Born Howard Melvin Fast, November 11, 1914, in New York, NY; died of natural causes, March 12, 2003, in Old Greenwich, CT. Author. Prolific author Howard Fast wrote more than 80 books, many of them best–sellers, over the course of a career that spanned nearly 70 years. Through many of his works ran a strong liberal streak, the legacy of Fast's left–leaning political convictions that landed him in trouble with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in the 1940s. In his 1990 memoir, Being Red, he chronicled his experiences as a member of the American Communist Party, an association he formally relinquished in 1956. "In the party I found ambition, narrowness, and hatred," he wrote, according to the Independent. "I also found love and dedication and high courage and integrity—and some of the noblest human beings I have ever known."
Born in 1914, Fast was one of four children of a laborer father and an English–born mother. The family was poor, a condition that grew bleaker after his mother died when he was 12. As a teen during the Great Depression, Fast left New York and traveled cross–country by riding railroad cars with other freight hobos. He returned to the area and found success when his first novel, Two Villages, was accepted for publication by Dial Press in 1933, the year he turned 18. His first commercial success, however, came in 1939 with Conceived in Liberty, a historical novel that fictionalized the American Revolutionary Army's experience at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.
Other works from early in Fast's career also delved into Revolutionary War times and were a success with both the reading public and the critical establishment, such as the 1942 bestseller about Army general and future United States president George Washington, The Unvanquished. Citizen Tom Paine, which appeared the following year, was an even greater career triumph, and was said to have helped restore this Revolutionary War pamphleteer's reputation. Moving on to the post–Civil War Reconstruction era, Fast's 1944 best–seller, Freedom Road, chronicled the life of a former slave who becomes a United States Senator and target of 1870s Ku Klux Klan riders. It was later made into a 1979 television mini–series that starred Muhammad Ali.
During World War II, Fast worked in the Office of War Information as a scriptwriter for Voice of America radio broadcasts, but ran afoul of the government when he joined the American Communist Party. He was investigated by a Congressional committee that was rooting out alleged subversives in 1945, and refused to cooperate with its demand to turn over records of the Joint Anti–Fascist Refugee Committee, which had collected funds for victims of the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. A series of court challenges followed, and the FBI compiled a 1,000–plus–page dossier on Fast and pressured his New York publishers to shun him. He was even jailed for three months in 1950 on a contempt of Congress charge. A hero to many of the left for his defiance, Fast was awarded the Stalin International Peace Prize in 1953, making him the sole American to earn it after actor–singer Paul Robeson.
Fast's career was revived that same year with the publication of his novel Spartacus, about a slave who leads a revolt the against powerful Roman Empire in late antiquity. It was later made into a successful 1960 movie of the same name that starred Kirk Douglas and was director Stanley Kubrick's first major blockbuster film. By then Fast had left the Communist Party, disillusioned after revelations that came out of the Soviet Union about the millions who had been persecuted under Soviet leader Josef Stalin. "I was part of a generation that believed in socialism and finally found that belief corroded and destroyed," a New York Times obituary by Mervyn Rothstein quoted him as saying in a 1981 interview. "That is not renouncing Communism or socialism. It's reaching a certain degree of enlightenment about what the Soviet Union practices."
After 1957, Fast lived in California, where he enjoyed success as a screenwriter for such films as 1968's Penelope, which starred Natalie Wood. He also wrote news articles, children's stories, poetry, and a successful fictional family saga beginning in 1977 with The Immigrants. He also was the author of detective novels under the pseudonym E. V. Cunningham that featured Masao Masuto, a Zen Buddhist police detective in Beverly Hills. In all, Fast sold more than 80 million books around the globe, a figure that included sales of his final work, Greenwich, in 2000. Its story centered around a dinner party in the posh Connecticut enclave of the same name, where Fast and his wife, Bette, had lived since 1980. Widowed in 1994, he wed Mercedes O'Connor in 1999.
Fast died on March 12, 2003; he was 88. He is survived by his second wife, his daughter, Rachel; his son, Jonathan; three stepsons, and three grandchildren. The inexhaustible author claimed never to have been plagued by writer's block. "The only thing that infuriates me," his New York Times obituary quoted him as saying "is that I have more unwritten stories in me than I can conceivably write in a lifetime."
Independent (London, England), March 14, 2003, p. 18; Los Angeles Times, March 14, 2003, p. B13; New York Times, March 13, 2003, p. C12; Washington Post, March 14, 2003, p. B7.
— Carol Brennan