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Prolific Author Robert Nathan Dies at Age 91

May 26, 1985|JAN KLUNDER | Times Staff Writer

Robert Nathan, a novelist who wrote more than 50 books of poetry and fiction in a career of nearly 60 years, died Saturday at his Hollywood home after a lengthy illness. He was 91.

Nathan's most famous book, "Portrait of Jennie," published in 1940, was made into a movie, as was "The Bishop's Wife," published in 1928. Other works included "Autumn," "One More Spring," "The Barly Fields," "Evening Song," "The Summer Meadows" and "The Elixir." His poems included the narrative "Dunkirk."

Author John D. Weaver described his friend Nathan as a "gentle writer of romantic fantasy" and called him the "last survivor . . . of the Fitzgerald-Hemingway era of the 1920s and '30s."

However, Nathan also displayed a certain "bitterness," Weaver said.

In an unpublished autobiography, Nathan wrote: "What I really want is to give comfort to people in this wilderness of death and trouble. And to myself, too. So, when I can, I take the poison and hate out of my books; but I hate, just the same.

"I hate violence, and tyranny, and vulgarity. . . . I hate despair and destruction, and the writers who insist that that is all there is, there isn't anything else."

Weaver said that the sharp-witted Nathan had worked on his autobiography periodically, but abandoned the effort several years ago because of his faulty memory.

"He said once that he would go to all these parties, see all the famous people, like F. Scott Fitzgerald, and he didn't remember what people said to him, except, 'hello,' and "which way to the bathroom,' " Weaver recalled.

Nathan was born in New York City on Jan. 2, 1894, and was educated at Harvard, where he began writing stories and poems. His first work, "Peter Kindred," was published in 1919. After living for several years in Cape Cod, Mass., Nathan moved to Los Angeles in the early 1940s.

"Robert used to say that when he moved to Hollywood he thought his career as an author was over," his wife, actress Anna Lee, said. "He didn't think authors could live in Hollywood."

But he continued to write until 1975, when his last book, "Heaven and Hell and the Megas Factor," was published.

In a 1982 interview with The Times, Nathan said he had stopped writing because of failing health and his disappointment with the world.

"The world changed completely after World War II," Nathan said. "Things that were important to us, the values that we lived by, the American dream, the family, our ideas of beauty, love and harmonious life have completely changed.

"My generation has vanished. The world I knew doesn't exist anymore."

Nathan also complained in his waning years about the mercenary nature of modern-day publishing, likening booksellers to grocers.

"Books are marketed like every other produce," he said. "They're on the shelves and if they are not sold, they are taken off the shelves. There is no market today among publishers just for its literary value."

Weaver said Nathan was the only writer in Southern California who was a member of both the Academy of American Poets and the National Institute of Arts and Letters.

In 1973, he was honored by the Los Angeles Library Assn., which hosted a writers' luncheon at the Century Plaza.

In addition to his seventh wife, who plays Lila Quartermaine on the television soap opera "General Hospital," Nathan is survived by a daughter, Joan Bergstrom of Florida; two nephews and a niece.

In "The Summer Meadows," Nathan wrote: "I have a most marvelous sense of self. Where it comes from, I do not know; my hope is that when I die, that sense of self will not disappear, but that I shall take it with me, and I want it to be filled with joy and love; for that is the greatest gift of all."

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