His inspiration comes from the Rocky Mountain high life, but his art has focused on more violent scenes: the Nazi holocaust (QB VII), the birth of Israel (Exodus), the Cold War (Topaz), and now the latest Troubles in his current Ireland: A Terrible Beauty. Yet Leon Uris’s summation of where he’s at sounds like a lyric from Aspen neighbor John Denver. From his awesome redwood aerie atop Red Mountain, Uris, now 52, surveys his wife Jill, 28, and his world, and exults: “I’m happy, I’m in love, and my sales figures are out of the ballpark.”
As for priorities among that trinity of blessings, it’s all become irrelevant. Leon’s personal and professional lives are now merged in this evocative non-fiction work on Ireland, for which Jill, a gifted photographer, provided most of the 388 illustrations. It bears a coffee-table price ($25) and will not do the mass business of a Uris blockbuster novel but is a work of distinction not to be put on the shelf with the Christmas ornaments.
The more heartening fact, though, about their first collaboration was that as idyllic as it all seemed to outsiders, life had lately been moving against the Urises. Jill is his third wife. Just six years ago, as Uris puts it, his own existence had “bottomed out.” Five months after his second marriage to fashion model Marjorie Edwards there was a quarrel, and she shot herself in the snows outside their Aspen home. At the time Leon called the suicide “one of God’s mysteries, locked in her forever.” Then it was Jill who gave the shaken Uris “my world again,” only shortly thereafter to nearly die herself in a freak beach vehicle crash on Long Island.
Jill was not born to be a character in a Uris saga, or not Leon’s own anyway. Her family was Boston Brahmin (she’s a Peabody), and Jill was educated at chic Concord Academy (Caroline Kennedy’s alma mater) and Colorado College before drifting into a photography workshop in Aspen. “I said I’d like to teach children in exchange for some courses,” she remembers. Leon continues the story by recalling that he’d asked for someone from the workshop to teach his son from his first marriage how to operate a new movie camera. “So in walks this little dumpling in a miniskirt and velvet hat—a quasi-hip-pie type. And I thought, uh-huh, she ain’t getting out of here alive.”
Six months later, they were married in New York’s sanctum of the literati, the Algonquin Hotel—in a Jewish ceremony. “Her parents were reasonably gracious about her conversion,” he notes. As Jill explains it, “By the time I came along, they figured they didn’t have much to say: I had an older sister who converted from Protestantism to Catholicism, and that was the worst thing that ever happened to my family.” But the Urises’ plans for a literary partnership were suddenly and terrifyingly postponed by the accident which fractured Jill’s skull, plunging her into a week-long coma, followed by convulsions and brain surgery.
“For six weeks I was totally out of it,” she recalls. “Lee was worried that he wouldn’t get the same Jill back.” He remembers that “She didn’t have a sense of taste or smell afterwards and could barely stand up.” But as she recovered, he concluded with chauvinistic logic, “I decided to keep her after I saw her cooking gourmet meals again.”
Anyone who faults Lee (as his friends refer to Uris) for that brand of unvarnished machismo might as well tell it to the Marines—and blame it on them. The son of a Philadelphia textile merchant, Leon flunked high school English three times and has hung one of his old report cards on his bathroom wall (“It’s a good thing English,” he quips, “has nothing to do with writing”). Finally, at 17, one month after Pearl Harbor, he dropped out permanently to enlist. He saw combat at Guadalcanal and Tarawa—absorbing raw material for his first novel, Battle Cry. (His WAC staff sergeant later became his first wife and bore their three children before they were divorced in 1968.)
After the war Uris developed his lifelong regimen of relentless research (2,000 interviews for Exodus alone) to prepare Big Novels on Big Subjects. “Lee takes on a book like a general,” says Jill. Leon boasts that author Herman Wouk “fainted” when he visited his Aspen office, characteristically caparisoned with as many maps and charts as the Pentagon’s war room. Literary critics have not been similarly knocked over by his campaigns but agents peddling movie rights—and just plain readers—are something else. His books are almost automatic blockbusters. Exodus is one of the 10 top selling novels in history, and the movie grossed some $50 million.
Uris is not averse to box-office. He and Jill spent five years, which is to say the majority of their married life, researching their joint volume on Ireland, traveling 10,000 miles through the countryside, while she got off 5,000 snaps, sometimes under gunfire during the civil strife in Ulster. “I’ve watched that little dumpling mature,” says Leon paternalistically of his wife. “The first time she saw guns she shook. Three years later, a bomb goes off and she grabs a camera and says, ‘Where is it?’ ” All the while, though, Uris was simultaneously soloing on his next para-historical potboiler, also on Ireland, titled Trilogy and hitting the bookstores late this month.
Now that both books are finished, Leon jokes that “I feel like the guy who married his mistress. I don’t know what to do with my evenings.” To keep entertained, though, he and Jill have their pool and outdoor Jacuzzi, a sauna, three Hondas and a hideaway loft, accessible by a ladder and lined with mirrors.
At Easter, they will go to Israel to rip into a new book on Jerusalem that Jill is already planning. Meanwhile, Leon is playing presidential kingmaker with Henry Jackson. “This is a deep commitment,” he says. “And I’m in the kind of position to be helpful.” That schedule doesn’t allow the Urises much après-ski life in Aspen. “We’re not shy,” says Leon, “but we don’t want to spend time with someone who is unpleasant or talks about his troubles. That knocks out about 90 percent of the people we know. Besides, we’re around each other 24 hours a day and have never run out of things to talk about.” So they live behind an iron gate wrought with the man-with-machine-gun cover symbol of Exodus, and visitors have to be buzzed in.
Kids? “I love children,” Jill concedes. “But I don’t feel any great necessity to have them. I love working, too, and I can’t be having children with this lifestyle.” “It may sound selfish,” Leon adds, “but we just don’t want to share each other with anybody else. We’ve done a thing together that is unique. We’ve often wondered about going to heaven and having a choice of what to do. The answer is that we would get sent right back here to live in the same way.”