In his novel, The Gay Place, Billy Lee Brammer captured the earthiness of LBJ as no other writer has, but the book’s honesty destroyed the two men’s friendship.
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Three winters ago it snowed in Dallas for the first time in easy recall, and my luck to be there. As a result, I paid my only visit to the old Brammer place in Oak Cliff, a backwater suburb on the wrong shore of the Trinity River. Billy Lee had to run down to Austin to report to his probation officer, and so for a few days I was alone in that quiet house where he had grown up. It had been in Billy’s hands about three months and he had sacked it pretty thoroughly by then, hauling out everything easily movable and remotely salable. What remained was either too heavy or unlikely to sell, while strewn all around were rumpled heaps of dirty clothes, boxes of paperback books and pots and pans, random clutter and refuse. Scattered here and there were the remnants of Billy’s staple diet—Sara Lee pie tins, Twinkies wrappers, cans of cake frosting with moldy spoons protruding, Pepsi bottles—and occasionally I came upon a nasty-looking discarded hypodermic of the kind sold over the counter to insulin users.
Oak Cliff had been a nicely trim and upright middle-class Dallas suburb when Billy Lee Brammer arrived in it, somewhat prematurely, in 1929, a menopause baby born twenty years after his brother and sister, a rather small Taurus. He was a small man in the physical sense, short at any rate, and could tell droll stories about how it felt “to come up short in Texas,” but he didn’t carry the deep small fears of many people born late in their parents’ lives, raised alone, indulged. He was not weak-willed like a petted adolescent grown up insecure. I think Billy Lee was perhaps the most bullheaded person I’ve ever known, although certainly he applied his stubbornness to his weaknesses, pressed it to ends that seemed to the rest of us alarming and deplorable—self-destructive, many called it.
It was always self-directed, though, very purposeful in his own mind, maybe even necessary—like strip-mining a rich vein of rare insight. Billy had once by unanimous consent been the finest writer in Texas; indeed his novel, The Gay Place, is often considered the one great modern Texas novel, although in truth it is less and more than that: less because there are now other claimants to the regional title, and yet more because it is much more than an Texas novel.
But in any case his mother doted on him, and the history of her affection was stored in dusty boxes pushed together in an unused corner: stacks of old newspapers, gaunt magazines, yellowed copies of the Texas Observer, cracked and faded photographs—Billy at about age six in front of the house, swamped by the burgeoning roses and azaleas his father grew; Billy and his second wife, Dorothy, at their wedding in 1963, both of them radiantly healthy, Billy looking quite dapper in has dark suit with a neat gardenia. There was even an old snapshot, blistered with age, of Billy and Lyndon Johnson in the days of their high and foredoomed friendship.
Leafing through the newspapers, I turned up a pale 1946 copy of the Sunset Stampede, “published by the journalism students of Sunset High,” the first name in a list of whom is Bill Brammer. Next was a collection of by-line clips from his newspaper days in Corpus Christi and Austin, covering sports and the Legislature, writing features. Then came a thin folder proudly filled with some of the reviews of Billy’s book; Gore Vidal is quoted in the old New York Herald-Tribune as thinking it “the best novel about American politics in our time.” She was a meticulous collector, Mrs. Brammer.
Her son had doubtless seemed the typical Dallas youngster—mailing patriotic wishes to his brother, Jimmy (who flew bombers in North Africa), participating in Boy Scouts and schoolyard athletics (compact and well coordinated, he was a medal-winning diver and a first-string infielder)—but inwardly he found Oak Cliff boring. “Growing up was bloody dull,” he later made one of his characters say, describing a childhood much like Billy’s.
And so: a youthful imaginer, a fleet mind with a wayward spirit, already an artist in his soul. Then at age twelve Billy decided it might be interesting to learn how to type. He taught himself by copying out, word by clumsy word, whatever prose was near at hand: Hemingway, the Tarzan books, J. Frank Dobie, his father’s gardening manuals; by indirection he discovered reading. Most affecting of all, he discovered Scott Fitzgerald and those softly undulating sentences that seduce the mind, whisper to the heart. Thirty-five years afterward, his enthusiasm blunted by wider and possibly excessive exposure, Billy could still quote favorite passages from Tender Is the Night. Fitzgerald had awakened his urge to write, and his mother had lovingly recorded the rising echoes of that fatal whisper.
