He was friends with Ernest Hemingway and his work inspired Bradford’s JB Priestley – yet the incredible life story of the Wharfedale writer who created Lassie and whose dialect tales of a Yorkshire superhero were best-sellers on both sides of the Atlantic, is one almost entirely lost to literature.
The enigmatic Eric Knight, born in Menston, abandoned at seven by his mother and forced to work stirring glue at a knacker’s yard in Hunslet, charmed his way into American society – becoming one of the most courted writers of his time and, when war came, an undercover intermediary between President Roosevelt and Churchill.
But the trail of false leads and misinformation he left behind has eluded would-be biographers until now.
Knight’s invention, in 1940, of the franchise that is still a byword for every collie – he sold away the worldwide rights to Lassie for just $10,000 because his agent convinced him there was “no future in a shaggy dog story” – is documented, but only now is the dust being blown off the rest of his oeuvre.
Long before Batman and Superman, there was Sam Small, a hero who spoke with a Yorkshire accent so thick as to be incomprehensible to his American audience, and whose “special power” was his belief that he “could do ’owt wi’ power o’ t’mind”.
It was a dog-eared copy of one of Sam’s adventures, rescued from a charity shop and given to Greg Christie as he nursed the broken back he had sustained playing football, that kindled an interest in its author that would become his life’s work.
“The story was called Never Come Monday – a piece of pure fantasy about the days of the week getting stuck on a Sunday and Yorkshire coming to a standstill because the mills and mines weren’t working,” said Mr Christie, whose biography of Knight has been published this week.
“So Sam has to call the King, who, as it turns out, also speaks in broad Yorkshire dialect.”
Promoted in the US as The Flying Yorkshireman, with a guide to the language on the flyleaf, Knight’s stories earned him comparisons with the humorist James Thurber, and when the BBC broadcast a radio adaptation it was the first time an accent had been heard on the air.
Among Knight’s admirers was JB Priestley, who got on a boat to New York to see him.
“He stayed for there or four days and came away with a very sound idea of the timeshift theory for which he’s famous,” Mr Christie said.
But how Knight got to the US in the first place is a story that has only now been pieced together.
His birth into relative affluence had descended quickly into near destitution when his father, a diamond merchant in Leeds, fled to Australia to escape his debts. Eric and his two brothers were told he was dead. His mother took as a job as governess to a Russian family, and left the boys with her sisters.
“He was complicit in the mystery because he told different versions depending on who he was talking to,” Mr Christie said.
“He never spoke about being a 10-year-old glue-stirrer at Chas Wilkinson’s knacker’s yard – which is odd because in America they love a rags-to-riches story.
“He had no money. His aunt worked in a mill and his uncle was a carter – and when he died of consumption, Eric became a working boy. He couldn’t stay in school, so he earned money in a bottle plant by night and whatever he could do by day.”
He put enough aside enough for a one-way passage across the Atlantic, and in 1912, at 15, he sailed from Liverpool. By the time he returned, to write a novel about Yorkshire miners called Now Pray We For Our Country, a bigger seller in its day than Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier – he had put himself through college and become a newspaperman and a published author, bashing out copy on the portable typewriter given him by Hemingway.
“He made friends with the great and the good. By the time Lassie was published, he was one of the most recognised people in America,” Mr Christie said.
Among his associates was Charlie Chaplin – to whom he denied the film rights to Sam Smith on the grounds that he was “not from Yorkshire” – and the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, who was his tennis partner.
Her husband credited Knight’s 1941 novel, This Above All, with helping to educate America to the realities of the Blitz, and Knight also collaborated on propaganda films with the Ministry of Food in London and director Frank Capra in Hollywood.
But as the US entered the war, his career took a darker turn.
Attached the to the US Office of Strategic Services with the rank of Major, he was a liaison attache between Lord Halifax, the British ambassador in Washington, and the President.
In 1943, he was on an Air Force flight over North Africa – possibly en route to Casablanca to a conference involving Churchill, Roosevelt and the other war leaders – when his transport plane exploded in mid-air, an incident still marked “classified” by US Intelligence.
“I have no doubt that the plane was sabotaged,” Mr Christie said. “There is an official letter giving direct instructions to the recovery crew to bring back his briefcase.”
He described Knight as “a mischievous man and a duplicitous one”, but added: “He was also an outstanding writer who made a very significant contribution to the literature of the 1930s – one that has been very unjustly overlooked.”
Sorting truth from fiction
Greg Christie, a former car salesman from Norton, near Malton, spent 20 years researching Eric Knight’s story – during which time he went blind almost overnight and is now reliant on his own ‘Lassie’, a guide dog called Captain.
“It’s a genetic condition,” he said. “A one in 15m chance.”
He studied writing in York and won a Churchill Fellowship to the US, where he lectured on Knight – whom, he said, had wanted his story to be told by a fellow Yorkshireman who could “understand his code”.
• Knight: Yorkshireman, Storyteller, Spy by Greg Christie , Ouen Press, £16.99.