Joseph Hayes – Novelist, Playwright, Screenwriter

Joseph A. Hayes, c.a. 1987. IU Archives, C299, Box 31.

When discussing famous Indiana Authors, names such as James Whitcomb Riley, Booth Tarkington, Gene Stratton-Porter, and Kurt Vonnegut are the first to come up in conversation.  Yet, another Indiana Native who had a way with words is writer Joseph Hayes.  Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, on August 2, 1918, Joseph Arnold Hayes was the first individual to write a novel, play, and screenplay from the same parent story, The Desperate Hours.

Joseph Hayes attended St. Meinrad Seminary High School in Saint Meinrad, Indiana, and Arsenal Technical High School in Indianapolis, Indiana, before coming to Indiana University with his wife, Marrijane Johnston, in 1938.  While at Indiana University, Hayes was head of the Drama Loan Service, a former department at the university, and helped establish the Brown County Playhouse, where he wrote and directed plays.  In 1949, he had his debut on Broadway with his play “Leaf and Bough.”  He would come to have a total of four plays enter the Broadway scene during his career.

News clipping, c.a. 1949. IU Archives, C299, Box 31.

Hayes wrote his most successful piece, The Desperate Hours, in 1954, and brought his novel to both Broadway and Hollywood the following year.  The Desperate Hours was a story of a fictional family living on Kessler Boulevard, which was terrorized by three desperadoes.  In an interview in 1987 over the novel, Hayes explained that The Desperate Hours “was written in truly desperate circumstances”:

“My influences were desperation. I wrote it in six weeks, working 16 to 17 hours a day. I did the thinking and took notes on the way down. (The situation in the novel) was the most dramatic thing I could think of that would relate to the most people.”

In 1955, Hayes won the first Indiana Authors Day Award for the most distinguished work of fiction by an Indiana Author.  In the same year, the Broadway play version won the Tony Award for Best Play, and Hayes won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for Best Motion Picture Screenplay for the film version, starring Humphrey Bogart.  In 1990, The Desperate Hours film was remade, with Hayes once again participating as co-screenwriter.  Hayes stated:

Title page of The Desperate Hours; second printing, 1954. Herman B Wells Library, PS3515.A972 D4.

“Since I’m the only writer who has ever done novel, play and screenplay solo from a single work of his own I can’t let anyone else at it.”

Throughout his career, Joseph Hayes penned numerous articles, short stories, novels, plays, and screenplays, including pieces in collaboration with wife, Marrijane Johnston, who was also an author.  Together they wrote the novel Bon Voyage in 1956, eventually bringing it to Hollywood in 1962, where the husband and wife duo co-wrote the screenplay for the Walt Disney film of the same name, starring Fred MacMurray.  The hectic schedule from the film made Hayes miss the Indiana Authors Day luncheon in 1957 to celebrate his award from the previous year for The Desperate Hours:

Letter to Earl M. Hoff; January 25, 1957. IU Archives, C444, Box 2.

“Nothing would please me more than to be able to say that I could be there April 14th.  Unfortunately, I don’t know where I’ll be.  I’m working on the screenplay of the new book, Bon Voyage! — and may have to go to Italy to scout locations or to Hollywood to discuss the many details — as we want to shoot in May…”

Adapting his own writing to the theater became a hobby of Hayes’, once again adapting his 1967 novel, The Deep End, into a play.  Although writing for multiple formats, Hayes is quick to point out to Cecil K. Byrd, longtime librarian and faculty member at Indiana University, that just because someone enjoys one medium of work (books, films, plays, etc.), does not mean they enjoy the other.  In regards to his novel, The Deep End, Hayes wrote:

Letter to Cecil K. Byrd; May 20, 1967. IU Archives, C542, Box 5.

“I shall be in New York all of next week for promotion, interviews, exploitation, etc. as arranged by Viking.  A nuisance we both deplore, but apparently necessary.  I find it hard to believe that people who watch television also buy books, but apparently they do.  (It’s not set definitely, but will probably appear TODAY SHOW on May 31, pub-date.)”

To which Cecil Byrd responded:

“That promotion week in New York is a heavy drink!  Look behind you once or twice!  I’ll watch TODAY SHOW on May 31.  Hope it becomes definite.”

Letter to Joseph A. Hayes; May 24, 1967. IU Archives, C542, Box 5.

Although deemed by some as having an unsuccessful career as an author after the publication of The Desperate Hours, Hayes positively claimed:

“No book I’ve ever written could be considered a financial failure.”

In 1970, Indiana University awarded Hayes with the Distinguished Alumni Service Award, and in 1972, the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Humane Letters.  Hayes died on September 11, 2006.  Through the suggestion of Cecil Byrd many years ago, Joseph Hayes’ collection materials, including letters, manuscripts, drafts, typescripts, first editions of books, other writings, and foreign translations, are now housed at the Lilly Library.  The Hayes, Joseph Arnold mss., 1941-1977 collection (LMC 2828) can be viewed at the Lilly Library by appointment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *