In a literary career lasting from the 1910s into the 1950s, Ben Ames Williams became one of the most popular novelists and short story writers in America, his work the basis for some 14 movies made between the 1920s and the 1950s. Williams was born in Macon, MS, the son of Daniel Webster Williams, a newspaper publisher (and later a politician and diplomat), and the former Sarah Marshall Ames. Williams grew up in Jackson, OH, and later in West Newton, MA, where he attended the Allen School. In 1905, when he was 16, he moved to Cardiff, Wales, where his father served as U.S. consul, and he subsequently attended Dartmouth College. Williams worked for his father's newspaper as a boy, and got his first professional position in 1910 on the staff of the Boston American. Over the next five years, Williams wrote fiction in his spare time while working as a reporter, and authored some 80 stories before he sold his first in 1915. He gradually published more fiction and delved into all genres, including mystery, adventure stories, and romances, eventually giving up his work as a journalist.
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He broke through to major success with a four-part story entitled The Mate of Susie Oakes, which appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in 1917. That periodical became Williams' principal outlet over the next 20 years, publishing 135 of his short stories and 35 of his serials, and what they didn't print, Colliers, Liberty, Cosmopolitan, and Redbook did. By 1919, Williams was among the most successful authors of short stories in the country -- among his best reviewed were Sea Bride, which critics compared to the writing of Joseph Conrad, and All the Brothers Were Valiant, a multipart story later published as a novel, which was greeted in the pages of the New York Times as "fresh and crisp, as clear and bright as a water color picture." Over the next eight years, he reworked several of his serials into free-standing novels which sold extremely well. Williams didn't get around to writing a novel independent of his magazine work until 1927, with Splendor, which was also the first of his historical novels, set in 19th century Boston. By the end of the 1930s he had tired of the space constraints of short stories and abandoned them in favor of full-length novels -- his subject matter was usually adventure yarns, set in far-off locales and periods, including the mid-19th century Fiji Islands (The Strumpet Sea ), Nantucket Island during the War of 1812 (Thread of Scarlet ), and 19th century Maine (The Strange Woman ).
His biggest popular success came in 1944 with the publication of Leave Her to Heaven, a dark psychological tale that received poor reviews but spent a big chunk of the year on the bestseller lists and remained popular for many years after; it was also immediately snapped up for a screen adaptation by 20th Century Fox. All the Brothers Were Valiant, a story dealing with rival seafaring siblings, was first brought to the screen in 1923 in a production of Metro starring Lon Chaney Sr. (one of the actor's last appearances before he achieved stardom with The Hunchback of Notre Dame). Three more of Williams' books were turned into movies during the 1920s: Not a Drum Was Heard (1924), starring Buck Jones and directed by William Wellman; Across to Singapore (1928), based on All the Brothers Were Valiant, directed by William Nigh and starring Ernest Torrence and Joan Crawford; and Masked Emotions (1929), starring George O'Brien and David Sharpe. His stories of adventure continued to come to the screen throughout the 1930s, but it wasn't until the 1940s that Hollywood made its most enduring film adaptations of Williams' work, embracing the full measure of psychological complexity in his best books. The most notable film adaptations of Williams' works were John M. Stahl's Leave Her to Heaven (1946), a psychologically based drama about a deeply disturbed woman (Gene Tierney) whose inner demons cause her to destroy her husband's family, her own unborn child, and herself; and Edgar G. Ulmer's The Strange Woman (1946), about a beautiful woman (Hedy Lamarr) who destroys the lives of the men around her.
Williams' books continued to sell well right up to the end of his life, and he grew more ambitious in his work as well, culminating in 1947 with House Divided, a 1,500-page tale of the Civil War and the lot of civilians during its four bitter years, which was a critical and popular success. Williams was a robust, physically vital man who tried to live the life of the outdoorsman that he presented in many of his books. Well into his sixties, he was still riding and hunting regularly, and he died of a heart attack at a curling competition just a little more than a month before his 64th birthday. Along with Kenneth Roberts and Hervey Allen, he was one of the most popular adventure novelists of his generation, and his literary success actually outlived him. Many of his books remained in print for decades after his death, and a new screen version of All the Brothers Were Valiant was filmed in 1953, a year of his death and 34 years after the novel's publication. In 1957, an adaptation of his story Prodigal's Mother, entitled Johnny Trouble, served as the final film of Ethel Barrymore. Toward the end of the 20th century, the film versions of Williams' adventure stories declined in popularity, while the movies based on his darker, more psychologically oriented works, such as The Strange Woman and Leave Her to Heaven, began receiving new respect. ~ Bruce Eder, Rovi