Willard Motley

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Willard Motley
Portrait of Motley by Carl Van Vechten, 1947.
Portrait of Motley by Carl Van Vechten, 1947.
BornWillard Francis Motley
(1909-07-14)July 14, 1909
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
DiedMarch 4, 1965(1965-03-04) (aged 55)[1]
Mexico City, Mexico
Pen nameBud Billiken
EducationEnglewood High School (Chicago)
Years active1923–1965
Notable worksKnock on Any Door (1947);
Let No Man Write My Epitaph (1958)
RelativesArchibald Motley (uncle)

Willard Francis Motley (July 14, 1909 – March 4, 1965) was an American writer. Motley published a column in the African-American oriented Chicago Defender newspaper under the pen-name Bud Billiken. He also worked as a freelance writer, and later founded and published the Hull House Magazine and worked in the Federal Writers Project. Motley's first and best known novel was Knock on Any Door, which was made into a movie of the same name (1947).

Early life and career[edit]

Motley was born and grew up in the Englewood neighborhood, South Side, Chicago, in one of the few African-American families residing there. His father was a Pullman porter. Motley graduated from Lewis-Champlain grammar school, and Englewood High School.[2] He is related to the noted artist Archibald Motley, and the two were raised as brothers, although Archibald was in fact Willard's uncle. The family was Catholic.[3]

Willard was hired by Robert S. Abbott to write a children's column called "Bud Says" under the pseudonym "Bud Billiken", for the Chicago Defender.[4]

Willard 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.[4]

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 is Romano who says the famous phrase: "Live fast, die young and have a good-looking corpse!"[5][6][7] It was an immediate hit, selling 47,000 copies during its first three weeks in print. In 1949, it was made into 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."[8]

His second novel, We Fished All Night (1948),[9] 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 the Soundtrack of "Let No Man Write My Epitaph".


According to the citation statement for the 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...."[10] Motley was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2014.

Death and legacy[edit]

On March 4, 1965, Motley died in Mexico City, Mexico, at the age of 55. One final novel, Let Noon Be Fair, was posthumously published in 1966.[11] Since 1929, Chicago has held an annual Bud Billiken Parade and Picnic (which served as his pen name during his early career at the Chicago Defender) on the second Saturday of August.[12] The parade travels through the city's Bronzeville, Grand Boulevard and Washington Park neighborhoods on the south side. The bulk of Motley's archive is held in Rare Books and Special Collections at Northern Illinois University.[13]



  • 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.


  • The Diaries of Willard Motley, Iowa State University Press, 1979 – published posthumously, ISBN 9780813807058


  • Willard F. Motley Papers, 1939–1951; Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature, Chicago Public Library, 2002


  1. ^ Pitts, Vanessa (March 28, 2013). "Motley, Willard (1909–1965) – The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed". www.blackpast.org. Retrieved August 20, 2018.
  2. ^ Granger, Bill (June 26, 1994). "Willard Motley – A Writer Of Brutal Honesty". Chicago Tribune.
  3. ^ "Willard Motley | Encyclopedia.com". www.encyclopedia.com. Retrieved October 24, 2022.
  4. ^ a b "Willard Motley Papers". Retrieved August 20, 2018.
  5. ^ The first occurrence of the quote in the novel, in Chapter 35: "'Live fast, die young and have a good-looking corpse!' he said with a toss of his head. That was something he had picked up somewhere, and he'd say it all the time now." Motley, Willard (1989). Knock on Any Door (1989 paperback ed.). Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press. p. 157. ISBN 9780875805436.
  6. ^ Similar phrases had appeared in print earlier. See "Live Fast, Die Young, and Leave a Beautiful Corpse". Quote Investigator. January 31, 2013. Retrieved April 11, 2021.
  7. ^ Moser, Whet (October 23, 2012). "'Live Fast, Die Young, Leave a Good-Looking Corpse': Coined by a Chicago Writer". Chicago Magazine. Retrieved August 20, 2018.
  8. ^ Kogan, Rick (April 3, 2015). "Remembering forgotten writer Willard Motley". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved August 20, 2018.
  9. ^ Compare Luke 5:5 (KJV) "And Simon answering said unto him, Master, we have toiled all the night and have taken nothing: nevertheless at thy word I will let down the net."
  10. ^ "Willard Motley". The Chicago Literary Hall of Fame: 2013 Nominees. Chicago Writers Association. Retrieved September 2, 2017.
  11. ^ Fleming, Robert E. (March 9, 2001). "Willard Motley: Let Noon be Fair". The Literary Encyclopedia. Retrieved September 10, 2022.
  12. ^ Cabello, Tristan. "Queer Writers: Willard Motley · Queer Bronzeville". outhistory.org. Retrieved August 20, 2018.
  13. ^ Cain, Sarah. "LibGuides: Rare Books and Special Collections At Northern Illinois University: Willard Motley Collection". libguides.niu.edu. Retrieved August 20, 2018.

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