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Obituaries

John Sanford, 98; Acclaimed Author Who Blended Genres

March 08, 2003|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

John Sanford, a prolific but neglected writer who was blacklisted in the 1950s and produced unconventional works that blended the lines between history, fiction and autobiography, has died. He was 98.

The author of 24 published books who was often compared to William Carlos Williams and John Dos Passos, Sanford died of an aortic aneurysm Thursday at a hospital near his home in Montecito, said his grandnephew, Jerry Gustafson.

Sanford was perhaps best known for "A More Goodly Country," which was published in 1975. One in a series of unique historical works, it earned critical acclaim as a literary and profoundly personal examination of American experience, beginning with early encounters of the continent by Leif Ericson.

A Communist for most of his long life who never renounced his party membership despite a decade on the blacklist, Sanford wrote unforgivingly about dark passages in American history, such as slavery and the execution of anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti in 1927.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 12, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 ..CF: Y 0 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
John Sanford photo -- In Saturday's California section, a photograph of author John Sanford that ran with his obituary should have been credited to Jerry Fredrick.

A stubbornly principled man, he would not soften his views in exchange for commercial success. Unruly in his refusals to moderate or bend, he stubbed out publishers like cigarettes. None of his books made money.

Yet he continued to write daily even as he approached his 99th birthday, stopping only a month ago when his vision finally failed him.

His constant subject over the last decade was his beloved wife, screenwriter Marguerite Roberts, who died in 1989. His last book about her, "A Palace of Silver," published by Capra Press in January, earned him a measure of attention that had mostly eluded him during a seven-decade career.

"He was a consummate writer [who] was never willing to make any kind of U-turn or concession toward greater commercial success. At heart he felt that was a virtue," said Richard Barre, associate publisher at Capra.

Sanford was born Julian Lawrence Shapiro on May 31, 1904, in the Harlem section of New York City. A descendant of Russian immigrants, he was trained as a lawyer with the intention of practicing alongside his father, Philip. What altered the course of his life -- and eventually led to his changing his name -- was an encounter with a childhood friend, writer Nathanael West.

He was in his last year of law school at Fordham University when he ran into West on a New Jersey golf course in 1927. Feeling proud of his law studies, "I felt I had the edge," he said, when his old friend asked what he was up to. When Sanford asked the same of West, he received an answer that sundered his world.

"Quite casually, as if he were merely buffing his nails, [West] said, 'I'm writing a book.' He floored me -- writing a book!" Sanford recalled in a 1986 interview in Contemporary Authors. "Right there on that golf course, the law dwindled to nothing despite the fact that I came from a family of lawyers. I knew nothing at all about writing, but I did know that I meant to be a writer ... "

Within a few years of renouncing the law practice for which he had been groomed, he had stories published in Paris literary journals. In 1933 his first novel, "The Water Wheel," appeared.

In 1936, Paramount invited him to Hollywood and signed him to a six-month contract. He met Roberts there and married her in 1938, launching an extraordinarily devoted partnership that would endure for 50 years.

After she and Sanford collaborated on "Honky Tonk," a 1941 romantic Western that starred Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and Lana Turner, he was offered a screenwriting contract by MGM, which already employed his wife. But Roberts was against his signing it.

"She said, 'If you sign that contract you're never going to write another book. I can support us,' " said Jack Mearns, Sanford's literary executor.

Sanford took her advice and went home to spend the rest of his life writing. In response to the anti-Semitism of the times, he gave up his given name for Sanford, at the urging of his friend West, and wrote more novels. Roberts became one of the most highly paid screenwriters in the business, churning out hits for stars such as Robert Mitchum, Robert Taylor, Katharine Hepburn, Gable and Turner.

She joined the Communist Party because he was a member and she wanted to be with him when he went to meetings. He did not object at the time, but deeply regretted it later.

"She went to maybe four meetings in her life, I mean real meetings," Sanford told author Griffin Fariello in the 1995 book "Red Scare."

In 1951, they were subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee but refused to cooperate by naming names of other communists in Hollywood. They spent the next decade in internal exile, barred from foreign travel because their passports had been canceled. No one would hire Roberts, and because she could not write, neither could Sanford.

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