Irving Stone Dies at Age 86; Best-Selling ‘Biohistorian’

Times Staff Writer

Irving Stone, a master of the biographical novel who spun narratives around the lives of such diverse historical figures as Mary Todd Lincoln and Michelangelo, has died in Los Angeles at the age of 86.

The prolific author of more than 25 books, including “Lust for Life” and “The Agony and the Ecstasy,” died at 11:20 p.m. Saturday at Cedars-Sinai Hospital, where his family said he had been receiving treatment for cancer since July 24.

Paula Correia, a hospital official, said that death was attributed to cardiopulmonary arrest.

Stone remained an active writer almost to the end. At the time of his death he was close to finishing a new book, his wife, Jean, who worked with him editing his books, said Sunday.


“He left enough material to be edited and to finish it,” she said, declining to specify the subject. “It’s a biographical novel, and he figured that it would be ready by the fall of next year.”

With “Lust for Life,” Stone’s 1934 epic of artist Vincent van Gogh, the graduate of Los Angeles’ Manual Arts High School virtually created a new art form, which he sometimes called “biohistory: the telling of history in terms of the human beings who lived it.”

Stone took on complex characters who intrigued him--Mary Todd Lincoln in “Love Is Eternal,” published in 1954; Michelangelo in “The Agony and the Ecstasy,” 1961; Sigmund Freud in “The Passions of the Mind,” 1971, and Charles Darwin in “The Origin,” 1980--and approached his subjects as a detective, searching for facts that would provide insight into their lives.

He identified with his characters so intensely that he seemed almost to become the character. On the 40th anniversary of Van Gogh’s death, Stone lay on the bed in the room where the artist had died at 1:20 a.m. He related later that he became more and more faint “until finally at 1:19 I threw off the covers, dashed to the back window, stuck my head out and took in deep lungsful of the night air.”


“His work was absolutely authentic,” his wife said. “Nobody can touch his research. He was willing to put two or three years into it. Most authors don’t want to put that much time into research. They want to get on to the fun work of writing. But he loved the research.”

She said her husband wanted to be remembered “as an author who brought to enormous numbers of people an understanding of men or women whom they would not ordinarily have understood. He would have wanted to complete a tolerance for people who want to do things that are not completely traditional.”

Although some literary experts have belittled the biographical novel as neither good biography nor good fiction, Stone saw nobility in the genre, as he once explained in a UCLA lecture:

“The biographical novel is a true and documented story of one human being’s journey across the face of the years, transmuted from the raw material of life into the delight and purity of an authentic art form.

“It is based on the conviction that the best of all plots lie in human character and that human character is endlessly colorful and revealing. The biographical novel sets out to document this truth, for character is plot, character development is action, and character fulfillment is resolution.”

Pure Biographies

Stone also wrote pure biography, including “Sailor on Horseback; a Biography of Jack London,” about one of his early literary idols, in 1938, and “Clarence Darrow for the Defense,” published in 1941. Those stories, he once said in an interview, were “so unusual and dramatic” that he feared that writing them in novel form would make readers think they were fiction.

But the pragmatic Stone also wanted to write books that would sell.


“I know from experience that biographies have a limited audience,” he once told the New York Times. “We have thousands of readers who love (the biographical novel) and are thrilled by it, who’d never get near a conventional biography.”

Even critics who scorned biographical novels agreed, like Alan R. Shucard, who wrote for “Contemporary Novelists” in 1982: “The history he spoon-feeds is far more palatable and interesting than popcorn, and it is no wonder that an enormous public should devour it.”

Later, Stone developed a talent for selling his stories to movie producers as well.

Irving Stone was born in San Francisco on July 14, 1903, to Charles Tennenbaum and Pauline Rosenberg Tennenbaum. His parents divorced when he was 7, and when his mother remarried, he took his stepfather’s surname.

Stone began writing short stories at the age of 9 and at 10 discovered the motivating work for his literary career: Jack London’s largely autobiographical novel about a self-made writer, “Martin Eden.”

Impact of ‘Martin Eden’

“What ‘Martin Eden’ convinced me of was not that I wanted to become a book author, but that it was entirely possible,” Stone told an interviewer in 1980. “If Jack London could be a world-accepted author, so could I. I started with considerably more advantages than Jack did.”

The Stones moved to Los Angeles during the budding writer’s teens, and he was graduated from Manual Arts High School in February, 1920. He spent his first college semester at USC and then transferred to UC Berkeley, paying his way through college by playing saxophone in a dance band.


After graduation in 1923 with a political science degree, he earned his master’s degree at USC on an economics teaching fellowship. He then returned to Berkeley on another teaching fellowship and studied for two years toward a doctorate, but dropped out.

In 1926, Stone went to France to write plays, churning out 31 one-act plays and 17 full-length ones in less than 15 months. As he recalled in an article he wrote for the Los Angeles Times more than 30 years later, a Sorbonne student who was teaching him French cajoled him into viewing an exhibit of paintings by Vincent van Gogh, an artist he had never heard of.

