Herlihy, James Leo.

Alternative names
Birth 1927-02-27
Death 1993-10-21

Biographical notes:

James Leo Herlihy’s stories about the underside of American culture, told through the experiences of those outside of the mainstream, have garnered their author comparisons with Sherwood Anderson. Herlihy was born in Detroit, Michigan, on February 27, 1927. After leaving high school, he enlisted in the Navy in 1945, receiving his overseas orders just two days before the end of World War II. From 1947–48, with money from the G.I. Bill, Herlihy attended Black Mountain College in North Carolina, a small, experimental institution whose faculty included Merce Cunningham, John Cage, William De Kooning, and other innovative figures in the arts. There, Herlihy studied art, music, and literature.

Herlihy formed strong relationships in the Black Mountain community, and his friendships with such figures as Anais Nin and the poet/potter M. C. (Mary Caroline) Richards would provide inspiration and support in his future creative endeavors. After an aptitude test indicated that his abilities might lie in the theatre, Herlihy moved to California and attended the Pasadena Playhouse College from 1948–1950. Over the next four years, Herlihy performed in about fifty plays in theaters along the West Coast. In the early sixties, he became a member of the Theater Company of Boston, and he continued acting, off and on, throughout his life. Some highlights of his theatrical career included roles in Edward Albee’s Zoo Story (which he performed in Paris and Boston in 1963) and in the film Four Friends (1982).

The Pasadena Playhouse also produced Herlihy’s first plays: Streetlight Sonata (1950) and Moon in Capricorn (1953). In 1953, Herlihy collaborated with his teacher William Noble on the play Blue Denim, which had a successful run on Broadway in 1958 and was adapted into a film in 1959. From 1953–1958, Herlihy wrote scripts for television. In 1959, he directed Tallulah Bankhead in a touring production of his play Crazy October . A trio of Herlihy’s one-act plays, collected under the title Stop You’re Killing Me (1970), included Terrible Jim Fitch (produced in 1965), Bad Bad Jo-Jo (produced in 1969), and Laughs, Etc. (produced in 1973).

Herlihy was also successful as a fiction writer. In 1952, the Paris Review published one of his short stories that would become the title work of his 1959 collection, The Sleep of Baby Filbertson and Other Stories . His first novel, All Fall Down, was published in 1960, and 1965 saw the appearance of Midnight Cowboy . This latter work was adapted into an Academy Award-winning film, and much of Herlihy’s lasting fame is based on the popularity of that movie. Despite this acclaim, Herlihy would only publish two more books: a collection of short stories and plays entitled A Story That Ends in a Scream and Eight Others (1967), and a novel about a young teenage runaway, The Season of the Witch (1971).

If Herlihy became more ambivalent about his writing over the years, he developed an increasing enthusiasm for teaching. He led classes in playwriting at City College, New York, in 1967–68, and was a distinguished visiting professor at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, in 1983. He also taught acting and writing at many other institutions, including Colorado College and the University of Southern California.

Herlihy traveled extensively throughout the United States and Europe, but lived for much of his life in Los Angeles, California. He also resided in Key West, Florida, in the late sixties and early seventies, and in New York City during various intervals. Herlihy died on October 20, 1993.

Kendle, Burton S. “James Leo Herlihy,” Contemporary American Dramatists. Ed. K.A. Berney. Detroit: St. James Press, 1994. pp. 261-265. “James Leo Herlihy, 66, Novelist who wrote Midnight Cowboy.” New York Times, 22 Oct., 1993: B9. Olendorf, Donna, ed. Contemporary Authors. Volume.143. Detroit: Gale Research Co, 1994. p. 191. Biographical information also derived from the collection. For supplemental genealogical information, please contact the manuscripts librarian for assistance with the collection folder.

From the guide to the James Leo Herlihy papers, 1959–1986, (University of Delaware Library - Special Collections)


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