RIP Elmore Leonard: Novelist, Screenwriter, Detroit Ad Man

“I ordered a Cadillac,” says Chili Palmer as he arrives at the rental counter at LAX. “Oh,” says the attendant, “well, you got the Cadillac of minivans.” That running gag at the expense of the Oldsmobile Silhouette never appeared in the novel Get Shorty, but it was classic Elmore Leonard-inspired idea, and made the film adaptation a great piece of art. Elmore Leonard died today — August 20, 2013 — at his home following complications from a stroke he suffered on August 5.

Elmore “Dutch” Leonard started his career as a novelist writing western stories for pulp magazines like Argosy. Two of his early western novels — the “Tall T” and “3:10 to Yuma” — were adapted into films in the 1950s, the latter again remade in 2007, starring Russell Crowe and Christian Bale.

For much of his early career, though, Leonard was an ad man, working as a copywriter for GM’s agency of record, Campbell-Ewald. Among his other accolades, Leonard has the distinction of being the man who hired David E. Davis as a copywriter. Davis wrote about Leonard in a posthumous article that appeared in The National:

Elmore was a highly regarded and much-loved star in the agency’s creative department. His main assignment was Chevrolet truck testimonial advertising. Dealers would suggest fleet operators in their territories who were using Chevrolet trucks for difficult work in challenging circumstances, and Elmore would pay them a visit, talk to the truck drivers and create the ads and catalogues. This sometimes led to late evenings in the local Veteran of Foreign Wars Hall, where Elmore would attempt to draw the drivers out, encouraging them to wax colourful on their love for their Chevys. As the evenings wore on, descriptions often became unprintable. The slight, bespectacled writer from the ad agency would be regarded as the bringer of some great morning-after plague.

Leonard took the same approach to novel writing, and it infused the gritty realism of his stories. ”Your prose makes Raymond Chandler look clumsy,” Amis told Leonard at a Writers Guild event in Beverly Hills in 1998. Stephen King has called him “The Great American writer.” 

He wrote specifically about Detroit in many of his novels, but he claimed that it was just because he knew the city. “If I lived in Buffalo,” he said, “I’d write about Buffalo.”