The dramatic story of a novelist whose life constantly provided his best material, this biography of the best-selling author of Exodus, Mila 18, QB VII, and Trinity maps the literary landscape of mid-twentieth-century America, the mainstreaming of Jewish writing, and the rise of the celebrity author.
As the best-selling author of Exodus, Mila 18, QB VII, and Trinity, Leon Uris blazed a path to celebrity with books that readers could not put down. Uris's thirteen novels sold millions of copies, spent months on the best-seller lists, appeared in fifty languages, and have been adapted into equally popular movies and TV miniseries. Few other writers equaled Uris's fame in the mid-twentieth century. His success fueled the rise of mass-market paperbacks, movie tie-ins, and celebrity author tours. Beloved by the public, Uris was, not surprisingly, dismissed by literary critics. Until now, his own life—as full of drama as his fiction—has never been the subject of a book.
In Leon Uris: Life of a Best Seller, Ira Nadel traces Uris from his disruptive youth to his life-changing experiences as a marine in World War II. These experiences, coupled with Uris's embrace of his Judaism and desire to write, led to his unprecedented success and the lavish excesses of a career as a best-selling author. Nadel reveals that Uris lived the adventures he described, including his war experiences in the Pacific (Battle Cry), life-threatening travels in Israel (Exodus), visit to Communist Poland (Mila 18), libel trial in Britain (QB VII), and dangerous sojourn in fractious Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic (Trinity). Nadel also demonstrates that Uris's talent for writing action-packed, yet thoroughly researched, novels meshed perfectly with the public's desire to revisit and understand the tumultuous events of recent history. This made him far more popular (and wealthy) than more literary authors, while paving the way for writers such as Irving Wallace and Tom Clancy.
- Prologue. "American Marine, Jewish Writer"
- Chapter 1. "The Truth Will Rise"
- Chapter 2. Eagle, Globe, and Anchor
- Chapter 3. Battle Cry at Larkspur
- Chapter 4. Hollywood
- Chapter 5. Exodus, or "The Book"
- Chapter 6. History and Resistance
- Chapter 7. Love and Litigation
- Chapter 8. "Short Titles, Long Books, Big Sales"
- Chapter 9. Ireland
- Chapter 10. Return
- Chapter 11. Russian Renewal
- Chapter 12. Redemption, or America Redux
Quantico National Cemetery, just south of Washington, contains more than 23,000 military graves on 725 acres. On a gently sloping hill facing Thomas Jefferson Road, several hundred gravestones of equal height stand in quiet formation. One, near the bottom, is slightly more noticeable. Beside a soldier who died in Vietnam, and below a marine and sailor who fought in Vietnam and Korea, is the writer Leon Uris. Under a Jewish star, his name, rank, service, war action, and dates are followed by his own simple epitaph: "American Marine / Jewish Writer." The order of the words is telling: it underscores a self-image that this biography will alternately reaffirm and question.
Burial as a marine forms one bookend to his life. The other is his enlistment at seventeen, a month after Pearl Harbor. From discipline and self-reliance to patriotism and duty, the Marine Corps instilled in Uris a moral code and an American identity that defined his career. His outrage at injustice and persecution found reinforcement in the spirit of the corps and its commitment to helping liberty defeat oppression. "This is my war—personally," he proudly wrote in a letter of November 1943. He meant it. Underlining his devotion to the marines are his first and last novels, Battle Cry and O'Hara's Choice: both concentrate on the corps. There were other influences, of course, from his left-leaning father to his Hollywood screenwriting. But the marines provided the foundation of his life, and he was thrilled to be one of them.
Fame came suddenly. When Exodus appeared in 1958—Uris was thirty-four—it sold more copies than any other American book except Gone with the Wind, spending more than a year as a New York Times best seller, including twenty weeks at number one. Exodus has never been out of print. At one point, it was selling 2,500 copies a day. The advance printing for the paperback was 1.5 million copies. It was soon increased to 2.9 million. To date, Exodus has gone through eighty-seven printings and appeared in fifty languages. QB VII stayed at the top of the best-seller list for nine weeks, selling over 300,000 copies in hardback. Trinity held the number one position for thirty-six weeks, remaining on the overall list for seventy-three, the longest-running continuous fiction best seller of the 1970s (Exodus lasted a mere seventy-one weeks). At one point, Trinity was selling 10,000 copies a week. The doyen of popular literature, Uris reigned over the best-seller list, his works equal in sales to the combined total of John Hersey, James Jones, Norman Mailer, and Saul Bellow.
His decline was equally precipitous. After Trinity, the interest in Uris's work fell off, partly because of competitors and partly because he substituted research for action, detail for drama. The Haj was too partisan, Mitla Pass too indulgent. Redemption, his longest novel, never found its audience. Later titles like A God in Ruins and the posthumous O'Hara's Choice similarly disappointed. But at his height, David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, as well as Bobby Sands, the imprisoned Irish Republican Army supporter, admired his work. The heiress Barbara Hutton was photographed carrying a copy of Battle Cry, while a long-legged chorus girl on The Ed Sullivan Show was shown leaning against a television camera, engrossed in a paperback of the same novel. Joe DiMaggio owned a copy of Exodus, as did President Truman. A future prime minister of Ireland—Charles J. Haughey—praised Trinity at the time of its publication.
What explains this popular success? How did this high school dropout, ex-marine, screenwriter, and talented author become an international sensation who was read by prime ministers and prisoners, socialites and showgirls? Such questions led me to write this book, which, as it unfolded, became the story of the rise of American popular fiction, mass-market paperback publishing, celebrity authorship, and authors' ways of making a living. Uris's impact intrigued me: how could one who wrote so ineptly still find such a wide and persistent audience? How did he succeed when greater writers did not, if success is measured by sales, readership, and public attention? Uris drew crowds; Faulkner did not. How did he achieve international recognition when more adventurous and artistically important writers did not?
This biography is also the story of what happens when popular culture collides with critical opinion. Few critics thought of Uris as a major writer, but many recognized his power as a storyteller whose subject was history. Few critics praised his literary skills, but readers did not care. His books were worldwide sensations that fueled a dazzling life of first-class travel, an estate on a mountainside in Aspen, Colorado, and marriages to a series of beautiful wives. The self-dramatizing writer Felix Abravanel in Philip Roth's The Ghost Writer comes to mind, although Uris seems to exceed even his narcissistic excesses.
Part of the explanation for Uris's success lies in the nature of postwar popular writing: realistic, genre-based fiction that never disappointed its readers. Its heroes triumphed as they vanquished evil in the pursuit of justice. The writing style was conventional, and the form repeated itself to duplicate earlier pleasures. Uris followed the practice, relying on dramatic presentations of recent history built around the exploits of larger-than-life figures and set in vaguely understood but exotic locales: the Pacific, Greece, Israel, Poland, Germany, Ireland, New Zealand. The western—he wrote the screenplay for Gunfight at the O.K. Corral—was also a critical influence, partly because it pitted good against evil, right against wrong, while showing how violence threatened domestic life.
Transferred to twentieth-century historical fiction, such writing provided a formula for success while repeatedly proving Uris's financial and literary worth. His heroes—from Ari Ben Canaan in Exodus to Conor Larkin in Trinity—consistently triumph. Uris and his protagonists, however, did not have time for introspection; they concentrated on action, plot, and movement. Psychological reflection was a distraction. His work, anticipating that of both Irving Wallace and Tom Clancy, was instructive and entertaining, blending information with romance. The public loved it.
"Research to me is as important or more important than the writing," Uris said just before Redemption appeared in 1995. The comment is apt because it identifies his skill but also his weakness. His early novels established their authority through detailed research, but it was often subordinate to, or at least in competition with, character and drama. This is clear in Exodus, Mila 18, and Trinity. But with his later work, notably The Haj and Redemption, Uris's research dominated narrative and plot, inflating the story. At 827 pages and ninety-one chapters, Redemption is Uris's longest work. But its anticipated success never materialized, and he became caught in a cycle of money woes and debt.