Feeling vaguely like a prowler, I continued examining her collection and was soon rewarded with a real prize: an August 1956 issue of the national Sunday supplement, the American Weekly, with a cheerful article headlined SENATOR LYNDON JOHNSON’S OFFICE STAFF IS “ONE BIG HAPPY FAMILY.” This charming claim is illustrated by a happy family portrait of Senator Johnson, then the majority leader, standing beside Lady Bird on the steps of the Capitol, surrounded by the four married couples from his office staff (he had a penchant then for hiring couples, hence the article), and standing immediately below the Johnsons are Bill and Nadine Brammer. Billy is actually standing on the same step as Johnson, just behind him, but he looks so small by comparison as to seem below him.
All his life Billy could remember with perfect clarity the first time he saw Lyndon Johnson—in 1948, when the young Austin congressman was campaigning for the Senate and Billy was a curious freshman covering a rally for his college paper. Johnson was barnstorming by helicopter that year—he was the first politician to use one—and the queer new machine came churning in just above the rally, noisy and fascinating, circling many more times than was necessary, Johnson leaning from the window and whooping, gesticulating, waving a big white Stetson, which he sailed out into the crowd as the helicopter abruptly sank to a jarring landing. Johnson emerged almost instantly, grinning broadly, tall and lanky, looking for all the world like Jimmy Stewart, and he strode toward the podium followed by a University of Texas all-American football star whom he curtly instructed to fetch his hat. Then, grasping the microphone with both hands, his legs quivering with nervous energy, he loosed an incredibly torrent of promises and platitudes that somewhere included (as Billy recalled it) a brave defense of the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe.
The dreamy little freshman reporter had never seen anything like it, never even read about anything like it—few people had. That was the election Johnson carried by his success in the cemetery precincts of Duval County, which as far as Billy was concerned was only fitting and natural; he was not so naïve as to think that politics, especially Texas politics, was as decorous and principled as people were accustomed to pretending. On the contrary Johnson’s impressive graveyard majorities merely underlined the deeper mystery of the man’s phenomenal vitality. Johnson had won a piece of Billy’s heart that day and he owned it for the rest of both their lives—a piece he used and sometimes abused—a piece he never returned in kind and that finally, inevitably, he broke.
Billy Lee was 48 when he died February a year ago—the funeral was Valentine’s Day, which everyone thought apt—almost two years after my sojourn in his Oak Cliff house, and while I knew him both before and later it is still that gloomy Dallas winter that focuses my memories of him. It was probably the gloomiest season of his life. Up until his latest drug arrest he had been working as the assistant hors d’oeuvres chef at Austin’s Driskill Hotel, the last real job he ever had, and so for a time all his friends’ refrigerators had been swollen with stolen hams, huge buckets of shrimp Newburg, and occasional champagne magnums. Billy himself never wavered in his preference for cake frosting and Pepsi; rather he used his booty to barter for drugs.
He had over an ounce of pure crystal methedrine in his pocket on the night he was arrested, quite by accident, having caught a ride with a friend who proved to be the subject of a statewide police alert and was soon zooming down South Lamar in Austin barely ahead of several patrol cars. Following the inevitable smash-up, there was a bit of a shoot-out, Billy huddling all the while on the floor of the back seat frantically groping for the plate-glass bifocals he needed to see with. He looked so incredibly harmless that not even the police could take him for a criminal. It was two hours before they bothered to search him, but it had been years since he’d had his hands on a whole ounce of speed and he just couldn’t bring himself to throw it away. So that’s how his winter began.
His many friends were galvanized by pity. Sympathetic journalists censored news of his arrest, several lawyers offered to defend him, bail money was gathered, congressmen and authors voiced respect and even awe for the writer he had once been—all in tones of sorrow for the man he had since become. Billy meanwhile answered up guilty and accepted his sentence (five years probation) with the stoic indifference of a true innocent or a hardened criminal, both of which he was. He moved back to Dallas, taking over the family house on his father’s death, and promptly inaugurated the ongoing garage sale that so baffled and amused his friends all winter.
