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William F. Dufty, 86; Wrote 'Lady Sings the Blues' and 'Sugar Blues'

July 04, 2002|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

William F. Dufty, who told Billie Holiday's life story in "Lady Sings the Blues," helped popularize macrobiotics in America, wrote "Sugar Blues" about the evils of processed sugar, and became the sixth and final husband of sugar-eschewing actress Gloria Swanson, has died. He was 86.

Dufty died Friday of natural causes at his home in Birmingham, Mich., said his literary executor, Timothy Rooks.

A friend of both women for many years, Dufty dedicated "Sugar Blues" to "Billie Holiday, whose death changed my life, and Gloria Swanson, whose life changed my death."

Dufty published the Holiday book in 1956, and at her death in 1959 wrote a remarkable 3,000-word obituary, a personal essay, that appeared on the front page of the New York Post, where he spent 1951-60 as assistant to the editor. Rooks said the essay sold a record number of issues for the newspaper.

Swanson, who had advocated a sugar-free diet for many years, met Dufty in the mid-1950s and inspired him to re-educate his sweet tooth.

After eliminating sugar, Dufty went from 225 pounds to 142 pounds. In 1976 he published "Sugar Blues" and married Swanson, 16 years his senior.

Dufty remained devoted to Swanson until her death in 1984, serving as cook, advisor, muse and the ghostwriter of her 1981 autobiography, "Swanson on Swanson."

Born the son of a banker near Grand Rapids, Mich., Dufty learned to play piano by ear and as a child had his own radio show. He attended Wayne State University but dropped out to become an organizer and then speech writer for the United Auto Workers.

He spent four years in the Army during World War II, rising to the rank of sergeant and serving in North Africa, France, Germany and Austria.

After the war, Dufty worked as an editor for the Congress of Industrial Organizations and Americans for Democratic Action and as a consultant to the American Jewish Committee and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in New York.

He also began selling freelance articles to the Post and then worked as an editor through the 1950s, earning a George Polk Award and a Page One Award from the Newspaper Guild for investigative articles on such issues as police and court treatment of drug users and minorities, particularly Puerto Ricans.

His writing occasionally attracted brickbats as well, notably for the Holiday book, which was turned into a 1972 motion picture starring Diana Ross.

Bob Blumenthal, in a 1994 Chicago Tribune review of another book on Holiday by Donald Clarke, said Dufty's book "was filled with factual errors and romanticized glosses."

Yet Blumenthal praised Dufty's style over the other author's, stating: " 'Lady Sings the Blues' conveys a stylistic pungence that Clarke cannot even conceive. It contains, to cite a most obvious example, one of the great opening paragraphs in literature: 'Mom and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married. He was 18, she was 16, and I was three.' "

Holiday's parents were actually 18 and 16 when she was born and they never married, the review noted.

Dufty also helped Edward G. Robinson Jr. write his 1957 book, "My Father, My Son."

The writer embraced macrobiotics when he met George Ohsawa in Paris. Dufty soon began touting the discipline's "conscious concern of the relation between food and spiritual development"--for example, linking consumption of brown rice and vegetables with meditation--in the United States.

In 1965 he published a translation of several of Ohsawa's books under the title "You Are All Sanpaku," which became a cult favorite.

"After rediscovering the hard way, through pain and suffering, that illness can be the doorway to health," Dufty once wrote, "I hope to encourage rediscovery in the West of the ancient Eastern principles underlying the relation between food and spiritual development, with a primary emphasis on embryological education."

In recent years, Dufty returned to his native Michigan, where he wrote articles for magazines and lectured at Wayne State.

Before his marriage to Swanson, Dufty married and divorced Maely Bartholomew, the mother of his only child, Bevan Doyle Dufty. His son survives.

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