Herman Wouk, Perennially Best-Selling Author, Dies at 103

Herman Wouk, Perennially Best-Selling Author, Dies at 103

May 17, 2019

Herman Wouk, whose taut shipboard drama “The Caine Mutiny” lifted him to the top of the best-seller lists, where he remained for most of a career that extended past his 100th year thanks to page-turners like “Marjorie Morningstar,” “Youngblood Hawke” and the World War II epics “The Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance,” died early Friday at his home in Palm Springs, Calif. He was 103.

His death, just 10 days before his 104th birthday, was confirmed by his literary agent, Amy Rennert. She said he had been working on another book when he died, the subject of which he had not yet told her.

A whipping boy for reviewers who at best grudgingly acknowledged his narrative skill, Mr. Wouk (pronounced woke) enthralled millions of readers in search of a good story, snappy dialogue and stirring events, rendered with a documentarian’s sense of authenticity and detail.

The critics could be brutal. “He can compete with the worst of television because he is the worst of television, without the commercials,” Stanley Edgar Hyman wrote in 1966, describing Mr. Wouk’s readers as “yahoos who hate culture and the mind.”

His place in the literary universe was difficult to pinpoint. Did he belong with the irredeemably middlebrow James Gould Cozzens and Thomas B. Costain, or popular but respectable writers like John P. Marquand and James Michener? His novels provided ammunition for both sides.

“I’ve been absolutely dead earnest and I’ve told the story I had in hand as best as I possibly could,” he told an interviewer for the New York Public Library in the 1970s. “I have never sought an audience. It may be that I am not a very involved or a very beautiful or a very anything writer, but I’ve done the level best I can.”

He did so for a very long time. His first novel, “Aurora Dawn,” was published in 1947. When “The Lawgiver,” his comic novel about the making of a film dealing with the prophet Moses, was published in 2012, his career was well into its seventh decade and he was approaching the century mark.

Mr. Wouk immediately began writing his next book. “What am I going to do?” he said in an interview with The Times in November 2012. “Sit around and wait a year?”

In 2016, the year he turned 100, Mr. Wouk published what he said was his last book: a memoir, “Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year-old Author.” He said that such a project had first been suggested to him in the 1980s, but that his wife had discouraged it, saying, “You’re not that interesting a person.”

Son of the Bronx

Herman Wouk was born on May 27, 1915, in the Bronx, to Abraham and Esther (Levine) Wouk. His father, an immigrant from Minsk, had started out sorting and marking laundry for $3 a week but rose to become president of an industrial steam-laundry business. Herman, the middle child of three, excelled at school and earned a place at Townsend Harris High School, an accelerated three-year public institution for gifted students in Manhattan.

At Columbia University, where he majored in comparative literature and philosophy, he studied with Irwin Edman, a philosopher whose conservative skepticism temporarily led him away from the Orthodox Judaism in which he was raised and that later became a mainstay of his personal life and the subject of a best-selling nonfiction book, “This Is My God” (1959), and a follow-up, “The Language God Talks” (2010).

While at Columbia he wrote a humor column for The Spectator, the campus newspaper; edited The Jester, a humor magazine; and dreamed of a career writing farces for the Broadway stage. Through a classmate, he found work after graduation as an apprentice radio gag writer. The job, to his dismay, entailed cataloging old comedy routines and cleaning up salty vaudeville jokes for reuse.

In 1936 he became a staff writer for the radio comedian Fred Allen. One of his duties was to rustle up oddballs like a goldfish doctor and a worm salesman for a segment called “People You Didn’t Expect to Meet.” Within a few years he was earning $500 a week — the equivalent of close to $9,000 today, a very impressive salary during the Depression.

Mr. Wouk enlisted in the Navy immediately after Pearl Harbor, entered midshipman’s school and was posted as a radio officer to the U.S.S. Zane, a destroyer-minesweeper operating in the South Pacific.

He told an interviewer for The New York Post in 1956 that his time in the Navy had been the greatest experience of his life. “I had known two worlds, the wiseguys of Broadway and the wiseguys of Columbia — two small worlds that sometimes take themselves for the whole world,” he said. “In the Navy I found out more than I ever had about people and about the United States.”

While aboard ship he read “Don Quixote,” a book that turned his ambitions from the stage to novel writing. He sent four chapters of “Aurora Dawn,” a satire about radio admen, to Mr. Edman, his college professor, who placed it with Simon & Schuster. Published in 1947, the book sold reasonably well despite tepid reviews, as did his semi-autobiographical novel “The City Boy” (1948).

With “The Caine Mutiny,” Mr. Wouk struck gold. A crackling drama on the high seas leading up to a riveting courtroom scene, it introduced readers to the unforgettable Capt. Philip F. Queeg, a seething blend of paranoia and incompetence, constantly fiddling anxiously with two steel ball bearings in his left hand. When he steers the ship toward certain disaster in a typhoon, his junior officers remove him from command, an act for which they later face court-martial.

Broadway Bound

The book, which sold more than three million copies in the United States alone, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1952 and was made into a movie in 1954 with Humphrey Bogart as Queeg. Mr. Wouk adapted the courtroom sections of the novel into a hit Broadway play, “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial,” which opened the same year as the film, with Lloyd Nolan in the starring role.

He had already made his Broadway debut in 1949 with “The Traitor,” about a scientist who delivers atomic secrets to the Soviets. He would later return to Broadway with a forgettable comedy, “Nature’s Way,” in 1957.

