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The Late James M. Cain

Matt Schudel

Last week, Roy Hoopes died at 87. He may have been Washington's ultimate freelance writer, earning his living by his typewriter for almost 60 years. His resume, which his son copied and provided to me, listed some of the publications he wrote for, and they ranged from the New Republic to Cavalier.

But Hoopes was most famous for his 1982 biography of the great crime-fiction writer James M. Cain. Not many people know that Cain was born in Annapolis in 1892 and grew up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where his father was president of Washington College.

Even fewer people seem to realize that Cain spent a good deal of time in Washington. He studied singing here (his earliest ambition was to be an opera singer), sold records at the old Kann's department store in 1914 and was sitting in Lafayette Square one day, when he decided he was going to be a writer. He went on to find fame and a modest fortune as the author of such pathbreaking novels as "The Postman Always Rings Twice" and "Mildred Pierce" and the story "Double Indemnity." He brought a bracing and original blend of sex, violence and tough talk to the page that made him one of the great early masters of hard-boiled crime fiction, along with Dashiell Hammett (also from Maryland, by the way) and Raymond Chandler. Much of the dialogue and the sexual heat in those films (including this come-hither scene with John Garfield and Lana Turner from the 1946 "Postman") come straight from Cain's writing:

In Hollywood, Cain made $2,500 a week as a screenwriter. He gave up the Tinseltown racket in 1948 to come back to Washington to do research on a novel.

He and his fourth wife, opera singer Florence Macbeth, rented a house in Hyattsville (or University Park -- documentary sources are evenly divided on this; Hoopes and Cain himself said Hyattsville, which is good enough for me). They never left. Cain's wife died in 1966, but he stayed on, living alone and almost forgotten.

In 1969, The Washington Post's John Carmody (who later became famous as the paper's influential television columnist, "Captain Airwaves") tracked down Cain, took him to lunch and wrote one of the finest profiles this paper has ever published.

Check out this brilliant paragraph of character-sketching: "He is a big-framed man, but he says he dropped dead in front of a Peoples Drugstore out on U.S. 1 last June. That heart attack has shrunk and enervated him. But the Sunset Boulevardier is still there in the old costume. And he turns to look at every pretty girl the car passes."

Cain started out in newspapers and was a close colleague of perhaps the three greatest journalists of the first half of the 20th century: columnists H.L. Mencken and Walter Lippmann and Harold Ross, the founding editor of the New Yorker. Cain always thought of himself, Hoopes wrote in his biography, as "a newspaperman who writes yarns on the side."

Oddly enough, though he continued to publish novels into his 80s, he remained a newspaperman at heart. In his final decade, he wrote many essays for The Post on all sorts of topics, including how to make a mint julep, memories of the 1910s and 1920s and, not least, revealing and barbed Hollywood reminiscences.

In 1975, Hoopes noticed this essay Cain wrote about his onetime boss, Walter Lippmann. Hoopes looked up Cain, wrote a profile of him for Washingtonian magazine and conducted a series of interviews with the cranky old master almost up until he died in 1977 at age 85.

By Matt Schudel  |  December 9, 2009; 12:42 PM ET
Categories:  Matt Schudel  
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Cain most assuredly lived in the Town of University Park. I believe the address was 6707 44th Avenue, but I could be off by a house or two. The confusion comes from UP sharing a zip code with the city of Hyattsville (20782). We in "The Park" are proud to claim Cain, along with Gordon Prange and Morgan Wooten (but not that cad Parris G.)!

Posted by: JohnnyReb1 | December 10, 2009 12:02 PM | Report abuse

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