Joe David Brown (1915-1976) drew memorably from his own life to compose his fiction: his grandfather’s role as a minister, his own knowledge of confidence games from his work as a reporter, his World War II experiences, and his experiences as a journalist on assignment in India. He is best remembered for the title character of his novel Addie Pray, the young “Mistress of the Con Game” during the Great Depression in the Deep South; the story later became the film Paper Moon.
Brown was born May 12, 1915, in Birmingham, the son of William Samuel Brown, a newspaper publisher, and Lucille Lokey Brown. At age 20, he became a police reporter for the Birmingham Post and in the same year (1935) married Mildred Harbour, with whom he had two sons. At age 21, Brown became city editor of the Dothan Eagle. From 1935 to 1939, he worked for newspapers in Atlanta, Georgia; Chattanooga, Tennessee; and St. Louis, Missouri. In 1939, he began working for the New York Daily News, but his time there was interrupted in 1942 by World War II, in which he served in the Army Air Corps. Brown was one of the first men to parachute into Normandy, France, for the June 6, 1944, D-Day invasion, receiving a battlefield commission as second lieutenant and being awarded the Purple Heart and Croix de Guerre with palm.
His first marriage ended in 1943 while he was still in the service. In 1945, during a five-month trip in France and England, he met and married his second wife, Frances O’Reilly, with whom he had a daughter. Brown returned to the New York Daily News, then from 1949 to 1957 was a foreign correspondent for Time and Life, serving in New Delhi, Paris, London, and Moscow. In 1957, he became a freelance writer.
Two of Brown’s better-known novels became the basis of movies. Stars in My Crown (1947) was based on his childhood experiences with his minister grandfather and was made into a movie by the same name in 1949. More notably, Addie Pray (1971), the story of 11-year-old con artist Addie and her older partner Long Boy, was made into the movie Paper Moon (1973), starring Ryan O’Neil and his daughter Tatum. Tatum became the youngest person ever to win an Academy Award. The novel also inspired a short-lived 1974 television series.
Brown’s other novels are less well-known. The Freeholder (1949) is about a plantation owner and his daughter. Kings Go Forth (1956) draws upon Brown’s military experiences (and also was made into a movie released in 1958), and Glimpse of a Stranger (1968) highlights the contrast between the cultures of India and the United States.
Brown died on April 26, 1976, at his home in Georgia.
Works by Joe David Brown
The Freeholder (1947)
Stars in My Crown (1947)
Glimpse of a Stranger (1956)
Kings Go Forth (1956)
Addie Pray (1971)