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Wednesday, 10 February 2021

Sundown Hurried Too Quickly for the Typewriting Bert Gilden

Seen here at his Royal KMH typewriter is successful author Bert Gilden. Successful author? Bert Gilden? Never heard of him, one might well say - even though his first novel, published on January 8, 1965, sold 350,000 copies and had already earned him $100,000 ($857,000 in today’s money) in movie rights alone. And that's all before the paperback version emerged on the market. But when I say “him” and “his” I should in fairness be saying “them” and “their”, because Bert co-authored with his wife Katya (above, right). And the joint pen-name on their novel Hurry Sundown, about dirt farmers and social and racial tensions in rural post-World War II Georgia, was K.B. Gilden”. Katya called the collaboration a pas de deux. Just imagine, after the goings-on in Georgia during the US Presidential and Senate elections in the past few months, what rich material they would have had for a follow-up to Hurry Sundown!

Above: The Gildens' home then (top) and as it is now.
From the proceeds of their debut novel, Bert and Katya bought a new winter coat for Katya (her first since they were married in 1947) then in mid-1964 spent $45,000 to buy an old 16-room mansion at 250 Algonquin Road, Fairfield, Bridgeport, Connecticut, from Marshall M. Bassick. The joys of success were short-lived, however, especially for Bert. Three days after returning from a trip to East Berlin to promote the German language version of the film based on their novel, Bert died in Bridgeport General Hospital after a heart attack, aged a mere 56, on April 4, 1971, having savoured the fruits of his literary success for just six years. The Gildens had laboured over their first published work for 14 years, from 1949 to August 1963. For the final two years, toiling away in their “writing centre” in the attic of their previous Bridgeport home, at 181 Grove Street, Fairfield, the couple led a “Spartan lifestyle” while working a full 12 hours a day (plus raising three boys, David, Jairus and Danny) including weekends. Because Katya was by that stage too nearsighted to use a typewriter, she wrote passages in longhand while Bert typed on the Royal. “They swapped ideas on every line,” said LIFE magazine in its February 5, 1965 edition (most images on this post are from that feature). Bert also worked part-time in a Bridgeport automobile battery factory from 1950-58, stacking metallic battery plates (see image below). The effort was well worth it. Katya called it “a real fusion of both our points of view and richer than either of us could have made it alone.” Bert said it was a book regional in setting but universal in theme. Orville Prescott wrote in The New York Times “no novel of the year will be more engrossing, more crowded with magnificently vital characters or closer to the problems, issues and emotional storms of American life.” The book, he said, was “a surge of life that is unforgettable”.

The Gildens' former home at 181 Grove Street, Fairfield, as it is now.

The Gildens with two of their sons (David in the foreground).
Danny was off fetching sticks when the photo was taken.
Bert David Gilden was born in Hollywood, Los Angeles, on January 15, 1915, the son of Polish-born parents. The family had moved to 32 Taft Avenue, Bridgeport, by 1919. After graduating in 1936, following four years at Brown University, Bert got a job in the publicity department of Warner Brothers Pictures in New York City. At the outbreak of World War II, he enlisted at Fort Nix in New Jersey and served as a lieutenant in the 756th Tank Battalion in Europe. The 756th first saw combat in January 1943, when it deployed to North Africa then went into Italy following the Salerno landings in September. In 1944, two companies of the battalion were re-equipped with DD tanks, specialised M4 Shermans designed for amphibious landings. The 756th landed near St Tropez as part of Operation Dragoon, attached to the 3rd Infantry Division, and pushed north through France along the Rhone Valley. The division went into defensive positions on the Rhine after reaching Strasbourg and saw heavy fighting early in 1945 during the clearing of the Colmar Pocket. It crossed the Rhine in March, where its DD tanks were used as part of an amphibious assault, and then pushed into southern Germany with the 3rd Infantry. The battalion ended the war near Salzburg in Austria. Bert had been twice wounded in action and received numerous military and civil awards.

While still on active duty, Bert met Katya Alpert in Bangor, Maine, and the couple were married at Bar Harbor, Maine, on July 22, 1947.  She was 33 and he 32. Early in their marriage, Katya found a short story Bert had written. “She thought something should be done to it,” he said, “and she improved the story.” It was bought by Colliers magazine. They made other literary side-trips, in attempts to make money “to finance the novel”, which grew out of a move to the Georgia coast in 1947. Bert worked in a re-education program for war veterans, an experience which provided the material for Hurry Sundown. Bert had been asked by an Army friend, an Episcopal priest, to help start GI farm training classes for both white and African-Americans, giving him ample insight for the novel. As an outsider who happened to be accepted by leading elements of the community, Bert said, I enjoyed a social mobility beyond that of any of the natives and was able to cut across class and race lines to an extraordinary degree. From 1949-52 he attended the Professional Writers’ Clinic under Lillian Gilkes at New York University. Gilkes was director of the New York Writers' School, sponsored by the pro-Soviet Popular Front organisation, the League of American Writers. Gilkes also served on the board of directors of the League of American Writers. Later in 1952 Bert was a candidate for the Connecticut State Legislature on the ticket of the People’s Party.

