Uris, Leon 1924–2003
Uris, Leon 1924–2003
(Leon Marcus Uris)
PERSONAL: Born August 3, 1924, in Baltimore, MA; died of renal failure, June 21, 2003, in Shelter Island, NY; son of Wolf William (a shopkeeper) and Anna (Blumberg) Uris; married Betty Katherine Beck, 1945 (divorced, January, 1968); married Margery Edwards, September 8, 1968 (committed suicide, February 20, 1969); married Jill Peabody (a photographer), February 15, 1970; children: (first marriage) Karen Lynn, Mark Jay, Michael Cady; (third marriage) Rachael Jackson, one other child. Education: Attended public schools in Baltimore, MD. Hobbies and other interests: Skiing, bowling, trail-biking, and tennis.
CAREER: Novelist. Worked previously as a circulation district manager for San Francisco Call-Bulletin. Military service: U.S. Marine Corps, 1942–45; served in the Pacific at Guadalcanal and Tarawa.
MEMBER: Writers League, Screenwriters Guild.
AWARDS, HONORS: Daroff Memorial Award, 1959; National Institute of Arts and Letters grant, 1959; California Literature Silver Medal award, 1962, for Mila 18, and Gold Medal award, 1965, for Armageddon; honorary doctorates, University of Colorado, 1976, Santa Clara University, 1977, Wittenberg University, 1980, and Lincoln College, 1985; John F. Kennedy Medal, Irish/American Society of New York, 1977; gold medal, Eire Society of Boston, 1978; Jobotinsky Medal, State of Israel, 1980; Hall Fellowship (with wife, Jill Uris), Concord Academy, 1980; Scopus Award, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1981; Books for the Teen Age designation, New York Public Library, 1980–82, for Exodus.
Battle Cry (also see below), Putnam (New York, NY), 1953, bound with Tales of the South Pacific, by James A. Michener, and Mister Roberts, by Thomas Heggen, Wings Books (New York, NY), 1996.
The Angry Hills, Random House (New York, NY), 1955.
Exodus (also see below), Doubleday (New York, NY), 1957, reprinted, Gramercy Books (New York, NY), 2000.
Mila 18, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1960.
Armageddon: A Novel of Berlin, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1964.
Topaz, McGraw (New York, NY), 1967.
QB VII, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1970.
Trinity, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1976.
The Haj, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1984.
Mitla Pass, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1988.
Redemption (sequel to Trinity), HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1995.
A God in Ruins: A Novel, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1999.
O'Hara's Choice, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2003.
Battle Cry, Warner Brothers, 1954.
Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (also see below), Paramount, 1957.
(Author of commentary) Exodus Revisited, photographs by Dimitrios Harissiadis, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1959, published as In the Steps of Exodus, Heinemann (London, England), 1962.
The Third Temple (essay), bound with Strike Zion, by William Stevenson, Bantam (New York, NY), 1967.
Ari (book and lyrics; based on his novel, Exodus; also known as Exodus, the Musical), music by Walt Smith, produced on Broadway, 1971.
(Author of commentary) Ireland: A Terrible Beauty: The Story of Ireland Today, photographs by wife, Jill Uris, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1975.
(With Jill Uris) Jerusalem, Song of Songs, photographs by Jill Uris, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1981.
Contributor to anthologies, including Fabulous Yesterdays, Harper (New York, NY), 1961; American Men at Arms, compiled by F. Van Wyck Mason, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1965; A Treasury of Jewish Sea Stories, edited by Samuel Sobel, Jonathan David, 1965; and Great Spy Stories from Fiction, by Allan Dulles, Harper (New York, NY), 1969. Also contributor to periodicals, including Esquire, Coronet, Ladies' Home Journal, and TWA Ambassador.
Uris's work has been translated into other languages, including Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese.
ADAPTATIONS: Gunfight at the O.K. Corral was novelized by Nelson C. Nye, Norden Publications, 1956; The Angry Hills was adapted for film and released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1959; Exodus was adapted for a film directed by Otto Preminger, United Artists (UA), 1960; Topaz was adapted for a film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, UA, 1969; QB VII was adapted into a television movie, ABC-TV, 1974.
SIDELIGHTS: American writer Leon Uris is the author of several bestselling novels based upon details and events drawn from contemporary history. He received acclaim early in his career as the author of such popular books as Exodus, a landmark novelization of the history of the Jewish settlement of modern Israel, and the espionage thriller Topaz. Uris's later works included QB VII, a semi-autobiographical account of the trial of an author charged with libel by a German physician and former Nazi, Trinity, a novel set amid Ireland's political and religious turmoil, and his final novel, O'Hara's Choice, a saga of the Marines who fought during the U.S. Civil War published posthumously in 2003. Panoramic historical fiction that proved to be commercially successful, Uris's fast-paced novels earned him a dedicated readership. Yet, throughout his career critical opinion on his work was mixed. While critics praised his storytelling abilities—the appeal of his novels has been described as cinematic in nature—his works have sometimes been cited for problems with grammar, for his occasionally cardboard characters and stiff dialogue, and his tendency to take liberties with historical facts. Sharon D. Downey and Richard A. Kallan, noting both Uris's immense popular appeal and what they perceived as flaws in regards to traditional literary standards, asserted in Communications Monographs that, "in short, Uris remains a reader's writer and a critic's nightmare."
