The Book on Willie Morris
He was known as a merry-eyed glad-hander, a good ol’ boy who launched his career as the influential editor of the Daily Texan and the Texas Observer.
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Everybody thought they knew him. Few truly did. Willie Weaks Morris was a man of many parts. Some did not mesh with the others. The private Willie Morris—the brooder, the loner, the man who could lose himself in sleep because wakefulness was too painful, the man who called his telephone an instrument of torture and hid it in the refrigerator to muffle its rings, the man who at bottom was as stubborn as any mule William Faulkner ever owned, the man who became known, in plain ugly language, as the town drunk—well, that contentious and complex fellow is a Willie Morris his adoring public never met. You haven’t read about that fellow either.
No way to rhyme that private, haunted, sometimes terribly difficult soul with the public Willie Morris of legend: the glad-hander and shoulder hugger, the good ol’ boy from Mississippi, the incomparable raconteur of the Texas saloon or the New York salon, the literary star whose reputation soared at the daily paper of the University of Texas and later at the Texas Observer. In Austin he learned the skills that made him not only near-perfect in matching writer to subject but also so adroit an editor that writers felt chagrin that they hadn’t written it that way.
Willie’s emotions were as primitive and as changeable as the weather. He was the worst I ever saw at hiding his true feelings; he had little talent for the duplicities or wicked dirkings of office politics—a trait that ultimately cost him the job he once loved above all. We drank together, laughed together, cried together, worked as editor to writer and friend to friend. We had a foolish drunken fistfight in 1972 over which of us owned the affections of a certain fickle woman; it turned out that neither of us did. I thank such gods as be that we were fast friends when Willie Morris died suddenly on August 2, 1999, or otherwise I could not have borne it. I will miss the man so long as I have breath.
But sometimes I wanted to grab him, shake him, and hold him to account: Willie had such intelligence and talent that I always expected more. He wasn’t supposed to have bad moods or subpar days. I didn’t pause to reflect that perhaps too many of us put too many demands on Willie and made him overly aware of our great expectations—not the least being his ever-hectoring old Mississippi mama—and maybe that is why he sometimes had to flee from us, and from events, and from life.
He was not, however, running away from anything when he died. Less than a month before, Willie and his wife, JoAnne, had seen a private screening of the movie My Dog Skip, based on Willie’s book of the same title. And there was unfinished business: a novel called Taps that Willie had talked of for thirty years. He often said his writing career might be judged by it. The novel became an obsession. He referred to it as "my baby."
Taps is set during the Korean War era in a small Mississippi town. The young protagonist—one Swayze Barksdale—played taps on the bugle at funerals for local boys returned from the war in body bags, as Willie had in true life. The writing is lyrical, the events true to history, the characters live smoldering lives; violence breaks out near the end. As often happens, justice is ambiguous rather than clear-cut.
On the final morning of his life—after being stricken and sensing perhaps he might not survive—Willie told JoAnne with some urgency to "get Taps in shape." She did. It was published posthumously on April 16. I think it ranks among Willie’s top three works. David Halberstam calls it "Willie’s most honest book about himself, his life, his time, and place." But don’t just take the word of two of Willie’s old friends: Publisher’s Weekly wrote that Taps is "worthy of comparison to Morris’s classic North Toward Home … a deeply affecting swan song by one of America’s most beloved writers. Echoing Faulkner and Caldwell, and Dan Wakefield’s Going All the Way, it plays a fitting Taps for a literary genius cut down in his prime."
RIP, Willie: Your literary reputation seems secure.
Willie Morris first came to public attention as the crusading editor of the Daily Texan at the University of Texas. During the fifties, children, there was only one UT campus, and it was in Austin. Willie’s father is largely responsible for getting him there. During the summer of 1952, Rae Morris, a service-station operator, took a Southern Trailways bus to inspect the campus; it may have been the only one he ever visited. He returned to Yazoo City, Mississippi, to tell his only child, "I think you ought to go to school out there. Can’t nuthin’ in this state match it." Willie entered the university that fall.
