James M. Cain, along with Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, is one of the figureheads of the hard-boiled school of detective fiction — despite his famous declarations to the contrary. His novels, short fiction, and nonfiction articles helped define the landscape of twentieth-century literature, and although he never found personal success as a screenwriter, the movies based on his fiction set a new standard for film noir.
James Mallahan Cain was born in Annapolis, Maryland, in 1892 to Rose Cain, an opera singer, and James W. Cain, a professor at St. John’s College. An intellectually precocious child, Cain entered Washington College at the age of fourteen. Though he enjoyed excellent academic standing, Cain would later admit that he did not feel emotionally prepared for the experience, and after completing a B.A. at eighteen, he drifted, taking and discarding any number of jobs.
While he would eventually achieve fame as a novelist, Cain always believed that being a writer was only a consolation prize. He wanted to be a professional singer like his mother, and although he had some talent, she told him that his voice would never be good enough. Forced to accept the reality that he wouldn’t make it as a singer, Cain had an epiphany. As he later recounted, he heard his own voice say, “You are going to be a writer.”
Cain listened. In 1917, he began working for the Baltimore American as a police reporter. He was a dogged, determined journalist, and he was soon recruited by the Baltimore Sun. He briefly interrupted his journalism career by enlisting in the Army near the end of World War I, but while his division waited to be sent home in 1919, Cain was appointed editor-in-chief of the corps newspaper, The Lorraine Cross. After the war he returned to Baltimore and the Sun, where he met the prominent critic H. L. Mencken, a hard-drinking provocateur who became his mentor, friend, and greatest advocate.
While covering the “Out of State” desk at the Sun, Cain became fascinated by the union disputes unfolding around the country. He requested those assignments specially and audited courses at St. John’s College to better understand the history and politics of labor. His dispatches from the 1920 West Virginia treason trial of three miners’ union leaders bought him into the national spotlight. The Sun articles were so well received — despite being controversially pro-union — and Cain had so much material that he also published features on the union trials in The Atlantic Monthly, The National, and H. L. Mencken’s The American Mercury. Cain’s time spent in coal country influenced his fiction as well: the tough, slangy speech of the workingmen was incorporated into his dialogue, and treason, crime, and criminality became a permanent fixture in his plots.
Cain returned to Baltimore a minor literary celebrity. Acutely aware that his star was on the rise, he made the decision to leave his job with the Sun and move to New York City. This move was also prompted by the end of his first, rocky marriage to Mary Clough (they had married upon his return from the war), and the prospect of a new romance with Elina Tyszecka, a Finnish émigré with whom Cain had fallen in love — despite the fact that she did not speak English, nor he Finnish. They communicated, as Cain said later, “in the language of love.” Elina had two young children from a previous marriage, and Cain, now the breadwinner, felt renewed pressure to get work — and fast. Fortunately, his reputation and an endorsement by Mencken earned him a job writing editorials for the prestigious New York World.
After taking on such a serious assignment in West Virginia, Cain was initially offended by being asked to write light, humorous editorials. However, his witty column was an instant hit, and he quickly began to enjoy the freedom that this sort of writing afforded him. In 1929 he compiled the short satirical works he had published in the World into a book called Our Government, a clever send-up of American politics. Though the book was not commercially successful, it was highly regarded among the intellectual set with whom Cain socialized.
As the Great Depression began, the sort of fluff pieces that were Cain’s particular genius no longer suited the national mood. The World folded in 1931, and Cain went to work for The New Yorker. It was a job he would come to loathe. He disliked his editor, coworkers, and the magazine. Cain’s unhappiness at The New Yorker prompted him to move to California, where he had been offered a job writing screenplays for major motion pictures.
Despite Cain’s admiration for the California landscape and milieu, he did not immediately find the success he had been hoping for. After being dropped from his first studio contract, Cain began going on long pleasure drives with Elina. It was on just such an excursion that he had an idea for his best-received work of short fiction yet, “The Baby in the Icebox,” which sold well and was made into a movie by Paramount titled She Made Her Bed. California’s treacherous natural beauty and unique social environment also inspired a classic Cain piece for The American Mercury: “Paradise,” a viciously candid portrait of life on the edge of the Pacific.