His arrivals, like his departures, were always spontaneous yet bizarrely memorable. Rattling up in his impeccably funky old Chevy, on which nothing worked predictably but the deafening stereo system, Billy would greet anyone he saw with the cheerful drawl, “Hidy, got any speed?” Then out would come the table lamps, boxes full of this and that, sepia portraits of his pioneer grandparents, his father’s World War I doughboy jacket, his brother’s World War II medals, his own Sunset High School baseball uniform: the merchandise. Only indirectly and belatedly did his marks come to realize that all this stuff was merchandise, theirs for just a little petty cash or better yet, some drugs. There was also the danger that unless suitably bribed he might drive away and leave it all in the yard. Sometimes I think it was Billy’s revenge for all the gloomy pity we dumped on him. He sure didn’t take much pity on himself, and while he may have viewed his situation as uncomfortable, or unbecoming, he certainly never thought of it as tragic.
Billy Lee had begun his writing career in the usual way, by rejecting everything he saw around him. As the editorial columnist for the Campus Chat, the student paper of North Texas State College in Denton (forty miles north of Dallas), Billy wrote a stridently scornful column surrounded by frivolous chat and photos of coeds and football stars. Hot with indignation, he railed against the evils of the world: the poll tax, the Bomb, Jim Crow, Senator Joe McCarthy.
“Billy Lee was this really odd little campus intellectual,” recalls his first wife, Nadine Eckhardt, who met him in 1950 and married him a year later. “He used to wear these tight pegged pants and blue suede shoes, real blue suede shoes, went around quoting S. J. Perelman and Max Shulman all the time. He had his little column in the paper and was always making fun of the fraternity boys, writing about politics, books, jazz.”
Nadine was a Rio Grande Valley beauty queen who came to North Texas State for the purpose of escaping home, bringing with her the sultry manner and open mind of Border women combined with a nonstop spirit all her own. Enrolling as an art student, she cropped her hair like Elizabeth Taylor, mail-ordered some cashmere sweaters, Moroccan sandals, and gull-wing sunglasses, and became a bohemian. “By my standards Billy Lee was kind of unsophisticated. I was the one who turned him on to Benzedrine, for staying up late studying, and everything. All the kids from the Valley knew about it because we’d get it over in Mexico, but Bill had never heard of it. He loved it right away. He said it helped him get into his writing.”
He got slim help from anywhere else. Would-be writers were an upstart species of postwar Texan, an old legend crossed with a new dream. They were literary sodbusters on the literate frontier, outfitting their lives from New Yorker cartoons. Nowhere in the state was there a working novelist of even minor accomplishment, nor had there ever been. There were no Texas voices with whom younger writers could tune their own talents, compare insights, from whom they could learn.
Nor, more important, was there any tradition of or appreciation for the means and aims of honest writing: imagination, introspection, a deliberate search for models and values, for the grace and strength of true self-knowledge. The portrait of the Texan had always been made by others, from typecast actors to visiting reporters, sentimentally or cynically, but always superficially. To read about oneself, when the writing is good, is to recognize a more complex self than most Texans were then acquainted with; in fact, they were prone to regard such portraits suspiciously. That an entire generation of talented postwar writers—from Terry Southern and Donald Barthelme to Liz Smith and Rex Reed—abandoned the state in body and in principle expresses the conflict they felt with the dual roles of writer and Texan. Like their grandparents who struggled against the contrary land, only the really stubborn ones stayed on. Billy Lee, for instance, headstrong as a redneck, stayed and stayed, and those of us who came later were beholden and fated to love him for it, no matter what.
In the mid-fifties, Billy was widely considered the best writer in the Austin Capitol press corps, a narrow honor achieved with his clever essays in the new Texas Observer, a muckraking weekly with liberal bias and high energy, both innovations in Texas journalism. Austin in the mid-fifties was the hand and eye of a Texas looking reluctantly up from the land toward the strange and disreputable modern world. It was a time of vivid choices, loud convictions, and easy controversy, a time too noisy for subtle writing. Billy wrote florid diatribes that read like the postgrad edition of his old Campus Chat column, smug instead of strident, and he soon became a spokesman for all those newfangled semi-Texans like himself, who gathered in Austin as a last resort before running off.
