John Sanford, 98; Acclaimed Author Who Blended Genres

Times Staff Writer

John Sanford, a prolific but neglected writer who was blacklisted in the 1950s and produced unconventional works that blended the lines between history, fiction and autobiography, has died. He was 98.

The author of 24 published books who was often compared to William Carlos Williams and John Dos Passos, Sanford died of an aortic aneurysm Thursday at a hospital near his home in Montecito, said his grandnephew, Jerry Gustafson.

Sanford was perhaps best known for "A More Goodly Country," which was published in 1975. One in a series of unique historical works, it earned critical acclaim as a literary and profoundly personal examination of American experience, beginning with early encounters of the continent by Leif Ericson.

A Communist for most of his long life who never renounced his party membership despite a decade on the blacklist, Sanford wrote unforgivingly about dark passages in American history, such as slavery and the execution of anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti in 1927.

A stubbornly principled man, he would not soften his views in exchange for commercial success. Unruly in his refusals to moderate or bend, he stubbed out publishers like cigarettes. None of his books made money.

Yet he continued to write daily even as he approached his 99th birthday, stopping only a month ago when his vision finally failed him.

His constant subject over the last decade was his beloved wife, screenwriter Marguerite Roberts, who died in 1989. His last book about her, "A Palace of Silver," published by Capra Press in January, earned him a measure of attention that had mostly eluded him during a seven-decade career.

"He was a consummate writer [who] was never willing to make any kind of U-turn or concession toward greater commercial success. At heart he felt that was a virtue," said Richard Barre, associate publisher at Capra.

Sanford was born Julian Lawrence Shapiro on May 31, 1904, in the Harlem section of New York City. A descendant of Russian immigrants, he was trained as a lawyer with the intention of practicing alongside his father, Philip. What altered the course of his life -- and eventually led to his changing his name -- was an encounter with a childhood friend, writer Nathanael West.

He was in his last year of law school at Fordham University when he ran into West on a New Jersey golf course in 1927. Feeling proud of his law studies, "I felt I had the edge," he said, when his old friend asked what he was up to. When Sanford asked the same of West, he received an answer that sundered his world.

"Quite casually, as if he were merely buffing his nails, [West] said, 'I'm writing a book.' He floored me -- writing a book!" Sanford recalled in a 1986 interview in Contemporary Authors. "Right there on that golf course, the law dwindled to nothing despite the fact that I came from a family of lawyers. I knew nothing at all about writing, but I did know that I meant to be a writer ... "

Within a few years of renouncing the law practice for which he had been groomed, he had stories published in Paris literary journals. In 1933 his first novel, "The Water Wheel," appeared.

In 1936, Paramount invited him to Hollywood and signed him to a six-month contract. He met Roberts there and married her in 1938, launching an extraordinarily devoted partnership that would endure for 50 years.

After she and Sanford collaborated on "Honky Tonk," a 1941 romantic Western that starred Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and Lana Turner, he was offered a screenwriting contract by MGM, which already employed his wife. But Roberts was against his signing it.

"She said, 'If you sign that contract you're never going to write another book. I can support us,' " said Jack Mearns, Sanford's literary executor.

Sanford took her advice and went home to spend the rest of his life writing. In response to the anti-Semitism of the times, he gave up his given name for Sanford, at the urging of his friend West, and wrote more novels. Roberts became one of the most highly paid screenwriters in the business, churning out hits for stars such as Robert Mitchum, Robert Taylor, Katharine Hepburn, Gable and Turner.

She joined the Communist Party because he was a member and she wanted to be with him when he went to meetings. He did not object at the time, but deeply regretted it later.

"She went to maybe four meetings in her life, I mean real meetings," Sanford told author Griffin Fariello in the 1995 book "Red Scare."

In 1951, they were subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee but refused to cooperate by naming names of other communists in Hollywood. They spent the next decade in internal exile, barred from foreign travel because their passports had been canceled. No one would hire Roberts, and because she could not write, neither could Sanford.

"My big trouble in those years was with my wife sitting there twiddling her thumbs and her typewriter covered over," he told Fariello. "I couldn't write. Her disability became my disability. I felt guilt, and I couldn't sit there and dash off words with the same elan as I had before, not when she was sitting in a chair staring at a wall."

When the political climate began to ease in 1960, Roberts plunged back into her work, writing, among other films, the script for "True Grit," the only picture for which John Wayne won an Oscar. When she got back to work, so did Sanford, who ended his silence with the publication in 1964 of the novel "Every Island Fled Away."

