Remembering Elmore Leonard: My brush with greatness

What I’m saying to you, this thing with Dutch Leonard, the crime writer? The one who died Tuesday morning and they’re calling the best in our lifetime?

You’d meet him, and you’d never know what he did for a living. He was that modest, that humble. He never robbed a bank or shot anybody, at least that I heard about, but he wrote the best bank-robber, guy-about-to-shoot-somebody dialogue ever.

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Elmore Leonard dies: ‘Get Shorty’ crime novelist was 87

Elmore Leonard dies: ‘Get Shorty’ crime novelist was 87

Many of author Elmore Leonard’s works became movies, including “Out of Sight” and “Jackie Brown.”

An Elmore Leonard character writes on Elmore Leonard

An Elmore Leonard character writes on Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard, prolific crime novelist, died Tuesday morning. Read this 2008 profile on the "Dickens of Detroit."

Elmore, you say? How does an old guy named Elmore get the street vibe, the hip black Detroit crook, the charming Miami Mafioso, the cop who ain’t that good but ain’t that dumb, that smart chick who’s got a good-looking leg up on all these dudes — how does he do that?

I never figured it out, and I profiled Elmore “Dutch” Leonard twice. Went through all his notes, his little boxes in the basement with his files on each book, interviewed him at length, and we were friends, besides. Sure, he had a researcher, Gregg Sutter, who was great at getting him the details, the forms a cop would fill out after a robbery, the traffic flow at rush hour in Palm Beach, Fla. But if it was that simple, a lot of writers would have hired researchers as good as Gregg, and then they’d all have been as good as Dutch. Except that nobody was.

You know how smart guys are always saying that talent, like water, finds its own level? Dutch found his, brother, and the water was high.

Curious and cool

I met him a long time ago. We’re talking maybe 25 years. This was at his house in Bloomfield Township, Mich., a leafy suburb of Detroit, sort of what Potomac is to the District.

He was a big deal then. Annie Leibovitz had already shot that iconic picture of him on Miami Beach, with a beret and a typewriter at sunset. I was a lowly feature-writing slug at the Detroit Free Press. (Today, I reside as a lowly feature-writing slug at The Washington Post. See, “water, levels of,” above). So that first day I walked into his house, nervous as a cat, I had the distinct sense of meeting honest-to-God greatness.

But the man himself was like he was with everybody, always: gracious and laid-back and soft-spoken and kind and modest. I could make no physical connection between the hipness of his books and this quiet suburban dad who doted on his (by then adult) children and wife.

Dutch was nearly 40 years older, but we became friends, of which he had many, from all sides of the street. He wrote at a desk, in longhand on a yellow legal pad, the first draft, and then he’d type it on an electric typewriter. He had a view of the living room, some bookshelves and the swimming pool out back. One time, Aerosmith, the entire band? They came over and went swimming.

I went abroad to be a correspondent in Europe and Africa, and we’d have dinner with our spouses when I came back on home leave.

He was curious about everything.

“When somebody in rural Rwanda needs to a find a cop, where would they run to?” he asked me while working on “Pagan Babies.” The next time I was in Rwanda, I sent him pictures. (Gregg and a Rwandan researcher did the rest; please don’t think I’m saying I humped out the details on that book.) When my wife at the time and I adopted our daughter in Zimbabwe, he and his wife, Christine, were the first outside of our families to send us a note. When I had a book idea, he said, “Call my agent; I’ll tell her to take care of you.” She did.

My career highlight?

In “Cuba Libre,” a novel he set in the Spanish-American War, there is a newspaper reporter named Neely Tucker. This guy writes purple crap. A Marine calls him a squirt. He doesn’t get the girl. My wife reads this and goes, “Hey, it’s really you!”

Dutch sent an advance readers’ copy. It’s inscribed to my wife, wishing her well after a recent surgery, and to “the original Neely Tucker, who was the inspiration for the Neely in the book.”

Today, that book rests in a featured spot on my bookshelf, next to a first edition of “The Grapes of Wrath.” I don’t let anybody touch it. Are you kidding?

The whole time I knew him, I can recall him telling one Hollywood story. So here it is, as he told it over dinner one night in Detroit many years ago.

He’s in Australia, on a book tour supporting “Get Shorty,” his wildly popular novel about Hollywood. Phone in the hotel room rings. It’s Dustin Hoffman. He’s really ticked off. He says the pompous, diminutive character for which the book is named is so obviously a dead ringer for him that “everybody’s going to know this is me.”

Dutch, who apparently didn’t care for Hoffman and who didn’t mind razzing people, says: “Oh, I don’t know, Dustin. There are a lot of short actors in Hollywood.”

Aahhh, that dude was funny.

Dedicated and resilient

So here’s what I started off telling you. That thing with Dutch, the crime writer? The way it is with cool guys? They just know it. They know it means being grown up, owning your mistakes, rolling with the jabs and uppercuts life smacks you with and then doing everything one better.

It means writing for 30 years before you’re on a bestseller list. It means getting up at 5 a.m. in the darkness of a Detroit winter in the early 1960s when nobody knows who you are to write a few lines of fiction before the kids get up and you’ve got to go to work. It means beating alcoholism and divorce. It means, late career, writing something as perfect as “Get Shorty” and “Out of Sight,” watching people such as Clooney and Travolta and Tarantino and J-Lo get the spotlight with lines you wrote on the typewriter in the living room while you just hang out by the backyard pool and let them do the celebrity thing.

Somebody cooler than the late Dutch Leonard? Yeah? Who?

 
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