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Saturday, December 21, 1991 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Author Ernest Gann, 81; Enjoyed His Second Career As A Painter

Times Staff: AP

In an interview last spring, Ernest K. Gann told Seattle Times reporter Don Duncan he had "said about all there is to say in books. God bless the man who knows when he's said enough and isn't tempted to say more."

In failing health from liver, kidney and heart problems, he faced his canvases each day, knowing that it might be his last.

On Thursday he died at 81 at his ranch on San Juan Island.

"If it all ends tomorrow," he said earlier this year, "I'm pretty happy with what I've accomplished in a short time. These aren't just Sunday afternoon paintings. I'd like to be an inspiration to older people, to let them know that a second career is possible at any age."

Mr. Gann, one of America's foremost authors, moved to San Juan Island from the San Francisco area 25 years ago in search of solitude.

On the island, which he called "the last civilized place in the world," he continued writing but also acquired his second career as a painter.

But writing was his greatest legacy.

Of his 23 books, many were made into films, including "The High and the Mighty," starring John Wayne; "The Aviator," starring Christopher Reeves; "Twilight for the Gods"; "Fate is the Hunter"; "Soldier of Fortune"; and "Blaze at Noon." Another, "The Antagonists," was the basis for the TV miniseries "Masada."

Mr. Gann died on his 800-acre ranch on San Juan Island, said Lynne Rogers, a close friend and spokeswoman for the family.

His last book, "The Black Watch," was about the U.S. spy plane, the U2, which he piloted at 70,000 feet at age 69.

A review of "Gentlemen of Adventure" in the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1983 described Mr. Gann as "the Stephen King of aviation. Gann doesn't write horror, per se, but he can scare you so much that it's a wonder anybody who reads his stuff ever gets the nerve to fly."

Mr. Gann called himself "a real flag-waver" and "a sentimental guy" who "can't write graphic sex to save my neck." He also referred to himself as "as social porcupine."

He credited his emergence as an artist to Howard Rosenfeld, who owns the Atelier Gallerie in Friday Harbor and began displaying Mr. Gann's paintings and sketches several summers ago.

"He was a dear old friend," Rosenfeld said yesterday.

Rosenfeld met Mr. Gann 20 years ago in Sausilito, Calif. He also was a friend of Mr. Gann's oldest son, George, who was swept off an oil tanker and lost in the Gulf of Alaska in 1973.

In deference to Mr. Gann, Rosenfeld removed the price tags from the artist's paintings on display in his gallery yesterday.

Rosenfeld, who stayed in Mr. Gann's guest house when he first came to the island, said Mr. Gann learned from his mother to paint at an early age and carried a sketch book wherever he went.

His paintings of sea scenes, flying and other subjects, signed simply "Gann," became collectors' items and sold for up to $5,000.

"Painting was a real passion with him, and he really did it well," Rosenfeld said. "He threw color and brush strokes to really capture a subject and the variety of his subjects was just amazing."

The important thing, Mr. Gann said, "is that people do something, that they get away from sitting in front of the (TV) box and letting their life ooze away."

Aviator, sailor and world traveler, he did everything at full throttle.

He also was a perfectionist who would wipe out a day's painting with a rag dipped in turnpentine if he didn't like it.

"Either way, writing or painting, it hurts like hell," Mr. Gann once said.

He made his first parachute jump on his 77th birthday, despite having had a five-way heart bypass.

He was born Oct. 13, 1910, in Lincoln, Neb., the son of a telephone-company executive who helped found Northwest Airlines.

But Mr. Gann refused to heed his father's wishes to head for the corporate suite.

From Culver Military Academy in Indiana, he enrolled at Yale Drama School, dropped out after two years, directed Hollywood screen tests and began flying with Burgess Meredith and dancer Paul Draper.

American Airlines hired him as a pilot in 1938. From 1942 to 1946 he flew all over the world for the allied Air Transport Command in World War II.

His first account of his experiences, describing the rescue of a downed plane in the Arctic, was published in 1944 as "Island in the Sky" and almost overnight became a bestseller.

After a three-year commercial fishing venture, Mr. Gann rejoined American but quit flying commercially in 1954 after logging 20,000 hours in the air.

On one occasion, he recalled, he had flown with four crippled engines over the Pacific and another time narrowly missed crashing into the Taj Mahal.

Boats were another passion. At one time or another he owned 21, including a triple-masted schooner, steel-hulled Dutch Brigantine and a refitted tugboat.

"He never sat down and put his feet up," recalled Andrew V. McLaglen of Friday Harbor, a friend for 38 years. "He always made himself look forward to something in the future.

Last year, Mr. Gann and his second wife, Dodie, donated to the San Juan Preservation Trust 760 acres of farmland, the largest single area protected by the trust.

In addition to his wife, who was with him when he died, Mr. Gann is survived by a son, Steven, who lives in the Monterey, Calif., area; two daughters, Alison Crimmin of the San Francisco Bay area and Polly Wrench of Houston; and grandsons Christopher and Conrad, both of the San Francisco Bay area.

There will be no public funeral, and the family asked that memorial donations be sent to the Animal Protection Society in Friday Harbor, said Rogers, who had gone for a walk with Mr. Gann on the island Wednesday.

Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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