I never wanted to be Raymond Chandler. I wanted to be Philip Marlowe. I never wanted to be Ross Macdonald. I wanted to be Lew Archer. Elmore Leonard was the only author I ever wanted to be. Leonard outsized his characters with his easy charm, sardonic humor and seen-it-all-before eyes. When it came to books, Elmore Leonard was the king of cool. Who wouldn't want to be him?
I didn't know him well enough to call him Dutch. But I knew him. I loved his work and was inspired by it. We did some book gigs together over the years and I cherish the memories now that he's passed. I think, though, I was intimidated by his cool. He had worked so hard and for so long in obscurity before getting his due, before ending up on the cover of Time magazine and in American Express ads. There was nothing that could rock him, no moment for which he didn't have a line.
It was like he was one of those jazz masters who had come out of a long stay in San Quentin. You knew there were dark times back there but he had to go through them to play the music he made now. I never could bring myself to ask about those times. By the time I knew him he was an elder statesman of sorts. He was reviewed and revered, having left obscurity in the dust.
I was working as a journalist in South Florida when his novel, "LaBrava," came out in 1983. It was the first of his books I read. I loved it and thought it captured with a journalist's eye for detail and ear for dialogue the sights and sounds of Miami Beach on the precipice of great social change. Its verisimilitude was inspiring; the book was a lesson. It was also a damn fine crime novel and character study. I still read it again every five or six years or so. Each time it's new — 30 years old and it still stands up. Maybe that's the true measure of a writer. Do the stories stand the test of time? With Elmore Leonard there is no doubt. He may be gone now but his stories are staying.
That same year of "LaBrava" they were making a movie up in Fort Lauderdale of another of his novels, this one called "Stick" with Burt Reynolds in the lead and in the director's seat. I tried to use my press card to get on the set one day. I wanted to find Elmore and tell him thanks for "LaBrava," that I hoped to be doing what he was doing one day. It was a stalker move and luckily my effort to meet him failed. Years later he told me he probably wasn't even on the set.
Hollywood made many forgettable adaptations of his work until common sense came into play with the realization that the greatest asset in an Elmore Leonard story was Elmore Leonard himself. Once he was invited to sit at the table we ended up with films like "Get Shorty," "Out of Sight" and "Jackie Brown," not to mention the fine television show "Justified."
After my rejection at the movie set, it would be another 10 years before I actually met the man. It was at an awards banquet. He handed me a trophy for my first novel and some free advice came with it. He told me not to rest on my laurels. He said one novel was only just a start. I nodded and said "Thanks, Mr. Leonard." I later regretted that I didn't call him Dutch like everybody else.
About 20 years later I sat with him in a barbecue joint in Missouri. He and I and another fine writer, George Pelecanos, had gotten together to tape a radio show. George is a friend and a nice guy but the only reason I would fly to Missouri for a radio show was Elmore Leonard.
We talked about dialogue on the show and how important it was in our writing, that how people talk and what they do and don't say was the doorway to character. It was awkward because the guy George and I had learned that from was sitting right there with us. The recording went well and we went out for barbecue after. Elmore, in his 80s, ordered red wine and lit up a smoke in the restaurant even though that was against the rules. George and I looked at each other. Elmore had not been known to us as a drinker or a smoker. Those were vices from those dark times before Time magazine.
Elmore looked at us and said he had never really quit either habit; he had only just paused. George and I agreed; we were sitting there eating barbecue with the king of cool.