Warren Adler, a best-selling author who chronicled dysfunction and duplicity, most notably in his divorce novel “The War of the Roses,” a dark comedy that served as the basis of a hit film, died April 15 at his home in Manhattan. He was 91.
The cause was liver cancer, said his son Michael Adler.
A mid-century fixture of the Washington social scene, Mr. Adler lived in the District until the mid-1980s, owned four television and radio stations, and founded the now-defunct society magazine Washington Dossier with his wife and one of his sons.
He also presided over an advertising agency that represented political candidates such as Richard M. Nixon and real estate developments including the Watergate complex, whose name he said he created, inspired by the nearby Water Gate Inn restaurant.
Although he started late, publishing his first book at 46, Mr. Adler wrote more than 50 novels, plays and works of poetry or short fiction, sometimes churning out two volumes a year. His work spanned decades and continents, from the Catskills of the 1930s to the Trans-Siberian Express of the Soviet Union. His characters were often plotting their escape from unhappy marriages, concealing affairs or scanning the obituary pages in search of wealthy widowers.
“I’ve become a specialist in wrecked relations,” he told the New York Times in 1991. “My turf is the never-ending battle of the sexes that goes on to the grave.”
Shortly before his death, he told his family he was writing a book in his head — a period piece set after World War I — although he knew he would never be able to put it to paper. “He said, ‘That’s what I do, and I can’t stop myself,’ ” Michael Adler said by phone.
Influenced by authors including W. Somerset Maugham and Georges Simenon, he said he had dreamed of becoming a novelist since 15 and for many years wrote “from 5 to 10 in the morning every day before going to my office.” His evenings were spent at the Jockey Club or parties on Embassy Row, picking up snippets of conversation he might use in his books.
He faced a quarter-century’s worth of rejections before publishing his first novel, “Options” (later reprinted as “Undertow”), in 1974. Quitting the ad industry to write full time, he found his greatest success with “The War of the Roses” (1981), which tracked the implosion of Jonathan and Barbara Rose’s once-perfect marriage.
It was inspired by a conversation Mr. Adler once had at a dinner party in the District. “A guy told me that he had to go home to his wife,” Mr. Adler told The Washington Post in 1989. “But he was dating my friend. He said, ‘I’m having a divorce, but we’re living in a house together. We share the refrigerator and we have separate times to use the washing machine.’ That triggered in me the ultimate married man’s fantasy.”
Macabre, humorous and occasionally harrowing — in one scene, Barbara turns her husband’s beloved dog into pâté — the novel was adapted into a 1989 film starring Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner and Danny DeVito, who also directed. With few exceptions, the movie remained loyal to the novel. (The dog survives.)
The film grossed $160 million worldwide and led studio executives to rush to buy Mr. Adler’s books and manuscripts. Several were optioned, including his unpublished novel “Private Lies,” which was sold to TriStar Pictures for $1.2 million in 1990 — then a record-setting price for a manuscript — although few made it to the screen.
His short story collection “The Sunset Gang” (1977), about a group of elderly Jews in Florida, was adapted for the public television series “American Playhouse” in 1991 and later produced as an off-Broadway musical. And in 1999, Mr. Adler’s novel “Random Hearts” (1984), about a man and woman whose spouses die in a plane crash, was turned into a film featuring Harrison Ford and Kristin Scott Thomas.
The novel had lingered in development limbo for years. By his account, Mr. Adler was sidelined from production, once told that his presence at a filmmakers’ meeting would offend everyone involved — assuming he decided to defend his book against proposed changes.
“Defend the book?” Mr. Adler wrote in a 1999 piece for the Times. “I imagined I could hear its pleading voice from the constipated bowels of the studio: ‘Dummy. What did you get me into?’ For that, I had no defense.”
The adaptation failed to approach the success or acclaim of “The War of the Roses,” which Mr. Adler turned into a play in 2013. (A separate adaptation of the novel is slated to run on Broadway.) But he said that seven-figure profits from his work in Hollywood enabled him to fund his writing, broaden his audience and, hopefully, secure his legacy.
“The money is great but more important than the money is people taking my books seriously,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1990. “I’m shooting for my books to last. Otherwise I couldn’t spend all those days alone in a room doing this. But it’s what I love. I love novels. It’s a one-on-one communication system. The novel is still to me the greatest art form in the world.”
Warren Adler was born in Brooklyn on Dec. 16, 1927. His mother was a homemaker, and his father was a clerk who was “always unemployed,” Michael Adler said. The family lived with various relatives in the home of Warren’s grandparents, where 11 people shared a bathroom.
Mr. Adler studied English at New York University, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1947, and during the Korean War he served as Washington correspondent for the Armed Forces Press Service.
He remained in the District to found his advertising and public relations agency Warren Adler Ltd. in 1957, and in 1975 established Washington Dossier. The magazine was edited by his wife, the former Sonia Kline, and published by his son David Adler, before the family sold it in 1986 to businessman Ron Haan.
In 1978, Mr. Adler wrote an Esquire magazine feature about “rescuing” and “deprogramming” David from a cultlike commune run by the Unification Church, led by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon. The incident drew national news coverage, with Mr. Adler saying he threatened to commit suicide as part of an effort to lure his son away from the church.
In addition to his wife of 67 years, survivors include his three sons, Michael Adler of Calabasas, Calif., Jonathan Adler of Bethesda, Md., and David Adler of Manhattan; and seven grandchildren. Mr. Adler had spent much of the past several years caring for his wife, who has dementia and lives in an assisted-living facility in Glen Cove, N.Y.
“I do not believe she suffers emotional distress, but I do,” he wrote in one of his last published articles, a February essay for AARP. “Now I live alone in the home we shared, and I am trying to cope with the bruising experience of loneliness. I am told it is a curable malady, and I am following the advice of others. I made my living as an author and playwright, and I continue to write, exercise daily and force myself to socialize. I am told it will take time. I am 91. How much time?”