Herman Wouk Turns 100 Today—I Hope He Doesn’t Remember the Helicopter

By Jack Limpert

The distinguished author Herman Wouk turns 100 today and I wonder if he’s still irritated by something the Washingtonian did more than 25 years ago.

Back then—before 9/11 closed the skies over Washington—we ran lots of aerial pictures of the city. It’s surprising how different a place looks from the air.

We also ran a lot of pictures of the homes of important people—we called it “Map of the Stars.” Most of the time we’d take a picture of a VIP’s home (from the sidewalk or street, never going on the homeowner’s property), give readers the general location but not the street address, and include its purchase price, the year it was bought, its current value (estimated by a real estate agent), and its assessed value. The assessed value was a fig leaf for the voyeurism—if a city council member lived in a house worth $900,000 and the house was assessed at $400,000, it seemed a public service to point that out.

It also upset some of those featured. Not long after one Map of the Stars, I was having lunch at Duke Zeibert’s, a popular DC restaurant, when humor columnist Art Buchwald walked up to our table, pointed at me, and said, “You son of the bitch, they burglarized my house.”

We once decided to do an aerial map of the stars. There were VIP homes that we couldn’t photograph from the sidewalk or street—the property was too big or there were too many trees for a photographer to get a good picture. So one year we rented a helicopter—about $750 an hour back then. Our executive editor, John Sansing, mapped out a flight plan and took me along.

On a sunny day a photographer, John, and I went out to a suburban airport, boarded a helicopter, and cruised over Washington. It was eye-opening and fun to see the nation’s capital that way. The ability of a helicopter to zero in on a house, go down for pictures, and then swoop away seemed almost God-like.

After a couple of hours over Washington we headed out to the Hunt Country of Virginia where a lot of rich people had estates. Katharine Graham and Paul Mellon were among the big names. Also Herman Wouk.

Wouk didn’t have a big estate, just a nice home on a big piece of land, and we swooped down to get a picture. As we were hovering, he came out onto the deck of the house to check out the noise, saw the helicopter, and shook his fist at us.

John and I didn’t feel very good about having disturbed Wouk, who had won a Pulitzer Prize for The Caine Mutiny in 1952 and gone on to write two big novels of World War II: The Winds of War and War and Remembrance. Not long after we buzzed his house he published Inside, Outside, a novel about the lives of four generations of a Russian Jewish family in the US—he may have been working on that when we interrupted him.

Several years later the incident didn’t stop us from trying to get him to write something for the Washingtonian. I sent him a book about Washington, featuring of all things aerial photographs, and asked him to consider writing something along the lines of “The Washington I Know.” I don’t think at that point he connected me or the magazine with the helicopter, and he politely acknowledged getting the book but skipped by the request for him to write something. Here’s his letter.

Mr. Wouk, for what it’s worth after all these years, I’m sorry we hovered so long over your house if you were trying to write. And best wishes for your new book, Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year-Old Author. The first part of the memoir is described as referring to Wouk’s Navy service during World War II and how those experiences informed his war novels; the second part refers to what he’s learned from living a life of faith. Simon & Schuster plans to publish it in December.

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