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||Leon (Marcus ) Uris (1924-2003)|
American writer whose bestseller Exodus (1958) was immediately translated into some 50 languages, including Finnish, Swedish, Norwegian and Danish. Uris was known for his panoramic, action-filled novels which often depict determined individuals during the dramatic upheavals of modern history.
"This was what I came to found. The conquest of loneliness was the missing link that was, one day, going to make a decent novelist out of me. If you are out here and cannot close off the loves and hates of all that back there in the real world, the memories will overtake you and swamp you and wilt your tenacity. Tenacity, stamina... close off to everything and everyone but your writing. That's the bloody price. I don't know, maybe it's some kind of ultimate selfishness. Maybe it's part of the killer instinct. Unless you can stash away and bury thoughts of your greatest love, you cannot sustain the kind of concentration that breaks most men trying to write a book over a three- or four-year period." (from Mitla Pass, 1988)
Leon Uris was born in Baltimore, Maryland, the son of Wolf William
and Anna (Blumberg) Uris. Both of his parents came from traditional
Jewish families. His father, a born in Novogrudok, White Russia,derived his surname from Yerushalmi, meaning man of
Jerusalem, but switched the name to Uris at Ellis Island. Before entering the
Unites States, he spent a year in Palestine after World War I. William sold subscriptions to the Yiddish Communist paper the Freiheit; later he earned extra income as a paperhanger and worked as a storekeeper. "He was basically a failure", Uris said later of his father.
"He went from failure to failure." Anna was a first-generation American, a divorcée who had a daughter from her previous marriage.
Uris's parents separated when he was just five or six. He attended schools in Norfolk,
Virginia, and Baltimore, flunked three times in English, and never
graduated from high school. In his youth, Uris was acquainted with radical idealists, his father was a Communist Party Organizer, but Uris himself was attracted to the liberal humanism of FDR's New Deal and considered FDR like a father to him.
At the age of seventeen, Uris joined the
United States Marine Corps, although his father and mother had refused
to sign the application. He served in the South Pacific at
Guadalcanal, Tarawa, and New Zealand from 1942 to 1945. While
recuperating from malaria in San Francisco, he met Betty Katherine
Beck, a Marine
sergeant. They married in 1945. The marriage, which Uris has called
"disastrous", ended in divorce after twenty-three years. It has been
Samantha Cady in QB VII (1970), who do not understand the all-consuming occupation of her husband, was modelled after Uris's first wife.
Uris's expences in the armed forces prepared him for his career as a novelist. In the late 1940s Uris was a newspaper driver for the San Francisco Call-Bulletin. He had been writing stories since his childhood, but his first attempts to get them published were not successful. In 1950 Esquire bought an article on football; it marked the beginning of his career as a full-time writer. Uris began to work intensively on a novel about the Marine Corp, often writing 18 hours a day. The story was based on his experiences during training and combat. Although the manuscript was first rejected by several publisher, it finally appeared in 1953 and was sold to Hollywood.
Battle Cry (1953), Uris's debut novel, was published by G.P. Putnam's Sons. The story about a battalion of Marines during World War II was received favorable from both critics and readers. In 1953 Uris went to Hollywood to write the screenplay of the novel. Subsequently he wrote an original screenplay western, Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957). The film depicted the defeat of the Clanton Gang by Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. It was directed by John Sturges, starring Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas.
The Angry Hills (1955) was an account of the Jewish brigade from Palestine that fought with the British army in Greece in World War II. It received less praise than Battle Cry and Uris had difficulties getting it published. The spy-chase story drew on the actual experiences of Uris's uncle, who had fought as a volunteer in the campaign. The screenplay for Robert Aldrich's film version of The Angry Hills, starring Robert Mitchum, was written by A.I. Bezzerides. Uris had never been in Greece. The production company sent Uris there, when he was writing the first-draft screenplay.
In 1956, Uris covered the Arab-Israeli fighting as a war correspondent. Exodus, published by Doubleday & Company, came out two years later. The idea for the book evolved out of a conversation with the author and Malcolm Stuart, his agent. Exodus became an international publishing phenomenon, the biggest bestseller in the United States since Gone with the Wind. Uris had sold its film rights in advance. Also a musical version was produced in 1971. The novel was banned in the Soviet Union, which backed the Palestinians and Arab states. The Israeli embassy staff smuggled copies in the country. Eventually Exodus was officially translated into Russian. On a trip to the USSR in 1989 Uris was presented a samizdat translation of the book.
