“One of the greatest gifts you can get as a writer,” Pat Conroy once said, “is to be born into an unhappy family.” By that measure alone, Mr. Conroy had ample training. In one best-selling novel after another, he drew on bitter memories, particularly of his despotic and abusive father, a Marine Corps fighter pilot.
“I always thanked Dad for giving me such intense pain as a child,” Mr. Conroy told The Washington Post in 1992, “so I could write about it the rest of my life.”
His experiences formed the emotional core of such sweeping tales as “The Great Santini,” “The Lords of Discipline,” “The Prince of Tides” and “Beach Music,” several of which were adapted into films.
Mr. Conroy died March 4 at his home in Beaufort, S.C., at age 70. The author announced in February that he had pancreatic cancer. The death was announced by his publisher, Doubleday.
His fractured family life included an Alabama-born mother with pretensions of gentility, Mr. Conroy’s private struggles with depression, the stern discipline of a military education — and, of course, the looming shadow of his father.
His father’s real-life nickname, “The Great Santini,” became the title of Mr. Conroy’s breakthrough 1976 novel about a martinet who was a tyrant to his wife and children. His earliest memory, Mr. Conroy once said, was “of my mother trying to stab my father with a butcher knife, and Dad’s hitting her in the face.”
The family moved so often that Mr. Conroy attended 11 schools by the time he was 15. He became a standout basketball player, and in a memorable scene in “The Great Santini,” he portrays the first time he bested his father in a one-on-one matchup.
Afterward, his father — named Bull Meecham in the novel — repeatedly bounced the ball off his son’s head, as if to provoke a fight. When the two finally came to blows, Mr. Conroy found himself so overcome by conflicting emotions that, as he tried to curse his father, the words that came out were, “I love you!”
“The Great Santini” secured Mr. Conroy’s reputation as a novelist, but his father and other relatives considered it a betrayal of trust.
“The book roared through my family like a nuclear device,” Mr. Conroy told the Florida Times-Union in 2005. “My father hated it; my grandparents hated it; my aunts and uncles hated it.”
Soon after publishing the novel, Mr. Conroy had the first of several nervous breakdowns, and he later said he contemplated suicide. Although his mother was fearful of revealing family secrets at first, the book gave her a newfound sense of strength. When she filed for divorce, she reportedly gave a copy of “The Great Santini” to the judge as evidence of spousal abuse.
But the success of a 1979 movie adaptation, in which Robert Duvall received an Oscar nomination for the title role, helped heal the family wounds. Mr. Conroy eventually reconciled with his father, who often signed copies of his son’s book as “The Great Santini.”
After completing high school in Beaufort, S.C., Mr. Conroy received a basketball scholarship to the Citadel, at the time an all-male military college in Charleston, S.C.
In 1980, he published “The Lords of Discipline,” about his experiences at the thinly disguised “Carolina Military Institute.” The vivid descriptions of sadistic hazing rituals and overt racism made him a pariah at the Citadel.
He further angered the school’s old guard in the mid-1990s, when he supported the attempt of Shannon Faulkner to become the first female student at the state-supported military college. After she withdrew amid harassment, Mr. Conroy reportedly paid for her education at another college.
Over time, Mr. Conroy was welcomed back as a favored Citadel alumnus. He delivered the 2001 commencement address and was named to the school’s athletic hall of fame.
With “The Prince of Tides” in 1986, Mr. Conroy reached his pinnacle of popularity. The ambitious novel, set mostly in South Carolina, attempted to recount the modern history of the country through the travails of the Wingo family, in all their epic excesses and failings.
Washington Post book editor Brigitte Weeks called the book “monstrously long, yet a pleasure to read, flawed yet stuffed to the endpapers with lyricism, melodrama, anguish and plain old suspense.”
Mr. Conroy evoked the sounds, smells and prejudices of the South, the energy and angst of New York City, the predations of escaped convicts — and even the raw, backyard justice meted out by the Wingo family’s pet Bengal tiger. The volatile family patriarch is a hot-tempered, emotionally cold fighter pilot-turned-shrimper.
“The Prince of Tides” was over the top in every way — including its resounding success. The book sold more than 5 million copies and was atop bestseller lists for a year. It was made into a 1991 film, directed by Barbra Streisand and featuring her and Nick Nolte in the leading roles. Nolte was nominated for an Academy Award for best actor, and Mr. Conroy shared an Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay.
Part of the plot revolved around the psychological struggles of a New York poet, the sister of the novel’s central character. The story mirrored the life of Mr. Conroy’s younger sister, Carol, who stopped talking to her brother after “The Prince of Tides” was published.
He received a huge advance for his next book, moved to Europe, endured a second divorce, underwent another emotional collapse and, year after year, failed to turn in the manuscript.
