Letter from Argentina
Ex-Pat Author’s Life Matches His Fiction
BUENOS AIRES -- Andover. Yale Law School. Wall Street. That was the life scripted for him by his father so many years ago. But Warren Kiefer had other ideas, and they didn't include pin-striped suits or 9 a.m. board meetings.
"It was my anti-father stance," he says, emitting a raspy, deep-throated chuckle. "I was rebellious."
From where he sits — in a penthouse apartment in South America's finest city, Kiefer can afford to laugh. Rich? No. But very content. Kiefer, you see, is that rarest of artists - a fiction writer who actually makes a living selling books. To date, he's written eight. One just missed being a best-seller. Critics like his work - so does Hollywood.
Kiefer is 62 but looks older. He survived a war and two marriages, has worked hard in several professions, seen the world and then some, and enjoyed himself along the way. He has a ruddy complexion, and although he’s not a big man he has strong hands and thick arms. He’s not someone you’d want to tangle with in a bar fight. Speaking of which, it’s early on a summer afternoon but not too early for Kiefer’s well-stocked bar to be open.
Over scotch – on the rocks – he tells his story but starts at the end: "I’ve lived my own book."
Born in Connecticut and raised in New Mexico, Kiefer made it to Andover but was detoured from Yale. Rather, he followed his heart and studied journalism at the University of New Mexico. While in school he worked as a freelancer for the Associated Press.
Writing was his passion, but he had other interests. One was flying. Following college, Kiefer joined the Marines and soon found himself in the air over Korea during the war. He was a crackerjack pilot. At 24, he made captain, the second youngest in Marine’s history at the time.
Displaying a competitive streak, Kiefer says: "I was pissed off I wasn't the youngest."
Twenty years later, he took great pleasure in reading in a London newspaper that Charles Colson, President Nixon’s former special counsel, had earned a prison term for his role in Watergate.
"He was the youngest," he says.
After 10 years in the Corps, Kiefer moved to a Washington desk. He could have coasted to retirement, with plenty of time to write the novels forming in his mind.
He remembers: "In the Marines, you either die or retire, but I broke the rules. I wanted to do something else."
He joined Time magazine's Washington bureau, but only stayed a year. A new interest had gained his attention — TV. After a short stint with a Time-Life program called "The March of Time," Kiefer joined CBS News in 1962. He was soon off to Rome, which remained his home for 15 years. As a news producer, Kiefer covered wars inBiafra, the Belgian Congo, Nigeria and the Middle East. Frequently, he was confronted with danger. Several assignments were almost his last.
Kiefer enjoyed the travel and loved hunting good stories, but he hated the politics of network news. He left CBS in 1964.
His thinking at the time?
"I can go hungry for a while, but I can't be told what to do for very long."
He's been self-employed ever since.
After he left CBS, Kiefer met Paul Maslanzky, creator of the Police Academy movies. Maslanzky wanted to make a horror movie. Kiefer had an unsold TV script he re-worked into a screenplay called "Castle of the Living Dead." Needing a star to give the film credibility, Maslanzky and Kiefer flew to London and hired Christopher Lee for the lead.
While in London they spotted an obscure stage actor named Donald Sutherland and cast him in a supporting role. It was his first movie.
During filming, which Kiefer directed, he and Sutherland became pals. Several years later, the by-now-famous Sutherland called Kiefer to tell him his wife had just given birth to twins, a boy and a girl. Sutherland wanted to name the boy after his friend.
"I was emotionally overwhelmed," Kiefer recalls.
"Then he told me he wanted to be sure he got the spelling right. I said 'Warren'? He said, 'No, Kiefer.' I told him, "Don't do it to the boy."
And so, actor Kiefer Sutherland was named.
The elder Kiefer went on to make five films. Several are still shown on late-night TV, particularly "Castle of the Living Dead," which has achieved cult status.
In addition to his feature films, Kiefer directed several documentaries and remained a contract producer for CBS. And he finally found time to pursue his life-long ambition, writing novels.
"It never occurred to me to do anything else seriously," he says. "Everything else I did was to stay alive."
Kiefer always wrote. He sold fiction to magazines while he was in the Marines, and in 1960 he co-authored a novel called "Pax" that achieved moderate success. Two thrillers written in the mid-1970s were published by Random House
His personal life was as volcanic as his work. His first marriage to Ann Marie Kaser of Kalamazoo, Mich., ended in divorce. They had two children, Alden and Kathryn.
