John P. Marquand was a popular writer whose work encompassed both genre fiction and mainstream novels, many of which were made into movies. Most of those novels, as well as numerous short stories that he wrote, embraced broader sociological themes, often with a satirical edge dealing with matters of class, a subject with which Marquand, as the descendant of a blue-blood family, was intimately familiar. Born John Phillips Marquand in Willmington, DE, in 1893, he was related both to author Margaret Fuller and to R. Buckminster Fuller. He grew up in the suburbs of New York, and in Newburyport, MA; the Marquand and the related Fuller family had been among the wealthier northeastern "old money" families going back to the 18th century, but by the early 20th century most of those resources had vanished. As a result, he spent part of his childhood in Newburyport, living in a crumbling mansion, raised by a pair of eccentric aunts, in an environment roughly comparable to the second half of The Magnificent Ambersons, or perhaps anticipating the setting of the 1976 Albert and David Maysles documentary Grey Gardens. He attended Harvard on a scholarship and, owing to his relatively humble financial origins, never mixed well with the upper-class, clubby atmosphere of the university. His relationship to the university was a peculiar one; Marquand was rejected by the Harvard Crimson, the school's renowned newspaper, but was selected for the editorial board of the school's equally acclaimed humor journal, the Harvard Lampoon. After graduating in 1915, he went to work for the Boston Evening Transcript as a reporter. He served in the Massachusetts National Guard and saw service at the Mexican border in 1916.
Marquand's status as an "outsider" insider, descended from the elite but raised in relatively humble circumstances, informed almost all of his work as a writer. His fiction displayed a sociological edge that usually took the form of skepticism about American society and, particularly, its top-down power distribution, centered on old-money and established elite families. Embracing these themes, he emerged as a successful novelist and author of short stories in the 1920s, and married during this period; his wife was Christina Sedgwick, the niece of Ellery Sedgwick, editor of The Atlantic Monthly. His first major novel, Lord Timothy Dexter (1925), dealt with a figure out of 18th century Newburyport, but by the second half of the 1930s, he'd become known for two distinct branches of full-length fiction, each quite different from the other. Best known of all, and quickest to get adapted to the screen, were his spy novels dealing with Japanese intelligence agent Mr. Moto, beginning in 1935 with Your Turn, Mr. Moto. The Moto books were immensely popular in their time and were licensed by 20th Century-Fox for a series of movies starring Peter Lorre in the title role, though there were major changes in the screen version of the character and the stories, most notable among these was the depiction of Moto, who became a police investigator rather than a counter-intelligence agent (though the two differing occupations tended to merge in some of the screenplays), and Peter Lorre's portrayal was more rooted in craftiness than the rough, tough persona of the literary creation.
Two years after his first Moto book, Marquand published The Late George Apley, a satirical novel about upper-class Boston, which won him the Pulitzer Prize. His later novels, including Wickford Point (1939), H.M. Pulham, Esquire (1941), and B.F.'s Daughter (1946), were all immersed in contradictions of class, ideas, and ideology, mostly centered on New England, though the latter book also took Washington and, especially, Roosevelt-era politics, liberal and conservative alike, to task. Point of No Return (1949) aimed his satirical barbs at Harvard and Boston, while Meville Goodwin, USA (1951) was intended as a look at the postwar news media and popular iconography. That book was subsequently licensed for what would have been a film adaptation to star Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall; but Bogart's death during pre-production (color footage survives of his and Bacall's costume tests) derailed that production, and the film version finally emerged, a year later, as A Top Secret Affair (1957), with Susan Hayward and Kirk Douglas. Most of the Hollywood adaptations of Marquand's work altered the underlying motivations and elements of the characters, as well as the stories and settings: B.F.'s Daughter, for example, starring Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin, and Charles Coburn, lost most of its ideological edge and became a soap opera. He happily endured such indignities for the fees paid for the rights to his works, and, indeed, tolerated the fifth and last of his Moto novels, Stopover Tokyo (1955), being made into a movie with the character of Mr. Moto nowhere to be found in it. His work was still in demand in the late '50s, when The Late George Apley was filmed and Point of No Return was adapted on Playhouse 90. Marquand passed away in 1960. The film versions of his Moto novels remain popular in the 21st century, and the film version of The Late George Apley, made in 1947 with Ronald Colman by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, is still highly regarded, although also recognized as highly flawed.