Rather than commercial success, James Salter had to settle for critical acclaim, even if the praise came with a touch of sympathy, as when James Wolcott described him in Vanity Fair as America’s most “underrated underrated author.”
James Salter, whose intimately detailed novels and short stories kept a small but devoted audience in his thrall for more than half a century, died Friday in Sag Harbor, N.Y. He was 90.
His wife, Kay Eldredge, confirmed his death, saying he had been at a physical-therapy session. He lived in Bridgehampton, N.Y.
Mr. Salter wrote slowly, exactingly and, by almost every critic’s estimation, beautifully. Michael Dirda once observed in The Washington Post that “he can, when he wants, break your heart with a sentence.”
But he never achieved the broad popularity he craved. “You can’t be admitted to the ranks of writers of importance unless you have sales,” he said.
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Mr. Salter had to settle for an admiring readership on college campuses and critical acclaim, even if the praise came with a touch of sympathy, as when James Wolcott described him in Vanity Fair as America’s most “underrated underrated author.”
Always a close observer of the people around him, Mr. Salter made careful notes wherever he went: to Europe and Asia for the military, to the New York suburbs to start a family, to Manhattan to establish himself as a writer, and to Hollywood to write for movies, including “Downhill Racer,” a 1969 film with Robert Redford.
That scrupulousness showed in his first novel, “The Hunters,” from 1956, written when he was a fighter pilot in the Air Force. The story centers on the relationship of two fliers, an honorable veteran of the Korean War who cannot live up to his past triumphs, and a pilot under his command who is preternaturally lucky but morally underendowed. The author’s powers of observation were equally keen in his valedictory novel, “All That Is,” a tale of postwar New York, published in 2013. Strung between them was a series of novels, including the two he wanted most to be remembered for — “A Sport and a Pastime” (1967) and “Light Years” (1975) — along with two vaunted collections of short stories and a memoir.
Controversy surrounded “A Sport and a Pastime,” a slender book dense with eroticism about an American expatriate’s affair with a Frenchwoman. Their lovemaking is described at close range by a third party, a none-too-reliable narrator, in a story that has been called, among other things, “intensely transgressive.”
Mr. Salter’s publisher at the time, Harper, balked, complaining that the novel had “more than the normal amount of sex” and that “it would be very thin without it,” he recalled in an interview with The New York Times. But with the help of George Plimpton, of The Paris Review, Doubleday agreed to issue the book. The print run was small, and the publishers, Mr. Salter said, “were holding it like it was a pair of dirty socks.”
But the critics were reverential, and when the book was reissued in 1985, the novelist Reynolds Price wrote: “In its peculiar compound of lucid surface and dark interior, it’s as nearly perfect as any American fiction I know.”
“A Sport and a Pastime” had its genesis in 1961 in France, where Mr. Salter had been posted by the National Guard. There, he wrote: “’I had three lives, one during the day, one at night, and the last in a drawer in my room in a small book of notes.” The notes, he said, captured things he was “unable to write or even imagine again.”
He recalled the experience more than 35 years later in a 1997 memoir: “Burning the Days.”
“Much has faded but not the incomparable taste of France, given then so I would always remember it,” he wrote. “I know that taste, the yellow headlights flowing along the road at night, the towns by a river, the misty mornings, the thoughts of everything that happened there, the notes that confirmed it and made it imperishable.”
James Salter was born James Horowitz on June 10, 1925, in Passaic, N.J., to L. George Horowitz and the former Mildred Scheff. His father was a real estate broker and businessman. James grew up in Manhattan, and attended the private Horace Mann school in the Bronx. He went to West Point at the behest of his father, a graduate, and joined the Army Air Corps (later the Air Force). He took the pseudonym Salter — later his legal name — in publishing “The Hunters,” in part to shield him from being criticized by the military as he mined it for his fiction, he told The New Yorker magazine. He also sought to conceal his Jewish heritage. “He didn’t want to be another Jewish writer from New York; there were enough of those,” as the magazine put it.
