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Marion Hargrove, 83; WWII Draft Put Him on Path to Bestseller

August 29, 2003|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Marion Hargrove, the Army draftee from North Carolina who turned his misadventures in basic training into the humorous World War II bestseller "See Here, Private Hargrove," has died. He was 83.

Hargrove, a television and film writer whose credits include "Maverick" and "The Waltons" as well as the screen adaptation of Meredith Willson's "The Music Man," died of complications of pneumonia Saturday in a hospice in Long Beach.

"Greetings!" from "The President of the United States," the draft notice to Hargrove exclaimed, indirectly setting in motion the Mount Olive, N.C., native's unexpected path to becoming an overnight wartime literary sensation at age 22.

The son of a railway mail clerk, Hargrove was a features writer and the editor of his high school newspaper in Charlotte, N.C., but left school a half-credit short of graduating in 1938. He had worked his way up from proofreader to assistant to the city editor and features editor at the Charlotte News when Uncle Sam came calling.

Inducted into the Army on July 18, 1941, Hargrove underwent basic training at Ft. Bragg, N.C. He wrote about his experiences for the Charlotte News in his column, In the Army Now -- gently humorous tales of sleeping through reveille, mistakenly saluting noncommissioned officers, learning his left foot from his right while marching and landing KP duty instead of a weekend pass.

As he later put it, Pvt. Hargrove represented the type of soldier raw recruits should not emulate.

In March 1942, while still stationed at Ft. Bragg, Hargrove met playwright Maxwell Anderson, who was there to research Army life for a play.

Hargrove, who would serve as the model for the Southern soldier Francis Marion in Anderson's "The Eve of St. Mark," showed the playwright copies of his newspaper column. Anderson was so impressed that when he returned to New York City, he showed them to the editor of Henry Holt & Co. Holt published the articles in book form in July 1942, with a foreword by Anderson.

"It approaches Army life with just the right touch of hard-boiled banter to take the sting out of it," a Time magazine reviewer said.

A No. 1 bestseller, "See Here, Private Hargrove" went through 12 hardcover printings before year's end, with more than 400,000 copies sold. A 25-cent Pocket Books paperback edition sold 2.2 million copies, the book's hapless hero having become what one writer called "the symbol of all left-footed draftees."

"That marvelous book illuminated -- and illuminates even today -- that time of our lives," said Earl Hamner Jr., creator of "The Waltons," who became good friends with Hargrove in the 1970s when he wrote for Hamner's folksy TV series.

Hamner read "See Here, Private Hargrove" while serving in the Army during the war.

"I think every GI read it, and it enabled us to laugh at ourselves," Hamner told The Times on Thursday. "I know some of the experiences were of being young and away from home for the first time in that very strange atmosphere where you were really just a dog soldier -- that's what we were called."

Hamner said it was "basically a grim experience" for which Hargrove "provided the humor that helped all of us see ourselves not just as dog soldiers but as young men away from home: homesick, lovesick -- and scared."

A successful MGM film version of "See Here, Private Hargrove," starring Robert Walker, was released in 1944, followed by a less-successful 1945 sequel, "What Next, Corporal Hargrove?"

In all, Hargrove reportedly earned more than $260,000 in book royalties and film rights for the book.

In the spring of 1942, Hargrove was transferred to New York City to work as a staff writer for the GI publication Yank. Over the next three years, he worked for Yank in China, the Philippines and India.

After discharge as a sergeant, Hargrove went on tour talking about his Army experiences and stressing the need for democratizing the Army by pointing out abuses of the court-martial system and the dramatic differences between living conditions for officers and enlisted men. Presenting his complaints before a military board in 1946, he called for a bill of rights for enlisted men.

During one speech before corporate officials in Pelham, N.Y., Hargrove was accused of being a rabble-rousing communist. He countered by saying the name-calling was "not only dirty fighting" but "a lazy man's way of disposing of a problem without having to think about it."

A decade after his discharge, Hargrove spoke with a degree of bitterness and resentment about the phenomenal success of his wartime book.

"I think it's bad for a writer to have a bestseller the first time out," he told the Los Angeles Times in 1956. "It scared hell out of me; dried me up for several years. I'd start books and never finish them.

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