Robert Stone, 77

Acclaimed author
Fri, 01/23/2015 - 2:00pm

The writer and longtime summer resident of Block Island, Robert Stone, 77, died on Saturday, Jan. 10, 2015 at his home in Key West, Fla. The cause was cardiopulmonary disease, his wife Janice said. 

Twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, “A Flag for Sunrise” (1981), and “Bear and His Daughter” (1997,) Stone also won the National Book Award for  “Dog Soldiers” (1975). “Damascus Gate” (1998) was finalist for the National Book Award. 

He contributed to various and numerable publications including The New York Times, The New Yorker and Outdoor. Stone was editor of the 1992 edition of the “Best American Short Stories” series. 

In an incident in 1989 that could be pulled from today’s headlines, the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a death threat against Salman Rushdie, a friend of Stone’s, for writing “The Satanic Verses,” a book critical of Islam. Stone was the first writer to read from the book at a reading in New York sponsored by Harper’s magazine and PEN defending artistic expression, he started with the statement, “My name is Robert Stone, but today we are all Salman Rushdie.” 

Stone had a long association with the island. He began to summer here with his mother, Gladys, shortly after World War II. He had a variety of odd jobs and island adventures during his youth, a tradition followed by his own children and grandchildren.

The family came out to the island during the summer, often staying at what now is the Historical Society building. In 1980, he and his wife bought a traditional Block Island farmhouse on Pilot Hill Road. 

Born in Brooklyn, New York, Mr. Stone was a self-made man. His father, Homer Stone, abandoned the family. Shuffling though early 1940s New York City, they lived in SRO hotels and, eventually, the young Stone was left at a Catholic orphanage. His mother was schizophrenic and was at times institutionalized. It is his run-in with Catholicism, and religion in general, that would haunt much of his writing. He referred to himself as a “lapsed Catholic.” 

Stone dropped out of high school and joined the Navy at 17 and travelled the world. After the Navy, he returned to New York, where he worked as a copy boy for the New York Daily News and studied writing at New York University where he met Janice. He also served a war correspondent during the Vietnam War. 

It was in California, in the heyday of 1960s counterculture, where he fell in with beat culture icons Ken Kesey, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady He also hung out — a lot — with The Grateful Dead.

He was a member of the “Merry Pranksters,” whose cross-country road trip in a psychedelic-painted school bus was immortalized in Tom Wolfe’s “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.” 

Although his style of realism is often compared to both Joseph Conrad and Graham Green, his writing and his subjects were distinctly American. The promises and faults of American society weaved through his writing, from New Orleans to New England. 

An iterant professor, he held teaching posts and several endowed chairs — early at University of Hawaii, Amherst College, Johns Hopkins, and Yale. 

A high school dropout who found himself teaching creative writing at Yale, he often joked, was his revenge on academia. 

Among his works is a memoir, “Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties” and his last book, a thriller, “Death of the Black Haired Girl,”  which was published in 2014. 

He is survived by his wife of 55 years, Janice, three children and six grandchildren. He owned homes in New York City, Chesterfield, Mass., and Key West, Florida. A memorial service will be held in New York City later this spring.