Armitage Trail was born as Maurice R. Coons in 1902 in Madison, Nebraska. He was the oldest child of Oscar A. Coons and Alice L. Coons, living also with Alice’s mother, Mary J. Mc Intyre. He had two brothers, Hannibal (Born Stanley J. Coons) and Eugene as well as a sister named Evchgh. Due to Oscar’s job as a road tour manager of the New Orleans Opera Company, the family moved multiple times before Trail became an adult, with one definite location being New Orleans. Trail developed a passion for writing early, dropping out of school at the age of 16 to devote his time to it. Likewise, his interest in gangsters such as Al Capone began at a young age, stated by his brother Hannibal that he "was interested in gangsters as other men are interested in postage stamps, old coins, or spread-eagled butterflies.” Throughout the rest of his teens and early twenties, Trail wrote under a variety of pseudonyms, writing various crime and detective stories for pulp magazines. During this time, he visited New York City, eventually leaving home entirely to live in Chicago, where he wrote his defining work Scarface.
Not much is known about Trail’s time in Chicago. He lived in Oak Park, Illinois, a town adjacent to the west side of Chicago, where he worked on composing Scarface daily in his sun-room. He did not live there long enough to be recorded in an official U.S. Census. Trail spent much of the rest of his time in the city, supposedly being connected to local Sicilian gangs by an Italian-American lawyer he was acquainted with. From then on, Trail spent his nights socializing with gang members in order to gain materials for his novel. Trail published Scarface in 1930, a year after his other novel The Thirteenth Guest. Though Trail never formally met Al Capone, whom his novel was based on, Capone may have known of the work. After the release of the 1932 film, at which point Trail was already dead, Capone reportedly sent some of his men to question screenwriter Ben Hecht after Capone was offended at the 1932 film’s portrayal of him by actor Paul Muni.
Producer Howard Hughes eventually approached Trail about his novel with the interest of adapting it to film. Trail sold the rights to Scarface to Hughes for $25,000, moving to Los Angeles in the process, where he lived at 3811 Delman Torrace St. After selling the rights to Scarface, W.R. Burnett, who worked on the screenplay, stated that Trail began to struggle with potential alcoholism (what when how ref). Trail lived flamboyantly in Hollywood, rapidly gaining weight, wearing wide-brimmed Borsalino hats, and hiring a servant named Elijah Ford. Trail never lived to see the 1932 film finished, as in October 1930, he died of a heart attack at the Paramount Theatre. Today he is buried in corridor/building C, crypt 237, the Hollywood Forever Cemetery.
Trail's most famous novel details the life of Tony "Scarface" Camonte, who is based on gangster Al Capone. The protagonist shares the same first name across all three of the Scarface works. Trail’s novel, as well as some information about the two films, is explored in greater depth in the page, Scarface (novel). Some additional sources to learn more about these works include Scarface Nation: The Ultimate Gangster Movie and How it Changed America and Screening Text: Critical Perspectives on Film Adaptation.
Trail’s second significant work, released in 1929, The Thirteenth Guest, covers the investigation of fictional character Marie Morgan’s murder. A private eye, named in the first film as Phil Winston and the second as Johnny Smith, surveys the crime scene. The scene is Morgan’s grandfather’s mansion, where he was also murdered thirteen years prior. The novel was later adapted into the film The Thirteenth Guest in 1932 by Albert Ray, and then was remade as Mystery of the 13th Guest in 1943 by William Beaudine.
Though it is suggested that Trail wrote numerous pulp stories, supposedly even whole magazines of them, under a variety of pseudonyms, further research is required to discover any of these names, magazines, or works of fiction.