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Larry Collins, 75; Bestselling Coauthor of Books Blending History and Suspense

June 21, 2005|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Larry Collins, the journalist and coauthor of "Is Paris Burning?" which laid bare a startling plot by Adolf Hitler to raze the City of Light if Allies recaptured it in World War II, has died. He was 75.

Collins died Monday of a cerebral hemorrhage in Frejus, France, according to his coauthor and neighbor Dominique Lapierre. An expatriate American, Collins lived in nearby Ramateulle on the French Riviera.

The two wrote novels and nonfiction works of popular history over four decades. After their initial 1964 blockbuster about the Nazi occupation of the French capital, they described Israel's quest for independence in "O Jerusalem!" in 1972 and independence for India in "Freedom at Midnight" in 1975, followed by "Mountbatten and the Partition of India" in 1982.

Their novels showed the same meticulous research and historical accuracy as their nonfiction works. First came "The Fifth Horseman" in 1980, which imagines Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi placing a hydrogen bomb in New York City to enforce his demands. After several years of writing separately, they collaborated on a final novel, "Is New York Burning?" in 2004, plotted around a post-Sept. 11 nuclear attack by Osama bin Laden on New York.

Collins' solo fiction thrillers included "Fall From Grace" in 1985, based on World War II counterintelligence to mislead Nazis about where Allied troops would invade France; "Maze" in 1989, about psychic mind control as a Cold War tactic used by the Soviet Union; "Black Eagles" in 1995, about the cocaine trade in black America; and "Road to Armageddon" in 2003, which plotted what Iran might do with a nuclear bomb.

The coauthors of half a dozen bestsellers met in 1954, when Collins was in the U.S. Army and Lapierre was in the French military, both based at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe outside Paris.

Collins said the idea for their first book came from a London newspaper item he happened to see in 1962 about Hitler's obsession with obliterating Paris.

"Before then, hardly anyone knew of the threat Paris had faced and how narrowly it escaped," he told Associated Press last year. "When we started researching, we found an elaborate plot."

Using vivid vignettes from Nazi and Allied headquarters as well as the French Underground, the authors related the final days of Nazi dominance over Paris before American troops liberated the city Aug. 25, 1944. The writers spelled out the fortuitous reluctance -- encouraged by Swedish Consul Raoul Nordling -- of German Gen. Dietrich von Choltitz to carry out Hitler's order to raze the city if the Nazis lost control of it. That hesitation helped save Paris.

In reviewing the book when it was published, then-Times book editor Robert R. Kirsch noted: "It has every sort of suspense, from the rising of the underground to the race of Allied forces to reach the city before Hitler's order to destroy it could be carried out; hundreds of specific experiences and anecdotes give this work a combination of journalistic witness and the perspective of history." "Is Paris Burning?" was made into a motion picture in 1966. It was directed by Rene Clement and starred a French and American cast, including Jean-Paul Belmondo, Charles Boyer, Leslie Caron, Alain Delon, Kirk Douglas, Glenn Ford and Orson Welles as Nordling. Francis Ford Coppola and Gore Vidal wrote the screenplay.

With the book's international success, Collins and Lapierre quit their jobs as journalists and began work on their second book, a biography of celebrated Spanish bullfighter El Cordobes, "Or I'll Dress You in Mourning," published in 1968.

From the beginning, they established a bestselling pattern, which Newsweek once described as "exhaustive research filtered through a breathless narrative to achieve the feeling of you-were-there."

They spent a year or two in research in the countries they wrote about, created a detailed outline, then each wrote sections in longhand in his own language. They translated each other's work, and by the time a manuscript was finished, it could be published simultaneously in English and French.

Although they worked separately for more than two decades, little had changed when they reunited to write "Is New York Burning?" They spent two years interviewing scores of people and perusing documents in the U.S., Israel, Europe, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India before plotting and writing the novel about Bin Laden placing a nuclear bomb in New York to force the White House to arrange the ouster of Israelis from all Arab lands.

"If Lapierre and Collins have got their facts right, it's time Americans started trickling out of New York. Better still, out of their country," Esha Bhattacharjee wrote in her review for India's newspaper the Statesman.

Born Sept. 14, 1929, in West Hartford, Conn., John Lawrence Collins Jr. earned a degree in economics at Yale.

After his Army service, Collins remained in Europe, working as a correspondent for United Press International in Paris, Rome, Cairo and Beirut from 1956 until he joined Newsweek in 1959.

He served as the magazine's Paris bureau chief from 1961 to 1964 before becoming a full-time author.

Collins married Nadia Hoda Sultan in 1966 and they had two sons, John Lawrence III and Michael. Information on survivors was not immediately available.

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