Warren Adler obituary

Prolific writer whose novel The War of the Roses was turned into a hit film starring Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner

Warren Adler, who has died aged 91, was a prolific writer best known for his novel The War of the Roses (1981), a darkly comic study of a viciously disintegrating marriage that was made into a 1989 hit film of the same name, starring Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner and Danny DeVito.

It was at a dinner party in Washington in 1971 that Adler heard the story of a divorcing couple who, while still living together, subjected each other to strict rules until the divorce became final. That conflict eventually became the basis of The War of the Roses, which follows the travails of Jonathan and Barbara Rose as their marriage falls apart and they strive, in increasingly extreme ways, to make each other’s lives as miserable as possible while living under the same roof. The novel was popular and the film version even more so, bringing in worldwide box office receipts of more than $160m while also attracting critical acclaim.

Adler wrote more than 50 other novels and in excess of 100 short stories, yet he was already in his mid-40s when his first novel, Undertow, was published in 1974. A political thriller, it concerned a married US senator whose weekend fling drowns accidentally, and was a template for his future work, often set in the world of politics, which usually involved the interweaving of love and betrayal, earning him the nickname “the master of dysfunction”.

Warren Adler in New York in 2005. He often set his thrillers in the world of politics, which usually involved the interweaving of love and betrayal, earning him the nickname ‘the master of dysfunction’.
Warren Adler in New York in 2005. He often set his thrillers in the world of politics, which usually involved the interweaving of love and betrayal, earning him the nickname ‘the master of dysfunction’. Photograph: Robin Platzer/FilmMagic

Adler was a successful media entrepreneur when Undertow appeared. He owned four radio and television stations and had founded a Washington advertising and public relations firm. He also worked on creating appeals to Jewish voters for Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign, and then stayed on for a time as an adviser. Although he made a name in business, Adler had always wanted to be a writer, and generally wrote for hours in the morning before he started work.

He was born in Brooklyn, New York, to Sol Adler, an accountant, and his wife, Fritzie (nee Goldman), who were both Russian immigrants. After high school at Brooklyn Tech, he graduated with a degree in English from New York University and worked for the Daily News before becoming editor of the weekly Queens Post.

In his spare time Adler studied writing at the New School for Social Research, where his classmates included the future novelists William Styron and Mario Puzo. He served in the army during the Korean war – as the Pentagon correspondent for the Armed Forces Press Service – then stayed in Washington to begin his media career.

Random Hearts, starring Harrison Ford and Kristin Scott Thomas, 1999. Warren Adler’s book of the same name was published in 1984 and used the story of a plane crash in Florida

After the publication of Undertow Adler sold his business to become a full-time writer, although he took time out in 1975 to help his wife, Sonia (nee Kline), and his eldest son, David, start up The Washington Dossier, a society magazine that flourished in the Ronald Reagan years before the family sold it in 1988. In 1978 Adler became a media story himself, when he staged an intervention to have David deprogrammed after he had become a member of Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church (known as the Moonies).

In 1982 Adler’s novel American Quartet introduced the character of Fiona Fitzgerald, the daughter of a US senator, who is a homicide detective in Washington and whose cases involve sex and scandal. The book did well enough to prompt a series that ran to nine novels, which are now being developed for television.

Adler’s 1984 novel Random Hearts grew out of a 1982 plane crash in Florida; another template Adler love story, it focuses on the spouses of two of the crash victims as they discover their partners were having an affair. Sydney Pollack made it into a 1999 movie with the same title, starring Harrison Ford and Kristin Scott Thomas. Adler’s 1977 collection of stories about love in a retirement community, the Sunset Gang, was adapted for PBS television’s American Playhouse series in 1991.

In the same year the film rights to his novel Private Lies were sold for a then record $1.2m; but no movie has yet appeared. Adler started his own company, Grey Eagle Films, to control the rights to all his works; two of his sons run the company. He was quick to move into electronic publishing, acquiring the rights to all his back catalogue for his own company, Stonehouse Press, and was a keen developer of his own website for internet promotion.

Adler never stopped writing. He adapted The War of the Roses as a play that toured the world, and in 2004 wrote a sequel novel, Children of the Roses, about the offspring of the divorced couple. His final novel, Last Call (2018), was another melding of love and betrayal in which an 83-year-old widower finds love with an 80-year-old woman who is still married to a husband dealing with dementia.

The novel was a reflection of Adler’s own experience with Sonia’s dementia, about which he wrote movingly in February after 68 years of marriage. “I am imprisoned in an empty cell,” he said, writing of love’s “high and low tides” and the curse of his total recall of them. “My most fervent wish is that at some point before my sweetheart’s demise, the dark clouds will lift, her eyes will brighten and, for even one brief moment, she will smile at me and squeeze my hand in recognition.”

He is survived by Sonia and by their sons, David, Jonathan and Michael.

• Warren Adler, author, born 16 December 1927; died 15 April 2019


Michael Carlson

The GuardianTramp

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