Robert James Waller, whose bestselling, bittersweet 1992 romance novel “The Bridges of Madison County” was turned into a movie starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood and later into a soaring Broadway musical, has died in Texas, according to a longtime friend. He was 77.
Scott Cawelti, of Cedar Falls, Iowa, told The Associated Press that Waller died early yesterday at his home in Fredericksburg, Texas. He had been fighting multiple myeloma, a form of cancer.
In “Bridges,” a phenomenon that he famously wrote in 11 days, the roving National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid spends four days taking pictures of bridges and romancing Francesca Johnson, a war bride from Italy married to a no-nonsense Iowa farmer. One famous line reads: “The old dreams were good dreams; they didn’t work out but I’m glad I had them.”
Waller’s novel reached No. 1 on The New York Times bestseller list and stayed on it for more than three years, longer than any work of fiction since “The Robe,” a novel about Jesus’ crucifixion published in the early 1950s. The Eastwood-directed 1995 movie grossed $182 million worldwide.
Many critics made fun of “Bridges,” calling it sappy and cliche-ridden. The Independent newspaper said of the central romantic pair “it is hard to believe in, or to like, either of them.”
Readers, however, bought more than 12 million copies in 40 languages. “Bridges” turned the unknown writer into a multimillionaire and made Madison County, Iowa, an international tourist attraction.
“I really do have a small ego,” Waller told The New York Times in 2002. “I am open to rational discussion. If you don’t like the book and can say why, I am willing to listen. But the criticism turned to nastiness. . . . I was stunned.”
The novel prompted couples across the world to marry on the county’s covered bridges. Around the town of Winterset, population 4,200, busloads of tourists bought “Bridges” shirts, perfume and postcards. Thousands signed in at the Chamber of Commerce office, where they could use restrooms marked “Roberts” and “Francescas.”
Waller told The Des Moines Register in 1992 that “Bridges” was “written” in his mind as he drove from Des Moines to Cedar Falls after photographing the covered bridges in Madison County.
“It’s something that’s difficult to explain,” he recounted. “As I drove home, it just came to me. I had some sort of Zen feeling, a high. When I got home, I threw my stuff on the floor and immediately started writing.”
The film version was greeted warmly by audiences and critics.
After the novel’s success, Waller left Iowa, where he had grown up, and moved to a ranch in Alpine, Texas, 50 miles from the nearest town. He also divorced his wife of 36 years, Georgia, with whom he had a daughter, and found a new partner in Linda Bow, a landscaper.
Waller grew up in Rockford, Iowa. He taught at the University of Northern Iowa from 1968 to 1991. His seven books include “Slow Waltz in Cedar Bend,” which unseated “Bridges” on the bestseller list, “Border Music,” “Puerto Vallarta Squeeze” and “A Thousand County Roads: An Epilogue to The Bridges of Madison County.”
The last, a sequel, was prompted by thousands of letters from people who wanted to know more about the characters. “Finally, I got curious and decided I’d find out — I wrote the book,” he told the AP in 2002.
A musical was made of “The Bridges of Madison County” in 2014 starring Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale with a score by Jason Robert Brown, but it closed after just 137 performances on Broadway. A national tour kicked off in 2015.