He immediately started making a place for himself: joining the Daily Texan staff, playing intramural baseball, offering his hand and a grin to everyone. His friendly quips, funny stories, and merry eyes made it appear he was interested in you and you only—and, in the moment, that probably was true. At an intramural football game he met Celia Buchan. Almost immediately he asked her out for coffee. "He seemed so much less parochial than the rest of us," she wrote in her memoir, Finding Celia’s Place. "He was biding his time in the boondocks, but nobody I knew doubted that he would end up in the very midst of the action."
Willie applied the same qualities at UT that he had used to become a big duck in Yazoo City’s small pond. Back home he had written for the school paper, been a star on the basketball and baseball teams, been voted most likely to succeed, and worked at a local radio station. Not many white adults in town failed to receive his respectful greeting. He paid particular court to his teachers, and of course, they loved him.
Sounds pretty calculating, huh? Well, if so, the strategy perhaps belongs to Willie’s mother, Marion Harper Weaks Morris, a woman who taught piano in her parlor while worrying—always— of What People Thought: of herself, of her son, of her husband, of their house, of their clothing. When I and a few of Willie’s friends accompanied him home to Yazoo City in 1967, I saw this agitated worrywart mom in action and wondered how Willie had kept from going mad. Upset at Willie’s decision to speak at Yazoo High #2—the black school—as well as at all-white Yazoo High #1, still segregated thirteen years after Brown v. Board of Education, Mama Morris feared that the Folks Who Mattered might "misinterpret" her son’s decision. She got so upset when Norman Podhoretz and I told a questioning newspaper reporter that, yes, surely we favored racial integration in the South, that she poured more coffee on her carpet than into her visitors’ cups—and seemed not to notice. Until Willie chided her that we had a right to speak for ourselves, she had begun to say to the scribbling young writer, "Now I think what these boys really mean is…"
Willie came along at a time when the Daily Texan seemed pretty much content with the status quo. In those bland Eisenhower years, all of America, it seemed, wanted only material changes—new car, bigger house, better golf clubs. Texas then was governed by the anti-intellectual, anti-labor Allan Shivers. In an atmosphere in which adults were so docile, who would expect a bunch of kids running a college newspaper to charge the barricades?
Then here comes a mere freshman—one who has the face of a choirboy and is not even a Texan—and the young whippersnapper begins to criticize the powers that be. And when elevated to editor, he ups the ante by attacking the sacred oil and gas interests, by shaming state legislators for permitting Texas to lag near the bottom in the care of the aged and the children of the poor, by fussing at UT regents for caring more about bricks and mortar than about academic freedom. Willie Morris knew how to roil placid waters, yes, but he pressed his attacks with style and humor. He knew too how to get attention: When an editorial attacking the natural gas industry’s Fulbright-Harris Gas Bill was suppressed—UT, after all, owned land rich with natural gas—Willie left a huge blank hole on the Daily Texan’s editorial page.
J. Frank Dobie, the revered writer and former UT professor, came to Willie’s aid with his comment that the regents were "as much concerned with free intellectual enterprise as a razorback sow would be with Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn.’" Many of America’s daily newspapers made Willie a martyr, brave young David taking on the fearsome Goliath, while poking fun at his censors. Willie became the stuff of legend, and that is why kids working for the Daily Texan continue to honor his memory.
Willie’s success led to a coveted Rhodes scholarship. He went to Oxford, and after two years he asked Celia to marry him. A few days after the ceremony, Willie’s father died of cancer. He was devastated on the trip back to England. When they returned home in June 1960, there was a third member of the party: David Rae Morris, who had been born on November 1, 1959.
Back in Austin, Willie took over as the editor of the Texas Observer. Starting in the mid-fifties, Willie had written for the liberal and iconoclastic paper, which had been founded by Ronnie Dugger in 1954. With Willie in charge, the Observer’s readability improved. Nobody could fault the hard work Dugger had put into his job, but his prose was as wooden as a kiddie’s sword, and personally, I judged him to have a sense of humor on a par with that of a firing squad. Willie, on the other hand, charmed and made friends of just about everyone he met. Jack Bales wrote in his fine book Conversations With Willie Morris that "he courageously covered events that the mainstream press seldom bothered to cover, such as unsanitary conditions in nursing homes, … illiteracy, the social ineffectiveness of the death penalty, racial discrimination, and the political shenanigans and skulduggery of Texas legislators." After reading Willie’s reporting on the Legislature, no less than Norman Mailer said that "neither he nor anybody else need bother with the subject further."
