CHARLESTON, S.C. – Author Pat Conroy, whose beloved works “The Great Santini” and “The Prince of Tides” are set against the vistas of the South Carolina coast that was his home, was lauded Saturday as a great chronicler of the human condition and a humble and loving soul.
Conroy, 70, died Friday at his home in Beaufort, about an hour south of Charleston, surrounded by family and friends at the time, according to his publisher.
The heavy-set author died less than a month after announcing on Facebook that he was battling cancer. He promised to “fight it hard” and told his fans “I owe you a novel and I intend to deliver it.”
A funeral mass will be held Tuesday at Saint Peter’s Catholic Church in Beaufort with a private burial afterward.
Barbra Streisand, who starred in and directed the movie version of Conroy’s “The Prince of Tides” posted a picture of herself with Conroy on Instagram on Saturday. The 1991 movie starring Streisand and Nick Nolte earned seven Oscar nominations, including best picture.
First, I fell in love with Pat Conroy’s book, The Prince of Tides, and then I fell in love with him. He was generous and kind, humble and loving…such a joy to work with. I was so honored that he entrusted his beautiful book to me. Pat’s natural language was poetry…he wrote sentences that are like an incantation. He observed every nuance of human behavior and dug deep down to the truth…presenting it in all its glorious and stubborn complexity. I am so sad today. I lost a dear friend, and the world has lost a great writer.
“He was generous and kind, humble and loving . such a joy to work with. I was so honoured that he entrusted his beautiful book to me,” she wrote. “Pat’s natural language was poetry.he wrote sentences that are like an incantation.”
While Conroy had been ill in recent weeks, last October the University of South Carolina Beaufort held a 3-day literary festival featuring Conroy and discussions of his work and included a screening of “The Great Santini.” The event culminated with a 70th birthday party in his honour.
“The water is wide and he has now passed over,” his wife, novelist Cassandra Conroy, said in a statement from publisher Doubleday.
Nan A. Talese, Conroy’s longtime editor and publisher, said that the late author “will be cherished as one of America’s favourite and bestselling writers, and I will miss him terribly.”
Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg, who had known Conroy most of his adult life called him “the great chronicler of the time and place that I call home. He saw it with clarity. He wrote of it with purpose.”
Conroy, who sold 20 million books worldwide, candidly and expansively shared details of growing up as a military brat and his anguished relationship with his abusive father, Marine aviator and military hero Donald Conroy. He also wrote of his time in military school, The Citadel in Charleston, and his struggles with his health and depression.
“The reason I write is to explain my life to myself,” Conroy said in a 1986 interview. “I’ve also discovered that when I do, I’m explaining other people’s lives to them.”
Much of his youth was spent in the shadow of Donald Conroy, who “thundered out of the sky in black-winged fighter planes, every inch of him a god of war,” as Pat Conroy would remember. The author was the eldest of seven children in a family constantly moving from base to base, a life described in “The Great Santini,” the film of which starred Robert Duvall as the relentless and violent patriarch.
The 1976 novel initially enraged Conroy’s family, but the movie three years later made such an impression on his father that he claimed credit for boosting Duvall’s career. The book also helped achieve peace between father and son.
“I grew up hating my father,” Conroy said after his father died in 1998. “It was the great surprise of my life, after the book came out, what an extraordinary man had raised me.” He would reflect on his relationship with his father in the 2013 memoir “The Death of Santini.”
“The Prince of Tides,” published in 1986, brought Conroy a wide audience, selling more than 5 million copies with its story of a former football player from South Carolina with a traumatic past and the New York psychiatrist who attempts to help him.
It was not greeted warmly by reviewers.
“Inflation is the order of the day. The characters do too much, feel too much, suffer too much, eat too much, signify too much and, above all, talk too much,” said The Los Angeles Times Book Review.
But Conroy ignored the reviews and focused on the advice he once got from novelist James Dickey, his professor at the University of South Carolina.
“He told me to write everything I did with all the passion and all the power you could muster,” Conroy recalled. “Don’t worry about how long it takes or how long it is when you’re done. You know, he was right.”
Conroy’s much-anticipated “Beach Music,” published in 1995, was a bestseller that took nine years to complete. During that time he had been working on “The Prince of Tides” screenplay, but he also endured a divorce, depression, back surgery and the suicide of his youngest brother.
Conroy attended The Citadel at his father’s insistence, avoided the draft and went into teaching. In 2013, he wrote on his blog that had begun his life as “a draft dodger and anti-war activist” while his classmates “walked off that stage and stepped directly into the Vietnam War.”
For years, he was alienated from The Citadel, which he renamed the Carolina Military Institute in his 1980 novel “The Lords of Discipline.” A harsh tale of the integration of a Southern military school, the book was adapted into a film in 1983, but was made elsewhere because The Citadel’s governing board refused to allow film crews on campus.
Later, Conroy reconciled with his alma mater. The state military college awarded him an honorary degree in 2000 and fans lined up to get autographed copies of his books in 2002 when he attended homecoming weekend. He later published “My Losing Season,” about his final year of college basketball at The Citadel.
Pat Conroy’s other books included “South of Broad,” set in Charleston’s historic district, and “My Reading Life,” a collection of essays that chronicled his lifelong passion for literature.
He was born Donald Patrick Conroy on Oct. 26, 1945. The Conroy children attended 11 schools in 12 years before the family eventually settled in Beaufort, about an hour from Charleston.
Following college graduation in 1967, he worked as a high school teacher in Beaufort. While there, he borrowed $1,500 to have a vanity press publish “The Boo,” an affectionate portrait of Col. Thomas Courvoisie, an assistant commandant at The Citadel.
For a year he taught poor children on isolated Daufuskie Island, not far from the resort of Hilton Head. The experience was the basis for his 1972 book, “The Water Is Wide,” which was made into the movie “Conrack.”
Conroy was married three times and had two daughters. Although he lived around the world, he always considered South Carolina his home and lived in the coastal Lowcountry since the late 1990s.
“Make this university, this state, yourself and your family proud,” Conroy told University of South Carolina graduates in 1997.
“If you have a little luck, any luck at all, if you do it right, there’s a great possibility you can teach the whole world how to dance.”