David Westheimer, 88; Novelist Best Known for 'Von Ryan's Express'

Times Staff Writer

David Westheimer, a bestselling novelist whose most successful work -- "Von Ryan's Express" -- drew on his experiences as a World War II prisoner of war and was made into a popular movie that starred Frank Sinatra, died Tuesday of heart failure at UCLA Medical Center, according to his son Fred. He was 88.

A former Houston Post editor and columnist, Westheimer was also known for his 1965 novel, "My Sweet Charlie," which explored racial tensions in a Texas town. He turned the book into a successful play, which was produced on Broadway in 1966 with Bonnie Bedelia and Louis Gossett Jr. in the lead roles. It was later made into a television movie that earned an Emmy Award for actress Patty Duke.

Westheimer was born in Houston and graduated from Rice University in 1937. Two years later he joined the staff of the Post as an assistant editor and worked in various positions until 1960, when he moved to Los Angeles to write novels full time.

His journalism career was interrupted by service in the Army Air Forces during World War II. Westheimer was the navigator on a B-24 bomber that was shot down over the Mediterranean in 1942 by Italian fighter planes. He spent 28 months as a prisoner of the Italians and later the Germans.

In the POW camps, he was allowed access to libraries and received shipments of books from home.

Finding himself with "more time on my hands than I really wanted," he read voraciously and decided that he wanted to be a writer.

In 1948, three years after he left the last of several POW camps where he had been held, his first novel, "Summer on the Water," was published by Macmillan.

"Von Ryan's Express" was his fourth novel. The story of an escape from a POW train, it was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection before being turned into the 1965 Oscar-nominated movie with Sinatra as a POW colonel who leads a daring escape and Trevor Howard as a British POW leader.

The civil rights movement inspired Westheimer's next novel, "My Sweet Charlie," a story about the unlikely bond that develops between a black civil-rights activist and a poor white teenager who is unmarried and pregnant.

Critic Cecil Smith, in a Los Angeles Times review of the Broadway play directed by Howard Da Silva, called it "a work of such fundamental honesty that it is richly rewarding in its humor, poignant in its tragedy."

Westheimer returned to World War II themes in some of his other books, including a 1992 memoir about his POW years, "Sitting It Out," and his last novel, "Delay En Route," published in 2002.

He went back to journalism for a few years in the late 1980s, when he wrote a thrice-weekly column from Los Angeles for the Houston Post.

A longtime Brentwood resident, Westheimer is survived by his wife of 60 years, Dody; sons Fred and Eric; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

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