Portrait of Willard Motley, by Carl Van Vechten 1947
July 14, 1909|
|Died||March 4, 1965
|Notable works||Knock On Any Door|
Willard Francis Motley (July 14, 1909 – March 4, 1965) was an African-American writer. He published a column in the Chicago Defender under the pen-name Bud Billiken. Motley also worked as a freelance writer, and later founded and published the Hull House Magazine and worked in the Federal Writers Project. His first and best known novel was Knock on Any Door (1947).
Motley was born and grew up in the Englewood neighborhood, South Side, Chicago, in one of the only African-American families residing there. He is related to the noted artist Archibald Motley. The two were raised as brothers, although in actuality Archibald was Willard's uncle. He was hired by Robert S. Abbott to write a children's column called "Bud Says" under the pseudonym "Bud Billiken", for the Chicago Defender. He graduated from Lewis-Champlain grammar school, and Englewood High School.
He traveled to New York, California and the western states, earning a living through various menial jobs, as well as by writing for the radio and newspapers. Returning to Chicago in 1939, he lived near the Maxwell Street Market, which was to figure prominently in his later writing. He became associated with Hull House, and helped found the Hull House Magazine, in which some of his fiction appeared. In 1940 he wrote for the Works Progress Administration Federal Writers Project along with Richard Wright and Nelson Algren.
In 1947 his first novel, Knock on Any Door, appeared to critical acclaim. A work of gritty naturalism, it concerns the life of Nick Romano, an Italian-American altar boy who turns to crime because of poverty and the difficulties of the immigrant experience. It was an immediate hit, selling 47,000 copies during its first three weeks in print. In 1949 it became a movie starring Humphrey Bogart. In response to critics who charged Motley with avoiding issues of race by writing about white characters, Motley said, "My race is the human race."
His second novel, We Fished All Night, was not hailed as a success, and after it appeared Motley moved to Mexico to start over. His third novel, Let No Man Write My Epitaph, picks up the story of Knock on Any Door. Columbia Pictures made it into a movie in 1960. Ella Fitzgerald's music for the film was released on the album Ella Fitzgerald Sings Songs from "Let No Man Write My Epitaph".
According to the nomination statement for the 2013 Chicago Literary Hall of Fame awards, "Motley was criticized in his life for being a black man writing about white characters, a middle-class man writing about the lower class, and a closeted homosexual writing about heterosexual urges. But those more kindly disposed to his work, and there were plenty, admired his grit and heart....Chicago was more complicated than just its racial or sexual tensions, and as a writer his exploration was expansive...."  Motley was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2014.
“I want to live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse,” character Nick Romano remarks in "Knock on Any Door" (novel and Nicolas Ray film).
- Knock on Any Door, D. Appleton-Century Company, 1947; Northern Illinois University Press, 1989, ISBN 9780875805436
- We Fished All Night, Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1951
- Let No Man Write My Epitaph, Random House, 1958
- Let Noon Be Fair, 1966; Pan Books, 1969 - published posthumously.
- Willard Motley Papers.
- Bill Granger, "Willard Motley - A Writer Of Brutal Honesty", Chicago TribuneJune 26, 1994.
- The Willard Motley Papers at Northern Illinois University
- "Willard Motley". The Chicago Literary Hall of Fame: 2013 Nominees. Chicago Writers Association. Retrieved 2013-06-08.
- Encyclopedia of World Biography entry on Willard Motley.
- The Literary Encyclopedia's entry on Knock on Any Door.
- Finding aid for the Willard Motley Papers at Northern Illinois University.