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Gods of Mars. Her interests changed after that.
I’m not sure when she started writing, but her first published works appeared in 1940, which would make her 25 when she started publishing professionally. I think it’s a safe bet that she was a regular reader of the pulps, including Weird Tales. In my recent post on “Lorelei of the Red Mist”, I discussed her use of the name Conan as an homage to Robert E. Howard. Since Howard hadn’t been reprinted in book form in the 1940s, I suspect she read the Conan stories in their original publications.
I’ve never read an account of how they met, but at some point she became friends with another young fan with writing aspirations, Ray Bradbury. Bradbury has written how he and Brackett would meet on the beach on the weekend, she’d play volleyball with some guys while Bradbury watched, then they would critique each others stories. They were also being mentored by Henry Kuttner during this time period. (I find it interesting that three of the writers/one half of writer-couples who have their own dedicated shelves in my library came out of this group: Kuttner/Moore, Brackett/Hamilton, and Bradbury. The fourth and final dedicated shelf is for Robert E. Howard.)
In 1944, movie producer Howard Hawks read her hardboiled crime novel No Good From a Corpse. He is reputed to have said something alng the lines of “Get me this Brackett guy” and being shocked when a woman showed up. Her sex didn’t stop him from hiring her. He knew a good writer when he found one. Brackett’s first screenplay was co-written with William Faulkner (yeah, that William Faulkner). It was an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep and starred Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Not bad for a pulp writer.
Brackett focused most of her writing on screenplays. Hollywood paid better than the pulps. Go figure. She wrote sf intermittently for the rest of her life, especially if there was a strike going on in Hollywood. But her bread and butter was scriptwriting.
She scripted other films for Hawks, such as Rio Bravo. She was reportedly on a first name basis with John Wayne, who on at least one occasion argued with her over repeating (in El Dorado) something she had written for Rio Bravo. He wanted to do it again because it worked the first time while she didn’t want to repeat herself. Ultimately the Duke won. As Hamilton relates in his introduction to TBoLB, Leigh said, “I knew when I was outgunned…so I shut up and wrote the scene.” In 1973 Brackett also adapted another Raymond Chandler novel, The Long Goodbye, directed by Robert Altman and starring Elliot Gould.
Leigh Brackett died of cancer in March of 1978. Before her death, she wrote the first draft of the script for The Empire Strikes Back. It’s only been in the last couple of years that she’s been given much credit for that work. Personally, I’ve always found that installment of the franchise to be the best.
Brackett wrote few novels, and most of them were planetary adventure. The one exception was The Long Tomorrow. This post-apocalyptic tale was inspired by observing the Amish near her Ohio home and concluding that they would be the group best suited to surviving in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust. It’s widely regarded as being among her best work.
Brackett’s short fiction tended to take place in a solar system of her own imagining. It was a colorful place that could still possibly exist in the early 1940s. And while the solar system as we currently know it has eliminated any chance of swamps on Venus or tribal conflicts on Mars, her solar system is still a favorite of mine.
It was the fall of my freshman year in high school. I had joined the Science Fiction Book Club back in the summer. In August or so, they offered The Best of Leigh Brackett. (I would buy and read The Best of Edmond Hamilton when it was offered a few months later. The SFBC was offering a different Best of volume every month in those days. I bought every single one.) As I read through the book, I was swept up into a solar system of grand adventure. Many of Brackett’s Mars stories have a sadness about them that spoke to the lonely teenager I was in those days. She’s been among my favorites ever since.
I’m going to be looking in depth at more of her fiction in future posts, but I want to focus on some things dealing with her reputation within the field. I touched on these in a post earlier this year, but I want to mention some things specifically about Brackett again.
Apparently there’s a myth that Brackett was told by at least one pulp sf editor that she had to write under the pen name “Leigh” because readers wouldn’t accept a female author. Not true. Leigh is her given name on her birth certificate.
There’s also a myth that she quit writing sf in the 1940s because she was driven from the field for being a woman. Again, not true. She was hired away from the pulps by better paying markets because she was such a good writer. (Really, from what orifice are these people pulling this stuff?) Not to put too fine a point on it, Leigh Brackett was too good a writer to be contained by such a low paying market as the pulps. What was the greater world’s gain was our loss.
There’s another point I want to deal with, and that’s race. If you look closely at her work, she doesn’t handle race in the stereotypical pulp fashion. I’m not going to get into this issue in any detail here. Rather, I’m going to bring it up as I encounter race in her stories, starting with the next one, “The Vanishing Venusians”. (Yes, that’s a reading assignment.)
Finally, Brackett hasn’t been totally forgotten. Haffner Press is bringing out a centennial volume containing an unpublished short story. I’ve already ordered my copy and am eagerly awaiting its arrival.
UPDATE: Haffner Press announced earlier today it would be publishing The Book of Stark, containing all the Eric John Stark stories. Preorder it here for $45.