He Called Me Puddin’

My friendship with John Henry Faulk, the feisty Texas humorist, survived a little jealousy and a lot of pain.

March 1992By Comments

THE FIRST WORDS HE SAID TO ME WERE, “well, Cactus, sugar pie puddin’, it’s shore good to meet up with you.” John Henry Faulk came through the front door of KTBC, Lady Bird Johnson’s radio station, wearing a big, comfortable smile on his ruddy face. His eyes, even the bad one, twinkled like neon signs.

It was natural that we became instant friends. Although he was 31, eight years older than me, our relationship was foreordained by geography, heritage, and the quirks of our individual temperaments. We were both native Austinites who attended Austin High School and the University of Texas. We were both “baptized” in the near-sacred waters of Barton Springs. Each of us was the child of a colorful and nonconformist father who championed the causes of the downtrodden. Judge Henry Faulk was a political activist and a superb storyteller. “Skinny” Pryor was a former vaudeville song and dance man and the benefactor of every little boy in Austin who didn’t have the nickel price of admission to his motion picture theater. They endowed each of us with an irreverent sense of humor.

“Cactus, angel boy, I hear tell that you’ve been risking your job by bootleggin’ parts of my CBS radio show and playin’ ’em on your radio show down here in Texas, where they ain’t supposed to be played. Can’t tell you how much I appreciate you letting Momma and the whole passel of Faulks hear me strut my stuff. Come see me in New Yawk City.”

At that time in my life, just after World War II, my geographical strictures were about like my intellectual ones. The sun rose every morning over Mr. Steck’s house on East Thirty-fourth and set every evening over Emmett Shelton’s place in the hills west of Austin. But not long after I met Johnny, my developing auxiliary career as an after-dinner speaker took me to Johnny’s Manhattan. He had moved there after a CBS executive discovered him at a party doing his routine about a boy from Texas taking a load of cantaloupes from South Texas to Westchester County. (“Momma, I found a whole pack of Republicans up there. Great big ol’ fat gentle thangs. So tame you could walk right up and pet ’em.”) The sophisticated New Yorkers were infatuated with this man who came from Dixie with a liberated mind and whose country-hick speech left a burning social message on your soul.

The apartment that John Henry shared with Alan Lomax, the brilliant musical anthropologist, was a hodgepodge of entertainers. “Cactus, honey, meet Harry Belafonte. He’s just in from Jamaica. Sings like a mockingbird. I think the guy’s got a future.” Then there was a kind of used-up-looking fellow named Woody Guthrie. On another visit: “Cactus, I’m giving you a little party here tonight. Just a few friends like Walter and Betsy Cronkite and an English feller named David Frost. Garry Moore will be here, and I’ve also invited Arthur Godfrey and Jayne Mansfield. Oh, yes, the deputy ambassador to the United Nations from the Soviet Union will be coming.” I was overwhelmed. I was uncomfortable in such company, yet I was enthralled. I was a bit envious of John Henry’s success, his worldliness, his lack of awe of anyone. He was cozy. He had feist that he’d never even used. He was CBS’s bright new star, and he was headed for the top.

I could hardly believe that John Henry had selected me as one of his friends. He introduced me to New Yorkers as “one of the great wits of Texas.” There are still people in New York waiting for me to be incredibly witty. I later realized that I was being force-fed confidence. I had begun emceeing parties at the LBJ Ranch. I would write Johnny my perceptions of the scenes. He would share my letters with his sophisticated New York friends at the famous round table at the Algonquin dining room—people like Toots Shor, Louis Nizer, and Edward R. Murrow.

When Johnny came home to Texas for visits, he would take me to Mecca—to the ranch of his mentor, author and folklorist J. Frank Dobie. As my life was changed forever by Johnny, Johnny’s life had never been the same after meeting Dobie. They loved each other. The jut-jawed cowboy professor would greet Johnny with a kiss. In college, at Dobie’s urging, Johnny had collected the folklore of the former slaves and their offspring in the Brazos River bottom. As he listened to their stories, he was doing more than collecting. He was laying the groundwork for his own career as a master storyteller.

Our early relationship was more a monologue than a dialogue. Johnny spoke of racism—a new word for me. He spoke of international politics. He preached to me the value of information gathering. He introduced me to the Constitution of the United States. He even taught me how to catch a New York taxi.

