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Leigh (Douglass) Brackett (1915-1978)


American writer of crime novels and short stories, who also wrote screenplays for several highly acclaimed films by Howard Hawks, and television scripts. Shortly before her death, Brackett finished a draft of Star Warsn II: The Empire Strikes Back (1979) for the director and pulp fiction fan George Lucas. Brackett's major work was in the field science and fantasy fiction (over 200 titles), at that time dominated by male writers.

"Howard Hawks sits down with you for a series of chats, giving you all his thoughts on what kind of story he wants, how it ought to go, etc., and then retires to Palm Springs and the golf course, leaving you to come up with a script the best way you can." (From 'The Big Sleep to The Long Goodbye' by Leight Brackett, in Take One, 1974)

Leigh Douglass Brackett was born in Los Angeles, California, the daughter of William Franklin and Margaret Douglass Brackett. Her father was a certified public accountant; he died in the influenza epidemic of 1918. Brackett was raised in Santa Monica by her mother and grandparents. At an early age, she became a great fan of Robert E. Howard, C.L. Moore and Edgar Rice Burroughs and his John Carter's Martian Stories. These swashbuckling fantasies and space operas are visible also in the short story 'The Lake of Gone-Forever' (1949): "But it was easy, out of his childhood memories and those strangely incoherent notes, to build a romantic mystery around the lonely prospector's discovery of an unknown world and his subsequent haunted death. Marcia had found it all fascinating and did not doubt for a moment Conway's statement that he was seeking to solve that mystery which, he said, had overshadowed his whole life." Brackett's first short story, 'Martian Quest,' was published in Astounding Science Fiction magazine in 1940; she was 25 at that time.

From 1939 Brackett worked as a free-lance writer. She was a regular contributor to Planet Stories alongside with Ray Bradbury, and published such interplanetary adventures as 'The Dragon-Queen of Jupiter' (1941), originally set on Venus, 'Interplanetary Reporter' (1941), 'No Star is Lost' (1944), and 'Terror Out of Space' (1944). Throughout the early 1940s, Brackett and Bradbury read each other's manuscripts. Later Bradbury paid back Brackett's help by writing the second half of her novella 'Lorelei of the Red Mist'.

In 1946 Brackett married the science fiction writer Edmond Hamilton (1904-1977), who earned his nickname "world saver" by producing stories in which an imperiled Earth was always saved from destruction in the final chapter. With Hamilton she moved to Kinsman, Ohio. Brackett herself specialized in planetary romances and sword and sorcery tales, such as The Sword of Rhiannon (1953). The Long Tomorrow (1955), about a fascistic, postapocalyptic America, was more serious, and reflected America's cold war fears.

Brackett began publishing science fiction stories in 1940 and created Eric John Stark series in the vein of E. R. Burroughs's space stories. The adventures, set in Mars, appeared later in an expanded book form and were assembled as Eric John Stark: Outlaw of Mars (1982). The Stark stories were reviewed in the 1970s and set this time on the distant world of Skaith and assembled as The Book of Skaith (1976). By the 1950s Brackett concentrated more on interstellar space operas, including The Starmen (1952).

Brackett acknowledged Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett from the Black Mask school as major influences on her work. Her output of crime fiction was relatively small three novels and some dozen short stories. In her novel, No Good from a Corpse  (1944), set in Southern California and featuring the private detective Edmond Clive, the models were obvious, but Brackett also showed her skill in creating colorful, sharp dialogue. Ed's girlfriend is murdered and during his hunt for the killer, he is constantly knocked out. In her story 'So Pale, So Cold, So Fair' (1957) the protagonist, a heir to Western heroes, cleans up a crooked town a theme that was repeated in her Howard Hawks movie westerns. 'I Feel Bad Killing You' was first published in New Detective in 1944. Curiosly, Brackett never wrote for Black Mask. The protagonist is Paul Channing, a detective who has quit the force. Years later Paul returns to find out who killed his brother, also a police. Paul is a typical hero from Brackett's stories he has lost his former firm ground and tries to find renewed meaning in his life. "His expression was that of a man who hopes for nothing and is therefore immune to blows." It turns out that he killer is a cunning, treacherous woman, Marge. Paul says, "A smart girl, Marge, and a pretty one. I don't think I'll want to stand outside the window while you die." The sadistic and masochistic elements of the story can be seen as a prelude to the post-war nihilism of Mickey Spillane.

