National Book Award winner Nelson Algren, the champion of the downtrodden and one of the best-known literary writers in America, came into some money when Hollywood converted his acclaimed novel, “The Man with the Golden Arm,” into a movie with Frank Sinatra.
He used the money to buy a house on the lagoon in the Miller Section of Gary, where he had a famous liaison with the great French author and pioneering feminist Simone de Beauvoir.
Now the beachfront neighborhood in Gary is fully embracing Algren, who wrote about junkies and drunks and is widely considered one of the greatest Chicago authors. Susan Rutsen and George Rogge founded the Nelson Algren Society of Miller Beach, which recently staged a birthday party for Algren and is planning a Nelson Algren Festival in June, as well as a park in his honor.
“Ernest Hemingway said you shouldn’t read Algren if you can’t take a punch,” Rutsen said. “He was known for his brutality. He was brutally honest even though parts of his writing were lyrical.”
The Miller Beach Arts and Creative District will help stage the two-day festival, which will take place between June 24 and 25 at the Marshall J. Gardner Center for the Arts, 540 Lake St.
The festival kicks off at 7 p.m. June 24 with a screening of the documentary “The End is Nothing, The Road is All,” which costs $10 and where there will be a cash bar. Directors Mark Blottner and Denis Mueller will take questions after the screening.
At noon June 25, the gallery will start showing an exhibit by Angren’s photographer friend Art Shay. Algren readings and speeches by biographer Bettina Drew, Chicago History Museum curator Peter Alter, and Nelson Algren Committee of Chicago member Hugh Iglarsh will follow. That afternoon there will be a Treasure Hunt of Lake Street, where stores like Indie Indie Bang Bang will put out Algren memorabilia to be discovered.
A pocket park also will be dedicated in Algren’s honor. It will feature Algren quotes, planters with flowers, and possibly a life-sized mural of the author.
Rutsen, who has a degree in English, and Rogge took an interest in Algren since they lived in Chicago and wanted to honor him. Their Nelson Algren Society of Miller Beach should host two big events each year.
“He wrote about the underworld, poor people without a job,” Rutsen said. “He wrote about alcoholics, drug addicts, people missing limbs. It was a total departure from what other people were writing about at the time.”
On the evening on June 25, there will also be a concert by the Frankie Machine Blue Band, which costs $20 and includes a cash bar. Frankie Machine is the protagonist of Algren’s “The Man with the Golden Arm,” a tale of post-war squalor on Chicago’s Near Northwest Side that won the National Book Award in 1949.
Algren is arguably best known as a Chicago writer, but he spent part of his youth in Gary’s Black Oak neighborhood and his sister bought a house in the Dunes, which probably inspired him to buy a Miller home, Rutsen said. It was his getaway from the city and he spent time writing in the relative peace and quiet the beachfront neighborhood afforded.
He also brought out greats like Studs Terkel and Saul Bellow to his getaway in Gary, and had one of the greatest 20th century literary romances there.
“Simone de Beauvoir was a literary icon in France,” she said. “She was a rock star. She used to sunbathe nude and shock the meter readers. He helped frame her book about women by suggesting “Second Sex” as a title because he thought women were treated as second-class citizens, the way African-Americans were. It was the beginning of modern feminism.”
The Nelson Algren Society of Miller Beach hopes to preserve and celebrate the novelist’s legacy, Rutsen said. Even though he’s still beloved in Chicago, his reputation has dimmed a little nationally since his death in 1981.
“He never really got his due,” she said. “After World War II, the world changed. There was more prosperity and there was the Red Scare. The world was interesting in different things, but he kept writing about underdogs.”