Robert James Waller, "Bridges of Madison County" author, is dead at 77

NEW YORK -- Robert James Waller, whose best-selling, bittersweet 1992 novel "The Bridges of Madison County" was turned into a movie starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood and a Broadway musical, has died in Texas, according to his literary agency. He was 77.

Lucy Childs of Aaron M. Priest Literary Agency said Friday that Waller died either Thursday or early Friday. Childs did not know the cause but said the author had been ill.

Waller's "The Bridges of Madison County" reached No. 1 on The New York Times best-seller list and stayed on it for over three years; the Eastwood-directed 1995 movie grossed $182 million worldwide. He wrote a sequel - "A Thousand County Roads - An Epilogue to The Bridges of Madison County."

Many critics made fun of "Bridges," calling it sappy and cliche-ridden. Readers, however, bought more than 12 million copies in 35 languages. "Bridges" turned the unknown writer into a multimillionaire and made Madison County, Iowa, an international tourist attraction.

"I really do have a small ego," Waller told The New York Times in 2002. "I am open to rational discussion. If you don't like the book and can say why, I am willing to listen. But the criticism turned to nastiness. ... I was stunned."

The novel prompted couples across the world to marry on Madison County's covered bridges. Around the town of Winterset, population 4,200, tourists arrived by the busloads, buying "Bridges" T-shirts, perfume and postcards. Thousands signed in at the Chamber of Commerce office, where they could use restrooms marked "Roberts" and "Francescas."

After the novel's success, Weller left Iowa, where he had grown up, and moved to a ranch in Alpine, Texas, 50 miles from the nearest town. He also divorced his wife of 36 years. His other books include "Slow Waltz in Cedar Bend," which unseated "Bridges" on the best-seller list, "Border Music" and "Puerto Vallarta Squeeze."

A musical was made of "The Bridges of Madison County" in 2014 starring Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale with a score by Jason Robert Brown, but it closed after just 137 performances on Broadway. A national tour starring Elizabeth Stanley kicked off in 2015.