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Phyllis Crawford was the author of children’s books and adult fiction, including Hello, the Boat!, which won the Ford Foundation award for the best book manuscript for children in 1938. Over several decades, Crawford also contributed to the New Yorker and other magazines under the pseudonym of Josie Turner. She often drew upon her experiences growing up in Little Rock (Pulaski County) to frame the plots of her stories.
Phyllis Crawford was born on February 8, 1899, in Little Rock to T. Dwight Crawford and Bessie Williams Crawford. Her father was an attorney and worked for the Arkansas Supreme Court for many years. She had one brother, John, also an author. The Crawford family resided at 416 Fairfax, in one of the earliest homes constructed in Pulaski Heights (Pulaski County), which later became a part of Little Rock. Crawford graduated from Little Rock High School, received a BA from Randolph Macon College in Virginia in 1920, and completed a degree in library science from the University of Illinois in 1924.
Crawford’s first employment was at the Little Rock Public Library, under the direction of Beatrice Prall. In 1924, she moved to New York to work as an editorial assistant and then as an editor for H. W. Wilson Company, publisher of library lists. During this period, she began writing humorous articles for the New Yorker under the pseudonym of Josie Turner. She quickly became well known for a popular serial in the magazine called Elsie Dinsmore on the Loose.
In 1928, Crawford moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and married Cyril Kay-Scott, who at the time was director of the Santa Fe School of Art. Kay-Scott, born Frederick Creighton Wellman, had served as dean of the School of Tropical and Preventative Medicine at Tulane University and, through his lifetime, was to achieve notoriety in the fields of engineering, medicine, science, literature, and art. His personal life was also the subject of much publicity, particularly as related to one of his three previous wives, author and poet Evelyn Scott. The two had met at Tulane and fled to Brazil under assumed names to escape prosecution for violation of the Mann Act.
Crawford’s first two books, both published in 1930, were Elsie Dinsmore on the Loose, a satire based on her stories in the New Yorker written under her pseudonym Josie Turner, and The Blot: Little City Cat, a children’s book written under her own name. In 1931, following a divorce from Kay-Scott, Crawford moved back to New York City, where she resumed work at the H. W. Wilson Company. In 1935, she became an editor of the Index of American Design of the Federal Arts Project, but by 1937 she was writing full time. Hello, the Boat!, a story of store-boat life on the river, was published the following year, and its selection by the Ford Foundation for best children’s manuscript from more than 1,600 entries brought financial reward and much publicity to the author. In July 1938, Crawford’s photograph appeared in Saturday Review of Literature alongside two foremost authors of the times, Margaret Mitchell and W. H. Auden. In 1940, she was featured in Current Biography: Who’s News and Why. The Arkansas newspapers covered her professional career periodically.
In 1940, her book Walking on Gold was published. It was a carefully researched fictional account of the “Arkansas Travelers,” a group of fortune seekers who set out from Fort Smith (Sebastian County) to follow the 1849 trail to the California gold mines. Crawford presented Native Americans in a way that was considered more humane than depictions by other novelists of the time, and her presentation of Arkansas folk language was considered genuine and accurate. Arkansas history and her personal experiences growing up in Little Rock often influenced her successive books, such as Posie Didn’t Say (1941, written under her pseudonym), Secret Brother (1941), The Last Semester (1942), Second Shift (1943), Let’s Do (1949), and several books and articles that followed. In jest, she once said that she and her brother, John Crawford—who wrote juvenile literature under the pen name of John Gregg—had to check with each other to make sure they did not duplicate their Arkansas experiences in print. She explained her writing motivation over the course of her career as an expression of her “strong belief in the courage and resourcefulness of the plain people who have made these United States.”
Crawford continued to write from her Greenwich Village apartment, surrounded by her cats and her fine Colonial American antiques and paintings, well into the 1950s. She spent her final years in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and died there in July 1980. Her exact death date and location of interment have not been determined.
For additional information:Block, Maxine. Current Biography: Who’s News and Why. New York: H. W. Wilson Company, 1940.
Howes, Durwood. American Women, 1935–1940: A Composite Biographical Dictionary. Vol. 1. Los Angeles, CA: American Publications, Inc, 1940.
Moody, Claire N. “Famous Writer Once a Librarian in Little Rock.” Arkansas Democrat Sunday Magazine, March 11, 1951, p. 2.
Phyllis Crawford Clipping File. Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. Central Arkansas Library System, Little Rock, Arkansas.
Jim PfeiferLittle Rock, Arkansas
Last Updated 2/15/2012
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