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October 17, 1997

Author James A. Michener, Who’s Heralded Writing Career Spanned Nearly 50 years, Dies at Age 90By JUAN B. ELIZONDO Jr.

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) _ James A. Michener, who guided millions of readers from the South Pacific to the fringes of space in giant, best-selling novels, died Thursday at his home of kidney failure. He was 90.

Michener’s death came less than a week after he ordered doctors to disconnect him from life-sustaining dialysis treatments.

Harold Evans, president of Random House, which published several of Michener’s books, called him ``America’s storyteller.″

``He took enormous delight in satisfying his own intrepid intellectual curiosity, and we are the richer for it,″ Evans said. ``The world was his home, as he entitled his 1992 autobiography.″

Said Michener’s longtime friend and assistant John Kinds: ``His loss will be great not only the literary scene but to the many colleges he has nurtured through the years and the many thousands of people who feel he is their friend.″

Michener’s heralded writing career, which spanned nearly 50 years, began in his mid-life, with ``Tales of the South Pacific.″ The book, written during his tour of duty with the Navy in World War II won the Pulitzer Prize in 1948 and was the basis for ``South Pacific,″ a long-running Broadway musical and later a motion picture.

Michener then spent decades wandering the globe, from Japan and Korea to Hungary, Hawaii, Afghanistan, Spain, South Africa, Colorado, Israel, Chesapeake Bay, Poland, Texas, Alaska and the Caribbean.

He wrote historical-geographic blockbusters, living in and absorbing the culture of the places of which he wrote. His books argued for universal ideals: religious and racial tolerance, hard work and self-reliance.

``I’m not a stylist,″ Michener said of his writing. ``There are a whole lot of things I’m not good at. I’m not hard in dialogue; I don’t have that wonderful crispness. I don’t think I’m good at psychology. But what I can do is put a good narrative together and hold the reader’s interest.″

Every one of his books was a commercial success. The first printing of his 1985 novel, ``Texas,″ was 750,000 copies; it eventually sold more than 1 million copies.

He never quit working, saying ``as long as the old brain keeps functioning, I know the desire will always be there. I can hardly wait to get up in the morning, to get back to work.″

He released his latest book, ``A Century of Sonnets,″ earlier this year and reportedly was working on a book about his illness.

Michener was born Feb. 3, 1907, in New York City, and was taken as an orphan to the Bucks County Poorhouse in Doylestown, Pa. His name, James Albert Michener, came from his adoptive Quaker parents, Edwin and Mabel Michener.

His childhood was spent in poverty, he recalled, ``so that accounts for my social attitude _ I’m a fiery liberal.″

``I’ve never felt in a position to reject anybody,″ he said in a 1972 interview. ``I could be Jewish, part Negro, probably not Oriental, but almost anything else. This has loomed large in my thoughts.″

Michener followed ``South Pacific″ with ``The Fires of Spring″ in 1949. It was filled with autobiographical touches, telling of a poor Pennsylvania boy who becomes a writer.

In ``Voice of Asia″ in 1951, Michener presented a variety of points of view gathered from interviews in Japan, India and other countries of the Orient. ``The Bridges at Toko-ri″ (1953) and ``Sayonara″ (1954) were based on the Korean war, and in 1955 Michener produced ``The Floating World,″ a history of Japanese prints.

During the Hungarian revolt in 1956, Michener was in Austria where some 20,000 refugees crossed to the West. He assisted dozens to safety, writing about the experience in 1957′s ``The Bridge at Andau.″

By that time, Michener was living in Hawaii, where he worked seven years to produce ``Hawaii.″ The novel appeared in 1959 as the islands became the 50th state.

Then Michener was in Afghanistan to write ``Caravans″ (1963); in Israel for ``The Source″ (1965); in Spain for ``Iberia″ (1968) and ``The Drifters″ (1971).

Back in the United States, he wrote a sympathetic account of the tragic student protests at Kent State University, which appeared in 1971 as ``Kent State: What Happened and Why.″

Between trips during the 1960s, Michener again was based in Pennsylvania, where he worked as chairman of the Bucks County Citizens for Kennedy Committee. He wrote about that experience in 1961′s ``Report of the County Chairman.″

In 1974, Michener completed ``Centennial,″ an epic tale of Colorado. It became a 26-hour television miniseries, the longest ever.

Then his attention shifted to the East Coast for ``Chesapeake″ in 1978, to South Africa and ``The Covenant″ in 1980, ``Space″ in 1982 and ``Poland″ in 1983.

Former Texas Gov. Bill Clements invited Michener to profile his state in 1981, offering the author a staff position at the University of Texas to help him. Two years of effort produced ``Texas,″ his biggest book at 1,096 pages.

Then he went to work on a book about Alaska.

Before the Navy and his writing, Michener taught at a prep school for two years, then won a two-year grant for study and travel in Europe. He did graduate work at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, studied art in Siena, Italy, and in London, and spent a winter in the Outer Hebrides collecting folksongs.

He graduated with highest honors in English from Swarthmore College in suburban Philadelphia in 1929.

From 1933 to 1941, Michener taught English at various schools including Harvard, taking time out to earn a master’s degree. He worked as an editor of educational books at Macmillan publishing company in New York from 1941 until his enlistment in the Navy the following year.

He taught part time well into his 80s, at the University of Texas and at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla.

His first two marriages, to Patti Koon in 1935 and Vange Nord in 1948, ended in divorce. In 1955, he married Mari Yoriko Sabusawa. She died in September 1994.

His work made Michener wealthy. He donated $2 million to Swarthmore in 1984, calling it payment back in interest for a scholarship he got there, and then gave $5 million more in 1991. His and his wife’s gifts to the University of Texas over the years totaled $44.2 million, including a $15 million donation in 1992.

Michener made Austin his final home after working on ``Texas.″

He donated $1 million to a Bucks County art museum that bears his name.

In 1996, Fortune magazine ranked him among the nation’s top 25 philanthropists, estimating he gave away $24 million in that year alone.

``I am aware how tough it is to make a living in the arts in the United States,″ he said. ``I’m a nice guy. I don’t give anyone a rough time. I’ve had good luck.″

A funeral service will be held Tuesday in Austin, Kings said. Memorial services were planned for Austin and New York at a later time.

Michener will be cremated and buried along side his wife, Kings said.

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