From Slavery to Holocaust, Author Bill Styron Makes Best-Selling Choices

updated 07/23/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/23/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Rising late in his Martha's Vineyard summer house, William Styron shuffles about in his Pro Keds, savoring a few beers and Havana cigars before secluding himself in his writer's shed. The output is slender—a page and a half on a good day—and the reveries many. "I fantasize about girls I've known and girls I'd like to know," he reflects. "Sex is a great deal of life and writing is a very erotic act."

Interruptions are sometimes welcome, sometimes not. Carly Simon, a Vineyard neighbor, always gets a warm hug. "At first," the singer says, "I felt that I was standing in the way of genius. He can be preoccupied." Sen. Ted Kennedy and 20 members of the clan sail over from Hyannis Port to camp out on the Styrons' waterfront lawn. "I'm his man on the island," deadpans Styron. Back in Washington, Kennedy calls to read a Star editorial about Styron's new book. "He was pissed to hear that Art Buchwald had called to read it to me first," Styron chuckles.

The book, of course, is Sophie's Choice, a sweeping, 515-page bestseller that Styron labored on for five years. It is an emotionally devastating story of a beautiful Polish Catholic woman who survives Auschwitz and settles in post-World War II Brooklyn. Critics have been lavish in their praise, aside from a few carpings about Virginia-born Styron's "Southern Gothic" verbosity. Defending Styron, his friend playwright Arthur Miller says: "His style is liquid, never fussy or pettifogging."

Even before its publication, Sophie's Choice grossed $3 million in subsidiary rights, including a $1,575,000 paperback sale. Director Alan (Klute) Pakula will direct the movie version and Marthe Keller and Meryl Streep are rumored to be up for the part of Sophie. Al Pacino is mentioned for the role of her boyfriend, Nathan Landau.

For Styron, the novel was an all-consuming risk. His last book, The Confessions of Nat Turner (published in 1967), won the Pulitzer Prize but infuriated the black community. How dare a Duke-educated WASP write in the voice of a rebellious slave leader? "The criticism was politically motivated," Styron says. "I was just another honky target." In the case of Sophie, he feared that Jews would be offended because he was dealing with the Holocaust theme and his concentration camp survivor was a Gentile. So far only one "crank letter" from a rabbi has marred Styron's post-publication bliss.

Readers seem to be taken by the shifting sensibilities of the novel. The narrative moves back and forth from Auschwitz to bittersweet love scenes in Brooklyn. "There is a great deal of me in the hero, Stingo," says Styron. Like Stingo, the novel's unceasingly horny storyteller, Styron spent a struggling-young-writer period in a Brooklyn rooming house. "I wasn't a virgin at 22 like Stingo, but I might as well have been," Styron continues. "Those early days were dry. Poverty-stricken." The beautiful Sophie, a real-life woman with a concentration camp tattoo on her arm, lived upstairs. "I lusted after her," says Styron, but it came to naught. "She haunted me. Missed opportunities and all that."

Years later, when Styron was 49, Sophie reappeared in a dream—the "mandate," as he now calls it. He put aside a book about a Marine (Styron was in the Corps during World War II) and started Sophie. "You write to solve the mysteries of life," he muses. "Auschwitz was almost the biggest mystery of humanity. The book was a search. I didn't answer the mystery, but it was worth the effort."

From the point of view of Styron's wife, Rose, and his four children, the judgment is debatable. When the writing was going well, Styron would play the genial paterfamilias, serving up South Carolina quail or a bourbon-glazed Virginia ham. Buddies like Miller, Mike Nichols, Richard Widmark and Robert Penn Warren would drop in at the Styrons' rambling yellow colonial in Roxbury, Conn, for bonhomie and good booze. "It's a gentleman's life without riding to hounds," jokes Styron.

But in the bad times, when the words would not come, he grouched around the house like a doomed soul. If he didn't like the company Rose had invited to dinner, he would walk out. "If Mama used his comb or if the roast was overdone, he would scream and yell," remembers son Tom, 19, a student at Columbia. "He used to be a real tyrant. We shivered when he passed by. He's mellower now."

The Styron brood was barred from his writing sanctum (a converted barn in Connecticut and the shed on the Vineyard). But Styron did not mind invading their turf with his crankiness. "He would get up in the morning and fiddle around, looking in drawers, checking the kitchen knives and the range," says Tom. "Then he would get the mail, have a Bloody Mary and finally go write." Carly Simon describes Styron's peripatetics in more lyric terms: "He alights like a butterfly on different things—a carpenter doing work, a record being played. He moves through different spaces." The nitty-gritty, the actual connection of pencil to paper (Pedigrees or Eagle #2s on yellow legal pads), rarely occurs before early afternoon.

