Elmore Leonard, one of America's best known crime novelists, died Tuesday morning due to complications from a stroke. He was 87.

Leonard was born in New Orleans on Oct. 11, 1925. His father worked for General Motors, scouting car dealership locations around the country. His family moved to Texas, Oklahoma and Tennessee before settling in Detroit in 1934.

In high school, where he played football and baseball, a fellow student gave him his lifelong nickname, "Dutch," after Washington Senators pitcher Emil "Dutch" Leonard.

It wasn't until he was majoring in English and philosophy at the University of Detroit after serving in the Naval Reserve in the Pacific during World War II that Leonard began writing short stories.

Leonard married his college sweetheart, Beverly Cline, in 1949, and they had their first child within a year.

After graduating in 1950 he landed a job at Campbell-Ewald Advertising in Detroit, where he wrote advertising copy for Chevrolet. He also began writing short fiction for magazines on the side. He chose westerns, he said, "because I liked western movies."

His first published story was "Trail of the Apache" for Argosy, a men's magazine, in 1951.

With his full-time job as a copywriter and a growing family, Leonard realized that the only way he could write fiction was to rise at 5 a.m. Sitting at the living room coffee table, he'd spend two hours trying to write two pages on a yellow tablet.

"I made a rule that I had to get something down on paper before I could put the water on for the coffee," he said in an interview published in "The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard" (2004). "Know where you're going and then put the water on. That seemed to work because I did it for most of the '50s."

"The Bounty Hunters" was published in 1953. In 1960, armed with $11,500 from Campbell-Ewald's profit-sharing plan, Leonard quit with the intention of writing full time. Instead, he bought a house and, with a wife and five children to support, spent the next few years writing freelance advertising copy and educational film scripts for Encyclopedia Britannica.

In 1966, however, 20th Century Fox bought the film rights to his 1961 western novel "Hombre," which became a 1967 movie starring Paul Newman. That gave Leonard enough money to write his first non-western novel, "The Big Bounce."

For many years, Leonard wrote screenplays to support his crime-novel writing. Among his numerous film credits: "Joe Kidd," starring Clint Eastwood; "Mr. Majestyk," starring Charles Bronson (Leonard wrote the screenplay for the 1974 film before writing it as a novel) and "Stick," starring Burt Reynolds (based on Leonard's novel).

While his writing career was booming in the early '70s, his marriage was crumbling and he was drinking heavily. In 1974, the year he moved out of the house, a friend suggested he try Alcoholics Anonymous.

"I got into drinking because I was shy, somewhat introverted, self-conscious, and it brought me out. It was the macho thing to do," he told Playboy in 1995. "I drank from the time I was 16 until I quit when I was 52. And I had more fun when I was drinking than at any other time."

In 1979, two years after his divorce, Leonard married Joan Shepard, who helped him during his alcohol withdrawal and read and critiqued his writing before it went out. She died of lung cancer in 1993.

Less than a year later, he married Christine Kent, who was in charge of the gardening crew that tended to his yard. They divorced in 2012.

He is survived by his five children from his first marriage, 13 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

When he was working on a novel, Leonard wrote every day — in his living room with a No. 5 Pilot Pen on unlined yellow paper before typing the handwritten pages on an IBM Selectric.

Writing novels, he said in 1998, is "the most satisfying thing I can imagine doing. To write that scene and then read it, and it works ... there's nothing better than that. The notoriety that comes later doesn't compare to the doing of it. I've been doing it for almost 47 years, and I'm still trying to make it better."

news.obits@latimes.com

McLellan is a former Times staff writer.

Times staff writer Steve Chawkins contributed to this report.