Before he sold his Lakeshore Drive condominium in North Palm Beach in 2009, Elmore Leonard got a lot more out of Palm Beach County than a place to get away from the brutal Michigan winters. He also got the setting and characters for a large batch of his most popular novels.
From “Maximum Bob,” which he dedicated to the late Judge Marvin Mounts, to “Out of Sight” (about a jailbreak from Glades Correctional) to “Split Images” and “Rum Punch,” Leonard found Palm Beach County — and the rest of South Florida — the perfect setting for his terse, epigrammatic outlaws and thugs.
Leonard, who died at 87 Tuesday at his home outside Detroit from complications of a stroke, researched his books carefully.
Mike Sandy, a West Palm bail bondsman, remembers meeting him in the late ’80s.
“Marvin Mounts and Dutch Leonard walked into my office,” said Sandy. “My office was on Banyan, and he was just finishing ‘Maximum Bob.’ Dutch was interested in doing a book about a bail bondsman and said, ‘Can I ask for your help?’ And I said, ‘Absolutely not.’
“He was a little startled and said, ‘Why not?’
“Because everything I’ve ever seen, heard or read about bail bondsmen is negative and I don’t want to contribute to that.”
“I’ll make you a deal,” he said. “Share your files with me, and I promise you that whatever I write about your business will be positive.”
With the deal made, Leonard began borrowing files from Sandy, one of which involved a stewardess arrested for drug trafficking. From that came “Rum Punch,” later made into the movie “Jackie Brown” by Quentin Tarantino.
“He would ride around with me,” says Sandy. “I was listening to the Delfonics a lot at the time, and he used that in the book. Dutch would ask, ‘What does a bondsman do in this situation? What does he do if the guy runs?’”
After the book was published, Leonard and his then-wife Joan, and Sandy and his wife remained friendly. Sandy believes that Leonard had trouble adjusting to the death of his wife, in 1993, even though he married for a third time. “She was more than his wife, she was his editor and proofreader. Everything he wrote, she read before he sent it to his publisher.”
Local thriller author James O. Born met Leonard in 1986, at a signing at the Palm Springs Library. “He and I were talking, and I didn’t realize he was such a big deal. And neither did he. As long as I knew him, nothing went to his head. He was a very practical guy, who didn’t think he was any better than any other writer. He was the first professional writer I ever knew. In fact, he put the idea in my head to become a writer. I was giving him advice about law enforcement, and he said, ‘Maybe you need to write down some of your stories.’
“He and his assistant, Greg Sutter, helped me on my first book, which wasn’t published, but which was how I learned to be a writer. He was more than my mentor. He was my friend.”
Leonard was not an overnight success. He didn’t have a bestseller until he was 60. He started out writing Westerns and many of those were turned into movies: “3:10 To Yuma,” Valdez Is Coming,” “Hombre.”
He is survived by five children from his first marriage, Jane Jones, Katy Dudley and Peter, Christopher and William Leonard; 13 grandchildren; and 15 great-grandchildren.
Leonard was born in New Orleans, the son of General Motors executive Elmore John Leonard and his wife, Flora. The tough, undersized young man played quarterback in high school and earned the nickname “Dutch,” after Emil “Dutch” Leonard, a knuckleball pitcher of the day.
In 2012, after learning he was to become a National Book Award lifetime achievement recipient, Leonard said he had no intention of ending his life’s work.
“I probably won’t quit until I just quit everything — quit my life — because it’s all I know how to do,” he said.
The Associated Press and staff researcher Niels Heimeriks contributed to this story.