Michael Herr, the author and Oscar-nominated screenwriter who viscerally documented the ravages of the Vietnam War through his classic nonfiction novel "Dispatches" and through such films as “Apocalypse Now” and “Full Metal Jacket,” died after a long illness. He was 76.
His death Thursday in an upstate New York hospital was confirmed by publisher Alfred A. Knopf, which released "Dispatches" in 1977, two years after the U.S. left Vietnam.
With a knack for eavesdropping and a reverence for Ernest Hemingway, Herr was part of the New Journalism wave that included Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote and Norman Mailer and advocated applying literary style and techniques to traditional reporting. “Dispatches” is often ranked with Tim O'Brien's novel “The Things They Carried,” Neil Sheehan's “A Bright Shining Lie” and Stanley Karnow's “Vietnam: A History” as essential reading about the war.
“If you think you don't want to read any more about Vietnam, you are wrong,” critic John Leonard of The New York Times wrote when "Dispatches" came out.
“’Dispatches’” is beyond politics, beyond rhetoric, beyond 'pacification' and body counts and the 'psychotic vaudeville' of Saigon press briefings. Its materials are fear and death, hallucination and the burning of souls. It is as if Dante had gone to hell with a cassette recording of Jimi Hendrix and a pocketful of pills: our first rock-and-roll war, stoned murder.”
Herr was born April 30, 1940, in Lexington, Ky., and grew up in Syracuse, N.Y. He spent much of his 20s traveling and working for magazines before persuading Esquire magazine editor Harold Hayes in 1967 to let him travel to Vietnam and write a monthly column. He ended up staying more than a year, producing few columns at the time, but gathering the material for what became “Dispatches,” profane, impassioned and knowing reports that helped capture a generation's sense of outrage and disillusionment.
“I keep thinking about all the kids who got wiped out by 17 years of war movies before coming to Vietnam and getting wiped out for good,” he wrote in a chapter prefaced with lyrics from a Bob Dylan song.
“You don't know what a media freak is until you've seen the way a few of these grunts would run around during a fight when they knew there was a television crew nearby; they were actually making war movies in their heads, doing little guys and glory Leatherneck tap dances under fire, getting their pimples shot for the networks.”
Although he loved writing and storytelling, and as an undergraduate at Syracuse University contributed to a magazine edited by Joyce Carol Oates, Herr only published a handful of books. He struggled with depression before "Dispatches" and found the fame from his acclaimed Vietnam work disorienting.
He moved to London and for years traveled little and gave few interviews.
“The reception [for ‘Dispatches’] couldn't have been better, frankly — it couldn't have been more wonderful," he told the Los Angeles Times in 1990, around the time he released “Walter Winchell,” a novel about the famous gossip columnist. “It totally changed my life. But it also blew my cover.”
Admirers of "Dispatches" included some prominent filmmakers, and Herr began a career in movies. He helped write the voiceover narration for Francis Ford Coppola's “Apocalypse Now” and co-wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay for Stanley Kubrick's “Full Metal Jacket.” Herr became friends with the reclusive Kubrick.
“Stanley wanted to meet me because he’d liked ‘Dispatches,’ my book about Vietnam,” Herr wrote in Vanity Fair in 2010. “It was the first thing he said to me when we met. 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.”
Herr is survived by his wife, Valerie; daughters Catherine and Claudia; and siblings Steven Herr and Judy Bleyer.