At the beach and poolside in the Catskills holiday resorts popular with Jewish New Yorkers in the 1950s, along with the straw hats, suntan lotion and one-piece bathing suits, the novels of Herman Wouk reigned supreme. Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud may have received lavish praise from critics in the New York Times, but Wouk’s bestsellers easily outsold the work of every other Jewish writer in the US.
Wouk, who has died aged 103, was an award-winning novelist whose books were made into Hollywood movies, a playwright and an author of screenplays. He wrote books about Judaism and modern belief. Throughout, he voiced a conservative view of ethics and morality that remained largely unamended in the course of a writing career of more than six decades.
The Caine Mutiny (1951), awarded the Pulitzer prize for fiction, was made into a popular movie by Edward Dmytryk in 1954. In the role of the paranoid Captain Queeg, Humphrey Bogart gave one of his most mesmerising performances. The interrogation scene, with Bogart twisting ball bearings in his hand while breaking down under the questioning of the defence attorney Lt Barney Greenwald (José Ferrer), would have made a powerful end to the film. But the last scene, the celebration dinner for the acquitted defendants Maryk and Keith, accused of mutiny through relieving Queeg of his command when the minesweeper USS Caine was at risk of sinking during a typhoon, brought a different meaning to the story.
Greenwald’s drunken speech in praise of Queeg and disdain for Lt Keefer (Fred MacMurray), who had encouraged Maryk and Keith, gave a moral victory to career navy men. It was the regulars like Queeg, “standing guard on this fat, dumb and happy country of ours”, who saved Greenwald’s mother, a “little gray-headed Jewish lady”, from being melted down into a bar of soap.
Greenwald’s speech made vivid theatre when Wouk’s stage play, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, opened in New York in 1954, with Henry Fonda playing Greenwald. Dmytryk, Bogart and Ferrer had all come to the attention of the House Un-American Activities committee, seeking out political subversion, and Wouk’s story provided impeccable conservative cover for them.
Wouk actually meant what Greenwald said. His conservative social and political attitudes and religious faith made him an atypical figure in American Jewish life after the second world war. He was an orthodox Jew, a Republican, a patriot and a sharp critic of assimilation. His novel Marjorie Morningstar (1955) ended with the renunciation of worldly ambition by a New York Jewish girl, and with an affirmation of marriage, suburbia, family and duty. It was one of the last moments when such a novel might have been written without apology, and published without embarrassment.
Born in New York to Esther (nee Levine) and Abraham Wouk, both Russian immigrants who had settled in the Bronx, Herman read Mark Twain as a boy and went to Columbia University, where he edited the humorous Columbia Jester and studied comparative literature and philosophy. After graduating he worked as a radio scriptwriter, and from 1936 until 1941 wrote jokes and sketches for the radio comedian Fred Allen.
When the US entered the second world war, Wouk briefly produced radio programmes for the treasury department, selling war bonds. He enlisted in the US naval reserve in 1942, and served in the Pacific aboard destroyer-minesweepers. In 1946 he was discharged from the navy with the rank of lieutenant.
He married Sarah (nee Betty Brown), a convert to Judaism, in 1945, and became a full-time writer; she was his literary agent from 1979. Two novels, the broadbrush satire Aurora Dawn (1947) and the sensitive boy from the Bronx at summer camp story, The City Boy (1948), and a play, The Traitor (1949), were followed by The Caine Mutiny.
Over the next two decades, Wouk was the very model of a commercially successful author. His plays were produced on Broadway, and his novels were selected by the Book of the Month Club. A movie was made of Marjorie Morningstar by Irving Rapper in 1958, starring Natalie Wood and Gene Kelly. Youngblood Hawke, a lightly fictionalised 1962 novel based on the life of the novelist Thomas Wolfe, was turned into a forgettable movie in 1964 starring James Franciscus. Wouk regarded the film version as “just awful”, and it was the last of his books to be sold to Hollywood.
He wanted to explain the meaning of Judaism to a larger reading public, and with This Is My God: The Jewish Way of Life (1959) he reached a strikingly large readership. While his contemporaries, such as Norman Mailer and Bellow, struggled with existential complexities, Wouk explained the barmitzvah, Purim and Hanukah.
During the final period of the war in Vietnam and its aftermath, at a moment when the military tradition and the virtues of patriotism were bitterly contested, Wouk looked back to the 1930s and 40s with The Winds of War (1971) and its sequel War and Remembrance (1978), an epic historical romance of family and war. In the two ABC miniseries based on the novels, broadcast in 1983 and 1988-89 (and not so mini, with a budget for the first series of $33m for nearly 15 hours of primetime broadcasting), the figure of the navy captain “Pug” Henry was played by Robert Mitchum. Wouk wrote the screenplays.
The novels could have been an expansive bore. But Wouk devoted 13 years to his historical research, and the outcome was much admired. Some of the set-piece descriptions, especially in War and Remembrance, were written with passion. The forgotten story of the third and sixth torpedo squadrons, flying from the USS Enterprise, and the eighth, from USS Hornet, locating and attacking against overwhelming odds the Japanese carrier force of Admiral Chūichi Nagumo embodied what Wouk meant about patriotism.
It seemed to him “the soul of the United States of America in action”. He listed the names of each of the pilots, and their home towns. Few other US writers could have written those pages, or would have chosen to do so in such an openly patriotic tone; most who served returned with more ambivalent feelings about their fellow countrymen and the conduct of the war. After the searing experience of Vietnam, Wouk in 1978 was a patriot and cheerleader. On the occasion of his 80th birthday in 1995, he donated the manuscripts of his second world war novels to the Library of Congress Center for the Book.
Wouk then moved to the terrain of Leon Uris with an epic and highly partisan novelisation of the history of the state of Israel, The Hope (1993) and The Glory (1994). Inside, Outside (1985), a novel set in Washington (where the Wouks then lived), reaffirmed the centrality of religion to Wouk’s sense of the American Jewish experience.
He returned to this theme in The Will to Live On: This Is Our Heritage (2000). It was followed by The Language God Talks (2010), about the conflict between science and religion, ending with an imaginary dialogue with the scientist Richard Feynman, whom he had met while researching the meaning of the atom bomb before writing War and Remembrance. When he met Feynman again years later, their dialogue was resumed, and was central to The Language God Talks.
A Hole in Texas (2004) explored the dilemmas of a scientist searching for the Higgs boson. It was described as “a crackling yarn”, written “with an enduring vigour that whippersnappers might envy” in the New York Times. The Lawgiver (2012), an epistolary novel, offered a satirical picture of a Hollywood studio trying to make a movie about Moses. Wouk appears in the novel as a script consultant.
In 2008, he was the first recipient of the award for lifetime achievement in the writing of fiction made by the Library of Congress. His centenary was marked by Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year Old Author (2015).
Sarah died in 2011. Wouk is survived by his sons Nathaniel and Joseph, another son, Abraham, having died as a child, and by three grandchildren.
• Herman Wouk, author and screenwriter, born 27 May 1915; died 17 May 2019