Willard Motley (1909-1965) was an African American journalist and novelist, a practitioner of urban realism raised on the South Side of Chicago alongside a young uncle, Archibald Motley, who became a noted painter. Motley’s literary talent was recognized early: the Chicago Defender, one of the country’s agenda-setting black newspapers, hired him to write its “Bud Says” children’s column. He served with fellow Chicago naturalists Richard Wright and Nelson Algren in the Federal Writers Project, but his big break arrived with Knock on Any Door (1947), a bestseller centered on an Italian-American altar boy-turned-criminal. “Live fast, die young and have a good-looking corpse” advised Motley’s protagonist, Nick Romano, in what became a famous slogan. Knock on Any Door’s status as a representative “white-life” or “raceless” black text was cemented by a 1949 film adaptation starring Humphrey Bogart. Let No Man Write My Epitaph (1958), a sequel to Romano’s story written in Motley’s adopted home of Mexico, inspired another Hollywood movie. Exercised by his homosexuality as much as by his status as a leftist expatriate, the FBI kept a file on Motley from 1951 to 1967. After the anti-gay provisions of the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act prevented a return visit to Chicago, Motley would die in Mexico City. Let Noon Be Fair, a novel of Mexico completed before his passing, was published in 1966, Motley by then having become, in Clarence Major’s phrase, a “kind of ghost among Negro writers.”
FBI documents studying Willard Motley.
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