The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber

THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Kantor, MacKinlay
(February 4, 1904–October 11, 1977)

–journalist, novelist, short story author, and screenwriter–published more than 30 novels and several short stories and screenplays. He is best known for his realistic historical novels set during the Civil War. His Andersonville, a grim and harrowing tale of the infamous Confederate prison, received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1956, and was later adapted as a stage and television play titled The Andersonville Trial. His novella Glory for Me formed the basis for the Academy Award-winning film The Best Years of Our Lives in 1945.

    He was born Benjamin McKinlay Kantor in Webster City, Iowa, the son of John Milton Kantor, a ne'er-do-well clerk, and Effie Rachel (McKinlay) Kantor, a nurse and newspaper editor. Unable to hold a job, John Kantor deserted his pregnant wife, who divorced him immediately after her son's birth. Kantor later eulogized his mother and criticized his father in But Look the Dawn: The Story of a Childhood. In an apparent attempt to emphasize his Scottish heritage, Benjamin Kantor abandoned his first name and added a second "a" to his middle name. An indifferent student, he dropped out of high school at age 17 and became a reporter on the newspaper where his mother worked. At the age of 18, he earned a $50 first prize in a short story contest and placed stories in Outdoor America and Iowa Magazine. Moving to Chicago in 1925, he worked in a department store, published several detective stories in pulp magazines, and joined a small theater group. There he met a painter named Irene Layne, whom he married in 1926 and with whom he had two children. Returning to his first career, Kantor worked as a reporter and free-lance writer for the Cedar Rapids Republican in 1927, and as a columnist for the Des Moines Tribune during 1930 and 1931.

    During the late 1920s and early 1930s, Kantor published his first three novels: Diversey, El Goes South, and Jaybird. Although none of these was a commercial or critical success, their publication encouraged Kantor to move his family to New York City in 1932. Two years later he published Long Remember, his first historical novel and first commercial success. Later that same year Kantor moved to Hollywood, where he inaugurated a long and successful career as a screenwriter. Despite his immersion in the motion picture industry, Kantor still managed to produce nine more books prior to the onset of World War II, including Voice of Bugle Ann, Romance of Rosy Ridge, and Valedictory.

    During the war years, he served as a correspondent for the Saturday Evening Post and Esquire, primarily covering the British Royal Air Force and the U.S. Army Air Corps. Although his civilian status technically forbade it, Kantor flew several combat missions over Germany. In his "spare time," he managed to produce seven additional books, including Glory for Me and Gentle Annie: A Western Novel. Although the former was a critical failure, it was adapted into a screenplay titled The Best Years of Our Lives, which won 13 Academy Awards in 1946.

    Unable to settle down during the postwar years, Kantor served as a member of the New York City Police Department from 1948 to 1950, an adventure that he detailed in Signal Thirty-two. With the onset of the Korean War, he replicated his World War II experience by serving as a war correspondent, flying combat missions, and functioning as a technical consultant to the U.S. Air Force. In 1965 he collaborated with U.S. Air Force General Curtis E. LeMay on Mission with LeMay, in which they advocated bombing the North Vietnamese "back to the Stone Age."

    During the 1950s, Kantor primarily focused on producing works dealing with the American Civil War. The first of these– Lee and Grant at Appomattox (1950)—was in tended primarily for juvenile readers. He followed that with Gettysburg (1952), Andersonville (1955), and Silent Grow the Guns, and Other Tales of the Civil War (1958). Andersonville, widely regarded as Kantor's masterwork, tells in graphic detail the story of the most notorious of all Confederate prisoner-of-war camps. In 1960 Kantor published a series of magazine articles in Look under the general heading, "If the South Had Won the Civil War."Although the volume and quality of Kantor's fiction declined during the last two decades of his life, he still produced Spirit Lake in 1962 and Valley Forge in 1975.
Sources Kantor's papers can be found in Special Collections, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City. Ben Hibbs, ed., Story Teller (1967), contains 23 stories from 16 different magazines, as well as a perceptive personality sketch of the author. Tim Kantor, My Father's Voice: Mackinlay Kantor Long Remembered (1988), presents the author in a generally favorable light but also as a vital, noisy, dominating, amoral personality. The most complete obituary is in the New York Times, 10/12/1977.
Contributor: John D. Buenker

Cite as: Buenker, John D. "Kantor, MacKinlay" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 19 December 2014