A writer, Wouk had a varied career: he wrote gags for radio star Fred Allen, wrote ads for war bonds for the U.S. government during World War II while serving in the Navy, and co-wrote a musical with pop singer Jimmy Buffett. But he’s best known for his historical fiction, coming to prominence with The Caine Mutiny (1951). The best-seller drew on his wartime experiences aboard minesweepers during World War II. The book won 1952’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and Wouk adapted it to a play, and then a major film in 1954, with Humphrey Bogart playing Lt. Commander Philip Francis Queeg, captain of the fictional USS Caine. He really hit it big with his novel The Winds of War (1971), which covers World War II in even more detail: it took him 1,000 pages just to get to the attack on Pearl Harbor; the final edit took the book down to a still-hefty 885 pages. It was made into a well-received 1983 TV miniseries. Yet it still didn’t cover everything Wouk wanted to say about WWII: its sequel War and Remembrance (1978) was 1,042 pages, and was also made into a mini-series in 1988. Wouk adapted both books for TV himself, and both received huge ratings.
Wouk had an interesting role for his wife: once they married in 1945, she became his agent. “I wrote nothing that was of the slightest consequence before I met Sarah,” Wouk said after her death in 2011. “I was a gag man for Fred Allen for five years. In his time, he was the greatest of the radio comedians. And jokes work for what they are but they’re ephemeral. They just disappear. And that was the kind of thing I did up until the time that I met Sarah and we married. And I would say my literary career and my mature life both began with her.” In all, Wouk wrote 22 major books and plays, ending with his memoir, Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year Old Author (2015). He received the United States Navy Memorial Foundation’s Lone Sailor Award (1987), the Jewish Book Council’s Lifetime Literary Achievement Award (1999), and the first ever (2008) Library of Congress Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Writing of Fiction, among others. Wouk died at his Palm Springs home on May 17, just 10 days before he would have turned 104.