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He is most remembered for two classic Western novels, The Searchers (1954) and The Unforgiven (1957). They were adapted into the motion pictures The Searchers (1956; with John Wayne and directed by John Ford) and The Unforgiven (1960; with Burt Lancaster and Audrey Hepburn).
He also wrote or co-wrote the screenplays for Reap the Wild Wind (1942; with John Wayne and Paulette Goddard) and Blackbeard the Pirate (1952; with Robert Newton), North West Mounted Police (1940; for Cecil B. DeMille), and the novel for Along Came Jones (1945; with Gary Cooper), as well as a score of other screenplays and an assortment of novels and short stories. Le May also wrote and directed High Lonesome (1950).
He was born in Indianapolis, Indiana to John and Maude Brown Le May. His father was a public school teacher and his maternal grandfather (Daniel L. Brown, Sr.) and uncle (Daniel L. Brown, Jr.) were both lawyers. He first lived with his parents and uncle at his grandparents home at 3229 North Illinois Street in Indianapolis. He moved with his family, including his sister Elizabeth, to Aurora, Illinois as a teenager in the 1910s.
He attended Stetson University in DeLand, Florida in 1916. In 1918 he registered for the World War I draft in Aurora, and then enlisted and was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army. While attending the University of Chicago, where he graduated in 1922 with a Bachelor of Philosophy degree, he joined the Illinois National Guard. He was promoted to First Lieutenant Field Artillery for the Illinois National Guard in 1923.