The Last Maverick

When Maury Maverick, Jr., died last January, Texas lost a legendary liberal, an eccentric curmudgeon who was a tireless champion of the downtrodden—and I lost a friend.

LAST JANUARY, AS MAURY MAVERICK, Jr., the legendary Texas liberal, lay dying of kidney failure in a San Antonio hospital, a small group of us—including his wife, Julia—stood near his bed, listening to his raspy, labored breathing. He was 82 and not yet ready to die. “I’m dying,” he’d told me a few days before, “and I don’t know what to do about it.” There it was: the whole truth, blurted out from his deathbed, with his eyes wide open and his fists clenched. Bravery was a sharp instinct with Maury, part of his DNA, and it was with him until the end.

Standing over him in the hospital, I was unable to separate any aspect of my own personal or professional life from his illuminating and at times lacerating influence. In my mind, Maury was Don Quixote and I was Sancho Panza. But his influence was more than mythic. The flesh-and-blood Maury was a constant presence. I named him an official “bridesmaid” at my wedding in 1981. During the service, he stood under a live oak tree and gave a speech about the importance of fighting for personal liberty, even—in fact, especially—in marriage. I named my daughter Maury, hoping to give her some of his courage.

Now he was dying, the last of a political archetype—the real Texas Mavericks. Anglo liberals like Maury have long held a fragile stake in Texas. In San Antonio, where Mexican Americans outnumber Anglos and Catholics outnumber Protestants, that stake is largely demographically driven. The kind of evangelical conservatism that you find in East Texas and in the suburbs of Dallas and Houston just doesn’t hold much sway. As a state legislator in the fifties, Maury supported the right of blacks and Mexican Americans to vote and of unions to organize. Crafty, contrarian but never cynical, he studied the Constitution the way other people study their horoscope: for fun. Consequently, anyone who thought of himself as down-and-out, put down, or picked on felt that Maury was his special ally. But times have changed in San Antonio, just like everywhere else. Unions don’t have the power they once had. Minorities now speak for themselves. In San Antonio today, there is not a single Democratic politician of promise under fifty who is an Anglo. Maury was old and eccentric enough to ignore the new rules. He kept right on speaking out for labor and minorities as if it were still the fifties, and no one seemed to mind.

Maury was not by nature a nurturing man. Years ago his mother, Terrell Maverick Webb, described his father to me as “gently rough and roughly gentle.” The same was true of Maury. If he and I went longer than a week without an argument, he couldn’t bear it. He’d be on the telephone, needling me until I gave him the fight he longed for. Often, these provocations would begin when Maury telephoned and identified himself as Sam Houston, up from the grave.

“Child, this is Sam Houston, speaking to you from heaven,” Maury would say, putting on his best Houston voice. “I demand to know if anyone in your family ever did anything as brave as I did in 1861, when I begged the people of Texas not to secede from the Union.”

“No, Mister Sam, they did not,” I would respond obediently.

“Well then, get busy,” he’d snap. “Stop writing for the swells. Write for the poor and the oppressed, the people who need liberty and groceries.” In today’s Texas, who would think to invoke the name of Sam Houston to give a lecture about not writing for the swells?

I FIRST MET MAURY IN the Spring of 1973. I was 22; he was 52. I took him to lunch at a health-food restaurant on the Riverwalk, a place called the Greenhouse that no longer exists. I was green myself, a young reporter for the San Antonio Light working on a story about Maury. At the time, he was best known as a red-hot liberal, the state’s celebrity civil-rights lawyer, a former member of the Texas House of Representatives who in the fifties had successfully opposed a bill calling for the execution of Communists—and, well, a maverick, in disposition as well as name.

He arrived at the restaurant wearing a dark velour shirt with a hole in it, a bolo tie, and wrinkled gray pants. His mustache and hair were still mostly dark, although there were sprinkles of gray. His face was deeply lined, especially around the mouth. I still remember how he smelled: of wet dogs, fresh earth, burned coffee. He seemed ancient.

For most of the afternoon, I sat rapt, mesmerized by stories that are now part of Maury’s official canon. He talked a lot that first day about his experience, between 1951 and 1955, as one of the few liberals in the Texas Legislature. When a resolution was introduced to invite U.S. senator Joe McCarthy, the Wisconsin Republican who had led the witch-hunt against Communists, to speak to the Legislature, Maury offered an amendment to invite Mickey Mouse instead. “If we’re going to invite a rat,” he said, “why not invite a good rat?”

What I remember most about that first lunch was how thoroughly Maury was dominated by his deceased father, Maury Maverick, Sr., the New Deal congressman and San Antonio’s most progressive mayor. He told the story of what happened the day the Texas House considered a resolution to investigate Clarence Ayres, a University of Texas economics professor, for challenging some of the theories of capitalism. When it came time to vote, Maury Junior hid in a men’s-room stall so the House page wouldn’t be able to find him for the vote. The Legislature had become a mob of red-baiters, and Maury was afraid. The next day his father telephoned and said he hadn’t seen Maury’s name in the newspaper as voting against the Ayres investigation. Maury told him he’d been hiding in

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