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A Storied Life: James A. Michener 1907 - 1997

The West. The Holy Land. Space. No subject was too epic for the master of the historical saga.

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If James Michener’s life didn’t have quite the panoramic vroom of a James Michener best-seller, it came close. He witnessed two world wars, galloped the globe, saw the cusp of a new millennium. He pecked out nearly 40 books, many of them 1,000-pagers, that earned him — and Random House — hundreds of millions. He may not have seen it all, but he sure saw most of it. And what modest pearl of wisdom did he bring back for aspiring writers?

”Be sure your first novel is read by Rodgers and Hammerstein,” advised the author and philanthropist, who died of kidney failure at his Austin, Tex., home on Oct. 16. At age 90, he’d elected to stop dialysis a few days earlier.

True, were it not for the smash 1949 Broadway musical based on his Tales of the South Pacific, Michener might never have become a best-selling author, though he won a 1948 Pulitzer for that fictional maiden voyage. But he applied himself to his writing with unmatched gusto and longevity, eventually accumulating over 75 million copies in print (compared, for example, with 50 million for John Grisham’s eight novels). His third book, 1959’s Hawaii, hit upon the formula that ensured his success: carefully researched sagas, filled with hundreds of characters, dramatizing the history of a place from the dawn of time until the day before yesterday. ”Millions upon millions of years ago,” began Hawaii‘s famous opening line; The Source (1965) covered ”the entire history of the Jews”; Poland (1983) confined itself to seven centuries. ”He brought history into people’s living rooms,” says novelist Nelson DeMille.

Though no screen version of Michener’s work — not even ABC’s much-hyped 1995 production of Texas — would ever equal the success of South Pacific, his books proved ideal TV-miniseries fodder. His own story, however, better resembled an episode of Unsolved Mysteries. Orphaned around 1907 (a birth certificate was never produced, and a 1987 bio suggested that the widow who adopted him may have been his biological mother), Michener grew up poor in Doylestown, Pa., and earned a scholarship to Swarthmore. After World War II thwarted an academic career, he wrote Pacific in a Quonset hut while stationed in the Navy.

For most of the next 50 years, he would relocate as his muse dictated, personally conducting the legwork for a stream of magnum opuses. Author Clive Cussler recalls a lunch with Michener in Colorado when the latter was digging up material for 1974’s Centennial. ”A mutual friend asked him facetiously, ‘Have you read any good books lately?’ Michener said, ‘I don’t read.’ He was researching so constantly, he didn’t have time for fiction.”

Nor did he have time for kids of his own, despite three marriages (two ended in divorce; his third wife, Mari, died in 1994). Instead, Michener became a surrogate father on a characteristically grand scale, donating vast chunks of his wealth — $39 million at the University of Texas alone — to liberal arts programs around the U.S. And he championed literary principles: When Random House downsized two eminent editors in 1990, Michener threatened to defect, slamming chief executive Alberto Vitale as ”an able number cruncher, but not a man reared in the traditions of American publishing.” (They later came to terms.) ”He was a writer’s writer,” says Cussler.

Not so much a critic’s writer, alas. But although he was occasionally dismissed for merely spinning pounds and pounds of edifying yarn, the mighty Michener was usually fairly sanguine. ”A storyteller,” he mused not long ago, ”is somebody who’s going somewhere.” And oh, the places he went.