James Salter, a writer who contemplated love, mortality and the lives of men of action in his novels and short stories and who built a quiet reputation as an extraordinary prose stylist, died June 19 in Sag Harbor, N.Y. He was 90.
He collapsed while at a gym, his wife, Kay Eldredge, told the Associated Press.
Mr. Salter was a scrupulous, painstaking writer whose books appeared at infrequent intervals. He was perhaps best known for a slim 1967 novel, “A Sport and a Pastime,” about a love affair in France (and with France) between a young American college dropout and an 18-year-old French girl.
Charged with a current of erotic tension, “A Sport and a Pastime” has been called one of the sexiest works of literature ever written.
“They climb the stairs,” Mr. Salter wrote in one quietly suggestive passage. “She goes first, as always. Her calves flash before him, turning away, rising on the narrow treads. Her key opens the door.”
Novelist Reynolds Price, writing in the New York Times Book Review, declared “A Sport and a Pastime” as “nearly perfect as any American fiction I know.”
In 1975, Mr. Salter published another novel, “Light Years,” about a failing marriage, but his books did not sell in large numbers. A passage in “Light Years” pointed at his desire to reach the pantheon of great writers while knowing his appeal was too rarefied:
“Fame was not only part of greatness, it was more. It was the evidence, the only proof. All the rest was nothing, in vain.”
For years, Mr. Salter was a “writer’s writer,” greatly admired for the beauty and precision of his prose, even if few people knew his work.
He was also something of an anachronism, dashing and worldly in a way few modern-day writers of fiction are.
He had seen combat as a fighter pilot and written two novels about military life before turning to the domestic battles between men and women. He traveled in grand style and wrote from an unabashedly male point of view that some critics, both men and women, found hard to take.
“His work is hauntingly beautiful,” novelist Roxana Robinson wrote for Slate in 2013, but she also deplored his depiction of women “almost solely in physical terms.”
In 1997, Mr. Salter published a memoir, “Burning the Days,” which explored many of his earlier themes but without the filter of fiction.
He wrote about attending the U.S. Military Academy, “the hard school, the forge,” and about being an F-86 fighter pilot in Korea, where he flew more than 100 combat missions. He described the result of an aerial dogfight with a cool, detached lyricism: “The MIG, now a funeral craft that bore nothing, was falling from thirty thousand feet, spinning leisurely in its descent until its shadow unexpectedly appeared on the hills and slowly moved to join it in a burst of flame.”
When he was in the Air Force, Mr. Salter wrote his first novel, “The Hunters,” which was published in 1956 and made into a film two years later with Robert Mitchum. When “The Hunters” was republished in the 1990s, military historian Robert F. Dorr pronounced it “the finest work ever to appear in print — ever — about men who fly and fight.”
At first, however, none of Mr. Salter’s military colleagues knew he was the author of “The Hunters,” because “Salter” was an assumed name. Throughout his 12-year military career, he was known as James Horowitz.
He left the Air Force in 1957 as a major and legally changed his name to Salter in the 1960s.
As much as he tried to leave his earlier life behind, he recognized how his character had been formed by his life in the military.
“I ceased talking about those days, as if I had never known them,” he wrote in his memoir. “But it had been a great voyage, the voyage, probably, of my life.”
James Arnold Horowitz was born June 10, 1925, in Passaic, N.J., and grew up in Manhattan. His father was a West Point graduate who became a real estate executive.
Mr. Salter graduated from West Point in 1945 as part of an accelerated wartime program and became a pilot. He joined the Air Force when it was formed in 1947 and later received a master’s degree from Georgetown University.
In the 1960s, Mr. Salter wrote screenplays for documentaries and for the feature films “Downhill Racer” (1969), starring Robert Redford, and “The Appointment” (1969), directed by Sidney Lumet. He also wrote and directed the 1969 film “Three,” based on a short story by Irwin Shaw.
Redford later asked him to write a screenplay about rock climbing, but it was never produced as a film. Mr. Salter reworked it as a novel, “Solo Faces,” in 1979. His 1988 short-story collection, “Dusk and Other Stories,” won the PEN/Faulkner Award.
Mr. Salter’s first marriage, to Ann Altemus, ended in divorce.
Survivors include his wife, Kay Eldredge of Bridgehampton, N.Y., whom he married in 1998 after more than 20 years together; three children from his first marriage; and a son with Eldredge.
A daughter from his first marriage died in 1980 in an accidental electrocution.
“I have never been able to write the story. I reach a certain point and cannot go on,” Mr. Salter wrote in “Burning the Days.” “The death of kings can be recited, but not of one’s child.”
Mr. Salter was a writer-in-residence at the University of Virginia last fall. He published his sixth novel, “All That Is,” in 2013. He was working on another memoir at the time of his death.
An earlier version of this story included a passage from James Salter’s short story “Last Night.” It appeared in his 2005 collection “Last Night,” not in “Dusk.”