Pat Conroy drew inspiration from his tortured family life and the scenic marshlands of coastal South Carolina for his novels, most notably “The Great Santini,” “The Lords of Discipline” and “The Prince of Tides.”
He died Friday at age 70. His death was confirmed by Todd Doughty, vice president, executive director of publicity at Doubleday. He said the cause of death was pancreatic cancer.
Conroy had a brutal childhood. He was dominated by his sadistic father, Donald, a Marine Corps fighter pilot who beat his wife, drilled his seven children military-style to instill discipline and mercilessly abused his sons, first and foremost Pat, his eldest.
His mother, the former Frances Dolores Peek, known as Peg, was a gauzy romantic who denied her impoverished background and read “Gone With the Wind” to Pat at bedtime, casting family members in the starring roles. She taught her children to lie about the physical punishment meted out by their father.
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Conroy mined the people, the places and the emotional trauma of his childhood and young manhood for his thinly fictionalized novels and a series of memoirs that captivated readers with their openly emotional tone, lurid family stories and lush prose that often reached its most affecting, lyrical pitch when evoking the marshlands around Beaufort, S.C.
“To describe our growing up in the lowcountry of South Carolina,” his alter-ego narrator wrote in “The Prince of Tides,” “I would have to take you to the marsh on a spring day, flush the great blue heron from its silent occupation. Scatter marsh hens as we sink to our knees in mud, open you an oyster with a pocketknife and feed it to you from the shell and say, ‘There. That taste. That’s the taste of my childhood.’ I would say, ‘Breathe deeply,’ and you would breathe and remember that smell for the rest of your life, the bold, fecund aroma of the tidal marsh, exquisite and sensual, the smell of the South in heat, a smell like new milk, semen and spilled wine, all perfumed with seawater.”
The miseries of his childhood and youth, and his troubled relationship with his father, supplied the material for “The Great Santini,” a modest commercial success that gained wider fame when it was made into a film in 1979 with Robert Duvall playing Lt. Col. Bull Meecham, a stand-in for Conroy’s father, and Blythe Danner as his wife.
“The Lords of Discipline,” which drew heavily on Conroy’s years as a student at the Citadel, Charleston’s storied military academy, followed the same script: modest commercial success amplified by translation to the screen in 1983.
A big hit
With “The Prince of Tides,” Conroy hit the jackpot.
His sprawling story of Tom Wingo, an unemployed high school teacher who confronts his past when he travels to New York to help his suicidal sister, sold more than 350,000 copies in hardcover and spent nearly a year on the best-seller lists. After Barbra Streisand directed and played a starring role in the film version, with Nick Nolte as the novel’s hero, Conroy moved to the front ranks of popular American writers.
Some critics found him long-winded and purplish. “Inflation is the order of the day,” Richard Eder wrote of “The Prince of Tides” in The Los Angeles Times. “The characters do too much, feel too much, suffer too much, eat too much, signify too much and above all talk too much.”
Conroy’s legion of admirers, however, hung on his every word, entranced by the naked emotionalism of his male characters, the Lowcountry atmosphere and the page-turning Southern yarns.
“If a reader has experienced a Conroy novel before, he knows the book will be flawed, he knows the book is 500-plus pages, and he knows the characters are, in many ways, the same ones he knew in the last Conroy novel,” reads the entry on the writer in the reference work Contemporary Novelists. “But in many ways, it’s like returning to old friends and familiar places, and the lyricism of the prose is more than most readers can resist.”
Lots of moves
Donald Patrick Conroy was born on Oct. 26, 1945, in Atlanta. Because of his father’s career, the family moved constantly, and Pat attended 11 schools in 12 years before an assignment to the Marine Corps Air Station in Beaufort brought stability.
Conroy embraced his new hometown with the grateful passion of a refugee. At Beaufort High School he earned a starting spot as point guard on the basketball team, an experience he turned into the 2002 memoir “My Losing Season,” and flourished under the guidance of an English teacher who introduced him to the work of Thomas Wolfe and encouraged him to write.
Pressured by his father, Conroy accepted a scholarship to the Citadel, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in English in 1967 and gathered the material for two books. The first was a collection of reminiscences about the school’s assistant commander in charge of discipline, a colorful figure known as The Boo.
