Gone to New York
In 1964 the already legendary Texas novelist and sportswriter Edwin "Bud" Shrake, who died earlier this year, moved from Dallas to New York and took his place in a literary scene as boozy as it was a distinguished. Over the next three years, the letters he sent to his friends—excerpted on the following pages—showed him at work, at play, and always angling for a way to get back home.
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Edwin “Bud” Shrake, who died earlier this year at age 77, was one of the best writers Texas has ever produced. His ten novels explored two centuries of Texas history and culture, a range so daring that it sometimes baffled editors, critics, and even friends. Shrake had the ability to go anywhere. In But Not for Love and Strange Peaches he rendered perfectly the carousing darkness within the soul of the Dallas elite. But he was equally at home in Blessed McGill, chronicling the exploits of a nineteenth-century frontiersman who goes to a martyr’s death. He wrote compelling as-told-to memoirs for Willie Nelson and Barry Switzer and five books with golf legend Harvey Penick, including Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book, the best-selling sports book of all time. Between these projects and long stints as an acclaimed sportswriter at the Dallas Times Herald, the Dallas Morning News, and Sports Illustrated, he also wrote an impressive number of screenplays and influenced Texas letters in a way few other writers have managed.
He was also my best friend. For me, Bud was a guide, a natural visionary who saw around corners and knew things before they happened. Friendship doesn’t begin to convey what he meant to me. He lifted off the covers and showed me life. He exposed potential: what books to read, what poets to follow, what recordings were worth an evening or two or more. By the early sixties, when we were both working for the Dallas Times Herald, Bud was launching his literary career. He was married at the time, and his wife, Joyce, was teaching English at SMU. My wife and I lived in the same apartment complex, and I’d pass the Shrake apartment late at night and spot Bud at his dining room table, bent over his old Smith Corona Skywriter, a stack of manuscript pages falling away to one side.
Book publishing seemed impossibly exotic and far away to me, but not to Bud. Not long after, we got word that Bantam had bought the book he had pounded out on that typewriter. It was Blood Reckoning, Bud’s first novel. About that same time, he left the Times Herald and took a job as lead sports columnist for the Dallas Morning News, which made him an instant star and got him frequent invitations from Dallas millionaires like Clint Murchison Jr. and James Ling, who were about to become characters in his second book, But Not for Love. The critic James Ward Lee would later write that it was “a daring novel that spoke volumes to the young people of Texas who had felt repressed by their elders and by the political climate of the country after World War II.”
Bud was no stranger to that feeling. By early 1964 he was hungry for a new terrain, a place that would stimulate his expanding mind and challenge him to explore new directions as a writer. His friend Dan Jenkins had already moved to New York, to work at Sports Illustrated, and Bud followed the same path. New York is the traditional proving ground for writers, and Bud needed to prove that he belonged.
In letters to me and other friends back in Texas, Bud described in detail the restless, searching life of a young writer making the scene. There was a ready supply of drugs and liquor and a constant stream of parties with literary lions like George Plimpton, Norman Mailer, Gay Talese, William Styron, and Willie Morris. The letters, often addressed and sent to a large group of us, were single-spaced carbon copies, sometimes blurry and hard to read, but they were funny and smart and full of Bud-isms. They described hilarity at Sports Illustrated, where Bud quickly became a star; strange nights wandering the city; and his dreams of coming back to Texas. Some were joke letters, such as the one to NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle. On the following pages, we’ve excerpted Bud’s letters from New York. They capture something that all the obituaries and memorials that followed his death could not: They give us Bud in action, once again working as a guide, pointing to a new horizon.
Texas has lost many writers to New York. Terry Southern left Alvarado and never looked back. Indian Creek’s most famous daughter, Katherine Anne Porter, famously hated her native state. Luckily for all of us who care about the literature of this place, Bud came home. His time in New York, in fact, revealed to him the depth of his Texas roots. Within a month of arriving in the big city, he was plotting how to move to Austin (he finally got back in January 1967). New York was invigorating, but Texas was what he knew, what he felt in his bones, and what he had to write. Gary Cartwright
Editors’ note: The letters are reproduced as written, with all idiosyncratic capitalization, spellings, and punctuation retained, but they have been edited for length.
