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John Jakes, the celebrated author known for his historical North and South trilogy that sold 10 million copies and became three ABC miniseries in the 1980s and ’90s, has died. He was 90.
Jakes died Saturday in Sarasota, Florida, his lawyer and literary agent Frank R. Curtis announced.
Jakes, who during his career wrote more than 80 books, which sold more than 120 million copies worldwide, earned $25 when his first short story was published by The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction when he was 18.
He spent 17 years as an advertising copywriter and creative director before he broke through at age 42 with the 1974 publication of The Bastard, the first of eight paperbacks under the umbrella known as The Kent Family Chronicles. Those books, which depicted American history through the lives of a fictional clan, were written to capitalize on the U.S. bicentennial celebrations that peaked in 1976.
In 1975, with the publication of Vols. II, III and IV, Jakes became the first author to have three books on the New York Times Best Seller List in one year. The series wound up selling 55 million copies.
North and South, the first book in his Civil War trilogy, was published in 1982, with Love and War and the concluding Heaven and Hell arriving in 1984 and 1987, respectively. Each one, which revolved around two families — the iron-making Hazards of Pennsylvania and the slave-owning Mains of South Carolina — were No. 1 best-sellers.
North and South: Book 1 became a highly rated six-part 1985 miniseries that starred Patrick Swayze, Lesley-Anne Down, David Carradine and Kirstie Alley and featured cameos from the likes of Johnny Cash, Hal Holbrook and Elizabeth Taylor.
The Book 2: Love and War miniseries saw many of the original actors returning for another six nights in 1986 before Book 3: Heaven and Hell ran over three nights in 1994.
The three miniseries, containing 90-minute episodes produced by David L. Wolper, were nominated for 10 Emmys but won only one trophy, for costuming for a miniseries or a special in 1986.
“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.”
An only child, John William Jakes was born in Chicago on March 31, 1932. His father, John, was a career executive with the former Railway Express Agency, and his mother, Bertha, was a teacher. He moved often during childhood.
After graduating from Nicholas Senn High School in Chicago, Jakes studied acting at Northwestern University and creative writing at DePauw University. In 1954, he earned his master’s degree in American literature from Ohio State University before settling into a career as a copywriter working for a large pharmaceutical corporation and advertising agencies.
At night, however, Jakes wrote short stories, eventually publishing about 200 of them.
The Bastard became a four-hour 1978 miniseries for local stations that starred Andrew Stevens and Tom Bosley, and The Seekers (volume three in The Kent Family Chronicles) was turned into a four-hour 1979 miniseries for HBO that starred Randolph Mantooth.
In 2012, Acorn Media released a DVD set of The Kent Family Chronicles.
Jakes was a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and the Mystery Writers of America. He held honorary doctorates from five universities and in 1995 received the National Cowboy Hall of Fame’s Western Heritage Literary Award.
He was also the recipient of a dual Celebrity and Citizen’s Award from the White House Conference on Libraries and Information for his efforts on behalf of America’s public libraries.
Despite his decision to write rather than act, Jakes remained active in theater and acted, directed and wrote original plays and musicals. A lifelong admirer of Charles Dickens, he created a stage adaptation of A Christmas Carol for his home playhouse on Hilton Head Island in the late ’80s.
Survivors include his wife of 71 years, Rachel, whom he met at DePauw; children Andrea (and her husband, Charles), Ellen (Bruce), J. Michael (Carolee) and Victoria (Michael); grandchildren Jonathan, Alec, Duncan, Jaime, Juliana, Nathan, J. Matthew, Ellie, Hart, Faris and Mack; and great-grandchildren Kallen, Kennedy and Camden.
The family asks that donations in his memory be made to the library of your choice.
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