Lyle Bongé - James Leo Herlihy correspondence

Biographical and Historical Notes

Lyle Bongé

The photographer, artist, and sailor Lyle Bongé was born November 5, 1929 [cf. letter dated 5 Nov 1987, F17], the son of Dusti Bongé (b. 1903- ), the Southern abstract painter. Originally from Biloxi, Mississippi, Bongé attended Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where he studied art and shared a dormitory with James Leo Herlihy. Bongé has published two photographic collections, The Sleep of Reason: Lyle Bongé's Ultimate Ash-Hauling Mardi Gras Photographs (1974) and The Photographs of Lyle Bongé (1982). His Mardi Gras photographs are characterized by a close-up intimacy, which tames the wildness of the New Orleans festival, while his landscapes and cityscapes combine strong lines with hallucinogenic abstractions. More recently, Bongé's art work has extended to metal sculpture and pottery.

Bongé is also an accomplished sailor and boat-maker, and in 1968 he set a world record for a single-handed crossing of the Gulf of Mexico. During the early 1980s he left Biloxi for New York City, where he lived for several years before returning to the Gulf Coast and sailing. His other activities included remodeling old houses, landscaping, cooking, and he also served as director of a family bank in Mississippi.


Roberts, Gregory. "A Sailor and the Sea." The Times-Picayune, Dixie Magazine, 1 July, 1984: 6-10.

Biographical information derived from the collection.

James Leo Herlihy

The American novelist and playwright James Leo Herlihy was born in Detroit, Michigan, on February 27, 1927; he died in Los Angeles, October 21, 1993. After leaving high school, Herlihy enlisted in the Navy in 1945, receiving his overseas orders just two days before the end of World War II. From 1947-48, with money from the G.I. Bill, Herlihy attended Black Mountain College in North Carolina, a small, experimental institution whose faculty included Merce Cunningham, John Cage, William De Kooning, and other innovative figures in the arts. At Black Mountain Herlihy studied art, music, and literature, sharing an attic dorm with Arthur Penn and Lyle Bongé.

Herlihy formed strong relationships in the Black Mountain community, and his friendships with such figures as Anais Nin and the poet/potter M. C. Richards would provide inspiration and support in his future creative endeavors. Herlihy made his start in the theater when he moved to California and attended the Pasadena Playhouse College from 1948-1950. Over the next four years, Herlihy performed in about fifty plays in theaters along the West Coast. In the early sixties, he became a member of the Theater Company of Boston, and he continued acting, off and on, throughout his life. Some highlights of his theatrical career included roles in Edward Albee's Zoo Story (which he performed in Paris and Boston in 1963) and in the film Four Friends (1982).

The Pasadena Playhouse also produced Herlihy's first plays: Streetlight Sonata (1950) and Moon in Capricorn (1953). In 1953, Herlihy collaborated with his teacher William Noble on the play Blue Denim, which had a successful run on Broadway in 1958 and was adapted into a film in 1959. From 1953-1958, Herlihy wrote scripts for television. In 1959, he directed Tallulah Bankhead in a touring production of his play Crazy October. A trio of Herlihy's one-act plays, collected under the title Stop You're Killing Me (1970), included Terrible Jim Fitch (produced in 1965), Bad Bad Jo-Jo (produced in 1969), and Laughs, Etc. (produced in 1973).

Herlihy was also successful as a fiction writer. In 1952, the Paris Review published a short story that would become the title work of his 1959 collection, The Sleep of Baby Filbertson and Other Stories. His first novel, All Fall Down (1960), was followed by Midnight Cowboy (1965). This latter work was adapted into an Academy Award-winning film, and much of Herlihy's lasting fame is based on the film's popularity. Herlihy is also the author of a collection of short stories and plays, A Story That Ends in a Scream and Eight Others (1967), and a novel about a young teenage runaway, The Season of the Witch (1971).

Beginning in the late 1960s Herlihy taught acting and writing at many institutions, including playwriting courses at City College, New York (1967-68), and he served as distinguished visiting professor at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, in 1983.

Herlihy traveled extensively throughout the United States and Europe, but lived for much of his life in Los Angeles, California. He also resided in Key West, Florida, in the late sixties and early seventies, and in New York City during various intervals.


Bongé, Lyle. "Obituary: James Leo Herlihy." The Independent (London), 29 Oct., 1993: 16.

Kendle, Burton S. "James Leo Herlihy," Contemporary American Dramatists. Ed. K.A. Berney. Detroit: St. James Press, 1994. pp. 261-265.

"James Leo Herlihy, 66, Novelist who wrote Midnight Cowboy." New York Times, 22 Oct., 1993: B9.

Olendorf, Donna, ed. Contemporary Authors. Volume.143. Detroit: Gale Research Co, 1994: 191.

Biographical information derived from the collection.

Scope and Contents

The correspondence of James Leo Herlihy and Lyle Bongé spans the dates 1968-1993. The majority of the letters in the collection were written by Bongé (indicated "LB to JH" in the finding aid), but a significant number of Herlihy's letters are present, providing a consistent sense of the dialogue between the two lifelong friends.

Although the letters begin in 1968, Herlihy's and Bongé's friendship dates from their days as dormitory-mates at Black Mountain College during the late 1940s, and their letters are personal and intimate. The general topic of discussion includes the various projects and activities of each correspondent and news of their mutual acquaintances. Art and literature are frequently mentioned by both writers and the overall collection provides a good sense of each correspondent's ideas and philosophies on these topics. The other dominant topics include financial advice and money concerns, daily and family life, travel plans and experiences. The later letters, most of which were written by Bongé, are dominated by a passion for sailing, appreciation of good food and cooking, opinions on financial matters, and, of great interest to both correspondents, sex.

The general tone of the correspondence is upbeat and displays the strong bond of friendship that existed between Bongé and Herlihy. The correspondence runs until the month before Herlihy's death and the collection's final letter reflects on mortality and the physical and mental decline that comes with age and disease.