Tom Clancy dies at 66; insurance agent found his calling in spy thrillers

In 1980, Tom Clancy was making a decent living as an insurance agent. But underwriting fire, casualty and car policies wasn’t the stuff of his dreams.

In his spare time he began to plot a novel — about an ex-Marine who worked for the CIA and a Soviet submarine commander who wanted to defect.

What happened next was the beginning of an American success story that far exceeded his expectations.


“I just wanted to be in the Library of Congress catalog,” Clancy once said. But his debut novel, “The Hunt for Red October,” launched one of the most lucrative publishing franchises in history and turned its author into a household name.

Gripping and loaded with an extraordinary degree of realistic detail about secret military technology, “The Hunt for Red October” was published in 1984 to rave reviews, including one from President Reagan declaring it “the perfect yarn.”

It soared to the top of bestseller lists, inspired a blockbuster 1990 movie starring Alec Baldwin as CIA analyst Jack Ryan and Sean Connery as the defector, and catapulted Clancy into the enviable ranks of novelists with popular appeal and Hollywood draw.

Clancy, 66, a master of the techno-thriller who wrote 17 bestsellers with 100 million copies in print, died Tuesday at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore after a short illness, said his lawyer, J.W. Thompson Webb.

“I think Tom was really the first major writer in the genre to make realism the top priority,” said Ben Affleck, who played Jack Ryan in 2002’s “The Sum of All Fears,” the fourth Clancy novel to be turned into a movie. “When you read one of his books, you had the distinct feeling that he was depicting military or espionage situations exactly as they really are. He hews to his research religiously, and the result is an indisputable sense of authenticity.... I think the movie adaptations have risen and fallen in direct proportion to how well they kept his sense of authenticity and nuts-and-bolts realism.”

Members of the military, who formed the core of Clancy’s early fans, attested to his technical prowess in describing such things as submarine warfare and mobile anti-aircraft guns.

“Clancy was one of one” said James Huston, a former Navy F-14 aviator and author of eight novels on military themes. “He was amazingly detailed and accurate. I was still on active duty when he was writing and found, like many others, that the closer you are to what he is writing about — in my case F-14s — the more you can discern his experience was secondhand yet was still shockingly impressive.”

Clancy’s sophisticated accounts of military gizmos and espionage were so convincing that some officers at the U.S. Naval Institute in Annapolis, Md., feared a security breach.

Retired Marine Maj. Gen. Bob Butcher, a decorated aviator from the Vietnam War who is board chairman of the Flying Leatherneck Historical Foundation in San Diego, recalled talking to submarine officers soon after “The Hunt for Red October” was published.

“They all had great respect for Clancy and his ability to find information that was not easily discoverable,” Butcher said. “All his information was open-source but not easy to find. He put it together, piece by piece. The submariners were amazed at his ability.”

After the novel was published, the U.S. Naval Institute, which allowed Clancy access for research and wound up becoming his first publisher, changed its rules to put certain information off-limits, Butcher said.

Clancy had detractors. Some focused on his tendency to create wooden characters. Others criticized the conservative political views espoused in his novels. In Clancy’s world, the heroes are straitlaced patriots, might is always right, and military missions always go off as planned.

Scott Shuger, a former naval intelligence officer and journalist, wrote scathingly of Clancy in Washington Monthly magazine in 1990 for unrealistic depictions of the U.S. military as “a precise instrument, capable of almost effortless accuracy” and questioned the expertise of “an ex-insurance agent who never served a day on active duty.”

Such criticism rankled Clancy, who never tried to hide his political stripes.

“The U.S. military is us,” he once said. “There is no truer representation of a country than the people that it sends into the field to fight for it.”

Thomas L. Clancy Jr. was born in Baltimore on April 12, 1947. His father was a letter carrier and his mother worked in a store’s credit department. He went to Catholic schools and loved gadgets and reading military history that stoked dreams of being a tank commander.

At Loyola College in Baltimore he joined the ROTC but was barred from serving in Vietnam because of his extreme nearsightedness. After graduating in 1969 with a degree in English he married Wanda Thomas, a nursing student who became an eye surgeon, and entered the insurance business.

In 1973 he joined O.F. Bowen Agency, a small Maryland insurance company founded by his wife’s grandfather. He did well enough to buy the firm in 1980. By then he and his wife had a family and a comfortable middle-class life. But for Clancy it wasn’t enough.

At the back of his mind was a newspaper story he had read in 1976 about the crew of a Russian frigate that wanted to defect to Sweden. He changed the frigate to a submarine and read everything he could find on the subject. He mined friends and clients who belonged to the Navy for stories about their military duties and especially about life on a sub.

He started ending his work day early to write. Soon the novel was consuming his weekends, too. “My wife gave me hell,” Clancy recalled in the New York Times in 1988. She wanted him to go back to selling insurance.

When he heard the Naval Institute Press wanted to start publishing fiction, he submitted his manuscript. The editors loved it and paid him a $5,000 advance. Copies of the book were sent to Washington officials and area bookstores; the Washington Post called “The Hunt for Red October” “breathlessly exciting.” It quickly sold 300,000 copies, sending Clancy on his way to becoming his own cottage industry.

With a multi-book, $3-million contract with G.P. Putnam’s Sons, he produced a rapid succession of hits, including “Red Storm Rising” (1986), “Patriot Games” (1987), “The Cardinal of the Kremlin” (1988), “Clear and Present Danger” (1989) and “The Sum of All Fears” (1991).

He wrote of terrorist plots against British royals, the arms race and high-tech defense systems, and Colombian drug lords’ threat to national security. Many of his books featured the stalwart Jack Ryan, whom Clancy described as “a new, improved version of me.”

Joseph Wambaugh, the Marine Corps veteran who became a best-selling author, told The Times on Wednesday that he knew Clancy would succeed after reading an early review copy of “Red October” in 1984. “He was remarkable with the thriller; he was a natural-born storyteller. I knew this book was going to get the guy out of the insurance business.”

Clancy later branched out into military nonfiction, with titles such as “Armored Cav: A Guided Tour of an Armored Cavalry Regiment” (1994).

In 1994, the Wall Street Journal reported that he had received a record-breaking $13-million advance for “Without Remorse,” another thriller featuring Jack Ryan. He started a video game company and bought a share of the Baltimore Orioles baseball team.

His fortune enabled him to build a stone mansion overlooking Chesapeake Bay with two dozen rooms, an indoor pool, underground gun range and an unusual birthday gift from his wife: an M1A1 Abrams tank, which he proudly displayed on the front lawn.

His marriage to Wanda Thomas ended in divorce in 1998. In 1999 he married Alexandra Llewellyn, who survives him along with their daughter, Alexis Jacqueline Page Clancy. His other survivors include four children from his previous marriage — Michelle E. Bandy, Christine C. Blocksidge, Thomas L. Clancy III and Kathleen W. Clancy — and four grandchildren.

Times staff writers Tony Perry, Thomas Curwen and John Horn contributed to this story.