James Hilton was born on 9th September 1900 in Leigh, Lancashire. His father, John, was a schoolmaster and his mother, Elizabeth (nee Burch) had been a schoolmistress before her marriage. James attended the George Monoux School in Walthamstow, London before attending The Leys School, Cambridge, where he was a pupil from 1915 – 1918 and where he edited and contributed to the school magazine. He studied English and History at Christ’s College, Cambridge and his first novel, Catherine Herself, was published in 1920 while he was still an undergraduate.
He left university in 1921 and became a freelance journalist, writing articles and book reviews and working on a number of novels, none of which achieved commercial success. In 1931 he enjoyed some success with And Now Goodbye, a tender love story, and then in 1933 he wrote Lost Horizon and as a consequence his mythical Shangri-La became a household word. The book won the Hawthornden Prize in 1934.
One more event in 1933 would ensure that Hilton had finally arrived. He was asked to write a 3,000 word short story for the magazine The British Weekly. After a week without inspiration he went cycling “in a blue funk” on a foggy winter morning in Epping Forest until “suddenly an idea bobbed up and (he) saw the whole story in a flash”. In four days he had written a story about an elderly, much-loved schoolmaster which he entitled Goodbye, Mr Chips.
It was an immediate success both in Britain and America and by early 1934 Hilton was a best-selling author. There was an insatiable appetite to read his work and all of his earlier novels were reissued.
In the following year, 1935, Hilton married his English wife, Alice Brown, and Hollywood called. He left for the film capital where, at first, he found the glitter of “Tinseltown” to be congenial. Many of his books became world-wide hit movies, most notably Lost Horizon (1937), Goodbye Mr Chips (1939) and Random Harvest (1942).
Hilton became established as a sought-after Hollywood scriptwriter and, notably, contributed to the Greer Garson wartime classic Mrs Miniver. He was a popular figure in Hollywood and counted Frank Capra, Ronald Coleman and Greer Garson amongst his friends.
Sadly, his first marriage ended in divorce in 1937 and he married Galina Kopineck, a young starlet. This marriage proved volatile and Hilton again divorced eight years later.
He continued to write best-selling novels during and after the Second World War including Random Harvest, So Well Remembered and Time and Time Again.
On 20th December 1954 Hilton died in hospital in Long Beach, California of liver cancer. By this time his first wife, Alice, had been reconciled with him and nursed him till the end.