This is the first of (I hope) many family portraits. This man achieved some fame, but most of our relatives did not. My hope is that it humanizes those dry names and dates that cause such eye-rolling when ‘genealogy’ is mentioned at family gatherings.
There are many Thomas Duncans in our family. The one I want to describe today is Thomas William Duncan born in 1905 in Iowa and known to the world as the author of the best seller Gus The Great published in 1947. The Book-of-the-Month Club made it the September 1947 selection. Heady stuff! Hollywood showed some interest, but there is no record of a movie having been made.
Just to fit this Thomas into the family – he’s the son of Irene and William Thomas Duncan and he’s the great grandson of Thomas and Eliza Duncan, our immigrant Scottish ancestors. He is also Harriet Duncan Claycomb’s second cousin, but I think she didn’t know him. I never heard his story from her.
I read the book just because it was written by one of our Duncans, and found it charming. The characters are well developed and authentic. Gus is a newspaperman (as his creator was once) who longs to have a circus. The Time Magazine review at the time said, “As a literary performance, Gus the Great is frequently slick, gaggy and sentimental. But it has a kind of animal vigor about it and it is never dull.” I still recommend it!
The author, it seems, is not so easy to define. He published articles for newspapers and magazines in his teens. He started college at Drake in pre-law, transferred and graduated from Harvard majoring in writing, then returned to Drake for his Masters. Staying in Iowa for a while, he taught at Grinnell College. His summers spent with Chautauqua theater groups showed in his novel O Chautauqua. He wrote a circus novel before his best-seller called Ring Horse, but it wasn’t as popular.
During the 10 years it took to write Gus the Great, Thomas and his wife, Actea, were nearly broke. They roamed around the southwest living in a trailer. When Lippincott published Gus, Thomas Duncan earned $250,000 in royalties. It’s reported that his first purchase was a new Chrysler convertible. To his credit, he also funded a library in his hometown in memory of his father.
Thomas published other novels into the 60s, but none had the appeal of Gus. It seems the money did not last forever. Thomas Duncan died in 1987 in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Actea died three years later penniless. They are buried in unmarked graves.