The Uris Bubble

Two books take sharp looks at writer Leon Uris's failings. Despite being a diligent researcher and a highly disciplined worker, Uris was rather a mess on the personal level.

Exodus 521 (photo credit: AFP)
Exodus 521
(photo credit: AFP)
FOR MANY YEARS I HAD A kind of a soft spot in the softer portions of my head for Leon Uris. The author of “Exodus” and a dozen other blockbuster novels was, after all, the very first real live author I had ever met. I was a kid with sixpointed stars in his eyes and Uris had come to my local Jewish Community Center to campaign for John F. Kennedy. He was elegant and looked distinguished, what with his prematurely silver hair, his tailored suit, the glittering cuff links on his snowy white shirt. He shook my hand and patted me on the shoulder.
In this first full-length biography of the writer, Ira B. Nadel has certainly undermined that warm and fuzzy memory. Nadel, a professor of English at the University of British Columbia and author of biographies of such disparate literary figures as Leonard Cohen, Tom Stoppard, David Mamet, Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, has done the requisite research, poring over the extensive Uris archive at the University of Texas, interviewing Uris family members and unearthing sources everywhere from Hollywood to Jerusalem. The resulting picture of the man is not a pretty one.
As Nadel is at pains to point out repeatedly, Uris was a diligent researcher and a highly disciplined worker. That’s on the professional side, and that’s just about all the good points.
On the personal level, Leon Uris (1924-2003) was rather a mess. He came from a broken home and dropped out of high school in favor of serving with the US Marines in the Pacific in World War II. This last evidently suited his lifelong combative personality. He had three failed marriages, the first to a fellow Marine and lasting 23 years – up until he made a success of himself as a novelist. The second marriage lasted about six months, ending when his wife left (or was driven out) and committed suicide. The third marriage endured for 20 years until finally undermined by adulteries on both sides. (Uris, according to Nadel, had a penchant for black prostitutes, as well as for cocaine and marijuana.) The writer was often alienated from his children, was imperious, bombastic, avaricious and self-glorifying. (Remember that photo on the jacket of “Exodus” showing the author in fatigues and stroking a jeep-mounted machine gun, “on patrol” in the Negev?) He also lusted after the sort of literary prizes showered on fellow American Jewish novelists like Bellow, Malamud, Roth and Wouk, all of whom he continually disparaged.
But, oh well, that’s just personal stuff; it’s the writing that counts, right? On the plus side, Uris was the author of what was arguably the most influential work of Jewish literature of the 20th century, a book that throughout the world shaped positive Jewish and non-Jewish perceptions of Israel, most profoundly in the US, but also significantly among Soviet Jews.
And yet literature and Uris are not words that nestle comfortably in the same sentence.
Uris was a wretched writer who only seemed to get worse as his career ground on.
How bad was it? Here’s a passage from “Exodus,” which I dutifully reread recently: “The ‘Star of David’ shuddered and creaked as her timbers slashed into a craggy boulder! A single flare spiraled into the air! The melee was on!” In addition to the serially exclamatory prose, we have characters which to call wooden is to insult trees. The super-Sabra heroes of “Exodus” were derided by the very Israelis the novel purported to depict. Unsurprisingly, this romanticized story of the founding of the Jewish state also infuriated Palestinians, among them the late Columbia University professor of English Edward Said, who in 2001 complained bitterly, “The main narrative model that dominates American thinking still seems to be Leon Uris’s 1950 [sic] novel ‘Exodus.’” But apparently only critics and cranks, if that isn’t redundant, care about things like literary value. Following its release on September 18, 1958, the novel spent an entire year on The New York Times bestseller list – including 19 weeks in the No. 1 spot.
“Exodus,” which is still in print, has gone on to sell tens of millions of copies in various editions in the US alone, was translated into some 50 languages and for decades was circulated as a sacred samizdat text among Jews seeking to emigrate from the Soviet Union.
The novel also inspired a megahit Otto Preminger film. Interestingly, Uris aspired to success as a screenwriter as much as he did as a novelist. “Exodus” in fact was originally conceived as a film, with MGM financing the writer’s research and travels.
But Hollywood proved a lot less friendly to Uris than did his readers. He had one achievement in Hollywood – the script for the 1957 Burt Lancaster-Kirk Douglas shoot-‘em-up “Gunfight at the OK Corral.”
(Nadel remarks astutely that all of Uris’s books were essentially westerns.) His screenplays based on his own novels, however, including “Exodus” and many others, were routinely rejected and Uris was frequently fired by the studios. Nadel notes that Uris’s script for his second book, “The PALATABLE: Paul Newman in Otto Preminger’s movie ‘Exodus,’ which went out of its way to make the struggle for Jewish independence palatable to Christians AFP Angry Hills,” was dismissed by the producer because the writer “didn’t understand his own characters.” Uris likewise repeatedly failed as a playwright. Most notably, his Broadway musical version of “Exodus,” called “Ari,” closed after 19 performances.