Conroy wrote “The Boo” while teaching English at Beaufort High School and paid a vanity publisher to print 500 copies, borrowing the money from a bank. The Boo reappeared as The Bear in “The Lords of Discipline,” a twisty tale of loyalty, subterfuge, racial tension and cruelty centered on 10 undergraduates at the fictional Carolina Military Institute.
After two years teaching at Beaufort High School, and having received no response to his application to join the Peace Corps, Conroy taught for a year at a two-room schoolhouse on Daufuskie Island, off the South Carolina coast near Hilton Head Island. His impoverished students, all of them black, spoke a local dialect, Gullah, and had almost no awareness of the world outside their island. His unorthodox attempts to broaden their horizons caused the superintendent of schools to fire him after a year.
Conroy set down his experiences in “The Water Is Wide,” a book he originally intended to self-publish but submitted to a New York agent, Julian Bach, at the urging of a friend.
Bach called him with the good news that Houghton Mifflin had offered $7,500 for the book. Conroy, unfamiliar with the concept of a publisher’s advance, said that he could probably get the book printed more cheaply in Beaufort. “Pat, you do understand, they pay you,” Bach said.
The book, published in 1972, was made into the 1974 film “Conrack,” with Jon Voight; it was the first of four Conroy novels to be turned into a movie. “I write a straight story line, and I guess that’s what they need,” Conroy told Publishers Weekly in 1986. “The dialogue also seems to be serviceable in a Hollywood way. But most important, I do the thing that Southerners do naturally – I tell stories.”
His reliance on his family history caused problems. Aunts and grandparents read his works, aghast, and begged him to stop. His sister Carol Ann, a poet, cut off relations with him after her battles with mental illness were dramatized in the figure of Savannah, the narrator’s sister in “The Prince of Tides.”
When his mother was dying of leukemia, as he recounted to The Guardian of London in 1996, she told him, “Son, I find it hard to relax when I’m dying, knowing you’re going to write down every damn word I say.” On being told that she was included, in fictional form, in “The Prince of Tides,” she requested that Meryl Streep play the part. (It went to Kate Nelligan.)
Donald Conroy, the father known to his children as Godzilla, was a special case. Initially enraged by his portrayal in “The Great Santini,” he came to relish the role. He bought Great Santini vanity plates for his car and often appeared alongside his son at book signings.
“He signed longer inscriptions than I would,” Conroy told the Star Tribune of Minneapolis in 2013. “He’d write, ‘I hope you enjoy my son’s work of fiction,' and he’d underline ‘fiction' five or six times, and sign it, ‘Ol’ lovable, likable Donald Conroy.’”
Literary fame did not win Conroy any points with his father. When asked by an Atlanta magazine to identify who read his son’s books, the elder Conroy replied, “That’s easy: psychiatrists, homosexuals, extreme liberals and women.” Conroy’s father died in 1998. His mother died in 1984, having divorced Conroy several years earlier. At her divorce trial, she presented the judge with a copy of “The Great Santini” as evidence.
After “The Prince of Tides,” Conroy labored for nearly a decade on his next novel, “Beach Music,” suffering a nervous breakdown – not his first – along the way.
The suicide of his brother Tom in 1994 found its way into the novel, about a travel writer in Rome who returns home to South Carolina to visit his mother on her deathbed. His last novel, “South of Broad” (2009), told the tale of high school friends in Charleston who reunite two years after their graduation in 1969.
Conroy produced several works of nonfiction, including “The Pat Conroy Cookbook: Recipes and Stories of My Life” (1999), “My Reading Life” (2010) and “The Death of Santini: The Story of a Father and His Son” (2013). At his death, he was at work on a memoir about living in Atlanta in the 1970s.
Conroy’s first two marriages ended in divorce. He is survived by his wife, writer Cassandra King; two daughters, Megan and Susannah Ansley Conroy; two sisters, Kathy and Carol Ann; three brothers, Jim, Tim and Mike; and seven grandchildren.
“One of the greatest gifts you can get as a writer is to be born into an unhappy family,” Conroy told writer John Berendt for a Vanity Fair profile in 1995. “I could not have been born into a better one.” He added: “I don’t have to look very far for melodrama. It’s all right there.”