James Michener, the extravagant storyteller who wrapped historical fact in sweeping fiction, died of renal failure Thursday at age 90.
Michener was author of such blockbusters as “Hawaii,” “Texas,” “Centennial” and “Iberia” - which sold in incredible volume despite their imposing length.
He had been in frail health in recent years, undergoing a quadruple bypass and hip surgery. Though he continued to work, his need for kidney dialysis three times a week forced him to stay close to his modest home in Austin, Texas.
His condition had deteriorated to a point where he ordered his doctors to take him off the dialysis unit last week. He died in his home.
Michener did not write his first manuscript until he was 40. But that book - “Tales of the South Pacific,” typed out in a Navy Quonset hut by the glow of a foul-smelling lantern - won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1948.
From then on, he wrote and wrote and wrote.
Forty-seven books. One hundred million copies sold. Movie, theater and miniseries spinoffs. Translations into at least 50 languages.
Michener also did much else in his long life besides pump out best sellers. He was a philanthropist who donated a fortune to education. He was a sought-after teacher, too. And an art collector who wrote two books on Japanese prints. He won the Presidential Medal of Freedom, this country’s highest civilian honor.
Proud to be called a knee-jerk liberal, Michener also was passionately political; he even ran for Congress. He spoke out against McCarthyism. He lobbied for the right to die. He chaired President Kennedy’s Food for Peace program.
But his true love - and his true gift - was telling stories.
He approached his craft with methodical, journeyman style. As he told a radio interviewer in 1992: “My job is to be a hard-working man who sits at a modern typewriter and tries to write books that a lot of people will want to read.”
Michener knew next to nothing about his origins.
Like novelist Harold Robbins, who died Tuesday, Michener was an abandoned child.
Born Feb. 3, 1907, probably in New York City, he was a foundling, as he called himself. A Quaker woman named Mabel Michener took him into her impoverished home in rural Doylestown, Pa., and raised him.
A skilled athlete and excellent student, Michener attended Swarthmore College on a scholarship over the objections of his high school principal, who feared he would shame the school by flunking out.
The principal suggested Michener become a plumber. Instead, he graduated summa cum laude in 1929.
After a brief stint teaching in a local school, Michener won a fellowship to travel abroad - and embarked on an adventure of the kind he later would learn to put in prose. He toured with Spanish bullfighters, worked on a cargo ship in the Mediterranean, explored folk legends on islands off the coast of Scotland.
But though he collected color wherever he went, Michener did not try his hand at writing.
Instead, he returned to teaching social studies, then accepted a post as associate editor with Macmillan Co. in New York.
The experience, he said later, proved to be excellent grounding for his writing career. “I learned what a great many people never learn,” he said. “I learned how to write a sentence and how to write a paragraph.”
Michener turned those skills to good use as he wound down his tour of duty as a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy during World War II. Setting up a typewriter in a musty Quonset hut, he tapped out the series of short stories that became “Tales of the South Pacific.”
Even when honored with the Pulitzer Prize - beating out novels by John Steinbeck and Sinclair Lewis - the book did not become a best seller. Michener did not make real money off it until Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II adapted it into the musical “South Pacific.”
Royalties off the musical allowed Michener to pursue his writing career full time.
His later books made him a very rich man, and his official biography notes that he donated more than $100 million to charity over the years.
His donations to the University of Texas at Austin topped $37 million, including $15 million for a writers program. Michener also gave away his impressive collections of Japanese and American art. And he put dozens of students through college.
Michener’s financial success started with “Hawaii,” published by Random House in 1959.
By then, he had married his third wife, Mari Yoriko Sabusawa, a librarian who would stay at his side until her death in 1994 after 38 years of marriage. (Michener will be cremated and buried beside her Tuesday in Austin.)
“Hawaii” was an instant hit. In it, Michener swept through hundreds of years of history by creating fictional families and then tracing their lives through generations.
After “Hawaii,” Michener would use the same format for many of his most famous books, including “The Source” (about Israel), “The Covenant” (about South Africa), “Iberia” (Spain) and “Centennial” (the American West).
Though his prolific pace made it hard to believe, Michener always insisted he did all his research himself, aided only by his longtime assistant, John Kings.
Michener also read incessantly. According to Kings, he went through 200 to 300 books in preparation for each novel.
While Michener is best-known for his fat historical novels, he returned again and again through his long career to social, political and religious themes.
A lifelong Democrat, Michener had a strong sense of social justice that shined through nearly all of his writing, from his admiration for Hawaii’s multiracial society to his indignation at Texas’ shabby treatment of Mexican-Americans.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: BOOKS BY MICHENER “Tales of the South Pacific” 1947 “The Bridges at Toko-ri” 1953 “Sayonara” 1954 “Hawaii” 1959 “The Source” 1965 “Iberia” 1968 “The Drifters” 1971 “Centennial” 1974 “Sports in America” 1976 “Chesapeake” 1978 “The Covenant” 1980 “Space” 1982 “Poland” 1983 “Texas” 1985 “Legacy” 1986 “Alaska” 1987 “Journey” 1988 “Caribbean” 1989 “Pilgrimage” 1990 “Recessional” 1994 “A Century of Sonnets” 1997