Author of massive best-sellers in 'Hotel', 'Airport' and 'Wheels'
Saturday 27 November 2004
Arthur Hailey made up for the fact that he left school at 14 by spending a year at a time on solid research for his string of massive best-sellers. Whilst enjoying page-turning adventures such as
Wheels, his readers would get the lowdown on whatever world Hailey was using as his setting: from hotels and airports to banks and hospitals. The result was 11 novels in print in 40 countries and 38 languages with phenomenal sales of 170 million copies.
Arthur Hailey, writer: born Luton, Bedfordshire 5 April 1920; married 1944 Joan Fishwick (three sons; marriage dissolved 1950), 1951 Sheila Dunlop (one son, two daughters); died Lyford Cay, New Providence Island 25 November 2004.
Arthur Hailey made up for the fact that he left school at 14 by spending a year at a time on solid research for his string of massive best-sellers. Whilst enjoying page-turning adventures such as Hotel, Airport and Wheels, his readers would get the lowdown on whatever world Hailey was using as his setting: from hotels and airports to banks and hospitals. The result was 11 novels in print in 40 countries and 38 languages with phenomenal sales of 170 million copies.
Such enormous success has rarely been rivalled, so the literary merits of Hailey's novels - which many critics questioned - are hardly a concern. Certainly he had a sure-fire approach: putting ordinary people in extraordinary situations and in those settings that he described so well. He claimed he never "invented" anyone, preferring to draw on real life.
He was born in 1920, in Luton, to working-class parents. As a child he was an avid reader and writer. "My mother let me off chores so I could write stories," he said later. He left school aged 14 when he failed to get a scholarship to grammar school. It was, he said later, "the saddest day of my life".
Although he suffered from airsickness he served as a pilot in the RAF during the Second World War, flying fighters in the Middle East and transport aircraft in India. He achieved the rank of flight lieutenant. The war first confirmed his religious faith then took it away:
In times of danger God can seem very close. I even thought about becoming a priest myself. But quite suddenly, as I was reciting the Creed in a church in Cyprus, where we were stationed, I found myself saying: "I don't believe this any more . . ." I lost my faith and became an agnostic.
Disillusioned by religion he was next disillusioned by politics after the war:
It was a time of acute shortages and austerity and I did not like what the socialist government was doing.
To get away from the post-war Labour government he emigrated to Canada in 1947, taking dual citizenship.
He took a job at the Maclean-Hunter Publishing Company, then moved into sales and, later, work as an estate agent. He was keen to do more creative work and was writing in his spare time.
In 1951 he married for the second time, to Sheila Dunlop, who met him in a magazine publishing house in Toronto, where he was a struggling journalist and she was a secretary. "He was overweight, I was tweedy," Sheila recalled. However, they shared similar backgrounds (she was a working-class girl from London) and similar goals.
His life changed when, one day in 1955, he was on a flight to Toronto. He wondered what would happen if the pilot and co-pilot were suddenly knocked out by food poisoning from the in-flight meal. "Then it would fall to a rusty old wartime pilot like me to bring the plane down safely." He saw it as a great idea for a television play. Over the next two weekends and the five nights in-between he wrote a screenplay, "Flight into Danger", which he sold to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for $600. The play was sold on to NBC and was a spectacular success.
Now the play is best known for being one of the inspirations for the spoof movie Airplane! (1980). Then, it changed Hailey's life. From that one success he was able to write full-time. "That was all I ever wanted to do," he said later. In 1958, Hailey's screenplay for the 1956 Flight into Danger was turned into a novel - Runway Zero-Eight - by two other writers, under the pseudonym John Castle. "When I read it," Hailey said later, "my reaction was, 'Why didn't I do this myself?' "
So he switched to writing novels. His first one, The Final Diagnosis, about a hospital pathologist who causes an infant's death by mistake, was published in 1959.
His first big publishing success was Hotel in 1965. It provided a blueprint for his subsequent best-sellers in two respects. First there was his research. He spent about a year researching hotels (including reading 27 books about the industry), then six months reviewing his notes and, finally, about 18 months writing the book. Then there was the plot: at the core an ordinary person faced with a major crisis but surrounded by multiple plot-lines.
Its success was helped by a well-received film, directed by Richard Quine, in 1967. The following year he published Airport, perhaps his most successful novel, about an airport manager coping with a bomber on a plane that is being piloted by the manager's womanising brother-in-law. It was snapped up by Hollywood and the film, starring Burt Lancaster and Dean Martin, followed in 1970. It paved the way for a tranche of disaster movies.
Being a success in the freedom-loving Sixties had an impact on Hailey's marriage. He was not faithful. "I see adultery as perfectly normal and natural," he said later. "Men are not naturally monogamous."
By the end of the decade Hailey was also becoming seriously rich. Tax was running as high as 75 per cent in America. His friend and lawyer Bruce Verchere recommended a tax haven for a couple of years. He suggested Lyford Cay in the Bahamas. The Haileys moved there in 1969 and liked it so much they stayed until Hailey's death.
Hailey published Wheels, about the world of automobiles, in 1971. The Moneychangers (1975) became in 1976 a mini-series starring Kirk Douglas, Christopher Plummer (who won an Emmy for it) and a host of other well-known faces. Overload followed in 1979, Strong Medicine in 1984 (with a mini-series starring Sam Neill in 1986), The Evening News in 1990.
In that year he announced his retirement. He was 67 but he had still spent time with rebel guerrillas in the Peruvian jungle as research for The Evening News. He said he was retiring to spend more time with his family. "Writing is a very selfish occupation," he said:
I can't tell you how many relatives I failed to visit or children's special days at school I missed because the novel had to come first.
His wife Sheila had already spoken bluntly about his selfishness in her book I Married a Best Seller (1978), in which she described him as:
ruthless, temperamental, sensitive, impatient, emotional, unreasonable, demanding,
self-centred, excessively hard-working, precise, pig-headed, fastidiously clean, manically tidy.
Hailey returned to writing later in the Nineties as a result of something that might have come out of one of his books. His best friend, Bruce Verchere, had an adulterous affair with Hailey's daughter Diane. The couple ran away together and Diane became pregnant. Verchere returned to his wife. Two days after twins were born, however, he committed suicide with a bullet in the brain.
Deeply miserable as the events unfolded, Hailey buried himself in work. The result was Detective, the Hailey take on the serial-killer novel, published in 1997. The same year he had undergone a triple bypass operation. (He had had a quadruple bypass when he was 63.) Detective was, as always, heavily researched - the only reason he didn't see a real-life execution in the electric chair was because there was a three-year waiting list.
Early in Hailey's writing career Anthony Burgess wrote:
When book-buyers buy books, they look for sex, violence and hard information. They get these from Arthur Hailey, whose characters discuss problems of hotel management while committing adultery before being beaten up.
Hailey's own take was quite straightforward:
What I aim for in all my novels is a good page-turning story set against a real-life background, so the reader can learn something about hotels or airports or the police as he reads a good story.
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