Reflections on the life of murder mystery novelist Sue Grafton
By Steve Humphrey
I thought I’d take a break from science for a month, and, in honor of the “Cool Kentucky” exhibit at the Frazier Museum, featuring Sue Grafton among others, write a bit about Sue’s life and career and how she became a renowned murder mystery novelist.
I met Sue in 1974 when we were living in the same apartment building in West Los Angeles. I was 23, recently graduated from UCLA and awaiting word about admission to graduate school. I was working as a welder in a factory that manufactured rolling measuring devices. Sue was 34, twice divorced, a single mom raising two young children and trying to make a living as a writer. She had already published two novels, the second of which, “The Lolly Madonna War,” was optioned for film by a British producer. She and he co-wrote the script, and it was filmed in Knoxville, TN starring Rod Steiger, Robert Ryan, Gary Busey, Harvey Keitel, Jeff Bridges and Randy Quaid. When her partnership (and relationship) with the producer broke up, she had trouble finding further film work. The assumption in the industry at that time was that the boy did the writing and the girl did the typing.
We started out just having a fling. She invited me to her apartment one evening to share some brandy, and one thing led to another. We began seeing one another, and before long, we were in a relationship. We would pool our meager pennies and splurge on dinner at the Great Western Steak and Hoagie on Lincoln Blvd. in Santa Monica. When her savings account drifted below a certain level, she would get some menial job working for a production company. I remember her working as a production secretary for Danny Thomas Productions on a tv movie called “Satan’s Triangle,” starring Doug McClure, and on a series entitled “Faye” starring Lee Grant. At that time, nobody paid any attention to her.
She lived on the first floor, with a picture window that opened onto a courtyard, and she would spend all hours at a plastic table in the window, drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes and writing. Her nickname in the building was the “Ghost Writer.” Her first real break came when she submitted a few spec scripts for the tv series “Rhoda.” None were used, but the producers and story editors liked what she did and she finally got an assignment. After that, her luck began to improve. She met a female producer who liked her work and had contacts, and they began to create movies for tv. In the fall of 1975, I moved to Columbus, OH to begin graduate school, and a year later, very inadvisably, she followed me. During this time, her ex-husband and father of her kids kidnapped their children and started a vicious custody battle. She would lie awake at night, thinking of ways to get back at him, but knew she would get caught and, as she put it, “spend the rest of my life in a shapeless prison dress, eating carbohydrates and embarrassing the very children I was trying to save.”
Oddly enough, her career did not suffer from her move to Columbus. Producers liked to brag that they were flying their writer “in from Ohio.” At the time, Hollywood people were telling her she was great with character but weak with plot. She decided that the best way to learn how to better write plots was to write mystery novels, as her father, C.W. Grafton, had done. She started writing “A is for Alibi” around 1979, incorporating her best “husbandicidal” ideas. She said that rather than actually doing him [her ex-husband] in, it would be better to put her idea in a book and get paid for it. She generated 80 pages, found a literary agent and sent it out to publishers. She wanted to write “hard-boiled detective fiction,” which virtually no women were doing at the time. Many editors at publishing houses suggested she write “women’s fiction,” like “Fear of Flying,” by Erica Jong, but she had no interest in that. Finally, Marian Wood at Henry Holt bought “A” based on those 80 pages, so Sue had to take a deep breath and finish the book. It came out in 1982 to great critical acclaim and thus was born Kinsey Millhone and “The Alphabet Mystery Series” that lasted for 25 books. We married in 1978, and spent the next 39 years together, until she passed in December 2017. She never got to “Z.”
I remember Sue most for her indefatigable spirit. Nothing kept her down for long, not even her final illness. She was the most upbeat, optimistic person I have ever met. She was also universally beloved. No one didn’t adore Sue Grafton and all those wanting to learn more about her can visit The Frazier History Museum’s “Cool Kentucky” Exhibit when it opens this fall!
Steve Humphrey has a Ph.D. in the history and philosophy of science, with a specialty in the philosophy of physics. He teaches courses in these subjects at the University of California, Santa Barbara and has taught them at the University of Louisville.