The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Dominique Lapierre, author of best-selling historical narratives, dies at 91

Mr. Lapierre used a mix of journalism and historical research in books that sold more than 50 million copies around the world

Dominique Lapierre crossing a river near Kolkata, India, in 2005. (Deshakalyan Chowdhury/AFP/Getty Images)

Dominique Lapierre, a globe-trotting French author who used intimate stories of struggles and triumphs for best-selling historical narratives such as the 1944 liberation of France’s capital in “Is Paris Burning?” and a 1984 chemical leak disaster in India with “Five Past Midnight in Bhopal,” died Dec. 4 at age 91.

His wife, Dominique Conchon-Lapierre, confirmed Mr. Lapierre’s death in an interview with the Var-Matin newspaper on the French Riviera. They had lived for decades in Ramatuelle, France, on the Mediterranean coast. No cause was given.

His books, mixing journalism and historical reconstructions, sold more than 50 million copies worldwide. They brought Mr. Lapierre particular acclaim in India for complex portrayals of slum life in “City of Joy” (1985) as well as his account of the Bhopal disaster, which was blamed for more than 15,000 deaths and left 500,000 people stricken with severe or chronic health problems.

He considered himself a historian with a flair for vivid journalistic storytelling. “Is history a piece of cold cake that no one can digest,” Mr. Lapierre told India Today, “or is history a reenactment of what actually happened with all the emotions, smells, colors, impressions of events?”

He had a precocious literary start, with the publication in 1950 of “Un Dollar les Mille Kilomètres” (“A Dollar for One Thousand Kilometers”), an account of traveling in the United States. After a stint in the French military, he landed a job at the magazine Paris Match, where he covered the Korean War and then was a special writer and editor based in Paris.

Mr. Lapierre’s work was infused heavily with a correspondent’s instincts for storytelling: richly reported personal stories and an eye for details — such as how author Ernest Hemingway set up shop in Paris after arriving with U.S. forces in 1944. Hemingway quickly took command of the bar at the “honeysuckle-covered” Hôtel du Grand Veneur, Mr. Lapierre wrote in “Is Paris Burning?” (1964) with co-author Larry Collins, in their account of the Nazi occupation of Paris and the Allied push into the city.

“In the bar, [Hemingway] had installed a case of hand grenades, a carbine, a bottle of the grateful owner’s best cognac and a prewar Michelin road map,” Mr. Lapierre and Collins wrote in the book, which was made into an all-star 1966 movie by French filmmaker René Clément.

But Mr. Lapierre often said he preferred on-the-scene reporting rather than looking back as a historian. In his 1991 book on the AIDS crisis, “Beyond Love,” Mr. Lapierre spent months with people afflicted by the disease and followed scientists and health teams.

For “Five Past Midnight in Bhopal,” written with Javier Moro and first published in French in 1997, Mr. Lapierre spent three years observing the lives of families living near the Union Carbide plant, where a December 1984 leak of a highly toxic gas used for pesticides, methyl isocyanate, became one of the world’s most deadly industrial disasters.

The book, released in English in 2001, doesn’t explore the chemical disaster until the last chapter. The stories from the shantytowns are already poignant in their desperation. “The result reads like a thriller, albeit one whose terrifying outcome is known from the outset,” journalist Birte Twisselmann wrote in an essay for the medical trade journal BMJ.

Mr. Lapierre’s topics ranged far, and included exploring South Africa’s history of apartheid in “A Rainbow in the Night” (2008) and the Israel-Palestinian conflict in “O Jerusalem!” (1971) with Collins as co-author. His professional and personal interests, however, were most closely bonded with India. “A love story,” he once called his connections to the country.

Mr. Lapierre and his wife funded humanitarian initiatives, including homes for people with leprosy and clinics in India’s West Bengal region and around Bhopal.

His 1975 book “Freedom at Midnight” (with Collins as co-author) revisited the 1947 partition of the subcontinent after British rule. Another major work came from nearly three years living for various stretches in Anand Nagar, or “the City of Joy,” a teeming slum in the heart of Kolkata (then widely known as Calcutta).

“The City of Joy” (1985) vividly chronicles the grinding poverty and never-ending hardships in a slum whose incongruous name was coined by jute makers seeking to attract workers. Yet Mr. Lapierre found inspiration, too, in the generosity amid the squalor, such as families taking in orphans or tending to those with tuberculosis, dysentery and other diseases.

The Washington Post’s then New Delhi-based correspondent Elisabeth Bumiller wrote at the time that Mr. Lapierre “sometimes over-romanticizes the struggle of the poor” and possibly took broad liberties in translated comments. “It is certainly unusual to hear someone who buys blood from the poor of Calcutta exclaim, ‘Holy mackerel!’” she wrote.

But Bumiller also gave Mr. Lapierre high marks for humanity and empathy.

“‘The City of Joy’ is full of basic truths,” she wrote. “Some of its moments may stay with a reader forever. Who can forget the dying rickshaw puller selling his bones to a man who makes money from exporting skeletons, or the poor of Calcutta washing the body of a friend, and weeping during the riverbank cremation ceremony?”

Mr. Lapierre pledged to help aid groups in Kolkata with half his royalties from the book, which was made into a 1992 movie starring Patrick Swayze. Mr. Lapierre said he carried a thumb-bell used by a rickshaw puller to remind him of the slum — but after several weeks sleeping on a dirt floor in the home of a Polish priest, he said he would check into a five-star hotel.

“Three days of bubble baths,” he told the Associated Press in 1985, “and a taste of scotch.”

New Orleans years

Dominique Lapierre was born July 30, 1931, in Châtelaillon-Plage, France, on the Bay of Biscay, into a family that kindled his lifelong interest in travel and writing. His mother was a journalist, and his father was a French diplomat who brought Mr. Lapierre to New Orleans as a teenager during a posting as consul general.

In Louisiana, Mr. Lapierre attended school and developed a love for cars and the open road. He later hitchhiked and traveled across the United States — adventures he incorporated into his first book when he was 19.

Mr. Lapierre graduated in 1952 from Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., and bought a 1937 Chrysler convertible for $30. He and his first wife, Aliette Spitzer, took a road-trip honeymoon, driving the car to Mexico and then Los Angeles, where they won $300 on a radio game show when they were almost out of money.

Mr. Lapierre sold the Chrysler, and they booked passage on a ship to Japan, and eventually worked their way across Asia and the Middle East. The travels were turned into his second book, “Honeymoon Around the World,” first published in French in 1953 and in English in 1957.

Mr. Lapierre was conscripted into the French army, serving as an interpreter with Allied forces in Belgium. There, he met Collins, an American corporal, who took a job with the United Press news agency in Paris after his discharge. Mr. Lapierre was with Paris Match. They decided to try their hand at something bigger — a book about the liberation of Paris.

Its commercial success led them to the next project, “O Jerusalem!,” about the birth of the state of Israel, which was adapted into a 2006 film. In 1980, they collaborated on a novel, “The Fifth Horseman,” about a Libyan terrorist plotting to detonate a hydrogen bomb in New York. (Collins died in 2005.)

Mr. Lapierre and Spitzer divorced in the early 1960s. Mr. Lapierre married Conchon-Lapierre in 1980. In addition to his wife, survivors include a daughter, Alexandra, from his first marriage. Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.

Mr. Lapierre once said his curiosity was so expansive that he would need “10 incarnations” of life to fully explore the world.

“I like the idea that the world never stops,” he said, “that you are never bored.”