Buoyed by these accomplishments, Cain began his first novel. With Mencken’s encouragement, he sketched out a scintillating tale of infidelity and murder called The Postman Always Rings Twice. The plot revolves around a drifter named Frank who falls for Cora, who works at her husband’s roadside diner and gas station. Together, they plan to murder her husband, Nick. Though Cain initially had trouble placing the manuscript due to the rough language and frank portrayal of unsavory themes, it was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1934. The book caused an instant sensation. Critics were ecstatic, readers enraptured, and Hollywood’s interest in Cain was reignited. A month after its publication, Cain signed a contract with MGM to turn the novel into a motion picture.
After a few false starts, Cain began work on his next major project, a story about a washed-up opera singer who regains his voice with the help of a Mexican prostitute. He also began serializing a thriller called “Double Indemnity” in Liberty magazine — a venture that he did not take terribly seriously, hoping only to make enough to go to Mexico in order to gather background information for his next novel. To his surprise, “Double Indemnity” was another popular triumph. Magazines flew off the stands, and the nation waited with bated breath for each new installment. Meanwhile, Cain was able to take the longed-for trip to Mexico, where he was able to finish the opera-singer novel, Serenade.
Serenade was not as well received, nor did it sell as well as The Postman Always Rings Twice. The themes of prostitution and male homosexuality kept readers and critics from embracing the book. Still, Cain found himself more in demand than ever. He felt that he was ready for his first serious literary endeavor. Mildred Pierce was the story of a woman who was singularly devoted to nurturing her cold, spoiled daughter’s career as a coloratura soprano and who saw the men in her life as only a means to an end. Cain considered the daughter, Veda, one of his most notable creations. Reviews were generally positive, but the book sold even fewer copies than Serenade. Cain was himself ambivalent about the quality of the work he had produced and eventually admitted to having grave regrets about certain decisions he’d made regarding the ending. His enjoyment of Mildred Pierce’s moderate success was brief: only months after publication, the United States entered World War II, and the media attention waned.
With the nation at war and the Golden Age of Hollywood all but over, Cain found himself adrift once more. He began to drink heavily. His work suffered; it was only the re-publication of his pre-war fiction that kept Cain financially afloat. He left one agent, then another, and finally left Elina, his wife of fifteen years. A novel that began life as a serial, Love’s Lovely Counterfeit was ignored by readers and panned by critics turned off by its unpatriotic story of a corrupt city government — although H. L. Mencken told Cain it was the best thing he’d ever written. Having lost a plagiarism lawsuit against Universal Studios, and facing a long, drawn-out divorce from Elina, he found himself deep in debt. As Cain moved from studio to studio working on unsuccessful screenplays, his new agent was successful in selling film rights to his earlier works.
The movie Double Indemnity, based on Cain’s original story, was released by Paramount in 1943. If Cain was one of the forefathers of the hard-boiled genre, Double Indemnity was the godfather of noir pictures. It caused as much if not more of a sensation than the serial had. Shortly after, Mildred Pierce hit screens, with Joan Crawford as the indomitable heroine. It was a role for which she would win an Oscar. A film version of The Postman Always Rings Twice followed in 1946, confirming his status as a Hollywood celebrity.
Despite this, Cain had little personal success as a screenwriter. The movies to which he lent his talents tended to flop spectacularly. Still, he was enjoying money, fame, and glamorous company. In 1944, on the rebound from breaking up with his mistress Kate Cummings, Cain met and quickly married the actress Aileen Pringle. They divorced only a few years later, with Cain once again having to pay a large settlement.
Seeing the millions the studios had made from his intellectual property — not to mention the royalties that his multiple publishers were earning with every reprinting of his books — Cain began to develop an idea for a system in which all of a writer’s copyrights could be centrally managed. Writers would submit their work to the collective control of the American Authors’ Authority (AAA), with the organization then granting production and publication rights. The AAA would theoretically be able to negotiate better contracts and royalty rates than could an author on his own. Convinced of the virtue of his plan, Cain published an article outlining the proposed functions of the AAA in the Screen Writers Guild magazine and was immediately met with backlash from publishers, movie studios, and the writers themselves. Writers were unwilling to relinquish personal control over their copyrights, and they feared the AAA would have the power to censor the material. An organization like the AAA, although apolitical, couldn’t gain any support in the paranoid, Communist-fearing atmosphere of 1940s Hollywood, and Cain’s plan fizzled after a year of bargaining with the preexisting associations.
