While I was researching Blood, Bone and Marrow, I continually heard stories about Donn Pearce, the author of Cool Hand Luke and an early mentor of Harry Crews. Harry met Pearce in Fort Lauderdale, FL in the mid-1960s, before Harry had any success as a novelist. Pearce, an ex-con-turned-writer, had hit it big with Cool Hand Luke, which was made into the classic movie starring Paul Newman. Soon thereafter, Pearce was instrumental in getting Harry’s first novel published, and taught him the screenplay business, too. They often corresponded, and many of their letters can be found in the Harry Crews papers at the University of Georgia.
The story I heard most often was about a peculiar trick that Pearce would perform late in the evening at parties. Cool Hand Luke was the story of a Florida chain gang and the life of the prisoners. Pearce had served time on a chain gang, and the title character was based on himself. To entertain partygoers, Pearce liked to demonstrate how he could take his pants off while wearing leg irons on his ankles, a feat the prisoners were required to perform each night before bed. (I guess this means Pearce went to parties with ankle chains, but maybe if you’re Cool Hand Luke, that’s the way you roll.)
A few months ago I mentioned this to Alex Belth, who runs Esquire Classic and writes a terrific column called “Editor’s Notes” in which he digs up gems from Esquire’s past (he interviewed me about Blood, Bone, and Marrow, in fact). He did some research, and found that Pearce had in fact let the country in on his secret trick. Esquire printed a step-by-step pictorial instruction guide on chain gang trouser removal. In the article, Pearce reveals that he had performed the trick on camera for the film version of his book, but the scene had ended up on the cutting-room floor.
To me, it looks pretty complicated, but Pearce states that he could complete the 16-step task in under 60 seconds. “Twice a day practice for a two-year term aids in the proficiency,” he writes. I guess it all paid off, because his memorable performances are still etched into the minds of Central Florida partygoers, more than three-decades later. Give it a shot yourself – if you can find some leg irons.
"You can't possibly be finished with HAWK already, Harry. Please. Slow down. Let it cool off first, take another look and then publish it. You won't burn yourself up but you might get sloppy. Besides, you're beginning to make me look lazy." —Donn Pearce to Harry Crews