John Harvey McElwee

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John Harvey McElwee
Born 1834-10-07.
York County, South Carolina
Died 1926-02-04
Statesville, North Carolina
Occupation Tobacco executive

John Harvey McElwee was a prominent figure in the Tobacco industry in the late 19th century and early 20th century.[1]

McElwee's service with the Confederate Army, during the American Civil War, took him to the region of Durham, North Carolina, where, according to Time magazine, he "created the Bull Durham brand", only to have the recipe stolen by James (Buck) Buchanan Duke.[1][2]

A tradition grew among some of McElwee's descendants that the events in the 1948 novel "Bright Leaf", and film "Bright Leaf", were a fictionalization of an actual conflict between McElwee and members of the Duke family..[3][4][5][6] The Duke family's wealth, at the time the book and movie were set, was primarily based in Tobacco. His great-grandson, Ross McElwee, a film director known as America's foremost director of Cinema Verite films, released "Bright Leaves", in 2003, a personal documentary of his exploration of this family story, and the devastating impact Tobacco use has had on his family and friends.[2][7][8][9][10]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Richard Corliss. That Old Feeling: The Great American Smoke, Time magazine, 2003-11-22. Retrieved on 2022-08-31. “According to family legend, Ross' great-grandfather John Harvey McElwee had worked on such a process, created the Bull Durham brand and made a bundle, then lost it when his rival John Buchanan (Buck) Duke stole the Bull Durham recipe. Duke's fortune eventually rose into the billions; his daughter Doris was for a time the world's richest woman. The McElwees became convinced that the story of their ancestor's rise, and betrayal by Duke, was encapsulated in 'Bright Leaf' — that the film was, as Ross put it, 'a home movie reenacted by Hollywood stars.'mirror
  2. 2.0 2.1 Carla Meyer. Tobacco grower descendant explores the family industry McElwee's film tackles tobacco, San Francisco Chronicle, 2004-10-15. Retrieved on 2022-08-31. “McElwee's journey in "Bright Leaves" starts with a visit to the North Carolina home of his film-buff cousin. Amid the cousin's collection of stills and reels is a 1950 film called 'Bright Leaf' starring Gary Cooper. He informs McElwee that the historical melodrama is based on the story of their great-grandfather, John Harvey McElwee, whose business was ruined by tobacco tycoon James Buchanan Duke.”
  3. Jack Pendarvis. The Cigarette Lighter, Bloomsbury Publishing, p. 15, 51-52, 111. Retrieved on 2022-08-30.
  4. William T. Polk. REVIEW OF NORTH CAROLINA BOOKS OF THE YEAR, The North Carolina Historical Review, April, 1950, p. 200-204 (5 pages). Retrieved on 2022-08-30.
  5. Lawrence Lee. Tobacco Is King!; BRIGHT LEAF. By Foster Fitz-Simans. 631 pp. New York: Rinehart & Co. 63.50., New York Times, 1948-10-03, p. Book 25. Retrieved on 2022-08-30.
  6. Bosley Crowther. THE SCREEN IN REVIEW; 'Bright Leaf,' With Gary Cooper as Tobacco Magnate, New Bill at Strand Theatre, New York Times, 1950-06-17, p. L7. Retrieved on 2022-08-30.
  7. Ty Burr. `Bright Leaves' explores burning questions, Boston Globe, 2004-09-24. Retrieved on 2022-08-31. “Neal and Cooper starred in 'Bright Leaf,' a 1950 Hollywood melodrama set in the tobacco fields and mansions of the post-Civil War era and based, McElwee comes to believe, on the bare bones of his great-grandfather's life. John Harvey McElwee was an ambitious planter who developed a tobacco blend he called "Durham Bull," a formula he spent his life and fortune in court trying to prove had been stolen and sold as "Bull Durham" by rival James B. Duke.” mirror
  8. Stephen Holden. FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW; Tapestry of a Family and Its Home State, New York Times, 2003-10-11, p. B16. Retrieved on 2022-08-30. “McElwee family lore has it that the movie, directed by Michael Curtiz and adapted from a novel by Foster Fitz-Simons, is the story of his great-grandfather. And it prompts Mr. McElwee to embark on an eccentric quest to document the connection. He obsessively reruns the movie and interviews a film scholar, Vlada Petric, along with Ms. Neal and the original novelist's widow.”
  9. James Ryerson. FILM; Cigarettes, Gary Cooper And Me, New York Times, 2004-08-22. Retrieved on 2022-08-30. “The film is set in motion when Mr. McElwee learns of the existence of a 1950 Hollywood melodrama called Bright Leaf, starring Gary Cooper, Lauren Bacall and Patricia Neal, about a rivalry between two tobacco growers in post-Civil War North Carolina. At the suggestion of a cousin, Mr. McElwee becomes convinced that the character played by Cooper is based on his great-grandfather, John Harvey McElwee, a North Carolina tobacco tycoon who was ruined and run out of the business by his nemesis, James Buchanan Duke (whose legacy would encompass both the American Tobacco Company and Duke University.)”
  10. FILM REVIEW; Romance of Tobacco Brought to Life, New York Times, 2004-08-25, p. E4. Retrieved on 2022-08-30. “His great-grandfather was a tobacco king who created the Bull Durham brand, then lost his fortune to a rival clan, the Dukes, who became North Carolina royalty. Through a cousin who collects vintage films and movie memorabilia, he becomes fixated on a 1950 black-and-white melodrama, Bright Leaf, about the tobacco wars of the late 19th century, starring Gary Cooper, Lauren Bacall and Patricia Neal.”