Uris to be sure made millions with blockbuster after blockbuster, including such tomes as “Mila 18,” “QBVII,” “Topaz” and “Trinity.” By the end of his career, however, he had definitely lost his touch. “A God in Ruins” (1999) is an absurd melodrama about a US presidential candidate named Quinn Patrick O’Connell who, on the eve of the election, learns that he is Jewish. A proposed novel about New York’s Chinatown came to naught, as did several other projects. Uris’s final book, released in 2003 a few months after his death, was “O’Hara’s Choice,” which had trouble finding a publisher. I declined an invitation from The New York Times Book Review to review that novel, claiming that I hadn’t sufficient knowledge of the Marine Corps, which was the book’s subject. Truth was, I couldn’t see dragging my way through another Uris opus. The Book Review apparently never found anyone else willing to do so, as no review of the book ever appeared in The Times.
I had, however, reviewed “The Haj” (1984), the only Uris novel I ever read besides “Exodus.” The book so cruelly caricatured Arabs that, as I recall, I wrote that it was tantamount to racist literature. Indeed, the most welcome aspect of Nadel’s biography is his critical summaries of Uris’s 16 books, which at once saved me a lot of reading and confirmed my decision to avoid those books in the first place. Nadel occasionally lapses into carelessness – for example, telling us twice on page 178 that Herb Schlosberg was Uris’s business manager, and elsewhere committing to paper such Uris-like redundancies as “a young, seventeen-year-old”).
But Nadel deserves much credit for slogging through so much potboiler prose and for profiling such an unpleasant human being. It was surely a dirty job and, if somebody had to do it, Ira B. Nadel did it perhaps even better than the subject deserves.
M.M. SILVER, WHO HEADS THE General Studies Department at the Max Stern College of Emek Yezreel, near Afula, also deserves admiration for his Uris slog. “Our Exodus” covers a lot of the ground trodden by Nadel. But Silver’s focus is on “Exodus” as a literary and cinematic phenomenon and, as the book’s subtitle suggests, has as its thesis the claim that Uris distorted the story of Israel’s founding to suit an American audience.
For instance, as put forward by Nadel and many others, Silver declares Uris’s novel essentially a white-hat vs. black-hat western, a sort of “Gunfight at the King David Hotel,” if you will. Alternatively, the Israelis are the noble cowboys, the Palestinians the barbaric Indians. This, Silver maintains, is especially underscored in the film version of “Exodus.”
Near the end, for example, when the blonde, teenage Karen is found murdered, her dead body is shown sprawled among cactus.
Cactus, get it? Prof. Silver has a lot more to say in this vein, much of it sensible, some of it silly. Of the former, it is indeed significant that the story’s lead female character, Kitty Fremont, is an American WASP with whom American readers and film goers could identify.
Silver, however, is on shakier ground when he asserts that the Hagana’s battle with the British Mandate forces resonates with Americans as a replay of the American colonists’ rebellion against King George III’s lobsterback troops. In regard to the film of “Exodus,” for example, Silver tells us: “The first time we see Paul Newman as Ari Ben Canaan, he swims ashore to Cyprus after receiving flashlight beam signals from a Hagana man camouflaged as a local taxi driver. This is a Mediterranean version of the Paul Revere story.” Oh, really? Um, wasn’t Paul Revere, who was not, as I recall, a cab driver, warning of the advance of the British, and not of the Hagana? Elsewhere, Silver stresses that “Exodus,” especially in Otto Preminger’s hands, went out of its way to make the struggle for Jewish independence palatable to Christians. “As happens in other key moments in the film,” Silver writes, “Preminger uses symbols after the King David bombing to exonerate Jewish zeal and to evoke a sense of Christian forgiveness for acts of post-Holocaust Jewish violence. In this case, [hotel bomber] Dov shakes off British security men by weaving in and out of Jerusalem’s Ethiopian Church and hiding behind Christian relics and clergy processions.”
Again, Silver gives a close, and perhaps too close, reading of film images: “As the audience peers directly at the YMCA tower and the shattered King David Hotel behind it, our view is bordered by black railing on the right side and the building’s Jerusalem stone on the left. The view has the feel of [death camp] railroad tracks, and the shadows in the middle of the track are aligned, accidentally, as a crucifix.” Silver illustrates this interpretation with a still from the movie, but I think the railroad tracks and the crucifix remain strictly in Silver’s overheated imagination.
But such hypothesizing shouldn’t distract us (too much) from the bulk of “Our Exodus,” which has many virtues. Silver is especially good on pre-state Zionism’s flaccid public relations efforts, on the Cold War shadows over Uris’s novel, on the Israeli reception of “Exodus” (journalist Uri Avnery wanted the film, with its “revolting kitsch,” banned), on the impact of the novel on Soviet Jews and on the fading of the “Exodus” mythology in the face of Israel’s changing image over the years. Silver, whose favorite adjective appears to be “gripping,” makes it clear why that word once applied so aptly to the Uris novel and the Preminger film.
And he makes it equally clear why both have long since lost their grip.