Glendon Swarthout wrote more than 20 novels as well as numerous short stories, plays and film scripts. In addition, two movies were based on his books. He was well known for his western style in The Shootist, the screenplay featured famous actors John Wayne, James Stewart, and Lauren Bacall. Though he was born near Pinckney Michigan in 1918, Lowell was where he grew up, went to school, and considered his hometown. He was voted by his class as “most likely to become famous.”
Growing up in Lowell Glendon was an entertainer on the Showboat. The Grand Rapids Press stated that during the 1935 performance he “won the audience at once with his expert accordion playing while hula dancers composed of Lowell businessmen caused much laughter.”
After graduating from Lowell High School, University of Michigan, and earning his doctorate from Michigan State University, Glendon and his wife Kathryn wanted to travel the world. They decided the best way to do that was as a journalist. Glendon wrote for 22 small newspapers, and they traveled to South America, sending home a weekly column of their adventures.
Later the couple went to work at Willow Run, providing insight to his first novel, titled Willow Run. He then enlisted in the army and was sent to Naples. He was part of the second wave at St. Tropez. He injured his back, leading to being returned home, receiving a medical discharge, and a long struggle with back pain until surgery much later in life.
In an interview with Larry King, Swarthout told how he wrote the citations for about 13 or 14 congressional medal of honor recipients in the course of a year and a half with the 3rd Infantry Division in Italy and France. He had lived with these boys and was similar age. These memories stayed close to his heart for life.
Swarthout was twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction by his publishers and won a number of other awards for his novels, including a couple of Spurs and a Wrangler, as well as the Western Writers award for Lifetime Achievement. In June of 2008, Glendon Swarthout was inducted into the Western Writers of America's Hall of Fame.
While he was an accomplished author, his gift to Lowell was the weekly newspaper column, written during the Swarthout’s travels as World War II was beginning. ‘A Letter To…LOWELL’ was published in the Lowell Ledger. The Swarthouts were traveling together when Pearl Harbor was bombed. They tried to get home, but the trip from Barbados took five months in order to avoid German U-boats. During this time there were weeks without communication, which left those at home fearful as they awaited assurance on the safety of Glendon and Kathryn. Readers lived the fear as they saw the sinking of ships in the night by nazi submarines through the eyes of the Swarthouts, as they themselves were on a blacked-out ship hoping for safe passage.
Though Swarthout used the village of Lowell and its citizens in multiple books, ’Welcome to Thebes’, published in 1962, was based on life in Lowell. The newspaper published the village’s anticipation of the book’s release, “half the town hopes they can find themselves portrayed in the story, and the other half is afraid they will be.” The book was different than Swarthout’s previous works and was met with mostly negative reviews. The book is fiction, but most of the characters are clearly fashioned after real citizens. Opinions are still mixed today. At the time it was stated that the story was built on an unpublicized bank scandal from 1928. Beyond that, was Swarthout trying to out the sins of a small town? Was it simply fiction built heavily on familiar characters? Either way, the book led to pain and difficulty throughout life for some of the obvious characters, as evidenced by letters to editor denying events in the book. Swarthout himself, in a letter dated August 26, 1978, written to two local women stated, “I am glad to learn THEBES is kept hidden behind the circulation desk at the library - not because it is a salacious book, at least by today’s standards, but because it is grossly and ridiculously over-written. I keep it hidden too, behind my blushes.” Written with his trademark humor he closes by saying, “Well, thank you again. I shall return to Lowell again one day and expect you to present me with the keys to City Hall. Or, failing that, the Flat River”.
The author from Lowell died on September 23, 1992. His awards, book and movie sales speak to his high school award coming true. Glendon Swarthout had become famous.