By this time, though Cain did not realize it, his best years as an author had already passed. He was still writing prolifically but producing nothing of the caliber of Mildred Pierce or The Postman Always Rings Twice. Despite the enormous advance paid for his next novel Past All Dishonor, a Civil War-era crime story, the book did not sell to the film studios as Cain had hoped and was tepidly received by critics. Neither Cain nor his longtime publisher Knopf expected much success of his other new novel, The Butterfly, which revolved around a case of incest in West Virginia. Cain and Alfred A. Knopf were pleasantly surprised by the generally positive reviews it received, and both The Butterfly and Past All Dishonor sold well. Unfortunately, literary tastemakers seemed to be growing tired of the hard-boiled genre with which Cain, despite his protests, was associated. His next book, The Moth, garnered the worst reviews of his career. He had written about unsavory characters before, but it seemed that with the protagonist of The Moth — a man named Jack who was in love with his twelve-year-old sister — Cain had finally gone too far. The book was a personal and financial disappointment.
In 1946, Cain met his longtime idol, the famous opera singer Florence Macbeth Whitewell. She became his fourth and final wife, and in 1948 they moved from Hollywood to the small town of Hyattsville, Maryland. Though Cain was unhappy there and longed to return to California, he would remain in Hyattsville for the rest of his life.
Slowly but surely, James M. Cain began to slip into obscurity. With the death of H. L. Mencken in 1950, Cain lost not only his greatest friend but also his staunchest supporter. Cain successfully published a few more short stories and another Civil War novel, Galatea. All were received badly and sold poorly. Fortunately, the paperback releases of Cain’s earlier, more successful works and the continuing revenue from their various adaptations were enough to keep him and Florence comfortable. Still, the mounting professional failures chafed at him. His next novel, Mignon — also set during the Civil War — only confirmed his growing reputation as a has-been. It was a blow made even more crushing by the fact that he had spent twelve years writing it.
Cain, now well into his seventies, withdrew from the world. The little house in Hyattsville became a hermitage of two, until his wife, Florence, died in 1966 after a long illness. Cain had now lost both his best friend and his wife, and his career was on the decline. Even though he wrote constantly — he completed four novels between 1967 and 1971 — publishers were not interested in his new work.
A significant break came come in 1968, when his three most acclaimed works, Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce, and The Postman Always Rings Twice, were reissued in a single volume entitled Cain 3. The flurry of publicity around the release of Cain 3 resulted in the publication of articles and profiles on Hyattsville’s secluded celebrity, in addition to a major biography by David M. Madden entitled James M. Cain. Cain’s place in the American canon was being recognized.
Reinvigorated by this late-life resurrection, Cain wrote a new novel, Rainbow’s End. Published in 1974, Rainbow’s End was classic Cain, featuring a bank heist gone awry, a hijacked airplane, and a love affair between a crook and a fallen woman. Critics hailed the book as a master’s return to form. It sold well. Cain was a hot commodity once again.
Unfortunately, The Institute, his next book, was a spectacular flop the following year. The story of a University of Maryland professor who develops a new theory about Shakespeare’s identity, it was Cain’s first attempt at a contemporary setting and voice. Unfortunately, the dialogue that worked so well for criminals and desperate housewives faltered in the mouths of upper-class academics. Cain finished one more novel, The Cocktail Waitress, but found himself once again unable to find a publisher. Undaunted, Cain began work on new projects in addition to penning a series of popular editorials in The Washington Post. He continued writing up until the day he died in 1977, at the age of eighty-five.
James M. Cain’s influence on the tone and style of twentieth-century American fiction cannot be exaggerated. He had a talent for clean, forthright prose, honed during his time as a journalist. This allowed him to describe action and intrigue like no writer before him. Though his characters were crooks, murderers, adulterers, pedophiles, and prostitutes, Cain sketched out their personalities with an acute sensitivity that raised them above the sordid stereotypes they would have been otherwise. He had a rare gift for articulating the humanity of the dehumanized. If his career was uneven it was because he was an innovator, always seeking to challenge himself as a writer, even when the results didn’t pay off as he had hoped. Throughout his professional and personal life, Cain seemed to be seeking something: the right career, the right woman, the right narrative voice. Whether he thought he found it we will never know. One thing is for certain: he has left readers a diverse body of work that uniquely exemplifies both an age and a man.