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Obituaries

Frank Conroy, 69; Author, Director of Famed Iowa Writers' Workshop

April 08, 2005|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Frank Conroy, the author of the acclaimed coming-of-age memoir "Stop-Time" and the longtime director of the University of Iowa's prestigious Writers' Workshop, has died. He was 69.

Conroy died Wednesday of colon cancer at his home in Iowa City, university officials said.

A native of New York City, Conroy launched his literary career in 1967 with the publication of "Stop-Time." An unsentimental look at his painful yet instructive childhood, it was trumpeted in blurbs by Norman Mailer and William Styron and nominated for a National Book Award.

But the lavishly praised Conroy did not publish his next book -- the short-story collection "Midair" -- until 1985. In all, he published only five books, including "Body & Soul," a 1993 novel about the rise of a young piano prodigy.

Conroy primarily supported himself in the '70s and early '80s by playing jazz piano in clubs, writing magazine articles and teaching creative writing. He had spent five years as director of the literature program at the National Endowment for the Arts when he arrived in Iowa City in 1987.

He was only the fifth director of the university's Writers' Workshop, which was founded in 1936 and is the nation's oldest and most prestigious graduate program in writing.

The workshop boasts a long list of illustrious alumni that includes Raymond Carver, John Irving, Jane Smiley and Flannery O'Connor.

Conroy stepped down as director for health reasons in February after 18 years, having helped shape the work of writers such as ZZ Packer, Nathan Englander, Abraham Verghese and Elizabeth McCracken.

"He was extremely dedicated, efficient, and he had high standards," James Alan McPherson, acting co-director of the workshop, told The Times on Thursday.

As a writing teacher, Conroy earned a reputation as a "no-nonsense" curmudgeon who prompted some students to break into tears or stomp out of class during discussions of their work. One reportedly even fainted.

"They used the phrase 'tough love,' " said McPherson. "He was trying to inspire the students to do their best."

Roderick Crooks, a 31-year-old writing student from New York City, told The Times in February for a story on the search for Conroy's replacement: "I think everybody's sort of afraid to go in his workshop, just because he has the reputation of being so cantankerous and so tough. But if you come here, you definitely want to go see the guy.... You understand what you're signing up for."

For his part, Conroy told Associated Press last year: "I'm not as tough as the reputation says. I am someone who believes in not wasting time."

Marilynne Robinson, a Writers' Workshop teacher who won a Pulitzer this week for her novel "Gilead," on Thursday described Conroy as "a very personable, generous, intense man who really loved this little institution and was continuously attentive to everything about it."

Author T.C. Boyle, a Writers' Workshop alumnus from the 1970s and a longtime friend of Conroy's, told The Times that he promoted Conroy for the job of workshop director in 1987 "because I knew that he had a quality that would appeal to the students -- he was one of the coolest people I've ever known.

"He was completely dedicated to his two arts -- that is jazz and literature -- and he communicated that to the students."

Boyle said in his return trips to the Iowa campus, he found that Conroy was "great with the students."

"He would hang with them, shoot pool with them, drink with them, buck them up in every way and really demonstrate what it's like to live a life of literature," he said.

Conroy's father, who left his wife and two children, died when Conroy was 12. A heavy drinker who had been in and out of mental institutions, he left his young son a "wall of books" -- Dickens, Balzac, Conrad, Twain, Melville -- that young Conroy devoured.

"I know what I became without my father, but what would I have become without my father's library?" he wrote in his essay "Father."

A 1958 graduate of Haverford College in Pennsylvania, Conroy sold his first short story as a senior and attempted to write a novel.

For "Stop-Time," he spent five years looking inward at his unhappy childhood and adolescence.

In the wake of its literary success, Conroy contended with what he called a "very dark period": His mother died, his marriage fell apart, and he left New York City and moved to Nantucket, where he played jazz piano to subsidize his writing.

He wrote continuously, spending three years on a novel, "but I didn't think it was good enough, and I threw it away," he told Associated Press in 1993 in explaining the long lapse between his first and second books.

"When you're really worried about the rent and groceries, it gets kind of claustrophobic," he said.

Many of the pieces Conroy wrote for the New Yorker, Esquire, GQ, Harper's and Partisan Review were collected in the 2002 book "Dogs Bark, But the Caravan Rolls On."

His last book, "Time and Tide: A Walk Through Nantucket," a personal tour of the history and landscape of the island where he maintained a second home, was published last year.

He is survived by his second wife, Margaret; three sons, Daniel Hand, Will Christian and Timothy Peabody; a sister, Ellen Conroy Kennedy; a half-sister, India Trudeau; and four grandchildren.

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