Writer’s Brains: The Lasting Worth of Alfred Hayes

By Alex HarveyJuly 6, 2018

Writer’s Brains: The Lasting Worth of Alfred Hayes
IN ALFRED HAYES’S NOVEL The End of Me (1968), Asher, an aging screenwriter, flees from Los Angeles, leaving behind a failing career and an adulterous wife. In a New York bar he tries to engage with an attractive but disinterested young woman. He tells a joke about a man who enters a butcher’s shop and sees two signs. One reads, “Writer’s brains: nineteen cents a pound,” while the other reads, “Producer’s brains: seventy-nine cents a pound.”

I waited. She sipped her drink.

“Now you are supposed to ask me,” I said patiently, “why producer’s brains cost seventy-nine cents a pound and writer’s brains cost nineteen cents a pound?”


“Well, the butcher said, do you know how many producers you have to kill to get a pound of brains?”

Like Asher, his cynical protagonist, Alfred Hayes was a successful Hollywood screenwriter who was sidelined by the studios in the late 1960s. Mel Brooks worked alongside Hayes at Columbia. He recounts how they went to lunch and returned to find Hayes’s name no longer on his cubbyhole wall. “That’s how the studio fired you,” Brooks realized, “the name just disappears.” And despite a 40-year career writing movies, fiction, and poetry, Hayes has seemed to disappear, fading into oblivion.

Hayes was born in 1911 to a poor Jewish family (whose real surname was “Haas”) in the East End of London, but the family immigrated to New York when he was three. Going against his parents’ fervent wishes for him to study something safe, like accountancy, Hayes decided to become a poet. Scraping a living in the 1920s and 1930s as a waiter, delivery boy, bootlegger, and crime reporter for the New York Daily News, he contributed poems to legendary leftist periodicals like New Masses and Partisan Review, and joined the Young Communist League and the John Reed Club. In Archie Green’s Wobblies, Pile Butts, and Other Heroes: Laborlore Explorations (1993), there’s a portrait of the young Hayes as “dark, Dantean, witty, conscious to imperiousness that he personified a new sort of ‘young generation,’ the lyric poet of the New York working class, the strike front, the writer of sketches that bite into memory.”

Hayes’s best-known poem from this period, “In a Coffee Pot,” encapsulates the anger and frustration of his brooding, wasted generation:

The afternoon will see us in the park
With pigeons and our feet in peanut shells.
We pick a bench apart. We brood
And count the twelve and thirteen tower bells.
What shall we do? Turn on the gas?
Jump a bridge? Boxcar west?
It’s all the same there’s nothing anywhere.
A million guys are sitting on their ass.

“I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night” is the high point of Hayes’s committed verse, a popular elegy for the executed Wobbly activist set to music by Earl Robinson and sung by Paul Robeson and later Joan Baez (giving Hayes a welcome royalties bonus). In Exiles from a Future Time (2002), a history of the midcentury literary left, Alan Wald describes Hayes as “the Byron of the Pool Halls.” A genuine blue-collar intellectual with an intense poetic stare, Hayes seemed more at home with fellow gamblers at the racetrack than with Greenwich Village literati. The Big Time (1944), his first collection of poetry, shows the ideological influence of his friend Kenneth Fearing, but Hayes’s main poetic debt is to another Alfred, T. S. Eliot’s sallow, self-questioning Prufrock:

We brood upon our double in the glass.
We mark the heavy pallor, the stale eye,
The shaven chin above the knotted tie,
The hopelessness that masks its own despair
Carefully, with starched collars and parted hair. (“Underground”)

Although very much a man of the left in sensibility, Hayes was never an activist. According to Wald, his most radical act was moving furniture back into the homes of families who had been evicted during the Depression. By Welcome to the Castle (1950), his second volume of poetry, he is less interested in ideology than in the contradictory emotions brought on by the experience of war:

The killing went on and it was cold that winter.
It became more and more difficult to remember
How, the night we entered the City,
Despite the gunfire,
Men came out in the streets and danced. (“The Fall of Rome”)

Drafted to serve in the Army Special Services, Hayes was stationed in Rome from 1943 to 1945. Wartime Italy released a flood of creativity, and he wrote three novels in four years: All Thy Conquests (1946), Shadow of Heaven (1947), and The Girl on the Via Flaminia (1949). Italy also set up Hayes for his later career. It was there that he befriended film directors Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica. He contributed to De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) and shared an Oscar nomination with Federico Fellini for co-writing Rossellini’s Paisan (1946). This must be one of the most auspicious screenwriting debuts of all time. Hayes was in demand at all the major studios for the next 20 years.

With its newspaper-like montage and multiple viewpoints, All Thy Conquests (1946), Hayes’s first novel, shows the influence of Dos Passos’s U.S.A. Trilogy. The chaos of postwar Roman life is strongly evoked. At times too diffuse, the novel benefits from Hayes’s focus on the real-life trial of the Nazis who executed 335 Italian civilians at the Ardeatine Caves outside Rome. By contrasting the motivations of the Italians and the occupying Americans, Hayes questions whether the Allies were liberators or conquerors. Reviewing the book, John Hersey praised its compassion and understanding, its portrayal of humanity as a “many-toned failure.”