Willie enjoyed much of his work, especially drinking with and exchanging friendly barbs with some of the legislators he most often excoriated. He spent time with such young Texas writers as Billy Lee Brammer and Bob Sherrill at a time in their lives when all seemed possible. Still, running the Observer was the hardest job Willie ever had. He wrote thousands of words per week, edited copy, laid out the paper, trucked it to the printer, stood by to make changes or corrections, then trucked the product back to the Observer’s hole-in-the-wall office for distribution. After two years as the editor, Willie resigned, exhausted.
He left Texas to join his family in Palo Alto, where Celia was seeking a master’s degree in English at Stanford University. She was none too happy in California, where too many students threw Frisbees to their dogs instead of starting revolutions; he jangled around quite without purpose. Jack Fischer, the editor in chief at Harper’s, rode to Willie’s rescue. He wrote to say that he liked Willie’s work and that he would like to establish a Rhodes tradition at his magazine. Was Willie interested in coming aboard as an associate editor? Willie joined Harper’s in May 1963.
He took to New York immediately. "The Big Cave," as he called it, excited him, drove him, made life "pulsate." Willie soon began to travel to Washington to seek political pieces. I then worked for Congressman Jim Wright of Fort Worth, so we began to hang out. Over the next year I regaled Willie with inside tales of colorful congressmen and of a freewheeling LBJ. "Larry, now, you simply must write that for me," Willie almost invariably said. Such encouragement helped me find the guts to quit my job in May 1964 for the risky business of freelancing. During the next six years, I would publish 26 pieces for Willie and Harper’s.
When John Cowles, Sr., of the Minneapolis newspaper family bought the magazine, in 1966, he edged Fischer aside and promoted Willie. Very shortly Willie would hire four writers—myself, David Halberstam and John Corry of the New York Times, and Marshall Frady, a freelancer living in Atlanta—as contributing editors. I was the group elder, at 38, and also the hoo-hawing, two-handed drinker, apt to do damn near anything without warning.
I knew a semi-bawdy song, "Jesus on the Five-Yard Line," that Willie many times asked me to rise and sing in various settings; I did so without shame or talent. On a visit to New York to talk over pieces I might write, I found myself in Willie’s office with three holdovers from the Fischer regime. Suddenly Willie said, "Our new contributing editor, Mr. King, has asked to open the meeting with his favorite song." I stared at Willie, astonished. He kept a straight face, so I rose and sang, giving cheerleader gestures at the proper places:
Oh, the game was played on Sunday,
In Saint Peter’s back yard.
Jesus played right halfback
And Moses played right guard.
The angels on the sidelines,
Christ, how they did yell
When Jesus scored a touchdown
Against that team from Hell.
Stay with Christ,
Stay with Christ,
Jesus on the five-yard line,
Moses doin’ goddern fine!
Stay with Christ,
Stay with Christ,
HOKE ‘EM, POKE ‘EM,
JESUS, SOAK ‘EM!
Staaaay with Christ!
Wellsir, the aftermath set a new record for thunderstruck silence. In all the years I had performed my specialty song, I had been cheered, jeered, threatened, and bought drinks by strangers—but never had I performed to such a deafening silence. "Thank you, Larry," Willie said and then went on to talk business while I sat there feeling like the fifth-place jackass at the county fair.
When the others left, Willie doubled over in glee: "Did you see their faces?" Only later did I realize there had been a method to Willie’s madness. He had hoped to ease those editors out and replace them with livelier and better people and, certainly, having me sing that song told them that the Morris administration perhaps would not be their cup of tea. Soon all three were gone.
It didn’t take long for the literary world to take notice of what Harper’s was doing. Morris got William Styron to write "This Quiet Dust," a lyrical essay about the Virginia countryside where Nat Turner led a slave revolt, and later printed a chunk of Styron’s novel The Confessions of Nat Turner. He made Norman Mailer a near regular in Harper’s, devoting almost a full issue to Mailer’s "The Steps of the Pentagon," which won a Pulitzer prize as the book The Armies of the Night. The former small-town Mississippi boy owned New York. He was ubiquitous, popping up everywhere with everybody who was anybody. And surely Willie might often be found at Elaine’s, the East Side watering hole of the literati, where he would preside over a table including, say, Mailer, George Plimpton, Gay Talese, Edwin "Bud" Shrake, and Elaine herself. There was a social tinge to all this, but Willie also considered it business. "I troll Elaine’s for writers," he said. "Some of my best Harper’s assignments are given out there."
