Robert C. O'Brien by Sally M. Conly

By Sally M. Conly

Source: Fourth Book of Junior Authors and Illustrators, 1978

January 11, 1918--March 5, 1973

Author of Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, etc.

Biographical sketch of Robert Leslie Conly, who wrote under the name of "Robert C. O'Brien," by Sally M. Conly:

Robert C. O'Brien was the pseudonym for Robert Leslie Conly who was born January 11, 1918, in Brooklyn, New York. He was the third of five children born to Leslie Marsland and Agnes O'Brien Conly. Both parents were well educated. Agnes O'Brien came from a well-to-do Irish Catholic family of lawyers and doctors in Rochester, New York, and was a graduate of Smith College. Leslie Marsland Conly graduated from the University of Rochester and met his wife when both were school teachers in Rochester. By the time Robert was born, however, his father had given up teaching for a job as a reporter on the New York Herald Tribune. He was to stay with the Tribune for the rest of his life, later becoming manager of the Tribune Fresh Air Fund, a charitable organization that operated summer camps for poor city children.

The mother also worked for the Fresh Air Fund as did the children when they were old enough to be counselors in the camps, and this strong bond with the New York Herald Tribune added to the literate, reading-writing atmosphere of the home.

When he was still a baby, the family moved to Amityville, Long Island, and Robert grew up there, attending a parochial school and, later, Amityville High School. As a child he was precocious and showed musical talent, but he was also sickly and fearful. He hated school and did not get along with his brothers and sisters, who considered him selfish and spoiled by an overly protective mother; but by the time he reached high school he was happier and more successful both in scholarship and in human relations. He was admired particularly for his wit and for his musical ability. He was not good at contact sports but he was a fast sprinter on the track team and an excellent swimmer. He was editor of the school paper and showed a great facility with words, especially for turning out verse.

In 1935 he entered Williams College, but the new situation brought stress and tensions, and he left college abruptly during his sophomore year. He worked briefly in Albany, New York, before drifting back to his family in disgrace--parents then being less tolerant of dropping out of college than they are now. It was an unhappy time, later referred to as his "breakdown," but in a few months he was feeling better, and he decided he really wanted to be a musician.

Robert had begun taking piano lessons in high school and now he resumed them, taking the train from Amityville into New York City to study at the Juiliard School of Music and to take extension courses at Columbia University. The following year his parents persuaded him to go back to college, this time to the University of Rochester where he could continue his music at the Eastman School but also get a B.A. in English at the university.

In the end, English won out. Although he always devoted much of his leisure time to music, he earned his living and made his greatest contribution writing English.

After graduating from the University of Rochester in 1940, and a brief stint in an advertising agency, he went to work for Newsweek magazine in New York City. World War II was imminent, and it was an exciting time for journalists. Protected from the draft by a 4F classification (based on both physical and psychological frailties), he was promoted from the clip desk to researcher to staff writer.

In 1943 he married Sally McCaslin, a researcher in the Books Department of Newsweek, and in 1944 they moved to Washington, D.C., where he became a reporter covering Capitol Hill for the old Washington Times-Herald.

For the next twenty-nine years--until his death from a heart attack in 1973--he lived and worked as an editor and writer in the Washington area.

He worked as a writer but not as a writer of fiction. He covered national and city news for the Times-Herald and later for Pathfinder News, magazine. Then in 1951 he joined the staff of the National Geographic magazine where the stories he wrote or edited encompassed the world. He wrote fiction only in the last ten years of his life.

Before that time he had other interests: a growing family (he had a son, Christopher, born 1944, and three daughters--Jane born in 1948, Sarah, in 1952, and Catherine, in 1958), music, reading, furniture making, and most important to his books, a growing interest in the world of nature.

He came to this interest late. Although he had spent his adolescent summers in camps, as a counselor and swimming instructor, he had grown up surprisingly oblivious to all but man-made creations. He did not know the names of birds or trees, and it was a family joke that he called all flowers hydrangeas. at the same time he was attracted to the quiet of the country and felt the need to escape from the pressures of job and city.

In 1950 he bought a weekend place, a small house with seventeen neglected acres on the North Anna River in an isolated section of Spotsylvania Country, Virginia. It was here that he began, for the first time, to feel a connection with the river, the woods and the wild animals around him.

After three years of traveling to the country on weekends, he and his family opted for full-time rural living. They gave up the weekend place and bought a small farm near the Potomac River within commuting distance of Washington. Here they raised chickens and ducks, chopped wood and built fences, kept horses and a cow. Conly even learned to milk the cow, although he never did get on well with large animals. They made him nervous and he made them nervous (he used to vow the most docile horse bit or kicked if he got in its vicinity). He liked small animals and birds, and his favorite of the many family pets was a small sparrow named Jenny which one of his children had raised from a fledgling and which, for several years, occupied a cage in the dining room.

Robert C. O'Brien, the writer, was to draw on all these experiences and to recreate them in his books with the most painstaking detail. He also, in one of his books, A Report From Group 17, used the physical locale of this farm as the setting of the book.

In the ten years spent there, Robert Conly often talked of writing a novel. Sometimes he started a short story. but he already had more work than he could do--his job at the Geographic, the daily drive in and out of Washington, the endless chores of a house in the country.

Then in the early 1960's he got an eye disease, glaucoma, the treatment of which affected his eyes so that he could no longer drive after dark. There was no public transportation, and during the winter months he could not get home from work. The problem was resolved in 1963 with another move, this time back to the city.

Robert Conly was now living fifteen minute from his office, in a modern brick house on a city lot. Although he would again acquire a weekend retreat, on the Cacapou River in West Virginia, he suddenly had time on his hands and he began systematically to plan and to write a novel for children. That book, The Silver Crown, was published by Atheneum in 1968. It was followed in 1971 by Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, which won the Newbery Medal. In 1972 Atheneum published his adult suspense novel, A Report From Group 17, which was picked as an alternate by the Book-of-the-Month Club. His latest book, Z for Zachariah, was published posthumously by Atheneum in 1975.

He managed this steady output in spite of a full-time job with the National Geographic by giving up most social life and by writing at least a few paragraphs every day, Sundays and holidays included.

He chose to write under a pen name because the Geographic frowned on outside writing by members of its staff; and, until his death, it was not generally known that Robert L. Conly, Senior Assistant Editor of the National Geographic Magazine and Robert C. O'Brien, fiction writer, were one and the same.

He chose the name O'Brien because it was his mother's name and because in his Irishness, in his Catholicism, and in his complex, creative temperament, he identified very much with that side of the family.

Two aspects of Robert C. O'Brien's writing seem closely related to his actual life--one, his fascination with the lore of nature, which he so lovingly details, and two, his sympathy for and understanding of children. Perhaps harking back to his own struggle to grow up, he never forgot what it was like to be young and vulnerable; and he is able to make the reader share his concern for the weak and defenseless whether his characters are animal or human.

Robert C. O'Brien died March 5, 1973 at the age of fifty-fife.