John Jakes, whose historical novels hit the jackpot, dies at 90
By Robert D. McFadden
John Jakes, a superstar writer of historical fiction whose generational family sagas of the American Revolution and the Civil War mingled real and imaginary characters and became runaway bestsellers and popular television fare, died Saturday at a hospice facility in Sarasota, Florida. He was 90.
His death was confirmed by his lawyer and literary agent, Frank R. Curtis.
Jakes wrote some 60 novels, including westerns, mysteries, science and fantasy fiction, and children’s books. But he was best known for two series of novels with enormous mass-market appeal: “The Kent Family Chronicles,” eight volumes written in the 1970s to capitalize on the 1976 Bicentennial celebrations (55 million copies were sold), and the “North and South” Civil War trilogy, which appeared in the 1980s (10 million copies).
By the 1990s, Jakes had joined the charmed circle of America’s big-name authors — among them Mary Higgins Clark, Tom Wolfe, James Clavell, Thomas Harris and Ira Levin — whose publishers paid millions in advances for multi-book deals, although they had only vague ideas what the books might say. In 1990, Doubleday and Bantam paid Jakes $10 million for three novels as yet unwritten.
A modest, genial family man who for many years had thick bowl-cut gray hair, Jakes seemed ill suited for the celebrity life. He gave interviews, made promotional appearances on television and was affable for long lines of people at his book signings. His chunky books were prominently displayed at virtually every bookstore in the nation. But he seemed more at ease walking alone on a Civil War battleground, or quietly researching his books at local libraries in Hilton Head, South Carolina, and on Bird Key in Sarasota, where he lived much of the year.
“I feel a real responsibility to my readers,” Jakes told The Washington Post in 1982. “I began to realize about two or three books into the Kent series that I was the only source of history that some of these people had ever had. Maybe they’ll never read a Barbara Tuchman book — but down at the Kmart they’ll pick up one of mine.”
Rarely taking a vacation, churning out as many as 5,000 words a day, Jakes made no pretense to lofty literary aspirations. Critics called him a journeyman storyteller who strived for historical accuracy, populating his books with the likes of Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams, Paul Revere, Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis. Loyal readers devoured his accounts of his fictional characters’ abductions, adulteries, secret papers, contested fortunes and other staples of pulp fiction.
Jakes began freelance writing in his spare time while working in advertising from 1954 to 1971. He published hundreds of short stories in Galaxy Science Fiction, Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine and other outlets. He also wrote paperback novels and even a few hardcovers, mostly westerns and fantasies, some under the pen names Jay Scotland and Alan Payne.
His breakthrough came in 1974, when he was 42, with the publication of “The Bastard,” the first of eight hefty paperbacks collectively called “The Kent Family Chronicles.”
The books tracked generations of the Kents from the Revolutionary War to 1890. “The Bastard” and its first two sequels, “The Rebels” and “The Seekers” (both 1975), were adapted for television as miniseries in 1978 and 1979. Other books in the series were “The Furies” and “The Titans” (both 1976), “The Warriors” (1977), “The Lawless” (1978) and “The Americans” (1979).
Although they were unabashed mass-market fiction, the Kent books touched a national nerve, coming amid the celebrations of the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. For many, they were an anodyne to the disillusionment of the Watergate scandal and the war in Vietnam, and they made Jakes one of the nation’s most popular writers.
His success prompted Harcourt Brace Jovanovich to commission his Civil War-era hardcover trilogy featuring two families, one in South Carolina and the other in Pennsylvania, whose sons meet at West Point and become wartime enemies. The books, “North and South” (1982), “Love and War” (1984) and “Heaven and Hell” (1987) — known collectively as “North and South” — became ABC-TV miniseries in 1985, 1986 and 1994.
“If one is looking for a novel with purposefulness of craft, vivid characterization or an insightful, revelatory vision of human events, ‘North and South’ will be a disappointment,” Mel Watkins wrote in The New York Times Book Review in 1982. “If, however, one is looking for an entertaining, popularized and generally authentic dramatization of American history, without the weight of polemics on either side of the issues, then the first installment of Jakes’s trilogy covering the events before, during and after the Civil War will meet his expectations.”
John William Jakes was born in Chicago on March 31, 1932, the only child of John Adrian and Bertha (Retz) Jakes. His father was a Railway Express executive, and his mother was a teacher. The boy loved pulp magazines and science fiction, but he also attended theatrical productions, took parts in school plays and wanted to be an actor.
After graduating from Senn High School in Chicago, he studied drama for a year at Northwestern University and then transferred to DePauw University, in Indiana, where he enrolled in a creative-writing program and earned a bachelor’s degree in 1953.
He married Rachel Payne, whom he had met at DePauw, in 1951. She survives him, along with his daughters, Andrea Jakes, Ellen Kelm and Victoria Montgomery; his son, J. Michael Jakes; 11 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
Jakes received a master’s degree in American literature from Ohio State University in 1954 and then took a job in advertising. For 16 years he was an ad copywriter in Chicago, Rochester, New York, and Dayton, Ohio, where he became creative director at Dancer Fitzgerald Sample. He also wrote for two or three hours almost every night. Some of his early science fiction and fantasy books won a following, and in 1971 he quit advertising to write full time.
After the success of the Kent family and Civil War series, Random House paid Jakes $4 million for “California Gold,” which was a New York Times bestseller for four months in 1989. His $10 million advance a year later produced “The Crown Family Saga,” two novels about a 20th-century Chicago family — “Homeland” (1993) and “American Dreams” (1998) — as well as “In the Big Country” (1993), a collection of his stories set in the American West.
In 2012, Acorn Media released DVDs of “The Kent Family Chronicles” miniseries, with Jim Backus as John Hancock, Peter Graves as George Washington and William Shatner as Paul Revere. Patricia Neal, Buddy Ebsen and Robert Vaughn also played roles, in wigs, period garb and foreign accents. Almost 35 years later, Jakes was still delighted.
“I love melodrama,” he told The Times in an interview. “I never outgrew my fondness for melodrama.”