In 1948 Johnny married Lynne Smith. A Texas legislative committee couldn’t have created a less likely match. She was as New York as Johnny was Texas. She appreciated his talent and laughed at his routines. That got Johnny’s attention. Lynne was a pusher. Johnny, rash as he often was, was never a self-promoter. The two of them together created enough energy to light New York City. They were the hottest couple in town. Everyone wanted them for parties. Lyndon Johnson had discovered Johnny and had him and Lynne come down to Washington for weekends to entertain members of Congress. They added three children to New York’s population: Johanna, Evelyn, and Frank Dobie. (Johnny had another daughter in Austin, Tannehill, from a previous marriage.) As Johnny put it, “The goose hangs high.”

And then, plop!

Blacklisting. Senator Joseph McCarthy was hunting down suspected Communists all over America, and the House Un-American Activities Committee and various vigilante groups were his hound dogs. One such group, AWARE, Inc., had dedicated itself to cleaning the Commies out of the entertainment business. One of their prime targets was John Henry Faulk, the liberal leader of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists in New York. They wanted to hear Johnny admit that he and Eleanor Roosevelt and Adlai Stevenson once entertained an audience that perhaps contained some communist sympathizers. They wanted to hear how he stood on America. They did. In effect, Johnny told them, “I am a loyal American. You can go to hell!” CBS pulled the plug.

Soon, from station after station, came an ominous litany of withdrawn offers. “We sure do want you. But after examining our budget … ” “Is this Mrs. Faulk? Would you please tell your husband that the opening at KNOW in Austin we discussed with him is no longer available?” John Henry was canceled from the top to the bottom in one judo chop to his liberal neck.

A group of entertainer friends formed a committee to help Johnny fight back. CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow, who had fearlessly attacked McCarthy, insisted on loaning Johnny $7,500 to help hire the greatest New York trial lawyer of the time, Louis Nizer. In 1956 they filed a lawsuit against Johnny’s attackers at AWARE, Inc.

In the meantime, the Faulk family came back home to wait. Back to Austin. Back to Barton Springs and J. Frank Dobie. Johnny brought with him a massive dose of wounded pride. His considerable ego was as flat as his pocketbook, and his feist was running low. He would use his humor to ridicule McCarthy, but it was as forced as our laughter. In the middle of a gathering where Johnny would ordinarily dominate the conversation, his eyes would be staring elsewhere … nowhere.

His sister Texana tells me that I created another problem for him. New York City had been Johnny’s town. Austin was my town. I was the personality on Austin’s only television station. Austin didn’t know him. I knew how he felt. I had felt the same when I visited him in New York. I had envied his fame and longed for the sort of adulation he received in the big time, but I wanted family time, fishing time, Barton Springs time more. So I had chosen to stay home.

I knew the emptiness Johnny must have felt, longing for the applause but being reduced to an applauder. So I tried to share the spotlight with my friend. It was not easy. McCarthy’s tentacles were far-reaching, and many Texans feared John Henry Faulk, probably the most patriotic American I’ve known. I was up-front with my boss, Jesse Kellam, the general manager of Lady Bird Johnson’s radio and television stations. “Mr. Kellam, John Henry Faulk is a friend of mine. He is a marvelous entertainer. I intend to have him as a frequent guest on my radio and television programs.”

I was not restricted, but I paid a price. There were telephone calls to my children: “Your daddy is a Commie like his Faulk friend.” There was the well-known Austin doctor who circulated a letter questioning my loyalty to America. And the prominent Austin attorney who unsuccessfully tried to convince Lyndon Johnson that I should be dropped from the staff of his wife’s broadcast stations for associating with Faulk. It was small-time stuff, but it demonstrated vividly to me the spread of the McCarthy poison.

The Faulks began trying to pick up the pieces. They organized a two-person advertising agency. It never really clicked. Lynne was a buzz saw of activity who did not have the temperament for a low-pressure town. Johnny, as a businessman, was like a Palestinian at a bar mitzvah.

But there were good times during the bad times. There were almost daily outings to Lake Austin in my small boat The Thermerstrockimortimer (more name than boat), loaded down with Pryor and Faulk children. There were frequent visits to Dobie’s ranch for good conversation and mind expansion. We would venture out into the Gulf of Mexico off Port Aransas, where we found king mackerel and serenity. I reveled in the trips to Port Aransas over the years, not just for the fishing, but because it gave my children the opportunity to experience Johnny. It was like bringing Mark Twain home for supper.

We were not always one big happy family. Johnny and Lynne’s marriage was feeling the pressure of no income. Johnny was devoid of self-pity, but he was deeply angry at those who had taken away his career and hurt by the number of “dear friends” who had deserted him.

