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