Robert Ludlum may have died ten years ago today, but his career is hotter than ever. We look back at his life and the new allegations surrounding his death.
Robert Ludlum published more than 20 novels during his lifetime. He’s been translated into 33 languages and the estimated number of his thrillers in print hovers near 500 million copies. And though he died in 2001, that hasn’t slowed down his output one bit. If anything, thanks to the Bourne film series, Ludlum is more popular than ever. Now a new biography suggests that, in what might seem a device ripped from one of his thrillers, his death may have been the result of foul play.
Born in New York City and raised in Short Hills, New Jersey, Robert Ludlum attended Wesleyan University in nearby Connecticut. He joined the Marines and penned a 100-page manuscript inspired by his time serving in the South Pacific, but his first artistic love was the theater, where he worked as an actor and producer. In the early 1950s, he made more than 200 TV appearances, mostly in live theatrical productions playing for the most part criminals or lawyers (insert your own joke here). During the 1960s, he produced more than 300 plays for New York and regional theatres.
But in 1971, at age 44, he decided to try to publish a novel. He’d long been a closet writer and decided to send out his first full-length effort, The Scarlatti Inheritance, and see what happened. It received many early rejections, but was an instant hit when it landed on the shelves. Others soon followed. His second book, The Osterman Weekend, was made into a film, as would be The Holcroft Covenant and others.
Many of his early espionage thrillers revolved around Nazi conspiracies, while later his villains were usually Communists. As the Cold War waned, he switched his focus to the terrorism threat. Ludlum wrote longhand on yellow legal pads, charging his secretary with typing his manuscripts into a computer, which he claimed not to know how to even turn on. While the public gobbled up his novels and they became mainstays of airport bookstores worldwide, the critics were only grudgingly appreciative. “It was a lousy novel,” ran a typical review appearing in the Washington Post, “so I stayed up until 3 a.m. to finish it.”
Such criticism mattered little to Ludlum. Comparing his reviews to those of Charles Dickens, he once said, “The quality of an author's work is not usually determined until after his death.”
While that is certainly true, the commercial value can also be hard to determine. In Ludlum’s case, since his death in 2001, his net worth has only increased. Eighteen books with his name on the covers have been published posthumously – largely books written by others in franchises he created – nearly equaling the number released during his lifetime. The Bourne franchise has been a huge success, with three films and five new books released since 2001 (not to mention videogame tie-ins). Often appearing in Forbes’ list of top-earning dead celebrities, Ludlum amassed an estate some estimate could now be worth $1 billion.
One party sharing the $1 billion estimate with media recently has been Kenneth Kearns, Robert Ludlum’s nephew and longtime physician, who will soon be publishing a book that poses new questions about his uncle’s death. Kearns had originally planned it to be a biography and remembrance, but when he started investigating Ludlum’s last days he made some troubling discoveries.
Ludlum died of a heart attack, but a month prior he’d been badly injured when, while in a reclining chair at his home in Naples, Florida, he burst into flame, the alleged culprit being a lit cigarette. When emergency responders arrived at the scene, his second wife – Karen Ludlum, married to Ludlum for less than four years – reportedly refused to help them, instead retreating to the kitchen to fix herself a drink. It was her fifth marriage – one she assented to only after Ludlum dropped the idea of a prenuptial agreement – and she had been written into Ludlum’s will only sixteen days earlier.
Kearns says the trauma from those burns could have played a role in causing Ludlum’s heart attack at age 73, though, as Ludlum was a longtime chain smoker who’d undergone quadruple bypass surgery, a physician like Kearns would certainly admit there may have been other contributing factors. His research also yielded reports of an attempt on Ludlum’s life that occurred in Montana and was investigated by former members of the FBI.
Ultimately, Kearns draws no conclusions. Karen Ludlum died in 2008, but Kearns is still hoping to open an investigation into his uncle’s death.
In the meantime, he’ll soon be able to enjoy two more feature films based on Ludlum’s works, The Chancellor Manuscript and The Matarese Circle, as well as a new Bourne novel coming out later this year.