Condon, Richard Thomas

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Condon, Richard Thomas

(b. 18 March 1915 in New York City; d. 9 April 1996 in Dallas, Texas), writer best known for his conspiratorial novels of government and organized crime, such as The Manchurian Candidate (1959) and Prizzi’s Honor (1982).

Condon was the older of two children of Richard Aloysius Condon, a naval officer, and Martha Irene Pickering, a stenographer and homemaker. Growing up in New York City’s Washington Heights, Condon graduated from De Witt Clinton High School in 1934, but his grades were so poor that he was not admitted to college. He worked as an elevator operator, a hotel clerk, and a waiter. In 1935 he took a job as an advertising copywriter with the New York firm Kelly, Nason, and Roosevelt. This work led to his first career, as a movie publicist. In 1936 he began working for Walt Disney, where he handled the publicity for such films as Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940), and Dumbo (1941).

On 14 January 1938 Condon married Evelyn Rose Hunt, a model he had met during his copywriting days. They remained married for the rest of his life and had two daughters. In 1942 Hal Home, who had hired Condon, moved to Twentieth Century—Fox, and Condon, who had been exempted from the World War II draft as a stutterer, followed him. Condon opened his own agency, Richard Condon Inc., in 1945 and, by his own account, worked for all the major companies except Warner Brothers and MGM. In 1953 he took a job with United Artists as European publicity director, and he and his family moved to Paris.

In 1957 disillusion and two duodenal ulcers led Condon to leave the film business. He returned to New York City and embarked on his second, more successful career as a novelist. His first novel, The Oldest Confession (1958), a tale of art theft, was an immediate success; it was filmed as The Happy Thieves (1962).

It was Condon’s second novel, however, that made his reputation and may be the work for which he will be most remembered. In The Manchurian Candidate (1959), an American soldier is captured and brainwashed by the Chinese communists and then returned to America to take part in an assassination plot. The novel’s conspiratorial view of the highest circles of government, interwoven with a fast-moving suspense plot and a tale of family tragedy, captivated readers. It, too, was made into a movie, released in 1962.

In August 1959 Condon moved with his family to Mexico so he could research A Talent for Loving, a comic Western novel published in 1961. From there the Condons moved to Paris, where they stayed for six months in 1961, and then to Switzerland, where they lived at Anières and then at Monte de Trinita. In 1970 the Condons moved again, to the town of Rossenarra in Ireland. At this point Condon’s literary reputation had fallen into desuetude. Although such novels as Some Angry Angel (1960), Any God Will Do (1966), and Mile High (1969) won a devoted cult following, Condon’s baroque plotting, fascination with trivia, and often thinly-disguised loathing for those in power led critics to wonder if he would ever return to the high standard set by The Manchurian Candidate.

Winter Kills (1974) was widely viewed as such a comeback. Its subject, the assassination of John F. Kennedy presented in thin fictional disguise, had the grandeur needed for its dramatic, even tragic, treatment, and the complexities of plot were under firm auctorial control. Reviewers hailed it as a return to former glories. In 1979 Winter Kills was made into a movie that gained favorable reviews but soon disappeared from theaters. Condon praised the movie as faithful to his vision and blamed its disappearance on the same powerful forces he was attacking in the book.

Condon again fell from critical favor. He was seen as shrill and repetitive, airing his hatreds and obsessions, as in Death of a Politician (1978), which seemed little more than an unremitting attack on Richard Nixon, a frequent Condon target. In 1980 Condon returned to the United States, specifically Dallas, to be near his grandchildren. Perhaps reenergized by the return to his native soil, he produced another major work. In Prizzi’s Honor (1982) Condon audaciously set a tale of tragically doomed love in an organized crime family, with hired killers as protagonists. The novel received popular and critical acclaim and was made into a successful film in 1985, with Condon himself working on the screenplay. Condon returned to the Prizzi family with a prequel, Prizzi’s Family (1986), and sequels, Prizzi’s Glory (1988) and Prizzi’s Money (1994). Later novels, such as Emperor of America (1990), were not well received. Condon died of heart and kidney ailments in Presbyterian Hospital, Dallas.

Condon saw himself as an entertainer, not as a serious creator of great literature; he once compared his work with that of a saloon singer, reminding people of sorrows, pleasures, and corruption. His best novels juxtapose complex tales of conspiracy in the circles of power with personal obsession, usually romantic and / or familial. His major works—The Manchurian Candidate, Winter Kills, and Prizzi’s Honor —have elements of classical tragedy, with heroic protagonists determining their own destinies and finally being brought down by their flaws and forced to kill what they love. At its worst, the grandeur becomes grandiosity, tragedy becomes sitcom coincidence, and righteous indignation turns to strident and repetitive complaining. But even the failures have some saving graces of wit and characterization.

The conspiratorial vision that made The Manchurian Candidate so shocking came to seem almost tame, as books like those of Thomas Pynchon and Robert Anton Wilson, movies like Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991), and television shows like The X-Files offered even more horrifying visions. But they all built on Condon’s foundation.

Condon recounted his life story, with particular attention to his moves, in the memoir And Then We Moved to Rossenarra (1973). In 1984 he updated the account of his life with a contribution to the Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series. His fiction has received little academic and critical attention. Leo Braudy’s review of Winter Kills in the New York Times Book Review, (26 May 1974; reprinted in his collection, Native Informant, 1991), called attention to this important revival of Condon’s career. Carolyn See’s essay-review of Emperor of America, “Words—and Satire—Fail in Novel,” Los Angeles Times (26 Feb. 1990) offers a considered statement of the case that the fiction of Condon’s later years was fatally flawed by its shrillness. An obituary is in the New York Times (10 Apr. 1996).

Arthur D. Hlavaty

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