In Remembrance: John Leggett ’42 Died on January 25 2015

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John “Jack” Leggett died in Napa, California, on Sunday, January 25, 2015, at age 97. He was active and still writing until shortly before his death.

He was an author, editor, and most importantly, a teacher of creative writing, having spent 20 years at the helm of the Writer’s Workshop of the University of Iowa.

Born in New York City in November 1917, his childhood was difficult, given that his mother, Dorothy Mahan, died in the 1918 flu epidemic. Lacking the basis of a strong family life, Jack spent an aimless youth with little parental direction and a longing for an absentee father, which later served as the basis for his first bestselling novel, Wilder Stone, published in 1960.

After graduating from Yale in 1942, Jack entered the navy as a lieutenant and served out the war on the destroyer escort, USS Elden in the Pacific. Returning to civilian life after the war, he and his friend Burt Shevelove joined a summer stock production company. During that time Jack received critical acclaim that resulted in a screen test in New York and the hope of a Hollywood career, which was unfortunately derailed by his refusal to have his teeth straightened.

Jack met and married Mary Lee Fahnestock in 1947, and they spent a year’s honeymoon in Italy, while Jack tried to write his first novel. Returning to the states, Jack published short stories in publications such as McCall’s, and worked as a publicist and editor at Houghton Mifflin in Boston. Later, in the 1960s, Jack worked in NYC as an editor for Harper & Row. His authors included, among others, Gay Talese and Larry McMurtry.

Turned loose from the editing world in 1967, Jack focused on a work of nonfiction, which became Ross & Tom: Two American Tragedies, and was published to very strong critical success in August 1974. It was an examination of the lives and untimely deaths of Ross Lockridge and Tom Heggen, two hugely successful authors of the late 1940s, who were unable to overcome writer’s block and succumbed to depression and suicide.

In 1969, Jack was invited to join the faculty of the University of Iowa’s Writers Workshop. By 1971, he was asked to take over as head of the program. What followed was a period of high productivity, with the workshop continuing to gain momentum as the launching site of such successful writers as Jane Smiley and Tracey Kidder. During this time Jack himself published five more novels and works of nonfiction. For more quotes from Jack regarding the Iowa Writers Workshop and within American literature, please see John McMurtrie’s blog:

After retiring from Iowa, John moved west to California, built a home in the hills above Napa, and eventually became an early leader of the Napa Valley Writers Conference. John often attributed the Napa lifestyle, including daily swims and walks up the hill behind his house, as the key to his longevity. But it was mainly that he kept writing every day until his last days.

He is mourned by his wife, Edwina Benington Leggett of Napa and San Francisco, California, and her children from a previous marriage: Elliot Evers, John Evers (Cynthia), Anne Evers (Breck Hitz), and William Evers (Melinda Ellis), and their children; Jack’s oldest son Timothy (“Tim”) and his wife Phyllis Leggett of Pittsgrove, New Jersey; his second son, John Leggett of Salt Lake City, Utah; and youngest son, Anthony (“Tony”), and his wife Claire Leggett and their three daughters Annalee, Mary-Claire (“Mimi”), and Antonia, all of Manchester, Massachusetts. Mr. Leggett’s previous marriage to Mary Lee Fahnestock ended in divorce. John is also mourned by his devoted caregiver, Riza Arcamo.

—Submitted by the family.

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