“There was a real magic in Austin then,” sighs Nadine. “There was lots of excitement and energy, a lot of young people who wanted to try new things—new music, new politics, new ideas—new everything! Billy was sort of working on a book about Austin, or set in Austin anyway. It was mostly just notes and things, little sketches. It wasn’t really what you’d want to call a book. He’d complain a lot about how hard it was to get started.
“And he was so irresponsible!” she wails, even at the memory. “He was always buying sports cars, he loved little sports cars. We had nine cars in five years. Once he was taking our house payment to the bank and spent it on a Morris Minor instead. We had a Morris Minor and a Jaguar and we couldn’t afford groceries. And we had a baby then!
“Finally it got to where we just had to have some money. We’d all heard that Lyndon was looking for a house liberal for his staff, someone who was friends with the rest of the young liberal crowd. I think they were all secretly trying for the job. It turned out that Lyndon had read some of Bill’s articles and been impressed, so he hired him. Later he gave me a job, too, so we could move to Washington.”
It had been seven years since Billy first saw Johnson emerging from his helicopter, alive with nervous arrogance and promise, but the years had merely confirmed Billy’s youthful, intuitive impression: Lyndon Johnson, the peerless dealmaker, was already cementing his power as a domineering Senate leader who, in tandem with his old mentor and fellow Texan, House Speaker Sam Rayburn, held Congress in a hammerlock. Without a doubt Billy was the first genuine, practicing literary man that Johnson ever knew.
In most respects the two men were reflex opposites. Johnson was big and physical, expansive, a legendary dynamo of flattery and vanity and backroom savvy, a man with a firm grip on himself and a sure fix on Somewhere, while Billy Lee was passive, ambivalent, and introspective, a small, underfed intellectual and a closet novelist. Yet they were both brilliant in their separate ways, ambitious in their brilliance, and both of course were Texans, prodigal sons of that same provocative land. They were a natural pair.
“Lyndon perceived Bill’s intelligence,” Nadine remembers. “We were a couple of snobby, prissy intellectuals, and he recognized us right away for what we were. He used to argue with Billy about what a waste of time it was. After a while, you know, he really got to liking Billy. I mean he really liked him. He wanted us over at his house all the time in Washington. When we were in Austin we’d go out to the ranch on weekends. Our little girls would play with the Johnson girls, we’d drive around looking at cows, and Bill and Lyndon would talk for hours.”
They were one big happy family. Billy wrote timely speeches for Johnson and his Senate allies, wrote position papers, press releases, soothing letters to distraught liberals. Johnson put him to writing weekly notes to his mother for him, which worked so well that he was soon drafting fatherly letters to Johnson’s daughters. Before long Billy was handling the correspondence all by himself, signing for Sonny or Daddy, counseling and gossiping, now and then dashing off spontaneous greetings when whimsy overtook him.
“He starting wearing oxford shirts and those cute narrow ties,” recalls Nadine. “And Brooks Brothers three-piece suits. He even wore Brooks Brothers underwear!” There were times when he and Johnson drove home late from small-town speeches, Billy wired on speed and Johnson on himself, chugging Pepsi and Scotch, respectively, haranguing each other. At staff meetings or dinner parties it was always Billy who drew Johnson out, floating him questions or gentle rebuttals, like a straight man feeding lines to his star—but always good lines, incisive cues. Billy Lee was the first and last intellectual Lyndon Johnson ever really trusted. He welcomed his careful perspective and reflective temper, the inward bent of his mind, and he trusted him because he could dominate him, or so it seemed.
Billy’s oldest friends recall with a certain lingering chagrin how he idolized Johnson during the years he worked for him: waited on him, rhapsodized over him, toted and fretted and apologized for him. Billy exhibited all the symptoms of teenage dementia, worse even than usual because it was so obviously heartfelt and he was so smart; the rest of the young liberal crowd was aghast. What nobody could see was that Billy was slowly but surely finding himself in Johnson’s shadow—which over the years would prove an indelible method of self-definition.
He was writing more productively than ever before. “I guess Billy really got going on his book after we’d been in Washington a while,” says Nadine. “It finally started looking like a book at least. He must have had a couple hundred pages.”