For his epic, Uris traveled widely in Israel "by train, plane, Vauxhall, and Austin, jeep and by foot", and interviewed more than 1,200 people – the space he covered in his gathering of material was nearly fifty thousand miles. Exodus dealt with the struggle to establish and defend the state of Israel. The birth of a new nation was depicted through several characters but the story of an American nurse and an Israeli freedom fighter formed the nucleus of the work. Otto Preminger, who directed the film based on the book, considered it anti-British and anti-Arab. He also thought that his picture avoided propaganda and was much closer to the truth than the book. Uris publicly declared that the director had ruined his book. "He was hopeless," said Preminger, who hired Dalton Trumbo to make the script shootable. "A novelist writes dialogue to be read. A scriptwriter writes dialogue to be heard." Naturally the large historical sections in Exodus, dealing with the origins of ghetto system, pogroms in Russia, the ideas of Theodor Herzl, the birth of kibbutzs, and such issues, were not in the film. Preminger followied his line also when he directed The Man with the Golden Arm, based on Nelson Algren's novel – the original author denounced him.
Most scenes of the film were made in locations where the original
events had occurred. The historic prison break was shot in the fortress
of Acre, where it took place. Israeli statesman Meyer Weisgal played
the part of David Ben-Gurion in exchange for $1 million for the
Weizmann Institute of Science. Almost the only genuine Jew in the
entire lineup of show folk was Preminger himself. "Otto, let my people
go," said the satirist and political comedian Mort Sahl as he watched the film's 220-minute
preview. Ernest Gold won an Academy Award for his musical score. Althought Exodus
was sympathetic to the Zionist cause, and successfully contributed to
the vision of Israel as a country of great fighters, the Israeli
government believed that it portrayed the underground movement too
sympathetically (American Jewish Films: The Search for Identity by Lawrence J. Epstein, 2013, p. 157).
The film starts when some thirty thousand Jews who have fled from Europe, are interned by the British on the island of Cyprus and denied entry into Palestine. In the book an American journalist, Mark Parker, comes to Cyprus to see Kitty Fremont, an American nurse. Kitty has lost her husband in the war. After preparations made by Ari Ben Canaan (Paul Newman), a young officer of the Palestine's Jewish Underground, three hundred refugees, mostly orphaned children, escape from the internment camp. They board an old freighter called the "Exodus" and go on a hunger strike in protest at the British destroyers blocking their path. Kitty (Eva Marie Saint) also is abroad the ship. She becomes attached to a refugee girl named Karen (Jill Haworth). Dov Landau, a survivor from Auschwitz, friends with Karen. Influenced by the intervention of the island commander, General Sutherland (Ralph Richardson), the British permit the "Exodus" to sail for Haifa. In Palestine a strong bond of affection develops between Ari and Kitty. Ari's uncle Akiva (David Opatoshu) and Dov are members of the Irgun, a terrorist organisation. Ari joins with the Irgun, which executes a mass breakout of Jews from the Acre prison. Through the escape is successful, Akiva dies and Ari is wounded.
When the United Nations votes for the partition of Palestine,
hostilities increase. Kitty remains by Ari's side. During a Syrian raid
Karen and Ari's Arab friend Taha (John Derek) are killed. Ari delivers
an impassioned eulogy at their grave and goes off to continue the fight
for his country. – In the book Taha's and Ari's friendship have already
ended in a quarrel. Karen and Dov Landau plan their future. Karen wants
to continue her work in a kibbutz. The novel ends with a Passover seder. Ari and Kitty wait Karen to attend the annual spring gathering. When she does not come, Ari finds out that she has been killed by terrorists from Gaza, and tells crying the news to Kitty.
After Exodus, Uris began to travel throughout Eastern Europe. With the Greek photographer Dimitrios Harissiadis he collaborated in Exodus Revisited (1960), about places mentioned in his bestseller. For the new novel he collected material from the Memorial Archives in Warsaw and interviewed the survivors of the Holocaust. Mila 18 (1961) was set in the midst of the Warsaw ghetto uprising against the Nazis in 1943. The title of the novel referred to the address of the command post for the Jewish resistance in the city, but its forced Joseph Heller to change the title of his satirical, anti-war novel Catch-18 to Catch-22 (1961). In 1964 Uris and his British publisher, Bantam, were sued for libel by a Polish doctor, Wladislaw Dering. He claimed that Uris had mentioned him by name as one of the surgeons who had committed atrocities against the Jewish prisoners in Auschwitz. The court court ruled against Uris but ordered Dr. Dering to pay the legal costs of both sides. He was awarded only a halfpenny for damage. The incident provided basis for the novel Q.B. VII (Queen's Bench Seven), which was published in 1970 and dealt with British legal practices. In the book Dr. Adam Kelno sues the Pulitzer Prize winning author, Abraham Cady.