But Uris was part of another phenomenon: the growing adaptation of novels into movies or television miniseries. James Jones's From Here to Eternity set the pattern for such treatments of popular writing in the movies, becoming an Oscar-winning film. Battle Cry, Exodus, and Topaz (directed by Alfred Hitchcock) are Uris examples. Uris's QB VII (1970) became the first television miniseries and the winner of six Emmys. It was seen by millions of viewers over its two-night showing in 1974, which boosted sales of the book dramatically. Uris was also part of the postwar fiction boom that responded to a public eager to understand the immediate past through storytelling. Fiction could make that past both more comprehensible and more exciting than straightforward historical accounts. Uris quickly discovered a formula that was later adopted by authors such as Joseph Heller (Catch-22), William Styron (Sophie's Choice), Alan Furst (Dark Star), and Louis de Bernières (Corelli's Mandolin). He also pioneered the popularization of novelists through talk-show appearances, author signings, book tours, and media features. He was on The Ed Sullivan Show and featured in People Magazine. It seemed absolutely right for Uris to appear in a photograph with Jacqueline Susann, each holding the other's best seller: Susann confidently gripping Exodus, Uris nervously holding Valley of the Dolls.
Financially, Uris benefited from the attention. He became one of the wealthiest writers in America. He traveled around the world to research new works, meet readers, and parade his wives. His second marriage made front-page, banner news in the Los Angeles Times. His third was a society story in New York, the wedding heralded as one of the most important held at the Algonquin Hotel, de facto headquarters of the New York literary world. It was the site of the Algonquin Round Table, a noted and daily gathering of literary notables during the twenties. When he faced libel charges in England in 1964, in what was then the longest libel trial in English history, the case made international headlines; when he went to Russia in 1989, he was mobbed.
But who was this man and why was he such a sensation? Did Uris remake the mold of the popular writer? And how did he fit in with the growing popularity and promotion of writers such as James Michener, Herman Wouk, Norman Mailer, and Irving Wallace? His novels changed the popular perception of Israel and Ireland—but how? Did publicity shape his career when criticism did not? These are some of the questions that engaged me during the course of the research, travel, and interviews that provided the material for this book.
Uris was never ambiguous about his aims. In a 1957 letter to his father, written while working on Exodus, he outlined his approach to winning readers: "I thoroughly disagree that the 'duty of the literary writer is to elevate the taste artistically and literarily and not lower the taste of the uncritical reader.' . . . The duty of a writer is to translate life as HE SEES IT." A week later, he wrote: "The most important function of a writer is as a chronicler of his times." Uris was not ashamed to write for a living. In fact, he saw it as a noble cause: "Writers who 'intentionally' try to reach for 'immortality' generally fall flat on their faces such as Wouk in Morningstar and Steinbeck in East of Eden. I find absolutely nothing dirty about a writer, musician or painter making a living . . . although, in some quarters this is looked upon as a weakness."
Uris adopted William S. Burroughs's neat prescription for best sellers: "write something that people know something about and want to know more about." Uris knew how to expand history and translate it so that ordinary readers could understand it. He also sensed a postwar interest in the recent, though incompletely understood, events that had occurred in Europe and the Middle East. This made his fiction compelling. With his ability to condense history into a single paragraph or page, and his remarkable narrative skills, he emotionally engaged his readers in his stories when mass-market paperbacks were finding a wide audience and movie tie-ins and celebrity author tours were starting. Uris took full advantage of all these developments. As a self-promoter and celebrity, he was invited to appear on television shows as well as at graduation ceremonies, conventions, and fund-raising events. He also understood the value and appeal of the movies, and from his experience as a screenwriter, he adopted techniques that would shape his books. Uris also made headlines by negotiating some of the most lucrative book and film contracts of his day.
Uris was a mythmaker who redefined the cultural status of the Jew for North Americans. Coming from the South—he was born in Baltimore and spent his youth in that city and in Norfolk—he understood what it meant to be an outsider. Prejudice was a reality, as was failure. Uris witnessed his father's failure at numerous careers. The experience turned Uris into an activist determined to present "tough Jews" who succeed. His father's activities in leftist groups reinforced his motivation to improve his condition. Uris's Jewish heroes strenuously reject Shylock's belief that "suff'rance is the badge of all our tribe." For Uris, the badge was a gun. His heroes are unafraid. His iconic image of the Jewish freedom fighter, represented on the cover of Exodus and the wrought-iron fence at his Aspen home, symbolized his stance, in both his own aggressive nature and in his fiction. His experiences in the marines proved to him that Jews could be fighters and be accepted as such. He also recognized this quality in himself, candidly admitting that he used to think of himself "as a very sad little Jewish boy isolated in a Southern town, undersized, asthmatic [but] when I read all my correspondence again, I realized I was a hustler. I was tough. I used everything to my advantage. I could be ruthless."
The social function of literature dominated Uris's idea of the author. He rejected the personal as a literary indulgence: "Too many writers today serve personal manias rather than a cause. They spend too much time psychoanalyzing themselves in print. Great writers in the past were aroused by social causes—The Grapes of Wrath, The Wall. I prefer to write about people caught up in the tides of history." But as part of this, a writer needed to be angry. This, for Uris, meant "having strong motivation. Something must be driving you to make this maniacal commitment to that torture machine the typewriter."
For Uris, the anger that gave a writer purpose appears to have originated in personal sources, although he rarely acknowledged them. Rather, he transferred them to, and wrote about, history, but always as a struggle. His criticism of Jewish writers who turned their lives into their fiction was a reaction to his own fear and avoidance of such subjects—although by Mitla Pass (1988), Uris was willing to acknowledge them, at least in fictional form.
The origin of Uris's personal anger may well have been his father's failures, which were projected onto his son as constant pressure to succeed. The repeated prodding of his son to write better masked the father's own shortcomings and potted education, which was more political than historical. He relentlessly criticized Uris, mixing advice with guilt: "God forbid I should tell you what to write. I am only offering a suggestion that should be carefully followed, FOR YOUR SAKE," a letter reprinted in Mitla Pass exhorts (MP, 24).
Whereas Uris's father's was candid, his mother was reserved. In addition, her distrust of love became a likely source of detachment and unhappiness, which drove Uris to present women unsympathetically in his fiction. The conflict he witnessed between his parents, leading to their divorce when he was six, also contributed to his aggressive posture, a defense against other threats to his emotional or personal security—he did not let anyone interfere with what he thought was right. Hence, his determination to leave high school to join the marines, a decision that was more personal than patriotic. He wanted to be independent and free of his family, even if doing so cost him his life.
Conflict—personal, social, political, and cultural—is the heart of Uris's writing. It could be between men in a marine squad (Battle Cry), between a plaintiff and a defendant (QB VII), or between England and Ireland (Trinity). For Uris, life, whether actual or fictional, consists of confrontation, which found early expression when he received the galleys of his first novel, Battle Cry. The publisher had removed the first-person narrator. Uris had to decide whether to accept the change, knowing that a refusal could have jeopardized publication. Defiantly, he stood his ground and refused to accept the modification, knowing that if he compromised, he could not go back. The publisher gave in.
Uris's interpretation of modern Jewish history confirmed his resolute and aggressive behavior. He believed that Judaism, and Israel in particular, had survived because adversity had made it tough. The Jew was a fighter who challenged social injustice despite often insurmountable odds. Although not the first to express this position, Uris was the most vocal writer to advance this view, not only in his characters, but also in lawsuits and other battles involving his books. Uris had heroes: Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, and John Steinbeck. He placed himself squarely in a tradition of American social fiction, although he shifted the arena to Europe or the Middle East with heroes who were Israeli, Polish, or Irish. Or if they were American, like Major Huxley in Battle Cry or Abraham Cady in QB VII, they seemed more at home in foreign countries.
Uris's aggressiveness synthesized resentment against his father's weaknesses, and his status as an outsider reinforced his determination to succeed as a novelist. From the start, he aimed to write best sellers, and Battle Cry (1953) did not disappoint: it went through two printings before publication and was one of the most successful titles ever published in hardcover by Putnam. Its appearance in paperback, a month or so before the release of the 1955 movie staring Dorothy Malone, Aldo Ray, Van Heflin, and the young Tab Hunter, ensured even greater sales. His second novel, The Angry Hills, although a constant seller, had less startling success, but his third, Exodus, was an international hit with over twenty million copies in print.
