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Dispatches author Michael Herr dies aged 76

Published 25/06/2016

Tourists visit the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Tourists visit the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Michael Herr, the author and Oscar-nominated screenwriter who documented the Vietnam War through his classic non-fiction novel Dispatches and films such as Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket, has died aged 76.

His death in a New York hospital after a long illness was confirmed by publisher Alfred A Knopf, which released Dispatches in 1977, two years after the US left Vietnam.

A native of Syracuse, New York, with a knack for eavesdropping and a reverence for Ernest Hemingway, Herr was part of the New Journalism movement that included Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote and Norman Mailer, who advocated applying literary styles 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.

Herr spent much of his 20s travelling and working for magazines before convincing 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 disillusion.

"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 travelled 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.

"It totally changed my life. But it also blew my cover."

Admirers of Dispatches included some prominent film-makers, 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 Kubrick, one of the industry's most reclusive and demanding directors.

"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, his daughters Catherine and Claudia, and his siblings Steven Herr and Judy Bleyer.

AP

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