A version of this biographical essay will appear in 100 American Crime Writers (Palgrave, forthcoming), edited by Steven Powell. Visit The Venetian Vase for more information.
McCoy, Horace Stanley (b. 14 April, 1897, d. 15 December, 1955); married three times: Loline Sherer (1), 1921; unknown “Dallas socialite” (2); Helen Vinmont (3), 1933. One son, Stanley, from his first marriage, and a daughter Amanda, and son Peter, from his third. Best known for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1935), McCoy wrote five novels, four of them on themes such as civic corruption and moral collapse born of desperation; a sixth novel was published after his death, based on fragments of manuscript and film treatments. He was among a group of writers who defined the “hard-boiled” style in the 1930s. McCoy also wrote many screenplays over two decades as a writer in Hollywood and had several of his novels adapted for the big screen, notably by Sydney Pollack in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969). See Also: Cain, James M; Chandler, Raymond; Daly, Carroll John; Hammett, Dashiell; Faulkner, William; Spillane, Mickey.
Born on April 14, 1897 in the small town of Pegram (also known as Pegram’s Station), Tennessee, McCoy grew up in Nashville, the state capital. Throughout his childhood McCoy’s parents were poor, though not as poor as he liked people to think. His maternal great grandfather had founded the town of Pegram and other ancestors had been Civil War officers, but McCoy’s father worked on the railroad and later as a traveling salesman. McCoy’s biographer, John Sturak, pictures the family as “‘land poor’ gentry”; McCoy himself later described his parents as “book rich-money poor.” They moved to Dallas when McCoy was 15 years old and though he grew up an avid reader he spent only one year (1912-1913) in high school before leaving to help his father sell Jewel Brand coffee and tea.
McCoy’s writing career began while he was on active service in the Air National Guard during World War I, when he wrote articles for the unit’s newspaper, the Romo Exhaust. He served in France from July 1918 until the end of the war as an aerial observer, a job that required lying face down in the belly of a plane taking photographs, but he also acted as radio operator, navigator, gunner, and bombardier. He received the Croix de guerre for bravery from the French government when he managed to bring his plane home after the pilot was killed and he had been injured by two machine gun bullets. He later added a palm to his medal. When the war ended McCoy became publicity manager for the “Romo Follies,” a travelling entertainment show provided for the troops.
After the war it didn’t take long for McCoy to find a writing job. He returned to Dallas in 1919 and presented himself at the offices of the Dallas Morning News looking for work. Always blessed with huge self-belief, McCoy suggested he was an ex-New York Tribune writer and was given a job as a reporter, only to lose it again three days later when his deception was uncovered. He was then hired by the Dallas Dispatch but soon moved to the Dallas Journal as a news reporter. He transferred to the sports desk, where he stayed for ten years, until it was discovered that he had been inventing news stories. McCoy was also a popular and leading figure in the Dallas Little Theatre and even helped establish The Dallasite, a short-lived magazine along the lines of the New Yorker, for which he wrote theatre reviews, sports reports, and sketches of the Dallas social scene.
McCoy married Loline Sherer on July 9, 1921 and they had a son, Stanley, born in 1924. They divorced after 7 years and McCoy married a second time to a woman described in most sources as “a Dallas socialite.” The marriage did not last long and he was married for a third time in 1933 to Helen Vinmont, whose wealthy family disapproved of the match. They had two children, Amanda and Peter.
Started Writing Fiction
By the mid-1920s McCoy had already shown himself to be a capable journalist, but he wanted to write stories and published his first, “Brass Buttons,” in Holland’s Magazine in 1927. The same year he sold the first of seventeen stories he would eventually write for Black Mask magazine, the most famous of the “pulp” magazines of the time. McCoy’s magazine stories are full of action, tough guy bravado, and hard-boiled dialogue, but like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, both of whom began their writing careers at Black Mask, they also display a style and flair that are recognisably his own. Unlike Hammett and Chandler however, McCoy did not re-use his short stories in his novels.
McCoy had several successes as a leading man on the stage of the Dallas Little Theatre. At six feet tall and of athletic build, McCoy decided he wanted to become a professional actor and moved to Hollywood in 1931 to take up the offer of a screen test at MGM. But when that failed he began to make a small living writing scenarios and story treatments as well as continuing to write for Black Mask. Most of his original ideas for scripts, including one for a movie about a marathon dance competition submitted in the early 1930s, came to nothing.