Uris appeared at a time when blockbuster novels were shaping the best-seller list. Big subjects in big books by name authors were beginning to control the list in the fifties and, most importantly, were being read by men as well as women. Historical romances no longer dominated. At the same time, being Jewish was becoming mainstream: Uris, Norman Mailer, Herman Wouk, Meyer Levin, Jerome Weidman, Harry Golden, and Saul Bellow were leading the way, followed by a younger set that included Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, and Joseph Heller. Mass-market sales of paperback books were also taking off, so print runs in the hundreds of thousands for major titles like Marjorie Morningstar, Exodus, or Dr. Zhivago were not uncommon. Interestingly, the decade of the fifties began with a religious best seller as number one, The Cardinal by Henry Morton (1950), and ended with another, Exodus by Uris (1958).12
Setting, history, romance, and plots based on recent events (of which the public often had incomplete knowledge) led to Uris's success. Marketing, promotion, and film tie-ins also helped. Topaz (1967) is representative. Drawing on the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, Uris, who did extensive research and had the assistance of the former head of French intelligence in Washington, pits the Soviet Union and the United States against each other in a Cold War confrontation. The polarities of communism and democracy result in a characteristic struggle of a formulaic kind, rendered vivid by inside information of actual espionage operations. Reviews were mixed, a number of them referring to the work as a "non-fiction novel" or an example of the "Uris School of Non-Fiction Fiction." But even a virulent review in the New York Times—Uris takes "130,000 words to display his incompetence"—did not deter readers. They loved the book and its combination of espionage, contemporary history, and romance. It remained on the best-seller lists for forty-eight weeks and had a new burst of sales when Hitchcock released his film of the novel.
Uris's appeal also came from the moral intensity of his writing, which was propelled by hatred of injustice and abuse. Part of this originated in his father's radicalism and political involvement and in his mother's support for such causes. There is an urgency to his style and characters that makes his work both gripping and awkward. Stylistically, Uris is often melodramatic and mannered, matching clichés with stereotypes. Yet his narrative skill pulls readers into his stories, forcing them to overlook the repetitious phrasing, unimaginative language, and clumsy syntax. And he offers readers an emotional, though not always authoritative, sense of experience, which originated in his Hemingwayesque need to experience the events he described. Uris became a hero to himself as well as to his public. The author photo on the rear jacket of Exodus says it clearly: Uris stands in fatigues next to a military jeep while on patrol in the Negev, his left hand on its MG 34 machine gun, which is pointed skyward. The message is clear: here is a writer willing to challenge danger and do battle—for a country, himself, and literature. Hemingway, not Henry James, was his model. This naturally led to socially engaged, politically alert, morally aware fiction filled with macho action at the expense of emotion and complexity.
Uris's life constantly proved to be his best text, beginning with his war experiences in the Pacific (Battle Cry), his dangerous travel in Israel (Exodus), his visit to communist Poland (Mila 18), his trips to occupied Berlin (Armageddon), his libel trial in Britain (QB VII), eight months in fractious Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic (Trinity), and reliving the history of the marines (O'Hara's Choice). The list highlights only a few of his adventures, overlooking a secret flight to Iran to bring Yemenite Jewish refugees (who had fled there) to Israel, threats on his life by the French intelligence service as a result of Topaz, and a dangerous trip to the Soviet Union in 1989, where he received an underground copy of Exodus.
Uris also realized that his subject matter suited his style, which is overheated, expository, and dramatic. His uncompromising nature and behavior, in turn, fashioned his essentialist presentation of history: Arab versus Jew, English versus Irish, and culture versus anarchy were his unwavering dichotomies. History for Uris was never gray; it exhibited an exhilarating moral clarity that appealed to his readers.
Realism infused with romance characterizes his aesthetic. Such a style often sacrificed accuracy, but his readers rarely complained. Story demanded the alteration of facts. For example, few took issue with his rewriting the history of the ship Exodus, which in reality never transported a cargo of children from Cyprus to Israel. The actual ship, the former Chesapeake Bay steamer President Warfield, had to unload its European refugees—who had been picked up in France, not Cyprus—onto British prison ships after two British destroyers rammed the boat as it tried to land in Israel in July 1947. The British then sent the refugees not to Cyprus, as originally promised, but on a return voyage to France, and then to Germany.
For Uris, the more tangible the source material, the better the imaginative possibilities. Reference books, maps, autobiographies, letters, histories, journals, government documents, travel brochures, and even issues of National Geographic provided inspiration. The result was the kind of exactitude valued by Hemingway. At the end of A Farewell to Arms, he writes: "Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates." Uris understood this. He filled his novels with information, and his characters with knowledge, that often seems remarkable. His public responded, making his sales among the largest ever recorded in bookselling. Criticized for sloppy writing, one-dimensional characters, and wooden dialogue, Uris was nonetheless one of the most popular and successful novelists in America, perhaps in the world, for almost thirty years. He was often the envy of others, as he sensed in 1967: "It seems that I have committed a cardinal sin in my profession—I have become a success." This biography will examine how he achieved that status and at what cost. It will also explore what success meant during the emergence of the best seller and how publishers helped shape such a career.
The title of this book confirms the transformation of Uris into a celebrity, something new for writers of the fifties and sixties. He did this partly through promotion and the projection of himself as a romantic figure who traveled the globe to write. A photo of him preparing to board an SAS flight from Copenhagen to Rome en route to Israel to begin Exodus illustrates this clearly. Dressed in a leather jacket with a shoulder bag and a carry-on, the youthful writer is exuberant. His smile is infectious. The entire world is before him: "Scandinavia, Europe, Far East, Asia-Africa" reads the sign next to him. There is a sense of adventure in the journey, of expectation and confidence best summarized perhaps in the phrase "foreign correspondent." The photographs of Uris that appear on the backs of his novels enlarge the idea of the author as explorer. For Uris, image and author are one. Both are best sellers.
Thank God English and writing have little to do with each other.
Leon Uris, in a 1959 interview
That response to a note sent home after he failed English for the third time in high school unmasks Leon Uris's love of writing. In his novels, speeches, lectures, and essays, he understood that words could change the way people act. But you had to be on guard against rhetoric, which deceives, as a paragraph written in high school and entitled "The Truth Will Rise" makes clear. In it, Uris is skeptical about public language: in America, he writes, "we get handmade, lie-riddled news that fears telling the truth . . . We are being blinded to the facts and bullied into another war." Other early documents match this in intensity and protest. A student poem indicts the lynching of a black man, and a second text opens with a chained fighter of the working class but ends with a stanza imitating the Communist Party's "Internationale."
The tone of complaint and the voice of politicized, assured youth, mixed with exhortation, anticipate Uris's later anger at and censure of personal abuse, political mistreatment, and the exploitation of individuals by governments and the law. The prose passage also anticipates his own choleric nature, which resulted in fractious relationships and lawsuits. Otto Preminger, Alfred Hitchcock, and various publishers were among his targets.
Liberation, politics, and protest—the features of these early works—reveal the deep-seated character of Uris's drive for social action, which would express itself in works like Exodus and Trinity, novels in which national and personal freedoms intersect. His early writing, whether criticizing workers' lack of rights or the absence of free speech, contains the seeds of Uris's later support of and determination to aid Russian refuseniks, Jewish immigrants, and history's victims.
The source of Uris's persistent outrage at injustice was his family, more specifically the political ideals and actions of his father. Wolf Yerusalimsky, later known as Wolf Yerushlami (man of Jerusalem), and then, in America, as William Wolf Uris, was an impassioned, restless, left-leaning activist who constantly challenged, angered, and upset his son. But Uris could not shake him: Uris wrote in detail to his father about his war experiences, the progress of his writing, his success (and failures) as an author, and his personal upheavals. History, especially that of Israel, was a constant topic between them, as was the unfair reaction of critics to Uris's work. Guilt was another part of Uris's persistent reports: should letters fail to appear regularly, the father would berate the son and complain of his neglect. Uris's urge to publish was partly an attempt to gain his father's respect for his career as a writer, as if he were responding to the remark made by Saul Bellow's father when he learned his son wanted to be an author: "You write and then you erase. You call that a profession?"