Only once did he share the darkness with me. It was at the Menger Hotel, next to the Alamo in San Antonio. I had arranged for him to speak to the Southwest Association of Program Directors for Television, of which I was a member. I think we paid him $50. Afterward, I found him in my room, his head buried in his hands. “Cactus, boy, I just don’t know how we are going to make it. I can’t find a job doing what I do. I don’t even know where my family’s next meal is coming from.”

After six years and a bizarre number of delays, Johnny’s case finally came to trial. The perfect lawyer and client had found each other: Louis Nizer and John Henry Faulk. It was like playing doubles against Laver and Rosewall. Nizer and Johnny won the case, $3.5 million to love, but Johnny lost the fortune. It was not there to collect. He received $175,000, with most of it going to defray legal fees and other expenses. He had lost a career that never really resumed.

He also lost his family. Lynne ended up in New York with their three children. The pressures of unemployment and exile had taken their toll. There was a nasty divorce. Lynne called a press conference, where she accused Johnny of having had affairs with a large number of Austin’s desirable women, plus a few more who were not so desirable. Down-home and uptown split.

Not long after the divorce, Simon and Schuster gave Johnny an advance to write Fear on Trial, his account of the blacklisting. It brought better reviews than income. His friend and supporter Norman Lear bought the movie rights. Johnny also got a small role in a movie called The Best Man.

But his career wouldn’t take off. And without his wife and children, the phoenix remained covered in McCarthy’s ashes.

Then came Liz. Elizabeth Peake from Markyate, England. They met at a party in New York. She was as British as he was Texan. “Honey child, being with you is as fine as wine in the summertime. Let’s ride double.” Taking it as the usual Texas male bovine manure, she went back to England. He flooded her with letters and then special-delivered himself to the Peakes’ country estate. In 1965 they set up housekeeping as Mr. and Mrs. John Henry Faulk in New York City.

Johnny was a lost pup found. Liz nurtured him. She organized him. She made him a home. She protected him for the rest of his life from those he chose not to suffer and smilingly indulged his childlike joy at being idolized by the masses.

I leaned on Liz too and continued to lean on Johnny. There were problems in the Pryor household. I would take them to Johnny and Liz’s apartment in Manhattan. They gave me love, peace, and wonderful home cooking. They took me to England to heal an ulcer. We drove to Stratford-upon-Avon on a rare sunny May day, with John Henry quoting Shakespeare sonnets in a South Austin, Texas, accent. We walked through Piccadilly Circus, Johnny in a bowler and me in a Stetson talkin’ Texas. We thought we were a trio. We were a quartet. Seven months later their son, Yohan, was born on Christmas Eve. His father was 55 years old. I told Johnny it was the first child born under Medicare.

God, Johnny was proud! “It was a wonderful Christmas present Liz gave me, but it was also embarrassing. That bright star shining down on the hospital and all those fellers riding up with camels shitting all over the lawn.”

Throughout the years, Johnny and Liz remained my bulwark. After they moved back to Austin in 1968, I was twice stricken with cancer. It was Johnny who, both times, took me to the hospital the Sunday evening before the Monday surgery. It was Johnny who gave me hope, reminding me that he had survived cancer of the lymph glands years before. He gave me the optimism that I would try to give back to him years later.

So many times I turned to Johnny and Liz. When my wife died, the first person I called was John Henry, to ask him to speak at her memorial service. He and our maverick Baptist preacher friend Gerald Mann recalled the bright side of this West Texas ranch woman who had loved her family more than herself.

Johnny and Liz still wrestled with how to feed the family. CBS brought him some needed publicity by making a TV movie about the story of the man who had been dismissed by CBS because he was blacklisted. It was shelved after its original network airing because of a lawsuit filed by Lynne, who had been changed to a fictional character in the screenplay. But it did help with the speaking engagements, which I also steered his way. His victory over the blacklisters had made him what we laughingly called a professional martyr. He was a passionate champion of the Constitution. He could not recite the Lord’s Prayer without adding a plug for the First Amendment.

He played mostly the college circuit. High applause, low pay. Finally he got a break when he was hired as a regular on Hee Haw, the country music variety show, in 1975. He loved the cast. It was fast money, which he and Liz badly needed, and it was easy. He taped twice a year in Nashville. It brought him national recognition, which he loved. But his appearances on Hee Haw were like hitching up Native Dancer to a milk wagon.

Johnny had strong political opinions. He was an old-fashioned yellow dog Democrat liberal, and he loved to howl. He marched in protests. He stood up to be counted. He could be devastating when he used his biting satire to make a point. We talked about whether it was wise to make our political opinions so public. I argued that he could more effectively influence people if he didn’t telegraph his political philosophy. But he was bred to be a political iconoclast. With such a beautiful lance, how could he possibly ignore all those windmills?