And if all that wasn’t enough, in 1967 the 32-year-old prodigy published his memoir, North Toward Home, which won the Texas Institute of Letters’ Carr P. Collins Award for the best work of nonfiction and was called by the London Sunday Times "the best evocation of an American boyhood since Mark Twain." Yessir, ol’ Willie was drinking mighty heady wine … until the bottle broke.
There had been signs for more than a year before Willie’s Harper’s reign ended, in March 1971, that all was not perfect in paradise. One William A. Blair suddenly appeared as the business manager of Harper’s. Privately, John Cowles, Jr., had told Willie to consider Blair his "superior," but I thought Blair just another horsepucky-babbling business-side type. When Blair began openly referring to himself as "the boss," I diplomatically told him, "You’re not my boss. I’m not a damned accountant. Willie Morris is my boss.”
None of us realized the extent to which Willie and the Cowles family were on the outs. We knew that something was amiss, didn’t feel right, but our trained eyes told us that nobody—not Esquire, not The New Yorker, not The Atlantic Monthly, just no-by-God-body—was putting out a better magazine.
Halberstam’s keen nose got the first whiff of trouble. He talked with me about Willie’s being harder to reach than usual and that Willie had a dangerous notion in his head: that he was, himself, Harper’s magazine. Willie resentfully spoke more and more of being "harassed" by the Cowles family. When we tried to quiz him about the specific problems, however, he would only say, "Don’t worry. Everything’s under control."
Well, that simply wasn’t true. To start, Willie’s personal life had spiraled out of control. He and Celia got a far-from-amicable divorce in 1969 and for years didn’t speak except through lawyers, friends, or by letters that read like grand-jury indictments. Willie often claimed, before they split up, that the problem was Celia’s "slavery" to "shrinks and analysis"; Celia felt that Willie showed no interest in her intellectual development. Neither was without fault, and alcohol had become a true problem for both. But only Celia ever admitted to alcoholism and worked toward recovery. Still, alcohol was becoming an increasing problem for Willie. Halberstam tried, without success, to talk to him. I didn’t talk to Willie about heavy drinking because I too was in denial about my own galloping alcoholism and would remain so for another dozen years.
Tensions at the magazine increased. John Cowles, Sr., complained about its New Journalism. Halberstam felt some backlash from Junior Cowles after he wrote an article about the architects of the Vietnam War. Jack Fischer wanted Willie and his "wrecking crew"—as he privately called us—to fail grandly. I see too that what came to be called the "generation gap" and the "cultural war" played large roles in that old Harper’s split.
I skipped into Harper’s offices at 2 Park Avenue on March 1, 1971, light of heart as always when visiting Gotham, only to find editors Bob Kotlowitz and Midge Decter sitting in a fog of gloom, looking as if their dogs had died. "There was a big fight in Minneapolis," Kotlowitz said. "Willie has drafted a tough letter of resignation, with no room for compromise. If he mails it, he’s through."
I tried to talk Willie out of mailing the letter, but he was fueled by a powerful anger: Cowles, Jr., Blair, and three other executives had raked him for almost four hours, criticizing what Willie published and blaming him for a stagnant circulation. The next day, I complained to Willie over lunch that Junior Cowles had not returned a phone call I had made to him. Willie gave a sly half-smile. "I guarantee he’ll call before this day is over," he said. I studied him and said, "Damn you, Willie, you mailed that tough letter, didn’t you?" Yes. Airmail special delivery. I sighed and said, "Willie, we’re screwed." Willie shook his head and disagreed. I told the waitress to make my next drink a double and to step lively with it, please.
When we returned to the office, Blair’s secretary met us just across the threshold—as if she’d been posted in ambush—and said, "Oh, Mr. Morris! I’m so sorry you’re leaving us!" Willie and I exchanged sharp glances, and he bolted toward his office. "They’ve accepted my resignation!" he said, sounding shocked. "Didn’t you think they would, Willie?" He shook his head and murmured softly, "No."