By 1967, Sanford, who had often woven historical interludes into his seven novels, felt he had exhausted the novel form. So Roberts suggested that he strip away the fiction and focus on the historical vignettes. He spent the next three years doing just that, producing the more than 200 vignettes that make up "A More Goodly Country." It was rejected by 247 publishers, many turning it down more than once, and was finally accepted, on the third try, by Horizon.

Dedicated to William Carlos Williams, with whom Sanford shared a deep appreciation of the American sensibility and the struggles of ordinary people, the book was a mosaic of history as seen through the eyes of selected participants, going as far back as Ericson and Christopher Columbus and reaching through the centuries to Pocahontas, John Cotton, Henry Thoreau, Paul Bunyan, Stephen Crane, Albert Einstein and Eleanor Roosevelt.

He could write in the voice of Thomas Jefferson as convincingly as he could in that of a working man in California in 1866, steamed about the tide of cheap Chinese laborers. Or, as in this passage from a vignette rendered like a prose poem, the voice of a runaway slave in 1830:

Ham with sweet cream gravy is what they has for breakfast, and poach eggs, and grits, and they has biscuits, and honey, and battercakes, and surrup. That what they has.

I believe in superstition.

We shine their shoes till it crack our eyes. I stolen a peach, and Mistress give me a straight lick with a crooked stick.

I ain't never seen no good times.

The book earned some rave reviews, such as one by Paul L. Mariani in the Nation that found the vignettes were "executed in so masterful a manner, so extraordinary in lyric intensity, so without slack or even brief sketches of uninspired writing, that one discovers very early on that he is reading a prose epic of America." Richard M. Dorson, writing in New Republic, declared that Sanford displayed "Joycean virtuosity with language."

Robert Kirsch, writing in the Los Angeles Times, called it "a masterpiece ... daring, eloquent, timeless and deep."

His other historical works, including "View From This Wilderness: American Literature as History," "To Feed Their Hopes: A Book of American Women," and "The Winters of That Country: Tales of the Man-made Seasons," are also populated by personalities as well known as Abraham Lincoln and as ordinary as a coal miner.

He continued the vignette style when he began to concentrate on autobiography. But again, the result was a melding -- of personal history and elements of fiction. The first in his memoir series was "The Color of the Air: Scenes From the Life of an American Jew," published by Black Sparrow Press in 1985. Four more volumes were published from 1986 to 1991. Each was distinguished by his unusual choice of the second-person narrative, in which he referred to himself as "you."

When he stopped writing recently, he told Mearns that he had said everything he had wanted to say. He was still in relatively good health for a man in his 10th decade of life. But that realization, Mearns said, "set in motion his dying."

He was never bitter about his lack of commercial success. What occupied his last years was lingering guilt over how his politics had decimated his wife's career. It is the central theme of "A Palace of Silver" and tinged as well two earlier books about her.

"Why, without her, had you continued to live?" he wrote in "Palace." "Had she loved you too much to have gone on living, and had you loved her too little to die?"

"I think John was preoccupied with, Was he good enough to her?" said Mearns, who said Sanford feared that the blacklist had shortened her life by 10 years. "He would like to be seen as a wonderful writer and a good husband to Maggie. Those are the two things he would value most."

Sanford will be buried next to Roberts at 1 p.m. Friday at Santa Barbara Cemetery.

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Excerpt

From John Sanford's "A More Goodly Country: A Personal History of America" (Horizon Press, 1975)

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PEARL HARBOR 1941

EAST WIND RAIN

Higashi no kazeame.

--Japan Winds Code

This time, the air was stiff with sound, and if God had chosen to speak, He'd've found no room for His radiant waves among the waves already there. Adore and be still! He might've said, but only other planets would've heard. The earth was listening to recipes, to longing sung and played, to the scores made in games; it was also listening to the traffic of ciphered signals to and from Japan, but that was merely noise behind eulogies of oleo, spiels for gasoline. There was wind in the east, and coming on the wind was rain, but no sign of these could be seen as yet -- the sky was still clear, and it might stay fine all day ....

The Navy buried drowned sailors for a month, and now and then it buried a collection of their parts that seemed to have fallen from a height -- heads, arms, shoes containing feet. Nine hundred and sixty men were listed as missing: if they sank, they never surfaced; if blown up, they never came down.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 12, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 ..CF: Y 0 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction John Sanford photo -- In Saturday's California section, a photograph of author John Sanford that ran with his obituary should have been credited to Jerry Fredrick.
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