Cameron Hawley's decade as an influential novelist as well as a source for intriguing film stories was the 1950s. In tandem with his younger contemporary Sloan Wilson, Hawley was among the authors whose work dealt most successfully with such subjects as the pressures of modern life in the post-World War II world, especially where work and business were concerned. His two most important books, Executive Suite and Cash McCall, were both turned into major motion pictures in the 1950s. Born in Howard, SD, in 1905, Cameron Hawley was the son of Clifford Hawley, a law officer who was killed in the line of duty when the boy was five, and the former Atheline Conover. To show how relatively wild and unsettled the state was at the time, Hawley's maternal grandfather had been an Indian scout, and wore a robe of buffalo skins.
After the death of his father, Hawley worked odd jobs while he was still in elementary school, but also showed a natural skill as a writer; by the time he was in high school, he had a weekly syndicated column that ran in newspapers around the state. He attended the South Dakota State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, working as a sports reporter and writing for magazines in his spare time, and worked carnivals and tent shows throughout the Midwest on his vacations. After graduation, Hawley worked as an advertising executive in Minneapolis for a few years before moving on to Lancaster, PA, where he worked for the Armstrong Cork Company. He remained for 24 years, working in various aspects of the company's operations from marketing to product development and testing -- it was during this period that he assembled much of the knowledge of the business and industrial world that would inform his first two books. He remained a prolific author of short stories and nonfiction articles throughout this period as well, his work appearing in dozens of articles in the Saturday Evening Post, McCalls, and other top periodicals during the 1940s and '50s.
In 1952, a year after leaving his corporate position, Hawley published Executive Suite, a spellbinding novel set against the background of a power play at a major furniture manufacturing company, whose CEO has just died, suddenly and unexpectedly, without naming a successor. The book delineated characters ranging from the surviving vice presidents -- all technically equals and each with a claim on the presidency -- to the rank-and-file workers in vivid detail, giving a fresh, fascinating literary turn to a subject that was relatively new to the public. The novel was among the very earliest attempts to shine a spotlight on the world of postwar business and finance and its effect on everyone, and the book's appeal was sufficient to turn it into a bestseller. The film rights were snapped up by MGM and producer John Houseman, and with Robert Wise directing from Ernest Lehman's script, the resulting movie was one of the top dramas of its period, and a superb showcase for William Holden, Barbara Stanwyck, Fredric March, Paul Douglas, and a brace of other top acting talent.
Three years later came Cash McCall, a novel about a financial wheeler-dealer who specializes in raiding undervalued companies for their assets and profiting by their sale and breakup. The book was decades ahead of its time and was intended by its author as a critique of the postwar economy, and also of tax laws that made it more profitable to break up existing companies than to allow them to continue to manufacture goods and provide employment. The screen rights went to Warner Bros. this time, which cast James Garner, Natalie Wood, and Dean Jagger in the somewhat melodramatic 1959 film, directed by Joseph Pevney. (Strangely enough, elements similar to those in its plot worked their way decades later into a key subplot of Garry Marshall's hit movie Pretty Woman, as part of the makeup of the Richard Gere character and his motivations.)
In 1960, Hawley published The Lincoln Lords, which was not as successful as its two predecessors, and his 1968 book The Hurricane Years, published the year before his death, also failed to find the same level of acceptance as his first two books. In 1976, a period of new soul-searching in America in the wake of Watergate and fresh revelations about business corruption as well as a new retrenchment in American industry, Executive Suite was turned into a short-lived network television series. Ironically, in a development that Hawley (had he been alive) probably would have cited as a problem with the entertainment industry, the scarcely remembered series likely proved far more profitable for some of the attorneys involved on either side of a subsequent (successful) lawsuit by cast member William Smithers, than it was for the network or the producers. Hawley is best remembered five decades after his heyday through Robert Wise's original film adaptation of his novel.