William Wolf Uris
A remarkable document details the life of Wolf Yerushlami: a 1975 autobiography written at the urging of his wife, son, and stepdaughter. It begins with a chilling dedication: "To the memory of my mother Lea and my sister Luby who were murdered by the Nazis in Treblinka in 1942" (AUTO, n.p.). Wolf was born on 25 April 1896 in the city of Novogrudok in White Russia (now Belarus), the oldest of seven children. He began school at age five; by twelve, he was fluent in Hebrew and Yiddish and had begun to study Russian and math. But he also began to rebel and refused to continue at the cheder, or religious school, becoming a messenger for a loan association. After he threatened to move out of the house if forced to continue at the Hebrew school, Wolf's parents agreed to send him to a modern orthodox school in Lida, which was headed by the founder of the Mizrachi (religious Zionism) movement, Rabbi Reines. He stayed at the threadbare school, supported by the son-in-law of the supposed tea baron of Russia, Visotzky, and the Jewish banker Baron Ginzburg from St. Petersburg, for a year.
Bar mitzvahed on 25 April 1909, Wolf still rejected a religious career. Nonetheless, he studied the Talmud for two hours a day with his father, continuing with Russian as well. One of his closet friends was an uncle (only two years his senior) who was the leader of the young "bund" in Novogrudok, the Jewish Social Workers Party. This was his introduction to politics and Zionism, which would shape his early life even after his immigration to America.
The First World War and political change in Russia forced Wolf's move to a semiunderground existence. Working in Minsk, he soon joined the Poale Zion (Labor Zionists), actively attending lectures and meetings. His father, hearing of these activities, resented his son's freethinking and independence, but the active cultural life of Minsk, with its many institutions of Jewish learning, stimulated Wolf, who began to read avidly works in Russian and Yiddish, including those by Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Aleksandr Ostrovsky, Isaac Peretz, Mendele Mocher Sforim, Shalom Aleichem, and Sholem Asch. He began to think of immigrating to Palestine.
But he also became enamored of the theatre and joined a group of young men and women interested in drama. Using an abandoned cinema in Bialystok, Poland, they attempted to put on a program once a month (AUTO, 37). A professional actor was the artistic director for what became an immensely popular event. Wolf happily joined this troupe, anticipating his son's early interest in drama. On his enlistment form for the marines in January 1942, the young Leon Uris listed "playwriter" as his occupation.
In April 1920, Wolf began to make plans to immigrate to Palestine, seeing no future for himself in anti-Semitic Poland. His father, an ardent Zionist, was pleased, as was the Polish government, which was glad to get rid of Jews. It offered transit papers to any Jew who requested them. A special committee from Palestine, in fact, set up an office in Warsaw to regulate emigration from Poland. A day before his departure, a picture was taken with a group of chaverim, or Hebrew students, outside the house of a friend. Only five in the photo survived the Holocaust, Wolf Yerusalimsky among them.
Wolf's arrival in Palestine was antiromantic—he had been ill on the journey and suffered recurrent bouts of sunstroke after he arrived—in stark contrast to the arrival of the ship Exodus in Uris's novel, when some twenty-five thousand people crowded the dock as the Palestine Philharmonic played "Hatikvah," soon to become the Israeli national anthem. And unlike the characters in Uris's novel, who sustained their excitement and hope after arriving in their new home, Wolf soon met with disappointment. In fact, illness, little work, unhappiness, and political unrest marked Wolf's stay. Zionism, the operative philosophy, could provide neither employment nor comfort. Whether working as a night watchman or building roads, he found little satisfaction, his Zionist leanings contradicted by the harsh reality of the land.
But he did pursue culture, joining the Borochow sports club, attending lectures, enjoying cultural evenings, studying Hebrew, and organizing a singing group. He soon became known for his recitations of Aleichem, Sforim, and others. At the time, he rented a room in the Neve Shalom neighborhood, where the Levenstein-Shulman candy factory employed Arab women at the lowest possible wages. The Histadrut (federation of labor) tried to get the Arab women to organize the shop to hire Jewish workers. One day, the federation called a general strike to support the movement, an act Wolf supported. A few days later, a fight broke out at the Krinitzky furniture shop when the owner would not let the workers strike. The police severely beat one striker, and when Wolf and a male nurse ran to help the fallen Arab worker, Wolf was hit with a club and ended up in the hospital. The strike and the confrontation with the police left a lasting impression on Wolf and the workers throughout the country, while reaffirming his commitment to social protest.
But nothing seemed to be taking hold: he was without a career, although he remained enthusiastic about a Jewish Palestine. At this time, he changed his surname from Yerusalimsky to Yerushalmi, "man of Jerusalem."
By chance, he wrote to an Aunt Keile (Kathy) in America, and two months later he received a letter from her along with a ten-dollar gold piece. In the letter, she offered him whatever help he needed to emigrate. Wolf began to reconsider his future in Palestine, recognizing that his dream of becoming a member of a kibbutz would not be realized. He also had no experience in the business world, and although he loved Palestine, the harsh realities of his life outweighed his idealism (AUTO, 66-67). He needed to find security. Nevertheless, he explored the country, visiting Lebanon and Jordan also, but on the return from one of his journeys, he found a letter from Aunt Keile, inviting him to the United States. He had a large family there: four of his father's brothers, his aunt, and three brothers of his mother were in Pittsburgh. He would go.
Two months later, he received an affidavit with a sum of money guaranteeing his passage. After applying for and receiving the necessary visas in Jerusalem, he began his journey in February 1921, although he visited his grandmother's grave before he left. She had died in Palestine in 1915. His voyage took him across the Suez Canal to Ismail, Egypt, and then by train to Alexandria and boat to Marseille. From there he went to Providence, Rhode Island.
Wolf arrived in New Haven, Connecticut, on 2 April 1921 and then traveled on to New York and Yonkers, where he was met by Aunt Keile and others, who shortly after decided he should go into the garment trade and become a cutter. Oscar Schiller, a relative, lectured him on America as the land of opportunity but told him to expect no favors; he eventually found a job for him with a manufacturer of ladies blouses. No sooner had he started, however, than Wolf discovered that he had been hired as a scab to replace a worker on strike. He looked for work elsewhere, renting a room in Harlem and doing little more than delivering samples to department stores. He continued his political activism, however, joining the Linke Poale Zion branch, which met on East Broadway, and visited the Wolkowysker Verein, a group from a city in Poland where he had lived as an adolescent. Occasionally, he went to a Jewish theatre or to a movie. Of more importance was his attendance at the free night school for new immigrants in a Harlem public school. He understood that education was crucial and hoped to become a teacher, but his dream did not last long, since he had to keep looking for new work. Most employment was temporary.
Two months after his arrival, when he applied for his first citizenship papers, Wolf formally changed his name. From the original "Yerusalimsky," altered in Palestine to "Yerushalmi," he chose "Uris" and replaced "Wolf" with "William." He took this step at the suggestion of a good chaver, or comrade, in the Poale Zion, over the objections of his uncles, who changed their names to "Sarinksy" and "Sarin" (AUTO, 83-84). His new name, "Uris," would sound more American and less foreign.
Work was still difficult to find, but the search did not cause William to lose his dignity. A job at a dye factory in Brooklyn at roughly fourteen cents an hour led to another protest. William threatened to expose the employer, a Mr. Horowitz, to his family, for his exploitation of workers. The owner relented and raised his pay. Other jobs included removing snow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, working on a Jewish farm in New Jersey, and laboring in a factory in Brooklyn. Another uncle, Jack Kochin, a kosher butcher, invited him to try Pittsburgh, and there he met more family members, including his grandmother on his mother's side, who had immigrated to the United States before the First World War and had given birth to seventeen children (eleven died at birth or at an early age). Between his father's family in New York and New England, and his mother's in Pittsburgh, William had thirty-eight cousins.
In Pittsburgh he joined the Workers Party, the forerunner of the Communist Party in the United States. As the Labor Zionist movement faded in importance, membership in the Jewish Federation of the Workers Party increased. He also accepted a post as a Hebrew and Bible teacher at the school of Rabbi Kochin, his uncle. Pittsburgh soon became home, and Gold's restaurant became a magnet for young immigrants, Zionists, socialists, communists, and arguments. It was across the street from Rabbi Kochin's house.
