My Friend Willie

Larry L. King tells what he liked most about Willie Morris, what kind of editor he was to work for, and the one word he would use to describe him. I believe you were working in Washington for Congressman Jim Wright when you first met Willie Morris. Do you remember the specifics of your first meeting?

LLK: Willie Morris came down to Washington from New York not long after he had gone to work as a young associate editor at Harper’s. He called on Congressman Jim Wright’s office and asked for me personally; we had mutual friends in the Texas Legislature–Malcolm McGregor, Charles Wilson, Don Kennard–and in Bill Brammer, with whom I had worked in Congress. So it was almost as if we were friends before we met. I asked Willie out for coffee and headed for the House Office Building cafeteria. On the way he asked, “Do they sell Bloody Marys there?” I said, “No, but I’ll take you where we can get Bloody Marys.” So we stepped across the street to the Filibuster Room in the Congressional Hotel and commenced sipping at about 11 a.m. I think it was 2 p.m. by the time I got back to Congressman Wright’s office, and by then Willie and I were brothers. What was your first impression of him?

LLK: I was disposed to like Willie from the first, due to having read his stuff in the Texas Observer and having been told by our mutual friends that he was a good dude and bright and funny. And all that proved to be true. Was there anything in particular that he said to convince you to quit your job in Washington and become a freelance writer? If so, what?

LLK: Willie did often say to me when I would tell political stories of Washington and LBJ and tales of Texas, “Larry, you simply must write that for me!” but he never asked me to quit politics for writing. But in September of 1963 I sold a political novel, The One-Eyed Man, and two months later John F. Kennedy–whom I knew a bit and campaigned for and with–was assassinated. That truly soured me on politics. So in May of 1964 I quit. When I called Willie to tell him, he immediately said, “I’ll buy articles from you and talk you up with editors of other magazines.” And he did, which was very helpful to launching my writing career. He asked me on the phone that day I called to write a piece about what it was like to be the “faceless, voiceless, behind-the-scenes man” to powerful politicians, so I wrote “Washington’s Second Banana Politicians,” which he published as the first of 26 pieces I ultimately would write for him. What kind of editor was he? Was he tough to work for?

LLK: Willie was the best editor I ever had, and I had some good ones: Alan D. Williams, Steve Gelman, Geoffrey Norman, Bill Broyles. Willie was a genius at matching writer to subject; he asked questions that made the writer dig deeper, and his copy editing was so sure I swear it improved my first two or three magazine pieces by 40 percent. I began to study how he edited and it quickly helped me become a better writer. No, he was not “tough to work for” if you did your job. Writers loved Willie, because he cared about their work and it showed. Most busted their asses to give him their best. What was your favorite piece you wrote while working for Willie at Harper’s? Why?

LLK: My favorite piece for Willie was “The Old Man.” Having heard me tell stories about my dad for years, Willie kept urging me to write about him: “Write your earliest memory of him and up to the present. Write about the ups and downs of your relationship, how it changed, why it changed, your differences and what you shared.” I tried two or three times, but I was intimidated by what my father might think, and always quit the pieces. In October of 1970 Dad died suddenly. I flew home for the funeral, really ripped up. I had come to love that old man in his old age: He was almost 83.Willie called my mother’s house the day of Dad’s funeral, and without knowing I was gonna say it, I blurted, “Willie I can write it, now.” I worked on that piece 32 days and nights. Willie, on reading it, said, “Larry, people will be reading that piece fifty years from now.” Well, maybe he was right: It’s still being anthologized after thirty years, and I still think it’s the best thing I ever wrote. Was he a different person outside the office? If so, how? If not, why not?

LLK: To me, Willie was pretty much the same dude inside the office or outside it. What you saw with Willie was what you got. What did you like most about Willie? Why?

LLK: I liked a lot about Willie: his talent, his sense of humor, his intelligence. But I liked best, I think, his absence of malice. Willie never had his stinger out for anybody, really. He was generous to a fault in helping other writers and that’s a bit unusual in the old word game. Willie just didn’t harbor the envy, the jealousy, the chickenshitery that one associates with “life in the fast lane.” What did you like least about Willie? Why?

LLK: I least liked Willie’s inability to say no when he should have. He hated giving bad news so badly that he would evade, stall, and let things reach crises proportions rather than dealing with problems. That was the flip side–the “bad” side–of his being free of malice. That caused some problems at the magazine over time. Why did Willie think his resignation letter to Harper’s would be rejected?

LLK: I think that Willie Morris had received so much good press and praise and awards–and knew in his heart that he was putting out the best magazine in America–that he just couldn’t fathom any owner letting him go. I tried to warn him during that 1971 fight

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