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OBITUARIES

Jan de Hartog, 88; Novelist, Award-Winning Playwright

September 26, 2002|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jan de Hartog, Dutch writer of half a dozen plays including the Tony-winning "The Fourposter" and nearly two dozen novels based primarily on his own adventurous life, has died. He was 88.

De Hartog died Sunday of causes associated with aging in Houston, his home for many years.

A former sea captain and a resistance fighter who escaped from the Nazis during World War II, De Hartog was probably best known in the U.S. for the 1951 Broadway hit "The Fourposter," about a couple during several phases of marriage. Starring the real married couple Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn, the initial production earned a Tony for best play and ran for 632 performances.

It was made into a motion picture in 1952 starring Rex Harrison and Lilli Palmer and became a popular comedy. The marital saga was re-created on Broadway in 1966 as a Tom Jones-Harvey Schmidt musical called "I Do! I Do!" starring Mary Martin and Robert Preston.

De Hartog's plays have been performed in 23 languages and his novels and nonfiction books have been translated into 17.

Unlike many of his books, De Hartog apparently did not base "The Fourposter" on his own life. He wrote the play while hiding out from Nazis in 1942--posing as an old lady in a senior citizens' home in Amsterdam.

Under a death sentence, De Hartog was wanted for writing what was probably his best-known and best-loved work in his native country--"Holland's Glory." Published in 1940, the book was based on his experiences working on oceangoing tugboats. It became a symbol of the Dutch Resistance movement and sold 500,000 copies in the Netherlands, prompting the Nazis to ban it and charge De Hartog with exciting "national passions."

For the rest of his life, the author once said, Dutch readers would say of whatever was his latest novel, "It's very nice, mijnheer, but it's not 'Holland's Glory.' "

Born in Haarlem, Netherlands, the minister's son who became a devout Quaker ran off to sea at 10. His father retrieved him, but he left again and worked as cabin boy on fishing boats, ocean steamers and tugboats. He briefly attended the Netherlands Naval College and continued to work as a sailor and captain as he began his writing career.

Under the pseudonym F.R. Eckmar, De Hartog wrote several detective novels in the 1930s and for five years was an actor and playwright for the Amsterdam Municipal Theater.

After escaping to England during the war, he joined the Dutch merchant marine as a correspondent from 1943 to 1945. Years later, in collaboration with his third and surviving wife, Marjorie Mein, he wrote the book "Escape," about his flight through occupied Europe.

De Hartog did not switch to writing in English until his 1951 novel "The Lost Sea," about a Dutch boy who runs away to sea.

Always a sailor at heart, De Hartog converted a 90-foot barge into a houseboat and lived on it for some years. During severe flooding in Holland in 1953, he and his family turned the houseboat into a floating hospital. He described the experience in his book "The Little Ark," which was made into a movie in 1972 starring Theodore Bikel.

Other De Hartog books turned into films included "The Spiral Road," starring Rock Hudson and Burl Ives in 1962; "The Key," starring William Holden and Sophia Loren in 1958, based on his novel "Stella," and "Lisa," starring Stephen Boyd and Dolores Hart in 1962, based on his novel "The Inspector."

De Hartog told his own story and also achieved his social goals with such works as "The Children: A Personal Record for the Use of Adoptive Parents" about adopting two Korean girls, and, more notably, with his nonfiction book "The Hospital."

That book about deplorable overcrowding and understaffing at a Houston charity hospital stemmed from the volunteer experience of De Hartog and his wife when they moved to Texas in 1962 while he taught playwriting at the University of Houston. When the book was released, it drew more than 400 volunteers to the Houston hospital.

Other books, all written with strong socially conscious overtones, include "Distant Shore," "A Sailor's Life," "The Captain," "Peaceable Kingdom," "The Trail of the Serpent," "Star of Peace" and "The Centurion."

In 1986, De Hartog donated a complete collection of his books and manuscripts to the Whittier College Wardman Library. That fall he delivered a series of Whittier campus lectures on "The Three Crises in Quaker History."

In addition to his wife of 41 years, Marjorie, he is survived by two children from each of his three marriages: Sylvia and Arnold de Hartog of Holland; Catherine Dennison and Nicholas de Hartog of England; and Eva Kim Kovach of Brookline, Mass., and Julia Kim Sailler of Ferndale, Mich.

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