The Astonishing Life and Times of CLIVE CUSSLER, “The Grandmaster of Adventure”

The Astonishing Life and Times of CLIVE CUSSLER, “The Grandmaster of Adventure” 

 By Michael Barson, with the assistance of Dirk Cussler and Wayne Valero

Forty years ago, a modest, small print-run paperback was published with little notice. Written in the back of a southern California dive shop, the book opened with a World War I era German Albatross D-3 biplane strafing Brady Air Force Base on the Greek island of Thásos , destroying its fleet of F-105 Starfire fighters, and crippling the base. Thus began The Mediterranean Caper, the debut novel of Clive Cussler that introduced Dirk Pitt, Al Giordino, and the fictional National Underwater Marine Agency (aka NUMA). The Mediterranean Caper was nominated for Best Original Paperback of 1973 by the Mystery Writers of America. While the book failed to win, the MWA nomination provided Cussler with a much needed boost of confidence. Three years later came the publication of Raise the Titanic!, Cussler’s breakout bestseller that would firmly establish his intrepid hero, Dirk Pitt, as one of the leading lights in contemporary adventure fiction.

From left: Dirk Cussler, Wayne Valero, Michael Barson & Clive at the Tattered Cover, Dec. 6, 2004

As a result of his worldwide success and fame, Cussler formed the National Underwater Marine Agency (NUMA) in 1979, a 501C3 non-profit organization dedicated to preserving maritime and naval history. Among the nearly seventy wrecks found, Cussler and his NUMA crew also located such notable ships as the Belgian transport ship, Leopoldville. Originally a passenger liner converted for use as a troopship in the Second World War, the Leopoldville was struck on Christmas Eve, 1944, by a torpedo in the English Channel, near the coast of Cherbourg, France . As a result, approximately 763 soldiers died. 

Perhaps NUMA’s most celebrated discovery was the H.L. Hunley, the Confederate submarine that, in 19864, sunk the Union ship the U.S.S. Housatonic with a spar torpedo—the first submarine in history ever to sink a ship. The Hunley disappeared shortly after, but in 1995 its preserved remains were discovered buried in the silt off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina. That discovery, combined with the #1 success of his nonfiction book The Sea Hunters, earned Cussler a profile on the CBS Sunday Morning show in 1997. 

 In November of 2000, Cussler announced that NUMA had located the remains of the General Slocum. On June 15, 1904, the General Slocum caught fire and sank in New York ’s East River . An estimated 1,021 of the 1,342 people on board perished. The General Slocum disaster was the New York area’s worst disaster in terms of loss of life until the September 11, 2001 attacks. It remains the worst maritime disaster in the city’s history.

In 1995 some of these discoveries were assembled in Cussler’s first non-fiction book, The Sea Hunters. Written with Crais Dirgo, it provided NUMA enthusiasts around the globe with an insider’s glimpse into Cussler’s yen to search for lost shipwrecks, and became Cussler’s first book to hit the number one spot on The New York Times bestseller list. 

The book also captured the interest of the Board of Governor’s of the Maritime College in New York. Because of its historical content, along with the undeniable results of his aquatic research which it documents, the Board of Governors considered The Sea Hunters as the equivalent of a Ph.D. thesis, and so voted to award Cussler an Honorary Doctor of Letters degree on May 10, 1997. It was the first time since the College was founded in 1874 that such a degree was bestowed. Cussler had to wait until December 6, 1999 to accept the award in person.  The Sea Hunters paved the way for a second volume, which became a national bestseller in 2002. 

Cussler made publishing headlines when he decamped from his longtime publisher Simon & Schuster to join G.P. Putnam’s in 1998. His first book for Putnam was the Dirk Pitt adventure Atlantis Found, which would have been #1 on The New York Times’s December lists were it not for the first three volumes of the Harry Potter series taking up the first three slots. After that scenario, the Times created a separate bestseller list for Children’s books.

