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Samuel Eldred Greenlee, Jr. (July 13, 1930 – May 19, 2014)[1] was an African-American writer, best known for his groundbreaking novel The Spook Who Sat by the Door, which was first published in London by Allison & Busby[2] in March 1969 (having been rejected by dozens of mainstream publishers),[3] and went on to be chosen as The Sunday Times Book of the Year.[4] The novel was subsequently made into the 1973 movie of the same name, directed by Ivan Dixon and co-produced and written by Greenlee,[5] that is now considered a "cult classic".[3]

BornSamuel Eldred Greenlee, Jr.
(1930-07-13)July 13, 1930
Chicago, Illinois, US
DiedMay 19, 2014(2014-05-19) (aged 83)
Chicago, Illinois
Notable worksThe Spook Who Sat by the Door (1969)
Notable awardsIllinois poet laureate
ChildrenNatiki Montano


Life and workEdit

Early years and educationEdit

Sam Greenlee was born in St. Luke's Hospital, Chicago, Illinois (his parents were singer and dancer Desoree Alexander and railroad man and union activist Samuel Greenlee),[1] and grew up in west Woodlawn.[6] He attended Englewood High School, and in 1948 won a track scholarship to the University of Wisconsin, graduating in 1952 with a BS degree in political science.[6] He was a member of Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity (Beta Omicron 1950). He served in the US Army from 1952 to 1954, earning the rank of first lieutenant, and from 1954 to 1957 did graduate studies in international relations at the University of Chicago.[6]

US foreign serviceEdit

In 1957 Greenlee began a career with the United States Information Agency, and, as one of first black officials to work overseas,[3] served in Iraq (in 1958 he was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal for bravery during the Baghdad revolution), Pakistan, Indonesia, and Greece between 1957 and 1965.[7]

Leaving the United States foreign service after eight years, he stayed on in Greece where he undertook further study (1963–64) at the University of Thessaloniki, and lived for three years on the island of Mykonos.

Writing careerEdit

It was while living on Mykonos that Greenlee began to write his first and best known novel, entitled The Spook Who Sat by the Door, which was the story of a black man who is recruited as a CIA agent and having mastered the skills of a spy then uses them to lead a black guerrilla movement in the US.[6][8] Rejected by many mainstream publishers on both sides of the Atlantic, the novel was eventually published in London in March 1969 by Allison and Busby.[1]

Greenlee later co-wrote (with Mel Clay) the screenplay for what became the 1973 film The Spook Who Sat by the Door that he co-produced with director Ivan Dixon, and which is considered "one of the more memorable and impassioned films that came out around the beginning of the notoriously polarizing blaxploitation era."[9] In 2011, an independent documentary entitled Infiltrating Hollywood: The Rise and Fall of the Spook Who Sat by the Door was filmed by Christine Acham and Clifford Ward, about the making and reception of the Spook film,[10] in which Greenlee spoke out about the suppression of the film soon after its release.[11][12] In a chance meeting with Aubrey Lewis (1935–2001), one of the first Black FBI agents to have been recruited in 1962 by the FBI,[13] Greenlee was told that The Spook Who Sat by the Door was required reading at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia.[14]

Other works by Greenlee include Baghdad Blues, a 1976 novel based on his experiences traveling in Iraq in the 1950s and witnessing the 1958 Iraqi revolution,[15] Blues for an African Princess, a 1971 collection of poems, and Ammunition (poetry, 1975). He also wrote short stories, plays (although he found no producer for any of them),[6] and the screenplay for a film short called Lisa Trotter (2010), a story adapted from Aristophanes' Lysistrata.[16]

Later yearsEdit

Greenlee lived in Ghana and Spain for some years, before returning to Chicago in the late 1980s.[3] In 1990 he was named the Poet Laureate of Illinois.[17][1] He taught screenwriting at Columbia College Chicago and hosted a talk show on WVON radio.[18][14] He also worked on an autobiography that was to be called Sam's Blues: Adventures of a Travelling Man.[1]


On May 19, 2014, Greenlee died in Chicago at the age of 83.[19] On June 6, 2014, Chicago's DuSable Museum of African American History sponsored an evening of celebration in his honor, attended by his daughter Natiki Montano.[20]