Called “The Heavy Honeyed Air,” it was still a very immature book. All the characters were his Austin cronies in thin disguises, glib talkers sauntering from episode to episode, headed nowhere skeptically, existential as all get-out. It was skillfully written but it had no focus on any level. Billy was just another clever writer who wished to be an author but had nothing particular to say. Random House rejected it, and the senior editor at the Holt Company wrote to Billy’s agent in late 1957: “Brammer has more wit and facility and sophistication, and larger concerns, than any young writer I’ve seen in some time; I’d like to work with him; but I cannot pretend that ‘The Heavy Honeyed Air’ is not a rough, spotty, half-formulated novel that needs a lot of work.”
For three years he had worked on it, endlessly revising and amending, trying to charge his languid hipsters with a little passion. Like the author himself, they had no sense of purpose or direction except transient desire; all Billy’s wit and facility couldn’t begin to get them involved in one another’s fortunes. So it was probably in desperation that, sometime in early 1958, he abruptly landed Lyndon Johnson in their midst—whooping, gesticulating, waving a big white Stetson, and grinning broadly.
Governor Arthur Fenstemaker, as Billy named him—or, as he prefers to introduce himself, Arthur “Goddam” Fenstemaker (“windowmaker” in Hill Country German, an illusionist and visionary—is the protean manipulator of a large Southwestern state that resembles Texas but remains anonymous. Fenstemaker is an old-school politician, “a compound of biblical wisdom and Hill Country homily,” equal parts Solomon and Judge Roy Bean with perhaps a touch of sly old Sam Rayburn.
Billy was writing for the first time from his heart instead of from his head, feeling his awkward way toward a character he loved and idolized long before he came to mind. The new work, a hundred-page novella titled “Country Pleasures” has less wit and facility than his earlier rejected manuscript, but greater intensity. Fenstemaker emerges as a forceful figure, making up in vitality what he lacks in subtlety, beguiling the reader into following him along with all the others.
In the fall of 1958, “Country Pleasures” was readily optioned by Houghton Mifflin for publication as soon as Billy completed what everyone agreed should be a trilogy of Fenstemaker novels. The sale itself was terrifically liberating for Billy—it was his official discharge from the army of dreamy pretenders. For the only time in his life his confidence was bigger than his talent, made demands upon it, challenged it. With his heart and mind in harmony as they never were again, he set out to capture the enigmatic spirit of Lyndon Johnson.
For not quite three years Billy had been Johnson’s devoted wordsmith, sidekick, straight man. When he finally turned the lens of his intellect upon Johnson, he did so, too, with devotion, but also with keen and vigorous perception. In the years to come, many writers of stature or presumption would turn their attention to Lyndon Johnson. They would narrate his awesome blunders and achievements, describe his earthy manner and appearance, attempt to measure his dimensions. Yet no less objective a critic than David Halberstam—Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, author of The Best and the Brightest, and astute observer of American politics—still credits Billy with “the best book yet written about Lyndon Johnson.”
In “Room Enough to Caper,” his second novella—half again as long as the first, immensely better—Billy went back and rescued a few favorite characters from his ill-fated Austin novel. They’re all still witty, intellectual, idealistic, same as before, except now they have to reckon with the rude juggernaut of Arthur Goddam Fenstemaker. The governor even appoints one bright, young idealist to the U.S. Senate, but the senator’s frisky and spirited young wife is swiftly bored with Washington, packs up the couple’s two daughters, and returns home to enjoy herself. And here again Billy was writing from close to his heart.
“I’d just got so awful bored with Washington,” groans Nadine. “Bored with typing the same letters every day. Bored with listening to those men all talk about themselves all the time. Just plain bored.” So she quit her job, took their girls, and returned to Austin where she reenrolled in college. “I wanted to be young for a while longer, or live like it anyway. I wanted to find some new friends. I suppose there was probably a lot of torment he channeled into his writing around then. I was bored with his book, too. He’d been working on it for years and I just didn’t want to hear about it anymore. If he wanted to come and have fun he could, but I was tired of wasting my life up there.”
