At the weekend I was informed by several people that the author of The Bridges of Madison County, Robert James Waller had sadly passed away aged 77. I have decided to post The New York Times tribute by William Grimes as it’s a nicely written and an entirely fitting piece. My thanks also to my U.S. friend Kevin Walsh for also providing the full page tribute (left) that appeared in today’s New York Times.
Robert James Waller, whose gauzy, romantic novel “The Bridges of Madison County” became a runaway best seller on its publication in 1992 and the basis of a popular film, died on Friday at his home in Fredericksburg, Tex. He was 77. The cause was multiple myeloma, his daughter, Rachael Waller, said.
The novel came out of the blue. Mr. Waller, on leave from teaching business at the University of Northern Iowa, was shooting pictures with a friend along the Mississippi River in the early 1990s when he decided to make a detour and photograph covered bridges in Madison County, Iowa. He was an enthusiastic guitarist and singer, and years earlier he had written a song about the dreams of a woman named Francesca. An idea stirred.
Two weeks later he had completed the manuscript of “The Bridges of Madison County.” It told the tale of Francesca, a 45-year-old Italian war bride on an Iowa farm whose life takes an unexpected turn when Robert Kincaid, 52, a free-spirited photographer, stops by one day to ask directions to the Roseman Covered Bridge. She is temporarily alone, her husband and two children away at the state fair. Francesca and Robert discover that they are kindred spirits, a thirst for love, and a torrid affair commences. It lasts just four days — but four days unlike any other.
“God or the universe or whatever one chooses to label the great systems of balance and order does not recognize Earth-time,” Kincaid tells her in a post-affair letter. “To the universe four days is no different than four billion light-years.”
Many critics found the characters unconvincing, the sentiments sappy and the writing overripe. Kincaid, who called himself “one of the last cowboys,” was fond of delivering statements like “I am the highway and a peregrine and all the sails that ever went to sea.”
Millions of readers, however, found Mr. Waller’s story of reawakened love deeply moving. The Orlando Sentinel spoke for them when it wrote, “This lyrically written first novel is as perfect as a tear — and don’t be surprised if you shed a few upon reading it.”
Oprah Winfrey, who broadcast a special edition of her television show from Madison County, called it “a gift to the country.”
“Bridges” leapt to the top of the best-seller lists and stayed there, eventually outselling “Gone with the Wind.” It took root on The New York Times’s list and remained there for three years, becoming, as Entertainment Weekly put it, “The Book That Would Not Die.”
The film, released in 1995, starred Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood and was directed by Mr. Eastwood. It was also reincarnated as a Broadway musical in 2014, starring Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale. Robert James Waller Jr. was born on Aug. 1, 1939, in Charles City, Iowa, and grew up in nearby Rockford, about 125 miles northeast of Des Moines. His father was a chicken-and-egg wholesaler and a local magistrate. His mother, the former Ruth Welch, was a homemaker. He won a basketball scholarship to the University of Iowa but transferred in his freshman year to Iowa State Teachers College (renamed the State College of Iowa in 1961). While an undergraduate, he married Georgia Wiedemeier, whom he had met at a dance in Iowa City. The marriage ended in divorce.
In addition to his daughter, he is survived by his wife, Linda Bow, and a granddaughter. Mr. Waller earned a bachelor’s degree in business education in 1962 and a master’s in education in 1964 before pursuing graduate work at Indiana University’s school of business. He was awarded a doctorate of business administration in finance in 1968. His thesis was on the American guitar industry. He returned to his undergraduate alma mater, renamed the University of Northern Iowa in 1967, and taught management and economics there. In 1980 he was appointed dean of its business school.
On the side he began writing travel and nature essays for The Des Moines Register’s Sunday edition. These were collected in “Just beyond the Firelight: Stories and Essays” (1988) and “One Good Road Is Enough” (1990). Fed up with teaching, Mr. Waller took an unpaid leave of absence in 1990 and obtained a $200,000 grant from the state to study the future of the region. His report, “Iowa: Perspectives on Today and Tomorrow,” was published in 1991.With “Bridges” still riding high, Mr. Waller recorded an album, “The Ballads of Madison County,” and in 10 days wrote his second novel, “Slow Waltz in Cedar Bend,” about the love affair between an economics professor and a colleague’s wife. With a first printing of a million copies, it, too, shot to the top of the best-seller lists.
Seeking solitude, Mr. Waller moved to a run-down ranch in Alpine, Tex., southeast of El Paso. The high desert country provided the setting for his novels “Puerto Vallarta Squeeze: The Run for el Norte” (1995) and “Border Music” (1995). Both sold well, but not spectacularly.
Mr. Waller decided to revisit the scene of his first novel in “A Thousand Country Roads: An Epilogue to The Bridges of Madison County,” published in 2002. It continued the adventures of an older, lonelier Kincaid, who hits the road again and, at one point, finds his way back to covered-bridge territory. In his next novel, “High Plains Tango” (2005), Mr. Waller passed the generational baton to Kincaid’s son, a master carpenter who battles to stop development on the site of an Indian burial ground in South Dakota. Mr. Waller’s last novel, “The Long Night of Winchell Dear” (2006), was a taut, atmospheric thriller about a retired professional poker player and a fateful night at his ranch in the Texas desert. The romantic flame ignited by “The Bridges of Madison County” was slow to die.
“I receive letters each week from people who have read it and are moved by the story,” Mr. Waller told Book Page in 2005. “At one time, I received 50 to 100 letters per week. Now it’s more on the order of five. The last I knew, 350 marriage ceremonies had been celebrated at Roseman Bridge.”