Almost anyone who knew writer Grover Lewis could list a few items key to his biography: His father and mother had shot each other to death, in the forties, when Grover was very young; he grew up poor in the Oak Cliff neighborhood of Dallas; he wore thick glasses to correct a severe vision impairment. These grim circumstances seemed unlikely to propel Grover up the totem pole of literary greats in his generation. And yet he found his way.
Appearing mostly in magazines like Rolling Stone and New West, Lewis influenced countless other journo types, including Tim Cahill, Dave Hickey, and Kenneth Turan, many of whom rubbed elbows with him at various desks and bar stools throughout Texas and California as he polished a new style of film and music journalism. Lewis was one of the first writers to hang out on movie sets and tour buses, where the action took place, covering the uncensored backstage of an event instead of conducting the formal interview that merely alluded to it. Though he was drawn to unsung heroes, he wrote close inspections of giant personalities such as Robert Mitchum and Lightnin’ Hopkins, and his best-known stories recorded significant cultural events, including the making of The Last Picture Show and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, an Allman Brothers rock tour, and the Altamont rock festival. He was, according to many people who worked at Rolling Stone in the early seventies, the star, bigger than Hunter S. Thompson or Joe Eszterhas, a grand old man who set high standards and broke new ground.
Despite Lewis’s success in his peers’ minds, however, ten years after his death from lung cancer, the temporal nature of the medium in which he usually appeared has rotated his work off of most shelves, and he’s become an unknown to readers under age forty. Hopefully that will change on April 1, when Lewis’s magazine stories, poems, and fiction will resurface in a collection published by the University of Texas Press, Splendor in the Short Grass, giving evidence of a take-no-crap, beauty-and-truth-loving trendsetter who, as the following oral history shows, left a lifelong impression on everybody he met.
In the Beginning
After graduating from W. H. Adamson High School, in 1953, Lewis went to North Texas State College, in Denton (now the University of North Texas), where he began publishing stories and poems in literary magazines and editing a magazine with Larry McMurtry. After taking a B.A. in English, in 1958, he entered graduate school at North Texas and later at Texas Tech before heading to work at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram as a copy editor.
Rae Lewis (Lewis’s wife of 22 years): When the Russians put Sputnik up in the air, America had to play catch-up in a big, fast way, and there was a lot of money that flooded into the universities all around the country, and a lot of scholarships were offered. I think that was how Grover got to go to UNT.
Larry McMurtry (Pulitzer prize–winning novelist; met Lewis at North Texas): We edited a little magazine together called the Coexistence Review . There are only two issues of it. I saw a good bit of him; he was a good friend of the woman I eventually married. He had a very loyal following. They followed him almost like disciples. I experienced this with Ken Kesey and Grover. I liked them both, but I was never a disciple, which is fine. He didn’t want me as a disciple and neither did Ken. But that was the difference between me and some other people in his life.
Don Graham (English professor at the University of Texas at Austin; took a philosophy class from Lewis at North Texas): He was the first poet I met who had actually written a poem. The first line of one I liked was “Love strolled around the world personified.” Grover was regarded as the guy with the brilliant future in writing, not McMurtry. But of course, as we know, it didn’t turn out that way.
Sherry Kafka Wagner (writer; close friend of Lewis’s): I met Grover’s and Larry’s teacher before I ever met Grover and Larry. I had a copy of [McMurtry’s] Horseman, Pass By. I had read it, and I was impressed and mentioned to the writing teacher how much I liked it, and he said, “Oh, yes, it was excellent, but his friend Grover Lewis has written an even better manuscript.” It became a famed manuscript—fictional nonfiction about Lightnin’ Hopkins. But evidently Grover got drunk and decided it was pretty invasive, and he burned the only copy of the manuscript.
Dave Hickey (writer; art critic; longtime Lewis friend): Fort Worth was really sort of a loose collection of writers who stumbled over one another all the time, like McMurtry and Bud Shrake. Fort Worth hippies drive Pontiacs. Fort Worth is yellow skies, yellow brick. It was fun, and there were smart people, but the goal was always to get the hell out of there. There was a lot of sitting around in dark rooms smoking dope and doing belladonna.
Kafka Wagner : Grover was hired as a copy editor at the Star-Telegram. And, you know, he read by holding his glasses with one hand at his temple and moving his head from side to side with that hand, because his eyes were agitated. His eyes moved, always moving. So an editor comes in—he’s never met Grover—and he sees this copy editor who is bent over the copy, holding his glasses and moving his head, and he says, “Oh, my God! It’s come to this! We’ve hired a blind copy editor!” But while [Lewis] was there , he took all the information he had in his head from that Lightnin’ Hopkins manuscript and wrote a series that won him a national journalism award and helped him to get launched.
Jack Loftis (former editor of the Houston Chronicle ): Grover came to work on the copy desk of the Chronicle