A few days later Halberstam, Corry, Frady, Kotlowitz, and I resigned; two other editors quit the next day. We swore that we’d never write for Harper’s again. The following day Mailer and Styron, to show support for Willie, joined our pledge. We have all kept it.
After the adrenaline receded, after the Harper’s fight faded from the headlines, reality hit Willie Morris a numbing blow. The Big Cave had suddenly become "large and hostile"; should he even see a Harper’s magazine at a news-stand, he averted his eyes as if looking away from an obscenity. He felt at loose ends: no appointments to keep, no agents or writers calling, no salary to pay his bills. "I missed the perks and the perquisites of power at first," he said years later. "But I don’t miss it anymore. Power is like cotton candy: It tastes good, but it don’t last."
Job offers poured in, but Willie didn’t bother to respond until months later, when he sent short form letters saying thanks but no thanks to all. He was heartened by supportive letters from Robert Penn Warren, Alfred Knopf, Jr., Bill Bradley, and others. One read, "I will never forget how good you were to me to take time out to see me twice in New York, when I was coming from and going to Oxford … I hope you will find some purpose and peace of mind. Know that a lot of us who can’t even scrawl an intelligent sentence are grateful for the work you have done at Harper’s. And of course especially for North Toward Home." It was signed by Bill Clinton.
Motivation, though, was lacking until Willie complained to Bill Moyers of no certain goal. Moyers said, "Willie, you’re only thirty-seven, and you have a good typewriter." And that, somehow, got him started. He fled the Big Cave as if a bear were chasing him, going one hundred miles east of Manhattan to the southern shore of Long Island. The flat terrain and potato fields reminded him of Delta cotton patches; the land had the same brooding quality, he thought, of his native place.
Slowly, he began work on a children’s book, Good Old Boy: A Delta Boyhood, that would win him another award from the Texas Institute of Letters. He published the novel The Last of the Southern Girls, but brutal reviews caused Willie so much distress that he later told a few friends he had considered suicide. Somewhere in there he began writing an early draft of Taps. In the meantime Willie wrote occasional pieces for magazines, went to Washington for a stint at the now-defunct Washington Evening and Sunday Star (where he collected a hushed-up DUI ticket), and picked up random lecture fees. Life was pretty hardscrabble, however, as attested to by letters from Celia and her lawyers dunning him for overdue child support.
They wrote love letters compared with Willie’s mother, however. It was as if "losing" his respectable job qualified him, in Mama’s mind, for additional flayings. She complained of his not calling her, not writing her. She was direct in hoping his work would not embarrass her or the good people of Yazoo. She had read in Time that "you and Mailer are heavy drinkers" and "it hurt." Mama cautioned that drink had made Thomas Wolfe fat and that Willie would himself look less fat if he would wear suits and ties rather than turtleneck sweaters on television.
Time and again Willie heard that, because of him, Mama Morris couldn’t sleep, walked the floor, had anxiety attacks, felt desolation. On Willie’s fortieth birthday he received from Mama a check for $50 (which he never cashed) along with an original poem saying she once had a son who now is gone and is no more.
Willie liked hanging out at bobby Van’s in Bridgehampton, where he regularly met writers Truman Capote and John Knowles. Both of their careers were truly behind them, and one might fairly say that Willie too looked as if his literary zenith belonged to the past. "We didn’t talk about writing much," Willie later said. He might have added they didn’t do much of it either. All three "exiles" did, however, manage to get charged with driving under the influence at various times.
What stability Willie found came from another author, James Jones, who lived in a rambling farmhouse in the midst of potato fields near Sagaponack—"Chateau Spud" Jones called it. At the time, Jones was intent on finishing Whistle, the final book of his World War II trilogy. Knowing that he didn’t have long to live because of congestive heart disease, he didn’t drink nor idle away many hours. Willie and Jones became so close that Willie promised he would finish Whistle if Jones couldn’t. Willie was sitting at a bar in Bridgehampton on April 15, 1977, when Jones walked in and said, "Your Mom just died. I’m sorry."
