‘Bridges’ novel sparked a love af­fair

The Washington Post Sunday - - OBITUARIES - ROBERT JAMES WALLER, 77 BY MATT SCHUDEL

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.”

FRED PROUSER / REUTERS

Robert James Waller’s de­but novel, “The Bridges of Madi­son County,” was wildly suc­cess­ful and was made into a movie.

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