‘Bridges’ novel sparked a love affair
Robert James Waller, whose melodramatic novel “The Bridges of Madison County,” about the love affair of a roaming photographer and a lonely Iowa farm wife, became a runaway bestseller in the 1990s and formed the basis for a 1995 film starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep, died March 10 at his home in Fredericksburg, Tex. He was 77.
A friend, Scott Cawelti, told the Associated Press that the cause was multiple myeloma, a form of cancer.
Mr. Waller had written a few essays but had never attempted fiction before “The Bridges of Madison County.” He was 52 and on leave from his job as a professor of business management when he wrote the book in a feverish two-week period.
“It all just came pouring out,” he told the New York Daily News. “Practically wrote itself. I just typed it. Almost couldn’t keep up with the words. I don’t know where they came from.”
When novel was published in 1992, expectations were modest. Yet Mr. Waller’s 171-page novel found an eager audience through word-of-mouth recommendations and ended up spending 164 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, including nearly a full year at No. 1.
“Bridges” became a publishing phenomenon, selling nearly 6 million copies in the United States in two years. Tens of millions of copies are in print worldwide.
The novel’s plot concerns a photographer, Robert Kincaid, who has come to Madison County, Iowa, in 1965 to photograph its picturesque covered bridges for National Geographic. While there, he asks directions of an Italian-born farm wife named Francesca Johnson, and they embark on a passionate four-day romance while her family is away.
The initial reviews were lukewarm at best. A Chicago SunTimes critic called it “syrupy, platitudinous pap,” and others lampooned the book’s overwrought emotionalism and wooden prose.
Kincaid, considerate enough to clean the tub after taking a bath, is a Camels-smoking vegetarian smitten by Francesca and her unfulfilled longings.
“I am the highway and a peregrine,” he says, “and all the sails that ever went to sea.”
The quality of the prose did not put off readers. Instead, they were enraptured by the romantic tale of two adults sharing, if only for a short time, a life-changing passion.
Excerpts of “Bridges” appeared in Cosmopolitan magazine, and television host Oprah Winfrey invited Mr. Waller to discuss “Bridges” on her show, calling it her “favorite book of the year.”
Lanky and silver-haired, Mr. Waller looked the part of the handsome wayfaring stranger, going so far as to say, “Of course I’m Robert Kincaid. Just look at me.”
The 1995 film, directed by Eastwood who also starred as Kincaid, was filmed on location in Iowa and pulled in $182 million at the box office. The screenwriters tossed out much of Mr. Waller’s portentous prose, opting to let the cinematography and the chiseled faces of Eastwood and Streep carry the story line.
“Forget the book,” read a headline in the Houston Chronicle. “See the movie.”
“Bridges” fans flocked to southern Iowa to see the places visited by Mr. Waller’s imagined characters. Hundreds of weddings were performed under the roofs of Madison County’s covered bridges.
Mr. Waller’s second novel, “Slow Waltz at Cedar Bend,” about another grown-up affair, this time on a college campus, replaced “Bridges” as No. 1 on the bestseller lists in 1993. He released an album of songs tied into “Bridges,” and signed so many autographs that he reportedly developed carpal tunnel syndrome.
“People call me up and tell me I have written ‘The Sun Also Rises,’ that this is a new version of ‘The Old Man and the Sea,’ ” he told the Boston Globe in 1993. “I just say thank you very much. I just wanted to write a story about a lonely man.”
Robert James Waller was born Aug. 1, 1939, in Rockford, Iowa. His father was a wholesale chicken dealer.
“Bobby” Waller, as he was known in his youth, was an allstate basketball star who received an athletic scholarship to the University of Iowa. He soon gave up basketball, saying he lost interest in the competitive side of sports — “What I liked was the art and physics of the long-range jump shot.”
He transferred to the University of Northern Iowa, where studied mathematics and economics, then received a doctorate in business management from Indiana University in 1968. In Indiana he performed folk music in cafes and briefly accompanied Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign.
He returned to his alma mater of Northern Iowa to teach and eventually became the first dean of the university’s school of business administration. By the 1990s, he was disillusioned with teaching and the academic life.
“I looked at them once and shouted, ‘Didn’t anyone here ever want to be an Amazon river captain?’ ” he told People magazine. “They looked at me like I was crazy.”
In 1991, he took the leave of absence that produced “The Bridges of Madison County.”
Mr. Waller moved to a remote ranch in Alpine, Tex., then later settled in Fredericksburg. He published several other novels, some of which received scathing reviews; New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani called “Border Music,” his 1995 novel, “spectacularly awful.”
His marriage to Georgia Wiedemeier ended in divorce. Survivors include his second wife, Linda Bow of Fredericksburg; and a daughter from his first marriage.
“The Bridges of Madison County” was made into a musical play and opened on Broadway in 2014. In 2002, Mr. Waller revisited the characters of “Bridges” in “A Thousand Country Roads.”
In that book, he wrote: “To hold a grievance against fate accomplishes nothing; things occur without reason, or rhyme, and no more can be said . . . . In the end, there is nothing left except to shoulder whatever you have been handed and to go on.”
Robert James Waller’s debut novel, “The Bridges of Madison County,” was wildly successful and was made into a movie.