E.M. Nathanson, 'The Dirty Dozen' Author, Dies at 87

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The 1967 action-packed war movie based on the novel featured an all-star cast including Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine and Telly Savalas.

E.M. Nathanson, who wrote the 1965 war novel The Dirty Dozen that was adapted for the action-packed film starring Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine, has died. He was 87.

Nathanson died Tuesday of heart failure in Laguna Niguel, Calif., his longtime friend Frank McAdams told The Hollywood Reporter.

Nathanson is best known for The Dirty Dozen, the story of 12 convicted servicemen — robbers, murderers, rapists — who are sent off on a suicide mission to blow up a chateau of German generals just before D-Day with the promise that those who survive will have their sentences commuted.

The novel was inspired by the supposedly true story of some World War II criminal soldiers who got the nickname the Dirty Dozen (or Filthy Thirteen, depending on the source) for their refusal to bathe and who were said to have been sent off on a similar mission. Nathanson heard the story from his friend, producer Russ Meyer (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls), who said he learned of the yarn while working as a combat photographer during World War II.

Nathanson got a book contract to tell the story, but even after doing more than two years of research, he was never able to verify the accuracy of Meyer’s tale. So he and his editor decided to fictionalize the story.

The best-selling novel sold more than 2 million copies, was translated into 10 languages and was made into the 1967 film of the same name that was directed by Robert Aldrich and also starred Charles Bronson, newly retired NFL star Jim Brown, John Cassavetes, George Kennedy and Donald Sutherland.

The movie was nominated for four Oscars and ranked No. 65 on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 great suspense/thriller movies in American film. 

Nathanson wrote a sequel, A Dirty Distant War, in 1987. It picks up the story of John Reisman, the OSS officer who recruited the Dirty Dozen, three months after the first novel. Here he parachutes into French Indochina (Vietnam) to help local guerrillas against the Japanese.

Nathanson wrote four other novels: 1970's The Latecomers, 1973's It Gave Everybody Something to Do (with Louise Thoresen), 1993's Knight's Cross (with Aaron Bank) and 2003's Lovers and Schemers.

Nathanson was born in 1928 and grew up in Yonkers, N.Y. His parents separated when he was 2, and because his mother suffered from depression, she sent him when he was 7 to the Hebrew National Home, a local orphanage. He stayed at Hebrew National until he graduated high school and remained in touch with the people he befriended there for the rest of his life.

Nathanson majored in anthropology at New York University. His first job as a journalist was for Women’s Wear Daily when he was 17. He also worked for the Washington Post, The Arlington Sun, Daring Detective magazine and as a freelance journalist.

He is survived by his partner Elizabeth Henderson and a son Michael from his marriage to Mary Ann Nathanson.   

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