“If you are not happy with the exhibition,” the French youth told him, “I will buy you enough French wine to wipe out the boredom.”

“It was,” Stone said later of the encounter with Van Gogh’s work, “the single most compelling emotional experience of my life. . . .

“I had no idea of writing about Van Gogh, but when I returned to New York and was still writing plays, which I took around to the producers day after day and no one wanted, the story of Vincent van Gogh kept crowding into my mind and pushing out all other thoughts and human stories.”

Sold Murder Mysteries

Stone financed his research trip to Europe by writing six 5,000- to 10,000-word murder mysteries in six days and selling five of them to pulp magazines. He calculated that the earnings would permit him $2 a day, including transportation, so he walked through Belgium, Holland and France studying Van Gogh. With only $4.20 left, he worked his way back to New York as a seaman on the S.S. President Wilson.

By writing and selling two 20,000-word murder mysteries for a penny a word, he earned enough money to live on for six months and in that time hammered out “Lust for Life” in four drafts.

Seventeen publishers turned down the manuscript, agreeing that they could not sell a novel about “an unknown Dutch painter” to Americans in the middle of the Depression.

The book was published Sept. 26, 1934, by the 18th publisher, England-based Longmans Green, after Stone’s fiancee, secretary Jean Factor, cut the manuscript by about one-tenth. The publisher risked printing 5,000 copies and gave Stone an advance of $250.

Within four days of publication, “Lust for Life” topped the New York Sunday Mirror’s best-seller list, and Irving Stone the playwright had found a new focus for his career. The Van Gogh book has since sold tens of millions of copies in more than 70 languages ranging from Assamese to Urdu.

With the $250 advance, Stone married Factor, who became his collaborating editor in a nearly 55-year partnership. Working in her office at the opposite end of their Beverly Hills house from where he wrote in longhand, she assisted with research and shortened and cleaned up the manuscripts he sometimes described as “verbose.”

Lecturing and teaching widely, Stone the perfectionist never left any doubt that his novelized treatises required work. He devoted about three years in the meticulous research and writing on a book, working at least eight hours a day. His wife typically spent another year editing and weaving scenes he sometimes wrote three or four different ways.

‘Don’t Believe in Inspiration’

‘There’s nothing romantic about my work. . . . I don’t believe in inspiration,” Stone said. “I believe that you get to your desk, you stay there, you work, you think of nothing else. You write and you write, and in the end you write something good.”

Stone chose his characters according to three criteria--whether they had a great human story, could be loved by him and had improved the lot of mankind.

“My goal always is to tell a universal story, meaning it’s about a person who has an idea, a vision, a dream, an ambition to make the world somewhat less chaotic,” he told the Los Angeles Times five years ago.

“He or she suffers hardships, defeats, miseries, illnesses, poverty, crushing blows. But ultimately that person accomplishes a big, beautiful, gorgeous job of work, leaving behind a testimonial that the human mind can grow and accomplish fantastic ends.”

Those chronicled characters, however, did not work their way automatically from best-sellers to the silver screen. Hollywood producers initially ignored his books.

Then Stone started “talking” his stories to studio representatives much as he introduced an idea for a new book to his editors at Doubleday, which became his publisher in 1940. Pleased with the novel salesmanship, Paramount snapped up “Immortal Wife,” his tale of soldier-explorer-politician Gen. John Fremont’s wife, Jessie Benton Fremont, for $125,000.

That broke the logjam, and Stone promptly used his one-hour monologue pitches to sell others, including “Lust for Life,” which starred Kirk Douglas, and an original screenplay, “Magnificent Doll.”

“Bigger audience,” he replied, when asked by a Hollywood columnist in 1946 why movies were so important to a successful author. “Every writer wants to reach the most people. And what are 5 million copies to--what is it--95 million moviegoers?”

Stone was frequently honored, but two of his favorite awards were those given him by Italians for his 4 1/2-year labor of love, “The Agony and the Ecstasy,” about the Florence artist Michelangelo, which was made into a movie in 1965 starring Charlton Heston. Those awards were the Florentine Giglio d’Oro (Golden Lily) for “distinguished service to our Renaissance city” in 1964 and the Republic of Italy’s Knight Commander award in 1965.

Honorary Doctorates

Stone garnered honorary doctorates from USC; Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa; California’s state college system; UC Berkeley, and Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.

He and his wife initiated two annual $1,000 awards for the best biographical and historical novels published and in 1985 created the Jean and Irving Stone Honors Commons at UCLA.

Always civic-minded, Stone served on several groups, including the California Citizens’ Committee for Higher Education and the Eleanor Roosevelt Memorial Foundation, and was once president of the Beverly Hills Improvement Assn.

In addition to his wife, Stone is survived by his a son, Kenneth, a photographer and lithographer; daughter, Paula Hubbell, a criminologist, and her son, Vincent.

A memorial service will be held next week at the Leo Baeck Temple in West Los Angeles, his wife said, adding: “A lot of his friends will say some words about him and keep the feeling for him warm and alive.”

No funeral will be held.