McCoy published his first novel, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? in 1935, to mixed reviews. Like the rest of McCoy’s novels They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is an exposé of sorts, but it also introduced McCoy’s bleak view of the value of human endeavour. The marathon dance craze that gripped small-town America at the time offered people “free food and free bed for as long as you last and a thousand dollars if you win.” What the promoters of these freak shows didn’t say was that the bed would only be available for a few minutes at a time and that people would pay to watch the dancers humiliate and injure themselves.
McCoy’s own disappointing experience of looking for work in the movies no doubt fed into the mood of the book, but its clear-sightedness is the work of McCoy the reporter, finding a shocking human story behind a popular entertainment. The novel’s narrator, Robert, describes the desperation of “contestants” willing to damage their health in order to get noticed by the “Hollywood bunch.” His death-row narrative actually manages to make suicide seem preferable to the life he sees all around him. Perhaps it wasn’t what people wanted to hear in the middle of the Great Depression: the novel failed to win widespread acclaim in the United States and sold just 3000 copies.
Success in Europe
The book’s success in Europe—especially in France—was a different matter. French readers were already consuming American crime and mystery stories in large numbers. Writers such as Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner were among the more “literary” writers who were well known in France at the time and McCoy’s name was soon being mentioned alongside them as one of the most important contemporary American writers. The tough existentialist message of his first novel also led to comparisons with Jean-Paul Sartre and McCoy was described as “the American existentialist,” though there is no evidence that McCoy read the work of the French philosopher. Both the sentiment and the death row narrative of Albert Camus’ novel L’Etranger (The Outsider) (1942) seem to have originated in James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) rather than McCoy’s novel, but the latter was certainly a popular favourite in France: in 1944 a French translation of McCoy’s novel was published by the French Resistance.
By the mid-1930s McCoy was making headway in the film industry. He wrote screenplays for films such as The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936), Persons in Hiding (1938), and later Gentleman Jim (1942), the biopic of boxer James J. Corbett, and The Lusty Men (1952), a defining film in the career of actor Robert Mitchum. But despite these successes McCoy remained a frustrated novelist and continued to write fiction: he published No Pockets in a Shroud, in 1938. This second novel is the story of an investigative journalist who goes up against corruption and a Ku Klux Klan-like fascist organisation called The Crusaders. There are clear resonances here of McCoy’s own experiences as editor of The Dallasite, where he had made a name for himself in 1930 exposing scandals in the Dallas police department. He also wrote extensively in the magazine about the controversial 1929 baseball series. Unlike Mike Dolan, the hero of his novel, McCoy did not actually establish the magazine for which he wrote, but he did use its pages to campaign against corruption and the “lazy” journalists who allowed it to continue.
By the late 1930s McCoy’s reputation as a serious novelist was growing, especially in Europe, where an advertisement for No Pockets in a Shroud featured portraits of McCoy and Hemingway side by side. But in the United States he remained a marginal figure. No Pockets was released mainly in response to McCoy’s success in Europe and it did not sell well in the writer’s home country. I Should Have Stayed Home (1938) is a Hollywood novel with a naïve protagonist named Ralph whose efforts to become a screen actor are thwarted by bad luck: his Southern drawl disqualifies him from working in the “talkies.” The novel is a tale of sexual confusion and sado-masochism in which Ralph is dominated by an older, predatory woman. Mark Roydon Winchell identifies its central flaw: “Ralph Carston is just too stupid to produce much reader empathy.”
The relative lack of success of these novels and the pressure of his scriptwriting work kept McCoy away from writing fiction for the next decade. But he gradually became aware of the success of his novels outside the United States in the mid-1940s and was encouraged enough to return to fiction writing. Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye appeared in 1948 and is arguably his most accomplished work, though it never achieved the popularity of They Shoot Horses. Its portrayal of a psychopathic killer is a cut above the stock psycho-killer plots of the time, drawing on what Winchell calls “deep-seated compulsions,” in particular a fear of castration.