In 1946 Brackett ghost-wrote Stranger at Home for the film actor George Sanders. The Tiger Among Us (1957) told of a citizen-turned-vigilante, who seeks to revenge himself on a gang of teenage hoodlums. A kind of early Death Wish story, it was filmed as 13 West Street starring Alan Ladd. No Good from a Corpse portrayed a hard-boiled detective who is determined to clear an innocent man of the murder of his girlfriend. When Hawks read the book, he decided to get Brackett to write the screenplay of Chandler's The Big Sleep with William Faulkner and Jules Furthman. However, the director was surprised when he learned that Brackett was a woman. And at the age of 28 she also appeared young compared with Furthman, who was nearly 60. But Hawks especially loved at least in his films tough-talking dames, and Brackett has hired.

After 1955 Brackett generally preferred to work in films and tv, notably contributing screenplays for several Howard Hawks productions. They both shared the same literary taste, she was sophisticated, dressed in somewhat outdoorsy manner, which the director liked, and she had spent much of her childhood in Pasadena, not far from the Hawks home. Moreover, her portrayal of the spirit of comradeship was of the kind that appealed to him. "There's probably no stronger emotion than friendship between men," Hawks once said. Brackett started to write in Santa Monica Rio Bravo with Jules Furthman in 1957; he was now seventy. She made most of the actual writing, but got only $600 weekly. Furthman, who hated to put anything down on paper, received $2,500 a week. Brackett considered her original script for El Dorado the best she had ever written, but Hawks found it too tragic; from 1930s he had generally avoided killing off his leading characters.

For Hatari! Brackett worked at $750 a week in the beginning, but Hawks also hired the brothers Waldman to write separately from her with a $35,000 fee. In the romantic farce Man's Favorite Sport? (1964), starring Rock Hudson, Brackett worked uncredited, but she was with the crew throughout the filming, writing and rewriting scenes. She was denied screen credit by the Writers Guild of America, although Hawks and the initial writers, John Fenton Murray and Steven McNeil, were on her side. In Red Line 7000 (1965), about stock car racers, Brackett again worked uncredited. When Hawks tried to hire her to write the script for Rio Lobo (1970) in 1969, Brackett refused because she was just about to leave on a trip around the world. After returning from her travels in December, Brackett continued the work of Burton Wohl. "Most of what I did on Rio Lobo was to try and patch over the holes," she recalled. "I was unhappy that he went back to the same old ending of the trade, because it was done beautifully in Rio Bravo and done over again in El Dorado."

Brackett's screenplay for Robert Altman's film The Long Goodbye (1973) was based on the resigned novel, which Chandler published in 1953. However, in twenty years Chandler's knightly private detective, Philip Marlowe, had became too much plagiarized figure, a cliché. When Marlowe was a hero in Hawks's The Big Sleep, he was in Altman's modernized version an unshaven slob, and instead of being the tough-guy, he didn't even win a fight. "A spit in the eye to a great writer," commented Michael Billington Altman's film in Illustrated London News.

Brackett's later novels include Follow the Free Wind (1963), a fictional account of James Beckworth, a former slave, an adventurer, who became a legend on the frontier. This work received the Spur Award from Western Writers of America. Her novel An Eye for Eye (1957) was the pilot for the television series Markham, which ran in 1959-60. It starred starring Ray Milland and focused on a globe-trotting attorney, who was also a self-made investigator. The Best of Leigh Brackett (1977), carefully edited by her husband, offered the readers highlights from her long career as a crime, mystery, and science fiction writer. Shortly after completing her first draft of Empire Strikes Back, Brackett died of cancer on March 24, 1978, in Lancaster, California. Lucas did not like the result, but in 1980 she received posthumously a Hugo Award for Star Wars II.

