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Larry McMurtry, Novelist And Screenwriter Of The West, Has Died At Age 84

President Barack Obama presents novelist, essayist and screenwriter Larry McMurtry with the National Humanities Medal in September 2015.
Leigh Vogel
WireImage/Getty Images
President Barack Obama presents novelist, essayist and screenwriter Larry McMurtry with the National Humanities Medal in September 2015.

Updated March 26, 2021 at 4:37 PM ET

Larry McMurtry, a prolific, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Oscar-winning screenwriter, has died at age 84. He was beloved for riveting and yet unsentimental depictions of the American West in books such as Lonesome Dove as well as for tales of family drama including Terms of Endearment.

In a statement, his representative Amanda Lundberg said McMurtry "passed away last night, on March 25 of heart failure at 84 years old surrounded by his loved ones who he lived with including long time writing partner Diana Ossana, his wife Norma Faye and their three dogs."

In all, McMurtry wrote more than 30 novels as well as over a dozen nonfiction works that spanned memoir, history and essays. He wrote over 20 screenplays and television scripts as well.

McMurtry served as the president of PEN America's Board of Trustees for two years, beginning in 1989. That year, he testified before Congress to oppose provisions of federal immigration laws that had allowed the U.S. to exclude writers and others on ideological grounds; some of those provisions were repealed. In addition, he defended fellow author Salman Rushdie after Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini issued a death threat against Rushdie after the publication of The Satanic Verses.

McMurtry was also famous for his bookstore, Booked Up in Archer City, Texas. Even after selling off more than half of his holdings in 2012, he still had about 200,000 books between his private collection and the store.

When he won an Oscar in 2006 for the screenplay adaption of E. Annie Proulx's short story Brokeback Mountain, which he co-wrote with Ossana, his longtime writing partner, he thanked booksellers.

"From the humblest paperback exchange to the masters of the great bookshops of the world," he said, "all are contributors to the survival of the culture of the book, a wonderful culture, which we mustn't lose."

Filmmakers were drawn to McMurtry's work; his books Horseman, Pass By (adapted as Hud), The Last Picture Show and Terms of Endearment were all made into films. Lonesome Dove, his 1985 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, became a successful TV miniseries in 1989, starring Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones.

Born in 1936 on a Texas ranch, McMurtry came to his love of the West through his family. His grandfather broke horses, and his father raised cattle.

"The West is mostly a very beautiful place," he told NPR's All Things Considered in 2014. "There are all those lovely spaces. There are all those running horses. It's a poetic imagery and it's been there for a long time."

But he wanted to scour that landscape of sentimental nostalgia for cowboys, he added. "To me it was hollow and I think it was hollow for my father, although he might not have ever brought that to his conscious mind. He totally loved cowboys and so did most of the cowboys we worked with and that got him through his life. But he knew perfectly well, so did we, that it wouldn't last another generation, it just was not going to last."

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Corrected: March 26, 2021 at 10:00 PM MDT
An earlier version of this article misstated the name of a Larry McMurtry novel adapted for the film Hud.
Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.