Dreams of Escape
Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye shares the dramatic, hard-edged prose style of McCoy’s earlier novels, but is much more ambitious. They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is a simpler, more honest kind of novel, described by Winchell as a “minor masterpiece,” but Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye is McCoy’s attempt at literary greatness and is undeservedly overlooked. Sturak notes the irony that while McCoy had tried unsuccessfully to interest Hollywood in his earlier novels, the rights to this one, which he kept away from his studio contacts, were sold for “a large sum.”
McCoy had dreamed for some time of escaping Hollywood and moving back East to write. But money had always been a distraction to him and the payment for Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye plus the considerable amount of money he earned for his “potboiler,” Scalpel (1952) was soon spent on clothes, foreign travel, and a Lincoln Continental. Scalpel, which he wrote with money and escape in mind is a competent, but uninspired story about a successful doctor and former miner who undergoes a journey of self-realisation and ends up a professor at Harvard.
By the time of its publication McCoy was already overweight and suffering from heart trouble. He had a minor heart attack in 1948, but late in 1953 he suffered another, this time more serious. He did not write again until 1955. That year he submitted the first 46 pages of a new novel, The Hard-Rock Man, to his agent and was also working on a movie treatment of early short stories. The Hard-Rock Man was completed after his death as Corruption City in 1959 and is credited as McCoy’s, but his contribution was not significant. McCoy died suddenly at home on December 15, 1955, from a third heart attack. Despite the success of Scalpel, he died in semi-obscurity and with very little money. His widow had to sell his books to pay for the funeral. An obituary appeared in the New York Times on December 17, 1955.
In all McCoy wrote six novels, almost thirty screenplays, many short stories, movie treatments, and investigative journalism, but his reputation in the United States was always lower than in Europe. It was 14 years after his death that his best-known work, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? became a film, directed by Sydney Pollack and starring Jane Fonda in the role of Gloria, in 1969.
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, 1935.
No Pockets in a Shroud, 1937.
I Should Have Stayed Home, 1938.
Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, 1948.
Corruption City, 1959.
Selected Film Scripts
(With Kubec Glasmon) Parole Fixer, Universal, 1936.
(With Robert Presnell, Sr.) Postal Inspector, Universal, 1936.
(With William R. Lipman) Dangerous to Know, Paramount, 1938.
(With Samuel Ornitz) King of the Newsboys, Republic, 1938.
(With Lipman) Hunted Men, Paramount, 1938.
(With Lipman and Lillie Hayward) Television Spy, Paramount, 1939.
(With Lipman) Island of Lost Men, Paramount, 1939.
(With Lipman) Persons in Hiding, Paramount, 1939.
(With Lipman) Queen of the Mob, Paramount, 1940.
(With Lipman) Women without Names, Paramount, 1940.
(With Lipman) Texas Rangers Ride Again, Paramount, 1940.
Wild Geese Calling, Twentieth-Century Fox, 1941.
(With Michael Blankfort and Lewis Meltzer) Texas, Columbia, 1941.
Valley of the Sun, RKO, 1942.
(With Vincent Lawrence) Gentleman Jim, Warner Brothers/First National, 1942.
(With Michael Hogan) Appointment in Berlin, Columbia, 1943.
(With Barry Trivers) There’s Something About a Soldier, Columbia, 1943.
(With Lawrence Hazard) The Fabulous Texan, Republic, 1947.
(With Norman S. Hall) Montana Belle, RKO, 1949.
(With Tay Garnett) The Fireball, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1950.
(With David Dortort) The Lusty Men, RKO, 1952.
(With Hayward) Bronco Buster, Universal, 1952.
(With Irving Wallace) Bad for Each Other, Columbia, 1954.
(With W. R. Burnett and Charles Bennett) Dangerous Mission, RKO, 1954.
Texas Lady, RKO, 1955.
(With Allen Rivkin) The Road to Denver, Republic, 1955.
Rage at Dawn, RKO, 1955.
For More Information
Sturak, John Thomas. The Life and Writings of Horace McCoy, 1897-1955 (unpublished PhD dissertation). University of California, Los Angeles, 1966.
Winchell, Mark Roydon. Horace McCoy (Western Writers Series). Boise, Idaho: Boise State University, 1982.
Library Journal, March 15, 1997, p. 94.
New York Times, December 17, 1955 (obituary).
New York Times Book Review, July 28, 1935, p. 6.
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