Cain showed he was an able novelist


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Taking Note Of History

August 06, 2005|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

In a recent column, my colleague Kevin Cowherd mentioned Annapolis-born author James M. Cain, whose steamy, hard-boiled crime novels filled with love, sex and murder, written in the 1930s and '40s, are still capable of generating enough heat reminiscent of a summer's day in Baltimore.

Cain, whose blockbuster novels - The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce and Serenade - will always define his career and a time, considered himself nothing more than a newspaperman.

"I am 54 years old, weigh 220 pounds and look like the chief dispatcher of a long-distance hauling concern. I am a registered Democrat. I drink," he said of himself in 1946.

A Washington College graduate, Cain served in World War I, and wrote for The Cross of Lorraine, the newspaper of the American Expeditionary Force's 79th Division. After the war, he returned to Baltimore, working first as a reporter for the Baltimore American and later The Sun, where he fell under the influence of H.L. Mencken.

After leaving The Sun, he went to work in New York City, where he wrote editorials for Walter Lippmann at The New York World. He also continued writing pieces for the American Mercury, edited by Mencken.

Cain was briefly managing editor of The New Yorker before heading to Hollywood in 1931 to work as a screenwriter.

Cain said he "flopped" as a screenwriter, forcing him to return to the novel. He was 42 when his first book, The Postman Always Rings Twice, was published in 1934, making him a household name and putting him at the top of the best-seller list.

The novel is the story of Cora Papadakis and her Greek husband, Nick, who own and operate a roadside restaurant and gas station on a lonely stretch of California highway. Into their lives comes Frank Chambers, a drifter, who becomes Cora's lover. They later kill Nick.

Postman was filmed twice, first in 1946 with John Garfield and Lana Turner, in a wonderful film noir style. The 1981 interpretation, featuring graphic sex scenes, starred Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange.

"A lot of novelists start late - Conrad, Pirandello, even Mark Twain. When you're young, chess is all right, and music and poetry," Cain told John Leonard of The New York Times, in a 1969 interview.

"But novel writing is something else. It has to be learned, but it can't be taught. This bunkum and stinkum of college-creative courses - writers make their decision to write in secret. The academics don't know that. They don't know that the only thing you can do for someone who wants to write is buy him a typewriter."

It was perhaps Cain's employment of "roughneck vernacular" - like that of author John O'Hara - that gave his novel's characters a believable realism.

Cain had four wives: Mary Rebekah Clough; Elina Sjosted Tyszecka; Aileen Pringle, a film actress; and finally Florence Macbeth, an opera singer, to whom he was married for 18 years until her death in 1966.

In 1948, Cain and his wife moved to a small house in University Park, just south of College Park, where he lived until his death in 1977.

Being away from California, which had long been his muse, was something Cain came to regret.

"California is a neck of the woods everyone is fascinated with," he told biographer Roy Hoopes, whose Cain: The Biography of James M. Cain was published in 1982. "It was El Dorado. You can put it in your book, `It was nothing but a wayside filling station - like millions of others in California' and that's OK. Any piece of California, no matter how drab, prosaic or dull, is California just the same, the Land of Golden Promise. And I don't know anyone who is holding his breath over Prince George's County, Maryland."

Frank Mason, an Evening Sun copy editor and bibliophile who died in 1998, was an old friend and colleague. He was an avid collector of 1920s, '30s and '40s fiction, and was curious about how Cain settled on the title of Postman, after first calling it Bar-B-Cue. In 1976, he wrote to Cain asking why.

In his reply, Cain wrote that he had been visiting an old friend, Vincent Lawrence, a playwright, to whom he dedicated Postman.

Lawrence, Cain wrote, had sent his first play to a producer in Boston and sat around anxiously waiting for a reply. Each day he looked for the postman and then decided to go upstairs so he wouldn't see him making his rounds.

"`But then,' he went on, `I caught myself waiting for his ring. And no fooling around about that ring - the [S.O.B.] always rang twice. I asked him once, why do you do that? And he told me: Oh we generally ring twice, so you know it's the Postman,'" Cain wrote in his letter.

"I interrupted him to say: `Vincent, I think you've given me a title to that book: The Postman Always Rings Twice.' ... He said, `Hey, hey, hey - he sure rang twice for Chambers, didn't he?' I said, `That's it.'"

"The publisher of course hated it, and did his best to talk me out of it. However, I stuck to it and it was quite a success."

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