In 1922, the Jewish Federation of the Workers Party began to publish a daily newspaper, Freiheit (Freedom), edited by a well-known socialist writer, journalist, and critic, Moissaye Olgin. A number of writers from Forverts (Forward), the mainstay Yiddish paper in New York, mostly left-wingers, departed to join the new daily Yiddish paper, which combined socialism with communism. Yiddish-speaking workers formed its readership, which found the paper the "nerve center of a Yiddish Left subculture" as well as a platform for some of the best Yiddish literature in the U.S. Freiheit, however, seemed to be more under the control of communists rather than socialists. Gradually, the paper faced a crisis, and in the midforties it chose to be a Jewish radical paper rather than a communist organ. Freiheit's stand on the formation of Israel actually led to its break with communism.
One role of the Jewish Federation of the Workers Party was to collect money to sustain Freiheit. Leaders of his branch soon asked William Uris to manage the office of Freiheit in Pittsburgh, overseeing their fund-raising campaigns, collecting money from subscribers, obtaining local advertising, and summarizing the activities of the party for members of the movement in the area. As a manager, he automatically became a member of the executive committee and an elected delegate to the district committee of the Workers Party. He leapt at the chance: "Finally, I will have the opportunity to devote my energy to a 'great cause' to bring the working class the message of Marx and Lenin" (AUTO, 94).
For the next year or so, William devoted himself to building the circulation of Freiheit in Pittsburgh and the entire state, traveling to towns large and small to get subscriptions. Within a few weeks, he had established a well-paid, functioning Freiheit office and received a salary of $25 a week. But his personal life was stagnant—although he was occasionally harassed by the police because of his association with so-called extremists. He attended a summer high school and wrote an assignment on a bitter coal strike in favor of the strikers. One of his teachers, however, became enraged when he read the paper, screaming, "I will not allow radicals in my class." He then ran to the principal's office. The next day William was expelled (AUTO, 93). But he continued as an active member of the Workers Party, although he found their regulations strict and repressive. He could not, for example, travel from one city to another without party permission, and any "expression of dissent was punished with expulsion" (AUTO, 97). It was also considered unethical to associate with friends outside the party. Religiously observant people were not allowed in the party, and he was once reprimanded for attending a Passover seder instead of a farewell party given in honor of a minor party functionary. But despite his "naïve devotion to the party," William never denied or relinquished his identity as a Jew (AUTO, 97).
But persecution within the party continued: at one meeting he was accused of not only not attending but also observing religious customs, as well as of being anti-Leninist and anti-Marxist. He was found guilty, but not expelled, just "publicly criticized and warned in the future of any break in party discipline" (AUTO, 98). Nonetheless, his reputation in New York grew because of his success as a manager in Pittsburgh. After a year, he was offered the Philadelphia operation, which he accepted, although by now he realized that the Workers Party was actually run by the underground Communist Party. The leaders of the Jewish Federation, however, and the writers of Freiheit were mostly former members of the Socialist Party. Disputes over the organization of the party and the editorial policy of the paper continued.
William met his future wife in Philadelphia when he stayed at Mrs. Cohen's boarding house on 32nd Street in the Strawberry Mansion area. The home was a gathering place for Jewish radicals, and dinners there generally erupted into arguments over the Russian Revolution, socialism, communism, and anarchism. One Sunday morning in July 1923, he met Anna Blumberg and her six-year-old daughter. Anna, a first-generation American born in Havre de Grace, Maryland, was a Jewish divorcée from Baltimore, "a beautiful, dark-complected woman" who was in Philadelphia to visit an uncle (AUTO, 104). William quickly fell in love with this self-educated woman who had a strong interest in music and reading; within five days of their meeting, they were married. He was twenty-seven.
Factional fighting in the Workers Party and at the paper, however, led Anna to suggest he find other work. He quit as manager of the paper, and they left Philadelphia for Baltimore, where she could work as a beautician while William looked for a new job. The move set a pattern: in six years of marriage, they relocated six times, from Philadelphia to Baltimore, Cleveland, Baltimore again, Pittsburgh, and finally to Philadelphia again. According to William, the reason for these moves was Anna's whimsical mood, her eagerness to fly from one city to another, although he, too, thought new opportunities would exist in a new locale. But by 1929, these moves and her displeasure with his constant lack of employment would lead to her permanently leaving him for her family in Baltimore.
During this period, William remained faithful to the Workers Party and "relentlessly supported the Russian Revolution" (AUTO, 105). Anna backed him and occasionally participated in some of the campaigns conducted by various radical organizations. When they first moved to Baltimore, they lived in her mother's home and William got a job canvassing door-to-door for a new insurance company, but was denied a state license because he was not yet a citizen. A sudden opportunity to manage the Freiheit operations in Cleveland, and take charge of all the Ohio subscribers, meant a move there.
William now had a press card and wrote regularly for the paper. He became something of a presence and often received "in-kind" benefits: for example, he and Anna saw seven productions of the Metropolitan Opera Company during its Cleveland tour in the winter of 1923. They heard the famous Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin and saw a performance of Eugene O'Neill's The Hairy Ape. And it was in Cleveland that Anna became pregnant with Leon, which caused them to move to a two-bedroom apartment on Kinsman Road and purchase new furniture on the installment plan. Essie, Anna's daughter, was now in the second grade, attending public school and a Yiddish school several afternoons a week. They also attended synagogue regularly.
Cleveland soon looked like the proper place to make their home. Good friends, a steady income and proper medical attention: all was in place until Anna suddenly announced that she wanted to have the baby in Baltimore. She left in July with Essie, proposing to return after the birth of her child. William then writes: "August 3rd, 1924, I received a telegram that Leon was born [that day] (he is named after both our grandfathers—Leon, Marcus). It was (and it will be till my dying day) my happiest day in my life! My first born son!! I pitied myself . . . for not being able to be present at my son's 'bris' (circumcision ceremony). It was too expensive a luxury . . . to travel to Baltimore" (AUTO, 111).
He excitedly prepared for the return of the family, but a few days later received from Anna a letter saying that she wanted to live near her relatives in Baltimore and would not return to Cleveland. She urged him to quit his job and join her, but he abhorred the idea of returning to Baltimore, living in her mother's crowded apartment, and knocking "on doors in search of a day's work." But he had no choice; Anna could not be persuaded—and he was too naïve to understand her motivation, that perhaps their life together was not bliss. But because he felt it was his duty and obligation to raise his son, he returned. Ironically, the birth of his son acted to divide husband and wife. As William noted: "I liquidated [note the highly politicized term] our household in Cleveland (lost everything I paid for) and came to Baltimore to be with my family" by mid-September 1924 (AUTO, 111-112). However, the emotional power of holding his three-week-old son overcame his anger at having to leave what had become a secure life.
William decided to learn a trade, partly for income and partly to identify with the working class: "What can be more appropriate for a good Communist than to work among the masses?" (AUTO, 112). He chose paperhanging because it was diversified and he could work part-time on weekends while fulfilling his apprenticeship. He and Anna rented a six-room house near East Baltimore Avenue and Bond Street in the southeast section of the city. Anna opened a beauty shop on the first floor. He was soon working for three dollars a week, although it was physically difficult; he then joined the union and got a two-dollar-a-week raise. Work became steady through a relative of the Blumberg family, who were real estate developers. In his spare time, William became active in the Jewish movement of the Workers Party. At this time, Essie, Uris's half sister, was "like a little mother to Leon" and virtually brought him up (AUTO, 113). And Jewish life in Baltimore at this time was vibrant: in 1924, the Jewish population was estimated to be 67,500, divided between German Jews (uptown) and Russian Jews (downtown and in East Baltimore).
But William believed Pittsburgh offered more work, so he went there. Anna insisted they all go, and she closed up her hairdressing business and followed him two weeks later. He now worked full-time for a "sympathizer of the left-wing movement" and stayed almost two years before moving to Philadelphia and an apartment on Parkside Avenue (AUTO, 114-115). This time, he was determined to stay. He joined the only Jewish paperhangers union in the country, but it was still a difficult time, partly because he had debts from constantly moving from one city to another. But other issues began to emerge: "Had my family-life not been unhappy, I would be able to improve my financial conditions. But our relationship deteriorated" (AUTO, 114-115). This was in late 1929. Although frightened at the thought of separating from his son, he felt there was no other way than divorce to resolve his difficulties with his wife. One day he came home from work to find a note telling him that she had left with the children for Baltimore. He planned to visit the children frequently in Baltimore and did not want to initiate divorce proceedings, but a few months later, a friend sent him a clipping from a Baltimore newspaper: "Anna Uris got a divorce from her husband—the communist" (AUTO, 115).