May 15, 1964
fellow deviates, wing & masquers, club managers, orgyists, faddists, scholars and sex magicians, as well as pork chop devourers and cream gravy makers, plus anyone out there who happens to love me or vice-versa:
several of us have just come back from a very important editorial conference in which we planned the contents of the college football issue. we went to a place on 48th street called “the absinthe house,” which i suppose is meant to be like the place in new orleans but isn’t. [Sports Illustrated senior editor Andrew] crichton is the editor of that particular issue and he begun the meeting properly by ordering three rounds of martinis and putting his elbow in the pate. de fois, of course. they talk here about hard sports, which i gather means where guys knock down other guys, and about soft sports, which is anything that’s really interesting. andy started about hard sports but after a few more rounds of martinis and an accident with the eggs benedict we got around to soft sports. more particularly, to girls. the theme, now, of the college football issue is to be girls. i am going to write the story—about majorettes, cheerleaders, dates, marching squads, and such things—and am going to go to the cheerleader school (for observation only) at smu, the very place i used to have to drive through, with severe psychic damage, when i was married and lived near smu.
[no signature remains]
Sept. 1, 1964
Fellow Hardheads, Whip Freaks, Joy Ursupers, White Chauvinists and Sex Magicians:
Funny thing at the office. Dan [Jenkins] and I were talking a few weeks ago about Goldwater and Johnson and backlash and stuff and I said the trouble with the Buffalo Bills is the fullback Cookie Gilchrist, a Negro, refuses to take a handoff from quarterback Jack Kemp, a Goldwaterite, that they have to throw the ball to the sidelines and wipe it off before Gilchrist will touch it. Several guys standing around and all laughed and I thought that was that. But a week or two later Andre [Laguerre] (the managing editor) brought it up to me in a bar and asked did I say that and I said yes but of course it was obviously a joke. “Some joke,” he said. “It cost the magazine $2000.” One of the editors who had been listening thought I was serious, ran in and told Andre he had a great lead story, and spent $2000 on stringers around the country checking to see if other teams had similar situation. Naturally the stringers thought we were idiots. Gilchrist and Kemp are friends and business partners. After Andre thought about it he started laughing and laughed for an hour and said it was the best thing that had happened in years. A little humor. Heh heh.
I don’t know now when I’ll get back down there. It could be Christmas. I wish I were somewhere down there now. I don’t know why anybody would really want to live in New York. If I didn’t have such a good job I wouldn’t stay long enough to finish this letter. But I think I will take a vacation in January or February, and why don’t we start planning a mass trip to Mexico? Either the border or on the train from Laredo to Mexico City. I’ll bet we could keep entertained. And if lucky, get lost.
Oct. 31, 1964
Comrades, Toe-freaks, Geese, Spivs, Fighting Irish and Those Who Are Concerned:
The other night Vic [Victor Emert, an Austin artist and friend of Shrake’s] and I were watching television and, as so often happens on these occasions, we suddenly found ourselves the victims of an obsessive, uncontrollable hunger. Squealing, grunting, honking, hooting, threshing about like wild pigs in a thicket, we scrambled into the kitchen and mixed a lot of ravioli in a big pot with a couple of cans of cream of mushroom soup and then boiled the result until it had the consistency of tomato paste. That was an accident, of course, but we ate it and then went through several cans of tuna fish made into a salad, and a loaf of bread, and two entire chocolate cakes, two quarts of milk, two pints of ice cream, a quart of orange juice and about a dozen broiled weiners. And I would estimate 50 cups of coffee and several gallons of ice water. That night before retiring I weighed myself and had gained—that very day—11 pounds. But I worked off the excess weight by worrying about brain tumor attacks. Luckily, science has a cure. It is a chemical reaction and very complex. I tried it the other night and lost my mind. I went out in a cab to escort home a lady named Virginia. Just after she got out of the cab, the police stopped me. I was wearing torn khakis, shower slippers, a torn blue shirt, and had no identification. Not only that, I had forgot how to speak English and could converse only in Cherokee, which is a very difficult language and unknown to most cops. I was somewhat alarmed when the cop asked where I lived. But the cabbie answered for me. While I sat and planned my next 20 years, the cops muttered to each other. Then they wrote the cabbie a ticket for an illegal U-turn and let us go. Goddam cabbie was a criminal. He jeopardized my entire future by that U-turn. He should be put in jail. Instead, the cops let dangerous men like him clog the streets—and they are really very damned clogged; the Russian Army could not advance down 6th Avenue.
