Sidney Sheldon, a writer whose keen grasp of popular tastes fueled a string of feverishly romantic and suspenseful books that made him a perennial bestseller with millions of copies in print around the world, died Tuesday. He was 89. Sheldon died of pneumonia at the Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage, according to his friend and publicist Warren Cowan.
A multifaceted writer, Sheldon won a screenwriting Oscar and a Tony award and had created popular television sitcoms before starting his first novel at the age of 52. But it was through the novels that he gained his overriding fame.
His books usually revolved around characters of great wealth, beauty, brilliance and bedroom prowess — none of which protected them from infidelity, betrayal and indiscretion. Sheldon's protagonists were usually women and his plots were so artfully constructed that his books are the very definition of a page-turner.
He was one of the world's most translated authors, selling more than 300 million books in 180 countries. They were printed in 51 languages, including Urdu, which is spoken in Pakistan and India, and Swahili.
With his second novel, "The Other Side of Midnight" (1974), Sheldon broke into the blockbuster ranks; the book remained on the New York Times bestseller list for 53 weeks — a record at the time.
About half of his 18 novels — with such titles as "Rage of Angels" (1980) and "Memories of Midnight" (1990) — were turned into television movies or miniseries. Demand for his stories was so great that CBS executives reportedly paid Sheldon $1 million for the rights to make a miniseries of 1985's "If Tomorrow Comes" before they had even read it.
Some critics said his dialogue was banal and his plots were unbelievable, but many grudgingly acknowledged the author's unusual talent at producing what the Washington Post once called "good junk reading time after time."
After Sheldon's 1987 novel "Windmills of the Gods" debuted at No. 1 on bestseller lists, Charles Champlin, then The Times' arts editor, wrote that Sheldon had found "a statistically wider audience each time, evidently satisfying everyone except most literary critics, who regard popularity and quality as incompatible."
Fans admired plotlines that were amazingly complex yet easy to follow — and the colorful characters who could never be counted on to do the expected.
"Sidney's longevity secret is that he is a great storyteller, a master of the narrative tale," his literary agent, Mort Janklow, told The Times in 2004. "Readers care about his characters, many of whom are women under threat. He has an instinctive ability to read women's emotions."
For his part, Sheldon said: "I don't write for critics. I write for readers."
From the early 1940s until almost 1970, he had written mainly for viewers.
Wins Oscar in 1948
His wry and witty script for "The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer" (1947) won him a 1948 Academy Award for original screenplay. The farce, which starred Cary Grant and Shirley Temple, was "uncloyed with cuteness," the New York Times review said at the time.
Sheldon was also a screenwriter for the Judy Garland-Fred Astaire musical "Easter Parade" (1948) and the Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical "The Barkleys of Broadway" (1949). After he helped adapt the Irving Berlin hit "Annie Get Your Gun" to the big screen, the 1950 Betty Hutton-Howard Keel vehicle received generally favorable reviews.
He wrote half a dozen plays for Broadway. His biggest hit was the musical "Redhead," starring Gwen Verdon, which ran for a little more than a year from 1959 to 1960 and brought him a Tony for co-writing the book.
After working on about two dozen films, he turned toward television, writing scores of episodes for two hit sitcoms he created — "The Patty Duke Show" (ABC, 1963-66) and "I Dream of Jeannie" (NBC, 1965-70), according to Sheldon's memoir "The Other Side of Me" (2005).
Creating a show for Duke was a challenge because "she was so extraordinarily talented I did not want to waste her abilities," Sheldon wrote. He decided she should play twin sisters but changed it to look-alike cousins to explain why the characters had grown up without knowing each other.
"Jeannie," which starred Barbara Eden and Larry Hagman, opened to mixed reviews but had a loyal fan base, Sheldon wrote. One episode, "Bigger Than a Bread Box and Better Than a Genie," featured Sheldon's wife, Jorja, as a fortuneteller and his mother as a character in a seance scene.
He also created the glamorous "Hart to Hart" series, starring Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers, that aired on ABC from 1979 to 1984.
He was born Sidney Schechtel on Feb. 11, 1917, in Chicago, the son of Otto, a salesman, and Natalie, a homemaker. Unable to pay the rent, the family kept moving and Sheldon attended about a dozen schools.
Sheldon later remarked that his career as a writer was rather improbable considering his background.
Becoming a writer
"Both my parents were third-grade dropouts," he said. "My father never read a book in his life and I was the only one in my family to complete high school."
Sheldon won a scholarship to Northwestern University. Although he was forced to drop out halfway through his freshman year because of the financial pressures of the Depression, he recalled having an epiphany of sorts as he walked on campus one day.
"I saw all these well-dressed students, and I thought that years from now, no one will ever know they existed," he wrote years later. "I wanted to leave a mark, I wanted people to know I was here."