Mr. Salter left the Air Force in 1957 to write, severing a connection that had been “deeper than anything I had known,” he wrote in “Burning Days.” It was “a great voyage,” he wrote, “the voyage, probably, of my life.” Living in the Hudson River Valley, he did his writing in New York, in a room in Greenwich Village, where he befriended artists but felt himself to be their inferior. “I was from the suburbs,” he wrote. “I had a wife, children, the entire manifest. Even in the city, I found it hard to believe I was working on anything of interest.”
He had married Ann Altemus in 1951 and had four children with her before they divorced after a quarter-century.
His Hollywood sojourn began when he and a friend, Lane Slate, started making documentaries, including the football film “Team Team Team.” “Downhill Racer” was his most successful movie, and his book about climbing, “Solo Faces,” (1979) grew out of an idea for a film script for Redford. His screenplays included ones for “Three” (1969), which he directed as well, and “Threshold” (1983).
He disparaged his Hollywood period, but he acknowledged the work was lucrative.
After the Hudson Valley years, he divided his time between homes in Bridgehampton and Aspen, Colo. In the 1970s, he met Eldredge, a playwright and documentary script writer, and they married in 1998.
By then he had published “Burning the Days.” Though autobiographical, in style and substance it is almost indistinguishable from his stories, in keeping with Mr. Salter’s often-stated refusal to believe in the “arbitrary separation” of fact and fiction. The book, which elicited healthy sales and mostly strong reviews, was praised for its lyricism but faulted by some as showing a lack of self-awareness. Richard Eder described it in The New York Times as “an account delivered not to himself but, as if concealing assets, to the autobiographical equivalent of a tax audit.”
Others complained that it omitted too much. Mr. Salter said little about his first marriage, and though he discusses a military pilot’s exhilarating command of the skies, he does not touch on the fighting or its moral justification.
He did reveal some personal vulnerabilities in the book. He evokes, for example, the melancholy he felt when he watched the first spacewalk on television in a Paris hotel in 1965, saying he was “sick with envy” and “suicidal” as Ed White, a former Air Force comrade, floated into the history books.
“Whatever I might do, it would not be as overwhelming as this,” he wrote. (White died two years later in an Apollo launchpad fire.)
The moon landing in 1969 awakened the same regrets. Mr. Salter was in a hotel with a woman, he wrote, counting down to the landing while engaged in a silent act of lovemaking. “I have never forgotten that night or its anguish,” he wrote. “Pleasure and inconsequence on one hand, immeasurable deeds on other. I lay awake for a long time thinking of what I had become.”
In “Burning the Days,” Mr. Salter also recounts the death of his grown daughter Allan in 1980. He carried her out of the shower and tried to breathe life back into her, not realizing she had been killed by an electrical accident.
“I have never been able to write the story,” he recalled. “I reach a certain point and cannot go on. The death of kings can be recited, but not of one’s child.”
Besides his wife, Mr. Salter is survived by two daughters, Nina and Claude Salter from his first marriage; two sons, James from his first marriage and Theo with Eldredge; and four grandchildren.
His later years brought bursts of attention with reissues of several of his books, a clutch of new awards and the ensuing personal appearances. He had won the PEN/Faulkner award for the collection “Dusk and Other Stories” (1988), and was named a finalist for that award for the collection “Last Night” (2005). In 2013 he was chosen for one of the first Windham Campbell Prizes, a literary honor given by Yale. At his death he had just agreed to write a memoir of his writing life, for Knopf, his wife said.
Mr. Salter had had high expectations for “All That Is,” his first novel since 1979 and, as it turned out, his last. The protagonist, the handsome, intelligent Philip Bowman, fresh from World War II, finds a job in publishing in Manhattan and follows the industry into its golden days with one woman or another on his arm or in his bed. Along the way he sails the avenues in cabs, retires for the weekend to a suburban retreat, travels to Europe, betrays and is betrayed.
Again the critics responded warmly, and the book did appear on The Times best-seller list for a week, but never achieved the success he had hoped for. At the end of his life, his legacy mattered. As Mr. Salter once wrote, “Life passes into pages if it passes into anything.”