Noah Gordon, an American author who was virtually unknown at home but whose novels on Jewish history, medicine and identity turned him into a literary luminary abroad, died Monday at his home in Dedham, Mass. He was 95 years old.
His death was confirmed by his wife, Lorraine Gordon.
Mr. Gordon’s first novel, “The Rabbi” (1965), which dealt with the marriage of the main character to a pastor’s daughter, was listed for 26 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. But most of his following eight books were less successful when they were published in the country, although they have since proliferated as e-books.
“When I started my market was America: either you did it in America or you didn’t,” he told The Times in 1996. “Well, now, your market is the world. “
Michael Gordon, his son and literary agent, said in an email that Mr. Gordon’s books have sold some 25 million copies in 34 languages.
Mr. Gordon’s “The Physician” (1986) – the first book in a dynastic trilogy that began in Persia in the 11th century, continued during the Civil War with “Shaman” (1992) and ended with a modern female physician discussing the morality of abortion in “Matters of Choice” (1996) – initially only printed 10,000 copies in the United States.
But it eventually sold some 10 million copies, including more than six million in Germany, where, in the 1990s, six of Mr. Gordon’s novels were simultaneously on bestseller lists.
In 2013, “The Physician” was adapted into a German film, in English, starring Tom Payne, Stellan Skarsgard and Ben Kingsley. An award-winning musical based on the book is set to tour Spain.
The novel, based on meticulous research, follows the odyssey of 11th-century Scottish protagonist Robert Jeremy Cole, who wanted to study medicine in the Middle East, where medical schools were deemed to be more advanced than those in Europe. western. Since Christians were excluded from Islamic schools, Cole disguises himself as a Jew.
The success of the book, even abroad, is due to chance. Just before the publication date, Mr Gordon’s editor-in-chief at Simon & Schuster left and his agent retired. But Karl H. Blessing, who worked for Droemer Knaur, a German publisher, was captivated by the book and invested heavily in its promotion.
“While Gordon has been published in 38 countries, Spain and Germany, where it is most popular, are two countries with a history of anti-Semitism,” Andrew Silverstein wrote in The Forward this year. “Although not all of Gordon’s eight books have Jewish themes, most do, and his Jewishness is well known, which may play a role in his popularity in these two countries.”
Mr. Gordon won the Basque Silver Prize in Spain twice for best-selling book, in 1992 and 1995. His novels were also popular in Italy and Brazil.
His latest novel, “The Winemaker,” a story of factions fighting for the throne of Spain at the end of the 19th century, was published in 2012.
Mr. Gordon’s “Shaman” won the Society of American Historians James Fenimore Cooper Award for Best Historical Novel of 1991 and 1992. Peter Blauner praised it in the New York Times Book Review, writing that Mr. Gordon “throws in all the twists readers expect in a historical drama, but it takes turns with a measured sense of rhythm and irony. It was a bestseller only in Europe, however.
Noah Gordon was born on November 11, 1926 in Worcester, Massachusetts, to Robert Gordon, a pawnshop who immigrated from Russia, and Rose (Melnikoff) Gordon, a sales representative.
He served in the military during World War II, but the war ended before he was scheduled to be shipped to the Pacific. He enrolled at Boston University on the GI Bill, with his parents hoping he would study to be a doctor. But he lasted a semester in a pre-med course before majoring in journalism.
“Since I was a child, I have nurtured two personal ambitions,” Gordon wrote on his website. “I wanted to be a journalist and I wanted to write the kind of novels that made me love books.”
He graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Journalism in 1950, then stayed in college to earn a Masters in English and Creative Writing the following year.
Moving to New York City, he worked as an editor for Avon Publishing, then at a picture magazine called Focus.
He married Lorraine Seay, who was a student at Clark University when they met in Boston. Besides her, he is survived by their daughters, Lise Gordon (who worked with him on the screenplay for “The Physician”) and Jamie Beth Gordon; their son, Michel; and four grandchildren. A sister and a brother died before him.
After several years, the couple returned to Massachusetts, where Mr. Gordon worked for The Worcester Telegram. He was later appointed science editor of the Boston Herald after writing articles, on his own, on medical breakthroughs. He started working on “The Rabbi” in his spare time while editing a medical journal when his agent said that an editor had accepted a small advance for “The Rabbi”.
He wrote his second novel, “The Death Committee”, about three young doctors at a Boston hospital, while editing another publication, The Journal of Human Stress. (“The Death Committee” was also a Times bestseller, albeit briefly.) He dropped out of publishing in 1975 and began his third novel, “The Jerusalem Diamond.”
For years he wrote from a farm in the town of Ashfield, western Massachusetts, until he returned to Boston in 1995.
“Every morning I go to my computer in anticipation of the e-mails I receive from readers in many countries,” Gordon wrote on his website. “I am grateful to every reader for allowing me to spend my life writing stories. “