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An Interview with Dorothy Powell Quigley
BookThink's Author Profiles Series
Richard P. Powell (1908-1999) was an accomplished writer well-known for his carefully researched writing as well as his incomparable wit and humor. He wrote 19 books, 4 of which were adapted into films. 10 of his books were mystery novels, including a popular series of 5 novels about two amateur detectives, Andy and Arab. Other fiction ranged from historic to comedic, exploring such wide ranging subjects as land development in Florida, the Peace Corps, a national bridge tournament, the newspaper business, and the history of Greece.
He was perhaps best known for his novel The Philadelphian (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1957), which spent over 6 months on the best-seller list and was made into an Oscar-nominated 1959 Warner Brothers film - The Young Philadelphians, starring Paul Newman.
Due to the unflagging efforts of Powell's daughter, Dorothy Powell Quigley, the book has been recently re-published in a 50th Anniversary Edition by Plexus Publishing Co. of New Jersey after being out of print since the 1970s. The book is available in both hardback and softbound editions, simultaneously published on November 28, 2006 - Powell's 98th birthday had he survived.
The Philadelphian explores the social customs (many of which are still in place today) challenging 4 generations of a Philadelphia family as they climb the complex social ladder in the City of Brotherly Love. It begins with the immigration of impoverished young Margaret O'Donnell from Ireland to Philadelphia in 1857 and progresses to 1956, when her great grandson steps up as a defense lawyer in a compelling court case to defend one of Philadelphia society's "black sheep."
Richard Powell, by all accounts a generous, kind and unassuming person, was himself a 7th generation Philadelphian. He attended Princeton University, where he received his B.A. cum laude in 1930. He worked as a reporter for 10 years on the staff of the Philadelphia Evening Ledger, then joined the public relations department of the oldest advertising agency in the United States, N. W. Ayer and Son. Later he served as lieutenant-colonel in the Army during World War II in the War Department of Public Relations and as chief news censor for General MacArthur in the Pacific. He was awarded the Bronze Star.
Dorothy Quigley has lived in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Pennsylvania, all her life and raised four children with her husband, Bill Quigley.
BOOKTHINK: Dorothy, your father's books span so many different genres - mysteries, humor, history ... how did he do it?
QUIGLEY: He did a great deal of research for his books. He put a lot of work into the writing. Also, he read from the time he was 3, and he read all the time. When I was still in college and we were down at the shore, I think it was right after The Philadelphian came out, one of my friends said to Dad, "My roommate is trying to be a writer, and he wants to come and talk to you." And my father said, "Sure, send him over." It was about 10 in the morning that this kid came over. The rest of us went down to the shore, went out on the boat and came back, and when we got back he was still talking to him.
The only thing I remember about what he said was, "Write about what you know." He knew about Philadelphia; I don't know where he came up with Pioneer, Go Home; but he knew about playing bridge; he knew what he was talking about in Daily and Sunday because that was all about the newspaper business, and he'd worked for the newspaper when he got out of college.
BOOKTHINK: The Philadelphia Evening Ledger, right?
QUIGLEY: That's correct.
BOOKTHINK: And he served in the army during World War II?
QUIGLEY: Yes, he was a Lieutenant Colonel. He was General MacArthur's Chief News Agent. One of my first memories of him - and I can still picture it - was him walking down the steps of the Pentagon in full dress. I can still remember that, and I was about 3 1/2 years old.
You know, after The Philadelphian was published, everyone thought he was going to come out with something like The Philadelphian II, but he didn't. Instead, he came out with a completely humorous novel called Pioneer, Go Home, and it was made into an Elvis Presley movie called Follow that Dream.
BOOKTHINK: Was he pretty happy with the movies that were made? In capturing the essence of his books?
QUIGLEY: Yes. When The Philadelphian came out as a movie, I was in college and in the middle of my exams. It was May, and I wanted to come home for the premiere because Paul Newman was starring in it. Dad said, "No, no, I'm coming down to get you next weekend." I told him I'd never forgive him for that! Anyway, the next weekend he said to me, "Well honey, I didn't see the movie at the premiere because there was so much going on, so I'm going to go see it for the first time with you." I remember standing in line at the Beach Theater in Brant Beach, New Jersey - we always used to go down to the shore in the summer - and thinking we shouldn't have to stand in line to see this movie, or even pay fifty cents to get in. After all, my Dad wrote it! I wanted to tell everybody! He was pleased with it, although it excludes the first ¾ of the book.