The forlorn senator, who resembles the author in more ways than similar domestic trials, is deeply wounded and demoralized. He questions the value of seeking reelection, then of everything else, and is given to long interior monologues of remorseful self-appraisal. With remarkable sympathy and candor, the two of them—the senator and his author—explore that tender margin between “the ceaseless demands of public ambition and private loves.” Meanwhile, Fenstemaker strides through the background wheeling and dealing, arm twisting, ear bending, arranging the senator’s reelection, and fixing everyone’s destiny. In the end the senator, like the author, remains in Washington, seeming none too sure exactly why. And, because he is none too sure, his destinies are in the windowmaker’s hands:
He ought not be a politician, [the senator] told himself. Nice line of work but requiring a vision, a dedication, a certainty of belief in what one is doing… . I lost that vision, that monumental sustaining self-assurance. Just the illusion would be a comfort—perhaps that’s what old Arthur Fenstemaker’s got himself so high on. The real or the imagined, he’s got it, got hold of it good, they all have, all the great ones, pushed along by that vision, like artists.
At the heart of the mystery of Lyndon Johnson was some monumental private vision that, like a gene for self-fulfillment, mobilized the will to shape the public man. Johnson was a politician who never held an office that he didn’t find confining, smaller in some way than his image of himself, a man whose actual power always exceeded his constitutional authority, for the simple reason that it didn’t depend on constitutions any more than he did. His was an unfettered epic vision, one strong and sure and great enough to encompass the whole society of man without losing its self-centered focus, a bona fide Lone Star vision. And Billy Lee, the chicken-fried egghead, was stone in love with the very idea of it.
At the same time he was fully aware of Johnson’s reckless flaws and self-deceptions—his book proves that—but Billy understood himself too well to ever look down upon someone else’s shortcomings. Instead he loved what was truly best and special in the man: the passion with which he’d got hold of his vision (real or imagined), his shatterproof faith in the human spirit, the courage of his certainty—and this is also in the book.
It was the summer of 1959, Billy had lately turned thirty, and, as if to clarify his own vision, he was taking some distance on Johnson. He no longer traveled with him or visited his home or ranch, rarely even joked or argued with him. Besides Johnson had plans to run for president the next year and was busy manufacturing debtors. Billy did research projects, working businesslike hours in his Brooks Brothers suits. He was living alone, seldom socializing. He fell into a rhythm of going to the movies after work and then, late in the silent Capitol’s floodlit night, he’d pick up some Pepsis and peanut-butter crackers and go back to the Senate majority leader’s office, to the desk that had once been Vice President Alben Barkley’s, put on a Paul Desmond record, take some more Dexedrine, write till dawn. It was like living in a tunnel where the light at the end was the solitary vision of Lyndon B. Johnson.
The last novella, the longest and the best, is titled “The Flea Circus,” and once again Billy recruited a supporting cast from his old defunct manuscript. His characters, all still lost and inert, live in a place that isn’t actually named but sure sounds like Austin, and this pleasant city is the uneasy capital of a state that sure sounds like Texas. Billy had mastered a prose style as fluid and deliberate as Scott Fitzgerald’s, and he paints a setting of haunting depth. The opening chapter is as fine as any in American letters, a delicate sleight of mind that claims the reader on a deeper level than words alone can purchase. It is the work of a writer who is very, very sure of himself.
As a result he was finally able to shape a protagonist who is sure of himself: “Roy Sherwood is a young state legislator with no special goals or convictions, a clever but dissolute small-town lawyer who entered politics because it seemed easier than working. A “hipster pol” he calls himself, dryly self-mocking. Like Billy’s previous protagonists, he’s tall and introspective and prodded into action by that tireless agitator, Fenstemaker, but Sherwood is the first to hold his ground with him. Sherwood is so believable, so richly nuanced and suggestive, that over the years a half-dozen Texas legislators have confessed to having been the model for him (each with Billy’s amused encouragement, naturally). In nearly two years of writing, Billy rifled his entire closetful of stunted desires, lamentable tendencies, and personal uncertainties, but he still couldn’t see himself except in the shadow of his hero’s immensely greater, vastly more powerful vision, real or imagined. He tried to overcome this disability by unloading it onto Roy Sherwood, who remarks at one point:
If I ever back off from Fenstemaker, it won’t be because I lost faith. Just the reverse. Because I might put so much faith in him I’d stop believing in myself. Can’t have that. Matter of self-preservation.