In “Marjorie Morningstar,” published in 1955, Mr. Wouk returned to civilian life. His heroine, a middle-class Jewish girl who dreams of becoming an actress, changes her name from Morgenstern to Morningstar, falls in love with and loses her virginity to a pretentious would-be playwright, and learns to settle, happily, for life as a wife and mother in suburban Westchester. “You couldn’t write a play about her that would run a week, or a novel that would sell a thousand copies,” an old beau remarks after visiting her in middle age.

For Mr. Wouk, this was the point. “My novel is a story of young love, a picture of the manners and attitudes of courtship in the United States nowadays,” he wrote in The American Weekly, noting, without criticism, that his heroine’s fate, like that of nearly all American girls, was to lead “a conventional, anonymous existence.”

His sympathy for the middle-class virtues led Time magazine to call him “a Sinclair Lewis in reverse.” Reviewing “Marjorie Morningstar” for The Times, the critic Maxwell Geismar shrewdly focused on it as a drama of Jewish assimilation, “the tragicomic meeting of traditional Jewish culture and the American success myth.”

The novel inspired the 1958 film of the same name, with Natalie Wood in the title role and Gene Kelly as her feckless boyfriend.

Mr. Wouk delivered another blockbuster with “Youngblood Hawke” (1962), which in nearly 800 pages chronicled the creative torments, red-hot passions and financial ups and downs of a writer loosely based on Thomas Wolfe. Unabashedly old-fashioned in style, it remained faithful, Mr. Wouk wrote in The New York Times Book Review, to “the enduring disciplines of narrative,” which cannot guarantee success but “compel the writer of fiction to be true to his task.”

By 1958 Mr. Wouk had moved to the Virgin Islands, an interlude that produced the slight, poorly received comic novel “Don’t Stop the Carnival” (1965). At the same time he began planning an epic-scale novel dealing with World War II, and in 1964 he moved to Washington to do research at the National Archives and the Library of Congress. In pursuit of eyewitness documentation, he also traveled around the world to interview surviving military leaders.

In truth, the book had been gestating for decades. Soon after he finished “The Caine Mutiny,” he told an NPR interviewer in 2004, he wrote in his journal, “Unless I’m mistaken, this is a good book, but it is not yet the war novel I mean to write.”

His Own ‘War and Peace’

In the end he wrote two war novels: “The Winds of War” (1971), which covered the period from the signing of the Nazi-Soviet pact in 1939 to the attack on Pearl Harbor, and “War and Remembrance” (1978), which carried the story forward through the great military campaigns of the war, concluding with the liberation of the concentration camps and the dropping of the atom bomb.

Like “War and Peace,” whose sweep and ambition served as a model, “The Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance” jumped back and forth from the battlefield to the home front. Historic events and domestic life intersected in the experiences of one American family, headed by the naval commander Victor Henry, nicknamed Pug.

In returning to the world of “The Caine Mutiny,” Mr. Wouk won back many of the critics who had written him off. His two war novels, totaling nearly 2,000 pages, gave a rousing account of great events, informed by painstaking research. If Pug Henry seemed to show up, unaccountably, at the elbow of every great leader in the war at one historic turning point after another, Mr. Wouk’s breathtaking narrative pace, skillful stage management and flair for wide-screen spectacle tended to drown out the criticism.

With Mr. Wouk’s help, both novels were translated into successful television mini-series starring Robert Mitchum as Pug Henry. The first installment of “The Winds of War,” broadcast in 1983 on ABC, attracted 80 million viewers, and more than half the available television audience tuned in as it unfolded over seven days. “War and Remembrance,” an even more lavish production extending over 30 hours at a cost of more than $110 million, was broadcast in 1988 but attracted a smaller audience.

After writing the autobiographical novel “Inside, Outside” (1985), Mr. Wouk applied his epic formula to modern Israel in “The Hope” and “The Glory,” both published in 1994 to generally unenthusiastic reviews. Readers were guided through Israel’s turbulent history — from its founding to its three major wars and on into the 1980s — by Zev Barak, a noble scholar-warrior on hand to experience all important battles and diplomatic negotiations.

A conversation with his brother, Victor, an electrical engineer who once worked on the Manhattan Project, provided Mr. Wouk with the subject matter for “A Hole in Texas” (2004), a scientific soap opera about a supercollider project in Waxahachie, Tex., abandoned by the government.

With “The Lawgiver,” Mr. Wouk broke with his traditional style of narration and told his tale in a modernized epistolary style, using letters, memos, emails, Twitter posts and text messages written by his characters. He also returned to Simon & Schuster, the publishers of his first novel.

Mr. Wouk’s wife, Betty (Brown) Wouk, who represented him after founding the BSW Literary Agency in 1979, died in 2011. His brother died in 2005. A son, Abraham, died in a childhood accident. He is survived by two children, Iolanthe Woulff and Joseph Wouk; three grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

On the question of his reputation, Mr. Wouk took a philosophical line.

“In the long run justice is done,” he told Writer’s Digest in 1966. “In the short run geniuses, minor writers and mountebanks alike take their chance. Imaginative writing is a wonderful way of life, and no man who can live by it should ask for more.”

An earlier version of this obituary misstated the given name of the protagonist of Mr. Wouk’s novels “The Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance.” He is Victor Henry, not Vincent.

William McDonald contributed reporting.

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