Author of The Dirty Dozen intrigued by military tales

E.M. Nathanson was inspired to write the book after neighbour recounted a shooting episode to him

NEW YORK • E.M. Nathanson, whose best-selling 1965 novel The Dirty Dozen became the basis of one of the most enduring, if preposterous, World War II movies to come out of Hollywood, died on Tuesday at his home in Laguna Niguel, California. He was 88.

His death was confirmed by his wife, Elizabeth Henderson.

A New Yorker who moved to Los Angeles in the mid-1950s, he was writing for magazines, often about the military, when a neighbour told him a story that would evolve into his first novel. The neighbour was Russ Meyer, the film-maker who later became known as King Leer for directing soft-core films featuring big-breasted women. Meyer, who died in 2004, had been a combat photographer and cameraman during World War II.

Meyer recounted an episode at an Army stockade in England in which he shot a company of prisoners who were training, he was told, for a top secret mission behind enemy lines just before D-Day.

Nathanson was intrigued and he set about doing the research for a book about the company. Unable to confirm that such a company existed, he found information in court-martial transcripts and other documents about the men in Army stockades during the war. From these, he created the characters for The Dirty Dozen, the title referring to a collective refusal to bathe or shave during training.

The company in the novel did bear a resemblance to a group known as the Filthy 13, a band of rambunctious, authority-defying paratroopers who were far better known for drinking than for washing up, who were in and out of the stockade and who landed behind German lines just before the invasion of Normandy.

They were not, however, the murderers, rapists and borderline madmen depicted by Nathanson, who always contended that his book was based on Meyer's initial tale and his own imagination.The book reportedly sold more than two million copies.

The 1967 movie, directed by Robert Aldrich, became a pop culture landmark partly for its virtually all-male cast of Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine and Robert Ryan; and actors who were becoming or would become big names - Donald Sutherland, John Cassavetes, Telly Savalas, George Kennedy and Charles Bronson. It was nominated for four Oscars.

Erwin Nathanson was known as Mick, the M in E.M. His other books include A Dirty Distant War (1987), a sequel of sorts to The Dirty Dozen, set in Asia. He is survived by three children.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 09, 2016, with the headline 'Author of The Dirty Dozen intrigued by military tales'. Print Edition | Subscribe