About The Author
WILLIAM WISTER HAINES 1908-1989
Haines was 24 years old when he wrote SLIM, yet he’d been a lineman for 7 years. Around 1926 the Haines family became victims of the Great Depression. He was part way through the University when funds ran out. He needed work to complete college and his mother went to to work for Philadelphia Electric Company.
At the age of eighteen, a family friend from Des Moines took him to see a mine he owned in Searchlight, Nevada. We know that he was fascinated with the tower building work that took power to the mine, that he got on as a grunt and became a lineman. He would alternatively return to Penn for a semester or so, and then go back to line work. His first years were in building transmission lines, with photographs and notations around 1926 and 1927 that he worked as far west as Colorado and Arizona. In 1930 he started working as a catenary lineman, in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, on the electrification of the Pennsylvania Railroad.
In 1931, with a degree in business from the Wharton School, instead of joining his older brother at an insurance agency, he continued with his line work, and decided to write for a career. He continued at line work on the “Pennsy,” to support himself, then in January of 1933 quit to write SLIM. By September, he was broke and went back to line-work after SLIM had been accepted for publication. The short story “Just Plain Nuts” was published in the Atlantic, in July of 1934. The novel SLIM was published by Little, Brown and Company in August of 1934 and became a national bestseller.
Warner Brothers purchased the rights to make a movie from the book and hired him to both write the screenplay and help as a technical director. Today, nearly 90 years later, 99% of all linemen in America, have seen the movie, starring Henry Fonda and Pat O’Brien. Most apprentice training programs and schools show the movie to their students, it’s made Slim America’s best-known lineman. In 2012 Warner Brothers reissued the movie, as a “remastered edition” enabling linemen to obtain crystal clear, high-resolution copies of the film. As the last edition of the book was published in 1959, few linemen know the movie came from a book or that the scriptwriter for the movie was a lineman for 7 years.
His next novel about line work, High Tension, was first serialized in 1938 in the Saturday Evening Post. It’s written from the perspective of a line foreman doing catenary work on railroads. Three short stories of line work, “Remarks None” and “Hot Behind Me” and “Just Plain Nuts” were published in the Atlantic Monthly.
“Night Out” and “Killer on High” were published in the Saturday Evening Post. “Remarks None” was selected for a place in Edward J. Brien’s book “Collection of the Best Short Stories of 1935”. The short story “Pole Buddy” was published in Argosy in February of 1963.
During World War II Haines served 41 months as an officer, in the 8th Army Air Force Intelligence, planning bombing raids over Germany. He was decorated with the Bronze Star and Legion of Merit. He worked extensively on the ULTRA project, a code that cracked the German Intelligence and in 1980 published a book about it. He was honorably discharged with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in 1945 and started writing Command Decision.
His 1948 book Command Decision, ran as a play on Broadway for a year and a half, was a national best selling book and MGM bought the movie rights. It stars Clark Gable, Walter Pidgeon and Van Johnson, and can still be seen frequently on late night television.
In the 1950s he wrote or collaborated on a number of movie scripts, several starred John Wayne. While writing High Tension, he worked writing the two movies “Black Legion” and “Alibi Ike.” A later novel, The Winter War about the 1877 winter campaign of the US Army against the Sioux in Montana was awarded the Spur Award of the Western Writers of America.
William Wister Haines was a lineman to the core. All his life, he took great pride in the seven years he spent in this challenging way of making a living. Until they literally fell apart, he kept several lineman’s leather belts full of tools in his garage to remind him of those years.
Haines loved to hunt doves, ducks, geese, and upland fowl. He told tales of hunting in his early years in frigid Iowa winters and shooting ducks while lying in flatboats in the freezing Chesapeake Bay. For some 25 years, every fall he and his wife would travel to Saskatchewan and spend at least 6 weeks shooting on the prairies.
Although he was a well-known author and screenwriter, Haines lived modestly with no sign of pretension. He wrote movies and spent time in and around the Hollywood movie studios but in the Haines home, at Laguna Beach, there was no glitz. He always drove a brown Ford station wagon, capable of hauling a lot of hunting gear. Within easy reach, below the driver’s seat was a large pair of pliers.
Near his retirement, his creative interest turned to fine cabinetry work, expressed first by creating handcrafted wooden boxes for his beloved Winchesters and Remingtons. Next, he made beautiful wooden boxes with brass hinges and leather handles, for shells and good wines, then on to bookcases, and tables. In 1951 he had an article on California Wine published in the Atlantic Monthly, one of the first to draw attention to the high-quality wines being grown in the Napa Valley area.
Linemen are in a dangerous profession and work every day knowing their comrade’s lives depend on them. Linemen have an unwritten code of trust, one that bound William Wister Haines his whole life. His word was his bond. His opinion of phonies or folks with bluster is well spoken by Red, in Slim.
His choice of friends was eclectic. A hunting companion was the cobbler in our small town. Lewis Powell, a lifelong friend with whom he served in the war, became a Supreme Court Justice. How much of Slim is autobiographical? Was Red a picture of a comrade? It’s sad he did not commence keeping a diary until 1932. We will never know.