Upset at the speed of the proceedings and his political (and now public) label, he traveled again to Baltimore to see his son. To his shock, William learned that Anna had left without leaving word of her whereabouts. He then writes that "the end of my marriage prompted me to intensify my activities in the Communist Party," which, since the 1920s, had functioned openly as a legal party (AUTO, 115). But this only masked his hurt. During the Depression, the little work to be found paid extremely low wages. He did manage to send a few dollars to Leon, however, care of his former mother-in-law in Baltimore.
William soon regretted having devoted so much time and energy to defending a cause that, under Stalin, brought so much misery and death to millions in the Soviet Union. He also criticized the rigid organizational structure of the party and its stringent rules and regulations governing personal life. But he still rose in the hierarchy, becoming an official in his union as well as a unit organizer and a member of the district control commission of the Communist Party. He also realized that his reason for participating in party activities "was to relive my anxiety and longing for my son, and the inability to communicate with him," since Anna had disappeared with him (AUTO, 118). His economic situation was also dire: "The daily struggle for existence leads to extreme ideas and you respond readily to communist propaganda. [Yet] my sense of justice prevailed all my life"—an attitude inherited by his son (AUTO, 118). William particularly admired the support of the Communist Party for the rights of Negroes and civil rights in general, but the revelation of Stalin's repressive actions stunned him.
William's association with the Communist Party became increasingly fractious. He objected to Stalin's liquidation of members of the leadership of the Jewish section of the party in Russia but did agree with communist opposition to the Nazis. He also believed that Philadelphia was a Nazi center and wrote in his autobiography that the party was the first organized sector to demand that the government outlaw the Nazi Bund (AUTO, 124).
Radicalism generally did not have a foothold in Philadelphia, although mass meetings were popular. At such a meeting in 1930, two of William's friends introduced him to Anna Rabinovitz, and a new relationship began. Divorced, she was the mother of an eleven-year-old son, Aaron, and a member of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. They married after a year of courting and remained together for more than forty-five years. But his happy marriage and involvement in the radical movement did not lessen his desire to be with his son. Yet he still could not locate him. Only when he met a friend of his first wife did he learn that she and the children were in Norfolk, Virginia. His second wife urged him to visit the city to find them.
Uris was six when his mother took him and Essie to Norfolk in 1930. Anna went to Norfolk because her first husband, who had run a department store, was from there, so she was familiar with its Jewish community. By 1930, Norfolk also was experiencing the radicalizing influence of the Communist Party and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO); both made protest politics an everyday event. In the small but vibrant Jewish community of Norfolk, agitation and confrontation had the important effect of making the activist life the norm, something which Uris's early poetry about the condition of blacks and workers reflected.
Immigrant Polish and Russian Jews in Norfolk brought with them strong communist and socialist ties. But the leftist community also brought culture; Uris later remembered the many theatre societies, reading groups, and recital associations in the city. In a July 2001 interview videotaped for his grandchildren, he recalled regularly attending the opera with his mother. "My education was both classical, in terms of music, and Jewishly political in terms of cultural," he recounted. But he was first moved by theatre, whose appeal would remain with him throughout his life.
In 1930, Uris began school at J. E. B. Stuart Elementary on Virginia Avenue, eight blocks south of the family's home on Massachusetts Avenue. Morris Cadyzynski's small Jewish bakery on Church Street, celebrated in QB VII, was a neighborhood attraction. The Jewish section of Norfolk, described in a long section in QB VII, started in the 100 block of Church Street and at St. Mary's Church and ran for seven blocks to the Booker T. Pharmacy, which marked the beginning of the Negro neighborhood. In the novel, Uris writes that it was a "tiny and close-knit" community that remained together, "unable to shake off all the ghetto mentality," although Morris Cadyzynski does shorten his name to the more Americanized "Cady" (an allusion to Howard Cady, Uris's early Doubleday editor; QBVII, 83). The Workman's Circle Hall was a fixture for the socially conscious in both the novel and actual Norfolk, as were the numerous small shops modeled on those in the old country. There was also "heated discussion in Yiddish where the two newspapers, the Freiheit and the New York Forverts vied for opinion" (QBVII, 84).
The Jewish community, though not a village, gave the neighborhood an Old World resonance that Uris would not forget. Indeed, one of his later disappointments was his inability to write a novel about immigrant Jewish life in America. But there were also constant threats to Jewish life in Norfolk. It was, after all, in the South, and Jews were not easily, if ever, accepted. As the historian Eli N. Evans quipped, "Being Jewish in the South is like being Gentile in New York."
A surprise visit to Norfolk by William in 1930 meant a surprised Essie, now thirteen, and a startled Leon, six, who did not recognize his father (AUTO, 121). His arrival was at first awkward, but William and his former wife came to an understanding, and he celebrated by taking the children downtown to buy Leon a suit and Essie a dress. Within a year, both children were visiting him in Philadelphia, spending the summer of 1931 with William and his new wife. Five years later, when Anna and the children moved back to Baltimore, Leon would come up by train to see his father in a complicated procedure. He would be put on a train by his mother, the conductor pinning a baggage tag on him so that a porter or steward would know to tell him to get off in Philadelphia when the train arrived in. William was there to meet him; he would then signal Baltimore by phone that Leon safely arrived (AUTO, 122). They followed the procedure of the tagged child until Leon was fourteen. The only complication was William's occasionally shaky relationship with his second wife, because he was unable to establish a rapport with her son, Aaron.
Baltimore Jewish life offered a larger extended family for Uris, who returned there with his mother when he was eleven and his sister eighteen. He attended Garrison Junior High, where he first appeared in print, providing sports data for the school paper. He was a member of the drama club and starred in the school play, The High School Mystery. He then attended Baltimore City College, actually a high school.
William continued to monitor Leon's development as the young boy made regular weekend visits from Baltimore to Philadelphia. He was a model student—at least until the age of fifteen, when he became withdrawn and even truant from school. When pressed, he told his father that he was upset with his mother and would like to come and live with him in Philadelphia. Arrangements were made for his legal transfer from his mother to father, and although the adjustment was not easy, his new stepmother made the change as easy as possible and he got on well with his stepbrother, who was six years older. He enrolled in summer high school to catch up on a subject he had failed in Baltimore and became an avid fan of books and plays, often staying up late to read. He also joined the New Theater Group, a Philadelphia gathering of amateurs and professionals interested in the stage. Occasionally, he wrote skits for them, the beginnings of his early and sustained interest in the theatre.
Uris's earliest writings were, in fact, dramas, first an operetta on the death of his six-year-old dog and then a series of plays recognized more for their effort than accomplishment. Favoring historical dramas of romantic distortion and intensity, he wrote I'm in the City of London, which was about the victory of the English over the French and involved two French spies and a princess. In his play King Joe, set in "any old time between 1400-1500," King Alex van Gerrie de Knacker, alias Joe II, holds forth while his daughter Esther exchanges bons mots with her admirer, David. At one point, he answers the question "Do you like to read books?" with "That's right up my alley. At the present time I am reading Gone with the Wind. Esther is reading Romeo and Juliet."
He even tried opera. "FAIR IS MY GRACIA / ORIGINAL OPERA / plot by / LEON URIS" was written in January 1934, when Uris was ten, for Grade 3H-4L at J. E. B. Stuart Elementary. Uris wrote the music and words and fashioned the somewhat banal plot. His synopsis of the three-act opera emphasizes its romantic features involving love and marriage. But for a youthful work, it has a strong sense of scene, action, and division of feeling. The themes of loss, death, and a broken home are also evident.
Several years later, on his Marine Corps enlistment form, Uris cited drama as his principal education, adding, "he has 4 years in dramatic school—did some professional stage acting and writing." Under additional occupations and hobbies, he lists "writing plays." Under the talent category, Uris again emphasizes the stage, while listing the piano as his musical instrument ("7 yrs. own amusement"), plus the glee club for two years and directing plays and acting. Track, tennis, and swimming were his sports.
