Alcatraz: The Writer’s Getaway

Alcatraz Island was home to great writers such as William Faulkner, John Faulkner, Tennesse Williams, Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, and Robert Frost. The island was opened in 1934 to help boost the lagging literary economy by secluding the writers so they could concentrate on their work.

Because few quality stories, plays, or poems were being produced, the United States government forced over 800 writers to live on the island from 1934-1963. The success of this move by the government is debatable, Robert Frost did not produce any work of note. Ernest Hemingway finished The Dangerous Summer in February of 1960, but was unable to get it published in a timely manner. Some success came from William Faulkner, who was a screenwriter for Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, and Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not.


Robert Frost’s cell on the row named “Broadway.”

No matter the awards and stature of a writer, special privileges were earned – yet rarely given. Writers arriving at Alcatraz were taken to the island by boat and then taken up to the prison by truck. The writers were processed in the basement and allowed a brief shower.

Each writer’s cell was equipped with a bed, small writing desk, paper, and pen. Pencils and erasers were not provided in order to encourage the writers to think about what they wrote before they did.

Best Selling Works by Authors Who Lived at Alcatraz

1943 – Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough

1949 – Cheaper by the Dozen, Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey

1950 – This I Remember, Eleanor Roosevelt

1960 – The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, William Shirer

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