He was living in Rome with his second wife, Mariana, and on a roll with his writing career when they moved to Argentina in 1976 to run Mariana’s family's agri-business. Kiefer knew nothing of cattle or corn, but he understood war, which was the state of the country's political scene at the time.
"I got a book out of it," he recalls of that unhappy period. Marital problems compounded his unhappiness and his work the next few years.
"The only writing I did," Kiefer says, "was letters to my lawyers." Stability returned with the arrival in Buenos Aires of Jean, a long-time friend from his years in Rome. Although absent this day, Jean shares Kiefer’s apartment with her son, John, 11, and 7-year-old Andrew, Kiefer and Jean’s son.
Happy again, Kiefer dusted off a story that had simmered for years, a historical novel set in the Southwest that follows the life a man from the Spanish-Ameri can War to Vietnam. "Outlaw" sold nearly 75,000 hardback copies, just short of a bestseller. Soon after, Kiefer turned down a $250,000 offer for the film rights, a decision he now regrets. No other offers have materialized.
Since "Outlaw" Kiefer has written "The Perpignon Exchange," a humorous thriller about the misadventures of a Palestinian con man and "The Stanton Succession," released last week. A prolific writer, he is working on a contemporary western and has completed research on another book.
He explains his work addiction simply: "My idea of a nightmare is a holiday."
So why stay in Argentina, where frequent downtime and a laid-back lifestyle is very much appreciated?
"Because," he says, "we enjoy the kind of life we lead here. To live this way in New York would cost us millions."
In addition to the penthouse apartment, which covers two floors, Kiefer rents a weekend farm, and their sons attend private schools. Until two years ago, it all was a bargain. But prices here have since quadrupled, forcing Kiefer to type even faster.
Aside from a thinning wallet and a tennis elbow that has hampered his squash game, the only other dilemma confronting Kiefer, in his mind, is his age: Passing 60 clearly startled him. Too many ideas, he says, and not enough time.
There's a hint of regret that he didn't start writing books sooner. The lament quickly passes.
"You just can't do it all, " he says.
Warren Kiefer certainly has given it his best shot. As for the Andover-Yale-Wall Street game plan plotted by his father, Kiefer says his younger brother followed that path. They rarely talk.
"He's dry and boring, " Kiefer says.
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Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in The Anniston [Ala.] Star on April 26, 1992.
Postscript: The message arrived in my LinkedIn account on Dec. 9, 2020. It began: "My name is John Bonardo and my stepfather was Warren Kiefer. I’m trying to do a documentary on Warren’s life and I found a newspaper article you did on him back in 1992 in Buenos Aires. It looks like you had more than just an interview with Warren and maybe spent some time with him and could help me with more details."
In my response, I told John that Warren and I were only together a few hours but I had two rolls of film I shot that day I would be happy to send him, which I did. [I kept two photos, one of which is posted above.]
John, now 40, lives in Milan, Italy, where he runs a video production
company called Ushuaia Film. Over the course of a few Web messages and a single phone call, John appeared be a warm and friendly guy.
He was appreciative of my sending him the photos – he said they had very few of Warren because "he was always behind the camera."
John reciprocated by sending me a copy of Warren’s book Outlaw, which is out of print and hard to find. Warren had given me a copy of The Perpignon Exchange, which I read and enjoyed. He was a fine writer.
John brought me up to speed on Kiefer family events.
As if he had a premonition the day we met, Warren lived only three more years, dying of a heart attack in Bueno Aires in a different home, where the family had moved. He was 65.
"It was a shame he died so young," John said. "But as we say ‘He lived the life.’"
Warren’s children from his first wife, Alden and Kathryn, had six boys. Some of them have children. His son, Andrew, 36, lives in Houston and has two children. Kathryn died last year.
John has calls into Donald and Kiefer Sutherland, and Paul Maslanzky, hoping to interview them for his documentary. COVID restrictions have slowed his progress.
Meanwhile, he’s trying to track down a box of films and other memorabilia Warren left behind in Argentina.
Warren, a man who flourished on deadlines, would be pleased with John’s effort, and no doubt happy with the eventual result.