Author Leon Uris dies |

Author Leon Uris dies

Eben Harrell
Special to The Aspen Times

Leon Uris, a longtime Aspen resident whose panoramic novels depicted determined individuals caught in the grips of history, died at his New York home Saturday of natural causes. He was 78.

The New York Times once described Uris as “a storyteller, in a direct line from those men who sat around fires in the days before history and made the tribe more human.”

A prolific writer who drew from themes that echoed his own life, his best-known work was perhaps “Exodus,” the story of the struggle to establish and defend the state of Israel. Uris also authored “Trinity,” which depicted Ireland’s fierce struggle for independence.

Uris, who dropped out of school at 17 to join the U.S. Marines, served in the South Pacific from 1942-1945, an experience which provided the inspiration for his debut work in 1953, “Battle Cry,” a novel about a battalion of Marines during World War II.

In 1956, Uris, the son of Eastern-European Jewish immigrants, covered the Arab-Israeli wars as a correspondent. Two years later appeared “Exodus.” The book was an immediate publishing phenomenon and became an international bestseller translated into some 50 languages.

It was on the wave of this success that Uris first came to Aspen in the early 1960s. An avid tennis player and skier, he took to the area immediately and in 1963 bought a parcel on mostly undeveloped Red Mountain. His house at 005 Wrights Road, designed by Fritz Benedict, served as his home until 1989.

After a divorce in 1965, Uris married Margery Edwards in 1968. In events that shocked the town, Edwards was found dead less than a year later. The death was ruled a suicide.

It was in Aspen that same year that Uris met his third wife, the photographer Jill Peabody. They settled in Aspen and raised their two children, Conor and Rachel.

Uris became deeply attached to Colorado. Jill, who divorced Leon in 1988, remembers this attachment.

“He loved to ski, play tennis, walk his dogs, even dirt bike – anything outdoors,” she said. “Most people don’t know this, but he was a certified ski instructor. Fred Iselin certified him in the ’70s.”

Uris was known to rent a room at the Holiday Inn at the base of Buttermilk so that he could watch Denver Broncos games on cable television.

Aspen was also a sanctuary that allowed Uris to delve undistracted into his intricate, sweeping narratives. Ever the dedicated Marine, Uris was known for his diligence and attention to detail in research, but he was just as ferocious in his approach to writing itself, often writing undisturbed for up to 18 hours a sitting.

Ruggedly self-reliant, Uris kept his high school report card (marked an F) framed above his desk for motivation, according to his former research assistant, Diane Eagle-Kataoka.

“While he did most of his research at the location his book was going to be set, spending up to a year sometimes in foreign countries, Aspen was always a refuge of sorts where he could pursue his actual writing in an almost hermetic way,” she said.

This fruitful relationship spawned some of Uris’ most complex works, including “QB VII” (1970), “Trinity” (1976), “The Haj” (1984), and “Topaz” (1967), the latter of which was adapted into a film by Alfred Hitchcock. He also collaborated with local composer Walt Smith to produce “Ari” (1971), a Broadway musical.

Uris hadn’t visited Aspen in years as the thin air put too much stress on his failing health. He had also been busy writing. A novel, “O’Hara’s Choice,” will be published posthumously by Harper Collins. Those close to him say it is his most personal novel.

The Marine Corps will give him a traditional memorial service in Quantico, Va. A complicated man, he asked for the simplest of epitaphs. His tombstone will read “American Marine Jewish Writer.”

Leon Uris is survived by five children and two grandchildren.

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