Theodore Taylor, 85; Author of 'The Cay'

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.

"Back then, the news guys all worked with their hats on," he told the Los Angeles Times. "They all had a pint of whiskey down in the bottom drawer, and they all had cigarettes hanging out of their mouths. I don't think they were making over $15 a week, but it was just a romantic life and I thought, 'God, I'd rather do this than go to school any day of the week.' "

He served on a Navy cargo attack ship in the Pacific during World War II and in 1946 volunteered to participate in Operation Crossroads, the name given to the atom bomb test on Bikini Atoll. This provided essential background for his young adult novel "The Bomb," published in 1995, about a young native who grows suspicious that the temporary removal of his people will be permanent.

After the book came out, he told the Fresno Bee: "One morning, a few days after our ship arrived, I was the officer on deck, and an outrigger with two adults pulled up. One spoke a little English and asked what we were doing there. I told them, 'I don't know.' But I did know. We were going to drop an atom bomb on them. He pressed, and I told him it was a secret. Both lies.

"That was the beginning of a tragic story for these lovely people. We did lie. We told them they would be able to come back, and 50 years later, they're still not back."

Mr. Taylor held public relations and newspaper jobs before returning to active duty during the Korean War. He wrote nautical histories, including "The Magnificent Mitscher," a biography of a revered admiral, and "Fire on the Beaches," about U-boat threats to East Coast shipping during World War II.

While in Puerto Rico as a Navy public relations officer, he helped movie producer William Perlberg during location shooting for a war film and went on to work as a press agent for Perlberg and his business partner, director George Seaton. He later wrote the screenplay for Seaton's "Showdown," a 1973 Western with Rock Hudson and Dean Martin.

Mr. Taylor's path to young-adult fiction came out of his 1967 book "People Who Make Movies," written initially for his children, about what happens on a film set. He said he unexpectedly received thousands of queries from young readers, mostly girls wanting to know how to become a movie star.

"The Cay," with a child protagonist, was his next project. He followed with a succession of children's books, including a trilogy set in the Outer Banks of North Carolina; a series of books featuring a blind dog named Tuck; "Ice Drift," a survival story with Inuit protagonists; and "Timothy of the Cay," which revisits characters from "The Cay."

Mr. Taylor hated computers and called his memoir "Making Love to Typewriters."

His marriage to Gweneth Goodwin Taylor ended in divorce in 1979. He said he met his second wife, Flora Schoenleber, when her dog attacked his on a beach.

She survives, as do three children from his first marriage.

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