Jack Lewis dies at 84; Marine, novelist and movie writer

Jack Lewis was a self-described “reporter, drunk, editor and hobo.” In addition to being a screenwriter, pulp novelist and occasional movie stuntman, he was co-founder of Gun World magazine.
(Marine Corps Combat Correspondents Assn.)

Jack Lewis, a decorated Marine Corps officer, screenwriter, pulp-novelist, occasional movie stuntman, co-founder of Gun World magazine and self-described “reporter, drunk, editor and hobo,” has died. He was 84.

Lewis died May 24 of lung cancer in Hawaii, a week after marrying his longtime companion Stephanie Gonsalves.

Born in Iowa on Nov. 13, 1924, Lewis enlisted in the Marines at age 18 to prove himself as worthy as his father, an Army cavalry officer. He saw duty as a machine-gunner during World War II and was awarded the Bronze Star for bravery as a combat correspondent in Korea. He was recalled to duty during the Vietnam War and later retired as a lieutenant colonel.

“He was a maverick, very ambitious, always looking for something new, and total Marine Corps,” said Ralph Austin, a retired master sergeant who served with Lewis in Korea and Vietnam and now lives in Irvine.

By his own account, Lewis was a man of many careers, some of which overlapped. After World War II he receiving a degree in journalism from the University of Iowa and returned to the Marines to help with training films.

While at Camp Pendleton, he was assigned as a technical advisor to the 1949 movie “Sands of Iwo Jima.” Lewis and the film’s star, John Wayne, struck up a friendship, solidified by a mutual love of guns, strong drink and all things military.

“White Horse, Black Hat: A Quarter Century on Hollywood’s Poverty Row,” published in 2002, is Lewis’ account of the famous, near-famous and never-famous who toiled in the movie industry during the days of low-budget westerns. Among the stories are anecdotes about Smiley Burnette selling autographs, a young and surly Steve McQueen, a famous but insecure Audie Murphy, and Slim Pickens, who needed $200 to buy a mule.

Lewis asked why Pickens needed a mule. “Everybody oughta have a mule,” Pickens said as if no further explanation were needed.

As a screenwriter, Lewis’ biggest credit may have been for “A Yank in Vietnam,” starring Marshall Thompson in 1963. He wrote hundreds of magazine profiles of Hollywood stars and acted as a ghostwriter for some. The heroes of his novels were western gunslingers and modern detectives -- often with an autobiographical tinge.

One of his main characters was Charlie Cougar, a Mescalero Apache, stuntman, drunk and rodeo rider. “I’m a quarter Mescalero and I’ve been all those things,” Lewis said. He often wrote under the name C. Jack Lewis to avoid confusion with other writers named Jack Lewis.

He was awarded the Bronze Star in Korea for racing ahead of the combat troops to ensure a close-up view of the fighting. He downplayed the bravery: “As bombs were dropping behind us as well as in front, I wondered what I was doing there.”

Though his dispatches from the front were noted for their detail and seriousness, his 1966 book “Tell It to the Marines” captured the bizarre humor of Marines in combat. The book came with a warning: “Any similarity to persons, places or incidents is highly plausible; only the names have been changed to avoid court-martial.”

His stuntman gigs included diving off the ship in the 1955 film “Mister Roberts” along with other liberty-starved sailors (some accounts also credit him with riding a motorcycle off the pier). Lewis said he was attracted to stunt work because it paid better than being a writer.

Besides his wife, Stephanie, Lewis is survived by five children from previous marriages and eight grandchildren.

A service is set for 10 a.m. Thursday at the Star of the Sea Church in Kalapana on the Big Island of Hawaii, with Lewis’ ashes to be spread in the ocean. The Marine Corps Combat Correspondents Assn. is also planning a tribute.