Leon Uris (1924-2003) was a master of historical fiction, writing the kinds of epic, fact-filled novels that readers couldn't put down - even if critics weren't always impressed (and even if the facts weren't always, er, factual).
His books - most notably Exodus and Trinity - sold millions, settling in for outrageously long stints on bestseller lists and making the American author a celebrity novelist at a time when such a thing barely existed. Long before late night talk show hosts regularly interviewed authors, Uris broke ground as a guest on The Ed Sullivan Show.
In his new book Leon Uris: Life of a Best Seller, Vancouver biographer Ira B. Nadel reveals much about the novels - and the womanizing, thrill-seeking, fact-collecting high-school dropout (Uris failed English three times) behind them.
Like many of his generation, Nadel grew up with Uris's novels in his home, and he devoured them before maturing into more high-minded literature. "You did not study the books of Leon Uris," Nadel says. "But you learned a great deal from them."
Battle Cry (1953)
Under the command of Major Sam Huxley, a ragtag group of Marines enters the Second World War's Pacific campaign, beginning at boot camp, climaxing with a bloody battle at Saipan, and ending with a newspaper account of the U.S. victory at Iwo Jima.
Originally to be called The Beachhead, Uris's first novel (and later his first screenplay) was based almost entirely on his experiences as a Marine during the Second World War. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the 17-year-old Uris enlisted, his mother signing the papers that allowed her underage son to go to war. He served in Guadalcanal and Tarawa before being sent home with malaria and dengue fever.
While working full time as a circulation manager for a San Francisco newspaper, Uris began to write the book. He displayed an extraordinary work ethic, writing 4,000 words every night after work - 8,000 to 9,000 on his days off. After three years he had his book: 2,200 pages, which the publisher ordered him to cut substantially. Putnam was so confident about the book, it offered readers a money-back guarantee if they weren't satisfied. The book spent 52 weeks on the bestseller lists, and in a national poll of book critics for the best novel of 1953, Battle Cry came second, losing to Alan Paton's Too Late the Phalarope but beating Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March.
The novel tells the story of the founding of the state of Israel. Following the Holocaust, Jewish refugees imprisoned at a British detention camp in Cyprus are secretly sent by boat (on a ship called Exodus) to Palestine, thanks to the clever and daring work of freedom fighter Ari Ben Canaan (played by Paul Newman in the 1960 film). With this story, Uris was anxious to change the perception of his people as victims. "We Jews are not what we have been portrayed to be," he told the New York Post. "In truth, we have been fighters."
Uris spent eight months researching and writing in Israel while tensions were heating up in the Sinai. "The potential of something happening was really, really great," Nadel says. The Suez crisis erupted, and Uris had to send his wife and three young children home in a middle-of-the-night American airlift. Unable to write, Uris followed a week later.
The impact of Exodus exceeded Uris's wildest dreams. The book sold millions. Two years later, the film set box-office records and was nominated for three Academy Awards (it won for best score). But there was more. In the Soviet Union, the novel became an underground bible of sorts for Jewish refuseniks who dreamed of escaping to Israel. And Israel's tourism industry benefited dramatically, with North American Jews flocking to the country in droves. Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion said: "As a literary work it isn't much. But as a piece of propaganda it's the greatest thing ever written about Israel."
Mila 18 (1961)
From a bunker at the address of Mila 18, a group of Jewish resistance fighters takes on the Nazis in the final days of the Warsaw Ghetto. A reporter from the West, Christopher de Monti, befriends both the Nazi villains and the starving, ghetto-imprisoned Jews, but ultimately sides with the Jews. As the ghetto is destroyed and the final liquidation is under way, de Monti escapes to tell the world the horrific story.
Uris had a personal connection to this story through his father, William Uris (originally Wolf Yerusalimsky), who had lived in Warsaw and whose parents were murdered in Treblinka, the camp where the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto were sent to be gassed.
Leon travelled to Warsaw in 1959 to research the 1943 uprising and the ghetto itself, but didn't get far. Finding it difficult even to get permission to see the ghetto remains, he left after about a week. "It was extraordinarily difficult and challenging," Nadel says.
Uris found what he needed at the Ghetto Fighters' Kibbutz in Israel, where he met the couple who had led the 42-day ghetto revolt. Uris dedicated Mila 18 to them, and to another Warsaw Ghetto fighter who took great pains to document the atrocities and hide the evidence underground. (To this day, some of that documentation has not been recovered.)
The impact of this book even affected the lexicon. The title Mila 18 became so well known, a young Joseph Heller was forced to rename his first novel Catch-22, from Catch-18.
The political and religious issues fuelling the Troubles are laid out in the intertwining stories of three Irish families, Catholic and Protestant, in the North and in the Republic, stretching from the 1880s to 1915, a year before the Easter Rising at the General Post Office in Dublin. At the centre of it is Conor Larkin, a County Donegal farmer turned freedom fighter.
For once, Uris wrote on a topic with which his own history was not connected - at least it wasn't until he began researching the book. He and his third wife, Jill, spent nine months travelling through Ireland and Northern Ireland. They arrived at a volatile time: a few months after Bloody Sunday, when 14 unarmed men were shot dead after a civil rights march in Derry.
Threats were all around them: There were shootings, curfews and bombs. In Belfast, their hotel was evacuated when a car bomb was found half a block away.
"He and Jill were definitely exposed to danger," Nadel says. "But he had to experience these things before he could write about them. That's partly why Uris has been such a successful novelist. He conveys that authenticity that 'I was there.' And he was."
Success? Trinity spent 100 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list.
Ira B. Nadel will speak (along with The Globe and Mail's Kate Taylor, author of A Man in Uniform) at the Jewish Book Festival in Vancouver on Wednesday (jewishbookfestival.ca).