The young Minnie Alpert.
Katya was born (as Minnie Alpert) in Bangor on March 9, 1914. She was still known as Minnie at Bangor High School in 1931, where she was already listed as an authoress, but had become Minnie Katya at Radcliffe College by 1935. She graduated the next year, when she received an honorable mention in the Prix de Paris run by Vogue magazine and went to work in advertising in Boston. While an undergraduate, she was the first woman to publish in the Harvard Advocate, submitting a poem and a story about a fight between a black and a white boxer. Themes of race, gender and inequality would resurface in the two novels she and Bert wrote. Katya worked in civic affairs as the director of the Community Forum during the war years. She was also vice-president of the Penobscot Interracial Forum and secretary of the Bangor League of Women Voters. Bangor area civil rights politics had first surfaced in the early 1920s when residents established a short-lived chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Activities intensified at the end of the war, partly due to the presence of black military personnel in Bangor, Brunswick and Portland. During the late 1940s, Bangor activists formed the Penobscot Interracial Forum, and in 1947 those in Portland founded a chapter of the NAACP with ties to Maine's only black church, Green Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Zion. Katya went on to do social work in Harlem and as research director for the Unitarian Service Committee in Boston.

From the Negro Digest, May 1965.
From 1949 Bert and Katya worked together on Hurry Sundown, which over 14 years grew to a 1046-page manuscript. Within three weeks of its publication, it had gone well into its fifth printing, had broken all advance sales records of the Literary Guild, and was considered “the publishing sensation of the [US] winter”. Hurry Sundown is about black and white Southern sharecroppers, The Gildens considered themselves “novelists of the world of work”, and were heavily influenced by essays on proletarian fiction by György Lukács. This Hungarian Marxist philosopher, aesthetician, literary historian and critic was one of the founders of Western Marxism, an interpretive tradition that departed from the Marxist ideological orthodoxy of the Soviet Union. He developed the theory of reification and contributed to Marxist theory with developments of Karl Marx's theory of class consciousness. He was also a philosopher of Leninism. He ideologically developed and organised Lenin's pragmatic revolutionary practices into the formal philosophy of vanguard-party revolution. As a literary critic Lukács was especially influential due to his theoretical developments of realism and of the novel as a literary genre.

In April 1964 film director Otto Preminger was shown the galley proof of the Gilden manuscript by his brother Ingo and, fully expecting it to be another Gone with the Wind, purchased the film rights for $100,000, eight months before its publication. He initially intended to adapt it for a 4½-hour epic. Rumor would vastly inflate Preminger’s price to $795,000. The misunderstanding arose from a newspaper editor's “persistent phone calls to Preminger, who refused to reveal the purchase price. ‘Oh, come on,’ the editor pleaded. ‘What did the book cost you?’ Preminger replied, ‘Seven ninety-five.’ He meant the retail price in the bookstore, $7.95.” Because Preminger admired Horton Foote’s screenplay for the Harper Lee novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Preminger hired Foote to adapt Hurry Sundown. Foote completed his draft in three months, but Preminger was unhappy with it, feeling it was missing the melodrama and theatricality the story required. He paid Foote his full fee and dismissed him. Preminger replaced Foote with Thomas C. Ryan. The film version was released on February 9, 1967. It stars Jane Fonda, Faye Dunaway in her first major role, Michael Caine, Diahann Carroll and Burgess Meredith.

From LIFE magazine.

Michael Caine as the bigoted, draft-dodging, gold-digging and villainous Henry Warren
 at a typewriter with "son" Colie Warren (John Mark).


Bert and Katya Gilden produced a second novel, Between the Hills and the Sea, published in August 1971, four months after Bert had died. It’s about factory workers and labor relations in the 1940s and 1950s and wasn't a success. But with highly detailed passages about labor union politics, the book was republished in 1989 by Cornell University International Labor Relations Press. Katya became a writer in residence at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, and lived the later part of her life in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She died, aged 77, of a lung ailment in Spaulding Hospital, Boston on May 5, 1991.

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