BOOKTHINK: Well, there's a lot of story to cover there.
QUIGLEY: That's just what I want to get done. Those women - don't you think that would make a great movie? The first 3 generations in the book?
BOOKTHINK: The story of the women's lives would be a great movie in itself. Was this book autobiographical to some extent?
QUIGLEY: No. It was written for my mother, who didn't understand Philadelphia society. He grew up in Philadelphia and really understood it. The school that's in the book - that's Episcopal Academy where he went to school, and that whole area as you picture it. Part of that could have been somewhat autobiographical in nature.
He had an attorney who lived down the street from us. I remember him coming up and sitting in Dad's office with him, and he helped him work on the trial and courtroom scenes in the book.
It was very male-oriented in nature, the movie even more so than the book. I had somebody here from Philadelphia Screenwriters, and he took the book and read it. Afterwards he said, "Somebody's got to make the first half of this book into a movie." And I agree with him.
BOOKTHINK: It would have been hard to capture the entire book in a movie. It might have to be a 3-part mini-series or something similar in format, don't you think?
QUIGLEY: At one time they tried to make a mini-series, and it was Warner Brothers, I think, who stopped them. I would not be opposed to it being a mini-series.
Motion picture rights have recently been optioned on one of his earlier books, Say it with Bullets, the last mystery he wrote. It was republished by Dorchester Books in March of 2006 as part of its Hard Case Crime series. I got a call from a screenwriter while I was in Florida last March who wanted to do the movie. He's got the screenplay done, and he's optioned it, but I don't know when it's going to go into production, although I think they hired a director just last week.
Shell Game and A Shot in the Dark are scheduled to be republished by Starkhouse Press next May.
The Soldier is another book that would make a phenomenal movie. It was optioned, but the option was dropped. I need to get it to somebody. And the book I Take this Land was optioned by a man name Mel Tillis in the 1980s. He had his own film company. It's all about the development of southwest Florida, and it's one of the best books my father wrote. He said it was probably dropped because of lack of money for production. In the 1980s the economy was not doing well.
BOOKTHINK: There have been a lot of books and movies about Philadelphia or set in Philadelphia over the years. What is it about Philadelphia that sets it apart?
QUIGLEY: I'll tell you, the Philadelphia Film Association here does a lot. It's a really big thing. Philadelphia is the second largest place for filmaking.
Philadelphia Film Company is sponsoring a contest - and for this I don't know whether I have to do a whole screenplay or a synopsis of the book - but they are going to select a book about Philadelphia, produce scenes from it, and market it to the big film companies. I need to find somebody good to write the screenplay.
I'm going to work on the first 5 mysteries - the Arab and Andy series. I'm also having a synopsis done on I Take This Land. My father did a 50-page synopsis once. I've had someone who rewrite it and cut it down to 30 pages to send out.
BOOKTHINK: You are an energetic woman. Is this something that struck you recently - this desire to promote your father's work?
QUIGLEY: It's interesting, and it's fun. Unfortunately, I didn't do it while he was alive - if only he was alive to see it. After he died, I started to go through some of his work and felt compelled to do something with it. Then Charles Ardai from Hard Case Crime called me and wanted to re-publish Say It With Bullets, and I thought, if Say It With Bullets can be republished, so can The Philadelphian.
BOOKTHINK: I really got a kick out of the your father's speech in the front of The Philadelphian, where he talks quite candidly about the personalities of other major American cities.
QUIGLEY: Let me ask you, what did you think of that?
BOOKTHINK: I thought he was right on, and I found it very amusing.
QUIGLEY: I had given the publisher a stack of everything I could find on The Philadelphian. Last summer he called me and asked me if he could put that speech in the front of the book. I hadn't even read it. I took it down to the beach with 3 of my friends and said, "I want you to read this and tell me if you think it should go in the front of the book." I wasn't sure; I was afraid it might turn somebody off.
