Thursday 22 March 2018

Obituary: Michael Herr

Author of 'Dispatches' who conveyed the mood of the Vietnam War and wrote the narrative for 'Apocalypse Now'


Michael Herr, who has died aged 76, was the author of Dispatches, the definitive account of the war in Vietnam; John le Carre called it "the best book I have ever read on men and war in our time".

"I went to cover the war and the war covered me," wrote Herr, who, from 1967 until 1969, was in Vietnam as correspondent for Esquire.

"Have you come to write about what we're wearing?" a soldier asked him, alluding to the magazine's traditional focus on men's fashion.

However, it had also begun to publish articles by the likes of Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe that used techniques of reportage traditionally reserved for literature. Although he actually filed very little from Vietnam, Herr became a central figure in this 'New Journalism' with the publication in 1977 of Dispatches.

It conveyed the mood of the war, in which the eternal certainties of death and defeat were dulled by drugs and embraced by a soundtrack of rock 'n' roll. So intense was the experience he rapidly abandoned any notions of objectivity. But the price of this revealed itself when he returned to New York.

"Within 18 months of coming back, I was on the edge of a major breakdown," he said. But when he managed to finish the memoir, it was at once seen as a masterpiece.

Of Jewish descent, Michael David Herr was born on April 13, 1940, in Lexington, Kentucky. The family soon moved to Syracuse, New York, where his father worked as a jeweller. David attended Syracuse University, but dropped out to travel. He picked up occasional commissions and got his job with Esquire after pitching the idea of a monthly letter from Vietnam. Although Dispatches satisfied his ambition to be recognised, he loathed the consequences of fame. He especially disliked being asked by newspapers to write about Vietnam. In 1980 he moved to London in search of a quieter existence. Yet both the subsequent works for which he was best known drew on his Vietnam experiences.

In 1979, he wrote the narration spoken by Martin Sheen's character in Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola's film of the war. John le Carre subsequently introduced Herr to another director, Stanley Kubrick. They became good friends and eventually collaborated on Full Metal Jacket (1987). As well as a brief memoir of Kubrick, Herr published two other books. The Big Room (1987) contained profiles of stars of Hollywood's golden age, while Walter Winchell (1990), was a biographical novel about the broadcaster.

Latterly, however, he had devoted more time to Buddhism and attributed his coming to terms with Vietnam to the healing powers of meditation. He is survived by his wife Valerie and their two daughters.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News