Willie sold his boyhood home in Yazoo City, loaned his mother’s prized baby grand piano to her church, and then rushed north to see Jones, who had been hospitalized. Jones talked to Willie—with a tape recorder running—about how to finish the final three chapters of Whistle. (In the end Willie settled for summarizing them rather than trying the impossible: imitating Jones’s style.) Willie and the Jones family stayed at or near his bedside until, in the early evening on May 9, 1977, the old soldier abruptly tried to struggle up out of bed, fell back, and died.
Though he remained on long island for another two and a half years—writing James Jones: A Friendship and working stop-and-go on Taps—Willie’s thoughts returned to the South. His friend Larry Wells and his wife, Dean Faulkner, the owners of Yoknapatawpha Press in Oxford, asked Willie to visit their home. They gave a party, inviting writers, University of Mississippi faculty members, select business folk, the best of their politicians. Willie was charmed: Yes, he said, he could live in Oxford. Wells got a job for Willie at Ole Miss and, along with some other friends, secured #16 Faculty Row as housing, furnished the small frame house, and stocked it with utensils and groceries. When Willie and his black Lab, Pete, drove in from Long Island on a December evening in 1979, they had an instant home complete with a cheery crackling fire.
Willie would live at #16 for a decade, though he never concerned himself with making it homey. The only pictures on the wall were of the Mississippi writer Eudora Welty and a faded snapshot of Willie’s boyhood dog, Skip, thumbtacked up. Willie began with the title writer-in-residence and lecturer. "His classes overflowed immediately," Wells says. "The only comparable excitement was a football game." Each night #16 Faculty Row rang with youthful laughter as Willie told stories of the literary world and of the foibles of famous authors. He enjoyed sneaking out to St. Peter’s Cemetery to make midnight calls on William Faulkner and sprinkle his idol’s grave with good bourbon.
In a couple of years, though, Willie wearied of teaching heavy novels and switched to the journalism department. But he didn’t like grading: One who had edited Mailer wasn’t real keen on perusing the raw musings of amateurs. His solution was simple—don’t assign any papers. He began having his dozen journalism students meet for "classes" regularly at a steak house. "The kids were in heaven: steak dinner, beer, wine, no homework, no tests, no papers to write. Professor Morris gave them all A’s," Wells recalls.
In 1981 Willie published Terrains of the Heart and Other Essays on Home; two years later he finished The Courting of Marcus Dupree, about a blue-chip running back from the small Mississippi town of Philadelphia. I rate it among his best books, but it might never have been finished had Willie’s agent, Sterling Lord, not conspired with an Ole Miss student named Rocky Miskelly. "Willie had spent the advance money but couldn’t seem to finish the book. I told Sterling he was drinking a fifth or two of bourbon a day and sometimes added vodka," Miskelly says. The agent arranged for Willie to retreat to an isolated cabin, and Miskelly disabled Willie’s car once he was there. "I took him a pint of George Dickel bourbon each day, and Willie produced pages six days per week. He got a whole fifth of bourbon on Sunday, and the day off." That same year a collection of sports stories called Always Stand in Against the Curve appeared. Then the well ran dry. He would produce nothing for six long years.
There is no creature so miserable as a writer lying fallow. Most true writers have a compulsion to write; they are addicted to it. When they do not write for a long time, they feel guilty, feel worthless, and—often—they drink far too much. They do not know WHY they are blocked or WHEN the condition will go away, if ever. Frustration turns to anger, anger leads to foolish conduct, and after a while people who truly love you seek relief from your whining, blame-placing, angry company. I know. I’ve been there.
And all of that misery also happened to Willie Morris. Old friends will talk about the details now, though not many for attribution. "He really became Mr. Hyde more than Dr. Jekyll," says a man who admired him. In that mode Willie refused to give even his required single public lecture a year at Ole Miss, quit paying rent on his faculty quarters, and effectively divorced himself—unilaterally—of any responsibility to the school.
"He began to hate this town where restaurants closed at ten and bars at midnight, leaving him low and wet with no place to go but home," says a companion of the time. One night as he left a bar, he took a swing at a policeman for no discernible reason, though he missed, thanks to Miskelly. A few months later, when the cops hung a DUI rap on him, Willie claimed it was because of his swinging at a cop that time "and I don’t even remember it."
