William Wharton, the painter-turned-author whose first novel "Birdy" won the National Book Award and became a critically acclaimed movie, has died. He was 82.
Wharton died Wednesday in Encinitas of an infection he contracted while being hospitalized for blood pressure problems, his son Matt du Aime told The New York Times.
Wharton was in his 50s and living as a painter in Paris when "Birdy" was published in 1979. The novel, about a shell-shocked World War II veteran who thinks he is a bird, fed on Wharton's own experience as a soldier and longtime keeper of canaries.
Critics praised Wharton for being able to construct a compelling, believable narrative out of such a seemingly inconceivable plot.
"Only the most rigorous imagination can make a story of this sort work for a reader who is generally indifferent to birds," wrote Newsweek magazine reviewer Peter S. Prescott. "Wharton has just such an imagination."
The 1984 film version of "Birdy" was directed by Alan Parker and starred Nicolas Cage and Matthew Modine.
Two of Wharton's other novels were also made into movies: "Dad" (1981), about a middle-aged painter living in France, and "A Midnight Clear" (1982), about a peaceable Christmastime encounter between U.S. and German soldiers during World War II.
Wharton was born Albert du Aime on Nov. 7, 1925 in Philadelphia. He volunteered for the Army as a young man and was severely wounded as an infantryman during World War II's Battle of the Bulge.
After his discharge, he earned a degree in art from the University of California, Los Angeles, where he also received a doctorate in psychology.
An American in Paris
He taught art in Los Angeles public schools before moving with his family in 1958 to Europe, where they migrated among Italy, France, Germany and Spain.
The family settled a decade later in Paris, where Wharton established himself as a painter, signing his artwork with his birth name. He said he published his books under a pseudonym to protect his privacy.
"In France, I'm just a crazy painter who lives on a boat, but I didn't want to become an American celebrity, even a small literary one," he told the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel in 1995.
Even after becoming engrossed in his literary career, Wharton continued to paint, saying his art was as important to him as his writing.
"Not thinking of myself as a writer gives me the freedom to be one. I basically just look into my head and see the image and look for words," he told the Times of London in a 1986 interview.