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Washington Post
Friday, March 14, 2003; Page B07

'Spartacus' Novelist Howard Fast, 88, Dies

By Adam Bernstein,
Washington Post Staff Writer

Howard Fast, 88, the best-selling novelist whose books including "Spartacus," "Freedom Road," "Citizen Tom Paine" and "Conceived in Liberty" reflected his own struggles with justice, civil freedoms and the Communist Party, died March 12 at his home in Old Greenwich, Conn. No cause of death was reported.

Starting in 1933, Mr. Fast wrote more than 80 books but complained that he did not have time to complete more. He also was a foreign correspondent, playwright, political candidate and lecturer.

Historical romance, drama and biography were his metier, and his books, which sold tens of millions of copies, were known for their gripping pace and compelling storylines. "Conceived in Liberty: A Novel of Valley Forge" (1939), the story of soldiers facing obstacles including starvation during the Revolutionary War, was the first of his books to sell one million copies.

Many of his works were adapted for film and television. Several of his stories were combined to become the basis for "Rachel and the Stranger" (1948), a frontier romantic drama with William Holden, Loretta Young and Robert Mitchum. His novel "Spartacus" (1951), about a slave revolt against the Roman empire, became a popular 1960 film with Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier and Tony Curtis.

"Mirage" (1965), the Gregory Peck thriller about an amnesiac, was based on a story Mr. Fast wrote under a pseudonym, Walter Ericson.

Muhammad Ali starred in the 1979 made-for-television movie "Freedom Road" (1979), based on Mr. Fast's novel about a former slave during the Reconstruction Era who runs for political office and fights the Ku Klux Klan.

Many of his books from the 1940s and 1950s explored class and race disparity in the United States and implicitly promoted what he then considered a utopian Soviet system. In the 1950s, he was one of the most high-profile authors in the United States to be jailed and blacklisted for actions related to membership in the Communist Party.

In 1956, he publicly broke with the Communists after Joseph Stalin's atrocities were noted in a speech by Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev. His essays on leaving the party were published in The Washington Post, the Saturday Review and other media outlets.

He wrote of joining the Communist Party in 1943, influenced by "a series of dismal and underpaid jobs that I had held since, at the age of eleven, pressed by the need of our utter poverty, I went to work as a newspaper delivery boy."

He continued: "If we are to seek for understanding, any sort of understanding, then the reader must not only recall the 1930s, but must comprehend the full meaning of the surrender of childhood, a situation that poverty still imposes on millions of children the world over."

Howard Melvin Fast was a native of New York. His father was an ironworker, cable car gripper, tin factory worker and dress factory cutter. His mother died shortly before he turned 10.

He was raised by various relatives and held all sorts of jobs. He sometimes begged and stole food.

His later work at the New York Public Library led to his immersion in the world of literature. He wrote his first book, the historical romance "Two Valleys," when he was 18.

Increasingly, he blended class and race issues into his historical works, strikingly in his bestseller "Freedom Road" (1944).

During Word War II, he worked for the Office of War Information and wrote foreign dispatches for Esquire and Coronet magazines.

After the war, he began using his fiction to counter what he felt was a prevailing American attitude against minority groups and labor unions. Considered pro-Communist in theme, his books from that era -- including "Clarkton," "My Glorious Brothers" and "The Proud and the Free" -- were widely distributed in the Soviet Union. For his fiction, he received Stalin's international peace prize.

In 1950, the House Committee on Un-American Activities ordered him to a three-month jail sentence for contempt of Congress when he refused to produce records of the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee, of which he was a member.

In 1952, he was an American Labor Party candidate from New York to the House of Representatives. He also wrote a column for the Daily Worker, the Communist Party newspaper.

Blacklisted by many publishing houses, he formed his own company, Blue Heron Press, to publish "Spartacus." The book grew out of his own experiences behind bars.

After breaking with the Communists, he wrote "The Naked God" (1957), a novel about an idealistic youth who turns to Communism to address the world's ills and finds its leaders lacking in judgment. "No former Communist had ever written more bitterly of his personal experience," reviewer David Sanders, an English teacher at the University of Maryland, wrote in The Post.

Book critics noted that he seemingly retracted his retraction in his 1990 autobiography, "Being Red."

In other books, he explored barbarous actions by the U.S. military in Central America ("The Confession of Joe Cullen," 1989) and the nature of capitalism in a multivolume series about the fictional Lavette family, starting with "The Immigrants" (1977).

Many reviewers found his later books arch and lecturelike. They felt his smoothest work was done under the pen name E.V. Cunningham, writing popular books about a fictional Japanese American, Masao Masuto of the Beverly Hills police force. Like Mr. Fast, Masuto was a Zen Buddhist.

After working in television in the 1970s, he settled in Connecticut and led a leisurely life that some journalists noted seemed to contradict the spirit of many of his books.

He had made his fortune, stories noted. To which the writer replied: "Government bonds. Not a penny in unearned wealth. Just the sweat of my own labor and some Treasury notes."

His first wife, Bette Cohen Fast, whom he married in 1937, died in 1994.

Survivors include his wife, Mercedes O'Connor Fast; two children from his first marriage; and three grandchildren.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company

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