Hayes’s second novel, Shadow of Heaven (1947), deals with his own radical youth. The protagonist is Harry Oberon, a decent but jaded 40-year-old union organizer in a Pennsylvania mining district. Although Harry believes in social equality and works hard to advance the cause of labor, he’s disillusioned by the fact that his generation, who came of age in the ’30s,

had remained a generation of violent boys. The boys had made terrible efforts to become men and they had died in Spain trying to become men and had violently attacked their own society in their effort to become men. Then the war’s coming had more or less ended them as a generation and their historical importance had dwindled and been absorbed by the importance of the war. They did not know whether the war which they had experienced had fulfilled the meaning of their lives or contradicted every meaning their lives had ever had.

The novel’s political themes are overshadowed by the psychological exploration of Harry’s difficult involvement with two women: Margaret, his clinging girlfriend, and Janet, a frustrated war widow trapped under her father-in-law’s thumb.

The Girl on the Via Flaminia (1949) marks a breakthrough in Hayes’s writing. Its focused narrative and its atmosphere of existential unease and sexual mistrust would set the pattern for his noir fiction of the 1950s. Hayes balances a bitter depiction of an unforgiving world with sympathy for the sad evasive maneuvers of the human psyche. Lisa, the titular Italian girl, is persuaded by a friend to share a room with Robert, an American soldier. The room is in an apartment owned by an impoverished family who rent out the upstairs quarters and have turned their kitchen into a bar for Allied soldiers. The mother procures girls while her son looks on with disgust and the husband buries himself in the paper. When Lisa meets Robert, she loathes the way he assumes he can buy gratification: “She was hungry, I was lonely.

Hayes uses the postwar setting to examine, in the starkest possible terms, the dynamics of all sexual relations: love, power, control. Lisa and Robert have to pretend to be married. Although they share a bed, sleeping is their only mutual act. The novel doesn’t progress, but rather circles back on itself with a series of intimate scenes between the pair, who can’t become intimate. Lisa avoids any involvement, and Robert’s feelings shift from sexual longing to genuine tenderness. The moment they are on the verge of a relationship, the police intervene to humiliate Lisa. They force her to register as a prostitute, screen her for venereal disease, and give her an ID card to show to new clients. Robert confesses his feelings and tells her that she’ll never have to use the card. But the ending is suitably unsettled; their relationship is distorted and potentially doomed by its imbalance of power and the world’s constraints.

The Girl on the Via Flaminia was filmed with Kirk Douglas and Brigitte Bardot in her first English-speaking role. The setting was switched to Paris and the novel’s harsh political context was lost. But it helped confirm Hayes’s Hollywood success. Disproving the usual assumption that the movie industry is a graveyard for literary talent, Hayes was able to write both novels and screenplays during the 1950s. He worked on two outstanding noirs with Fritz Lang: Clash by Night (1952), in which Gloria Grahame mixes cruelty with vulnerability, tormenting her voyeuristic husband by coldly retelling her sexual infidelities, and Human Desire (1954), in which Glenn Ford plays a disturbed, cynical outsider, desperate for affection. These two represent the quintessential Hayes screen female and male.

Two noir novellas of the 1950s recently reissued by NYRB Classics, In Love (1953) and My Face for the World to See (1958), seem to have benefited from Hayes’s experience writing taut screenplays. Each focuses intensely on the illusions of a male caught between lust and self-disgust and the insecurities of a femme fatale pursued by hollow men whom she knows will leave her dissatisfied. What these noirs have in common with Hayes’s poems of the 1930s is their romantic laconicism and their concern with existence on the margins of society. In Love evokes a drab New York of empty lives and emptier hotel rooms, reminiscent of Hopper. Its epigraph is from George Herbert: “Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back / Guilty of dust and sin.”

The novella is narrated by a middle-aged man in a hotel bar. He tells a pretty young woman, whom he’s just met, about an unhappy love affair and reveals himself to be cruel and emotionally damaged. The woman whom he loved needed reassurance, even flattery — something he couldn’t or wouldn’t give. When a wealthy man offers the woman a thousand dollars to sleep with him, she treats it as a joke at first. But she has a young child and, needing economic security, accepts his proposal and rejects the narrator:

She was very hesitant about ending this little fiction now. She did not really feel that she was ending it. Rather that she was extending the definition a bit. It was only that she wanted everything; the proper marriage and the improper love; the orderly living room and the disorderly bedroom; the sprinkler on the lawn and an appointment somewhere between two and four.

When the rich lover refuses to marry her, the woman goes back to the narrator. He tries to renew their affair with a romantic weekend in Atlantic City, which proves to be disastrous. It’s the off-season and there are no “holiday love-nests” to rent. Driving through the frozen landscape they become monosyllabic. During an awful night in a deserted hotel, he forces her to have sex for the last time — a loveless, coercive act. Hayes adds layers of irony to the story through the narrator’s self-deceptive, self-aggrandizing pity:

I’ve often wondered why I impress people as being altogether sad, and yet I insist I am not sad, and that they are quite wrong about me, and yet when I look in the mirror it turns out to be something really true, my face is sad, my face is actually sad, I become convinced (and he smiled at her, because it was four o’clock and the day was ending and she was a very pretty girl, it was astonishing how gradually she had become prettier) that they are right after all, and I am sad, sadder than I know.