Uris was born in Baltimore, Maryland. His father, William Uris, was a Polish immigrant who worked as a pa-perhanger and later a storekeeper; his mother, Anna Blumberg Uris, was a homemaker. Uris went to school in Norfolk, Virginia, failed English three times, and never graduated from high school. When he was seventeen he joined the U.S. Marine Corps and began writing in the early 1950s, inspired by his four-year tour of duty during World War II. He wrote for years without selling anything, but finally sold an article on football to Esquire in 1950.
His first novel, Battle Cry, was published by G.P. Putnam in 1953 after making the rounds of several publishing houses. The novel was based on Uris's experiences in the Marines during training and combat. "There were those who thought I was crazy, others who gave me encouragement," Uris once told Bernard Kalb in Saturday Review. "My guiding thought throughout was that the real Marine story had not been told. We were a different breed of men who looked at war in a different way." Battle Cry was praised by reviewers for its realistic depiction of the dedicated men who risked their lives in the front lines of battle. Commenting on the author's unique approach to the subject of war, critic Merle Miller noted in the Saturday Review that Battle Cry "may have started a whole new and healthy trend in war literature." The book proved to be as popular with readers as it was with critics, and Uris went on to write the screenplay for the film version of his novel, which was released by Warner Brothers in 1954.
The success of Battle Cry encouraged Uris to continue writing and he was soon at work on his second novel, The Angry Hills. Loosely based on the diary of an uncle who had fought in Greece with a Jewish unit of the British armed forces, the work was published in 1955. Although the response from critics was that as an adventure story, the book is too fast-paced, The Angry Hills is significant in that it focused Uris's interest in the Middle East, the Palestinian issue, and the history of Israel, home to many of his relatives. Although his preoccupation with these subjects would stay out of his major work for the next few years—after publication of his second novel Uris was soon at work on a screenplay for the classic western drama Gunfight at the O.K. Corral—it would figure prominently in several of his later novels, most notably Exodus, ultimately one of the largest-selling books in twentieth-century publishing history.
Exodus is the history of European Jews and their efforts to establish the state of Israel as a Jewish homeland. Although faulting Uris for what was perceived as a tendency toward lengthy and partisan passages, critics hailed Exodus as a gripping human drama and a novel of heroic proportions. A descriptive account of the Warsaw Ghetto included in this novel provided the seed for Uris's next book, Mila 18, which continued his fascination with the predicament of Jews in the twentieth century. From there he worked with noted Greek photographer Dimitrios Harissiadis on the photo-essay Exodus Revisited, a complement to the research he did for Mila 18. The author's lifelong passion for the Jewish people and for Israel was also the motivation behind several other books, including The Haj, an account of the birth of Israel told from the point of view of a Palestinian Arab, and Mitla Pass, a novel about an Israeli soldier during the Sinai War that was published in 1988 to mixed reviews but immediate bestseller status.
Some critics accept flaws of a technical nature as an acceptable tradeoff for a well-wrought story when reviewing Uris's novels. Pete Hamill explained in the New York Times Book Review: "Uris is a storyteller, in a direct line from those men who sat around fires in the days before history and made the tribe more human. The subject is man, not words; story is all, the form it takes is secondary." Although not unaware of the problematic aspects of the novel genre, Hamill stated: "It is a simple thing to point out that Uris often writes crudely, that his dialogue can be wooden, that his structure occasionally groans under the excess baggage of exposition and information. Simple, but irrelevant. None of that matters as you are swept along in the narrative." Critic Dan Wakefield agreed, noting in a review of Exodus for the Nation: "The plot is so exciting that the characters become exciting too; not because of their individuality or depth, but because of the historic drama they are involved in." Wakefield added: "The real achievement … lies not so much in its virtues as a novel as in its skillful rendering of the furiously complex history of modern Israel in a palatable, popular form that is usually faithful to the spirit of the complicated realities."
In researching Exodus Uris read almost 300 books, traveled 12,000 miles within Israel's boundaries, and interviewed more than 1,200 individuals. Similar efforts went into his other books, including Trinity, which arose out of the people and places Uris and his third wife, photographer Jill Peabody Uris, encountered on a trip to document modern Ireland. The wealth of historical background in his novels caused Uris's books to be alternately called "nonfiction novels," "propaganda" novels, or just plain "journalism" by critics. A reviewer for the Christian Science Monitor addressed the danger in mixing fact and fiction: "Few readers are expert enough to be 100 percent certain where Mr. Uris's imagination has taken over the record." Nevertheless, as Maxwell Geismar pointed out in Saturday Review: "If Mr. Uris sometimes lacks tone as a novelist, if his central figures are social types rather than individual portraits, there is also a kind of 'underground power' in his writing. No other novel I have read recently has had the same capacity [as Exodus] to refresh our memory, inform our intelligence, and to stir the heart." In the same vein, Hamill wrote of Trinity: "The novel sprawls, occasionally bores, meanders like a river…. But when the story is finished the reader has been to places where he or she has never been before. The news items … will never seem quite the same again."
