Nora Johnson, writer who created 'The World of Henry Orient,' dies at 84

When Nora Johnson was a child, her parents divorced and moved to opposite ends of America, plunging the future novelist into a rootless existence that would haunt her writing for decades to come.

Her father was famous and his life brimmed with celebrities and the glitter of Hollywood. Her mother was outgoing, given to throwing cocktail parties and at ease in the cosmopolitan air of Manhattan.

But even amid such glamour, Johnson said she was swept along by an undercurrent of loneliness and dislocation.

“If I went out to Romanoff’s with them and Groucho was there and the Bogarts and Coop and Rocky and all the rest,” she wrote in her memoir “Coast to Coast.” “I’d just be the black hole in the bright tapestry anyway.”

Johnson mined her childhood and adolescence in memoirs like “Flashback,” “You Can Go Home Again” and “Coast to Coast.” The prestigious all-girl prep school she attended in New York City helped form the landscape for her novel “The World of Henry Orient” and her experiences at Smith College fueled “Sex and the College Girl,” an acclaimed 1959 essay that sought to redefine womanhood in postwar America.

A prolific and fluid writer through her long career, Johnson died Oct, 5 in Dallas, according to her daughter, Marion Siwek. She was 84.

A child of Hollywood, Johnson’s father was filmmaker Nunnally Johnson, a respected and successful screenwriter, producer and director who worked on films as varied as “The Grapes of Wrath” and “The Dirty Dozen.” Her mother, Marion Byrnes, was a journalist, a woman Johnson considered elegant but sometimes distracted.

Johnson was a child when her parents split — her father planting himself in Beverly Hills, her mother moving to New York.

At casual glance, there was a storybook charm to it all. Summers in Hollywood meant playing croquet with Tyrone Power, going to Shirley Temple’s birthday parties, looking across the lawn of her father’s house and noticing “Judy Garland standing in front of me, her eyes ablaze, her small swaying body lit up with some tragic fire.” During the school year she had New York, from the ice rink at Rockefeller Center to Broadway.

But she felt disassociated with both cities, and — to varying degrees — both parents. Hollywood felt artificial and her father was so charismatic, Johnson said she felt as if she had to line up to get his affection. She worried that she bored him.

“The things I saved up for months to tell him, never seemed worth bringing up when I was with him,” she wrote in “Coast to Coast.”

Her first marriage took her to Saudi Arabia, where she wrote “The World of Henry Orient,” the story of two schoolgirls who build romantic fantasies about a famous concert pianist. Cloaked in humor, the girls’ efforts to spy on the pianist form a story of both obsession and youthful exuberance.

Johnson divorced, married again and then divorced a second time. Her father, sensing his daughter was going through a grim time, reached out to her and suggested they collaborate on a film script for “Henry Orient.”

Peter Sellers was cast as the pianist in the 1964 film version of the story. Don Ameche played the role in a subsequent Broadway musical adaptation of Johnson’s novel. Both were deemed successes.

In a 1986 interview, Johnson said that, as much as anything else, she wrote to please her father.

“Even now when I write a passage that pleases me especially, I find myself thinking, ‘How he’d like this … I hope.’”

After her father’s death in 1977, Johnson seemed to write furiously — turning out novels like “Tender Offer” and “Perfect Together” and writing book reviews and reflections. Though she made New York her home, she returned to Los Angeles frequently. In 1985, she reminisced about her childhood summers in Beverly Hills in a story for the Los Angeles Times Magazine.

"If you weren’t a producer or writer or director, or a spouse or child thereof, or one of those glorious creatures who dropped by occasionally — Ty Power or Ginger or Bogie or Betty — or struggling and worshipful and on the way up the entertainment ladder, you were better off in Pasadena or Hershey, Pa.”

But the Beverly Hills she found on return visits seemed a vastly changed place. Old Hollywood was now but a memory.

“You can still live in the old Marion Davies house, as I did briefly. But you neighbor is less likely to be Jimmy Stewart than a Regular Person in a high-tax bracket — a rock star, a disguised Russian spy, a dentist or an aerospace executive.”

Johnson is survived by children Marion Siwek, Paula Siwek and Justin Milici, and nine grandchildren. Another son, Jonathan Milici, died in 2001. Her third husband, George Johnson, died in 2011.

steve.marble@latimes.com

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