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Subject: Jan de Hartog, author of His Own Adventurous Life

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Date Posted: September 24, 2002 1:24:08 EDT

Jan de Hartog, the Dutch novelist and playwright, the author of the 1951 Broadway hit "The Fourposter," died Sunday in Houston. He was 88 and lived in Houston.

Mr. de Hartog's early adventures at sea and his escape from the Nazis during World War II furnished him with material for many of his books. In his long career, he was an inexhaustible storyteller and a writer with a strong social consciousness. In addition to his popular novels and plays, his works included "The Hospital" in 1964, a nonfiction book exposing appalling medical conditions in a Houston hospital.

"The Fourposter," which won a Tony award as best new play, was a two-character comedy about a decades-long marriage. Starring Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn, and directed by Jose Ferrer, it had a long run on Broadway, was made into a film starring Rex Harrison and Lilli Palmer, and was later turned into the Tom Jones-Harvey Schmidt musical, "I Do! I Do!," starring Mary Martin and Robert Preston.

Mr. de Hartog was born in Haarlem, Netherlands. At 10, he ran away to sea and became a cabin boy, called a "sea mouse," on a fishing boat. His father, a minister, had him brought back home, but when he was 12 he ran away to sea again, this time on a steamer in the Baltic. Mr. de Hartog later said his shipmates were "as evil a collection of pirates as ever sailed the sea," but they took him under their wing and confirmed the boy's love of the sailor's life.

After briefly attending the Netherlands Naval College, he went to sea again and continued working as a sailor as he began his writing career. He wrote a series of detective stories under the pseudonym F. R. Eckmar, before turning to more serious fiction. "Holland's Glory," a novel about tugboats rescuing ocean liners, sold 500,000 copies, making it a major success in Holland. With the German occupation of the Netherlands during World War II, the novel was regarded as a tribute not only to Dutch courage but to the Dutch resistance movement, which Mr. de Hartog joined.

Pursued by the Nazis, he was forced to go in hiding in 1943 and took sanctuary in a home for elderly women in Amsterdam, where he wrote "The Fourposter." Later he escaped through occupied Europe, finally arriving in England. Many years later, in collaboration with his wife Marjorie, he wrote "The Escape," a book about that flight, published in the Netherlands but not in the United States.

For a time in England he continued writing in Dutch, then with "The Lost Sea," a novel about a Dutch boy who runs away to sea, he switched to English. Michael Bessie, an editor at Harpers, read "The Lost Sea," and sent a note to Mr. de Hartog saying that he wanted to publish it in the United States and added that he had a few thoughts about possible changes.

A letter quickly returned, which Mr. Bessie quoted yesterday from memory: "I'm grateful for your note. I'm not sure you understand the relationship between writers and publishers. The writer writes. The publisher reads, applauds and sells as many copies as possible." Mr. Bessie added a postscript: "We then published 22 books together" at Harpers and Atheneum, beginning with "The Lost Sea" in 1951.

Those books include "The Distant Shore," "A Sailor's Life," "The Captain," "The Children," "The Peaceable Kingdom" and, in 1994, his last novel, "The Outer Buoy." Some of the novels were made into films, including "The Spiral Road" (with Rock Hudson), "The Inspector" (filmed as "Lisa"), "Stella" (which Carol Reed turned into "The Key" with Sophia Loren and William Holden) and "The Little Ark."

In England, Mr. de Hartog who had a brief marriage as a young man in the Netherlands married Angela Priestley, a daughter of J. B. Priestley, in 1946. He is survived by his third wife, the former Marjorie Mein, whom he married in 1961, and by six children, two from each marriage. Sylvia and Arnold de Hartog live in the Netherlands, Catherine Dennison and Nicholas de Hartog in England. Jan and Marjorie de Hartog adopted two Korean girls, Eva Kim Kovach of Brookline, Mass., and Julia Kim Sailler of Ferndale, Mich. Mr. de Hartog's "The Children" is about the experience of adoptive parents.

His theater career began in the late 1930's at the Amsterdam Municipal Theater, where he acted and wrote a play. "This Time Tomorrow," his first play in the United States, opened on Broadway in 1947. It was followed in 1948 by "Skipper Next to God," starring John Garfield as the Dutch sea captain of a ship filled with Jewish refugees on a journey to find freedom.

"The Fourposter," which was next, was to transform his career. In his review in The New York Times, Brooks Atkinson said it was "the most civilized comedy we have had on marriage for years" and had high praise for the Cronyns, who, he said, "manage to play with a subtle rhythm that is droll when it is not affecting and moving."

Mr. de Hartog turned a 90-foot Dutch ship into a houseboat and in 1957 he brought it to the United States on the deck of a freighter. He and sailed it from Texas to Nantucket. Speaking about his life on the houseboat, he said, "It's ideal for a writer because the sailor and the writer are the same each one is basically a traveling man."

In the early 1960's he and his wife Marjorie lived in Houston for several years and about 10 years ago they moved there permanently. In their first visit, he taught at the University of Houston and they became volunteers at a local hospital. After working there, he wrote "The Hospital." In a review in The Times, Frank G. Slaughter said, "The story of man's inhumanity to man has seldom been told with the inspired insight to be found in this day-by-day account of life in a large charity hospital."

Mr. de Hartog said at the time, "By nature and sanguinity I am a resistance fighter."

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