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Les Whitten '50: A novel approach to life

Lehigh taught Les Whitten '50 about the skeletons of novels and poems, skeletons upon which he crafted books about vampires and werewolves. One of his books, Moon of the Wolf, made it to Hollywood by way of a 1970s "ABC Movie of the Week."

The screen version--which starred the late David Janssen (the original Dr. Richard Kimble on TV's The Fugitive)--was recently released on DVD, bringing the supernatural tale to a whole new generation.

"You can write a real thriller, but it's not really very good until you get deeper and deeper into the characters and you put yourself in their shoes. I learned that in my course on novels at Lehigh," says Whitten, who currently lives--and still writes--in Silver Springs, Md.

Whitten started out as a civil engineering major at Lehigh, but after three semesters and then a stint in the army, he realized his true calling and returned to campus as a joint English and journalism major. He also had a stint as the editor-in-chief of The Brown and White.

The author's first novel, which was a college novel based somewhat on his days at Lehigh, was never published, but it still lives in the archives at Linderman Library. "I realized after 400 pages that it was going to be 800 pages and pretty dull, so I stopped," he says.

But Whitten certainly didn't stop writing. "I was devoted," he says. "I would sit down and write to the point that I literally had to rise slowly out of my chair to prevent myself from falling."

That hard work paid off: Whitten went on to successfully publish 17 books, including books of poetry, a biography, a children's book, and the murder mystery, Moon of the Wolf.

"I was always both frightened and intrigued by things like Frankenstein and Dracula when I was a kid," Whitten says. In researching his first vampire book, Progeny of the Adder, which was successful and well-reviewed by The New York Times, he also dug up a lot on werewolves.

"So I called Doubleday and told them I was thinking of doing a book on werewolves and they said, 'Terrific.'"

Whitten decided to put his werewolf in the swamps of Mississippi, where he had lived at age 11. "And I made the hero into a sheriff because I knew a lot about police work because as a reporter I had covered the courts for The Washington Post."

Whitten's agent thought the story had star quality, and he sent it out to Hollywood, where it was transformed into a TV movie featuring Janssen and Barbara Rush. It eventually was released on beta, VHS, and DVD.

The author sold his story to a Hollywood producer outright, so he hasn't monetarily benefited from the many times it's been shown around the world. But he doesn't seem to much care.

"I made a lot of money with my other books and as a reporter," he says. "And I've had a life anyone would envy. I can't believe I've had 76 years this good."

Whitten credits Lehigh with playing a key role in setting him on the path to the good life. "I was clay and made into a statue of sorts ... crafted into a writer and a poet and a novelist. Maybe it would have happened had I attended a different school, but I don't know.

"And I was a piece of work at Lehigh--here's an engineering school with this guy who is in love with literature. I used to go up in the stacks at Linderman Library and it was like Carl Sandburg writing about the cool tombs. When I got up there in that library, I was in pig heaven. I could look at all the book covers. And I loved Lehigh because of its unconditional love--Lehigh let me be whoever I wanted to be as long as I produced."

--Elizabeth Shimer

Lehigh Alumni Bulletin
Winter 2005

Posted on Tuesday, February 01, 2005

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