HIMES, CHESTER B. (29 July 1909 - 12 Nov. 1984) was an internationally acclaimed author who wrote detective novels, protest literature and short stories. He was born in Jefferson City, MO to Estelle (Bomar) and Joseph Himes, who was a professor in the mechanical department of a local college. When Himes was eight, his family moved to Cleveland's GLENVILLE neighborhood after his father lost a job teaching. Himes graduated from East High School. For two years he attended Ohio State University prior to being expelled for associating with pimps and prostitues. He returned to Cleveland and worked for a professional gambler and as a bellhop at the Hotel Gilsy where he procured clients for prostitutes and sold bootleg liquor. In 1928, Himes robbed Samuel Miller, president of Independent Towel Supply, and his wife at gunpoint at their mansion in CLEVELAND HEIGHTS. While attempting to pawn the stolen jewelry in Chicago, Himes was arrested. He confessed to the robbery and was sent back to Cleveland where he was sentenced to the maximum 25 years at the Ohio State penitentiary in Columbus.
While serving time, Himes turned to writing. Following a gruesome fire on Easter Sunday 1930, which took the lives of 332 inmates, Himes wrote an account of the event that was published in the CLEVELAND NEWS. By 1934, he published two short stories in Esquire magazine, including one about the fire, "To What Red Hell." These literary forays helped Himes win an early release from prison in 1935. Himes returned to Cleveland and married his girlfriend, Jean L. Johnson and worked for the Works Project Administration through its Ohio Writer's Project. In 1940 Himes got a job as a cook and a butler at Malabar Farm, the Mansfield area estate of Pulitzer Prize winning writer Louis Bromfield. Bromfield liked Himes' work but failed in his efforts to get his novel Black Sheep published. Himes and his wife followed Bromfield to Los Angeles in 1941, where Himes worked in the shipyards and encountered new degrees of racism that would fuel his protest novels later that decade. He based his first novel, If He Hollers, Let Him Go, on these experiences. On April 3, 1953, Himes left the country for Paris following the collapse of his marriage and the death of his parents. In 1957, Himes entered into a contract to write the detective novel, The Five Cornered Square (later renamed A Rage in Harlem). In the book, Himes introduced his characters, Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, two detectives who were the principal characters of an eight book series. Himes, who only briefly visited Harlem, based his characters on people he met in Cleveland's underworld and in the penitentiary. The first of the series won France's prestigious "Grand Prix de la literature" award in 1958. That same year, he met his second wife Lesley Packard, a 30-year-old British woman. In the mid-sixties, Himes sold many of his books to American publishers. Samuel Goldwyn Jr. bought "Cotton Goes to Harlem," the second of the series, which was made into a 1970 film co-directed by Ossie Davis. A sequel, "Come Back Charleston Blue," based on his novel, The Heat's On, was filmed in 1972. A Rage in Harlem was filmed in 1991. Himes short story, "Marihuana and a Pistol" was included in the Anthology of Western Reserve Literature published in 1992. In total, he had twenty-one books published. Himes died in his home in Moraira, Spain and is buried in Benissa, a nearby village.
View image at Cleveland Public Library.
Himes, Chester, The Quality of Hurt, vol. 1 autobiography (1972)
Himes, Chester, My Life of Absurdity, vol. 2 autobiography (1976)
Sallis, James, Chester Himes: A Life (2000)