He tilted at Phil Gramm, whom he regarded as “having the intelligence of an adolescent pissant.” In 1983 Johnny ran against Gramm for Congress. Gramm had been elected to Congress as a Democrat but resigned his seat, switched parties, and ran again. Johnny was not organized. He naively expected the support of his good friends, state treasurer Ann Richards and Senator Ralph Yarborough. But they were committed to support the Democratic party’s chosen candidate, a state legislator named Dan Kubiak. We had some fun. Johnny and I did a series of radio commercials in which I was the inquiring reporter and Johnny played a Gramm supporter. “Why do I favor Phil Gramm? Because he’s got compassion. He don’t believe in nuking people like we did at Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Phil Gramm knows that now we got limited nuclear weapons that allows you to bomb a church, killing everybody inside without harming a brick of the building. Phil Gramm believes in killing in a Christian way.” Johnny lost, but he was counted.

One morning several years after the election, I drove to Barton Springs, our old natural swimmin’ hole, only to find a barrier reading, “Pool closed … Fecal Bacteria Infestation.”

Hurt and angry, I chose to write my daily radio commentary on the subject. Knowing his love of the place, I decided to speak for the late J. Frank Dobie on the situation—in his twangy South Texas voice. It was a tirade against those who would dare contaminate the town’s swimming hole. The response to my broadcast was unparalleled, and the first caller was John Henry.

“Cactus, honey, where’d you get that Dobie essay?”

“Johnny, it just came to me at my typewriter.”

“Cactus, I heard him deliver those same ominous words about fifteen years ago.”

“Then maybe he’s talking to us, Johnny. Let’s keep him alive.”

So we started experimenting with a dialogue between Dobie, played by me, and his protégé, John Henry Faulk. An independent television producer, Conrad Ricketts, wanted to film us. He rented Willie Nelson’s Austin Opera House and started publicizing Two Lone Stars three weeks hence. We didn’t even have a script! We went to a far-back pasture at the LBJ Ranch. On a chilly November day Johnny and I sat in rocking chairs outside an old Hill Country limestone house in the warming sun. I started stirring Johnny’s Dobie memories as my wife-to-be, Peggy Davis, took notes. As Texas Longhorns grazed around us, Dobie came to us.

We played to a packed house. Director Ken Johnson did such a magical job of making me resemble Dobie that tears came to Johnny’s eyes when he first saw me. As we prepared to go on stage I said, “Johnny, we’re a couple of ancient matadors entering the ring with the goddam bull one more time.” We were only slightly gored. The audience was friendly and kin enough to enjoy it. The film did not sell.

The performance needed a lot of polishing, but we kept working on it and presenting it wherever we could. It kept getting better and better, and the audiences loved it.

The problem was, we didn’t. We had a chemistry problem. I, the protégé of John Henry, became Dobie, the mentor of my mentor. And my mentor did not enjoy the audience’s joy over his mentor.

“Dobie wouldn’t say something like that!” he’d point out.

It was true, I had changed Dobie somewhat. I had viewed miles of the man on film in conversations with others. You could grow hair during his pauses for thought. Out of necessity, I picked up the tempo, emphasizing Dobie’s natural wit and giving him lines that made him funnier than he was.

I had struggled becoming Dobie. But now I had him. I knew it. The audiences knew it. Our next director, Nan Elkins, knew it. John Henry didn’t want to know it. Later, Liz told me that John Henry was incapable of accepting anyone else as Dobie except himself.

He began rewriting the script onstage. He would not only change the lines; he’d suddenly throw a new character at me. During a performance in Corpus Christi, Johnny refused to go on for the second act. “You’re getting all the laughs out there. You don’t need me for the next act.”

I was devastated by Johnny’s displeasure. More than anyone, he was the person I wanted to please. It was he who had given me the confidence to be out there as a performer. It was he who had given me the assurance that had I so chosen, I could have made it in the big time.

Even after his death, his criticism continued. Recently I was viewing a tape of a show we had done at Southwest Texas State University. In one sequence I was onstage alone. As I spoke my lines, an electronic gremlin had allowed Johnny’s backstage comments to be recorded on the video soundtrack, though unheard on the P.A. system. “Listen at Cactus. That stuff is for a Rotary or Kiwanis club.”