William's employment remained sporadic during this time, and he often thought of alternatives, including working for a brother-in-law in the poultry-processing business. However, his reputation as a radical forestalled that move, since there was fear he might try unionize the employees. Nevertheless, he worked a night job at the plant, which meant he had little contact with fellow workers. Eventually, William went into the business himself, forming the Uris Poultry Company, and he was soon earning thirty-five to forty dollars a week. However, shady dealings by a New York poultry broker who never paid a large bill put William out of business. Owning a business was also frowned upon by the party: how could one so involved in the radical labor movement also be a boss? He went back to paperhanging.
Uris's early dislocated existence, during which he witnessed his father's lack of success, took its toll. Shuttling between Norfolk and Philadelphia, and then between Baltimore and Philadelphia, tagged as baggage, did little to aid his self-esteem. The six years he spent being shifted back and forth reinforced his great fear of loneliness and isolation, which late in life he would underscore through the writer Gideon Zadok in Mitla Pass (1988), his most autobiographical novel. Gideon's great fear is loneliness, compensated for by an aggressive determination to succeed, even at the cost of personal relations. During his youth, however, Uris also had a jaundiced view of success in America. With his father as an example, Uris saw only failure and discrimination as well as the exploitation of workers when they did not, or could not, improve their working conditions. Uris's resolve to become a successful writer may in part have originated in his objection to working for anyone other than himself and in his desire to find a platform to speak out against oppression.
A novel Uris read at about this time confirmed his negative view of his father's chance of success. Jews without Money by Michael Gold, which appeared in 1930, recounted the poverty and degradation of Jewish immigrants in New York's Lower East Side. In the novel, Herman Gold's activities as a housepainter, the second or possibly third of his careers, at first brings hope to his family. His elevation to foreman ensures his success in America, but a fall from a scaffold and two broken legs prevent any further work. He withdraws into morbid despair and reluctantly turns to peddling bananas; his wife works in a cafeteria. Nevertheless, he lectures his young son Michael never to be poor and always to avenge injustice. Uris would soon adopt these attitudes himself, as well as the anger against oppression that Gold projects directed against discrimination toward and exploitation of the Jews.
To oppose wrongs became the young Michael Gold's purpose, as it would become Uris's, while Gold's encounters with Jews who were willing to fight for their identity reinforced a similar desire in Uris. Communism was the apparent way out of a morass of abuse and exploitation, and the narrator's exclamation at the end, "O Revolution, that forced me to think, to struggle and to live," echoes the young Uris's hope for social revolution, which was expressed in his earliest poetry and dramas. He cites his mother's having read the book to him in Mitla Pass (MP, 385).
In 1988, Uris recounted the importance of Jews without Money in an address at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., declaring, "it felt as though I were hearing the story of my own life, my relationships with my parents and what it mean to be a Jew."
Uris and Steinbeck
A month earlier, he had recorded the significance of another work read at this time: John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men (1937). From "the characters of George and Lennie, I came to understand my own loneliness for the first time. From that moment on I never wanted to be anything but a writer." And from Steinbeck he "learned through writers that one man or one woman protesting injustice from his or her lonely room can have the power to make the world stop in its tracks and listen and even to change things. I never wanted to be anything but a writer again."
Steinbeck's novella confronts isolation, nature, violence, and guns. In prose that seems transparent in its naturalness and in dialogue that is direct and unadorned, Steinbeck reveals the complex lives of itinerant ranch workers and the intense emotions of the simpleminded Lennie. The detailed style of the novel had lasting appeal for Uris.
The cinematic properties of such writing—a slow zoom takes the reader from the broad form of the building to the features of individual bunks in the opening passage—became part of a method that Uris imitated. Of Mice and Men remained a favorite of his, and he would often read passages to his own children when they were growing up. Later, he would cite The Grapes of Wrath and Tortilla Flat as influential works. He would also praise In Dubious Battle, Steinbeck's 1936 account of migrant workers taking on California landowners, in Mitla Pass (MP, 415).
Steinbeck, who researched his novels carefully—he spent long periods of time, for example, in the San Joaquin Valley of California, tracing the fate of migrant workers which would form the core of The Grapes of Wrath—and who was accustomed to public outcry over his work, became a model of how to be a writer for Uris. And Steinbeck's convictions demonstrated to Uris the importance of the writer's responsibility to his work and time. He would not allow changes to be made to his stories, although sometimes it happened, to his intense displeasure (as when Alfred Hitchcock altered important elements of his novella Lifeboat). Steinbeck would also not hide the truth or change his work for the sake of propriety. To Pascal Covici, his publisher and later editor, he said of The Grapes of Wrath, "I am not writing a satisfying story. I've done my damndest [sic] to rip a reader's nerves to rags. I don't want him satisfied." Much the same can be said of Uris and works like Exodus, Mila 18, or Trinity, with their harrowing scenes of Auschwitz, the Warsaw Ghetto, or the violence of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Steinbeck's convictions inspired Uris, who early in his career realized the importance of being true to one's artistic sense.
Steinbeck and Uris also shared an interest in the military and in film (Steinbeck had modest success as a screenwriter). In 1942, Steinbeck's account of the training of bomber pilots appeared as Bombs Away: The Story of a Bomber Team; the following year, he became an accredited war correspondent and went to England on a troop ship and then on to Algeria and Tunisia, filing reports. He later sent dispatches from the Salerno beachhead in Italy and participated in various operations off the coast of Italy, including the capture of an Italian island with a special operations unit. These actions paralleled Uris's in the marines during the Second World War and then in Israel before and during the Suez crisis in 1956. Both also wrote war novels (Steinbeck: The Moon Is Down, set in occupied Norway, and Lifeboat; Uris: Battle Cry, The Angry Hills, Exodus, and Mila 18); both published successful nonfiction books; both worked on screenplays of their own works (Steinbeck: The Red Pony; Uris: Battle Cry, Exodus, and Topaz); and both became celebrities (Steinbeck won a Pulitzer Prize and, in 1962, the Nobel Prize for Literature; Uris appeared at the top of best-seller lists); and both traveled widely and married often.
Steinbeck also became involved in politics, in 1960 joining an effort to draft Adlai Stevenson as the Democratic presidential nominee; in 1972 and 1976, Uris worked to support the presidential bid of Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson for the Democratic nomination. Most importantly, however, Steinbeck had a social conscience: he not only stood up for the migrant workers of California but opposed injustice, writing, among other things, a defense of Arthur Miller in 1957, when he stood trial for contempt of Congress as a result of the McCarthy hearings. Steinbeck became a model for Uris, later sharing similar views of the critics. Shortly after he learned of his Nobel Prize, Steinbeck wrote to his Swedish friend Bo Beskow that he had had a long-term feud with the "cutglass critics, that grey priesthood which defines literature and has little to do with reading. They have never liked me." Uris had similar views and grew increasingly to disregard critics, especially as his popularity increased.
The socially engaged fiction of Michael Gold and John Steinbeck set the tone for Uris's outlook, attitude, and style. Their writings outlined for him a way to confront and overcome his feeling of loss, isolation, and injustice.
Leon and His Parents
As his father's politics changed—William's opposition to the communists grew as he learned of the Moscow trials, which targeted party leaders and generals, plus the silent disappearance of the Jewish Evske leaders (the Evsektsiia, the Jewish section of the Soviet Communist Party, was abolished in 1930)—there was an improved understanding between father and son. But Uris's relation with his mother became more troubled. He sought closeness with this self-educated woman who loved music and books, but her worrying, guilt-creating behavior and her misunderstanding of his artistic aspirations created distance. Even though he opposed his father's intrusive opinions and politics, the two constantly exchanged ideas and thoughts. But he could never do so with his mother, although in his early years in the marines, he would provide her with detailed reports of his activities. Some of his letters home are among the most thorough he ever wrote about his military training and romantic life, but they contain little or no emotion. Duty, not love, defined their attachment. She, in turn, showed little of the pride his father displayed in his son's achievements, whether in the marines or in the literary world.
Uris found the feminine love he missed from his mother in the affection expressed by his older half sister, Essie. The two were deeply attached to each other, and he confided much to her about his personal life. But to his mother, Uris provided only objective rather than intimate accounts of his activities, and rarely with any feeling. Yet he felt he had to prove himself to both parents, whether on the battlefield or the best-seller list.