Before long the IRS was on Willie’s case for unpaid taxes. And soon Willie stooped in his yard to pet his beloved black Lab, Pete, and discovered to his horror that the dog wasn’t sleeping but had died of old age. At that point Willie’s friends might not have been surprised had a camel bit him. One of the hardest blows came in 1989 when his editor at Doubleday, Herman Gollob, wrote to say he was turning down Taps. "It was nobody’s fault," says Gollob. "We wanted a plot-driven novel. Willie wanted a lyrical, episodic book." But Willie was crushed. "I hired Herman to run Harper’s Magazine Press," he grumbled.
During his hardest years, Oxford pals remember, Willie obsessed over many of "my old writers" getting rich while he failed to prosper. He would shake his huge head at the mention of David Halberstam’s "big books" or my musical comedy hit, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. "It wasn’t like he really resented you guys," says Miskelly. "He was actually proud of you. But I think your successes made him feel inferior, like he couldn’t keep up."
A ray of light finally broke through the clouds. Her name was JoAnne Prichard. An editor at the University Press of Mississippi, she worked on Homecomings, a book that Willie collaborated on in 1989 with artist Bill Dunlap. Willie and JoAnne had known each other for years. They first met during our 1967 trip, when Willie spoke at Yazoo High #1, where JoAnne taught. "Every time Willie came to Yazoo over the years, I saw him at a dinner party or somewhere," JoAnne says. "He wrote the introduction to my and Harriet DeCell’s history of Yazoo County. Harriet and I were in New York once and met Willie and his entourage at Elaine’s." Romance blossomed in the spring of 1989.
In April 1990 Mississippi senator Thad Cochran and his wife, Rose, gave a party in Washington to celebrate Homecomings. Willie’s sense of drama led him to make a surprise marriage proposal from the podium in the Senate Caucus Room. They were married in a private ceremony on September 14. The next day they went to the Ole Miss-Auburn football game, then drove to Willie’s hometown to spend a one-night honeymoon at the Yazoo Motel: pure Willie!
They made their home in Jackson, and the idle, angry Mr. Hyde of the eighties was replaced by the witty, mischievous, social raconteur of an earlier time. He began to help young writers, and he was working again. In 1989 Willie published Good Old Boy and the Witch of Yazoo, a tale he concocted about a witch who lived along the Yazoo River; he threw in skeletons, crazed cats, you name it, and melded them with historical fact. Once the story became popular, the Yazoo Chamber of Commerce put up a headstone in Glenwood Cemetery telling of the Witch of Yazoo’s foul if legendary deeds, pleasing Willie to no end.
New York Days—a story of his time in the Big Cave, which he considered a sequel to North Toward Home—appeared four years later. It received some excellent reviews, most notably a long hymn of praise in the New York Times Book Review. Overall, however, the response was mixed.
Old friend Bill Clinton invited Willie to the White House more than once, and he spoke in Austin at the LBJ Library. During events attendant to the PEN/Faulkner Awards at the Folger Shakespeare Library, Willie was swarmed at a luncheon in the Capitol by senators and congressmen. He drew more attention than any of the dozen or more writers being feted. Afterward, he said with a pleased grin, "I guess they haven’t forgotten me after all."
To celebrate Willie’s sixtieth birthday, in 1994, more than five hundred people packed Hal & Mal’s in downtown Jackson. A federal judge presided over a trial in which a handcuffed Willie was found guilty of "shameless and habitual hyperbole, highfalutin language, perpetual childhood, and excessive late-night sentimentality." He was sentenced "to be smothered in the continued love, affection, and mirth of your thousands of fans."
In 1995 Random House published Willie’s small book My Dog Skip. It was a pleasant little tale, often sentimental, but also warm and funny. The book caught on, enjoyed good sales, and the movie rights were sold. When Willie and JoAnne attended the premiere of the movie version, it proved to be a great emotional high for him. "That was my life on that big screen," he said, his voice breaking. "I cried in the cab from the screening room all the way to our hotel."
I think Willie was happier than he’d ever been. He was tremendously excited about his next book, which he was plotting, in his usual manner, on three-by-five note cards that he lined up across a long writing table. (He never made peace with computers; JoAnne said he "closed his eyes" on passing near hers.) The book was to be called One for My Daddy: A Baseball Memory. It would have opened with one of Willie’s earliest memories—his father teaching him to attack a baseball with a level swing of the bat.