I had been in awe of John Henry. The Dobie production made me realize that I had placed him on the same pedestal where he had placed Dobie, and it was higher than reality. Now I saw his insecurities in plain sight; I saw that he was human. Over time, that realization only deepened our friendship.

I continued on with J. Frank Dobie without John Henry. As for Johnny, he didn’t need a cast; he was one. So, he gathered all his familiar friends around him, the people from his mythical Pear Orchard, Texas—Cousin Ed Snodgrass, Mrs. Edith Walters, Mayor Grumbles. And he did what he did best—a one-man show. A New York producer saw it and began making plans for an off-Broadway production. Money was raised. A staff was hired. Rehearsals began. Once again, the goose was hanging high.

Once again, plop!

A malignant tumor of the pharynx. The doctor at M. D. Anderson told Johnny and Liz the bad news: inoperable. I knew the cold fear he was feeling, but he covered it with typical Faulk wit. He named his cancer Judge Robert Bork, after the right-wing nominee for the Supreme Court. “We’ve got to get rid of Bork,” he announced. The treatments—radiation, then later chemotherapy—took a terrible toll on his incredible energy. But suddenly, unexpectedly, the tumor began to shrink.

Once again into the sunshine. Back to work. Blessed work. Blessed applause. Blessed life. But the sunshine soon dimmed. The tumor was back.

The New York project fell through. But a new producer, a Texan named Mark Leonard, came on board and helped Johnny simplify the presentation so that even though his strength was failing, he could pull it off. Night after night, he played to packed houses at Austin’s Live Oak Theater. It was a masterful performance. As he finished as one character, the lights would dim while he remained on stage. Liz, dressed in black to remain unobtrusive, would come from behind the curtain. She would change his costume by adding a shawl or another hat or coat. Then she would whisper the opening line of the next character into his best ear. She would give him a loving pat on the back, slip backstage, and once again Johnny was in the spotlight.

Paul Pope of Corpus Christi’s fine PBS television station wanted to bring Pear Orchard to the nation. Johnny went to its studios and taped his show before a live audience. He was spent, ill. He was not at his best. He had trouble remembering his lines. But the show was in the can.

I called our friend Bill Moyers. “B, Johnny is not going to make it. The nation needs to see him and remember him.” Bill came to Austin. He interviewed Johnny at his home for three hours. It was juicy. It was pure First Amendment, damn the rascals, love America, funny, profound John Henry Faulk. So the nation sampled John Henry’s rare talent, but more important, we were reminded what a great American this man was.

Johnny fought on. He tried new treatments from new doctors. He tried special diets, even psychic surgery. During his losing fight, I attempted to do for him what he had done for me. “You’re going to be fine, John Henry,” I told him. “You have the power within you to lick this thing.” And he would say, “Attaboy. We’re gonna do it!” Even when there was no hope, I tried to prop him up. I now wonder if it was fair to continue to encourage him. But he wasn’t ready to surrender, and I wasn’t ready to lose him.

When his energy would allow, we took strolls down the hike and bike trail. He received strength from the waves of affection that always greeted him. “Morning, Johnny. Good to see you out.” “Hang in there, John Henry.” One morning he said to me, “Cactus, boy, I just can’t believe that one of these days I won’t be a part of all this, watching the sun come up, listening to the birds singing, seeing the happy faces.” I said, “Johnny, you’ll always be a part of this.”

The brightest spot in the last few weeks of his life was a reunion with his and Lynne’s three children. They and Johnny had been lost to each other for a number of years. But now they came from Canada to be with their father.

Shortly before he died, I took John Henry for a ride in my old Suburban, which had so often carried us up in the hills. Dobie used to say, “You’ve found your place when the land talks to you.” The Texas Hill Country spoke loudly to us. We rode up and over Mount Bonnell, with its sweeping view of Lake Austin. Then up Bull Creek, where so often we had picnicked. But the lake didn’t glisten that gray day, and the creek didn’t sing. We made conversation. We talked about fishing trips to Baja California and the magical days in England. We flew again to Bill Kuykendall’s ranch in Mexico. We sat again in rocking chairs on the stage of an opera house older than both of us in Columbus, Texas, and ad-libbed a two-hour show before an enthralled audience. We talked about our brotherhood. I told him how deeply he had touched my life. But now he was tired. He wanted to go back to Liz and his children. And I wanted to be away from him—the sadness of him, the paleness of him, the fading of him. I drove him home. When we arrived, I got out, opened his door, and took his arm to help him out. As he pulled himself erect, I squeezed his arm affectionately.

He patted my cheek and said, “Thank you, Cactus … my sugar pie puddin’.”

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