Research at the Harry Ransom Center: "Miss Universe, Mr. Uris, and The Archive" by Ira B. Nadel
Miss Universe and Leon Uris seem at first an unusual couple. But from research in the Uris archive at the Ransom Center, and particularly in a set of sixteen oversized scrapbooks he kept, the unexpected connection is clear.
As one of America's most popular writers from 1953 until his death in 2003, Uris received numerous honors, awards, and praise, although he liked to introduce himself as a "12-time Pulitzer Prize loser." Nevertheless, in pursuing details of this remarkable writer's life for a forthcoming biography, I came across an unusual set of items in his scrapbooks: airline tickets, passports, hotel receipts, press clippings, and the program for the 1975 Miss Universe contest held in El Salvador. Uris was a judge, joining Peter Lawford, Susan Strasberg, Sarah Vaughan, Ernest Borgnine, and Olympic skier Jean-Claude Killy. Background sheets on each of the twelve finalists accompany a copy of Uris's itinerary and program for the final judging. It was to take place in the redecorated National Gymnasium of El Salvador, transformed into a gigantic Mayan pyramid. Scrapbook photos show the judges—Uris in a white tuxedo with frill shirt—hard at work jotting down comments and responses before selecting Miss Finland, Anne Marie Pohtamo, as the winner.
Uris's autographed program from the event contains amusing remarks from his fellow judges: the actress Susan Strasberg wrote "If I only had a larger social conscience." The journalist Max Lerner offered "To Jill and Leon—beauty and the beast—each of you with great powers," while the skier Jean-Claude Killy exclaimed "from one skier & great one to another skier & better one!" Such colorful remarks are irresistible in an account of the novelist's life.
The Miss Universe contest is only one of numerous discoveries in the Uris archive, which first arrived at the Ransom Center in 1997, containing juvenilia, draft manuscripts, letters, medals, photographs, contracts, press releases, unpublished works, citations, invitations, and menus—the panoply of a writer's career. Among the more interesting items is an outline and research notes for an unwritten novel about immigrants in the lower East Side of New York and a completed but unpublished children's story entitled Secrets of Forever Island. Vivid letters written to his stepsister and parents during his Marine Corps training in 1942—Uris dropped out of high school to enlist only weeks after Pearl Harbor—reveal details of his military life, which provided source material for his first novel, Battle Cry (1953). Other discoveries include criticism from the Israeli Foreign Office of errors in an early draft of Exodus, the actual transcript of his 1964 English libel case, which he would turn into QBVII, and a copy of his first fan letter. An added bonus are hundreds of photographs he took as part of his research for novels Exodus and Trinity.
Secondary material can provide additional insight about a subject, and for Uris one of the most interesting early events in his career was the world premier of the 1955 movie Battle Cry. Press accounts of the gala in Baltimore, Uris's home town, detail the support of the entire city, beginning with the mayor and the Marines. A wonderful letter by Uris's wife, Betty, to her parents with her impression of the event supplements the public record. The presence of movie stars like Dorothy Malone, Mona Freeman, the director Raoul Walsh, plus the young heartthrob Tab Hunter, meant a sellout of the 2,800-seat Stanley Theatre. Uris stayed on, but the stars left for the opening the next day in New York. Capitalizing on his skyrocketing appeal, Warner Bros. had Tab Hunter appear at the 8:30 a.m. show to hand out 100 pairs of nylons to the first 100 female guests.
The archive charts Uris's development as a writer from juvenile efforts as a dramatist to his detailed research for his massive novel about Ireland, Trinity. His travel for novels like Mila 18 and Armageddon are thoroughly documented, as are his unsuccessful attempts to bring Exodus to the stage as the musical Ari and efforts to write filmscripts for his major novels. Further riches include the record of his philanthropic activities and correspondence with his readers. Asked to name the most influential books in his life, he cites the work of Steinbeck. Asked when he planned to take up golf, he responds, "after my first heart attack." Asked his favorite passage from his own work, he replies, "the end."
From such disparate material, the personality of the writer emerges. How much of it will I directly use? All of it and none of it. The information is vast but the narrative limited by length and story. But access to such material is invaluable, and biographers can never have enough of it. The task, however, is how to use it effectively to convey the writer and the origins of his work. Without such detail the result would be fantasy, not fact. But the existence of such materials provides what Ezra Pound called "the atlas of objectivity," although the biographer's job remains to locate, in the words of James Joyce, "the curve of emotion." The discovery of Miss Universe in the Uris archive forges an unexpected link between the two.
Ira B. Nadel, Professor of English at the University of British Columbia and frequent visitor to the Ransom Center's archives, is the author of biographies of Leonard Cohen, Tom Stoppard, and Ezra Pound. A Dorot Fellowship supported his work at the Ransom Center.