Hayes’s next book, My Face for the World to See (1958), is his most achieved portrait of male self-deception. The sexual liaison at its heart is even more obviously doomed. The narrator is a screenwriter who spends half the year in Hollywood, leaving his indifferent wife in New York. (Hayes himself tried to split his time between East and West Coasts but, after divorcing his first wife, ended up in Los Angeles for good.) The novella is a sharp, forensic examination of power and money, once again returning him to the themes of his early poetry:

At this very moment the town was full of people lying in bed thinking with an intense, an inexhaustible, an almost raging passion of becoming famous if they weren’t already famous, and even more famous if they were: or of becoming wealthy if they weren’t already wealthy, or wealthier if they were.

Hayes’s Hollywood is full of crack-ups and broken relationships. The narrator rents an apartment from a woman “who has gone off to Europe to forget an unsuccessful marriage which had been followed by an apparently unsuccessful divorce.” The book opens with the writer escaping from mindless small talk at a beach house party. He spies a girl wading out into the Pacific, a drink still in her hand. He notices her toned body before he realizes she’s trying to kill herself. In a rare decisive moment he flings himself into the ocean to save her. Unsurprisingly, she turns out to be an aspiring actress. Wary of her fragility (she had, like so many girls, suffered at the hands of predatory producers), he nevertheless initiates a relationship. Loneliness outweighs the fear of self-exposure, for both of them:

I thought: she shouldn’t sleep with anybody if she doesn’t wish them to know her secrets. It was something more than her nakedness […] she slept like someone who couldn’t go any further, and who had already come too far. I stretched myself out beside her, a stranger, a spy, sharing the warmth of her bed. Morning seemed immeasurably far.

Hayes charts the couple’s disintegration with luminous precision and lends it an air of dream-like inevitability. Hollywood insists on a complete facade; everyone must put on a “face for the world to see.” The young actress wants the world to see her smiling face despite her inner despair. To survive, the writer must adjust his face to meet the faces that are already adjusted.

It was, after all, their world and sooner or later I had to live in it on the only possible terms: theirs. It was a delusion that I could make my own. The self-deception had been that any terms but theirs could exist […] I stood on the top step, briefly suspended, looking down into the well-lighted, the warm, the communal room. Eyes, reasonably famous, turned toward me; I was smiled at by reasonably famous teeth […] They did not look like people who were guilty of anything.

When Hollywood studio work started to dry up in the ’60s and ’70s, Hayes turned to television, writing episodes for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and Logan’s Run. His penultimate novel, The End of Me (1968), explores the disillusionment of a washed-up screenwriter, who questions whether he has compromised his talent with the lure of easy money. In a visceral, cinematic opening Asher discovers his greedy, social-climbing second wife about to have sex with her tennis partner. He literally runs away from his L.A. suburban home, symbolically leaving the lights ablaze. Back in New York to visit the haunts of his early life, he meets his impoverished nephew, Michael, who writes unpublished poetry. Mired in self-pity, Asher tries to help the younger man, who reminds him of his earlier, uncompromised self. But Michael writes semi-pornographic poems about Aurora, his attractive Italian-American girlfriend; his verses are stuffed with “fucks” and “cunts.” Shifting moods from the satiric to the confessional, The End of Me can’t sustain the intensity of the earlier novellas; its depiction of ’60s flower children gives it a dated feel. But it does complete Hayes’s bitter investigation into male sexual desire. Aurora is aware she arouses Asher’s sad fantasies. She helps Michael play a series of tricks, first to tease and then to humiliate the older man. A lost participant in his own suffering, Asher sees the moral vacuity of the younger generation and recognizes his time has come and gone. The novel’s title underlines its bleak emptiness.

Hayes’s precise, sparse style was — and continues to be — much admired by British critics and authors. Elizabeth Bowen described In Love as “a little masterpiece,” and Paul Bailey, praising Hayes’s “lapidary skill,” said that his “prose is polished till it shines.” And indeed, one reason for his literary invisibility in the States may be that his refined sensibility and acute gaze is more European in its quality. But the great irony is that his novels perfectly capture the texture of midcentury American life. There’s nothing obsolete in Hayes’s writing. His work must come back to us in all its brutal honesty.


British director and writer Alex Harvey has made over 20 documentaries and dramas, working in both film and television. His most recent film is the feature documentary Enter the Jungle (2014).

LARB Contributor

Alex Harvey is a writer and director based in Los Angeles. His book Song Noir: Tom Waits and the Spirit of Los Angeles was recently published by Reaktion Books in the United Kingdom and University of Chicago Press in the United States. He is currently making a film about Satyajit Ray and Kolkata.


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