This is a wonderful city. True it may be filthy, noisy, expensive and overcrowded, but there is such sport to be seen in the streets. Queers, pimps, cops, thieves, whores, toe-freaks, blackjacketed motorcycle faggots, behind every lamp post a guy with his dingus out. Everything is torn up. Great rips in the pavement, machines hammering and drilling, open manholes, smash, bang, honk honk, everybody cussing and screaming, black smuck all over faces and collars, pushing, shoving, hitting, rudness, stupidity, sewers gurgling, dogs crapping where you walk, big deals, big decisions made by drunks at executive lunches, clawing, stealing, Bobby Kennedy making sure the TV cameras see him take John-John to the old mansion in Riverdale, wires down, doormen drunk, suspicious instruments poking against your leg in subways, Chinamen underfoot, the laundries taking a week with shirts and returning them with buttons ripped off and soot on the cuffs, hamburgers for $1.75, mobs, riots, stabbings. I believe that is what they call the hustle and bustle of a great city. There is one really outstanding thing here. That is the ice skating rink at Rockefeller Plaza. On the way to the 3 G’s Bar in the evenings I stop and look at the ice skaters gliding around and listen to the music and the blades scraping. If it weren’t for that, I would have gone mad. Some say I already have.
April 3, 1965
Fellow adventurers in the continuum, space gropers, angel watchers, joy buglers:
We got there, to [Norman] Mailer’s place, out in Brooklyn Heights, and went up the steps—after parking behind Senator [Jacob] Javits’s car—and there was a COAT ROOM with an ATTENDANT. Also a bedroom or two on that level. Then up another flight to the big room where the party was very loudly going on. I met Javits’s wife right off and she is very young and pretty and I thought she was his daughter. [George] Plimpton saved me from a rather bad mistake by warning me mid-way in conversation. Everybody was very drunk. About 3 or 4 a.m. Mailer came up and said: “Listen I want to talk to you about something very important. Let’s go out on the balcony.” I went and he said: “In your first story about [light heavyweight champion Jose] Torres you made him sound like an arrogant ass. An arrogant ass. Jose is not that way. He is a good guy.” I said as a matter of fact I like Torres. “Well I like Torres and I like you and I don’t see why you wanted to hurt him,” said Mailer. I said hurting Torres was the farthest thing from my mind. Then we talked about the view a little and went inside and stopped at the bar and Mailer said: “Give my WASP friend a drink.” I said I assume you mean me and although I am clearly white and anglo-saxon, I am a Catholic. He seemed kind of displeased with that information and went off.
[no signature remains]
April 10, 1965
Babe [Joyce Shrake, who by this time was Shrake’s ex-wife]:
I want to amplify something we were talking about but that I did not want to get into on the phone: your statement that it showed insecurity that I wanted to read those two novels with Roman backgrounds. Yes it did. But I do not think you can show me a writer who is not insecure about his work, unless he is one of those who is merely plodding over the same weary ground: a pattern mystery story man, or historical novel writer, or perhaps a memoirist. Or perhaps a [Thomas] Mann or someone in the later years of his craft when he is not doing anything that is for him new. But do you think Mailer, for example, was insecure about “An American Dream?” Sure he was, and is. Such feeling partially accounts for the sudden eccentricities, the erratic-nesses, the gropy destruction bouts of drunken wildness, the hysteria even, of writers who are at least trying to be serious regardless of their true merit. One simply does not know for sure what is being achieved, what the gap might be between intention and result. Whose word to take? Nobody can be trusted. There is only the self to go on and the self is a notoriously poor judge. That is why I get so extremely defensive. I cannot afford to let you tell me I am wrong (that word again) in that area because I must trust my judgment above yours. I must or I just cannot do the job. And while I am working I really cannot afford to be questioned very much either or things start breaking down, you see, the never-cement certainty begins to waver and when that happens the loss of reliance on one brick can collapse the entire structure in the mind and bring despair into the already oversensitive emotions. Certainly I am not reading those two novels to steal characters or to copy, but to see how they did handle the technical background and to pick up physical detail I might have missed and to reassure myself also that My Rome comes off in My Way at least as well and as real as Their Rome did for Them in Their Way. I believe the sense of place is most important. It does matter whether the tree on that corner is a wysteria or a mesquite.
