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Daphne du Maurier, Author of 'Rebecca' and 'The Birds,' Dies

April 20, 1989|BURT A. FOLKART | Times Staff Writer

Dame Daphne du Maurier, who once remarked, "I can't say I really like people, perhaps that's why I always preferred to create my own," died Wednesday.

Monty Baker-Munton, a family friend, said he did not know the cause of death of one of this era's most popular novelists. "For the last fortnight (two weeks) she'd just been in a gentle decline," he said of the author of "Rebecca" and other celebrated tales.

Dame Daphne, who also wrote such popular classics as "Frenchman's Creek" and "The Birds," died in her sleep at her home in the village of Par, in Cornwall, southwest England, he told the Associated Press. She was 81.

She had moved to that home--a place called Kilmarth--years ago from Menabilly, the legendary old graystone mansion she had immortalized as Manderley in "Rebecca."

That home, gutted by Oliver Cromwell's troops during England's civil war in the 1600s, typified the historic and adventurous splendor of Miss Du Maurier's writing .

And the opening words of the gothic "Rebecca" ("Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again") became one of the best-loved phrases in modern English literature.

Through the 29 novels and dozens of short stories she penned in her lifetime ran the melded threads of romance and intrigue.

Taking note of some minor shortcomings he found in "Rebecca," critic V. S. Pritchett still offered this paean to her talent: "Many a better novelist would give his eyes to be able to tell a story as Miss Du Maurier does, to make it move at such a pace and to go with such mastery from surprise to surprise. . . . The melodrama is excellent."

In an art form often distinguished by economic perfidy, Miss Du Maurier, who in 1969 was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire by the queen, had been a success since publication of her first novel in 1931--"The Loving Spirit."

"Rebecca" alone ran to 42 printings with the last edition in 1980. Her books sold well into the millions but a spokesman for one of her three publishers said he didn't have specific figures.

Several of her works have been adapted for film and television. "Rebecca," in which Joan Fontaine played the naive second wife of Sir Laurence Olivier, a widower with a funereal secret who is haunted by the image of his glamorous first wife, won an Academy Award as best picture in 1940.

(The book itself has been described as "a Charlotte Bronte story minus Charlotte Bronte.")

Alfred Hitchcock directed "Jamaica Inn," a Cornish tale of an orphan entwined with smugglers in 1939. Hitchcock also did "The Birds" in 1963, a stark tale of flocks of birds making wanton attacks on humans.

"Frenchman's Creek," a period romance starring Fontaine and Arturo de Cordova, was a box-office success in 1944, while "My Cousin Rachel" and "The Scapegoat" also proved well-accepted films.

Miss Du Maurier for most of her life fought an unsuccessful battle to keep her from being branded a Grand Dame of romance. She chose to call her writings "suspense adventures."

But a fairy-tale, real-life romance had sprung from her first book, contributing to that dilemma and eventually bringing her a husband and three children.

Miss Du Maurier was one of three daughters of the renowned actor Sir Gerald du Maurier. She would one day write his biography.

She had been educated by private tutors in Paris and at age 21 published her first articles and short stories. To encourage her, her publisher told her: "Write a novel." Thus evolved "The Loving Spirit" in 1931, a tale of the lives of a boat-building family she had seen in a small English seacoast town.

The novel captivated a young British army major and led to a storied courtship.

Quick Courtship

The officer, Frederick A. M. Browning, resolved to meet the author. They met in 1932, married a few months later, and in the same year she published her second novel, "I'll Never Be Young Again." She was just 25.

"It was rather woman's magaziny," she later remarked.

Regardless, she became both a prolific writer and dedicated mother. As the novels, histories, biographies and plays developed, so did the children. She said the twin career was not that difficult.

"I was always at home and that made things easier. I made a point of keeping some time free after the children's tea to read aloud to them."

She told a long-ago interviewer that her favorite hideaway at Menabilly was a gardener's hut, where, she said, "I'd sit for hours on end, chain-smoking, chewing mints and tapping away at my typewriter."

Browning became commander of British airborne forces in World War II and then treasurer to Prince Philip, husband of Queen Elizabeth II.

After he died in 1965, she lived alone at Menabilly with her two Yorkshire terriers. She finally was forced to leave when its owner returned and she moved to Par.

In 1971 she published "Not After Midnight," a collection of five novellas containing her special mix of romance and the eerie.

In 1981 she completed her autobiography, "Growing Pains."

She admitted that she never was "so much interested in people as in types--types who represent great forces of good or evil. I don't care very much whether John Smith likes Mary Robinson, goes to bed with Jane Brown and then refuses to pay the hotel bill.

"But I am passionately interested in human cruelty, human lust and human avarice, and--of course--their counterparts in the scale of virtue."

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