Louis L’Amour Dies; Prolific Western Writer

Times Staff Writer

Louis L’Amour, one of modern literature’s most prolific novelists whose tales of man’s conquest of the Old West enthralled millions of readers from truck drivers to President Reagan, has died of lung cancer. He was 80.

L’Amour died late Friday in his Los Angeles home, his publicist said.

A North Dakota native who dropped out of high school to wander the world, L’Amour started his career writing Western pulp magazine stories and Hopalong Cassidy novels in the ‘40s and ‘50s.

Finally, after many rejection slips, his first novel, “Hondo,” was published in 1953 and was made into a film starring John Wayne.

Wrote 101 Books

Today he is recognized as the best-selling author of 101 books that chronicle life on the American frontier.


“He always said he was just a storyteller, in the ancient (folk) tradition of people sitting around the fire, just telling stories,” said Joseph Wershba, a New York-based television news producer, who knew L’Amour for more than a decade.

Critics say that L’Amour took the distinctly American genre of the Western novel to an audience unprecedented in size. Vivid in detail, his works drew on a wealth of personal experience and indefatigable research.

“His readers felt he had walked the land his characters did,” said Stuart Applebaum, L’Amour’s publicist and his editor at Bantam Books. “His (stories) were as authentic as a text book, but a hell of a lot more entertaining to read. That combination of story-telling magic and unbeatable authenticity in background, place and time made his fans await eagerly each new book.”

Once called the laureate of the lariat, L’Amour wrote of cowboys, gunfighters and lawmen, of history, of good versus evil, of man’s relationship to nature, of survival.

“I go to an area I’m interested in and I try to find a guy who knows it better than anyone else. Usually it’s some broken-down cowboy,” L’Amour once said in an interview with the Associated Press.

“I’m actually writing history. It isn’t what you’d call big history. I don’t write about presidents and generals . . . I write about the man who was ranching, the man who was mining, the man who was opening up the country.”

Liked to Improvise

In a recent interview in the Smithsonian magazine, L’Amour said he never worked with a plot outline, preferring to improvise as he went along.

“I start with a character and a situation, but I don’t know what’s going to happen until I write it,” he said. “Sometimes things happen that surprise me.”

L’Amour’s fame especially catapulted in the last decade or so. About 50 million copies of his books were in print in 1975, compared to nearly 200 million today, Applebaum said.

“There seems to be a hunger on the part of North Americans to learn about their history and heritage. For many, Louis was a bridge to that era,” the publicist said.

L’Amour is the only novelist ever to be awarded the National Gold Medal, presented to him by Congress in 1983 for lifetime literary achievement, as well as the Medal of Freedom, bestowed on him by Reagan in 1984.

A 20-Year Journey

After leaving home at the age of 15, L’Amour embarked on a 20-year journey that could easily have been the stuff of his later novels. The odyssey found him working in the fish canneries of Alaska, jumping freight cars in New Orleans, writing for a newspaper in Oklahoma and handling circus elephants in Asia. He worked as a seaman, a lumberjack, a coal miner, a boxer, a farm hand, and served as an officer on a tank destroyer in World War II.

L’Amour was born March 22, 1908, the youngest of seven children in Jamestown, N.D. His father, a veterinarian of French-Irish descent, had Anglicized the last name to La Moore, which Louis changed back to the original after he struck out on his own.

A tall, broad-shouldered man who dressed in characteristic hand-tooled cowboy boots, a 10-gallon hat and braided-leather bolo ties, L’Amour churned out his stories on an electric typewriter seated at home in a huge library lined by 20,000 books.

Bantam publishes about three L’Amour novels a year. Ever-present in airport bookstores and at paperback counters, the books appeal to a wide range of readers. Reagan, according to Bantam, read one of L’Amour’s novels, “Jubal Sackett,” during his recovery from cancer surgery in July, 1985.

Two books by L’Amour are scheduled to appear later this year: “Lonigan,” a short-story collection, and “The Sackett Companion,” a commentary to accompany the 17-novel series on the Sackett family.

“He worked seven days a week,” Applebaum said. “The minute he finished one, he started on the next.”

Work on Autobiography

On the last afternoon of his life, he had been proofreading an autobiography that describes his self-education as a wandering youth, Applebaum said.

On Sunday, as L’Amour’s death was being announced, advertisements appeared in book review sections of several newspapers for a collection of quotations from L’Amour’s books. It is a compilation done by his daughter, Angelique, 24, and is scheduled to debut on Father’s Day.

The fact that he never won top literary awards was not a source of frustration to L’Amour, Applebaum said.

“He never really paid critics and literati that much mind,” the editor-publicist said. “He received thousands of fan mail every year. They were the critics that counted; people wrote to him who’d never written to a novelist before, who’d never read any other novels.”

Of 86 novels, 14 short story collections and one book of nonfiction, not all L’Amour’s work dealt with the West. More recently he had expanded his literary range; in 1984, he read several thousand books on Medieval times before writing about a feudal warrior named Kerbouchard in the novel “The Walking Drum,” set in the Middle Ages.

Into Hard Covers

And after publishing paperback originals for years, he also cracked the hard-cover market five years ago with “The Lonesome Gods.” More than 40 of the titles were made into films.

His fans especially praise the writer’s authenticity of detail.

“If he said that the cowboys went over a hill and to the right was Jones Hill, then there was Jones Hill. He researched it from heck to breakfast,” retired newspaperman Jack Evans said from his farm in L’Amour’s hometown of Jamestown. Evans, 78, led the campaign to have L’Amour honored with the Gold Medal.

“He would travel widely to check out the geography, the way people talked,” Evans said. “If you start (reading his books), you won’t quit. It gets ahold of you and grabs you til the end. He was that good a writer.”

“His books are very popular, very accessibly written,” said Steve Daly, manager of Duttons bookstore in North Hollywood. “It’s mainly a male readership, kind of a conservative bent, I think. The stories are pretty straightforward good versus evil. There’s a hero . . . and a lot of action and adventure.”

Dedicated to Family

Friends say L’Amour, married more than 30 years, was dedicated to his family and his work. He encircled himself with friends who, although part of the entertainment world, had gained his respect as craftsmen more than as stars.

Applebaum said L’Amour had never smoked in his life. His doctor had suggested the cancer came from the novelist’s days as a coal miner, but L’Amour said he didn’t believe that theory, Applebaum said.

“He and John Wayne were cut from the same mold, the kind that doesn’t complain,” Wershba said. “I had thought he’d go easily to 95 with all his powers intact . . . still turning out books.”

L’Amour is survived by his wife, Kathy, and two children, Beau, 27, and Angelique. Arrangements for the funeral, which will be private, were incomplete.