Herman Wouk

Active - 1941 - 1989  |   Born - May 27, 1915   |   Genres - Drama, War

Share on

Biography by Bruce Eder

Herman Wouk was, for much of the second half of the 20th century, one of the top-selling authors in the world, responsible for such books as Marjorie Morningstar, The Caine Mutiny, Youngblood Hawke, The Winds of War, and War and Remembrance. Wouk was born in New York City, the son Abraham Isaac Wouk and the former Esther Levine, both Russian-Jewish immigrants, in 1915. His father had risen from abject poverty to become a successful businessman, and the family then lived in the Bronx. Wouk graduated from Townsend Harris High School and attended Columbia University as a Comparative Literature and Philosophy major. While he was there, he also spent a good deal of time writing for the college humor journal and authoring the renowned varsity shows, the same vehicle through which Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart had first been noticed. So it went with Wouk -- he was hired as a gagman on radio and subsequently became a scriptwriter; by the second half of the 1930s, he'd risen to the pinnacle of that field, as a writer for Fred Allen, then one of the top entertainers on radio. At one point, he was among the highest paid creative men in American entertainment.

Wouk left Allen to join the Department of the Treasury when war broke out in Europe, producing radio programs that promoted the purchase of government bonds. He probably could have stayed with the Treasury Department as long as he wished, but following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Wouk joined the United States Navy and was commissioned an officer. He was assigned to a destroyer-minesweeper, the Zane, where he served for three years in the Pacific. During that time, in order to relieve the many hours and days of monotony, he began work on his first novel, a satire of radio entitled Aurora Dawn, which was published in 1946. In 1948, he published his second book, City Boy, an autobiographical novel, which seemed to reflect his own background in numerous details about the life of its hero, Herbie Bookbinder. His next book, Slattery's Hurricane, which dealt with navy weather pilots, was filmed by 20th Century Fox in 1949 from a screenplay co-authored by Wouk under director André De Toth, with Richard Widmark as the star. By the early '50s, a second Wouk story had come to the screen, courtesy of Columbia Pictures, under the title Her First Romance, starring a then grown up Margaret O'Brien.

For all of Wouk's previous successes, nobody could have predicted the triumph of his novel The Caine Mutiny (1951), or its effect on readers. Loosely based on Wouk's experiences during the war -- though he was quick to point out that the events central to its drama were purely fiction -- the book told a story of life aboard a destroyer-minesweeper during World War II, using language rich in metaphor and filled with beautifully drawn characters of a kind that hadn't been seen before in a modern war novel. The book earned a Pulitzer Prize and soon soared to the top of the bestseller lists, becoming one of the biggest-selling English-language novels of the 20th century. The Caine Mutiny was so successful that it quickly spawned a stage adaptation, a television production, and, in 1954, an immensely popular movie produced by Stanley Kramer and directed by Edward Dmytryk, starring Humphrey Bogart, Van Johnson, and Robert Francis. The book's impact tended to overshadow Wouk's earlier work, as well as his parallel career as a playwright, which included his 1949 Broadway drama, The Traitor.

The Caine Mutiny has remained a perennially popular book for more than 50 years, a steady seller in paperbacks more than a generation after its initial publication, but not even its popularity hinted at the reaction of audiences to his novel Marjorie Morningstar (1955). From the day of its publication, the book -- dealing with a modern, young Jewish-American woman's efforts to find a place for herself and her religion in the modern world -- was a juggernaut, selling in the millions in hardcover and later in paperback, and still selling a half century later. Bringing it to the screen, however, entailed all kinds of problems that needed to be solved first. The Jewish faith, which was Wouk's religion, had figured to greater or lesser degrees in his major novels up to that point, but Marjorie Morningstar was about being Jewish. That element of the book, its vast sales notwithstanding, made it extremely difficult to film. Apart from the fact that movies generally had to appeal to a larger audience than books to succeed, Hollywood was often reticent to film specifically Jewish subject matter. Warner Bros. bought the rights (for a reported million dollars, an extraordinary amount in those days) and spent over a year trying to work up a script that stayed true to the book while de-emphasizing the story's religious focus; casting was also a major problem, but when the smoke cleared, a 123-minute drama emerged, starring Natalie Wood and Gene Kelly. Marjorie Morningstar (1958) was a box-office success and has endured reasonably well, though most people who have read the book remember the film as a relatively superficial treatment of a very serious and complex novel.

In 1959, Wouk published the nonfiction work This Is My God, a very personal examination of Judaism. Wouk continued to write bestsellers over the next 30 years, but his influence on movies gradually faded as a new generation of decision-makers came to Hollywood. During the 1980s, however, Wouk's books The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, both devoted to World War II (and both returning to themes and subjects in his work that went back at least to The Caine Mutiny) became the bases for a pair of massive television miniseries produced at ABC. Those were to mark the peak and the end of Wouk's direct influence on popular culture, at least where movies were concerned. His titles, especially the books from the 1940s and '50s, continue to sell in the 21st century, and the 1954 film The Caine Mutiny remains a major and highly respected movie. A more recent made-for-cable version of the story was less well-received.