[no signature remains]
April 10, 1965
Poolzy Paulzy [Ed Paulson, a friend in Houston]:
A serious suggestion—we have reached the place in our lives when we have to decide what is important to us, what we truly want to do and what we do not want to do, what matters essentially and what is essentially crap. Why bust your ass in something you do not really feel worthwhile merely so your child or children can grow up exactly as you did and get into the same chase and feel the same discontent? We have both been moderately successful in what we do. We are making pretty good money and have pretty good jobs. In my practical field I have one of the very few very top jobs in the country. But it’s not satisfying. Of course I work on novels and that can be, and I hope will be, the ultimate satisfaction. And I hope to wangle around with a couple of deals and escape New York. But if I can’t get those deals and can’t make enough money by writing novels, then what am I going to do with the last 30 (luckily) years of my life? Among money earning possibilities, the only things I care about are bars, books and paintings. So why not open a book shop-art gallery-coffee house? It would of course have to be in a place we like. I would say either Austin or Santa Fe. Austin is close to Mexico. Austin has the lakes. Austin is a nouveau kind of town now, probably, or has that growing snob element we could appeal to. And I would like to keep roots in Texas since if I am ever any kind of writer at all it will be as a Texas writer I think.
[no signature remains]
June 6, 1965
Uncle Midford [Jay Milner, a writer in Dallas]:
went to a costume party the other night with plimpton and candy bergen. before the party clint murchison called up, and so i invited him and he came with his waf and with robert cummings and waf and we had a big time. i put on my white jeans, straw hat, moccasins, and pinned a rodeo number on my back. “just like i dress at home,” i explained. candy bergen went as a spanish girl. plimpton went as a cave man. plimpton’s date went as george washington. murchison went as clint murchison jr.
Feb. 12, 1966
Mr. Pete Rozelle
The National Football League
Please accept this as my formal application for a National Football League franchise to be placed in the city of Santa Fe, New Mexico. I have been hearing much talk about Houston, Seattle or Cincinnati getting the 16th NFL team. I wish to express to you my opinion of those cities, which is that not a one of them has to offer what we can offer in Santa Fe. Besides our excellent transportation facilities (there is an important rail hub up in Lamy, DC-3 service to Albuquerque and more horses and donkeys in the area than you would ever need to look at), we have a tremendous output of Navajo blankets, beads, silverwork, green chili omelettes and other readily marketable items that can be tied in with our team in a merchandising package.
I propose to call our team the Santa Fe Nuclear Holycosts. Our colors will be ash-gray and yellow, and we will have mushroom clouds as our helmet decals. Through marketing, we plan to have mushroom cloud decals on every auto windshield in the country, inspiring terrible fear in our opponents that may even match that felt by our players. I pledge to you that we will build an underground stadium, camouflaged on top to look like a buffalo wallow. Thus we will be the only team in the league that can play a regularly scheduled NFL game right through the middle of an all-out atomic attack. Could Cincinnati do that, Mr. Rozelle?
Shortly you will receive a visitor bearing an antelope kidney stuffed full of cash in the sum of at least eight million dollars. Do not insult him by counting it. His name is Nachise, which means Willow Stick, and his grandfather was named Hickory Stick, or Cochise, and he is a very nasty customer when insulted and often when not. His Spanish name, when translated, is Mean Rascal. He is also our Director of Player Personnel and Chief Scout and has been known to track a potential player for a month of rocky ground before finally denting the fellow’s skull with the store-bought hatchet you will notice in his belt.
In regards to our stadium, I have arranged with friends at nearby Los Alamos to do the excavating. They assure me they can cause a sizeable crater with a single afternoon’s work. I am considering hiring John Ford as coach if Tex Maule is unavailable or too expensive. But I must have confirmation from you at once, since I have told my Los Alamos friends to proceed with the excavation next week and the people out there are liable to get very aroused if we do not have a team to put in that hole.
