Alison Lurie, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist whose satirical and cerebral tales of love and academia included the marital saga “The War Between the Tates” and the comedy of Americans abroad “Foreign Affairs,” died Thursday at age 94.
Lurie, a professor emerita at Cornell University, died of natural causes, according to her husband and partner, Edward Hower.
Praised by The New York Times as one of the country's “most able and witty novelists,” Lurie broke through commercially in 1974 with “The War Between the Tates” and received her highest acclaim for “Foreign Affairs,” winner of the 1985 Pulitzer. Set in London, Lurie’s novel was consciously based on old-fashioned narratives of manners and customs, with one character imagining himself trapped in a Henry James story.
The protagonists were Corinth University professor Virginia “Vinnie” Martin, an Anglophile and middle-aged scholar of children’s literature so self-contained that her closest companion is an invisible dog, and her wayward young colleague, Fred Turner, who takes up with the impulsive British actress Rosemary Radley as his marriage falls apart back home.
“Before he met Rosemary, Fred didn’t really exist for anyone here except a few other academic ghosts,” Lurie wrote. “Now the city is alive for him and he alive in it. Everything pulses with meaning, with history and possibility, and Rosemary most of all. When he is with her he feels he holds all of England, the best of England, in his arms.”
Lurie’s novel was adapted into a 1993 television movie starring Joanne Woodward as Vinnie and Eric Stoltz as Fred. “The War Between the Tates” became a 1977 TV production featuring Elizabeth Ashley and Richard Crenna.
Academics and artists were often featured in her work, which combined storytelling with social and intellectual commentary. Her first book, “Love and Friendship,” centered on a professor’s wife in New England who has an intense affair with a school musician. In “The War Between the Tates,” a Corinth professor’s adultery upends his marriage and scatters husband and wife into the cultural upheavals of the late 1960s.
Her other books included the novels “The Last Resort” and “Real People,” the nonfiction works “The Language of Clothes” and “The Language of Architecture” and “Familiar Spirits,” a memoir about her friendship with the prize-winning poet James Merrill and his companion David Jackson. Her most recent novel, Truth and Consequences," came out in 2005. Her last published book, the literary essay collection “Words and Worlds,” was released in 2019.
In her fiction, Lurie drew openly from her own life. Corinth was an Ivy League school that closely approximated Cornell and she shared Vinnie’s love for England and expertise in children’s literature, editing such compilations as “The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales” and “The Heavenly Zoo.” She wrote about Vietnam War protests, and participated in them. In 1985, she was arrested during a rally at Cornell that called on the school to sell off its investments in companies doing business with South Africa’s racist government.
Married in 1948 to Jonathan Bishop, an academic and son of the poet John Bishop Peale, she separated from him around the time “The War Between the Tates” was published and later married Hower, an author and Cornell literature professor. She had three sons with Bishop.
Born in Chicago and raised in White Plains, New York, Lurie was the child of liberal, educated parents and grew up reading Jane Austen and other British authors because there “were not many models for the American woman novelist, except for the Southern school,” she told The Associated Press in 1985. She studied history and politics at Radcliffe College and spent much of the 1950s raising her children, writing stories and poems and working with the Poets’ Theater, where members included Merrill and John Ashbery.
She and Bishop lived in Amherst, Massachusetts, and Los Angeles, both of which became settings for her fiction, before moving to Ithaca, New York in the early 1960s. “Love and Friendship” came out in 1962 and got right to a favorite theme.
“The day on which Emily Stockwell Turner fell out of love with her husband,” Lurie wrote in the book’s opening sentence, “began much like other days.”