Noah Gordon, the American writer who was almost unknown in his homeland but whose accounts of history, medicine and Jewish identity turned him into a literary star overseas, died Monday at his home in Dedham, Massachusetts, at the age of 95.
His wife, Lauren Gordon, confirmed his death.
Gordon’s first novel, “The Rabbi” (1965), which dealt with the title character’s marriage to the daughter of a minister, was deposited for 26 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. But most of his subsequent eight books were less successful when they were published locally, although they have since spread as e-books.
“When I started, my market was America: you either made it in America or you didn’t make it,” he told The Times in 1996. “Okay, now your market is the world.”
Michael Gordon, his son and literary agent, said in an email that Gordon’s books have sold about 25 million copies in 34 languages.
Mr. Gordon “The Doctor” (1986) – the first book in a dynasty trilogy that began in Persia in the eleventh century, continued through the American Civil War with “Shaman” (1992) and ended with a modern physician dealing with morals. Abortion in Questions of Choice (1996) – The initial print run was only 10,000 copies in the United States.
But it eventually sold about 10 million copies, including over six million copies in Germany, where, in the 1990s, six of Mr. Gordon’s novels were on bestseller lists simultaneously.
In 2013, “The Doctor” was adapted into a German film, in English, starring Tom Payne, Stellan Skarsgård, and Ben Kingsley. An award-winning musical based on the book is about to tour Spain.
The novel, which is based on careful research, follows the saga of the eleventh century Scottish protagonist, Robert Jeremy Cole, who wants to study medicine in the Middle East, where medical schools are reputed to be more advanced than those in Western Europe. Since Christians are banned from entering Islamic schools, Cole disguises himself as a Jew.
The success of the book, even abroad, was just a coincidence. Just prior to the publication date, Mr. Gordon’s editor at Simon & Schuster departed and his agent retired. But Karl H. Blessing, who was working with Darrummer Knorr, a German publisher, was fascinated by the book and invested heavily in promoting it.
“While Gordon has been published in 38 countries, Spain and Germany, where he is very popular, are two countries that wrestle with a history of anti-Semitism,” Andrew Silverstein wrote in The Forward this year. “While not all of Gordon’s eight books contain Jewish themes, most do have Jewish themes, and his Judaism is well known, which may play a part in his popularity in these two countries.”
Mr. Gordon won the Spanish Basque Silver twice for his bestselling book, in 1992 and 1995. His novels were also popular in Italy and Brazil.
His latest novel, The Winemaker, the story of factions vying for the Spanish throne at the end of the 19th century, was published in 2012.
Mr. Gordon’s “Shaman” won the James Fenimore Cooper Award from the Association of American Historians as Best Historical Novel for 1991 and 1992. It was praised by Peter Blauner in The New York Times Book Review, writing that Mr. Gordon “casts it in all the twists and turns he’d come to expect.” Readers are in for a historical drama, but he takes corners with a measured sense of speed and irony.” It was a bestseller in Europe only.
Noah Gordon was born on November 11, 1926 in Worcester, Massachusetts, to Robert Gordon, a pawnbroker who emigrated from Russia, and Rose (Melnikov) Gordon, a salesperson.
He served in the army during World War II, but the war ended before he could be transferred to the Pacific. He attended Boston University as GI Bill, and his parents hoped that he would study to become a doctor. But he lasted one semester of Pre-Medicine before turning his major to journalism.
“Since childhood I have had two ambitions of my own,” Mr. Gordon wrote on his website. “I wanted to be a journalist, and I longed to write the kind of novels that made me love books.”
He received a Bachelor of Science in Journalism in 1950, then remained at the university to receive an MA in English and Creative Writing the following year.
Moving to New York City, he worked as an editor at Avon Publishing and then at an illustrated magazine called Focus.
He married Lauren C., who was a student at Clark University when they met in Boston. In addition to her, he is survived by their two daughters Liz Gordon (who worked with him on the screenplay for “The Doctor”) and Jamie Beth Gordon. their son Michael; and four grandchildren. A sister and a brother died before him.
Several years later, the couple returned to Massachusetts, where Mr. Gordon worked for The Worcester Telegram. He was then appointed scientific editor of The Boston Herald after he wrote articles, on his own initiative, on medical achievements. He began working on “The Rabbi” in his spare time while editing a medical journal when his agent said the publisher had accepted a modest advance for “The Rabbi.”
He wrote his second novel, The Death Commission, about three young doctors at a Boston hospital, while he was editing another publication, The Journal of Human Stress. (“Death Commission” was also a Times bestseller, though only for a brief period.) He gave up editing in 1975 and started his third novel, The Jerusalem Diamond.
For years, he was writing from a farm in Ashfield, Massachusetts, in Berkshire, until he returned to Boston in 1995.
“Every morning I go to my computer in anticipation of the emails I receive from readers in many countries,” Mr. Gordon wrote on his website. “I am grateful to every reader for allowing me to spend my life as a storyteller.”