Writer known for The Caine Mutiny and The Winds of War

Born: May 27, 1915;

Died: May 17, 2019

HERMAN Wouk, who has died aged 103, was an American novelist who won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1952 for his most celebrated work, The Caine Mutiny, which told the tale of a crisis of command on board a US Navy minesweeper. A work of fiction with basis in his own experience, the novel set the foundation for Wouk’s most celebrated later works, which chronicled the seismic events of the Second World War.

His other great successes were The Winds of War (1971) and its sequel War and Remembrance (1978). Through the fictional experience of US naval officer Victor ‘Pug’ Henry and his uncannily ability to be present for many of the significant moments of the conflict, the stories craft the tale of the war amid the saga of Henry’s own extended family.

Wouk’s own devout Orthodox Judaism – particularly from a Jewish-American perspective – was an important feature of his life and his writing, and in later years he continued the theme and style of The Winds of War with The Hope (1993) and The Glory (1994), which explored the first decades in the existence of Israel. His non-fiction book This is My God (1959) was an exploration of the Jewish faith aimed at Jewish and non-Jewish readers alike; it became a popular gift for young Jewish-American men.

Although Wouk maintained an enviable work rate throughout his life – his final book was his 2016 autobiography Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year-Old Author – it is The Caine Mutiny’s powerful evocation of the moral dilemmas of war which will most readily be associated with his name.

Telling the tale of well-to-do Willie Keith, who signs up for the Navy to get out of the Army, the novel explores the command of the Caine by the flawed Lieutenant Commander Queeg, and of the combination of merciless politicking and genuine doubt in the mission and its leadership which eventually undermines him. It was partly autobiographical; Wouk served as an officer on the USS Zane (the model for the Caine) and the USS Southard during the war, taking part in a number of conflicts and receiving numerous commendations.

The novel – Wouk’s third – was a huge critical and commercial success, and inspired both the 1954 Broadway play The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial (starring Henry Fonda, directed by Charles Loughton and written by Wouk, it ran for more than 400 performances) and the film of the same year, which starred Humphrey Bogart as Queeg and gathered seven Academy Award nominations. The book’s commercial success propelled Wouk through the next decade. His next novel Marjorie Morningstar (1955), about a young Jewish woman growing up in New York with dreams of being an actor, was filmed with Natalie Wood and Gene Kelly in 1958.

In the early 1960s the author – approaching his 50th birthday – externalised his feelings about midlife. Youngblood Hawke (1962) was about the rise-and-fall of a briefly famous novelist, and 1965’s comedy Don’t Stop the Carnival was about a New York high-flier who tries to flee his midlife crisis in the Caribbean.

If Wouk’s own star was on the wane, however, his salvation came with the only two novels he published over the following two decades. Following periods of intensive international research and successful publication, The Winds of War and War and Remembrance were adapted into two hugely successful American television dramas in 1983 and 1988.

Born in New York City’s Bronx in 1915, Herman Wouk was the middle of three children of Esther and Abraham, poor Russian Jewish immigrants until Abraham built a successful laundry business. He graduated from Columbia University in 1934, and for five years after graduation wrote jokes for the radio comedian Fred Allen.

Two of the most significant moments in Wouk’s life came while he was serving during the war; he began to write and signed the publishing contract for his debut novel (Aurora Dawn, 1947) while at sea; and he met Betty Sarah Brown – whom he married in 1945. The couple had three children, one of whom died in infancy, three grandchildren and two great grandchildren, and were together until her death in 2011.