Hunter may scorn success as a beast, but few authors pursued it more strenuously—or as well.
Evan Hunter says in one of his 60 novels that success in America is a frightening, hairy beast stinking of booze and corruption. Its embrace can crush you before it tosses you aside.
Yet people keep stalking the beast—and so has Hunter, with more reason than most. He grew up in a New York Italian ghetto during the Depression; his father made $10 a week as a substitute mailman. “I’m not going to live in slums all my life,” Hunter recalls thinking. “I’m going to get rich and have big houses and expensive cars and beautiful women.”
He began amassing those accoutrements before he was 30, on the strength of the wildly successful The Blackboard Jungle, a 1954 book, then a movie. But neither subsequent best-sellers like Strangers When We Meet and Mothers and Daughters nor $5,000-a-week writing jobs in Hollywood made life as sweet as Hunter expected. “I was sort of a rebel when I went out there,” he says of Hollywood. “I really hated it, and I told everybody I hated it.” The beast’s embrace soon turned savage. Hunter suffered a string of unsuccessful books, a “very unhappy” marriage, a break with his literary agent and several nasty reviews. Of his serious novels he admits, “In some of them I didn’t have a goddamn thing to say.” Now, at 51, an expensive divorce behind him, Hunter says, “I’m starting all over again.”
“Financially,” adds his present wife, Mary Vann, who was born in North Carolina. Her daughter, Amanda Finley, 15, lives with them.
Apparently his troubles only served to goad his productivity. A couple of months ago he completed an 837-page manuscript titled The Gutter Rats, “a very harsh, inside look” at writers, agents, the theater and the movie business. In October, when the book did not find a publisher, Hunter toned it down, cut out a couple of hundred pages and changed the title to Words.
Whether it eventually is a bombshell or a bomb, Hunter will come out with another—and failproof—book next month. It’s the 36th novel by Ed McBain, the most successful of Hunter’s several pseudonyms. The title is Goldilocks; the plot is adultery and murder. The McBain books have sold an estimated 53,000,000 copies in 16 languages. He often begins one with nothing more than a suggestive title. Pinned to his desk now is: Please, Not While I’m Eating. “Of course, it has to be about a poisoning.”
Hunter was born Salvatore Lombino, which he changed not long after graduating Phi Beta Kappa from New York’s Hunter College in 1950. His three grown sons by his first marriage call themselves Hunter.
He has also written under the names Richard Marsten and Hunt Collins. While he was a Navy seaman from 1944 to 1946—and then as a student, high school teacher and junior literary agent—he signed those names to the penny-a-word mysteries and science fiction he pounded out in his spare time. “The John Updikes of the world,” he notes with a vague smile, “don’t come out of the pulps.” (Hunter apparently believes the literary establishment will never take writers with his kind of background seriously.)
Hunter works 9 to 5 in an artist’s studio, a few yards from the converted sawmill that is his house in suburban Connecticut. One upcoming project is to write a CBS-TV miniseries based on his Western, The Chisholms. (“That novel,” he says, “was very hard work. Who the hell knows about getting on a horse?”) A recent McBain, Blood Relatives, has just been filmed in Canada with Donald Sutherland as the star.
“We lead a pretty quiet life,” Hunter says. “We have a lot of small dinner parties. We try to go into the city to the theater, for dinner or just to walk around. We play tennis on weekends, and that’s about it.” He is also a regular in a local weekly poker game. “I’m pretty happy right now. I really am,” he says. At that moment, his wife Mary Vann walks into the studio carrying the mail. “Any money?” he asks her.