Pat Conroy, the beloved author of The Great Santini and The Prince Of Tides, who drew upon his bruising childhood and became one of the country’s most popular storytellers, died Friday evening at age 70.
Conroy, who announced last month that he had pancreatic cancer, passed away at home among family and loved ones in Beaufort, South Carolina, his publisher said.
He had battled other health problems in recent years, including diabetes, high blood pressure and a failing liver.
‘The water is wide and he has now passed over,’ his wife, novelist Cassandra Conroy, said in a statement from publisher Doubleday.
Pat Conroy, pictured in 1988 at home in Atlanta, Georgia, died Friday among his family and loved ones in Beaufort, South Carolina. He was 70 years old and had recently announced he had pancreatic cancer
‘The water is wide and he has now passed over,’ his wife, novelist Cassandra Conroy (left, pictured with Conroy) said in a statement. Conroy was married three times and had two daughters
An openly personal writer, Conroy shared details of growing up in a military family and wrote about his relationship with his abusive father, Marine aviator and military hero Donald Conroy.
He also drew inspiration from his time in military school and his struggles with his health and depression.
‘The reason I write is to explain my life to myself,’ Conroy said in a 1986 interview. ‘I’ve also discovered that when I do, I’m explaining other people’s lives to them.’
His books sold more than 20 million copies worldwide, but for much of his youth he crouched in the shadow of Donald Conroy.
Writing was a way to explain life to himself, Conroy once said. He is pictured in a bookstore in 1986
His father, Conroy once wrote, ‘thundered out of the sky in black-winged fighter planes, every inch of him a god of war’. Conroy was the eldest of seven children in a family constantly moving from base to base.
His childhood was the inspiration behind his 1976 novel The Great Santini, which later became a film starring Robert Duvall as the relentless and violent patriarch.
The novel initially enraged Conroy’s family, but the movie made a lasting impression on his father three years later.
Duvall had already appeared in two Godfather movies, but Donald Conroy claimed credit for boosting his career, saying: ‘The poor guy got a role with some meat on it.’
The book also helped achieve peace between father and son.
‘I grew up hating my father,’ Conroy said after his father died in 1998. ‘It was the great surprise of my life, after the book came out, what an extraordinary man had raised me.’
Conroy reflected more on his relationship with his father in the 2013 memoir The Death of Santini.
The Prince of Tides, published in 1986, secured Conroy a wide audience, selling more than five million copies despite uneven reviews. It tells the story of a former football player from South Carolina with a traumatic past and the New York psychiatrist who attempts to help him.
‘Inflation is the order of the day. The characters do too much, feel too much, suffer too much, eat too much, signify too much and, above all, talk too much,’ said The Los Angeles Times Book Review.
But Conroy focused on the advice he once got from ‘the finest writer I ever encountered’, novelist James Dickey, who taught him at the University of South Carolina.
‘He told me to write everything I did with all the passion and all the power you could muster,’ Conroy recalled. ‘Don’t worry about how long it takes or how long it is when you’re done. You know, he was right.’
The Prince of Tides was made into a hit film in 1991, starring Nick Nolte and Barbra Streisand, who also produced and directed it. Conroy worked on the screenplay and shared an Oscar nomination, one of seven the movie earned, including best picture.
Barbra Streisand (center) starred into the movie version of The Prince of Tides, released in 1991. She is pictured in 1992 with Conrad (left) and screenwriter Becky Johnston (right)
Conroy’s much-anticipated Beach Music, published in 1995, was a best-seller that took nine years to complete.
He had been working on the screenplay for The Prince of Tides, but also endured a divorce, depression, back surgery and the suicide of his youngest brother.
Conroy had other demons. After his father pushed him to attend The Citadel, South Carolina’s state military college, he avoided the draft and went into teaching.
In 2013, he wrote on his blog that he had begun his life as ‘a draft dodger and anti-war activist’ while his classmates ‘walked off that stage and stepped directly into the Vietnam War.’
‘When I talk to Ivy Leaguers or war resisters of that era, I always tell them that Vietnam was not theoretical to me, but deeply and agonizingly painful. Eight of my Citadel classmates died in that war,’ he wrote.
For years, he was alienated from The Citadel, which he renamed the Carolina Military Institute in his 1980 novel The Lords of Discipline. A harsh tale of the integration of a Southern military school, the book was adapted into a film in 1983, but had to be made elsewhere because The Citadel’s governing board refused to allow any crews on campus.
While The Lords of Discipline had made him unpopular with Citadel officials, reconciliation came in 2000 when he was awarded an honorary degree. In 2002, he visited during homecoming weekend and fans lined up to get him to autograph copies of his books.
Conroy, pictured in 1992, wrote about growing up in a military family and his relationship with his father
‘I never thought this would happen,’ Conroy said. ‘This is my first signing at the Citadel. That’s amazing.’ He had recently published My Losing Season, about his final year of college basketball at The Citadel.
The good feelings deepened when Conroy’s cousin Ed Conroy, a 1989 Citadel grad, became the Citadel’s basketball coach in 2006 — and within a couple of years brought about a remarkable improvement in the team’s fortunes.
Pat Conroy’s other books included South of Broad, set in Charleston’s historic district, and My Reading Life, a collection of essays that chronicled his lifelong passion for literature.
He was born Donald Patrick Conroy on October 26, 1945. The Conroy children attended 11 schools in 12 years before the family eventually settled in Beaufort, about an hour from Charleston. He read obsessively as a child and called fellow Southerner Thomas Wolfe his inspiration to become a writer.
‘Thomas Wolfe was the first writer I felt was writing for me,’ Conroy said. ‘He was articulating a vision of the world that seemed ready for me.’
Following graduation in 1967, he worked as a high school teacher in Beaufort. While there, he borrowed $1,500 to have a vanity press publish The Boo, an affectionate portrait of Colonel Thomas Courvoisie, an assistant commandant at The Citadel.
For a year he taught poor children on isolated Daufuskie Island, not far from the resort of Hilton Head. The experience was the basis for his 1972 book The Water Is Wide, which brought him a National Endowment for the Arts award and was made into the movie Conrack.
In March 2015, Conroy opened a gym, Mina & Conroy Fitness Studio, with his personal trainer Mina Truong in Port Royal, South Carolina.
He had committed to improving his health, quitting drinking, losing 25 pounds and lowering his blood pressure, the Washington Post reported at the time.
Conroy was married three times and had two daughters. Although he lived around the world, he always considered South Carolina his home and lived since the late 1990s on Fripp Island, a gated community near Beaufort.
‘Make this university, this state, yourself and your family proud,’ Conroy told University of South Carolina graduates in a 1997 commencement speech.
‘If you have a little luck, any luck at all, if you do it right, there’s a great possibility you can teach the whole world how to dance.’
In addition to pancreatic cancer, Conroy’s health problems in recent years included diabetes, high blood pressure and a failing liver. He is pictured in June 2015 at Mina & ConroyFitness Studio, the gym he opened in Port Royal, South Carolina, with his personal trained Mina Truong