Dan Wakefield, prolific author and journalist, dies at 91

Dan Wakefield, the novelist and journalist who wrote about diverse topics including his journey with spirituality and the civil rights movement, died Wednesday at 91.

His death was confirmed by Will Higgins, who hosted a public radio show with Wakefield in 2016 and 2017, according to news reports. Wakefield’s health started to decline last year following a stroke.

Wakefield graduated in 1955 from Columbia University with an English degree. He wrote for the Nation, Playboy, Esquire and other publications. He covered the trial in the murder of Emmett Till for the Nation.

He published his first book, “Island in the City: The World of Spanish Harlem,” in 1959, about the time he spent living in the Manhattan neighborhood.

Among the more than 20 books he would go on to write were “Going All the Way” in 1970, about Korean War veterans, and his 1973 work, “Starting Over,” the tale of a divorced man who explores his dating life in the sexually liberated 1970s.

Those bestsellers were made into feature films. In 1997, Wakefield wrote the screenplay for the “Going All the Way” adaptation.

The author spoke in 1985 to The Times about his novel published that year, “Selling Out,” whose protagonist is a college professor who is lured to Hollywood and taken in by the wealth and glitter. That was similar to Wakefield’s experience. His time in Hollywood included creating the short-lived 1977-78 NBC series “James at 15.”

He didn’t love it.

“All you do is take meetings. When you write a novel, you don’t have to meet even the publisher. But when you sell an idea out here, you have to sell yourself. It’s agonizing. I freeze and my voice goes an octave lower,” he said.

In his nonfiction, the author often explored the topic of spirituality, including in the books “Returning: A Spiritual Journey” and “Creating From the Spirit.”

He said his own spiritual arc included Baptist baptism as a child in Indianapolis, atheism in college and a 1980 Christmas Eve service in Boston after which he became a devoted Christian again.

Although he moved to Miami when his health declined, Wakefield spent his last years in his native Indianapolis. The city is home to the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library, whose namesake author was a close friend of Wakefield’s.

Wakefield served as an honorary board member of the Vonnegut facility, according to the IndyStar.

The Vonnegut museum’s founder and CEO, Julia Whitehead, sent an email following Wakefield’s death to the facility’s supporters, according to the news outlet.

“Through Dan’s novels, essays, and journalism, he captured the essence of life’s complexities, inviting us to explore the depths of the human condition with honesty and authenticity,” she wrote.

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