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"Fell while trying to clamber out of a low bathtub at the age of two. Became a writer. No other possible career"

Phil Stong

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Phil Stong Biography

Philip Duffield Stong (January 27, 1899 – April 26, 1957) was an American author, journalist and Hollywood scenarist. He is best known for writing the novel State Fair, on which three films (1933, 1945, and 1962) and the hit Rodgers and Hammerstein musical were based. Phil Stong's children's classic, Honk the Moose, illustrated by Kurt Wiese, was placed on Cattermole's 100 Best Children's Books of the 20th Century list and was 1936 Newbery Honor Book. Honk the Moose also won the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award in 1970.

Stong was born in Pittsburg, Iowa, a village no longer found on maps. Pittsburg was on the west side of the Des Moines River in southeast Iowa's Van Buren county. Young Phil was the son of Benjamin and Ada Evesta Duffield Stong. Father Ben ran a general store in Pittsburg and then later a variety store in Keosauqua, the county seat of Van Buren County, where he was also postmaster.

Phil Stong attended both elementary school and high school in Keosauqua and then went to Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.

As a boy, Stong loved to read, especially works by Mark Twain, and decided to be a writer in his teens when he sold his first magazine story for $1. After graduation in 1919 he taught in the high school at Biwabik, Minnesota, a town on the Mesabi Iron Range north of Duluth. The young man found life in Biwabik fascinating because of the many different ethnic groups living in the area. Later, Stong set a novel, The Iron Mountain, and a children's book, Honk the Moose, in the Iron Range. Honk the Moose is recognized as a children’s classic and the people in the book were based on real folks and many of the buildings in the book are still standing. In the year 2000, Biwabik finally ordered and installed a big fiberglass moose in the town square, commemorating Honk.

Although Phil Stong enjoyed working as a teacher, he continued to strive to become a creative writer and eventually turned from teaching to the practice of journalism. When the opportunity arose, he went to work as a reporter and editorial writer for the Des Moines Register. In 1925, at age 26, Stong returned to New York, where he worked first as a wire editor for the Associated Press and then as a copy editor and feature writer for the North American Newspaper Alliance. In 1927 he went to Boston to interview Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti just before their execution, an experience he considered one of the most important in his life. Later, he was with the magazines Liberty and Editor and Publisher, and then Sunday feature editor of the newspaper the New York World, and finally an advertising writer for Young and Rubicam Advertising Agency.

On November 8, 1925, at the time he moved to New York, Phil Stong married Virginia Maude Swain, a reporter on the Register's sister newspaper, the Tribune.

Stong credited his wife with encouraging him in his writing. When reminiscing about the beginnings of his most famous novel, State Fair, Stong later said, "I was working in the publicity department of one of the few good advertising firms in the world when Mrs. Stong suggested that I do something about my native State's great harvest festival, the Fair.” This happened in the summer of 1931. On July 28, he wrote to family back in Iowa: "I've finally got a novel coming in fine shape. I've done 10,000 words on it in three days and I get more enthusiastic every day. . . . I hope I can hold up this time. I always write 10,000 swell words and then go to pieces.”

State fairs were a subject that Phil Stong knew well. For several years his grandfather had been superintendent of the swine division at the Iowa State Fair. Stong attended his first Iowa State Fair in 1908 and got lost trying to find his parents' tent on the campgrounds. 

He never got lost at the fair again. Then, while a reporter with the Des Moines Register, Stong was assigned to cover the evening stock shows at the fair. American agricultural fairs were and still are a combination of education and festivity, and State Fair is very much an Iowa book, filled with incidents and details from the author's own life. While the setting of a state fair in the early part of the twentieth century is accurately portrayed, Stong was of course writing as a novelist and not as a historian. The author was creating an artistic representation of the fair, not presenting the literal truth, and his novel bubbles with whimsy and humor.

State Fair was Stong's thirteenth novel and first book to be published. After its success, Phil Stong went on to write more than forty books, many of them set in the Keosauqua area. When not writing adult fiction, he tried his hand at children's books. "I use the pieces to clear my throat between books to remind myself that direction, simplicity, and suspense are the sine qua non of all narrative writing." His favorite among his own books was Buckskin Breeches (1937), a historical novel based on his grandfather Duffield's memories of frontier Iowa.

With the income he earned from State Fair and selling the film rights, Stong was able to buy his pride and joy, the 400-acre Linwood Farm that had once belonged to his mother's family just north of the ghost town of Pittsburg on the west side of the Des Moines River.

In addition to his novels, his short stories were published in most of the leading national magazines of the time, and he wrote several screenplays. Stong's The Other Worlds: 25 Modern Stories of Mystery and Imagination, was considered by Robert Silverberg (in the foreword to Best of the Best: 20 Years of the Year's Best Science Fiction) to be the first anthology of science fiction. Compiling stories from 1930s pulp magazines, along with what Stong called "Scientifiction", The Other Worlds also contained works of horror and fantasy.

Phil Stong died at his home in Washington, Connecticut, in 1957, and was buried at Oak Lawn Cemetery in Keosauqua.

About his writing career, he once said, "Fell while trying to clamber out of a low bathtub at the age of two. Became a writer. No other possible career."