Arthur Hailey

Arthur Hailey

Best selling novelist

Born: 5 April, 1920, in Luton.

Died: 24 November, 2004, in Bahamas, aged 84.

IN A phenomenal literary career, Arthur Hailey wrote blockbusting novels that the public read voraciously. The critics, however, remained sniffy. They praised his research but considered his prose weak and clich ridden with predictable plots. A particularly biting comment went: "The novel is to be translated into 34 languages. Possibly it is more readable in Urdu or Icelandic."

This didn’t deter Hailey from writing 11 best sellers with 170 million copies in print and then making another fortune from their Hollywood adaptations. He specialised in novels that could be read on journeys and on the beach - he told a stimulating and exciting story. In the best sense of the word he wrote page-turners. Novels such as Hotel, Airport and Wheels had recognisable characters with whom readers could identify. Hailey had the knack of making mundane subjects - hotel management, banking and the pharmaceutical industry - come alive. "I don’t think I really invented anyone. I have drawn on real life," he once wrote. "When book-buyers buy books, they look for sex, violence and hard information." He was being over-modest. He wrote rattling good yarns that got the reader totally involved.

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Hailey had to leave school (Surrey Street, Luton) at 14 because his parents could not afford the fees. After work in an estate agent, he joined the RAF when war broke out and did most of his training in Canada. He saw active service in the Middle East delivering transport aircraft and was awarded the Air Efficiency Award.

Always a staunch Conservative, Hailey was dismayed at the defeat of Churchill in 1945 and after he was demobilised in 1947 (as a flight lieutenant) he emigrated to Canada and took out dual nationality. He found employment in various posts and even edited a magazine called Bus and Truck Transport.

On a flight to Vancouver in 1955, he mused what would happen if the pilots took violently ill mid-flight. His experience during the war gave him knowledge of what he could do but he realised that was on different planes and very different circumstances. His daydreaming worked overtime and when he landed at Vancouver the entire plot of a screenplay had been formulated in his mind. It was called Flight Into Danger and was shown on Canadian TV later that year and subsequently by the BBC. It literally changed his life.

Flight Into Danger in fact was picked up by other writers and became a best-selling book in 1958. Hailey, at first flattered, thought: "Why didn’t I do that?" So with meticulous care and research he wrote The Final Diagnosis about a pathologist who caused the death of a child by a wrong diagnosis. When the book came out, in 1960, it was a massive seller.

In High Places - which explored the consequences of Canada being incorporated into the United States - was followed in 1965 with his first international best seller, Hotel.

The book was filmed the following year with Rod Taylor as the smooth-talking manager and was then made into a TV series for which, it is thought, Hailey earned $100,000 per episode. He took a wry pleasure when he heard that the book and its offshoots were often used in hotel schools.

Then, in 1968, came Airport, which had a wonderfully gripping disaster plot: it was very Arthur Hailey. A flight controller arrives at Chicago airport to find out a flight to Rome has a mad bomber on it, there is a snowstorm and the runway is blocked, a colleague is suicidal and a wife and a mistress are sobbing away in the departure lounge. Somehow all ends happily.

It was made into a film in 1969 starring Burt Lancaster, Helen Hayes and Dean Martin as the womanising pilot. The sarcastic critics hailed it as "the best film of 1944" but it took $45 million and Hailey was arguably the most bankable writer in the world. He was certainly one of the first to earn over $1 million as an advance.

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Wheels typified Hailey’s painstaking research. He spent months at a Detroit car plant interviewing senior and junior staff. When it came out, in 1971, the book was almost a documentary of the US car industry: it recorded production, labour relations, racial relationships and endless technical detail. However, one item that Hailey unearthed passed into common parlance. To buy a car, Hailey argued, which had been assembled on a Monday or a Friday was unwise. Those were the days absenteeism was at its worst and short cuts were taken on the production line.

Other best-sellers included The Moneychangers (1975, filmed in 1976 as a mini series), Strong Medicine (1984, filmed 1986), Overlord (1979) and Detective (1997). It was an amazing output and brought him a vast fortune and necessitated him becoming a tax exile in the Bahamas in the late Sixties. He lived a quiet life but a luxurious one in a sumptuous Bahamian villa, with his own cabin cruiser moored at the bottom of the garden and a stand-by generator in case the cooling system for his wine cellar went out of action.

Hailey returned to England at least twice a year to see friends (and his stockbroker - he followed the markets avidly) and the theatre agent Larry Dalzell often had lunch with him to discuss projects and casting. "Arthur was a lovely man," Mr Dalzell remembers. "Totally unaffected by his success and realistic about his books. Never pretentious about himself or his talent. He loved gadgets, was very precise in his speech and dapper in his dress and appearance. He had a rather boyish sense of humour and laughed a lot."

In 1979, Hailey underwent a quadruple heart bypass operation but made a good recovery. A few months ago, he suffered a severe stroke. Hailey twice married. His 1944 marriage to Joan Fishwick was dissolved in 1950. In 1951, he married Sheila Dunlop. She and three sons from the first marriage and a son and two daughters from the second survive him.