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.