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Obituaries / Leo Janos, 1933 -- 2008

Author co-wrote Chuck Yeager's autobiography

January 13, 2008|Claire Noland | Times Staff Writer

Leo Janos, a former speechwriter for President Johnson whose ghostwriting talents were displayed in legendary test pilot Chuck Yeager's best-selling autobiography, has died. He was 74.

Janos died of cancer Friday at his home in Brentwood, his wife, Bonnie, said Saturday.

A longtime correspondent for Time magazine and a freelance nonfiction writer, Janos (pronounced Janice) sent his career into the stratosphere in 1985 with "Yeager: An Autobiography."

Co-written with the World War II ace fighter pilot who in 1947 became the first to break the sound barrier, the book sold more than a million copies in hardcover.

Janos' first response to his agent's pitch, he told a Times reporter in 1987, was, "Good God, that was 30 or 40 years ago. Why would I want to do a book about him?" But then, he said, he realized "people were hungry for a hero."

Critics praised the book's lively narrative and its structure, which interwove Yeager's voice with recollections of family, friends and colleagues. "The knit -- where Yeager stops talking and Janos starts writing -- is perfect," Paul Dean wrote in his review in The Times.

Yeager was also pleased with Janos' work, telling The Times, "The way he wrote it is exactly how I would have written it if I had the writing talent."

Janos caught Johnson's attention soon after he went to work for the U.S. Information Agency in 1965 as an editor for Ameryka magazine, a cultural exchange publication aimed at readers in the Soviet bloc.

Janos proposed an interview with the president and wrote a mock exchange with questions and suggested answers and submitted it to Bill Moyers, then Johnson's press secretary. Moyers liked it so much he told Janos to run it, but he didn't alert Johnson, Janos told an interviewer in 2004.

"Johnson just woke up one day in the center of glowing praise about his reaching out directly to Soviet citizens with warmth and understanding," Janos told his college alumni magazine.

"It made the front page of the New York Times and won him a glowing editorial, rare in those troubled days."

It was 1966, when Johnson was facing criticism for his handling of the Vietnam War as well as his domestic policies. When the president found out Janos had written the piece, he hired him as a speechwriter, a post he held until 1968.

For the next 10 years Janos was a correspondent for Time magazine, first in the Washington bureau and then in Houston, where he covered NASA and the Apollo space missions.

He moved to Los Angeles in 1973 and covered entertainment for Time.

Janos left Time in the late '70s and wrote profiles and other nonfiction pieces for magazines that included Atlantic Monthly, Cosmopolitan, Smithsonian and People.

He published his first book in 1983, recounting the true story of a drug-addled young man's murder of his mother and grandmother in "Crime of Passion."

Before the Yeager book was published, it was serialized in Playboy magazine, which led to Janos' next contract, a seven-figure deal with Bantam to help Hugh Hefner write his autobiography.

Janos spent three years interviewing the Playboy founder and sifting through his diaries and files, but the publisher finally gave up on the collaboration after many deadlines passed.

"I just ran out of gas," Janos told the Chicago Tribune in 1993. "It really wasn't that his life wasn't fascinating. God knows it was. But I just couldn't afford to stay on the project. . . . When you lose your enthusiasm, you're just typewriting."

Janos came back in 1994 with "Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed," written with Ben R. Rich, the former chief of the top-secret aviation design group based first in Burbank and then Palmdale. (Rich died in 1995, soon after the book was published.)

Leo Herbert Janos was born Feb. 3, 1933, and grew up in the Bronx. He earned a bachelor's degree in English at Park College in Parkville, Mo., where he met his wife. They married in 1955.

He served two years in the Army and later joined the Peace Corps as a public affairs officer.

"Leo was a great spirit, so much fun to be around," Jeff Cook, a friend and former Time colleague, said Saturday. "He was a great raconteur, a great writer."

The last story Janos was writing was his own, his wife said. He had been writing his memoirs but had not finished.

In addition to his wife of 52 years, Janos is survived by daughters Karen Tillman and Linda Haggerty, son Steven and two grandchildren. A celebration of his life is planned.

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claire.noland@latimes.com

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