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Wed, 07.14.1909

Willard Motley, Novelist for Film born

Willard Motley

*On this date in 1909, Willard Motley was born. He was a Black novelist whose works have been adapted to visual media.

From Chicago, Willard Francis Motley was raised in a middle-class neighborhood. He began his writing career when, at the age of 13, he submitted a short story to the Chicago Defender that was published. He was given the chance by that newspaper to write a weekly column in the children’s section under the pen name "Bud Billiken.” It was Motley who was the original "Bud Billiken," writer of entertaining pieces, children’s stories, and later, with a growing sense of social awareness, racial pride, and human suffering. At Englewood High School, Motley was active with the school’s newspaper and yearbook.

After graduation in 1929, Motley knew he wanted to be a writer and planned to attend the University of Wisconsin, but was unable to do so due to the Depression.  Instead, he took a bicycle trip from Chicago to New York as well as two automobile trips to California and the west, hoping to acquire a sense of what it was he wished to write about. He worked as a ranch hand, cook, migrant laborer, shipping clerk, photographer, interviewer for the Chicago Housing Authority, and a writer for the Office of Civil Defense. Around 1940, he lived in Chicago’s slums, an experience that gave him the material for his first novel Knock on Any Door (1947).

This work was reviewed as a significant contribution to the naturalist tradition of American literature. So influencing was the book that it was made into a Hollywood feature film in 1949 starring Humphrey Bogart.  In 1951, Motley published We Fished All Night, a story that examines the lives of three World War II veterans.  Let No Man Write My Epitaph the sequel to Knock on Any Door followed in 1958 and was made into another feature film two years later.

His last novel, Let Noon Be Fair (1966), looked at the gradual demise of a Mexican fishing village that was popular with American tourists. Willard Motley lived in Mexico for the last twelve years of his life, dying of gangrene in Mexico City on March 4, 1965.

To be a Writer


Chicago Literary

The Encyclopedia of African American Heritage
by Susan Altman
Copyright 1997, Facts on File, Inc. New York
ISBN 0-8160-3289-0

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