Paul Zindel Is Dead at 66; Prize-Winning Playwright
By James Barron
Published: March 29, 2003
Paul Zindel, who drew on memories of his troubled childhood on Staten Island for a prize-winning play with a tongue-twisting title, ''The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds,'' died on Thursday at the Jacob Perlow Hospice at Beth Israel Medical Center in Manhattan. He was 66.
The cause was cancer, said his daughter, Lizabeth Zindel.
Mr. Zindel had been a high school chemistry teacher for six years, demonstrating basic chemical reactions and explaining concepts like atomic numbers and covalent bonds, when ''The Effect of Gamma Rays'' opened in Houston. As with other plays that were staged before he quit teaching in 1969, he had written it in his spare time and seemed to relish his outsider status -- he never went to the theater, he said, until he was already a published playwright.
''The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds'' was ''one of the most discouraging titles yet devised,'' Clive Barnes said in his review in The New York Times. The play focused on an abusive, beleaguered mother and her two daughters, one with unexpected scientific talent, the other with instincts that mirror the mother's. Mr. Zindel contrasted the marigolds one daughter grows for a science project -- marigolds that had been exposed to radiation, and grow abnormally -- to the family, which mirrored his own.
''Our home was a house of fear,'' Mr. Zindel once said. ''Mother never trusted anybody, and ours wasn't the kind of house someone could get into by knocking on the front door. A knock at the door would send mother, sister and me running to a window to peek out.'' He said his mother conditioned him to believe that the world was out to get him, and he retreated into a secret world of puppet shows in cardboard boxes.
Mr. Zindel was born on May 15, 1936, in Tottenville, Staten Island. His father was a police officer who abandoned the family. Mr. Zindel's mother, a nurse who also worked as a shipyard laborer, hat-check attendant and dog breeder, took in dying patients as boarders. Mr. Zindel did not read much as a child and said he he wrote for people who did not like to read.
He wrote plays and sketches in high school, including one about a pianist who recovers from a serious illness and is acclaimed for playing ''The Warsaw Concerto'' at Carnegie Hall. ''For this literary achievement, I was awarded a Parker pen,'' Mr. Zindel recalled in 1970. He also took a creative writing course with the playwright Edward Albee while he was an undergraduate. But his bachelor's and master's degrees were in chemistry, both from Wagner College, which later awarded him an honorary doctorate.
''The Effect of Gamma Rays'' opened Off Broadway in 1970. The following year, it moved to Broadway, where it ran for 819 performances. It won Mr. Zindel an Obie Award in 1970 for Best American Play and a Pulitzer Prize in 1971, and he wrote the screenplay for the film version, which was directed by Paul Newman and starred Joanne Woodward. The play has been revived by the Jean Cocteau Rep at the Bouwerie Lane Theater in Manhattan; the next performance is on Friday.
Mr. Zindel wrote several other plays in the 1970's and 1980's, though none was the success that ''The Effect of Gamma Rays'' was. He also wrote novel after novel for teenagers. His first, ''The Pigman'' (1968), focused on two alienated teenagers who take advantage of an old man -- another situation that was autobiographical, he said. He followed ''The Pigman'' with a string of works that included ''My Darling, My Hamburger'' (1969), ''I Never Loved Your Mind'' (1970), ''Pardon Me, You're Stepping on My Eyeball'' (1976), ''Confessions of a Teenage Baboon'' (1977) and ''The Undertaker's Gone Bananas'' (1978).
Mr. Zindel married Bonnie Hildebrand, a novelist, in 1973. They were divorced in 1998. Besides his daughter, he is survived by a son, David, of Los Angeles, and a sister, Betty Hagen, of Edison, N.J.
For his novels, Mr. Zindel said, he reworked experiences from his high-school teaching days, but in ''The Effects of Gamma Rays,'' the character Beatrice ''really conveys my mother and the house I lived in.''
''Like my mother, Beatrice was a scorned woman whose husband had left her, and who was left to raise two kids who were like a stone around her neck. She felt that the world was lurking out there to ridicule her clothes and to attack her with unkindness.''
She seemed to think he had done the same thing when he read the play to her. ''At the end of it she said, 'How could you? How could you expose me to the world as a kleptomaniac and a manic-depressive nurse?' '' he recalled in an interview last year with School Library Journal. ''I felt so badly the way she had been hurt. But then she asked, 'Who is going to play me on television?' When I told her Eileen Heckart'' -- who won a Golden Globe award and was nominated for an Academy Award for the 1956 thriller ''The Bad Seed'' -- ''she said, 'Oh! Well, that's wonderful, then.' My mother only cared which actress was going to play her.''