Obituary: Fletcher Knebel

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The Independent Online
Fletcher Knebel, writer, born Dayton Ohio 1 October 1911, married four times (one son), died Honolulu 26 February 1993.

WHEN the paranoia of Cold War America's anti-Communism manifested itself in her fiction, invariably the enemy was not within. In The Manchurian Candidate, for example, the 1960s Richard Condon novel, the conspirator is brainwashed by the Red Chinese; the clear implication is that only foreigners could lead an American - one who, eerily like the still unknown Lee Harvey Oswald, is an ex-Marine - to try to kill a presidential candidate.

Fletcher Knebel, who, with Charles Bailey, wrote the best- selling Seven Days In May, was among the first to turn inwards, and see America's true enemy as 'us'. What was later given literary cachet by the inspired fantasies of Thomas Pynchon first found expression in the 'docu-fiction' of Bailey and Knebel. Not surprisingly, both were journalists, Washington-based, and, as Knebel later admitted, the inspiration for Seven Days In May came out of an assignment when he interviewed the Air Force General Curtis Le May, later George Wallace's vice-presidential running mate.

The tale of an abortive military coup, Seven Days In May rang quite true, on its appearance in 1962, to an American public suddenly waking up to the post-war potency of what the departing President Dwight Eisenhower (unusually an ex-commander among Commanders-in-Chief) had labelled the 'military-industrial complex'. Like the Dr Strangelove of Knebel's former colleague on Look magazine, the photographer-turned-director Stanley Kubrick, Seven Days In May has a fast-paced countdown-style plot that reflects the nuclear age's collective realisation that mankind's fate could now be settled in minutes if not seconds - a nuclear armada unleashed in the time it once took to unfurl a Spanish sail. When it came out as a film in 1964, with Burt Lancaster as the unhinged plotter and Kirk Douglas as the too-good-to-be-true patriotic spoiler, Seven Days In May capitalised on the post-Kennedy assassination realisation in America that something inside the country itself was deeply, seriously wrong.

Before the runaway success of the novel, Knebel had enjoyed considerable success as a journalist. The author of a nationally syndicated column about Washington political life called 'Potomac Fever', Knebel was Midwestern by birth. Like so many other sons of the prairies he joined the Cowles Communications empire that numbered newspapers - the Des Moines Register, the Minneapolis Tribune - as well as Look among its holdings.

Tall, prepossessing, and in later years equipped with a Lincolnesque beard, Knebel was a friendly man with an edge, witty but capable of some sharply sarcastic appreciations. He was a devout, indeed relentless lover of women, married four times. Among his partners was the beautiful and talented Laura Berquist, a Look colleague, who tragically took her own life after years of depressive illness. A member of the Hemlock Society, Knebel himself committed suicide, faced with lung cancer and related ailments.

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