March 31, 1966
Deardickiedickie [Dick Hitt, a Dallas Times Herald columnist]:
If I do move back, I intend to buy a huge color TV, a kingsize bed, a white convertible, and live in the way charming fellows like us ought to live. With the view, the color TV, the big bed and a stocked refrigerator, I doubt that I will go out much, but then we have already done that. Looking back at Dallas I see a blurry drunken daze of years and years of going out to the same places over and over, to the same adventures, to the same great ball of nothing.
We might, though, start off with an intimate little party for six hundred.
And wind up in Mexico.
I’m not that tired.
And when it all blows up I will give you the rights on disposal of my white convertible.
Please don’t say anything more about this moving-back than necessary because it might not ever happen, although the thought that it might not makes me reel off my chair.
[no signature remains]
May 2, 1966
Dear Uncle Jake [Jay Milner]:
My Blessed McGill book, incidentally, does have meeny meeny Indins and is pretty fine in that respect, as it includes tortures and horse stealings and plenty of dancing and is the product of some strenuous—for me—
research. I think you will like that part of it and also the part I just wrote yesterday about a stompede on a cattle drive on the Red River. There are several scenes I think are funny, including one when some cowboys hang a guy in the hill country and have to try three different times before they can manage to hang him all the way to death and then it happens accidentally after they have about given up. There are also scenes of McGill hunting a lost gold mine in the Sierra Madre Occidental, getting into a fight at the Vaudeville Saloon in San Antonio on the same side as noted old gunfighter Ben Thompson, McGill living with the Lipans in the Chisos Mountains, McGill scouting for the 4th Cavalry, McGill in the German Free School in Austin as a kid, McGill eating raw liver with the Tanima Comanches, McGill hunting buffalo, McGill rescuing a white girl from the Quahidi Comanches, and so forth and so forth—a grand way for me to live out boyhood daydreams. The harder parts deal with his mother becoming a nun and with him being rescued by the Taos Indins and then healing at a mission and being preached at by two Franciscan priests named Higgins and Mulligan, but I haven’t started writing those parts yet.
Yr pal, Bob
Oct. 6, 1966
Dear Ladybarg [Nancy Growald, the younger sister of Dick Growald, an old Fort Worth friend]:
Herewith is a handy little diet by which I lost 25-30 pounds in a couple of months without torture. I go back on it occasionally because it is easy. It’s a variation of that Drinking Man’s Thang of recent years but simpler to remember.
THANGS TO EAT AND DRINK ALL YOU WANT OF—Fish, fowl (including hot goddamn fried chicken), beef, pork (dozens of pork chops), green salads, green beans, eggs, cheese, butter, pre-sweetened Kool Aid, tea or coffee with artificial sweeteners, scotch and bourbon, some wine.
NOT TO TOUCH UNDER NO ACCOUNT WHATSOEVER INCLUDING THREATS—Corn, citrus fruits or fruit juices, lima beans, pinto beans, Meskin food (I cheat there some), English peas (which I hate), potatoes (toughie), gravy (sometimes too hard to bear), bread, desserts, beer. Also no chicken pot pies, which I used to live on. Also no milk. No cokes. No apples.
I found it easy enough because I would simply eat a steak, a huge salad, some green beans with mushroom sauce, then a jar of olives and pickles, a slab of cheese, a few pieces of bacon, sliced tomatoes and before and after down a dozen scotch and waters.
Great thing is you really can eat all you want and drink all you can hold before falling on your face on the carpet and get svelte. Or somewhat.
[no signature remains]
Oct. 28, 1966
Dear Lady [Nancy Growald]:
Today I lost the last of my Texas visitors—at least of the latest crop—and damned near bounded all the way to work. Singing, whistling, doing nifty little dances. People in the office thought I was crazy. And I, much poorer, no wiser, much tireder, am going to celebrate by shouting FREEDOM NOW at the horse show tonight (I will pick up some research material for that novel, HORSES HORSES HORSES, and we will all become rich, etc.). Then I may have a cocktail or two and an elegant dinner and sooner or later wind up peering closely at my color TV without yammering voices in the background wanting to watch a different show. By God, madam, it is a joy.
Your new outfit sounds nifty. I should know within the week whether I’ll be going to Houston and will notify you faster than immediately if such is the case. I notice I have overused the word nifty, but that is how I feel today.
Niftily, and with love,
[no signature remains]