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Irving Stone Dies at Age 86; Best-Selling 'Biohistorian'

August 28, 1989|MYRNA OLIVER | Times Staff Writer

Irving Stone, a master of the biographical novel who spun narratives around the lives of such diverse historical figures as Mary Todd Lincoln and Michelangelo, has died in Los Angeles at the age of 86.

The prolific author of more than 25 books, including "Lust for Life" and "The Agony and the Ecstasy," died at 11:20 p.m. Saturday at Cedars-Sinai Hospital, where his family said he had been receiving treatment for cancer since July 24.

Paula Correia, a hospital official, said that death was attributed to cardiopulmonary arrest.

Stone remained an active writer almost to the end. At the time of his death he was close to finishing a new book, his wife, Jean, who worked with him editing his books, said Sunday.

"He left enough material to be edited and to finish it," she said, declining to specify the subject. "It's a biographical novel, and he figured that it would be ready by the fall of next year."

With "Lust for Life," Stone's 1934 epic of artist Vincent van Gogh, the graduate of Los Angeles' Manual Arts High School virtually created a new art form, which he sometimes called "biohistory: the telling of history in terms of the human beings who lived it."

Stone took on complex characters who intrigued him--Mary Todd Lincoln in "Love Is Eternal," published in 1954; Michelangelo in "The Agony and the Ecstasy," 1961; Sigmund Freud in "The Passions of the Mind," 1971, and Charles Darwin in "The Origin," 1980--and approached his subjects as a detective, searching for facts that would provide insight into their lives.

He identified with his characters so intensely that he seemed almost to become the character. On the 40th anniversary of Van Gogh's death, Stone lay on the bed in the room where the artist had died at 1:20 a.m. He related later that he became more and more faint "until finally at 1:19 I threw off the covers, dashed to the back window, stuck my head out and took in deep lungsful of the night air."

"His work was absolutely authentic," his wife said. "Nobody can touch his research. He was willing to put two or three years into it. Most authors don't want to put that much time into research. They want to get on to the fun work of writing. But he loved the research."

She said her husband wanted to be remembered "as an author who brought to enormous numbers of people an understanding of men or women whom they would not ordinarily have understood. He would have wanted to complete a tolerance for people who want to do things that are not completely traditional."

Although some literary experts have belittled the biographical novel as neither good biography nor good fiction, Stone saw nobility in the genre, as he once explained in a UCLA lecture:

"The biographical novel is a true and documented story of one human being's journey across the face of the years, transmuted from the raw material of life into the delight and purity of an authentic art form.

"It is based on the conviction that the best of all plots lie in human character and that human character is endlessly colorful and revealing. The biographical novel sets out to document this truth, for character is plot, character development is action, and character fulfillment is resolution."

Pure Biographies

Stone also wrote pure biography, including "Sailor on Horseback; a Biography of Jack London," about one of his early literary idols, in 1938, and "Clarence Darrow for the Defense," published in 1941. Those stories, he once said in an interview, were "so unusual and dramatic" that he feared that writing them in novel form would make readers think they were fiction.

But the pragmatic Stone also wanted to write books that would sell.

"I know from experience that biographies have a limited audience," he once told the New York Times. "We have thousands of readers who love (the biographical novel) and are thrilled by it, who'd never get near a conventional biography."

Even critics who scorned biographical novels agreed, like Alan R. Shucard, who wrote for "Contemporary Novelists" in 1982: "The history he spoon-feeds is far more palatable and interesting than popcorn, and it is no wonder that an enormous public should devour it."

Later, Stone developed a talent for selling his stories to movie producers as well.

Irving Stone was born in San Francisco on July 14, 1903, to Charles Tennenbaum and Pauline Rosenberg Tennenbaum. His parents divorced when he was 7, and when his mother remarried, he took his stepfather's surname.

Stone began writing short stories at the age of 9 and at 10 discovered the motivating work for his literary career: Jack London's largely autobiographical novel about a self-made writer, "Martin Eden."

Impact of 'Martin Eden'

"What 'Martin Eden' convinced me of was not that I wanted to become a book author, but that it was entirely possible," Stone told an interviewer in 1980. "If Jack London could be a world-accepted author, so could I. I started with considerably more advantages than Jack did."

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