John Jakes

Highlights of a Life

John Jakes, known among readers of mass-market fiction as “the godfather of the historical novel,” “the people’s author,” and “America’s history teacher,” was born March 31, 1932, in Chicago. He grew up in a modest but respectable urban apartment, the only son of John and Bertha Jakes. His father, a railway express general manager, was a voracious reader and young John followed suit.

Jakes enjoyed pulp novels, and read all he could. His introverted nature led him also to seek such solitary pleasures as spending Saturday afternoons at the movies. The popular swashbuckling characters of “B” films inspired Jakes to aspire to acting. He also found that talk of being an actor attracted girls and helped him make friends. So, Jakes became involved in theater during his high school days as an actor and director, with plans to make it to Broadway.

During his freshman year at Northwestern University, where he studied acting, Jakes began writing professionally. It was then that he decided to trade the stage for the typewriter: he sold his first story about a demonic toaster to “Fantasy and Science Fiction” magazine for $25. That same year, he met and married his biology lab assistant, Rachel Ann Payne. With success as a writer under his belt, Jakes enrolled in the creative writing program at DePauw University, where he graduated in 1953. And in 1954, he earned a Master’s degree in American literature from The Ohio State University.

Jakes began his professional writing career as a copywriter for pharmaceutical giant Abbott Laboratories in North Chicago. In his six years with Abbott, he worked his way up to product promotion manager. Through his work, Jakes gained connections to representatives at many large advertising firms. So, it was no surprise that in 1960 he took an advertising job with Rumrill Co. in Rochester, New York. Jakes also began freelance writing to start saving for his children’s college education. Working at night, he wrote and published short stories (about 200 of them) along with more than 60 books in genres such as mystery, western, children’s literature and science fiction.

In 1965, Jakes and his growing family returned to Ohio to be closer to his wife’s family in Indiana. He took a senior copywriting job with an advertising agency in Dayton, and eventually landed with the Dancer-Fitzgerald-Sample agency as its creative director. For seven more years, Jakes accepted freelance writing assignments from his New York agent. As a writer, however, Jakes felt he had hit a new low. For all his efforts, he earned little recognition and only a modest secondary income.

In 1973, Jakes accepted an assignment to write a novelization of the last film in the “Planet of the Apes” movie series. Though the three-week assignment earned him $1,500, it made Jakes feel like a hack. “I’ve been wasting the last 20 years of my life,” he said to his wife.

Friend and fellow writer Don Moffitt felt differently about Jakes’ work, however. Lyle Engel, a packager in the paperback trade industry, approached Moffitt to write a series of historical novels for publication around the time of the U. S. bicentennial. Moffit was unavailable for the job, but he suggested that Engel review Jakes’ early historical fiction (published under the pseudonym Jay Scotland). After doing so, Engel hired Jakes for the job.

In March of 1973, Jakes began work on “The Bastard,” the first volume of The Kent Family Chronicles. The book was a runaway success. In 1975, with the publication of volumes II, III, and IV, Jakes became the first author ever to have three books on the New York Times bestseller list in a single year.

The series was originally intended to consist of five books, but its success was so great that Engel extended Jakes’ contract. Eight titles were eventually published. Each title sold at least 3.5 million copies, and the series as a whole has sold over 50 million copies. Because of its financial success, Engle asked Jakes to write more than eight volumes, but Jakes declined. He explained in Publishers Weekly, “…I believe in the theater principle. You should end something leaving the audience wanting more, rather than taking the television route where the story drags on and on week after week.”

The success of the “American Bicentennial” series finally enabled Jakes to devote himself to writing full time and to move to the warmer climes of South Carolina. He also “splurged” and bought a Cadillac, a mink for his wife, and new gutters for his home.

Capitalizing on his success, Jakes followed his bicentennial series with other bestselling novels based on American history: “North and South” (1982), “Love and War” (1984) and “California Gold” (1987). All three were number-one bestsellers and were made into top-rated television mini-series.

In the 1980s and 90s, Jakes produced more bestselling historical novels. And the awards and recognition followed: Jakes was named research fellow at the University of South Carolina’s Department of History, and a trustee at DePauw University; and he received honorary doctorates from five universities including The Ohio State University.

Despite his success as a novelist, Jakes never fully abandoned his dream of making it to Broadway. His dozen plays include the musicals “Dracula, Baby,” “Wind in the Willows,” and an adaptation of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”

Reflecting on his writing and career, Jakes said in a “Contemporary Authors” interview, “Growing older, I have come to a better understanding of the talent that was given me by God, genetics, or both. I understand its limits, and appreciate the remarkable results which that small portion has achieved (much to the surprise of its owner, I must report). Now I am more secure about what I do, though like most professionals, I always hope the next novel will somehow, indefinably, be ‘better.'”

In a 1977 Wall Street Journal interview, about his writing talent Jakes noted, “I put as much energy and thought into it as I have to give. The best that I ever hoped to be is a good craftsman.”

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