While in Aspen, Uris met Margery Edwards, a former model, who was nineteen years his junior. They married in 1968. Margery died
suddenly next year – she shot herself with his .38 revolver. Uris had
threatened to divorce her and a few days before the shooting they had
quarreled. According to Uris, she had "a low boiling point" and a
"compulsion toward perfection." In 1970, Uris married the
photographer Jill Peabody; they had two children. She became his chief
editor and published in collaboration with Uris two books, Ireland: A Terrible Beauty (1975) and Jerusalem: A Song of Songs (1981). They were divorced in 1989. After living more than a decade in Aspen, Colorado, Uris moved to the New York City area.
The background of Topaz (1967) was like from a spy story. An exiled French diplomat, who did not support DeGaulle's foreign policy, approached Uris with papers containing information about French Intelligence Service. The publication of Topaz caused a serious conflict inside the French government. When Alfred Hitchcock decided to adapt the book into screen, Uris wrote for him the screenplay, but Hitchcock was not impressed. The final scrip was written by Samuel A. Taylor, who had worked with the director in Vertigo. The location filming in Paris was delayed. André Malraux, the French Minister of Culture, withdrew the crew's shooting permit as he felt the film was anti-French. At least three different versions for the ending were shot and later Hitchcock regarded the film as a complete disaster. Philippe Thyraud de Vosjoli, the former French diplomat and intelligence official, sued Uris for breach of contract. Evetually he was awarded royalties from the book and film version.
Trinity (1976) was based upon Uris's Irish experiences. While living in Dublin, he had written a photo-essay entitled Ireland: A Terrible Beauty. Trinity was a chronicle of a Northern Irish farm family from the 1840s to 1916, whose fate is connected with two other families, one representing the British aristocracy and the other coming from Scotland. The central characters are a young Catholic rebel and a Protestant girl, who try to find their own place in the country divided by religion and wealth. The story of the Larkin family continued in The Redemption (1995). In these works Uris developed further one of his central themes, the restorative capacity of love and forgiving. Also the situation in the Northern Ireland, the division between two conflicting sides, had similatities with the situation in the Near East.
In The Haj (1984) Uris returned to the lands of Palestine. It depicted the lives of Palestinian Arabs from World War I to Suez war of 1956. One of the central characters is Ishmael, born in Palestine during the riots of 1936. "I am Ishmael", starts the first chapter, not "Call me Ishmael." "Do not forget," he says, "my esteemed reader, that we Arabs are unusually gifted in matters of fantasy and magic. Did we not give the world A Thousand and One Nights?" Uris was threatened by some extremist Arab groups although this time the tragedy in the Middle East was seen through the experience of the Arab nations. Mitla Pass (1988), which Uris devoted to his sister Essie, was an semiautobiographical account of the Sinai campaign of 1956. The protagonist is Gideon Zadok, a gifted young author of a successful World War II novel. He travels to Israel, determined to find material for a new book. There he meets Natasha Solomon, a survivor of the Holocaust. Gideon is torn between her and his love for his wife, who supported him when he was an aspiring writer. On the eve of the '56 Sinai War, Gideon joins the Israeli forces. "God knows he doesn't write like Hemingway, but I hear he drinks as well," says the character of Ben-Gurion to his adviser. Gideon is parachuted to the key junction of Mitla Pass, deep behind enemy lines.
The unpublished children's story entitled Secrets of Forever Island, which Uris wrote after returning from his trip to Eastern Europe, was illustrated by Channing Thieme. The author portrayed himself in the character of Barnaby Appleseed, who wrote "books about war, injustice, tyranny and other miserable subjects because some one had to . . . let people know these things existed". Channing became very close with Uris's young children and spent with him long periods on Shelter Island. For his seventieth birthday party, she arranged a "roast," which comically exposed his faults and shortcomings. Uris was becoming overweight, he did not eat proper meals, but preferred packaged, frozen food, and the only books on display on his bookshelf were ones he had written. Although Uris wrote mostly on near-history, the story of A God in Ruins (1999) was narrated in flashbacks and set in the United States on the eve of the 2008 presidential election. His last novel was O'Hara's Choice (2003). Uris died of renal failure on June 21, 2003 at his home on Shelter Island, N.Y.
For further reading: '"Operation Exodus": Israeli Government Involvement in the Production of Otto Preminger's Film Exodus (1960)' by Giora Goodman, in The Journal of Israeli History, Volume 33: Number 2 (2014); 'Orientalism and Zionism: Dismantling Leon Uris's Exodus' by J. Docker, in Arena Journal, Volume 37/38 (2012); Leon Uris: Life of a Best Seller by Ira Bruce Nadel (2010); Our Exodus: Leon Uris and the Americanization of Israel's Founding Story by M.M. Silver (2010); Leon Uris: A Critical Companion by Kathleen Shine Cain (1998); Contemporary Popular Writers, ed. by David Mote (1997); World Authors 1950-1970, ed. by John Wakeman (1975)