Robert James Waller, the author of the best-selling classic The Bridges of Madison County, died on March 9 at age 77. A longtime friend told the Cedar Falls Courier that the cause of death was complications from pneumonia and multiple myeloma.
Waller, who was born in Rockford, Iowa and was an icon in the state, is survived by his second wife, Lina Bow Waller. He is also survived by his daughter Rachel, from his first marriage to Georgia Ann Wiedemeier.
Here’s a look at his life and career.
1. Waller Died After Battling a Cancer of the Plasma Cells
Waller’s friend, Scott Cawelti, told the Cedar Falls Courier that he died from “complications of pneumonia and multiple myeloma.” Multiple myeloma is a cancer of the plasma cells.
“It’s a sad thing … but he said he’d had a helluva life — more than he ever expected to happen to chicken farmer’s son from Rockford, Iowa,” Cawelti told the Courier. “He’s sort of iconic for Iowa. He really made it big — 50 million books sold worldwide, a great movie with major stars, a Broadway show. That’s a whole new level of making it big. Robert became a touchstone for people.”
No funeral arrangements have been announced, the Courier reported.
2. He Famously Wrote ‘The Bridges of Madison County’ in 11 Days
The Associated Press reports that Waller famously wrote Bridges in just 11 days. The novel, about a photographer who falls in love with a war bride in Italy, also became a successful Clint Eastwood movie that made $182 million in 1995. The book was first published in 1992.
Bridges also became a Broadway musical. The book hit the top spot on the New York Times best-seller list and remained on the list for three years. It sold over 50 million copies worldwide and was published in 40 languages.
Although the Broadway musical version was acclaimed and even won Tonys for Jason Robert Brown’s music, it closed in May 2014 after just 137 performances.
Eastwood’s film earned Meryl Streep an Oscar nomination and was nominated for the Best Picture – Drama Golden Globe. The film, set in the 1960s, also starred Eastwood and Annie Corley.
Waller also followed up Bridges with an album called The Ballads of Madison County in 1993.
In a 2005 Book Page interview, Waller said he still received letters from Bridges fans.
“I receive letters each week from people who have read it and are moved by the story. At one time, I received 50 to 100 letters per week,” he said. “Now it’s more on the order of five. The last I knew, 350 marriage ceremonies had been celebrated at Roseman Bridge.”
3. His Novel ‘Puero Vallarta Squeeze’ Was Also Turned Into a Movie
Bridges was Waller’s first novel. He followed it up with 1993’s Slow Waltz in Cedar Blend. In 1995, he published his third novel, Puerto Vallarta Squeeze.
In 2003, Puerto Vallarta Squeeze also became a movie directed by Athur Allan Seidelman that starred Harvey Keitel and Scott Glenn.
Waller’s other non-fiction novels are Border Music, A Thousand Country Roads: An Epilogue to The Bridges of Madison County, High Plains Tango and The Long Night of Winchell Dear. His last book was the 2012 non-fiction book The Summer Nights Never End… Until They do: Life, Liberty, and the Lure of the Short-Run.
In a 2005 interview with Book Page, Waller said he was reinvigorated to write, which may explain why he had a late-career publishing burst.
“I seem to have had a resurgence of interest in all things,” Waller told Book Page. “Aside from getting back into my early love affairs with economics and mathematics, I have another novel completed, The Long Night of Winchell Dear, which Shaye Areheart Books will publish in 2006. It covers five hours in the life of a professional poker player who is alone on a dusty ranch in west Texas. The behavior of the accidental hero of the book will jolt anyone who reads it.”
4. His Second wife Was a Landscaping Assistant at the House He Shared With His First Wife
Waller was married to his first wife, Georgia Ann Wiedemeier, from 1961 to 1997. The marriage came to a sudden end in 1997 when he told her that he fell in love with Linda Bow, who traveled with them to India.
Two years earlier, they hired her to be their landscaping assistant. In 1997, a People Magazine profile noted how Waller’s life reflected his art, since Bridges also centered on a love triangle.
“He was a man who was happy in his own skin,” Rosemary Beach of Cedar Falls told the Courier. “We grew to know Bob and Scott (Cawelti) playing their guitars. I think Bob was content with his life and doing his thing, and once he’d done it, he just wanted to disappear from view, and that’s what he did.”
5. He Also Taught at the University of Northern Iowa
When Waller published Bridges, he was 53 years old. Before the book was published, he was a professor of management and economics at the University of Northern Iowa, his alma mater. He earned a B.A. and M.A. from the school. He earned a PhD in business from Indiana University Bloomington in 1968.
Waller taught at UNI’s College of Business Administration for over 20 years, including six years as dead.
In May 2012, Waller donated a seven-figure gift to UNI, The Cedar Falls Courier reported.
“UNI allowed me to explore my intellectual interests and my tastes, as a student, a professor and a dean,” Waller told the Courier at the time. “As a professor, UNI provided me room to experiment with courses and course content; and as the first dean of the business school, to have some influence on the direction of the university. I am pleased to lend support to my alma mater and to help it grow as a first-class university.”
Part of the gift included the creation of scholarships in his name that reflect his interests in economics, business, jazz and writing.
“My gifts are intended to support this continuing, rapid growth in quality over the coming decades,” Waller told the Courier. “While the gifts are centered on the business college, additional funds are directed toward other parts of the university, also. Long conversations with Ben Allen and Noreen Hermansen, not directly involving gifts, also played a major role. I have enormous respect for Ben and his leadership.”