For further reading: Leigh Brackett, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Anne McCaffey: A Primary and Secondary Bibliography by Rosemarie Arbur (1982); Leigh Brackett: American Writer by J.L. Carr (1986); Leigh Brackett and Edmond Hamilton: A Working Bibliography by Gordon Benson Jr. (1986); The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, ed. by John Clute and Peter Nicholls (1993); Encyclopedia of Pulp Fiction Writers by Lee Server (2002)


  • The Vampire's Ghost, 1945 (with John K. Butler)
    - Prod. Republic Pictures, dir. Lesley Selander, starring John Abbott, Charles Gordon and Peggy Stewart
  • Crime Doctor's Manhunt, 1946 (with Eric Taylor)
    - Prod. Larry Darmour Productions, dir. William Castle, starring Warner Baxter, Ellen Drew and William Frawley
  • The Big Sleep, 1946 (with William Faulkner and Jules Furthman)
    - Prod. Warner Bros. Pictures Inc., dir. by Howard Hawks, starring Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Martha Vickers, John Ridgely. "Less effective as a Philip Marlowe movie than Murder My Sweet, this sticks faithfully to its source novel (simply omitting the sex, drugs and pornography MacGuffin, thus rendering an already complex plot impenetrable) until the last reel, which exposes a conventionally rotten hood (Ridgely) as the villain rather than the hophead nymphomaniac at the heart of Chandler's nasty pattern of murder and corruption." (The BFI Companion to Crime, ed. by Phil Hardy, 1997.)
  • Eye for an Eye, 1958 (story, in Suspicion)
    - Prod. Shamley Productions, teleplay Jameson Brewer, John Kneubuhl, Stirling Silliphant, dir. Jules Bricken, starring Ray Milland, Macdonald Carey and Kathleen Crowley
  • Rio Bravo, 1959 (with Jules Furthman and B.H. McCampbell)
    - Prod. Armada Productions, dir. Howard Hawks, starring John Wayne, Dean Martin, Angie Dickinson, Ricky Nelson
  • Face in the Window, 1960 (teleplay, in Checkmate)
    - Prod. Jamco Productions, dir. Robert Florey, starring Anthony George, Doug McClure and Sebastian Cabot
  • Gold of the Seven Saints, 1961 (with Leonard Freeman)
    - Prod. Warner Bros. Pictures, dir. Gordon Douglas, starring Clint Walker, Roger Moore and Letícia Román
  • Hatari!, 1962 (with Harry Kurnitz)
    - Prod. Malabar, dir. Howard Hawks, starring John Wayne, Elsa Martinelli and Hardy Krüger
  • Death of a Cop, 1963 (teleplay, based on a story by Douglas Warner, in The Alfred Hitchcock Hour)
    - Prod. Shamley Productions, dir. Joseph M. Newman, starring Alfred Hitchcock, Victor Jory and Peter Brown
  • Terror at Northfield, 1963 (teleplay, based on a story by Frederic Dannay, in The Alfred Hitchcock Hour)
    - Prod. Shamley Productions, dir. Harvey Hart, starring Alfred Hitchcock, Dick York and Jacqueline Scott
  • Man's Favorite Sport?, 1964 (uncredited, screenplay by John Fenton Murray, Steven McNeil)
    - Prod. Gibraltar Productions, Laurel Productions, Universal Pictures, dir. Howard Hawks, starring Rock Hudson, Paula Prentiss, Maria Perschy
  • El Dorado, 1967 (screenplay)
    - Prod. Paramount Pictures, Laurel Productions, dir. Howard Hawks, starring John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Charlene Holt and James Caan
  • Rio Lobo, 1970 (with Burton Wohl)
    - Prod. Batjac Productions, Cinema Center Films, Malabar, dir. Howard Hawks, starring John Wayne, Jorge Rivero, Jennifer O'Neill, Jack Elam
  • The Long Goodbye, 1973 (from Raymond Chandler's novel)
    - Prod. E-K-Corporation, Lion's Gate Films, dir. Robert Altman, starring Elliot Gould, Nina Van Pallandt, Sterling Hayden. "The movie opens with a rasping fanfare, a blast from an old record of "Hooray for Hollywood." It neatly sets the tone for this travesty of Raymond Chandler's superb novel about honor and friendship, two subjects among a great many that Robert Altman cannot bring himself to take seriously... Any resemblance between Chandler's book and this movie is not only coincidental but probably libelous." (Jay Cocks, Time, April 9, 1973)
  • The Body Beautiful, 1975 (teleplay, in Archer)
    - Prod. Paramount Television, dir. Edward M. Abroms, starring Brian Keith, John Calvin and Kim Darby
  • The Four Pound Brick, 1975 (teleplay, with others, in The Rockford Files)
    - Prod. Roy Huggins-Public Arts Productions, Cherokee Productions, starring James Garner, Noah Beery Jr. and Edith Atwater
  • Star Wars II: The Empire Strikes Back, 1979 (with Lawrence Kasdan)
    - Prod. Lucasfilm, dir. Irving Kershner, starring Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher. "The Empire Strikes Back... is malodorous offal... everything is stale, limp, desperately stretched out, and pretentious.. Harrison Ford (Han) offers loutishness for charm and becomes the epitome of the interstellar drugstore cowboy. Mark Hamill (Luke) is still the talentless Tom Sawyer of outer space - wide-eyed, narrow-minded, strait-laced. Worst of all is Carrie Fisher, whose Leia is a cosmic Shirley Temple but without the slightest acting ability or vestige prettiness." (John Simon in National Review, June 13, 1980)

