Warren Adler, a late-blooming novelist who wrote “The War of the Roses,” a best-selling dark comedy, and the basis of a hit movie, about the nightmarish deterioration of a marriage, died Monday at his home in Manhattan. He was 91.
His son David said the cause was liver cancer.
Adler wrote thrillers, love stories, mysteries and historical fiction but found a niche in depicting dysfunctional relationships, like that of Jonathan and Barbara Rose, the couple immersed in a domestic free-for-all in “The War of the Roses” (1981).
The idea for the novel came to Adler after encountering a real-life marriage in which the husband and wife loathed each other but stayed together.
He and his wife, Sonia Adler, were attending a dinner party in Bethesda, Maryland, in the 1970s when one guest, a lawyer who was dating a friend of the Adlers’, abruptly announced he had to leave.
“He looked panic-stricken, and I said: ‘Why do you have to go so early? We’re still having coffee and conversing,’” Adler recalled last year in an oral history podcast about his life and career. “And he said, ‘I’m getting a divorce, and by the laws of the District of Columbia, I can live with my wife, who I hate, and who hates me, and we have certain rules in the house’” — one of which allowed her to lock him out if he returned after midnight.
The couple — who ultimately did divorce — became the models for the malicious fictional Roses, whose hostilities deliriously pushed the limits of marital strife into guerrilla warfare. Not only was the book a major best seller; the film version, released in 1989 and starring Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas, grossed $178 million (in today’s money) in the United States alone.
Adler never completely let go of the Roses. He returned to them in 2004 in “The Children of the Roses” and wrote a play in 2013 based on the original novel; it has been produced in Europe and South America. A separate Broadway adaptation — written by Peter Tolan, with Adler’s agreement — is planned for the 2021 season.
“The book that refuses to die,” Adler said on the podcast.
Many of his works have been optioned for film or television, though few have been produced. One that was made into a movie is the novel “Random Hearts” (1984), a romantic thriller about two people who learn after their spouses have perished in a plane crash that they had been having an affair.
Before the movie’s release in 1999, Adler wrote a blistering account in The New York Times about the studio executives who had optioned his book and changed the backgrounds of its lead characters (played by Harrison Ford and Kristin Scott Thomas). By his account, an executive told him he was not welcome at a meeting with Dustin Hoffman and director Ivan Reitman, who were attached to the project for a while. If he attended, he said he was told, he might offend everybody by defending his book.
“Defend the book?” Adler wrote in 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.”
Adler was born Dec. 16, 1927, in Brooklyn. His father, Sol, was an accountant, and his mother, Fritzie (Goldman) Adler, was a homemaker. He graduated from New York University with a bachelor’s degree in English literature and studied writing at the New School for Social Research. After entering the Army, he worked in the Pentagon as a correspondent for the American Forces Press Service.
Although he had wanted to write novels since he was 15, Adler said, he did not start in earnest until he was in his 40s. By then, he had owned a public relations and advertising agency, tried to drum up Jewish support for Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign, published shoppers’ guides for apartment hunters and helped his son David start The Washington Dossier, a society magazine for the nation’s capital that was edited by Sonia Adler. (In 1978, David came under the influence of the Unification Church, widely viewed as a cult in its early years in the United States. In an episode that drew news media attention, Adler rescued his son and took him to a deprogrammer.)
Adler began to write full time in the mid-1970s. In all, he produced about 50 novels and short story collections, including a nine-book series about a homicide detective named Fiona Fitzgerald. Another novel, “Target Churchill” (2013), is a thriller about a plot by Stalin to assassinate the British prime minister during World War II.
“I have a tremendous need to keep writing,” Adler told Publishers Weekly in 2012, when he was 84. “I’m not going into the wilderness without a fight. I’m like a long-distance runner — I just keep at it.”
Adler is survived by his wife, Sonia; two other sons, Michael and Jonathan; and seven grandchildren.
His final novel, “Last Call” (2018), was inspired by the changes in his life caused by his wife’s dementia. In an article published in February in AARP The Magazine, Adler described the pain of having detailed memories of their life together while she had none.
“It would be natural to dub this vivid recall an extraordinary gift, but I must confess that it has become more of a burden,” he wrote. “Where has my sweetheart gone? Yet, she is alive. Her heart beats, and, believe me, some remnant of her beauty remains, though the memories that are so intense and rich to me are totally gone for her. I am imprisoned in an empty cell.”