NEW YORK — Curtis Bill Pepper, an author and reporter who roamed Europe and the Middle East for more than 40 years writing about politics, film, art, the Vatican, Leonardo da Vinci and more, died on Friday at his home in Todi, Italy. He was 96.
His daughter, the poet Jorie Graham, confirmed the death. Mr. Pepper and his wife, the sculptor Beverly Pepper, had divided their time between Todi, near Perugia, and another home in Manhattan.
At his death he was awaiting the publication of his final book, “Happiness: Fragments of Happiness in the Lives of the Famous and Others Among Us,” a collection of observations from the many notable figures he had interviewed. It will be published this spring in Italian and English.
A native of West Virginia, Mr. Pepper was a 21-year-old copy boy for the New York World-Telegram when he first ventured to Europe, in 1938. He had decided to tour the Continent by bicycle and send first-person dispatches to the newspaper, thinking they would be used as “color” for other reporters’ articles, his daughter said.
But his editors liked his writing so much that they printed his reports in their entirety, launching his career.
He became a foreign correspondent in Italy for United Press and then CBS after World War II. Hired by Newsweek, he opened its Rome bureau in 1956 and was bureau chief there for 11 years, reporting from around the Mediterranean.
He left Newsweek to become a freelance writer after Farrar Strauss published his first book, “The Pope’s Backyard” (1966), a behind-the-walls view of life in Vatican City. He wrote for Life, Look, Parade, and The New York Times magazines, among other publications.
Profiles became a specialty. His subjects included Mother Teresa, King Hussein of Jordan, Willem de Kooning, Laurence Olivier, Marcello Mastroianni, David Ben-Gurion, and Moshe Dayan, the Israeli military leader and politician. Mr. Pepper recounted a day in the life of Pope Paul VI, traced the rise of the Italian terrorist group the Red Brigades, and detailed the restoration of Leonardo’s “The Last Supper.”
He wrote eight books in all, among them “An Artist and the Pope” (1968), about the unlikely friendship between Pope John XXIII and the sculptor Giacomo Manzù, an atheist with Marxist leanings who made bronze doors for St. Peter’s Basilica. A novel, “Marco” (1977), told the story of a young father who drowns his severely disabled infant in the Tiber and finds forgiveness. He also co-wrote “Christiaan Barnard: One Life” (1969) with Barnard, the South African heart-transplant surgeon.
One of Mr. Pepper’s most well-received books was “We the Victors” (1984), which described his five-year study of cancer patients and the hospital staffs that treat them. Reviewing the book for The Times, Sidney Offit wrote:
“Because the voices are authentic and the medical situation so skillfully evoked, Mr. Pepper transcends the trap of sentimentality and pathos. He has asked the question: ‘How did you survive?’ and although the answers provide few therapeutic panaceas, they offer a moving testimony as well as a bridge to hope.”
Born Aug. 30, 1917, in Huntington, W.Va., Mr. Pepper attended the University of Illinois, majoring in architecture. He went to work at The New York Post and then the World-Telegram after leaving college in his sophomore year.
He edited The Palm Springs News in California, before being drafted into the infantry during World War II. Sent to officers’ training school, he rose to the rank of major and served as an intelligence officer.
After the war he studied at the University of Florence and wrote his first novel, which was not published.
Besides his daughter, Graham, who won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1996, Mr. Pepper leaves his wife of 65 years, the former Beverly Stoll; a son, John, a director and actor; and three grandchildren.