Paul Zindel, 66; Playwright Injected Realism Into Teen Novels

Times Staff Writer

Paul Zindel, who turned tales of troubled teenagers into a Pulitzer Prize-winning play and a string of young adult novels, died Thursday of cancer in New York City. He was 66.

Zindel’s initial fame stemmed from “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds,” a play about a sensitive girl, her epileptic sister and their bitter and controlling mother. The title refers to the girl’s high school science experiment.

First produced at the Alley Theatre in Houston in 1965, the drama opened off-Broadway in New York City in 1970, starring Sada Thompson. It played 819 performances. A year later, the play reached Los Angeles at the Huntington Hartford Theatre (now the Doolittle) in Hollywood.

Besides the Pulitzer, “Marigolds” won a New York Drama Critics Circle award and an Obie Award. A Variety critic called it “the most compelling work of its kind since Tennessee Williams’ ‘The Glass Menagerie.’ ”


Paul Newman directed a 1972 film version of “Marigolds,” starring Joanne Woodward.

A shorter screen version of “Marigolds,” produced on public television in New York in 1966, prompted Charlotte Zolotow, a Harper & Row editor, to urge Zindel to write young adult fiction. His first novel, “The Pigman” in 1968, is often credited with introducing a new level of realism to the teen fiction arena. The story of two teenagers who betray their friendship with an elderly man was named Children’s Book of the Year by the Child Study Assn. of America.

For a few years, Zindel alternated between plays and novels.

In 1967, his play “And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little” was the first production in the New Theatre for Now series of one-night stagings of new plays at the then-new Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.


“Miss Reardon” opened to mixed reviews on Broadway in 1971, with Estelle Parsons, Julie Harris and Nancy Marchand playing three sisters -- all teachers and survivors of a despotic mother. Zindel’s next Broadway production, “The Secret Affairs of Mildred Wild” in 1972, was widely panned.

His later plays included “Ladies at the Alamo,” “A Destiny on Half Moon Street” and “Amulets Against the Dragon Forces.”

Zindel also wrote screenplays for “Up the Sandbox” (1972), “Mame” (1974), “Maria’s Lovers” (1984) and “Runaway Train” (1985).

Zindel’s novels probably brought him more fans than his scripts. Like “Marigolds,” they often reflected experiences and feelings from his own youth.


Born in Staten Island, N.Y., in 1936, he lived with a mother who often changed jobs and addresses. He later said those moves led him to a series of schools and solitary play experiences that exercised his imagination.

In his mid-teens, he spent more than a year in a sanitarium, recovering from tuberculosis. He was the only adolescent there.

Zindel graduated from Wagner College in Staten Island, where he took a course from playwright Edward Albee but majored in chemistry.

He became acquainted with a new generation of teenagers as a high school chemistry teacher in Staten Island from 1959 to 1969.


Among his most honored novels were “My Darling, My Hamburger” (1969), “I Never Loved Your Mind” (1970), “Pardon Me, You’re Stepping on My Eyeball!” (1976), “Confessions of a Teenage Baboon” (1977), “The Undertaker’s Gone Bananas” (1978), “The Pigman’s Legacy” (1980) and “To Take a Dare” (1982, co-written with Crescent Dragonwagon).

Zindel was still active in his final years, with three titles published in 2002. He was awarded the Margaret A. Edwards award for lifetime achievement by the Young Adult Library Services Assn. last year.

Shortly before he died, he was working on the book of a new musical, “Naughty Shrinks on Broadway,” according to his son, David Jack Zindel of Westwood. “His heart was always in the theater, but it was iffy. Books were a steadier income.”

In addition to his son, the writer is survived by his daughter Lizabeth Claire Zindel of Brentwood.