RARA-AVIS: James Atlee Phillips (fwd)

From: Juri Nummelin ( jurnum@utu.fi)
Date: 02 Jan 2001

I received this just after Christmas and with permission I'll send it to the list.


---------- Forwarded message ---------- Date: Wed, 27 Dec 2000 22:32:42 +0700 From: "From the Cluttered Desktop of:" < cjade@ksc.th.com> To: jurnum@utu.fi Subject: James Atlee Phillips

Dear sir

I'd be delighted to contribute what I can about my friend James Atlee Phillips, as your list's information about him seems quite limited.

James was born in 1915 in Fort Worth to a prominent Texas family, which later fell on hard times. His first novel, THE OUTSIDERS, was an expose about the Dallas country club set and is quite hard to find (read: suppressed.) It was published in the mid-1930s. Dallas Library keeps it under lock and key to this day.

James learned to fly when quite young. He worked as a publicist in New York for Walter Winchell and Billy Rose, wrote a detective novel in 1939, and joined Claire Chennault's Flying Tigers.

After Pearl Harbor he enlisted in the US Marines. After WWII he was a senior staffer for Leatherneck Magazine, then spent some time in intelligence work. He ran Amphibian Airways in Burma between '47 and '54, under contract to the Burmese Government, and we can guess who else. His very first Joe Gall novel, PAGODA, was based on these experiences, and was published in the 50s in hardcover long before the Fawcett paperback 'Contract' series started up. It was basically autobiographical. James' photo adorned many of the back covers of the Fawcett paperbacks.

It is unclear whether or not James recruited his younger brother David into the Agency or whether it was the other way around, or unrelated (unlikely!) David was recruited in Chile c.1950 where he had emigrated to, after purchasing a printing business and an English language newspaper. He had previously been a Army Air Corps NCO and was a POW in a German luftstalag. He wrote a play about his POW experienced, which was accepted for Broadway production, but 6 weeks before opening night STALAG 17 opened, and blew David's dramatic career out of the air...David strongly resembled James.

James also wrote two succesful screenplays. One was THUNDER ROAD, which starred Robert Mitchum as a moonshine runner and Gene barry as an Alcohol & Tobacco Tax Division (IRS) agent out to nail him. There was a famous theme song to this film.

The other was BIG JIM MCLAIN, and was John Wayne's first independent production. Wayne at first employed his house writer, James Edward Grant, best remembered for THE ALAMO. However, there were problems, Grant was a natorious drunk, and Wayne was shooting this turkey of a movie entirely on location in Hawaii at a cost of $50,000 a day (big money then.) Grant climbed into his bottles, sat in the hotel bar and wouldn't budge. Wayne pleaded with him to no avail, Grant told him (rather precognitively) to get cancer. Finally Wayne sent for James Atlee Phillips. Phillips agreed to write the script, which he did in 10 days with the film being shot as it rolled off his typewriter. Afterwards James refused to accept payment; he told me this frightened Wayne's lawyers so much that they met the Honolulu flight at LAX and insisted he sign a quit-claim.

The film, which is a potboiler about a House Un-American Activities Committee investigator chasing Commies in Hawaii, was a low point in everyone's careers. Worth a mention was a very young Peter Graves as Wayne's assistant who is murdered by the sinister forces from Moscow Center.

As James related to me, he collected on the favor John Wayne owed him. A buddy from the Flying Tigers days in China ended up in a Taiwanese prison for smuggling opium. This n'eer-do-well appealed for help from James, who squeezed John Wayne, who squeezed Dwight D.Eisenhauer, who squeezed Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek -- who James utterly despised. The sentence was commuted. And that's how John Wayne paid for the script to BIG JIM MCLAIN. The fellow in question was the model for 'Captain Nash', in James' novels PAGODA and THE STAR RUBY CONTRACT also set in Burma.

James had at least one child, Shawn Phillips, the folk rock singer. Shawn described his father as being a 'secret agent' on several of his album blurbs.

James lived in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where his wife was an executive for the phone company. He travelled a lot on tramp steamers, where he did most of his writing, often sailing out of New Orleans, and he always dropped by Mother's Restaurant when he passed through town, it's a famous USMC haunt.

We were still in touch when he quit writing the Gall novels, he felt that Joe Gall was getting 'a little long in the touth'. (His own words.) The final novel was set in South Korea.

While the Contract series was occasionally uneven, the best of the series are as good as anything James ever wrote. I once did a critique of the series and james told me it agreed uncannily with his own self-assesments. The best of the series were THE GREEN WOUND (later reissued with 'Contract' appended to the title; THE SILKEN BARONESS (likewise retitled); THE STAR RUBY CONTRACT, THE ILL WIND CONTRACT, and that great one where Gall taken on heroin addiction as part of his cover. I can't recall the name. The weakest were THE IRISH BEAUTY CONTRACT, and that one set in Haiti with the exploding teddy bears, which James admitted was written for film but the option was never picked up. Just as well...

His two novels where Gall goes up against black revolutionaries in US and the Carribean were in between, as were the two in which he operated in Canada. THE SKELETON COAST CONTRACT was good, good enough to get the author blacklisted by South Africa's apartheid regime!

James was a hard case, just like his character Joe Gall. I always thought Lee Marvin would be the only choice to play Gall.


Don Walsh Bangkok, Thailand

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