He made up the last name of Sheldon in the mid-1930s when he entered an amateur radio contest as an announcer.
At first, he worked in Chicago as a theater usher, shoe salesman and attendant in a nightclub checkroom. After the club's bandleader, Phil Levant, played a song Sheldon wrote, Sheldon left for New York City to try to make it as a songwriter. While there, he saw a lot of movies and turned his thoughts toward Hollywood.
Soon, he was in Los Angeles — he wanted to be a screenwriter but had promised his parents he would return to Chicago if he didn't have a job within three weeks.
Repeatedly, he was turned away from movie studio gates. As time was running out, he learned that producers hired readers to help analyze scripts. Since he had just read John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men," Sheldon sent synopses of the classic to every studio and was soon working at Universal for $17 a week, he told The Times in 1992.
At his boarding house, Sheldon met a young writer named Ben Roberts and they began collaborating on "B" movies like "South of Panama," "Gambling Daughters" and "Borrowed Hero," all released in 1941.
"I can't even call them 'B' pictures," Sheldon once said. "They were 'Z' pictures. But we got paid and we got screen credits. We were professionals."
At the start of World War II, Sheldon enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces but within months he was discharged for medical reasons. He began collaborating with Roberts on a revival of the musical "The Merry Widow," which ran for nine months beginning in 1943.
Two other musicals they wrote, the comedy "Jackpot" and the fantasy "Dream With Music," had brief Broadway runs about the same time.
Back in Hollywood, Sheldon won an Oscar for "The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer" but couldn't wait to leave Shrine Auditorium.
"On what should have been the happiest night of my life, I was suicidal," Sheldon wrote in his autobiography of the paralyzing mood swings he experienced. A psychiatrist soon diagnosed him as manic-depressive, Sheldon wrote in his memoir.
In midlife, he turned to writing novels, a career change that came about almost accidentally, he often told interviewers:
"I had an idea for something complicated, that delved into people's minds and motives to a greater extent than I could put in any film or TV script. Trying to put it into novel form was the only answer."
"The Naked Face," published in 1970, did not sell well, but readers loved his second novel, "The Other Side of Midnight," the so-bad-it's-good guilty pleasure set in World War II. It centers on a beautiful French woman named Noelle Page who is spurned by a dashing American pilot and spends the rest of her life obsessed with him.
Almost all of Sheldon's books hit the bestseller lists after that.
In his fourth novel, "Bloodline," a beautiful heiress becomes the target of the man who murdered her father. In his sixth, "Master of the Game," the Blackwell family rises to riches in the diamond mines of South Africa. In 1991's "The Doomsday Conspiracy," a naval intelligence officer must find witnesses to the crash of a weather balloon that could actually be a UFO.
His 18th novel, "Are You Afraid of the Dark?," which was published when he was 87, was a New York Times bestseller shortly after its release in 2004.
In his personal life, Sheldon was the opposite of the love 'em and leave 'em cads who populate so many of his works.
A family man
After a brief first marriage, he was married to his second wife, Jorja Curtright, for 33 years; she died in 1985 of a heart attack. In 1989, he married Alexandra Kostoff. Besides his wife, he is survived by a daughter from his second marriage, Mary, who is a novelist; two grandchildren; and his brother Richard.
During most of his writing years, Sheldon and his family traveled the world together, researching and taking photos of the locations where he planned to set his next novel.
"If you read the description of a hotel, or of a restaurant meal, you can bet we actually stayed at that hotel or ate that exact meal…. That's what makes my books so realistic," he told an interviewer.
He wrote every day, first "ad-libbing" an initial and very long draft, which was transcribed by a secretary, and then rewriting and editing what he had written.
Over the years, he also wrote popular children's books. He owned a string of luxurious homes, finally settling in Beverly Hills and in a five-house compound in Palm Springs.
He told the Times in 2000 that he thought the profession of author suited him best.
"In a book, your imagination has no limits," Sheldon said. "There is no budget to worry about, you can have as many characters as you want, you can give them all yachts…. It's remarkable to write a novel, because the author is the star."
Services will be private.
The family suggests that memorial donations be made to Childrens Hospital Los Angeles, 4650 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles 90027. A celebration of Sheldon's life will be held later.
The novels of Sidney Sheldon
• "The Naked Face"
• "The Other Side of Midnight"
• "A Stranger in the Mirror"
• "Rage of Angels"
• "Master of the Game"
• "If Tomorrow Comes"
• "Windmills of the Gods"
• "The Sands of Time"
• "Memories of Midnight"
• "The Doomsday Conspiracy"
• "The Stars Shine Down"
• "Nothing Lasts Forever"
• "Morning, Noon & Night"
• "The Best Laid Plans"
• "Tell Me Your Dreams"
• "The Sky Is Falling"
• "Are You Afraid of the Dark?"