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NEW YORK -- 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 included page-turners like Marjorie Morningstar, Youngblood Hawke and 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.

Wouk 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.

"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 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.

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?"

Wouk was born May 27, 1915, in the Bronx in New York to Abraham and Esther Levine Wouk. He enlisted in the Navy immediately after Pearl Harbor, entered midshipman's school and was posted as a radio officer to the USS Zane, a destroyer-minesweeper operating in the South Pacific.

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).

He told The New York Post in 1956 that his time in the Navy had been the greatest experience of his life. "In the Navy, I found out more than I ever had about people and about the United States," he said.

With The Caine Mutiny, 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.

The book, which sold more than 3 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.

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 2016, the year he turned 100, 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."

Wouk's wife, the former Betty Brown, who represented him after founding the BSW Literary Agency in 1979, died in 2011. His brother died in 2005. There was no immediate information on his survivors.

On the question of his reputation, 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."

Photo by AP
Herman Wouk

A Section on 05/18/2019

Print Headline: Prize-winning author Wouk dies


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