Richard Condon | Obituary by Mel Gussow

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Richard Condon.
This section contains 1,010 words
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Obituary by Mel Gussow

SOURCE: "Richard Condon, Political Novelist, Dies at 81," in The New York Times, April 10, 1996, p. A16.

In the following obituary, Gussow reviews Condon's literary career and life.

Richard Condon, the fiendishly inventive novelist and political satirist who wrote The Manchurian Candidate, Winter Kills and Prizzi's Honor, among other books, died yesterday at Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas. He was 81.

Novelist is too limited a word to encompass the world of Mr. Condon. He was also a visionary, a darkly comic conjurer, a student of American mythology and a master of conspiracy theories, as vividly demonstrated in The Manchurian Candidate. That novel, published in 1959, subsequently became a cult film classic, directed by John Frankenheimer. In this spellbinding story, Raymond Shaw, an American prisoner of war (played in the film by Laurence Harvey), is brainwashed and becomes a Communist agent and assassin.

When the 1962 film was re-released in 1988, Janet Maslin wrote in The New York Times that it was "arguably the most chilling piece of cold war paranoia ever committed to film, yet by now it has developed a kind of innocence."

Mr. Condon was a popular novelist who earned serious critical attention, although he did not always win favorable reviews. His response "I'm a man of the marketplace as well as an artist." And he added. "I'm a pawnbroker of myth." Though others made claims that his novels were prophetic he admitted only that they were "sometimes about five and a half minutes ahead of their time."

In Winter Kills, a President, evidently modeled on John F. Kennedy, is assassinated in a conspiracy involving the Central Intelligence Agency and the underworld. Obsessed by politics, Mr. Condon once said, "Every book I've ever written has been about the abuse of power. I feel very strongly about that. I'd like people to know how deeply their politicians are wronging them." That abuse could be in contemporary life or as long ago as the 15th century, as in his novel A Trembling Upon Rome.

Politicians like Senator Joseph R. McCarthy and President Richard M. Nixon appeared in various guises in his work, Nixon as Walter Slurrie in Death of a Politician. Speaking about politics and political thrillers, Mr. Condon once said, "It's the villains that make good literature, because they're the only ones in the story who know what they want."

He did not write his first novel until he was 42, but, once started, he never stopped. The first, The Oldest Confession (1958), was filmed as The Happy Thieves, starring Rex Harrison and Rita Hayworth. The novel was a success, but the film was a failure, whereas the second, The Manchurian Candidate, was popular in both forms. Eventually he wrote 26 novels and two works of nonfiction, And Then We Moved to Rossenarra, a memoir of the years he lived in Ireland, and The Mexican Stove, a cook book he wrote with his daughter Wendy Jackson.

When asked how he knew so much about crime families he said he first learned about the subject as a boy on the streets of Washington Heights. He was born in Manhattan and graduated from De Witt Clinton High School. Because his grades were so poor, he never went to college. He worked as an elevator operator, a hotel clerk and a waiter, then sold an article to Esquire magazine. While working as a copywriter for an advertising agency, he met a model named Evelyn Hunt, whom he married in 1938. Copywriting led him into movie publicity, with his first stop the Disney organization.

For 22 years, he was a movie publicist, working for almost every major Hollywood studio. With characteristic panache, he later described himself as "a drummer boy for the gnomes and elves of the silver screen." During this period, he saturated himself with movies, watching eight a week. They were, he said, mostly bad films, but they taught him the art of storytelling and the need for the novelist to be entertaining.

In the late 1950's, he left Hollywood and returned to New York to become a novelist. The idea for The Oldest Confession came while he was on location with The Pride and the Passion at El Escorial, outside Madrid. Fascinated by Old Master paintings, he wrote his book about art thievery. The consecutive success of The Oldest Confession and The Manchurian Candidate enabled him to devote himself to fiction.

In 1959, he began a series of migrations, first to Mexico, then to Switzerland, finally to Ireland. His travels added to his backlog of knowledge, but he continued to set most of his novels in the United States. Through the 1960's and into the 70's, his books received mixed reviews, with some of the more admiring notices going to An Infinity of Mirrors in 1964. Winter Kills, in 1974, drew favorable attention, with Christopher Lehmann-Hauptsaying in his review in The Times that it was "a grand entertainment" and "the best book Mr. Condon has written since The Manchurian Candidate."

After writing a series of novels in Ireland, Mr. Condon moved back to the United States, settling in Dallas in 1980. In Texas, he had his next comeback, with Prizzi's Honor, about the Prizzi family of mobsters in Brooklyn. John Huston turned the novel into a hit film, starring Jack Nicholson, Kathleen Turner and Anjelica Huston. The screenplay, by Mr. Condon and Janet Roach, was nominated for an Academy Award. Several years later, Mr. Condon completed the fictional cycle with Prizzi's Family, Prizzi's Glory and Prizzi's Money, published in 1994.

Among his other novels are Some Angry Angel, A Talent for Loving, Arlgato and Emperor of America.

Throughout his life, Mr. Condon displayed a wry, even diabolical streak. He often named his characters after real people. For example, the characters in Raymond Shaw's infantry squad in The Manchurian Candidate were named for people associated with the Phil Silvers television show, You'll Never Get Rich. His longest-running character, Dr. Weller, was named after A. H. Weller, a former film critic for The Times. In various Condon novels, Dr. Weller turns up as an obstetrician, a cardiologist, a psychiatrist and the royal physician.

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This section contains 1,010 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Obituary by Mel Gussow
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