(Reuters) – Larry McMurtry, who wrote of complex relationships in novels such as “The Last Picture Show” and “Terms of Endearment,” and then helped redefine the American Old West with the epic “Lonesome Dove,” has died at 84, his publicist said on Friday.
The cause was heart failure, according to publicist Amanda Lundberg, who said by email the author was surrounded by loved ones, including his wife Norma Faye and long-time writing partner, Diana Ossana, when he died on Thursday night.
In addition to his Pulitzer Prize for “Lonesome Dove” in 1986, McMurtry won an Academy Award in 2006 with Ossana for the screenplay for “Brokeback Mountain” about the relationship between two gay cowboys. He also was nominated in 1972 for his adaptation of his novel “The Last Picture Show.”
McMurtry wrote nearly 50 books – collections of essays and criticism and memoirs in addition to his novels – but “Lonesome Dove” had the most impact. It was a sweeping tale of two aging former Texas Rangers – the amiable Gus and cantankerous Call – on a cattle drive from Texas to Montana.
“If anybody had any sense, they’d throw out ‘Moby-Dick’ and put ‘Lonesome Dove’ in the center as the great American epic novel,” Carolyn See, a literature professor at the University of California Los Angeles, told the Los Angeles Times in 2003.
“No question about it. His heroes in that book are just terrific. His women are just terrific. And he sustains it for 800 pages.”
McMurtry was remembered for being as unassuming as he was accomplished.
James L. Brooks, who directed “Terms of Endearment,” recalled on Twitter how McMurtry had him adapt the novel into a screenplay, refusing “to let me hold him in awe” and was “working the cash register of his rare book store as he did so.”
Fellow novelist Stephen King called him a great storyteller.
“I learned from him, which was important,” King said on Twitter. “I was entertained by him, which was ALL important.”
McMurtry developed lasting affection for many of his characters and quite often brought them back for sequels. The principles from “Lonesome Dove” would eventually be in four books and the characters from “The Last Picture Show” generated five novels.
Critics praised McMurtry for his skill in fashioning nuanced and compelling characters and the way he brought them together – whether they were coming-of-age teenagers fighting small-town ennui in “The Last Picture Show” or a self-absorbed woman and her needy, dying daughter in “Terms of Endearment.”
McMurtry had a contrarian streak – he wore jeans over his tuxedo jacket to pick up his Oscar – and took a simple approach to his writing.
“I like making stuff up,” he told Texas Monthly in 2016. “I just write.”
McMurtry, the son and grandson of ranchers, was born on June 3, 1936, on a book-less cattle ranch near the West Texas plains town of Archer City. The town would be the model for Thalia, the setting for “The Last Picture Show” and its sequels.
He told interviewers late in his career that he thought his work peaked with “Lonesome Dove” in 1985.
“Constructing a long novel is a really demanding business,” he once said. “I don’t think there have been many novelists whose best work has been written after they were 60.”
McMurtry’s novels had contemporary settings until “Lonesome Dove.” That book, along with the successful television mini-series that followed and his other Western books, did not hew to the romantic myth of the Old West.
Instead of noble cowboys performing heroic deeds and taking part in dramatic gunfights, his characters endured endless hardships and lives of desperation.
When not writing books, McMurtry was selling them. After living in various places including Washington, D.C., where he owned a rare book store, in 1988 he moved back to Archer City, which had no bookstores or libraries in his youth, and built up a used book store complex that some collectors considered the biggest of its kind in the country.
In 2012 he reduced the Archer City operation by half but still maintained a personal collection of more than 28,000 books.
A disciplined author with a regular routine that called for composing five pages every morning at his manual typewriter, McMurtry loved movies almost as much as books.
In addition to “The Last Picture Show” and “Terms of Endearment,” his first novel, published in 1961, “Horseman, Pass By” was turned into the movie “Hud,” starring Paul Newman. He also wrote several screenplays and teleplays.
McMurtry underwent quadruple bypass surgery in 1991 and fell into a deep depression, inspiring what he said was one of his favorite books – his 1999 novel “Duane’s Depressed,” which revisited one of the main characters from “The Last Picture Show.”
McMurtry’s son from his first marriage is singer-songwriter James McMurtry. In 2011 he married Faye Kesey, widow of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” author Ken Kesey, who had been McMurtry’s classmate in a writing program at Stanford University in the late 1950s.
The couple split their time living with Ossana in Tucson, Arizona, and in Archer City.
(Writing and reporting by Cynthia Osterman; Additional reporting by Lisa Richwine and Peter Szekely; Editing by Franklin Paul, Bill Trott and Alistair Bell)