Roy Hoopes, 87

Roy Hoopes, 87; journalist wrote acclaimed biography

Roy Hoopes contributed to and worked for many publications. His books included a biography of crime novelist James M. Cain.
Roy Hoopes contributed to and worked for many publications. His books included a biography of crime novelist James M. Cain. (Spencer Hoopes)
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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 6, 2009

Roy Hoopes, 87, a longtime Washington journalist who was the author of an acclaimed biography of crime novelist James M. Cain and more than 30 other books, died Dec. 1 of pneumonia at the AAA Atrium Classic assisted living facilty in Silver Spring. He lived in Bethesda.

The very definition of a professional writer who lived by his typewriter, Mr. Hoopes contributed to hundreds of publications and held many jobs with magazines, newspapers and federal agencies. He wrote books about the Peace Corps, the steel industry, politics, sports and Hollywood, but he was best known for his 1982 biography of Cain, the author of such hard-boiled classics as "The Postman Always Rings Twice," "Mildred Pierce" and "Double Indemnity."

The Annapolis-born Cain was a master of sharp-edged, risque crime fiction of the 1930s and '40s that inspired several popular Hollywood films and was said to have been a model for the fiction of French existentialist Albert Camus. But he was four decades past his early success as a novelist when Mr. Hoopes noticed an article Cain wrote for The Washington Post in 1975 of about columnist Walter Lippmann.

Mr. Hoopes found the all-but-forgotten novelist living alone in Hyattsville. He wrote a profile of Cain for Washingtonian magazine and set to work on his biography. He talked extensively with Cain before the 85-year-old author died in 1977.

"During my interviews with Cain, I was struck by a curious paradox," Mr. Hoopes wrote in the preface to his 684-page biography. "Despite his remarkable career and his seventeen books, several of them highly acclaimed worldwide best sellers, he said he did not have a sense of accomplishment in his life. . . . When I told him I thought he had led a fascinating life, he replied: 'It may be to you, but it's never been interesting to me.' "

Mr. Hoopes traced Cain's life from Annapolis to Maryland's Eastern Shore, where his father was president of Washington College in Chestertown. Cain graduated from the college at 17 and aspired to be an opera singer until one day, while sitting in Lafayette Square, he decided to be a writer. He worked with Lippmann and H.L. Mencken early in his career, became a Hollywood screenwriter and wrote his trailblazing fiction in the 1930s and 1940s.

Cain thought of himself as "a newspaperman who writes yarns on the side" and developed his ear for tough-guy talk while working as a reporter in Baltimore and New York. The opening sentence of "The Postman Always Rings Twice" has become an oft-quoted classic of 20th-century fiction: "They threw me off the hay truck about noon."

In 1948, Cain returned to Washington to do research for a novel and never left.

Roy Harry Hoopes Jr. was born May 17, 1922, in Salt Lake City and came to Washington with his family when he was 4. He said he lost his Morman faith about the same age.

He grew up in Foggy Bottom and was a 1940 graduate of the old Central High School. He graduated from George Washington University in 1943, served in the Navy during World War II, then received a master's degree in history from GWU in 1948.

Among his many jobs, Mr. Hoopes was the first managing editor of Washingtonian magazine in 1965, an associate editor at National Geographic and managing editor of High Fidelity magazine. He was a Washington correspondent for Playboy and, from 1987 to 1998, the Washington bureau chief of Modern Maturity magazine.

From 1967 to 1973, he was on the public affairs staff of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. He also wrote a satirical column under the name Peter Potomac for Berkshire Eagle newspaper in Massachusetts from 1957 to 1977.

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