In a world full of writers who have learned to bare and beat their breasts in order to sell books, the pseudonymous William Wharton is an odd duck indeed. Since 1978, when his brilliant novel Birdy was published, the Paris-based expatriate has guarded his privacy with uncanny ferocity—refusing to pose for photographs, sign books or face the television cameras that would turn him into just another hustling wordsmith. The mystery has worked to his advantage, though not by design. His seven novels have received an extravagant amount of attention, and the character of William Wharton has taken on a mystique of its own.
This season, however, the elusive Wharton is courting the publicity he has shunned for so long. Not because the film version of his novel Dad(starring Jack Lemmon and Ted Danson) is now in the theaters nor because Henry Holt has just published his novel Franky Furbo, which Wharton describes as “children’s tales for adults.” Impelled instead by grief and anger over the death of his 35-year-old daughter, Kate, who perished last year with her husband and two young daughters in an horrific car accident in rural Oregon, he is lashing back at the lawmakers whom he holds responsible for the tragedy. In recent weeks, the Philadelphia-born Wharton, 63, has been making an unprecedented publicity tour—cutting a 12-city swath through America and submitting to impertinent questions about his life and work. As Wharton sees it, it is a small price to pay for the opportunity to vent his anguish—and to try to make sure that no other parents will face a loss like the one he and his family have suffered.
In the introduction to Franky Furbo, which is dedicated to his daughter and her family, he gives an unemotional description of the accident that took their lives. On Aug. 3,1988, Kate Rodewald, husband Bill, 36 (like Kate, a teacher), and their daughters, Dayiel, 2, and Mia, 8 months, were burned to death in a massive pileup along Interstate 5 in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. A cloud of thick black smoke from a fire in nearby fields had drifted over the highway. The blaze had been set by a grass-seed grower who was sanitizing his fields by torching stalks of hay. Seven people were killed, 35 were injured and 24 vehicles were demolished in the carnage after the dense smoke cloud reached the interstate. Kate and her family never had a chance. Their van was crushed by an 18-wheeler, and the wreckage burst into flames. “All I can say is that I hope they were dead before the fire,” says Wharton.
On the Parisian houseboat he shares with wife Rosemary, 62, the novelist has an album of photographs of the charred bodies—some taken at the scene of the accident, others at the funeral home in Dallas, Ore. “Except for a few smaller photographs taken by the mortician’s son, I took the pictures at the morgue,” he says. “It almost killed me. But I wanted to have what was left of them.”
The horrendous photos seem oddly out of place in the domestic setting. Like Wharton himself (who still refuses to reveal his given name), his split-level houseboat moored on the Seine is a study in contradictions: Furniture rescued from Paris flea markets, a collection of old clocks and an open-air aviary reflect the part of him that is a scholarly eccentric; the Apple computer, video recorder (which he uses to record himself in the act of writing) and audiotaping equipment in his office reveal his futuristic aspect. Calm prevails here. Wharton can watch river birds for hours before being distracted by a passing speedboat, and he can practice yoga on the capacious deck.
But Wharton is no solitary ascetic. A vital, muscular sort, he exudes a self-assurance some might mistake for arrogance. A man who made a comfortable living as a painter before publishing his first book at 52, he has a fine contempt for the literary establishment and the movie producers who prey on hot novels. He offers lavish criticism of his publishers, of the 1984 film version of Birdy (a box office failure starring Matthew Mo-dine) and of reviewers who were unkind to his books. Unlike most artists, he spends little time wondering whether he is on the right track; he made his fortune with the mystical Birdy (whose paperback rights sold for $525,000), and he now writes only to please himself. “I don’t care if I ever publish again,” he has said.
His energies these days are going into his crusade for Kate, not into writing. The rest of his family—sons Matthew, 33, a postgraduate student at the Sorbonne, and William, 23, a philosophy student at the American University in Paris, and daughter Camille, 31, a teacher who lives in Stuttgart—have been less militant, though no less caring, in responding to the tragedy. With Rosemary, a kindergarten teacher at the American School, they have concentrated on caring for Kate’s 13-year-old son, Wills, who happened to have been with his paternal grandmother when the rest of his family died.
Since the accident, Wharton has spent long hours researching field-burning in the Northwest—a controversial, widespread practice done to eliminate weeds and pests, that has been responsible for 42 accidents over a six-year period. He has sent angry letters to Oregon Gov. Neil Goldschmidt, spoken with Secretary of Agriculture James Buchanan, given money to Oregon-based lobbying groups dedicated to halting the practice and told anyone who will listen that field-burning is an environmental travesty. Says Wharton: “It contributes to destroying the ozone layer and increases the greenhouse effect. There are other, unharmful ways for farmers to earn bigger money, but they don’t want to have to learn new techniques.” He has seen signs of movement, but they are small ones. Governor Goldschmidt has endorsed a plan to gradually reduce field-burning, and a petition to put the issue before Oregon voters—requiring 67,000 signatures—has garnered 30,000. New legislation, however, could still be years away.
If Wharton’s own past is any indication, he will prevail against the odds. The son of a carpenter who moved his family to Los Angeles in the ’40s, he joined the Army in World War II and was wounded three times—once by shrapnel that ripped through his head and jaw. (Plastic surgery restored the jaw, but his inner ears sustained severe damage, permanently impairing his sense of balance.) After returning from Europe to study painting at UCLA, where he met Rosemary, Wharton worked long hours as a teacher. When their house in Topanga Canyon burned to the ground in 1959, the couple sold the land and packed off for France, where Wharton eventually established himself as an artist.
Although he has seen his share of hardship, Wharton still considers himself a lucky man. Stubbornly resilient, he has used the agony of Kate’s death as a spur for fiction. Last year he wrote a novel called Ever After, which explores the relationship between Kate and Bill and takes the reader up to the moment before their deaths. The experience was cathartic, he says, but it did not take away the pain. “Life is worth living after a tragedy like the one our family has been through,” says Wharton, “but it can never be the same again.”
—Michelle Green, Georgina Oliver in Paris