BOOKTHINK: That's always a possibility, but if people don't have a sense of humor - well that's their loss.
QUIGLEY: That was what I thought. My friends all said they thought it should be included.
BOOKTHINK: I think it was a smart idea, because it just tickles me to no end, and I thought it was pretty darn accurate. I've been in most of those cities.
QUIGLEY: Well, it's funny because in some of the publicity articles he wrote for I Take This Land, he calls it right down the line on what eventually happened to Florida, right from when they started development in the 1800s. It's so interesting that I include with the prospectus I send out.
BOOKTHINK: I recently enjoyed reading Tickets to the Devil. Was your dad a big bridge player?
QUIGLEY: He wrote that book when he retired and moved to Florida. Actually, he wrote seven books in Florida, and yes, he played duplicate bridge. He was good, a Life Master in one year. One night I said, "Dad, teach me how to play bridge." He dealt out four hands as we sat at the dining room table and told me what each hand would have in it. I said, "Dad, how do you know?" After working at it for about 40 minutes, I had had enough!
Don Quixote, U.S.A. was another book he wrote in Florida. I'm not sure where that one came from.
BOOKTHINK: I wanted to ask you about that book because I haven't read it or even seen a copy. I did read a review on a website. It sounds like a fun book, kind of a send-up on the Peace Corps, isn't it?
QUIGLEY: It's a terrific book, but it's very hard to find and expensive. I finally did just get a paperback of it. You know, he would be thrilled if he knew I was collecting these things.
Don Quixote, U.S.A. was made into a movie by Woody Allen - Bananas.
BOOKTHINK: You're kidding - that was Bananas?
QUIGLEY: It was, but it wasn't. Woody Allen bought the rights to it because he wanted to use my dad's characters, and also my dad's British publishers had put a big banana on the cover. Woody Allen did not use the story. Bananas is not anything like the book.
I was there when the phone call came in from Woody Allen, and I remember he told my Dad he was not giving him screen rights. It was not a smart move on my father's part because if his name had been on the screen people would have been asking about his other books as well. I don't think he really thought it through at the time.
You know, he never thought his mysteries would be worth anything, although he did make sure my brother and I had the rights to them. He was very modest, and he was thrilled at what happened to him during his life.
He had four movie sales. The first was The Build Up Boys, which was written under his pen name, Jeremy Kirk and made into a movie called Madison Avenue.
And other book that was terrific was Whom the Gods will Destroy. He went to Greece to write it. It is so full of history. Several colleges later wanted it, but the publisher wouldn't reissue it. Dad went to Hodder & Stoughton, who had published it in England, and they had some copies available. He purchased them and sent them to the schools. If you see that one at a reasonable price, grab it, because there aren't many of them around. [MEDIA EDITOR'S NOTE: At the time of this writing, there are a few copies going for $50-$80 on BookFinder].
BOOKTHINK: How many brothers and sisters do you have?
QUIGLEY: One brother. And he thinks I'm nuts!
BOOKTHINK: Because you are doing all of this?
QUIGLEY: Yes, but when I sent him a copy of The Philadelphian, he did say "Congratulations, good job."
BOOKTHINK: Well, it's risk-taking, and it takes some guts.
QUIGLEY: I just think it needs to be done. After my mother died, I asked him "Daddy, why don't you write another book?" He said there is so much trash coming out now, I'd rather not do that kind of writing; I don't like to use profanity, and it's just gone too far." At that time - it's gotten a little better now - but if you think about it, 10 or 15 years ago, there was a lot of trash being published.
BOOKTHINK: I think many of our writers were more literate in his generation, and they worked harder at their craft.
It has been so interesting talking with you. I hope that there is a strong resurgence of interest in your father's books, and I wish you continued success in getting his books re-published and made into movies.
Don't Catch Me, Simon and Schuster, NY, 1944
The Build Up Boys (pseudonym Jeremy Kirk), Charles Scribner's Sons, NY, 1956
The Build Up Boys adapted as Madison Avenue, starring Dana Andrews.
Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark
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