NEW YORK — In 1985, a year after the Cold War thriller “The Hunt for Red October” came out, Tom Clancy was invited to lunch at the White House, where he was questioned by Navy Secretary John Lehman.
Who, the secretary wanted to know, gave Clancy access to all that secret material?
Clancy, the best-selling novelist who died Tuesday in Baltimore at 66, insisted then, and after, that his information was strictly unclassified: books, interviews and papers that were easily accessed. Also, two submarine officers reviewed the final manuscript.
Government officials may have worried how Clancy knew that a Russian submarine spent only around 15 percent of its time at sea or how many SS-N-20 Seahawk missiles it carried.
But his extreme attention to technical detail earned him respect inside the intelligence community and beyond and helped make Clancy the most widely read and influential military novelist of his time, one who seemed to capture a shift in the country’s mood away from the CIA misdeeds that came out in the 1970s to the heroic feats of Clancy’s most famous creation, CIA analyst Jack Ryan.
Several of his novels, including “The Hunt for Red October,” ”Patriot Games” and “Clear and Present Danger,” were later made into blockbuster movies, with another, “Jack Ryan,” set for release on Christmas.
“Fundamentally, I think of myself as a storyteller, not a writer,” Clancy once said. “I think about the characters I’ve created, and then I sit down and start typing and see what they will do. There’s a lot of subconscious thought that goes on. It amazes me to find out, a few chapters later, why I put someone in a certain place when I did. It’s spooky.”
A tall, trim figure given to wearing sunglasses that made him look like a fighter pilot, Clancy had such a sure grasp of defense technology and spycraft that many readers were convinced he served in the military. But his experience was limited to ROTC classes in college. Near-sightedness kept him out of active duty.
A political conservative who once referred to Ronald Reagan as “my president,” Clancy broke through commercially during a tense period of the Cold War, and with the help of Reagan himself.
In 1982, he began working on “The Hunt for Red October,” drawing inspiration from a real-life 1975 mutiny aboard a Soviet missile frigate. He sold the manuscript to the first publisher he tried, the Naval Institute Press, which had never bought original fiction.
In real life, the uprising was put down, but in Clancy’s book, a Soviet submarine skipper hands the vessel over to the U.S. and defects.
Someone thought enough of the novel to give it to Reagan as a Christmas gift. The president quipped at a dinner that he was losing sleep because he couldn’t put the book down — a statement Clancy later said helped put him on the New York Times best-seller list.
“What happened to me was pure dumb luck. I’m not the new Hemingway,” Clancy later said in an interview with the American Movie Channel.
“Of course, fortune does favor the brave. In battle, you forgive a man anything except an unwillingness to take risks. Sometimes you have to put it on the line. What I did was take time away from how I earned my living. My wife gave me hell. ‘Why are you doing this?’ But she doesn’t complain anymore.”
Clancy said his dream had been simply to publish a book, hopefully a good one, so that he would be in the Library of Congress catalog. His dreams were answered many times over.
His novels were dependable hits, his publisher estimating worldwide sales at more than 100 million copies.
Alec Baldwin, Ben Affleck and Harrison Ford were among the actors who played Jack Ryan on screen. The upcoming movie stars Chris Pine with Kenneth Branagh directing. Keira Knightly plays his wife and Kevin Costner plays his mentor at the CIA.
He often played off — and sometimes anticipated — world events, as in the pre-9/11 paranoid thriller “Debt of Honor,” in which a jumbo jet destroys the U.S. Capitol during a joint meeting of Congress.
In 1996, a year before President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky was revealed, Clancy’s “Executive Orders” imagined a sex scandal that helped lead to Ryan’s becoming president.
He started off writing about the Russians, but also told stories of drug cartels, Irish-British tensions and Islamic terrorism.
He also wrote nonfiction works on the military and even ventured into video games, including the best-selling “Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Future Soldier,” ”Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Conviction” and “Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Double Agent.”
His recent Jack Ryan novels were collaborations with Mark Greaney, including “Threat Vector” and a release scheduled for December, “Command Authority.”
As of midday Wednesday, “Command Authority” ranked No. 35 on Amazon’s best-seller list.
Born in Baltimore on April 12, 1947, to a mailman and his wife, Clancy entered Loyola College as a physics major but switched to English as a sophomore. He later said that he wasn’t smart enough for the rigors of science, although he clearly mastered it in his fiction.
After school, he worked in an insurance office that had military clients. By the early 1980s he had written a piece about the MX missile system that was published by the Naval Institute. Boredom with his job led him to try writing fiction.
Clancy stayed close to home. He lived in rural Calvert County, Md., and in 1993 he joined a group of investors led by Baltimore lawyer Peter Angelos who bought the Baltimore Orioles.
Clancy also attempted to bring an NFL team to Baltimore in 1993 but later dropped out.