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Theodore Taylor, 85; Author of 'The Cay'

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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 30, 2006

Theodore Taylor, 85, a writer of immense versatility whose novel "The Cay," an examination of race relations after a shipwreck, sold more than 4 million copies, died Oct. 26 at his home in Laguna Beach, Calif., after a heart attack.

Mr. Taylor was variously a newspaperman, Navy press aide, Hollywood press agent and ghostwriter for entertainer Jerry Lewis.

He wrote more than 50 books, ranging from U.S. military histories to a well-received biography of the composer Jule Stein to adult suspense novels set in the Las Vegas underworld.

In 1985, he and actress Tippi Hedren wrote "The Cats of Shambala," a nonfiction account of the big-cat preserve she started. Mr. Taylor's 1973 novel, "The Maldonado Miracle," about a dying border town revived by religious fervor, was resurrected by actress Salma Hayek for her 2003 directorial debut on the Showtime cable channel.

Although he aimed many books of fiction at young adults, few were as popular or as controversial as "The Cay" (1969), which became a staple of classroom required-reading lists. Set in the Caribbean during World War II, the story concerns a bigoted American child and an illiterate West Indian deckhand who become castaways when their ship is torpedoed.

Mr. Taylor dedicated the novel to the "dream" of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., "which can only come true if the very young know and understand."

Reviewers spoke of the book's poignancy, and it won several book prizes. NBC made a television movie version in 1974 with James Earl Jones as the deckhand.

However, the Council on Interracial Books for Children and other organizations criticized Mr. Taylor's portrayal of a black man as a racist, servile caricature, made worse by his island accent (he calls the American "young bahss").

Mr. Taylor defended his characters, saying that Timothy, the deckhand, was heroic: "Would the critics have had him speak Brooklynese instead of Creole? Nonsense!"

Despite sporadic protests and attempts by community groups to ban the book at schools and libraries, "The Cay" remained a favorite of many librarians for young readers.

Theodore Langhans Taylor was born June 23, 1921, in Statesville, N.C. During the Depression, his father moved the family near Portsmouth, Va., and became a naval yard iron molder.

As a young man, Mr. Taylor loved the shipyard atmosphere and showed some talent for writing. He found a 50-cents-a-week sportswriting job at the Portsmouth Star.

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