He was born as Josiah Pitts Woolfolk in Chicago in 1894. His father was a doctor who died at age 49, thus he was brought up by his grandmother and educated at Northwestern University and Racine College.
He started his literary career as a newspaperman working for several Chicago dailies, moving on to pulp magazines and to dozens of books. He was a skillful plotter, setting up clever situations and ingenious resolutions. In his autobiography, he states he sold over 1,000 short stories to over 60 periodicals. His book, Evangelical Cockroach provides 39 of his short stories.
Jack Woodford was his first of many pseudonyms—Jack because he liked material written by Jack Lait and Woodford since his father had been born in Woodford County. Three of his many other pseudonyms were Howard Kennedy, Gordon Sayre, and Sappo Henderson Britt.
A former telegrapher, he typed at machine gun speed, literally wearing out one to two typewriters each month. He said he could turn out a 1,200 word story in less then an hour without corrections.
His fiction was highly controversial, regarded as salacious and he was branded a pornographer. His stories were filled with sex leaving people hot and bothered—that censors couldn’t touch because he never described any body part—his books having sensational titles as Sin and Such, White Meat and Love in Virginia. Today they are regarded as being mildly erotic and sexually suggestive.
By 1940, 30 million people had read an article, book or short story by Jack Woodford. He stated, “I have more books in active print all at one time than any other author ever had in the entire history of the publishing business in the United States.”
He met 16-year old Josephine Hutchings at a party in New York and married her three days later on November 20, 1916. They initially lived in Chicago where Woodford had grown up, where his daughter Louella Annette Pitts Woolfolk was born three years later. They moved several times, but ultimately resided in Richmond, VA where they got divorced in 1933.
His novel, City Limits was made into a film by MGM in 1934. On an impulse, he and his daughter moved to Hollywood where he worked for Warner Brothers, MGM, Columbia, and Universal. He wrote scripts for the MGM shorts, The Magician’s Daughter (1938), Anaesthesia (1938), What Do You Think? (1938), and Happily Buried (1939)—and many other films for which he was given no credit. They lived in Hollywood until 1951 in relative obscurity.
His 1933 book, Trial and Error, was one of the most widely read how-to-write fiction books ever published. It caused something of a scandal at the time of publication because of its no-holds-barred insights into the publishing industry. With an introduction by Arnold Gingrich, editor of Esquire, Trial and Error was reprinted many times. He followed it with a series of books for writers, each one increasingly caustic and realistic about the writing business and its aspirants. Over 50 first time authors dedicated their first books to Jack Woodford, because, as he says in Why Write A Novel, “they thought he had taught them how to write.”
His beautiful and talented daughter who had already written two books, Two Against Fate (1935), Maid Unafraid at age 18 (1937), started to have fits of anger and dementia and was diagnosed with hebephrenic schizophrenia. Her novel, written at age 23, Strange Daughter documents her behavior. He slowly went broke placing her in expensive hospitals.
He founded Woodford Press in 1946. Its editors were Allan Wilson and Aaron Moses (“Moe”) Shapiro. Its books were often banned by courts and seized by police and vigilantes groups who raided bookstores up until the 1960s. People went to jail for selling his works.
A Hollywood colleague described him as an angry man; others as having an abrasive personality that would curse, scream and yell. He drank Coke as if it was water and ate Tums like they were candy. He was notorious for writing angry letters to officials and newsmakers.
He wrote 60 novels from 1930 to 1953. From 1950 to 1954 he co-authored over thirty novels with young writers—apparently attaching his name to these unknown writer’s manuscripts. He wrote almost 20 non-fiction books primarily focused on how to write and get publish.
In his later years, he fell on hard times. He was convicted of mail fraud and served a year in a federal penitentiary, an experience he wrote about in his 1961 book, A Home Away From Home.
He went broke and had to depend on friends for money for food and rent. He became very bitter, paranoid and delusional.
From 1962 until his death on May 16, 1971, he was a patient at the Eastern State Hospital sanitarium in Williamsburg, Virginia where his daughter Louella was also a patient. His daughter subsequently died in 1992.
- “Josiah Woolfolk, Professional Writer and Ex-Convict, Williamsburg, VA” — Washington Post, May 18, 1971, obituary
- The Autobiography of Jack Woodford, by Jack Woodford, 1962
- Home Away From Home, by Jack Woodford, 1962