“I don’t think anyone was prepared for the awesome success of ‘The Prince of Tides’ ” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1995. “I felt the numbing pressure that is visited upon you following great success.”
Five years late, Mr. Conroy delivered a 2,100-page manuscript called “Beach Music” to his editor, Nan Talese. The two spent four months trimming it to 628 pages. The original draft of the new novel had a subplot in which the narrator’s brother commits suicide. Mr. Conroy revised the book, restoring the character to life, after his younger brother Tom, who was a schizophrenic, killed himself in 1994.
The book, which was published in 1995, reflected many of the seminal events of the 20th century through the experiences of a sprawling, brawling South Carolina family. The first printing of 750,000 copies sold out immediately, as “Beach Music” reached No. 1 on the bestseller lists. There were discussions for a movie, but it was never made.
The novel’s narrator and stand-in for Mr. Conroy, Jack McCall, was a travel and food writer given to extravagant flights of description: “I tasted the wine and it was so robust and appealing that I could feel my mouth singing with pleasure when I brought the glass from my lips. The aftertaste held like a chord on my tongue; my mouth felt like a field of flowers.”
The reviewers didn’t find the book so appetizing, and some sharpened their knives.
“When all is said and overdone in ‘Beach Music,’ ” New York Times book critic Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote, “Mr. Conroy leaves you begging for less.”
Although he professed never to read reviews, Mr. Conroy was nonetheless wounded by what he called “the barking of the chihuahuas.”
His literary style may have been lush and indulgent, but he was proud of every adjective.
“I was never going to be a part of any minimalist trend,” he told the Baltimore Sun in 2010. “My own overripe, pretentious prose style has been with me since the beginning. That is my personality. I cannot change these things.”
Donald Patrick Conroy was born Oct. 26, 1945, in Atlanta and was the oldest of seven children. His father was from Chicago, but his mother’s Southern heritage became a formative part of his childhood.
She read Margaret Mitchell’s novel “Gone With the Wind” to Mr. Conroy when he was a child. A high school teacher introduced him to “Look Homeward, Angel,” the long, lavish novel by Thomas Wolfe, who became Mr. Conroy’s chief literary model.
At the Citadel, Mr. Conroy was an English major and a point guard on the basketball team, which had a record of 8-17 during his senior year. He drew on the experience for a well-received 2002 memoir, “My Losing Season.”
After graduating in 1967, Mr. Conroy wrote a somewhat critical novel about the Citadel, “The Boo,” which he paid a local printing company to publish. Despite its meager distribution, the book was banned at his alma mater.
Mr. Conroy later spent a year teaching at a two-room school on Daufuskie Island off the coast of South Carolina. He sought to widen the horizons of his poorly educated African American students, but he was fired for not following the curriculum.
He hired a New York agent to help him publish a book about his year on the island, “The Water Is Wide.” When the agent named a price of $7,500 for the book, Mr. Conroy said, “I can get it done a lot cheaper in Beaufort.”
After an awkward pause, the agent said, “Pat, you do understand, they pay you.”
From then on, Mr. Conroy was a full-time writer. “The Water Is Wide” was made into a 1974 film, “Conrack,” starring Jon Voight.
A millionaire by age 35, Mr. Conroy lived variously in Atlanta, San Francisco, Paris and Rome before returning permanently to South Carolina in 1991. He enjoyed the good life, becoming a voluble raconteur and a well-fed connoisseur of food and wine. Among his later projects, he published a cookbook with his favorite recipes.
His marriages to Barbara Bolling and Lenore Gurewitz Fleischer ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife since 1998, novelist Cassandra King. Survivors include one daughter from each of his first two marriages; several stepchildren; and several brothers and children.
Admittedly self-involved, Mr. Conroy had often stormy relationships within his family, particularly with women. His second divorce led to a prolonged separation from his daughter Susannah.
In later years, his anger toward his father began to soften, even if it never completely faded.
“He’s turned out to be this sweetheart of a grandfather,” Mr. Conroy told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1995, with bitter irony. “I say to him, ‘Dad, knock their teeth out, just to let them know how it was for the rest of us.’ ”
After his father’s death in 1998, Mr. Conroy wrote a memoir about the evolution of their relationship, “The Death of Santini” (2013). He kept his father’s portrait, military medals and the flag from his coffin in a place of honor, but he also noted that, in all their years together, his father never made him laugh.
Strangers often approached Mr. Conroy, eager to talk about his books and the memorable characters who inhabited them, including his maddening, unforgettable father.
“By accident,” he said in 2012, “I hit upon something in my writing that people can readily identify with — the terrible things that go on in families.”