In addition to the Dirk Pitt adventures, which he began co-writing with son Dirk with 2004’s Black Wind, Clive Cussler was also the driving force behind four other continuing series. Each benefitted from the unique perspective of its talented co-authors. Originally written with NUMA trustee and Sea Hunters co-author Craig Dirgo, The Oregon Files passed into hands of Jack Du Brul, creator of the Philip Mercer series. At first, The NUMA Files was penned with Shamus Award winning writer Paul Kemprecos, and then was continued by Graham Brown, author of the Hawker/Laidlaw adventure novels. After writing The Chase, Cussler teamed up with Justin Scott, a prolific writer of sea stories, to keep the Isaac Bell series on track. The Fargo series began with co-writer Grant Blackwood, after which Cussler teamed with Edgar award-winning author Tom Perry. In addition to those best-selling action/adventure series, Cussler also penned two children’s series, The Adventures of Vin Fiz and The Adventures of Hotsy Totsy.

A longtime collector of vintage automobiles, Cussler owned more than 100 of the finest examples of classic ’30s and ’40s coachwork and ’50s convertibles to be found anywhere. The original collection was opened as a museum in 2005 in Arvada, Colorado under the management of his daughter Teri, showcasing ultra-rare automobiles from all over the world. This much-admired collection of cars built between 1906 and 1965 was featured in the 2011 coffee-table book Built for Adventure: The Classic Automobiles of Clive Cussler and Dirk Pitt. Cussler’s favorite classic car? He never said… But if he had to get rid of every car in the collection except for one, Cussler might have given a nod to his 1929 4 ½ liter Bentley Blower.

Believing that a society of thriller writers was long overdue, Clive and Dirk Cussler eagerly became patron members of the International Thriller Writers (ITW) Association. Later, in recognition of his legendary career and outstanding contributions to the thriller genre, the ITW bestowed its highest honor to Cussler in 2006—the ThrillerMaster.

Clive and the Cussler Kids: From left: Teri Cussler, Clive, Dayna and Dirk

In November, 2011, Cussler joined four other critically acclaimed thriller writers—Andrew Peterson, Sandra Brown, Kathy Reichs, and Mark Bowden—on a week-long USO/Armed Forces Entertainment tour to Afghanistan . Designed to lift the spirits of deployed troops, the tour, fittingly known as “Operation Thriller II,” featured a series of base visits and autograph signings. During their time in the Middle East , the group shared tips on writing, posed for photos, met with hundreds of Marines, soldiers, airmen, sailors and reservists, and distributed copies of their books to the troops.

Under son Dirk Cussler’s direction, NUMA continues to search the North Sea for the Bonhomme Richard, the ship on which John Paul Jones stood and declared, “I have not yet begun to fight!” It is also still searching for the wreckage of Northwest Flight 2501—the Douglas DC-4 prop-liner that crashed into Lake Michigan off the coast of South Haven in 1950. At the time, Flight 2501 was considered America ’s worst commercial aviation disaster, and today remains one America’s most mysterious plane crashes.

In November 2012, Clive Cussler was inducted into the International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame. Cussler had come a long way from when he and his Air Force buddies learned to dive while stationed in Oahu in the early 1950s. There, they ordered what they were told was the first tank and regulator to be shipped Honolulu. After picking it up in a crate from the sporting-goods store, they rushed back to an aircraft maintenance hangar where they pumped 200 pounds of stale air from a compressor into the tank. Then they took turns diving off a reef in 20 feet of water. Those were the days before scuba certification by qualified instructors, and it’s a wonder Cussler and crew didn’t suffer any number of diving maladies. Air embolisms and decompression times were vague terms and weren’t seriously considered by most sport divers in 1951. Once inducted into the International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame, Cussler joined such famous honorees as Sea Hunt’s Lloyd Bridges and underwater explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau.

As The New York Times noted in its prominent obituary of Clive on February 26/27, Clive had written more than 85 books when he passed away on the 24th at the age of 88. Let’s just call it 88 books, then, to keep it neat. After all, the ‘88’ was also a classic car during the Fifties, the decade when Clive reached adulthood and began his long journey to international prominence, fame and fortune. It is only fitting that his passing was noted on ABC’s World News Tonight on February 27th.

Clive Cussler leaves behind several generations of fans, who used to turn up in droves when he was on his national bookstore tours. Just as the phrase goes, those fans would run from ages 8 to 80. There was nothing Clive liked better than signing books for a family represented by a grandfather, a son, and a few grandsons and/or granddaughters. Because in our imaginations, adventure knows no age. And Clive was the emperor of grand adventures that fueled millions upon millions of imaginations. 

And now, home is the sailor, home from the sea..

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