  • Blues for an African Princess, Chicago: Third World Press, 1971.
  • Ammunition!: Poetry and Other Raps (introduction Andrew Salkey), London: Bogle-L'Ouverture, 1975.
  • Be-Bop Man/Be-Bop Woman, 1968–1993: Poetry and Other Raps, Cambrea Heights, NY: Natiki, 1995.
Short stories
  • "Yes, We Can Sing", Negro Digest, 15.2 (December 1965), pp. 65–69.
  • "The Sign", Negro Digest, 15.4 (February 1966), pp. 61–66.
  • "Summer Sunday", Negro Digest, 15.11 (September 1966), 60–61.
  • "Autumn Leaves", in Negro Digest 16.3 (January 1967), pp. 69–73.
  • "The D.C. Blues", Negro Digest, 18.8 (June 1969), 86-92.
  • "Sonny's Seasons", Black World, 19.12 (October 1970), pp. 58–63.
  • "Sonny's Not Blue", in Woodie King (ed.), Black Short Story Anthology, New York: Signet, 1972, p. 91–96.
  • "Blues for Little Prez", in Black World, 22.10 (August 1973), pp. 54–62. Reprinted in Sascha Feinstein and David Rife (eds), The Jazz Fiction Anthology, Indiana University Press, 2009, pp. 205–13.


  1. ^ a b c d e Margaret Busby, "Sam Greenlee obituary", The Guardian, June 2, 2014.
  2. ^ Allison & Busby page at George Padmore Institute website.
  3. ^ a b c d Matt Schudel, "Sam Greenlee, whose movie 'The Spook Who Sat by the Door' became a cult classic, dies", The Washington Post, May 21, 2014.
  4. ^ Chris Routledge, "Sam Greenlee Biography - Novel Became Cult Favorite, Enjoyed Brief Revival, Selected writings",
  5. ^ "Sam Greenlee (1930–2014)", IMDb (Internet Movie Database).
  6. ^ a b c d e Rosalind Cummings, "Local Lit: the relaxed rage of Sam Greenlee", Chicago Reader, April 14, 1994.
  7. ^ Adam Meyer, "Sam Greenlee", in Emmanuel S. Nelson (ed.), Contemporary African American Novelists: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999.
  8. ^ DeWayne Wickham, "Sam Greenlee's Book Is Still Making a Statement", ChickenBones: A Journal for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes, September 25, 2003.
  9. ^ Neil Drumming, "The filmmaker who gave birth to blaxploitation: Sam Greenlee’s complicated racial legacy", Salon, May 20, 2014.
  10. ^ "Infiltrating Hollywood: The Rise and Fall of the Spook Who Sat by the Door", IMDb.
  11. ^ Nina Metz, "Sam Greenlee, author of 'Spook Who Sat By the Door,' dead at 83", Chicago Tribune, May 19, 2014.
  12. ^ Tambay A. Obenson, "RIP Sam Greenlee - Author Of 'The Spook Who Sat By The Door' Dies At 83 (Listen To His Words Of Wisdom)", Indiewire, May 19, 2014.
  13. ^ Richard Goldstein, "Aubrey Lewis, 66, Athlete Who Was an F.B.I. Pioneer", The New York Times, December 13, 2001.
  14. ^ a b Gregg Reese, "Radical novelist Sam Greenlee dies at 83", Our Weekly (Los Angeles), May 22, 2014.
  15. ^ "Novelist Sam Greenlee Dies in Chicago", ABC News, May 20, 2014.
  16. ^ Lisa Trotter page at IMDb.
  17. ^ "Black History Mobile Museum 101 and Author Sam Greenlee", Xavier University, January 15, 2010.
  18. ^ "Sam Greenlee, late author of 'The Spook Who Sat by the Door,' dead at 83", Hyde Park Herald, May 21, 2014.
  19. ^ "Writer, Filmmaker Sam Greenlee Dies". Ebony. May 19, 2014.
  20. ^ Taki S. Raton, "Chicago’s DuSable Museum celebrates life of writer and filmmaker Sam Greenlee", Milwaukee Community Journal, June 19, 2014.

External linksEdit