Eric and the curse of Lassie

Eric Knight, author of Lassie Come Home, with collie dogs.
Eric Knight, author of Lassie Come Home, with collie dogs.

Eric Knight was born in Menston-in-Wharfedale in 1897, the youngest of three boys. His father left for the Boer War in 1900 and never returned, plunging his family into poverty.

Eric’s mother took a job as a governess while her sons were farmed out to relatives.Eric went to live in Hunslet, Leeds, with an aunt and uncle but when his uncle died of TB in 1907 the lad went to work as the glue vat boy at a knacker’s yard and subsequently worked in a mill and at bottle works.

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When Eric’s aunt remarried in 1910 the lad went to live with the Creasser family, relatives in Skircoat Green, Halifax. The family soon moved to 30 Wellington Street South in Halifax, where they took in theatrical lodgers.

Eric found work as a bobbin setter at J B Farrar’s worsted mill, saved his pennies and became, through a love of reading, fascinated with America in general and the Navajo in particular. He also developed a love of theatre which would influence his later life and career.

By 1912 Eric had saved enough for a one-way ticket to the US and arrived in Philadel-phia that year, aged 15. He found lodgings, a school and a job in a carpet mill.

He won a scholarship to the famed Cambridge Latin School in Boston, where he studied the classics and modern literature, winning the school prize in his first year.

Lassie Come Home, by Eric Knight

Lassie Come Home, by Eric Knight

In 1915 Eric hiked to Canada to enlist and served in six major battles of World War I, most notably at Vimy Ridge.

Having spent 1919 in Halifax Eric returned to the US and, settling in Fairfield, Connecticut, wrote, printed and sold on street corners a one-man news sheet while working part time at Yale Locks as a machinist.

He married but this soon failed due to Eric’s shellshock and flashbacks. On returning to Philadelphia in 1925, after a short spell as a reporter on the Bronx Eagle, Eric became a newspaper copyboy, working his way up to reporter, feature writer and one of America’s first film and theatre critics.

Eric began writing short stories which were soon syndicated across the US and Canada and even made their way into London’s Strand Magazine and other notable publications . They won Eric the O Henry Memorial Short Story Prize of America in 1930.

In 1932 Eric married Jere Brylowski, a foreign language film script editor for David O Selznick. She was a respected horsewoman, a member of the US Olympic fencing team and one of America’s most beautiful and eligible women.

By now Eric had become known as “the enemy of Hollywood” for his scathing and typically blunt Yorkshire criticism of the movie machine’s output. Hollywood responded in typical fashion with the offer of a large salary as a script writer at 20th Century Pictures but Eric hated ‘’Holloweird and all the Hollywoodenheads’’ and left after a year to farm alfalfa and write.

His first novel appeared in 1934 and was a top 10 US seller. His second a year later repeated the trick and his third is even now being considered for a Hollywood film treatment and was a US best seller.

Eric’s first two novels related to Yorkshire, its people and customs and the impressions it made on a young man returning to it after war or leaving it in search of adventure.

His third work is a vicious sideswipe at Hollywood but his fourth is entirely Yorkshire. It follows the adventures of Sam Small, the Flying Yorkshireman, a lad who believes “a Yorkshire lad can do owt wi’ t’power o’ t’mind’’, and he does, including making a fortune and learning to fly unaided – and this a full year before Superman made his first appearance. Sam was a worldwide best seller, despite being largely in Yorkshire dialect.

By 1937, and now widely known in the US, Eric was a regular radio broadcaster and respected author. He and Jere bought a 10-acre fruit farm in Pleasant Valley, Pennsylvania, and moved back east.

Here Eric set about a short story based on Toots, his pet collie. It appeared later in the Saturday Evening Post to an avalanche of letters and huge publicity. A film option on the story – Lassie Come Home –was immediately snapped up.

When the novel of the same name appeared it became one of the world’s best selling works and has been translated into 17 languages, selling over 100 million copies. It has spawned eight movies and over 600 TV episodes .

In 1938 Eric travelled to Yorkshire to spend three months with colliers in closed-down pit communities. The two novels resulting outsold Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier and received the highest critical praise.

The Stricken Arenas, based on Eric’s experiences among the colliers, and serialised in the Saturday Evening Post, won Eric Best Feature of the Year at the New York City Annual Press Awards.

The literary critic of the London Times called Eric “our best social chronicler since Dickens’’ and in America H L Mencken declared that “Eric Knight is our new Mark Twain’’. Others wrote: “Now Pray We For Our Country is a British Grapes of Wrath.’’

Eric returned regularly to Yorkshire and stayed in Halifax with relatives, cycling out into the countryside for days on end, staying at inns and telling his Sam Small stories, often pretending to be an American before breaking into broad Yorkshire.

In 1939 he stayed in Wellington Street with his aunt and uncle before going to London to make a documentary film, World of Plenty, which may still be viewed through the archives of the British Film Institute.

On his return to the US Eric went to his second favourite place, New Mexico, to stay with his second favourite people, the Navajo. Here, in three months, he produced This Above All, his next international best seller, exploring class and relationships in a society threatened by invasion.

The novel became a movie starring Joan Fontaine and Tyrone Power, was Oscar nominated and won Eric the Legion of Merit on the personal recommendation of President Roosevelt, who said the work “had inspired millions of ordinary Americans to get behind Britain in her hour of greatest need”.

Lassie Come Home appeared on the silver screen the next year and became the Harry Potter of the day and sent Eric and Toots on a nationwide publicity tour where they became among the best known celebrities of their day.

In 1942 Eric enlisted in the US Army and was recruited by Frank Capra into the Office of Strategic Services (later the CIA) and became a captain in the intelligence service and liaison officer to Lord Halifax, then British Ambassador to Washington.

Promoted to major, Eric was posted to North Africa and set out in January 1943. But his aircraft crashed off Dutch Guiana on January 15 with the loss of all 35 onboard in a disaster now known to have been caused by sabotage.

It has transpired since that Eric had been a close advisor to the President, a member of his personal cabinet and had been selected to attend the Casablanca Conference in his intelligence role.

Eric had been obliged to adopt American citizenship on joining the US Army and his friend and attorney, Barney Winkelman, knowing how fiercely patriotic Eric was to his beloved Yorkshire, asked how he felt about this,

Eric replied in a broad hand on a shoebox lid: “It matters not what it says on my passport. This above all – I am a Yorkshireman!”

When Mrs Creasser received the telegram at Wellington Street telling her of Eric’s death, she ventured out in the January cold to clear her head. When she returned she wrote to her sister saying. “You can’t imagine what was playing at the Picture House, Eric’s This Above All.’’

Eric Knight is that rare thing, an author who has enjoyed international success in multiple genres, fiction, social documentary and comic prose. He made movies and documentaries, broadcast his works and was a gifted artist, musician and horseman who numbered among his friends glittering stars like E E Cummings, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Frost, Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, Mary Pickford, Walt Disney, Leopold Stokowski and J B Priestley.

Yet asked with whom he was most comfortable his answer was always: “Good, honest Yorkshire folk.’’

Eric has been largely forgotten, killed at a time when death was commonplace, overshadowed by his creation, Lassie, but in her alone, disregarding his other literary and film achievements, he created the most enduring film, television and literary heroine of all time.