Walter Tevis Biography & Facts
Walter Stone Tevis (February 28, 1928 – August 9, 1984) was an American novelist and short story writer. Three of his six novels were adapted into major films: The Hustler, The Color of Money and The Man Who Fell to Earth. A fourth, The Queen’s Gambit, was adapted into a miniseries with the same title and shown on Netflix in 2020. His books have been translated into at least 18 languages.
Life and career
Tevis was born in San Francisco, California in 1928 to Anna Elizabeth (Betty) (née Bacon) and Walter Stone Tevis, an appraiser, growing up in the Sunset District, across the street from Golden Gate Park. His sister, Betty, was born in 1925.He developed a rheumatic heart condition, so his parents placed him in the Stanford Children’s Convalescent home (and given heavy doses of phenobarbital), for a year, during which time they returned to Kentucky, where the Tevis family had been given an early land grant in Madison County. Walter traveled across country alone by train at age 11 to rejoin his family in Kentucky. He made friends with Toby Kavanaugh, a fellow high school student, and learned to shoot pool in the Kavanaugh mansion in Lawrenceburg. In the library there, he read science fiction for the first time. They remained lifelong friends. Kavanaugh later became the owner of a pool room in Lexington, which would have an impact on Tevis’ writing.Near the end of World War II, the 17-year-old Tevis served in the Pacific Theater as a Navy carpenter's mate on board the USS Hamilton.After his discharge, he graduated high school from Model Laboratory School in 1945. He entered the University of Kentucky, where he received B.A. (1949) and M.A. (1954) degrees in English literature and studied with A.B. Guthrie, Jr., the author of The Big Sky. While a student there, Tevis worked in a pool hall and published a story about pool written for Guthrie's class. He later attended the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where he received an M.F.A. in creative writing in 1960.
After graduation, Tevis wrote for the Kentucky Highway Department. He taught classes in fields from the sciences and English to physical education in small-town Kentucky high schools in Science Hill, Hawesville, Irvine, and Carlisle. He also taught at Northern Kentucky University, the University of Kentucky, and Southern Connecticut State University.
Tevis taught English literature and creative writing at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio from 1965 to 1978, where he was named University Professor. Tevis was a member of the Authors Guild.
Tevis wrote more than two dozen short stories for a variety of magazines. "The Big Hustle," his pool hall story for Collier's (August 5, 1955), was illustrated by Denver Gillen. It was followed by short stories in The American Magazine, Bluebook, Cosmopolitan, Esquire, Galaxy Science Fiction, Playboy, Redbook and The Saturday Evening Post.
His first novel, The Hustler, was published by Harper & Row in 1959. Tevis followed it with The Man Who Fell to Earth, published in 1963. Tevis drew from elements of his childhood in The Man Who Fell to Earth, as noted by James Sallis, writing in the Boston Globe On the surface, Man is the tale of an alien who comes to earth to save his own civilization and, through adversity, distraction, and loss of faith ("I want to... But not enough"), fails. Just beneath the surface, it might be read as a parable of 1950s conventionalism and of the Cold War. One of the many other things it is, in Tevis's own words, is "a very disguised autobiography," the tale of his removal as a child from San Francisco, "the city of light," to rural Kentucky, and of the childhood illness that long confined him to bed, leaving him, once recovered, weak, fragile, and apart. It was also – as he realized only after writing it – about his becoming an alcoholic. Beyond that, it is, of course, a Christian parable, and a portrait of the artist. It is, finally, one of the most heartbreaking books I know, a threnody on great ambition and terrible failure, and an evocation of man's absolute, unabridgeable aloneness.
During his time teaching at Ohio University, Tevis became aware that the level of literacy among students was falling at an alarming rate. That observation gave him the idea for Mockingbird (1980), set in a grim and decaying New York City in the 25th century. The population is declining, no one can read, and robots rule over the drugged, illiterate humans. With the birth rate dropping, the end of the species seems a possibility. Tevis was a nominee for the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1980 for Mockingbird. During one of his last televised interviews, he revealed that PBS once planned a production of Mockingbird as a follow-up to their 1979 film of Ursula K. Le Guin's The Lathe of Heaven.
Tevis also wrote The Steps of the Sun (1983), The Queen's Gambit (1983), and The Color of Money (1984), a sequel to The Hustler. His short stories were collected in Far from Home in 1981.
Three of Tevis' six novels were adapted for major motion pictures, and one for a TV mini-series. The Hustler, directed by Robert Rossen, and The Color of Money, directed by Martin Scorsese, followed the escapades of fictional pool hustler "Fast Eddie" Felson. The Man Who Fell to Earth, directed by Nicolas Roeg, was released in 1976; it was subsequently re-made in 1987 as a TV film. The Queen’s Gambit is a 2020 Netflix mini-series starring Anya Taylor-Joy.
Tevis married Jamie Griggs in 1957 and they remained together for over twenty years before getting divorced. They had two children, a son, William Thomas and daughter, Julia Ann.Tevis was a frequent smoker, gambler and alcoholic, and his works often included these vices as central themes. Tevis took some of the money he earned from the movie rights to The Hustler and moved his family to Mexico, where he later claimed that he "stayed drunk for eight months." When Tevis was drinking, he couldn't write. According to his son Will, "[Walter Tevis] is the [anti-]hero of all his own books." Having a heart condition, Tevis was given phenobarbital at a young age. This is considered part of the inspiration for the character Beth Harmon in The Queen's Gambit, and according to Tevis, part of the reason for his later alcoholism. Tevis was able to overcome his alcohol habit in the 1970s with help from Alcoholics Anonymous.Tevis spent his last years in New York City as a full-time writer, where he died of lung cancer in 1984. He was buried in Richmond, Kentucky.In 2003, Jamie Griggs Tevis published her autobiography, My Life with the Hustler. She died August 4, 2006.In 1983, Tevis married Eleanora Walker, later the trustee of the Walter Tevis Copyright Trust. She died December 9, 2016, at Bellevue Hospital in New York City, in an apparent suicide. Walter Tevis' literary output is represented by the Susan Schulman Literary Agency.
The Hustler. Harper & Row. 1959.
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