By Daniel Frezza
“Writing a money-making play is very simple, really” Patrick Hamilton told a visitor when he was nearing the end of his life. “Just give the actors something good to say. I used to be one myself, once, and I know that’s all they’re interested in” (Sean French, Patrick Hamilton, A Life. [London., Faber & Faber, 1993], 275). It wasn’t really that simple, of course. Nor was much else in Hamilton’s life.
Patrick Hamilton was Born in Sussex, England March 17, 1904, the last of three children. His family life appeared reasonably happy, though his father was emotionally distant and often absent from home. In later life Hamilton said his childhood was full of “anxieties and neuroses of all sorts” (Nigel Jones, Through a Glass Darkly: The Life of Patrick Hamilton. [London, Scribners 1991] 21). Both parents were writers, and Patrick’s literary ambitions were encouraged at school, though not by his father. At sixteen he entered a commercial college. That proved a failure. Hopes of following his brother, Bruce, into university had no greater success. His sister, Helen, an actress, and her husband, actor/playwright Sutton Vane, got Patrick a job in the theatre as assistant stage manager and bit player. He soon realized that this wasn’t his career, but from the experience he learned the technique of melodrama and “realized how successful such plays might be if written and presented in a sophisticated way” (French, 48). He went on to an office job, another dead end. In 1923 Patrick’s mother, sister, and brother subsidized him so he could concentrate on writing (Bruce Hamilton, The Light Went Out, the Life of Patrick Hamilton by his Brother. [London, Constable 1972] 43). Their faith was soon justified: his first novel, Monday Morning, was published when he was just twenty-one. Its favorable reception prompted him to start his second novel almost immediately. Around this time Hamilton began the drinking habit he would alternately indulge and struggle against the rest of his life.
Hamilton wrote three more successful novels drawing on his personal experiences, including pub life, the theatre and—especially—loneliness, before writing his first play, Rope. Oddly, he didn’t mention the play in his correspondence with his brother, Bruce (who had moved to Barbados in 1927), until weeks after its successful opening in 1929. Bruce stated that the 1924 Leopold and Loeb murder case, in which two college students killed a young man to prove they could get away with it, was the inspiration for Rope. Hamilton claimed he hadn’t heard of the Leopold-Loeb case until after completing Rope. That seems unlikely. The trial, in which defense counsel Clarence Darrow obtained life sentences for the defendants instead of the expected death penalty, was widely reported in both the United States and England. Rope earned Hamilton a lot of money and made him a public figure. From now on he interspersed writing novels with stage plays and dramas for the new medium of radio.
Hamilton married Lois Martin in 1930. She took on the burden of managing his finances and the business of everyday life and tried to limit his drinking. During 1931 Hamilton completed his fifth novel and adapted Rope for radio. Just days after its broadcast in January 1932, while out for an evening walk, he was hit by a speeding car. Hamilton’s extensive injuries required months to heal, and his face was left permanently scarred.
Hamilton’s second play had died after a tryout, but his third was an even greater success than Rope. Gaslight opened in London in December 1938 and enjoyed a six-month run. It opened on Broadway in December 1941 (under the title Angel Street) and ran for a record 1,295 performances. Hamilton took great professional pride in Gaslight but repudiated the idea that his fame rested on his plays rather than his novels. His fourth play, The Duke in Darkness, set in sixteenth century France was a departure from his customary material. He was pleased with the production, directed by and starring Michael Redgrave, but it ran for only two months in 1942. The continuing success of Gaslight prompted Hamilton to write The Governess, showing the character of Inspector Rough at an earlier period in his career. It opened in Glasgow and had a successful provincial run in 1944, but it wasn’t a success when produced in London after the war.
Early in 1944 Hamilton accepted Twentieth Century Fox’s offer of £5,000 for the film rights to Hangover Square, considered his best novel by many. The studio changed the story so drastically that critic James Agate called the film “a masterpiece turned into rubbish” (Jones, 286). Understandably wary when Alfred Hitchcock approached him in 1947 about filming Rope, Hamilton finally signed when offered a contract as screenwriter. He considered the four weeks spent on the screenplay harder than writing the original script and the strain led to a drinking binge. Behind Hamilton’s back, Hitchcock replaced him with other screenwriters. When Hamilton finally saw the film, he was heartbroken (French, 199).
Tensions had developed between Hamilton and Lois. In 1950 he began living with Lady Ursula Stewart (known to friends as La), while still spending weekends with Lois. Both women were aware of the arrangement; Lois tolerated it better. In 1952 Hamilton and La began divorce proceedings from their respective spouses. They married in 1954. Hamilton’s reasonably balanced life of the previous decades, and his greatest successes were now behind him, though critic John Betjeman wrote an appraisal of his work in 1956, calling him one of the best English novelists (French, 254). In the spring of 1955 Hamilton began his twelfth and last completed novel, Unknown Assailant. Not up to the physical effort of writing, he dictated it to La. La insisted he receive medical treatment for his alcoholism; he did but secretly continued drinking. In addition to alcoholism, Hamilton was now battling severe depression. In a fifty-page letter to Bruce, he confessed: “I contemplated suicide incessantly . . . but discovered how bloody difficult and doubtful a business the attempt is” (Jones, 348). In 1956 Hamilton received electroshock therapy; his suicidal urges stopped, and he regained his zest for reading. He even started another novel and a memoir but never finished them. In these later years a pattern developed. When in relatively good health and sobriety, Hamilton lived with La. When drinking more heavily, he headed for Lois’s care to be cured. She had the skill and patience to do this and then send him back to La (Jones, 357). By 1961 Hamilton was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver; his only concession was to take more water with his whiskey. Bruce said his brother always had the ability to put distressing things out of his mind. Though deep down Hamilton must have known he was dying, he continued to insist that there was nothing much the matter with him (Hamilton, 186). During his last months, Lois was allowed to visit from time to time. She found him surprisingly cheerful. Patrick Hamilton died September 23, 1962.
Biographer Sean French eloquently summed up Hamilton’s career: “Against the odds, in the most unpromising of circumstances, his was a life of resource, resilience, fortitude and humour. He suffered terrible troubles, some of his own making; he did some inferior work. But he had a steely sense of literary integrity and he never violated it. . . . When he died he left half a dozen first-rate novels and two of the most commercially successful plays of his time. That is the success that matters” (French, 5).