Novels, short stories, and other works:

  • No Good from a Corpse, 1944
  • Stranger at Home, 1947 (ghostwritten for George Sanders)
  • Shadow Over Mars, 1951 (US title: The Nemesis from Terra, 1961)
  • The Starmen, 1952 (abridged edition The Galactic Breed, 1955; as The Starmen of Llyrdis, 1976)
  • The Sword of Rhiannon, 1953 (with a new introd. by Elizabeth A. Lynn, 1979)
  • The Big Jump, 1955
  • The Long Tomorrow, 1955
  • The Tiger Among Us, 1957 (UK title: Fear No Evil, 1960; as 13 West Street, 1962). Film: 13 West Street, 1962, Ladd Enterprises, Columbia Pictures Corp., screenplay Bernard C. Schoenfeld, Robert Presnell, Jr., dir. Philip Leacock, starring Alan Ladd, RodSteiger, DoloresDorn
  • An Eye for an Eye, 1957
  • Rio Bravo, 1959 (novelization of the screenplay)
  • Follow the Free Wind, 1963
  • Alpha Centauri - or Die!, 1963
  • People of the Talisman & The Secret Sinharat, 1964
  • The Coming of the Terrans, 1967
  • Silent Partner, 1969
  • The Halfling and Other Stories, 1973
  • The Ginger Star, 1974
  • Strange Adventures in Other Worlds, 1975 (ed.)
  • The Book of Skaith: The Adventures of Eric John Stark, 1976
  • The Hounds of Skaith, 1976
  • The Reavers of Skaith, 1976
  • The Best of Leigh Brackett, 1977 (edited and with an introduction by Edmond Hamilton, afterword by Leigh Brackett)
  • The Best of Edmond Hamilton, 1977 (edited and with an introd. by Leigh Brackett, afterword by Edmond Hamilton)
  • The Empire Strikes Back Notebook, 1980 (edited by Diana Attias and Lindsay Smith, art direction and design by Melanie Paykos)
  • Eric John Stark, Outlaw of Mars, 1982
  • Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back  The Illustrated Screenplay, 1998 (Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan)
  • Brackett Stories: Volume One, Number One, 2001
  • Martian Quest: The Early Brackett, 2001
  • Lorelei of the Red Mist: Planetary Romances, 2007 (foreword by Ray Bradbury, introduction by Harry Turtledove, illustrations by Frank Kelly Freas)
  • Shannach - the Last: Farewell to Mars, 2010 (introduction by Anne McCaffrey)

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