Scrupu­lous writer known for his ex­quis­ite prose style

The Washington Post Sunday - - OBITUARIES - BYMATT SCHUDEL matt.schudel@wash­post.com

James Sal­ter, a writer who con­tem­plated love, mor­tal­ity and the lives of men of ac­tion in his nov­els and short sto­ries and who built a quiet rep­u­ta­tion as an ex­tra­or­di­nary prose stylist, died June 19 in Sag Har­bor, N.Y. He was 90.

He col­lapsed while at a gym, his wife, Kay El­dredge, told the As­so­ci­ated Press.

Mr. Sal­ter was a scrupu­lous, painstak­ing writer whose books ap­peared at in­fre­quent in­ter­vals. He was per­haps best known for a slim 1967 novel, “A Sport and a Pas­time,” about a love af­fair in France (and with France) be­tween a young Amer­i­can col­lege dropout and an 18-year-old French girl.

Charged with a cur­rent of erotic ten­sion, “A Sport and a Pas­time” has been called one of the sex­i­est works of literature ever writ­ten.

“They climb the stairs,” Mr. Sal­ter wrote in one qui­etly sug­ges­tive pas­sage. “She goes first, as al­ways. Her calves flash be­fore him, turn­ing away, ris­ing on the nar­row treads. Her key opens the door.”

Nov­el­ist Reynolds Price, writ­ing in the New York Times Book Re­view, de­clared “A Sport and a Pas­time” as “nearly per­fect as any Amer­i­can fic­tion I know.”

In 1975, Mr. Sal­ter pub­lished another novel, “Light Years,” about a fail­ing mar­riage, but his books did not sell in large num­bers. A pas­sage in “Light Years” pointed at his de­sire to reach the pan­theon of great writ­ers while know­ing his ap­peal was too rar­efied:

“Fame was not only part of great­ness, it was more. It was the ev­i­dence, the only proof. All the rest was noth­ing, in vain.”

For years, Mr. Sal­ter­wasa “writer’s writer,” greatly ad­mired for the beauty and pre­ci­sion of his prose, even if few peo­ple knew his work.

He was also some­thing of an anachro­nism, dash­ing and worldly in a way few mod­ern-day writ­ers of fic­tion are.

He had seen com­bat as a fighter pi­lot and writ­ten two nov­els about mil­i­tary life be­fore turn­ing to the do­mes­tic bat­tles be­tween men and women. He trav­eled in grand style and wrote from an un­abashedly male point of view that some crit­ics, both men and women, found hard to take.

“His work is haunt­ingly beau­ti­ful,” nov­el­ist Rox­ana Robin­son wrote for Slate in2013, but she also de­plored his de­pic­tion of women “al­most solely in phys­i­cal terms.”

In 1997, Mr. Sal­ter pub­lished a memoir, “Burn­ing the Days,” which ex­plored many of his ear­lier themes but with­out the fil­ter of fic­tion.

He wrote about at­tend­ing the U.S. Mil­i­tary Academy, “the hard school, the forge,” and about be­ing an F-86 fighter pi­lot in Korea, where he flew more than 100 com­bat mis­sions. He de­scribed the re­sult of an aerial dog­fight with a cool, de­tached lyri­cism: “The MIG, now a fu­neral craft that bore noth­ing, was fall­ing from thirty thou­sand feet, spin­ning leisurely in its de­scent un­til its shadow un­ex­pect­edly ap­peared on the hills and slowly moved to join it in a burst of flame.”

When he was in the Air Force, Mr. Sal­ter wrote his first novel, “The Hun­ters,” which was pub­lished in 1956 and made into a film two years later with Robert Mitchum. When “The Hun­ters” was re­pub­lished in the 1990s, mil­i­tary his­to­rian Robert F. Dorr pro­nounced it “the finest work ever to ap­pear in print — ever — about men who fly and fight.”

At first, how­ever, none of Mr. Sal­ter’s mil­i­tary col­leagues knew he was the au­thor of “The Hun­ters,” be­cause “Sal­ter” was an as­sumed name. Through­out his 12year mil­i­tary ca­reer, he was known as James Horowitz.

He left the Air Force in 1957 as a ma­jor and legally changed his name to Sal­ter in the 1960s.

As much as he tried to leave his ear­lier life be­hind, he rec­og­nized how his char­ac­ter had been formed by his life in the mil­i­tary.

“I ceased talk­ing about those days, as if I had never known them,” he wrote in his memoir. “But it had been a great voy­age, the voy­age, prob­a­bly, ofmy life.”

James Arnold Horowitz was born June 10, 1925, in Pas­saic, N. J., and grew up in Man­hat­tan. His fa­ther was a West Point grad­u­ate who be­came a real es­tate ex­ec­u­tive. Mr. Sal­ter grad­u­ated from West Point in 1945 as part of an ac­cel­er­ated wartime pro­gram and be­came a pi­lot. He joined the Air Force when it was formed in 1947 and later re­ceived a master’s de­gree from Georgetown Univer­sity.

In the 1960s, Mr. Sal­ter wrote screen­plays for doc­u­men­taries and for the fea­ture films “Down­hill Racer” (1969), star­ring Robert Red­ford, and “The Ap­point­ment” (1969), di­rected by Sid­ney Lumet. He also wrote and di­rected the 1969 film “Three,” base­dona short story by Ir­win Shaw.

Red­ford later asked him to write a screen­play about rock climb­ing, but it was never pro­duced as a film. Mr. Sal­ter re­worked it as a novel, “Solo Faces,” in 1979.

Mr. Sal­ter’s first mar­riage, to Ann Al­te­mus, ended in di­vorce.

Sur­vivors in­clude his wife, Kay El­dredge of Bridge­hamp­ton, N.Y., whom he mar­ried in 1998 af­ter more than 20 years to­gether; three chil­dren from his first mar­riage; and a son with El­dredge.

A daugh­ter from his first mar­riage died in 1980 in an ac­ci­den­tal elec­tro­cu­tion.

“I have never been able to write the story. I reach a cer­tain point and can­not go on,” Mr. Sal­ter wrote in “Burn­ing the Days.” “The death of kings can be re­cited, but not of one’s child.”

Mr. Sal­ter was a writer-in-res­i­dence at the Univer­sity of Vir­ginia last fall. He pub­lished his sixth novel, “All That Is,” in 2013. He was work­ing on another memoir.

His 1988 short-story col­lec­tion, “Dusk and Other Sto­ries,” won the PEN/Faulkner Award. One story from that col­lec­tion, “Last Night,” rein­tro­duced the char­ac­ters from “A Sport and a Pas­time” as they were about to part for good.

“Af­ter­wards they lie for a long time in si­lence,” he wrote. “There is noth­ing. Their poem is scat­tered about them. The days have fallen ev­ery­where, they have col­lapsed like cards. The air has a chill in it. He pulls the cov­ers up. She is so per­fectly still she seems asleep. He touches her face. It is wet with tears.”

ED BETZ/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

James Sal­ter’s 1967 novel “A Sport and a Pas­time” has been called one of the sex­i­est works of literature ever writ­ten. In 1975, he pub­lished another novel, “Light Years,” about a fail­ing mar­riage.

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