​Malcolm Lowry

Biography for ​Malcolm Lowry

Born on July 28, 1909, he was the son of a wealthy cotton industrialist. His mother was the daughter of a prominent sea captain and ship owner. From a young age, Lowry would be fascinated by the sea and hoped to embark on adventures of his own.

Lowry was sent to The Leys School in Cambridge at age fourteen. His father hoped that his son would proceed on to Cambridge University and then become involved in the family business. But Lowry had other plans. He was an indifferent student who had already taken to heavy drinking, a lifelong problem.

When Lowry graduated from The Leys in 1927, he persuaded his father to allow him to travel abroad before entering the university. His father was persuaded, and Lowry became a cabin boy aboard the SS Pyrrhus on its way to the Far East. He returned after five months and left to study German in Bonn, Germany. On yet another journey, he traveled to the United States to meet an author he admired, Conrad Aiken. Aiken had recently written about the sea in Blue Voyage (1927), and Lowry hoped to do the same.

Back in England, Lowry appeased his parents by entering Cambridge in 1929. Rather than devote himself to his studies in English, he worked on a novel based on his time at sea, Ultramarine. He also continued to consume large quantities of alcohol and to indulge in his hobbies of jazz, German silent films, and playing the ukulele.

In 1930, Lowry boarded a Norwegian steamer as a fireman. He traveled with the crew to Archangel in the White Sea. His purpose was to meet another author, the Norwegian Nordahl Grieg. The latter had written Skibet går videre (1924; The Ship Sails On, 1927), another book that had inspired Lowry. Lowry would spend the next fourteen years writing and rewriting a book influenced by the trip and by his meeting with Grieg: In Ballast to the White Sea.

Lowry returned to Cambridge, graduating with a mediocre performance in 1931. He published his first novel Ultramarine (1933), generally to tepid reviews. He traveled to Spain where he met with Conrad Aiken. It was also there that Lowry met an American woman, Jan Gabrial. They were married in 1934. Due especially to Lowry's drinking, the marriage was rife with conflict.

Jan left Lowry within weeks of the wedding and returned to the United States. Lowry followed her there. By 1936, his drinking had caused him to be committed to the Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital in New York. Lowry was released and moved to Hollywood to attempt screenwriting. Unsuccessful, he and his wife moved to Oaxaca, Mexico towards the end of 1936. The couple separated the following year.

In 1938, Lowry moved to Los Angeles. He met his second wife, the actress and writer Margerie Bonner. They married in 1940, after he had secured a divorce from Jan. Lacking a visa to remain in the United States, Lowry and Margerie settled illegally in a shack in Dollarton, British Columbia in Canada. There followed fourteen years of relative peace and stability. Except for occasional trips to Mexico, Haiti, or Europe, the couple remained in Dollarton.

A house fire in 1944 destroyed the manuscript of In Ballast to the White Sea. But Margerie managed to save the manuscript of Lowry's other novel, Under the Volcano. After repeated rejections and revisions, it was published in 1947. It would make Lowry famous (although not until after his death) and was later considered one of the best novels of the century.

Although continuing to work on other novels, Lowry was unable to support himself. He returned to England with his wife in 1955. He died on June 26, 1957, at age forty-seven, from an overconsumption of alcohol and barbiturates. Posthumously published novels included Hear Us O Lord From Heaven Thy Dwelling Place (1961), Lunar Caustic (1968), and Dark as the Grave wherein my Friend is Laid (1968). His Selected Poems appeared in 1962.


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