Herman Wouk: Writer With a Big W

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Herman Wouk in Jerusalem in 1987. Photo by David Kennerly.

Back in the 1950s, television was loaded with live quiz shows on the major networks, among them something called “What’s My Line,” in which a panel of celebrities and media types were asked to guess the occupation of a mystery guest.

In an October 1955 episode of the show — which featured John Daly as the host and panelists like Dorothy Kilgallen, Fred Allen, Steve Allen, Bennett Cerf and Arlene Francis —Herman Wouk was the mystery guest. He identified his occupation by scrawling “author” on a big blackboard.

He could have written variations of the same — writer with a big W, novelist, memoirist, essayist, storyteller, even gag writer (in a note of serendipity, he started out writing gags for Fred Allen in the 1930s) — but author was probably just fine and to the point. He was an author, a prolific and famous one. “Author” was also the identity he lived by. It resonated outward and merged with the life that he lived, which was the source and subject of his writing.

His writing outlives him now. Wouk died at the age of 103 on May 17 in Palm Beach.

Wouk was Bronx born, to parents who were Jewish immigrants from Russia. His father became an immigrant success story by working his way up running a chain of laundry businesses.

It was not until Wouk joined the Navy and became an officer on a minesweeper in the Pacific in World War II that he saw the serious calling that writing was for him. It was the source of his first big success — he had already gotten out two novels, “Aurora Dawn” and “City Boy,” which drew from his Bronx upringing — but the Navy and the war inspired “The Caine Mutiny,” a best-seller in 1951, a movie hit and a Broadway play, “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial.” He was more than on his way.

“The Caine Mutiny” still stands tall in memory. It was a tightly written, eminently readable novel that brought big sales, respectability and honor with a Pulitzer Prize. In it, an executive officer and other officers take a ship over from its captain during a dangerous storm.

The movie starred a tightly wound Humphrey Bogart as the paranoid Captain Queeg and Van Johnson as the mutinous Lt. Maryk, with Fred MacMurray as an untrustworthy intellectual and Jose Ferrer as a defense lawyer.

A Broadway hit with Henry Fonda as the attorney and Lloyd Nolan as Queeg followed. Charlton Heston played Queeg in a road version at the Kennedy Center, not quite bringing off the captain’s high-strung paranoia.

Wouk went on to other hits, such as “Youngblood Hawke,” about a larger-than-life Thomas Wolfe-scaled writer, and “Marjorie Morningstar,” about the romantic struggles of a young Jewish city girl, with a movie version starring Natalie Wood.

In some ways, these works, plus, oddly enough, a collaboration with Jimmy Buffett on the musical “Don’t Stop the Carnival,” were like a preliminary to what Wouk called the “main task”: trying to capture the meaning and the story of America in World War II and the experience of the Holocaust.

The result was the publication of two monumental epics of fictional history documented by extensive research, “The Winds of War,” published in 1971, and “War and Remembrance,” published in 1978. This epic project was said to have revived the genre of historical fiction.

It also was turned into two made-for-television films that captivated the nation and the world, reigniting a passionate interest in the Holocaust. The television films included top stars and Hollywood regulars including Robert Mitchum as the nominal hero and the prism through which we see the war. It included a wrenching sequence about Jews being transported from a ghetto to Auschwitz, through arrival, selection, the gas chambers and the aftermath. A long sequence without interruptions and very little dialogue, it broke any normal heart.

For a considerable time, starting in 1951, Wouk lived in Georgetown at the corner of Potomac and N Streets in a house that is part of Smith Row, dating to 1810. Bona fide Georgetowners, he and his wife Betty later moved to sunny Palm Springs.

Wouk continued to work nonstop. He wrote books about the formation of Israel, about his Judaic faith, about his life. However big the subject or the length and weight of the book, the writing and creation of the books streamed from his own identity.

His works — financially if not always critically — were hugely successful, playing into the on-again, off-again literary debate about art and literature and the so-called Great American Novel. The war, which inspired him, had created a kind of renaissance of American fiction among his contemporaries, novelists like Norman Mailer, Irwin Shaw, James Jones and Joseph Heller, as well as Thomas Pynchon, who wrote energetic, surreal books, not always penetrable by the average reader, and Philip Roth, the par-excellance author of “Portnoy’s Complaint” fame. Those critics who preferred skeptical, edgy, stylish writing often disdained his work.

Yet, with his passing, Wouk’s work remains strong on the bookshelves, where you might not find either Mailer’s “The Deer Park” or Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow” anymore. Popularity, readability, for Wouk, were not sins or proof of a lack of serious talent. He was a teller of big stories and human concerns, perhaps comes closer to the gifts of a Charles Dickens.

Wouk’s books — and he wrote right to the end — lent themselves to transference to other forms like film, television and theater, the reenactment of stories from a page to stories on a stage or screen.

His was a life lived in real time, a real life, but also one that, by searing itself into the written word, arrived at a kind of permanence that both transcends and remembers.

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