Uris revisited the Ireland of Trinity after almost twenty years in Redemption. The earlier volume looked at the nineteenth-century Irish struggle for independence; Redemption continues the story through the years of World War I. "The conflict between two of the three dominant families of Trinity, the tempestuous Larkins and their staid British counterparts, the Hubbles, is the focus here," explained a Publishers Weekly reviewer. The story, in which young Rory Larkin makes an attempt to assist Irish rebels in the Catholic Easter Uprising of 1916, describes how Rory's commanding officer is assassinated and how Rory himself is implicated. "With its contrivances, digressions and shifting time lines," Malachy Duffy stated in the New York Times Book Review, "the novel often resembles the Irish countryside—full of twists and turns, replete with bogs and quagmires."
In A God in Ruins, Uris penned an account of a U.S. presidential race using flashbacks from the lives of his two fictional candidates. Quinn Patrick O'Connell was adopted as a child by Colorado ranchers and became a Marine hero and governor before running for the presidency. However, a week before the election he discovers that his birth heritage is Jewish, thus sparking a wave of anti-Semitism. The plot then turns to the issue of gun control, an issue O'Connell emphasizes. His campaign rival is Republican incumbent Thornton Tomtree, who is implicated in violent national tragedies involving guns and militia groups. In a Library Journal review of A God in Ruins Lisa Bier commented that the characters are flat and that the plot remains unresolved. A Publishers Weekly reviewer also wrote that the issues of anti-Semitism and gun control vie for readers' attention, leading to a "stylistically scattered" story.
After a prolific career, Uris died in June of 2003, at his home on Shelter Island, New York. Webster Scott offered his assessment of Uris's work in the Washington Post Book World, comparing the novelist to such popular writers as James A. Michener and James Clavell. Such writers, Scott noted, "may tell us relatively little about our inner weather, but they report on storms and setting suns outside. They read the environment we must function in. Occasionally they replicate our social structures. They sift the history that brought us to the present. They give us the briefing papers necessary to convert news stories into human stories. All of which serve our emotional need to make order out of confusion, to explain the inexplicable." Recalling Uris's body of work, Guardian writer Eric Homberger noted of the novelist's passing: "He was, in truth, an educator of the American public in the Zionist interpretation of modern Jewish history. The deep tradition of non-violence in Jewish tradition was swept aside in his muscular reinterpretation of the modern Jewish identity. Many other cultural stereotypes—the learned Jew, the pious Jew, and the streetwise Jew as entrepreneur—were similarly dismissed." As quoted in a Washington Post obituary by Adam Bernstein, Uris's advice to writers was simple. "Apply the seat of one's pants to the seat of the chair and write," he once said. "There is no other way."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Authors in the News, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 1, 1976, Volume 2, 1976.
Bestsellers 89, Issue 2, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1989.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 7, 1977, Volume 32, 1985.
Contemporary Novelists, 6th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Atlantic Monthly, July, 1964.
Book, July, 1999, p. 75.
Booklist, April 15, 1995, Ray Olson, review of Redemption, p. 1453; May 1, 1999, p. 1559.
Chicago Tribune, November 24, 1988.
Chicago Tribune Book World, April 29, 1984, p. 33.
Christian Science Monitor, December 4, 1958; November 16, 1967; July 10, 2001, p. 20.
Commentary, October, 1961.
Communication Monographs, September, 1982.
Economist, June 19, 1999, review of A God in Ruins, p. 3.
Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), January 7, 1989; June 12, 1999, p. D12.
Inside Books, November, 1988, pp. 25-26.
Journal of American Culture, spring, 1999, p. 9.
Kirkus Reviews, April 1, 1995, p. 422; May 15, 1999, p. 754; August 15, 2003, review of O'Hara's Choice, p. 1043.
Library Journal, June 15, 1999, Lisa Bier, review of A God in Ruins, p. 110; January, 2000, p. 188.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 27, 1984, p. 8; October 30, 1988, p. 12.
Nation, April 11, 1959.
Newsweek, May 21, 1984, p. 84.
New York Herald Tribune Book Review, September 28, 1958.
New York Review of Books, April 16, 1964.
New York Times, October 12, 1958; April 27, 1984.
New York Times Book Review, June 4, 1961; June 28, 1964; October 15, 1967; March 14, 1976, p. 5; April 22, 1984, p. 7; January 1, 1989, p. 14; July 2, 1995, p. 11.
Philadelphia Bulletin, March 31, 1976.
Publishers Weekly, March 29, 1976, pp. 6-7; September 23, 1988, p. 59; April 24, 1995, review of Redemp-tion, p. 58; May 24, 1999, review of A God in Ruins, p. 64; July, 1999, p. 64.
Saturday Review, April 25, 1953, pp. 16-17; September 27, 1958.
Time, December 8, 1958; June 2, 1961.
Times Literary Supplement, October 27, 1961.
Washington Post Book World, April 1, 1984, pp. 1-2; October 30, 1988.