Pat Conroy, ‘Prince of Tides’ Author, Dies
Author Pat Conroy died on Friday, confirmed by Todd Doughty, the vice president and executive director of publicity at Doubleday.
Conroy was born in 1945 in Atlanta and moved around because of his father’s career as a Marine Corps fighter pilot, 23 times before he was 18. Conroy had a notoriously brutal childhood. His family life was dictated by his abusive, sadistic father. His father raised his children with military discipline. Pat, as the eldest, got the worst abuse. His mother, Peg, who had been beaten with the children read “Gone With the Wind” to Pat at bedtime and taught her children to lie about their abuse. His dark childhood and the rest of his experience growing up in the marshy coastal south created the distinct lyrical setting and emotional tone of his captivating novels and memoirs.
When he finally settled down he began to flourish on the Beaufort High School basketball team and was encouraged by an English teacher to study the work of Thomas Wolfe and to write.
He was forced to go to the Citadel by his father but it was there that he studied English and began to gather material for his first books. He taught English at his old high school as he waited to hear back from the Peace Corps. Never receiving a response, he went on to teach for a year in a two-room schoolhouse on Daufuskie Island, an island off the coast of South Carolina near Hilton Head. He used unorthodox methods to broaden the horizon of the isolated population caused the school to fire him after a year. Conroy wrote about his experiences in The Water Is Wide which was picked up by New York agent Julian Bach and was Conroy’s first novel to be turned into a film.
Conroy’s The Great Santini was a thinly veiled biography of his childhood abuse. It had moderate commercial success but really gained wide fame when it was made into a 1979 film staring Robert Duvall and Blythe Tanner. (The family’s eventual reconciliation brought about The Death of Santini.) The Lords of Discipline drew from Conroy’s military academy experiences (also with a moderately successful film in 1983). But it wasn’t until Conroy’s Prince of Tides that Conroy that he was able to captivate audiences with the story of Tom Wingo, an unemployed high school teacher who goes to New York to help his suicidal sister. Barbra Streisand directed and starred in the film version opposite Nick Nolte
It is perhaps one of the critics who didn’t like it, Richard Eder of Los Angeles Times, who really captured the magic of the novel when he wrote, “The characters do too much, feel too much, suffer too much, eat too much, signify too much and above all talk too much.”
Many of his fans note that the beauty of his books was that they all held something similar about them, with similar settings, characters, and tone, “it’s like returning to old friends and familiar places.”
His family, including aunts and grandparents, begged him to stop writing. His sister, Carol Ann, a poet, cut off relations with him after her mental illness was dramatized in The Prince of Tides. And when his mother died of leukemia in 1996 Conroy relayed to The Guardian in 1996 that she said to him, “Son, I find it hard to relax when I’m dying, knowing you’re going to write down every damn word I say.” When she divorced Conroy’s father in 1984 however, she presented the judge with a copy of The Great Santini.
Conroy’s father, however, was only initially enraged by his portrayal. He came to relish his role and often appeared with his son at book signings.
Mr. Conroy told The Minneapolis Star Tribune in 2013, “He signed longer inscriptions than I would. He’d write, ‘I hope you enjoy my son’s work of fiction,’ and he’d underline ‘fiction’ five or six times.”
When Conroy’s father died in 1998 Pat said, “I grew up hating my father. It was the great surprise of my life, after [“The Death of Santini”] came out, what an extraordinary man had raised me.”
Conroy’s first two marriages ended in divorce. He is survived by his wife, writer Cassandra King, and his four daughters, five stepchildren and seven grandchildren.
“One of the gifts you can get as a writer is to be born into an unhappy family,” said Conroy to John Berendt for a Vanity Fair profile in 1995.
Conroy suffered diabetes, high blood pressure, and liver failure in recent years, and died after a month-long battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 70 years old. He was working on both a novel and a memoir about living in 1970s Atlanta.
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