It was the early 1930s, and he was fresh out of college, a feisty writer with a biting sense of humor. He had a penchant for ping-pong and writing novels in the bathtub.
He worked part-time at a Philadelphia carnival and tooled around on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
Free spirit James Michener also believed that life and death were one and the same.
So for those who’ve known the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist since his early years in Bucks County, Pa., Michener’s decision this week to discontinue dialysis treatment and face death seems only natural.
From Newtown, Bucks County, where he began his career, to Hawaii and California, where old friends still recall the author’s antics with quaking voices, those who knew him say Michener doesn’t believe in prolonging life if it is not fruitful.
“You don’t grieve so much if you understand his legacy. He left a positive contribution to this world,” said William Vitarelli, a friend of 60 years.
“He thinks the way I do. He can’t write his novels, so he figures what’s the use,” said Vitarelli, who still corresponds with Michener.
Michener churned out 60 novels based on his world travels and interest in history. His most recent work, “A Century of Sonnets,” was released earlier this year.
In recent months, his vitality and health have been waning. At 90, he is battling kidney failure. He has outlived his wife, who died in 1994, his family and most of his friends.
“He had dialysis three times a week, he was getting very fragile,” said longtime friend Jack Talbot, of Northern California. “He’s 90 years old. He just figures that that’s enough. He’s led a good, fulfilling life,” Talbot said. Friends recall that Michener’s third wife Mari battled cancer until she, too, chose to put an end to her suffering through a living will.
“I can understand his decision,” said Talbot, 86. “He didn’t feel like his life expectancy was that good.”
Michener, who was adopted by a Quaker woman, was raised on a farm in Doylestown, Pa. Thanks to an alert English teacher at Doylestown High School who noticed his talent, friends said, Michener earned a scholarship to Swarthmore College. After graduating, Michener took a job at the prestigious George School, in Newtown, where he taught English and history from 1933 to 1936.
Vitarelli, who taught art at George School during those years, reminisced Monday about a tenacious, energetic man who lit up rooms and transformed friends into characters in his novels.
“He was an energetic guy. Boy did he love ping-pong,” said Vitarelli (who was Vito in Michener’s the “Fires of Spring”). “The kids loved him.”
During World War II, Michener enlisted in the Navy. He tried to urge friends to join up too, since “you wouldn’t be worth anything unless you fought,” Vitarelli recalled him saying.
In recent years, the author has been living in Austin, Texas, but has continued to donate nearly $100 million to charitable organizations and to his namesake art museum in Doylestown.
Though “Tales of the South Pacific” earned the author a Pulitzer Prize in 1948, his other renown works included “Hawaii,” “Texas” and “Space.”