Willie had planned to start his baseball book on Monday, August 2, 1999. He had asked JoAnne to be certain plenty of writing paper was on hand. About 11:45 that morning, as JoAnne talked to two friends about a book she was editing, Willie called out her name. She found him sitting on the edge of the bed, gasping. "He said, ‘I’ve got to start my baseball book!’" JoAnne says. "’You will,’ I said." JoAnne called for an ambulance and told them to bring oxygen.
He also asked her to get Taps together and then told her, "If anything happens, don’t grieve. Well … grieve a little." JoAnne laughed, but Willie, still serious, added, "I want you to be happy and fulfilled. You’re the best wife I ever had." Suddenly he began to sweat profusely and tear at his pajamas.
The paramedics arrived and put him on oxygen and on a stretcher. As they loaded him into the ambulance, Willie spoke his last full sentence: "Where’s my wife?" "Right here," JoAnne said, climbing in beside the driver. In the emergency room a gruff doctor told her, "We think he’s had a heart attack." JoAnne remembers only snatches of what else the doctor said: "Heart so weak we can’t tell … congestive heart failure … clear fluid from his lungs." She thought, "This should be a wake-up call for Willie. Now he’ll cut down his smoking and drinking and take better care of himself."
Within an hour a nurse told JoAnne, "You might want to call family and friends. He’s very serious." JoAnne’s first call was to his son, David Rae, in New Orleans; soon people began flocking to the hospital. JoAnne was told that Willie was unconscious and that, even if he lived, his brain wouldn’t function normally. "Maybe not," she snapped. "You don’t know how smart he was to start with."
"I had read that hearing is the last of the senses to go," JoAnne says, "so I lay beside Willie on the hospital bed and told him private, loving things. And I hugged him and kissed him." She then opened the door to the assembled friends. One by one they held Willie’s hand and said their farewells. At 6:21 in the evening, 64-year-old Willie Morris stopped breathing; his great heart was stilled forever.
He became the first writer ever to lie in state in the rotunda of the Old Capitol in Jackson, the city of his birth. It was no stretch to believe that Willie Morris, who may have believed in ghosts, had become one. And surely that ghost would not have failed to attend his own funeral, as Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn did in the imagination of Mark Twain. Of Willie’s friends, who laughed and told "Willie stories" even in the company of his still form, Rick Bragg of the New York Times wrote, "His ghost, they said, or his spirit, or—this being Mississippi, where people talk about God without feeling funny about it—his soul, will fly free every time someone cracks open one of his books about home, about family, about dogs and cats and about finding peace in all of it." A lovely thought, that. One to hold on to and act on in the presence of Willie’s books.
Then came the touch that must have made ol’ Willie’s ghost grin. As the pallbearers came forward, the Reverend Will Campbell, the civil rights activist and author, asked the assembled to stand and reward Willie Morris for all the good things he had done in life. As the casket was carried down the aisle, people stood and clapped, somebody whistled, a few more cried, and others smiled despite the lumps in their throats.
Willie was buried where he wanted to be: in the old part of Glenwood Cemetery in Yazoo. In that cemetery he had wandered as a boy with his dog Skip and, as a young father, had run foot races with David Rae. There too he had blown taps for fallen victims of the Korean War, and as he was himself laid to rest, two buglers—one the echo man—blew taps for him. I like it that Willie’s final resting place is a measured thirteen steps from that of the Witch of Yazoo, whose history he invented.
I was in Rome on a long-planned family vacation the day of Willie’s funeral. Waking, I knew what I must do. Thirty-odd years earlier I had written a Harper’s piece for Willie about my birthplace called "Requiem for a West Texas Town." One sentence ran, "For some five thousand salts-of-the-earth, Putnam would still be standing when Rome had only a general store and an old stadium." Something about that line tickled Willie’s fancy; he mentioned it many times, always with a chuckle or a smile.
So I went to the ruins of the Colosseum and said to Willie’s ghost, "Willie, I’m here at this old stadium in Rome. I doubt they’ll sing ‘Jesus on the Five-Yard Line’ at your funeral today; Mississippi has too many tight-mouthed Baptists. But I’m gonna sing it now, Willie, to you and for you—one last time." And I did. Loud and clear, if not excessively tuneful, never mind a few strange looks from gawkers. It seemed to help where I was hurting.