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Leon Uris, 78; Novelist Wrote 'Exodus' and Other Bestsellers

June 25, 2003|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

Leon Uris, a high school dropout who found huge commercial success as the author of panoramic novels that made history his main character, died Saturday of congestive heart failure at his home on New York's Shelter Island. He was 78.

His first blockbuster and best-known work was the 1958 novel "Exodus," which told the story of the birth of the modern nation of Israel. It was translated into more than two dozen languages and was made into a 1960 movie starring Paul Newman.

Uris returned to Jewish history for the backdrop of other novels, including "Mila 18" (1961), "The Haj" (1984) and "Mitla Pass" (1988). The tribulations of modern Ireland inspired "Trinity," a bestseller in 1976, and "The Redemption," which was published in 1995.

His books have sold more than 150 million copies in 29 countries, according to his publisher, HarperCollins. It is releasing his last novel, "O'Hara's Choice," in October to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the publication of Uris' first novel, "Battle Cry."

Critics frequently faulted Uris for pulpy writing and characters who lacked originality and depth. But they also acknowledged that such deficiencies were rendered irrelevant by the page-turning power of his best works.

"It is a simple thing to point out that Uris often writes crudely, that his dialogue can be wooden, that his structure occasionally groans under the excess baggage of exposition and information," Pete Hamill, reviewing "Exodus," wrote in the New York Times Book Review. "None of that matters as you are swept along in the narrative. Uris is certainly not as good a writer as Pynchon or Barthelme or Nabokov; but he is a better storyteller."

Uris was born in Baltimore on Aug. 3, 1924. He had a poor relationship with his father, a left-leaning, Polish Jewish immigrant who rarely had a word of praise for his son.

He found solace in books and at age 6 wrote an operetta inspired by the death of his dog. But in high school he failed English three times and never graduated. He took some classes at Baltimore City College from 1938 to 1941 but recalled during a return visit decades later that he was its "most unnoteworthy student."

He joined the Marines a month after the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor and fought at Guadalcanal and Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands. After contracting malaria, he was sent to recuperate in San Francisco, where he fell in love with Betty Beck, a sergeant in the Women's Reserves. They were married in 1945 and had three children together. (He and Beck divorced in 1968. Later that year, Uris married Margery Edwards, but the marriage ended with Edwards' suicide five months later.)

Uris' wartime experiences provided the foundation for his first novel, "Battle Cry," which was published in 1953. Praised as an intimate and accurate portrayal of the Marines, it was well-received by critics and readers. Uris was hired to adapt the novel for the screen, the first of several screenplays he would write over the next decades.

In his second novel, "The Angry Hills," Uris focused on the Middle East and the history of Israel. Published in 1955, it was loosely based on a diary kept by an uncle who was a member of the volunteer Palestinian Brigade.

After a brief detour to write the screenplay for the 1957 Western "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral," Uris moved to Israel to research his next novel. He spent more than two years reading about 300 books and traveling 12,000 miles inside Israel to visit Arab and Jewish towns, frontier farms and communal settlements. He was present at the outbreak of the Sinai War of 1956 and wrote articles about the Arab-Israeli fighting.

He returned to America with the fodder for "Exodus": 1,200 interviews and 1,000 pages of notes. It took him five months to write the 626-page novel; at the time it was the biggest bestseller in the United States since "Gone With the Wind" in 1936.

In 1958, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion said Uris' sweeping novel was "the greatest thing ever written about Israel." Tourism to Israel soared over the next few years.

Uris portrayed the Zionist state in such glowing terms that some critics said "Exodus" verged dangerously on propaganda. "Few readers are expert enough to be 100% certain where Mr. Uris' imagination has taken over the record," a critic wrote in the Christian Science Monitor.

Many reviewers, however, were as complimentary as Robert Kirsch of the Los Angeles Times, who wrote that Uris managed to capture "the drama, conflict and excitement of the recent history of Israel in what is probably the best novel of Jewish theme since John Hersey's 'The Wall.' " Kirsch noted that Uris was not as skillful a writer as Hersey, "but he possesses a power and commitment to his material which transcends the niceties of craft. In this he seems to belong to the tradition of Dreiser, in which content is much more important than form."

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