Uris may have blamed the breakup of his parent's marriage on his mother, a belief that, in turn, may have affected his behavior with other women. Also, his belief that she had rejected his need for love may have contributed to his aggressive pursuit of it from others. His father's lack of affection may have been the catalyst for his economic and political ambition. But the divorce loomed large: if they loved him, it wouldn't have happened, he thought. In several of his later talks, Uris explicitly stated that writers write to gain (or regain) the love of their parents, although he purposefully avoided the indulgent autobiographical fiction he complains of in other Jewish writers like Herman Wouk, Meyer Levin, Jerome Weidman, Saul Bellow or Philip Roth. "The market is glutted with the self-pitying prose of some Jewish writers. . . . I am mainly a man's writer. I write about war, violence, sex . . . None of my books can be called a woman's book," he declared in 1989.
Late in life, Uris still harbored resentment against his parents and emphasized the disagreements with his father in particular. In one interview, he referred to his father as a bitter man who went with the communists rather than the socialists when the break came in the 1920s in America: "The angrier the philosophy, the more attractive it was to him . . . It took me 60 years to have enough courage to go and look at this little boy I wanted to know something about." In 1957, he summarized their relationship: "It seems that ever since I can remember we have been quarreling about one thing or another. We just have a personality clash and can't help but needle each other or explode on each other. It doesn't mean for one moment that I don't love you or anything could ever come between us. . . . So if our words get hot and heavy once in a while I wouldn't worry about it too much." He cannot resist adding, however, that "my feeling about the Soviet Union was and is so strong after going through the Sinai desert and seeing Stalin Tanks bent on the murder of Jews I could not contain myself, and . . . I suppose that it would be best if you and I never mention that again."
William Uris died in July 1988 at age ninety-two, just before Mitla Pass, Uris's most autobiographical novel, appeared. He offered a critique of the book, which appears slightly revised as a letter from the protagonist's father to the son. The actual letter ends with "I have many, many, many more criticisms of which I will advise you in my forthcoming letters for only through criticism will you grow. . . . God forbid I should tell you what to write. I am only offering a suggestion for that should be carefully followed FOR YOUR SAKE."
In an interview the next year, Uris added, "He never told me I was good. He told me in essence that I exist to make him good." When the interviewer asked whether relations with his father improved over the years, Uris denied it: "My relations with my father started out lousy and were lousy all my life and ended up lousy. I was existing as my father's alter ego. He was me and I was nothing, I was nobody."
Uris recalled letters he had read in preparation for writing Mitla Pass, and one, denying him a tuxedo for a school prom, was particularly distressing. The letter appears with little change in Mitla Pass, which has seven different narrators. Uris believed his father was basically a failure, a condition that formed his character and made him angry. Uris was determined not to suffer the same fate. Although he and his mother were distant, he credited her with teaching him an appreciation of the arts: "Her life was such that there was a heavy distrust of men in large part because of a very cruel father. We were essentially disinterested in each other. She was inside of her own head there somewhere."
Uris described his mother as "very, very reserved. She was a woman who was a victim of a cruel Jewish husband and father. Her mother implanted in her a hatred of men which was well-founded because my Zaide was a shmuck. I had a loving Bubba who was the Balabusta and ran the family and when she died that family disintegrated and actually went into warring camps." He added that what saved him was the marines: "The war came along at a time when I needed to go to war. My time had run out at being at home. The war worked into my life."
In his writing, Uris intentionally turned to history to avoid encountering the personal, rejecting any hint of autobiography until the late 1980s. History, he felt, was objective and clear and did not need to become confessional. This protection of the self may have colored his behavior with women, demanding commitment from them but believing that he was personally free to roam because they were, in all likelihood, not to be trusted. They certainly did not understand his devotion to writing, he believed. His dismissive and negative view of women—he rarely created sympathetic or complex women in his fiction (they are either sex goddesses or saints)—found resonance in his personal relationships with them. Uris seemed happiest when, as he wrote to his mother from New Zealand, "I'm . . . drifting from skirt to skirt."
On his military induction form, Uris (exaggerating as usual) listed eight years of grammar school in Baltimore and four years of high school in Philadelphia (at John Bartram High), noting that in addition to math, he took typing and scored fifty-five words a minute. Most interesting, in two places he indicated that he graduated high school; he did not. He also listed the Harding Conservatory and the New Theatre League, both of Philadelphia, as sources of additional training, having completed the latter's program in 1941 with an emphasis on dramatics. A year earlier, in 1940, he had written to his mother to say that he was applying for a drama scholarship at the University of Pennsylvania and that he had dropped the play he was working on until Christmas.
A further letter reports that he, his father, and his stepmother moved into Brantwood Apartments in Parkside and that he now had a room of his own with a comfortable chair and desk: "It is really the thing for me, quiet and I can do my work undisturbed." He was doing well in school: 100 in history, 95 in English, 83 in physics and chemistry, and 70 in algebra. He was also head of entertainment in the South West District. Importantly, "my new play is progressing very well. Although I think it's the poorest of my works, everyone says it's the best. It deals with the return of Christ to the earth with the present situation."
But with the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, everything changed. Uris, three months from graduating high school, decided to enlist. His reason for doing so combined a sense of patriotism with a determination to fight oppression and a desire to escape a difficult, unstable family life. But at seventeen and a half, he needed his parents' consent. Unexpectedly, one day in January 1942, Uris handed his father an application to join the U.S. Marines. William and his wife pleaded with him to finish school, and while the father admitted that he would be proud to have his son fight the Japanese and the Germans, he also admitted that he was too "weak, indecisive, and sentimental" to stop his son from going "prematurely to war" (AUTO, 136-137). But he also knew that his son would likely be drafted.
A determined Uris threatened to leave home and enlist in another city if his parents would not give their permission. William did not believe him, but Uris soon left for Baltimore. In the middle of the night a few days later, a neighbor called William to the phone (he didn't have one): it was Anna, crying that Uris had enlisted in the navy in Washington. William had to come to Baltimore at once to annul the enlistment. He left the next morning, but on the train he realized that he would have to give in to his son and that he, too, now wanted to enlist (AUTO, 137). At forty-six, however, he was too old. Uris greeted his father but would not change his mind. He was determined to do his patriotic duty (and escape his divisive family life). His father understood that his son's commitment to America and political justice, and his willingness to fight for them if necessary, overshadowed their fears. Nevertheless, it was a wrenching decision. Under pressure, his mother relented: a handwritten, penciled note on yellow paper from her reads: "For my son Leon to join the Navy if his father permits it." The navy was his first choice because the marines were initially hesitant, for medical reasons (childhood asthma), to accept him.
Uris then wanted to switch from the navy back to the marines, so he drafted a letter to the commanding officer in Philadelphia, where he had originally tried to enlist, and another to the naval recruiting office in Washington. The spirit and heroism of the marines appealed to him; also, enlisting in that branch meant that he could leave from Philadelphia, where he still had friends. A few days later, he received a positive reply, and was ordered to report to the Marine Corps recruiting office in Philadelphia to depart for training camp.
On 19 January 1942, Uris officially enlisted in the marines, giving 4130 Parkside Avenue, Philadelphia, his father's address, as his legal residence; on another form, however, he listed 4916 Chalgrove Avenue, Baltimore, his mother's home, as his address. He listed his father as the person to be notified in case of emergency. He also stated that English and dramatics were his courses of greatest interest in high school.
Uris's departure from the immense Reading Terminal station in Philadelphia was as memorable as it was tearful. Hundreds of other new recruits were there with their families as loudspeakers called the recruits to assemble on the platform for their first roll call. At the end came the command to enter the railcars. The opening scene in Battle Cry, Uris's first novel, though set in Baltimore rather than Philadelphia, is similar. The excitement, sadness, elation, and despair of families separating from their sons dominate the action. Uris's father recalled the dramatic event: "the long train slowly moved away, [and] hundreds of hands waved good bye" (AUTO, 139). The news from the European fronts was bad, and there were already rumors of thousands of Jews having been killed by the Nazis.
An undated letter from San Diego, where Uris began his Marine Corps basic training in 1942 and written on Marine Corps stationery, reveals Uris's awareness not only of the anxiety he caused by enlisting but also of his transformation from a young man to a marine: "I'm glad I joined the Marines now even though it was against the will of everyone. I'm sure they agree with my feelings that it was the best thing. I'll admit that for the first few weeks I wanted to run home to Mama but now that I've gone through the worse. . . . I feel that I can call myself a man for the first time in my life."
Such a feeling would stay with him throughout his life.