LOS ANGELES (January 31, 2007) — Sydney Sheldon had a prolific and award-winning career writing for theater, movies and television, but he often proclaimed his greatest love for another creative outlet.
“Writing novels is the most fun I’ve ever had,” Sheldon once said.
The best-selling author died Tuesday at 89 of complications from pneumonia at Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage. His wife Alexandra was by his side.
“I try to write my books so the reader can’t put them down,” Sheldon explained in a 1982 interview. “I try to construct them so when the reader gets to the end of a chapter, he or she has to read just one more chapter. It’s the technique of the old Saturday afternoon serial: leave the guy hanging on the edge of the cliff at the end of the chapter.”
Sheldon mostly wrote about stalwart women who triumph in a hostile world of ruthless men. His notable novels included “Rage of Angels,” “The Other Side of Midnight,” and “If Tomorrow Comes.”
“I like to write about women who are talented and capable, but most important, retain their femininity,” he said. “Women have tremendous power — their femininity, because men can’t do without it.”
Several of his novels became television miniseries, often with the author as producer.
Sheldon began writing as a youngster in Chicago, where he was born Feb. 17, 1917. At 10, he sold a poem for $10. During the Depression, he worked at a variety of jobs, attended Northwestern University and contributed short plays to drama groups.
At 17, he tried his luck in Hollywood as a reader of prospective film material at Universal Studio for $22 a week. At night he wrote his own screenplays and sold one, “South of Panama,” to the studio for $250.
During World War II, Sheldon served as a pilot in the Army Air Corps. After the war, he established his reputation as a prolific writer in the New York theater. At one time, he had three musicals on Broadway: a rewritten “The Merry Widow,” “Jackpot” and “Dream with Music.” He received a Tony award as one of the writers of the Gwen Verdon hit “Redhead.”
His Broadway success ushered his return to Hollywood, where his first assignment, “The Bachelor and the Bobbysoxer,” starring Cary Grant, Myrna Loy and Shirley Temple, won him an Academy Award for best original screenplay of 1947.
When the movie industry began to feel the pinch of television’s popularity, Sheldon decided to try the new medium.
“I suppose I needed money,” he remembered. “I met Patty Duke one day at lunch. So I produced `The Patty Duke Show,’ and I did something nobody else in TV ever did. For seven years, I wrote almost every single episode of the series.”
He also created and produced “I Dream of Jeannie,” which lasted five seasons in the late 1960s.
During the last year of “I Dream of Jeannie,” he decided to write a novel, he said in 1982. His first work, “The Naked Face,” was scorned by book reviewers and sold 21,000 copies in hardcover. The novel found a mass market in paperback, however, reportedly selling 3.1 million. Thereafter Sheldon became a habitue of best-seller lists.
He prided himself in the authenticity of his novels. He remarked in 1987: “If I write about a place, I have been there. If I write about a meal in Indonesia, I have eaten there in that restaurant. I don’t think you can fool the reader.”
For “Windmills of the Mind,” which dealt with the CIA, he interviewed former CIA chief Richard Helms, traveled to Argentina and Romania and spent a week in Junction City, Kan., where the heroine had lived.
Though he won a Tony, an Oscar and an Emmy (for “I Dream of Jeannie”) during his career, Sheldon said he derived the most satisfaction from writing his novels.
“I love writing books,” he said. “When you do a novel you’re on your own. It’s a freedom that doesn’t exist in any other medium.”
Sheldon was married for more than 30 years to Jorja Curtright Sheldon, a stage and film actress who later became a prominent interior decorator. She died in 1985. He married Alexandra Kostoff, a former child actress and advertising executive, in 1989.