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Arthur Hailey, 84, novelist who wrote 'Airport,' 'Hotel'

NASSAU, Bahamas -- Arthur Hailey, author of "Airport," "Hotel," and other novels that became movies, died Wednesday at his home in Lyford Cay on New Providence Island. He was 84.

Mr. Hailey, who plucked characters from ordinary life and threw them into extraordinary ordeals, suffered a stroke in his sleep, his wife, Sheila, said doctors had told her.

"Arthur was a very humble man, but was delighted with the letters he used to get from readers praising his books," she said. "He was incredibly proud of them."

Mr. Hailey's knack for turning the mundane into thrilling tales brought 11 books published in 40 countries and 38 languages, with 170 million copies in print.

He used the nitty-gritty of bank procedures and hotel management as backdrops for page-turning plots, preferring real-life characters such as managers and doctors to vampires and spies.

"I don't think I really invented anybody," Mr. Hailey said in a 2001 interview. "I have drawn on real life."

In the 1968 novel "Airport," airport official Mel Bakersfield faces a crisis when a mad bomber boards a flight. "Airport" later hit movie screens, with Burt Lancaster starring as Bakersfield and Dean Martin as a womanizing pilot.

The film opened the door for other disaster movies of the 1970s.

Other novels made into movies include "Wheels," "The Moneychangers," and "Strong Medicine."

Born April 5, 1920, in Luton, England, Mr. Hailey had to stop school at 14 because his parents could not afford to send him beyond England's free education system. He served as a pilot in the Royal Air Force during World War II, flying patrol fighters in the Middle East and transport planes in India.

Mr. Hailey left England in 1947 for Canada, where he later received citizenship (while retaining his British citizenship) and worked as a sales promotion manager for a tractor-trailer manufacturer in Toronto. He quit to write television screenplays.

"My mind has always been a storyteller's mind," Mr. Hailey said in 2001.

His first novel, "The Final Diagnosis," was published in 1959 -- about a hospital pathologist who causes an infant's death by mistake.

Critics praised Mr. Hailey's research but sometimes said his writing was cliched. Reviewing his 1979 novel "Overload" -- about an energy crisis -- one critic wrote in The Globe and Mail of Toronto: "His lack of literary finesse is overcome by his unerring instinct for a hot subject."

Mr. Hailey and his wife settled in the Bahamas in 1969. In later years, he stopped writing for the mass market, but still wrote as a hobby.

Sheila Hailey said her husband's memory began deteriorating after two heart surgeries in recent years and a stroke two months ago.

"I began to grieve about eight weeks ago for him. He was not the man I knew and loved," she said.

Mr. Hailey had four sons and two daughters from two marriages.

His body would be cremated in a private ceremony in Nassau this weekend, she said.

Sheila Hailey said she and his children plan a party to celebrate his life in January, as was his wish.

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