Winston Groom, the prolific writer best known as the creator of Forrest Gump, died September 17 in Fairhope, Alabama, his family announced. He was 77. No cause of death was given.
Groom grew up in Mobile. He enrolled in Army ROTC at the University of Alabama in 1965, and immediately after graduating went on active duty. In August 1966 Groom sailed to Vietnam as part of a 1st Cavalry Division battalion. He initially served in and around Nha Trang in a psych war company.
“We were sent out to the field… with loudspeakers, dropped leaflets, and did other ‘Sneaky Pete’ stuff,” Groom told Arts Editor Marc Leepson in an interview that appeared in the February 1995 issue—the year he received VVA’s Excellence in the Arts Award. Groom then moved into the 4th Infantry Division where he worked a variety of jobs, including an occasional stint leading a platoon in the field, until his enlistment was up in November 1967.
“I got out in a hurry,” Groom said. “It was so quick, I forged my own medical papers.”
Groom’s wartime experiences had “a profound effect on both his fiction and nonfiction,” said Serena Blount, a University of Alabama English professor.
After getting out of the Army, Winston Groom moved to Washington, D.C., where he fell into a job as a police reporter for the old Washington Star. He stayed ten years and worked many beats, and covered the Watergate story. Groom then moved to New York and turned to writing fiction. His first novel, Better Times Than These (1978), was a semi-autobiographical in-country Vietnam War novel that has been compared to James Jones’ World War II novel, The Thin Red Line.
Writing that book, Groom said in 1995, “was cathartic in a sense” in that it made him realize that he longer had to hide the fact that he had served in the Vietnam War. “When I came home to my hometown, Mobile, Alabama, I kept my mouth shut” about having been in Vietnam, he said. When people asked him where he’d been, he said: “All I said was, ‘I’ve been away.’ ”
By the mid-nineties, Groom—like many Vietnam veterans—had re-evaluated his Vietnam War service, characterizing his tour of duty as “a valuable experience” that became “a recurring theme in just about all of my books.”
Groom centered his fourth novel, Gone With the Sun (1988). on a Vietnam veteran in Southern Alabama. His 1983 nonfiction book, Conversations with the Enemy, written with former fellow Washington Star reporter (and former VVA Veteran contributor) Duncan Spencer, examined the life of Vietnam War POW Robert Garwood.
Then there was Forrest Gump, a character who has made his way into the American cultural fabric. In 1986, inspired by a true story his father told him when he was a child, Groom sat down and in six weeks wrote a funny, strange novel chronicling the misadventures of a six-foot-six, 240-pound Alabama country boy and idiot savant who bumbles through life, including a rough tour of duty in Vietnam.
The book received good reviews but had modest sales. Nine years later, with the release of the Tom Hanks movie, the book became a giant best seller—and is still in print. The wildly popular movie received six Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director for Bob Zemeckis, and Best Actor for Hanks
Reflecting on the book and film’s hyper success, Groom told the Mobile Register: “I’m happy as a pig in sunshine.” It’s doubtful he used the word “sunshine.”
Winston Groom wrote seven novels and fifteen nonfiction books. The Patriots: Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and the Making of America is scheduled to be published in November.
September 18, 2020