Writer made Iowa lovers’ mecca with ‘Bridges of Madi­son County’

Austin American-Statesman - - VIEWPOINTS - By Mark Kennedy

Robert James Waller, whose best-sell­ing, bit­ter­sweet 1992 ro­mance novel “The Bridges of Madi­son County” was turned into a movie star­ring Meryl Streep and Clint East­wood and later into a soar­ing Broad­way mu­si­cal, has died in Texas, ac­cord­ing to a long­time friend. He was 77.

Scott Cawelti, of Cedar Falls, Iowa, said Waller died early Fri­day at his home in Fred­er­icks­burg. He had been fight­ing mul­ti­ple myeloma, a form of can­cer.

In “Bridges,” a lit­er­ary phe­nom­e­non which Waller fa­mously wrote in 11 days, the rov­ing Na­tional Ge­o­graphic pho­tog­ra­pher Robert Kin­caid spends four days tak­ing pic­tures of bridges and also ro­manc­ing Francesca John­son, a war bride from Italy mar­ried to a no-non­sense Iowa farmer. One fa­mous line from the book reads: “The old dreams were good dreams; they didn’t work out but I’m glad I had them.”

Waller’s novel reached No. 1 on The New York Times best-seller list and stayed on it for over three years, longer than any work of fic­tion since “The Robe,” a novel about Je­sus’ cru­ci­fix­ion pub­lished in the early 1950s. The East­wood-di­rected 1995 movie grossed $182 mil­lion worldwide.

Many crit­ics made fun of “Bridges,” call­ing it sappy and cliché-ridden. The In­de­pen­dent news­pa­per said of the cen­tral ro­man­tic pair “it is hard to be­lieve in, or to like, ei­ther of them.”

Read­ers, how­ever, bought more than 12 mil­lion copies in 40 lan­guages. “Bridges” turned the un­known writer into a mul­ti­mil­lion­aire and made Madi­son County, Iowa, an in­ter­na­tional tourist at­trac­tion.

The novel prompted cou­ples across the world to marry on Madi­son County’s cov­ered bridges. Around the town of Win­ter­set, pop­u­la­tion 4,200, tourists ar­rived by the bus­loads, buy­ing “Bridges” T-shirts, per­fume and post­cards.

Waller told The Des Moines Reg­is­ter in 1992 that “Bridges” was “writ­ten” in his mind as he drove from Des Moines to Cedar Falls after pho­tograph­ing the cov­ered bridges in Madi­son County.

After the novel’s suc­cess, Waller left Iowa, where he had grown up, and moved to a ranch in Alpine, Texas. He also di­vorced his wife of 36 years, Ge­or­gia, with whom he had a daugh­ter.

Waller taught man­age­ment, eco­nom­ics, and ap­plied math­e­mat­ics at the Univer­sity of North­ern Iowa from 1968 to 1991.

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