Obituary: Michael Herr

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Michael Herr, American writer and journalist who wrote Dispatches and Full Metal Jacket.

Born: 13 April, 1940 in Lexington, Kentucky.

Died: 23 June, 2016 in Delhi, New York, aged 76

Michael Herr was an American journalist who made his name as a war correspondent who wrote about the Vietnam War for Esquire magazine. A proponent of what came to be known as “New Journalism” – an in-depth and novelistic approach to reporting a story which was also favoured by contemporaries like Norman Mailer and Truman Capote – he collected his experience of Vietnam between 1967 and 1969 into 1977’s seminal war reportage book, Dispatches.

Ignoring the world of media briefings, Dispatches was an immersive work which, through Herr, took readers into the ferociously stressful day-to-day world of the soldiers who fought on the front in Vietnam. Its style was breathtakingly fraught and visceral. “Going out at night the medics gave you pills, Dexedrine breath like dead snakes kept too long in a jar,” ran the first words of the opening chapter. “I never saw the need for them myself, a little contact or anything that even sounded like contact would give me more speed than I could bear.”

This heartfelt and blackly exciting style was hugely popular with readers, and opened a window on the lives of combatants which they weren’t used to experiencing.

A writer with no experience of war correspondence before he talked his editor into letting him go on the Vietnam assignment, Herr had previously written on subjects including travel and film, and this latter interest helped him frame the dramatic aspects of the book. John Le Carre called it “the best book I have ever read on men and war in our time”.

With his book came a new and edgy personalisation of the Vietnam War in the American consciousness, and this became crystallised by the films on the subject which followed. Herr was involved in two “tentpoles” of the Vietnam genre: Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now! (1979), for which Herr was invited to write the narration, and Full Metal Jacket (1987), the script for which he co-wrote with Gustav Hasford and the film’s director, Stanley Kubrick.

The latter film’s dark meditation on war, trauma, terror and death was arguably the high watermark of Herr’s career in cinema. Along with his co-writers he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay in 1988 and a Writer’s Guild of America award nomination – and then quietly stepped back from film. He worked with the British director Richard Stanley on his Marlon Brando-starring 1996 adaptation of HG Wells’s The Island of Dr Moreau (which, like Apocalypse Now!, used Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as a blueprint), but his contributions were dropped during rewrites. The film flopped.

Herr also teamed once more with Coppola, again providing narration for the director’s 1997 legal drama The Rainmaker, although he turned down the chance to polish Kubrick’s 1999 swansong Eyes Wide Shut, mindful of the demands Kubrick placed upon his collaborators.

Introduced by their mutual friend Le Carre, Herr and Kubrick had been close since 1980 – the same year Herr moved to London for what turned out to be a decade – and they shared long phone calls and favourite books with one another. “He’d liked Dispatches … it was the first thing he said to me when we met,” wrote Herr in Vanity Fair after the director’s death. “The second thing he said to me was that he didn’t want to make a movie of it. He meant this as a compliment, sort of, but he also wanted to make sure I wasn’t getting any ideas.”

Born the son of a Jewish jeweller in Lexington, Kentucky, Michael David Herr knew he wanted to be a writer from a young age. Idolising Ernest Hemingway as a teenager and determined to live life as his hero had, he moved to New York at 19 and, despite no formal training as a journalist, ended up working for magazines including Esquire and Rolling Stone.

It was partly his admiration for Hemingway which drew him to Vietnam: he said he went thanks to “the crude but serious belief that you had to be able to look at anything” and discovered “that you were responsible for everything that you saw as you were for everything that you did”.

Herr didn’t write anything bar Dispatches during the first half of the 1970s, undergoing what he later called “a protracted state of breakdown” while he did so. With the book completed he returned to journalism, going on the road with rocker Ted Nugent for Crawdaddy magazine in 1977.

Yet Dispatches brought him immediate success – part of the reason he moved to London was to escape the attention and contact from veterans and their families who wished to tell him their often heartbreaking stories.

He wrote essays for The Big Room (1987), a book of images by album sleeve and movie poster illustrator Guy Peelaert; an eponymous novel based on the life of the gossip columnist Walter Winchell (1991); and a memoir of his friendship with Kubrick (2001).

Yet one era-defining work which held a mirror to the face of a nation was enough to define his life and legacy. 
“I would say that the secret subject of Dispatches was not Vietnam,” he once said, “but that it was a book about writing a book. I think that all good books are about writing.”

He is survived by his wife, Valerie.