On this day in 1927, Robert Ludlum, the author of more than 20 thrillers, including the Jason Bourne spy novels, is born in New York City. Ludlum, who published his first novel when he was in his 40s, sold more than 200 million books by the time of his death in 2001. Known for complex plots featuring conspiracies, corruption and world takeovers inspired by diabolical forces, Ludlum has been credited as one of the pioneers of the type of fast-paced, engaging and easy-to-read book that came to be dubbed an airport novel.
Growing up in New Jersey, Ludlum acted in school plays and as a teenager landed roles in professional theatrical productions. Following a stint in the U.S. Marines in the 1940s, he attended Wesleyan University, graduating in 1951. Afterward, he appeared in minor roles on Broadway and in television then began working as a theater producer. Ludlum eventually turned to writing and published his first novel, “The Scarlatti Inheritance,” in 1971. The book, about a group of business executives who fund Adolph Hitler’s Third Reich, was a commercial success.
Ludlum went on to turn out a long string of novels that made the best-seller lists, including “The Chancellor Manuscript” (1977), “The Icarus Agenda” (1988), “The Apocalypse Watch” (1995) and “The Prometheus Deception” (2000). Although he never earned a reputation as a masterful prose stylist, his suspenseful stories gripped a wide readership. As a critic for The Washington Post noted about one Ludlum novel: “It’s a lousy book. So I stayed up until 3 a.m. to finish it.”
In 1980, Ludlum’s “The Bourne Identity,” about a spy with amnesia who must discover why various people are trying to kill him, was released. It was followed by 1986’s “The Bourne Supremacy” and 1990’s “The Bourne Ultimatum.” All three novels were adapted for the big screen—with Matt Damon starring as Jason Bourne–and became box-office hits, with the first film debuting in 2002.
Ludlum died of a heart attack at age 73 on March 12, 2001, in Florida; however, his publishing empire continues to thrive. Some Ludlum novels have been released posthumously, while his Bourne and Covert-One series (about a top-secret U.S. agency that combats corruption and other threats) have carried on under the stewardship of other writers.