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John Jay Osborn Jr., author of ‘The Paper Chase,’ dies at age 77

His coming-of-age novel — about an idealistic Harvard Law School student obsessed with the law and his imperious contracts professor — was adapted for film and television

Writer John Jay Osborn Jr. in 2018. (San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst Newspapers via Getty Images/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

John Jay Osborn Jr., author of the best-selling 1971 novel “The Paper Chase,” a coming-of-age story about an idealistic Harvard Law School student who becomes obsessed with both contracts law and his imperious professor, died Oct. 19 at his home in San Francisco. He was 77.

The cause was squamous cell cancer, said his daughter, Meredith Osborn.

Mr. Osborn wrote “The Paper Chase” as a third-year student at Harvard Law School, drawing on the personalities and teaching styles of several professors to create Professor Charles W. Kingsfield Jr., who conducted contracts class in ways ruthless and inspiring.

The novel was made into a 1973 movie staring John Houseman as Professor Kingsfield and Timothy Bottoms as James Hart, a Minnesota farm boy navigating the cutthroat world of students in bow ties and blazers grappling with arcane contract law. Hart also falls in love with a woman who turns out to be Kingsfield’s daughter.

Critics praised the book and film — the story was later adapted as a television series — for bringing an unvarnished portrait of intellectual life to the page and screen, as students battle their classmates and their own sanity to survive the demands of their towering and often-terrifying professors.

“It is refreshingly free both of collegiate sentiment and — in John Updike’s memorable phrase — the dim rumble of hobbyhorses being ridden back and forth across the floor,” Washington Post book reviewer L.J. Davis wrote. “Seldom has the bleakness and despair of American college life been portrayed with such immediacy and truth — the paranoia, the Sisyphean striving, the illusive goals, the strange symbiosis that springs up between student and professor.”

Film critic Roger Ebert observed of the film, written and directed by James Bridges, that “we hardly ever get movies about people who seem engaging enough to spend half an hour talking with.”

“What’s best about the movie,” he added, “is that it considers interesting adults — young and old — in an intelligent manner.”

Mr. Osborn was born in Boston on Aug. 5, 1945. He was a direct descendant of John Jay, the first chief justice of the United States, and Cornelius Vanderbilt, the railroad titan. When Mr. Osborn was 9, the family moved to the Bay Area, where his father, a physician, worked at Stanford’s medical school.

After graduating from high school in 1963, Mr. Osborn enrolled at Harvard. He was, as he later wrote, “an outsider” to the “legendary eastern educational institution” — sort of like Hart, but from the West Coast, not the Midwest. Mr. Osborn and Hart viewed Harvard Law School in vastly different ways.

“Harvard Law School is like the Emerald City of Oz, or like a great European capital, like London or Paris,” Mr. Osborn wrote in the preface to the 40th anniversary edition of his novel. “Hart wants to break out, to change, to explore. Hart wants a romantic transcendental experience, right now, as a first year law student.”

Mr. Osborn’s daughter, Meredith, said her father viewed Harvard Law School as a way to sidestep the Vietnam War draft and, more importantly, remain in Cambridge with his girlfriend Emilie Heffron Sisson, a student at Radcliffe College whom he married in 1968. (Unlike Hart’s girlfriend, Sisson was not the daughter of a Harvard professor, but like the novel’s character she was an intellectual and romantic soul mate.)

As Mr. Osborn’s third year of law school began, he realized, as he later wrote, that “unless I did something to change direction, I was going to end up with a cushy job in a big law firm on Wall Street.”

That wasn’t a future that sat well with him.

“I had worked on Wall Street as a summer clerk and saw the work for what it was — boring and at times even mind numbing,” he wrote.

“The Paper Chase” was, he wrote, “an attempt to create more options for myself, a new story with a new ending.”

For his third-year writing project, Mr. Osborn wanted to do something more creative than analytical. Told he had to find an adviser to sponsor the effort, Mr. Osborn approached William Alfred, a playwright and poet at Harvard who had written “Hogan’s Goat,” a 1965 off-Broadway play starring Faye Dunaway.

Alfred helped Mr. Osborn find a publisher, and the book was quickly sold. Two years later, in 1973, it premiered on-screen.

Moviegoers and reviewers were riveted by Houseman’s portrayal of Kingsfield, for which he won an Academy Award for best supporting actor. Early in the film, the bow-tied professor stands at the lectern and declares that “the study of law is something new and unfamiliar to most of you — unlike any schooling you’ve ever been through before.”

As Hart had discovered on the first day of class, after which he threw up, that meant rigorous, spontaneous questioning — the Socratic method.

“I call on you, ask you a question, and you answer it,” the professor says. “Why don’t I just give you a lecture? Because through my questions you learn to teach yourselves.”

The point was to teach them how to analyze complex sets of facts.

“In my classroom there’s always another question, another question to follow your answer,” the professor says. “Yes, you’re on a treadmill. My little questions spin the tumblers of your mind. You’re on an operating table. My little questions are the fingers probing your brain. We do brain surgery here. You teach yourselves a law, but I train your mind.”

“The Paper Chase” became a sort of prelaw school bible that students read before embarking on a career in law. One of them was Mr. Osborn’s daughter, who enrolled at Harvard Law School in 2003. Elena Kagan, then dean of the law school and now a Supreme Court justice, made a point of telling students that Mr. Osborn’s daughter was among their classmates.

“What my father was describing, that sense of competition and cutthroat-ness and coldness, that still existed when I went there,” Meredith Osborn said. “But the whole thing is way more civilized now. That doesn’t mean that people weren’t incredibly competitive. And there were still some professors, including Kagan, who could be pretty ruthless and cold, calling on and humiliating them if they showed up unprepared.”

But that was never the whole story, she said. And her father agreed.

“Over the years, somehow the good things I experienced at the law school floated to the surface,” he wrote in 2003. “Now I think about Lon Fuller, who was such a wonderful teacher, and Lloyd Weinreb, who walked through a blizzard to my house for dinner, just because he’d told a student (me) that he would come. And I remember Assistant Dean Stephen Bernardi, going out of his way to find me a clerkship, for no other reason than he wanted to be helpful.”

In addition to writing novels and television scripts, Mr. Osborn practiced contract law and taught at several universities. His works include “Listen to the Marriage,” a novel set entirely in a marriage counselor’s office, and episodes for several television series, including “L.A. Law.”

He is survived by his wife, Emilie; daughter Meredith Osborn and two sons, Samuel Osborn and Frederick Osborn; three brothers and three sisters; and six grandchildren.

Mr. Osborn taught contract law quite differently than Kingsfield. On the first day of class, he once wrote, “I explain that I’m not going to call on anyone. They will have to volunteer if they want to talk.”

“I am not clairvoyant like their other professors,” he added. “I have no idea which students have something to contribute to the discussion. Therefore I’m going to have to rely on them to tell me when they have something to say. (What I am really doing is giving them permission to take control of the class.)”

And the students respond with confidence, raising their hands on those anxious first days.

“Months later, when it’s winter and the cases are more difficult, it is possible that no hand will go up,” Mr. Osborn wrote. “If that happens, I wait. I might have to wait thirty-seconds, maybe a bit more. But someone always raises a hand to move the class along. Someone will do it, even someone who is not sure of the answer. Why? Because by this time, it will be clear we are in it together. They will understand that it is their class not mine.”

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