Leigh Douglass Brackett—the Queen of Space Opera

Guest post by Norma Gurba, author of Legendary Locals of the Antelope Valley.

 Edmond and Leigh in the Antelope Valley; courtesy of their friend, Swedish author Bertil Falk, who took the photograph.
Edmond and Leigh in the Antelope Valley; courtesy of their friend, Swedish author Bertil Falk, who took the photograph. 

It has been 40 years since Star Wars exploded onto the screen and the film’s legacy continues in December 2017 with the new Star Wars: Episode VIII—The Last Jedi. Although George Lucas wrote the original screenplay for the highly acclaimed The Empire Strikes Back (1980), the second part of the “Star Wars” trilogy, noted screenwriter Leigh Douglass Brackett, the author of romantic planetary-space epics and tagged as the Queen of Space Opera, is partly responsible for the movie’s accolades.  
A truly trailblazing writer, although her name is familiar to science fiction fans, after all these years, her name is still not as well-known as others like H.G. Wells or Ray Bradbury.
Born in Los Angeles (1915), tomboy Brackett discovered books at an early age and devoured Edgar Rice Burrows; not his Tarzan stories, but rather his landmark novel, Under the Moons of Mars (1912). She started writing at 13 and ten years later sold her first story. From the 1940s onwards, her legendary career developed, and she became one of the most talented and influential American science-fiction and fantasy writers with more than 200 published stories, during the period when the field was dominated by male writers. Although she also wrote westerns, crime novels and mysteries, her best-known science fiction character was the larger-than-life, swashbuckling pulp-adventures hero Eric John Stark, who made his debut in Queen of the Martian Catacombs (1949).
In 1947, she married Edmond Hamilton (1904-1977), the author of adventure space epics and writer for DC Comics specializing in Superman and Batman stories (1940s-1960s), and later the Batman TV Show. The best man at their wedding was Brackett’s close friend, author, and screenwriter Ray Bradbury.
As Brackett was an excellent writer, eventually she attracted the attention of Hollywood and became a noted screenwriter; her Hollywood dossier consists of classics that she either wrote or co-wrote with acclaimed films ranging from Raymond Chandler’s celebrated The Big Sleep (1946); Howard Hawks’ western trilogy of Rio Bravo (1959), El Dorado (1967) and Rio Lobo (1970); Hatari! (1962); and The Long Good-bye (1973) with prominent director Robert Altman. Four of these movies starred John Wayne who lived in Lancaster as a child, the same town where Brackett would later reside.
It is amusing that after the renowned director Hawks read her first novel, the detective thriller No Good from a Corpse (1944), according to Hollywood lore, he told his assistant to "Get me that Brackett guy.” He was astonished when he met Brackett, a 28-year-old fresh-faced attractive lady; nevertheless, he still hired her as a collaborating screenplay writer along with Jules Furthman and William Faulkner for The Big Sleep. However, while Brackett did most of the writing, she only received $600 per week, while Furthman (almost 60 years-old) was paid $2500. In addition, many times she did not receive credit for her cinematic work.
Around 1950, Brackett and Hamilton moved from Southern California to Kinsman, Ohio. Most of her writing now focused on television and she wrote scripts for shows such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Checkmate and Suspense.
During the mid-1960s, the Hamiltons now maintained two residences—a home in Kinsman and their second home in Lancaster, California (located in the Antelope Valley within the westernmost Mojave Desert), where they spent the winters.
Edmond Hamilton died in 1977 in Lancaster, of complications following kidney surgery. After the death of her husband Brackett continued to work on screenplays including a first draft of the screenplay for Star Wars II: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back for George Lucas. This new script was a departure for Brackett, as previously her science fiction writings consisted of novels and short stories.
Brackett's exact role in drafting a script for this movie has been disputed—especially among Star Wars fans. Lucas, who had admired Brackett’s science fiction work, met with her to discuss the story and then selected her to write a screenplay based on his story’s outline.
While suffering from cancer, she delivered an initial script to Lucas in February 1978. Presumably, Lucas did not like the script, but sadly only a few weeks later, Brackett died in Lancaster Community Hospital on March 18, 1978, and her ashes were scattered in Kinsman. Later, new screenplays were written and at the end both Brackett and popular writer, Lawrence Kasdan, were given credit for the final script. The Empire Strikes Back won the literary Hugo Award for best science fiction/fantasy work in 1981.
Star Wars fans like to imagine how the movie might have appeared had Brackett not succumbed to cancer. A Star Wars site now has a copy of her preliminary 124-page draft on line and although there are differences, many fans, nonetheless, believe that her influence, spirit and words were incorporated into the movie.