So painful is the process sometimes that Styron hopes none of his children turns to writing. "It's a challenging, horrendous trade," he says. "You have to kill for it." His offspring have got the message. Susanna, 24, is a filmmaker. Polly, 21, is studying to be a dancer. Tom is open to suggestion and Alexandra, 12, is a budding equestrienne. Besides, who wants to follow in Styron's sneakersteps? "In English class," says Polly, "I wanted to change my name."

"Styron" wasn't always such a bankable asset. The only child of an engineer in Newport News, Va., Bill was an unruly kid. "After my mother died when I was 13, I was a hell raiser. My grades plummeted," he says. He was shipped off to boarding school and later enrolled in Davidson College near Charlotte, N.C.

Styron left after his freshman year to join the Marines. His enlistment was highlighted by a medical crisis of extreme delicacy. A "sadistic urologist" told him he had a probable case of syphilis. "I had been screwing this very nice college gal," he recalls. "Should I write and tell her to run, not walk, to the nearest gynecologist? I was crucified by the situation." Laboratory tests saved him. "It was a misdiagnosis," says Styron. "I had a mild case of trench mouth."

His Marine career was otherwise uneventful. (He never saw combat.) As a V-12 officer candidate, Styron attended Duke University and graduated in 1947. Two years later he embarked on that grim period in Brooklyn. The novel he began there, Lie Down in Darkness, was published when he was 26 and won him the prestigious Prix de Rome. After collecting his award, he settled in Europe, first in Paris, then in Rome. One day in 1952 he received a note from a young woman who, as a graduate student at Johns Hopkins, had heard Styron guest-lecture there. Rose Burgunder, Jewish, Wellesley class of 1950 and daughter of a well-to-do Baltimore retailing family, was in town and decided to look him up. "He was the worst speaker I had ever heard," she remembers, "nervous, shaky and shy. On our first date he brought Truman Capote along for protection."

"Rose was a great-looking gal. She had this charm and generosity and it just knocked me over," Styron recalls. "It was sex appeal," Rose explains with a smile. They began living together almost immediately. ("It was considered outré in those days," Styron says with obvious relish.) They were married in Rome in May 1953 and writer Irwin (Rich Man, Poor Man) Shaw paid for the reception.

In 1954, after living briefly in Ravello, Italy and Manhattan, the Styrons settled in Roxbury. While Rose pursued a career as a poet (she has since published two books), Bill worked on his novels and hung out with authors James Jones and Norman Mailer. The Mailer relationship ended in 1958. Norman sent Styron a letter accusing him of "retailing vicious gossip" about Mailer's wife Adele. "Mailer threatened to horsewhip me or some dumb macho thing," Styron shrugs. These days, they shake hands at parties.

Beneath a gruff facade, Styron is a good-hearted friend to many of his peers. Francine du Plessix Gray, author of Lovers and Tyrants, speaks of his giving quality. "I found him more supportive of my work than any other male friend I have," she says. Adds George Plimpton, who has worked with Styron on the Paris Review: "He's a good listener, which is rare in a writer." Humorist Buchwald complains, however, that Styron has never forgiven him for driving through his Vineyard cornfield. "If I had run over his manuscript, he wouldn't have been as upset," Buchwald says.

Rose, too, has known—like William Faulkner, one of her husband's favorite authors—the sound and the fury. "We both have tempers. We agree on the big things and fight about the little things. It's real Dagwood and Blondie around here," she says. To make the marriage work, says Bill, "We have always allowed each other great latitude, physical and temporal." They take brief separate vacations.

It is Rose who pays closest mind to the kids ("If I didn't tell my father what school I go to, he wouldn't know," says Tom). Bill plays househusband when Rose takes off on her frequent trips speaking and fund raising for Amnesty International. He is far less of an activist. "It would sap too much of my energies," Styron says.

At 54, he has come to a muddling accommodation with himself. "I've never had a shred of midlife crisis," he says. "I think it's a term trumped up by Gail Sheehy to sell books. If anything, I've become unneurotic. I've shed the demons. That's what the creative life is, divesting oneself of hangups. I feel more able to cope than 15 years ago." Once, back then, Styron thought he was indeed cracking—after smoking marijuana. Rushed to the hospital, he recalls feeling "like I had died and gone to hell. I lay there telling Rose how to bring up the kids and saying: 'It's been a great trip. See you on the other side.' "

These days he's in heaven with the success of Sophie. The money pleases him. Styron gets about $2 per copy (Random House is selling Sophie for $12.95) and he likes the good life. "I'm strictly a taxi man," he says. Because he writes so slowly, he equates his annual income "with that of a Beverly Hills obstetrician." The cars, too, are comparable. He traded in his Jaguar XJ6 for a Mercedes.

Styron must soon buckle down to the Marine book, The Way of the Warrior. "Writing is agony. Yet if I don't do it, I'm defeating myself," he says. "It breaks my heart and my back and my fingers. It's never as right as I want it to be. I always fall short and I always remember what Faulkner said—'We shall be known for the splendor of our failures.' "

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