Richard Condon 1915–1996
The following entry provides an overview of Condon's career. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 4, 6, 8, 10, and 45.
A prolific and popular author, Condon blended satire and suspense to create entertaining, often humorous novels that comment on contemporary society. Characterized by intricate plots, an abundance of factual information, and sumptuous meals, Condon's fiction concerns paranoia, greed, and the exploitation of power, usually within a political context. Although critical opinion of his novels varied throughout his career, Condon perhaps is best remembered for The Manchurian Candidate (1959), Winter Kills (1969), and Prizzi's Honor (1982), each of which were adapted for film. Herbert Mitgang observed: "The singular Condon genre combines American politics, scoundrels in various corners of the world, linguistic shenanigans, cholesterol-loaded meals, cold warriors in intelligence agencies, legalized thievery in Washington and put-downs of the high and mighty everywhere."
Born March 18, 1915, in New York City, Condon graduated from De Witt Clinton High School, but because his grades there were so bad, he never attended college. He worked as an elevator operator, a hotel clerk, a waiter, and briefly as a copywriter at an advertising agency. Copywriting led him into movie publicity, and he joined Walt Disney Productions in 1936. During the 1940s and 1950s Condon worked as a movie publicist at nearly every major Hollywood studio, where he observed the art of storytelling. In the late 1950s Condon returned to New York to become a novelist. The commercial successes of The Oldest Confession (1958), his first novel, and The Manchurian Candidate, which was adapted for film in 1962, allowed Condon to devote himself to writing. In 1959 he left the United States, living first in Mexico for a few years, then in Switzerland, and finally in Ireland, where he arrived in 1971. During the 1960s and 1970s some of Condon's novels received more critical attention than others, notably An Infinity of Mirrors (1964) and Winter Kills. In 1980 he returned to the United States and settled in Dallas, Texas. Condon's literary career revived upon publication of Prizzi's Honor, the first of four novels about the mobster family Prizzi. John Hurston directed the hit film version of the novel, which starred Jack Nicholson, Kathleen Turner, and Anjelica Huston; the screenplay, which Condon co-wrote with Janet Roach, earned an Academy Award nomination. Condon wrote several other novels, notably The Final Addiction (1991) and The Venerable Bead (1992) before he died in Dallas in 1996.
Condon's earliest novels feature satiric attacks on contemporary culture, while parodying the suspense genre. The Oldest Confession tells of an international art theft; The Manchurian Candidate, set during the Korean War, details the capture of an American GI who is brainwashed by communists and programmed to assassinate the Republican presidential candidate modeled on Senator Joseph McCarthy. Statistical and historical details and preposterous plots form many of Condon's novels during the 1960s and 1970s, including An Infinity of Mirrors (1964), which relates the experiences of a German colonel who falls in love with a French Jewish girl during World War II; The Ecstasy Business (1967), which satirizes the American film industry; and Mile High (1969), which represents a fictional account of the Prohibition era. Condon's next novels raise paranoia to its highest level in his art. Set in the early 1960s, Winter Kills recounts the CIA-influenced assassination of U.S. President Tim Keegan, a character based on John F. Kennedy, and The Whisper of the Axe (1976) recounts a conspiratorial group of wealthy men who instigate urban terrorism to trigger another American revolution. Condon's later fiction emphasizes the abuse of power and features some of his most entertaining characters, especially the members of the Prizzi family of mobsters in Brooklyn. Prizzi's Honor, which relates the adventures of henchman Charley Partanna and his marriage to Maerose Prizzi, granddaughter of don Prizzi; Prizzi's Family (1986), a "prequel," which recounts Charley's formative years; Prizzi's Glory (1988), which concerns a deal between Maerosa and the don to achieve respectability for the next generation of Prizzis; and Prizzi's Money (1994), in which Maerosa gains control of the entire Prizzi family fortune. The Final Addiction, a political satire about "image," targets a number of American presidents and institutions, including the CIA, FBI, and NRA. The Venerable Bead lampoons American business practices, especially its influence in national politics.
Although critical reception of his twenty-six novels has varied throughout his career, Condon maintained a large, loyal readership, sometimes referred to as the "Condon Cult." Charles McCarry called The Manchurian Candidate "arguably the best thriller ever written," observing that Condon "was to paranoia what Tennyson was to melancholy, a writer of powerful and utterly unique imaginative gifts who transmuted a form of madness into the intellectual coinage of his time and place." Commentators praised Condon's ability for wildly funny, mesmerizing storytelling and maniacal characterization, often citing his mastery of English sentence structure. Others found some of Condon's works burdensome or overly lengthy, faulting his highly dense, detail-oriented narrative structure and convoluted plots. Mel Gussow summarized Condon's literary achievement: "Novelist is too limited a word to encompass the world of Mr. Condon. He was also a visionary, a darkly comic conjurer, a student of American mythology and a master of conspiracy theories."