The University of Iowa

John Leggett, former director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, dies at 97

John Leggett, the former director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and co-founder and director of the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference, has died at age 97. He died Sunday at Queen of the Valley Medical Center in Napa.

John (Jack) Leggett was born in 1917, in New York, NY. He attended Andover, and graduated from Yale University in 1942, after which he served as a  lieutenant in the U.S. Naval Reserve until 1945. He was married to Mary Lee Fahnestock from 1948 to 1986. They had three children. He most recently lived in Napa, California, where he long directed the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference. He and his second wife, Edwina Bennington of San Francisco, lived in a house designed by one of his sons. 

Jack was an editor and publicity director for Houghton Mifflin in Boston throughout the ‘50s, then an editor at Harper & Row Publishing in New York for seven years. In 1969 he became a professor of English and the director of the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, Iowa City, serving in those capacities for nearly twenty years, until 1986. In 2008 he presented his extensive research files for his biography of William Saroyan to the University Libraries as an addendum to papers given earlier.

During his time as director of the Writers' Workshop, Leggett admitted many acclaimed writers to the prestigious Iowa program including T.C. Boyle, Ethan Canin, Michael Cunningham, Gail Godwin, Denis Johnson and Jane Smiley.

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Leggett told The Chronicle that “for many years other universities wouldn’t touch (creative writing) … most English departments feel it’s not academic enough. They think of writing as a God-given talent that can’t be taught or assessed in terms of student progress.

“But then with Iowa’s long tradition in the fine arts, here you had this bohemia growing out in the cornfields. The University of Iowa in Iowa City was just isolated enough that students and faculty were left to their own resources, and for many years reading societies were central to the arts scene there. Poets and writers who were invited to speak or lead workshops always made the trip to Iowa, primarily because in those days nobody else (from other campuses) ever asked them to come.”


A Daring Young Man: A Biography of William Saroyan (2002) Knopf [his research files and drafts for it constitute the 2003 Addendum]

Making Believe (1986) Houghton Mifflin

Gulliver House (1979) Houghton Mifflin

Ross and Tom: Two American Tragedies (1974) Simon & Schuster

Who Took the Gold Away (1969) Random House

The Gloucester Branch (1964) Harper & Row

Wilder Stone (1960) Harper & Brothers


More: SF Gate