Leon Uris: Life of a Best Seller

By Ira B. Nadel | Go to book overview
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PROLOGUE
“AMERICAN MARINE, JEWISH WRITER”

QUANTICO NATIONAL CEMETERY, just south of Washington, contains more than 23,000 military graves on 725 acres. On a gently sloping hill facing Thomas Jefferson Road, several hundred gravestones of equal height stand in quiet formation. One, near the bottom, is slightly more noticeable. Beside a soldier who died in Vietnam, and below a marine and sailor who fought in Vietnam and Korea, is the writer Leon Uris. Under a Jewish star, his name, rank, service, war action, and dates are followed by his own simple epitaph: “American Marine / Jewish Writer.” The order of the words is telling: it underscores a selfimage that this biography will alternately reaffirm and question.

Burial as a marine forms one bookend to his life. The other is his enlistment at seventeen, a month after Pearl Harbor. From discipline and self-reliance to patriotism and duty, the Marine Corps instilled in Uris a moral code and an American identity that defined his career. His outrage at injustice and persecution found reinforcement in the spirit of the corps and its commitment to helping liberty defeat oppression. “This is my war—personally,” he proudly wrote in a letter of November 1943. He meant it. Underlining his devotion to the marines are his first and last novels, Battle Cry and O’Hara’s Choice: both concentrate on the corps. There were other influences, of course, from his left-leaning father to his Hollywood screenwriting. But the marines provided the foundation of his life, and he was thrilled to be one of them.

Fame came suddenly. When Exodus appeared in 1958—Uris was thirty-four— it sold more copies than any other American book except Gone with the Wind, spending more than a year as a New York Times best seller, including twenty weeks at number one. Exodus has never been out of print. At one point, it was selling 2,500 copies a day. The advance printing for the paperback was 1.5 million copies. It was soon increased to 2.9 million. To date, Exodus has gone through eighty

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