And if ever there was tragedy in Billy’s life it was when he wrote those cautionary words and put them in Sherwood’s agreeable mouth, like a friendly warning.
In late 1959, believing in himself for the first time as a writer, he resigned from Johnson’s staff to move to New York to live like one. He took an apartment in the East Forties, hung around the Village and P.J. Clarke’s, had an office in the Empire State Building. Houghton Mifflin realized by now that they had a major novel under contract, and Billy was awarded their annual literary fellowship, perhaps the most respectable prize an unpublished novelist can gain. He was talked up as a comer, invited to uptown parties and weekends in the Hamptons, off-Broadway openings, backstage at the Bitter End.
He decided to name his book The Gay Place, lifting the title from an obscure poem by Scott Fitzgerald: a tip of the hat to his other youthful idol. In its final published form The Gay Place reverses the order of the three novellas—it begins with “The Flea Circus” and ends with “Country Pleasures”—an arrangement that works to spectacular effect, one of those flashes of genuine art that the artist couldn’t possibly have designed.
There was now nowhere to back off to: Billy couldn’t honestly believe in himself as a writer unless he believed in his hero. He’d no sooner finished the final draft of The Gay Place, barely six months after resigning, than he was back with Johnson helping canvass delegates to the 1960 Democratic National Convention. When Johnson emerged as Jack Kennedy’s running mate, Billy put off proofing the galleys of his novel to enlist in the campaign, thus effectively postponing publication until after the election. He worked on Democratic press relations and white papers, drafted speeches for both candidates, traveled with Johnson on the Cornpone Special that held the South for the Catholic presidential nominee. Not until after the election did Billy go back to being a writer.
But he didn’t go back to New York. Instead he followed his novel back to Austin, where he finished polishing The Gay Place and promptly started writing a sequel, which he was calling “Fustian Days.” He was already a hundred pages into it by the time The Gay Place was published in March 1961.
The book got the kind of reviews that would-be writers dream about—“brilliantly written,” said the New York Times, “convincing, horribly convincing”—while Billy was likened to a string of famous authors from Scott Fitzgerald to Robert Penn Warren. “In this initial appearance,” saluted the New York Herald-Tribune, “he shows himself to be one of the ablest novelists now writing in America.” The Gay Place stirred debate among senior critics and other writers such as only happens with books of implicit merit or significance.
Arthur Goddam Fenstemaker, as literary samurai Gore Vidal and other critics have recognized, is quite simply the greatest politician in American literature, richer and fuller than Mayor Skeffington in The Last Hurrah, less provincial than Willie Stark in All the King’s Men, more truly American than the crippled cynics inhabiting Gore Vidal’s own Washington, D.C.
Most of the various commentators saw no reason to mention Billy’s tour of duty with Lyndon Johnson (noted in his dust-jacket profile); the novel clearly stood on its own where they were concerned. Besides, the new vice president was regarded in literary circles as a somewhat gross and disquieting anachronism on the stylish New Frontier. Encouraged by their Pulitzer Prize-winning president, literate Americans, earnestly idealistic, were asking what they could do for their country, and Billy’s “horribly convincing” novel of American politics suffered dreadful sales for a book so applauded. By the summer of 1961, The Gay Place was remaindered in its second edition.
Recently divorced from Nadine, Billy took an impressive job in the Washington bureau of Time magazine and became once more a nighttime, part-time writer. Every three or four days he would lock himself in his office, provisioned with Pepsis and candy bars, take some uppers, and confront himself. He was working on “Fustian Days,” but due to the poor sales of The Gay Place he couldn’t get a contract on it; even his agent tried to dissuade him from writing a sequel. Billy had nothing to sustain him but faith in his hero, and that was soon broken. Billy’s friend Murray Kempton, then with the New Republic, recorded the incident:
After publication, while Brammer was traveling with the vice president as a Time correspondent, Johnson said, quite out of the blue: “I tried reading your novel, Billy, but I couldn’t get past the first ten pages because of all the dirty words.”
It was the last time they would ever look into each other’s eyes, these two Texans—the moment was heavy with the weight of that possibility—and Billy flinched. His mind went searching for his dirty words, and he turned away. It didn’t even occur to him that Johnson was bluffing. The claim was so preposterous that, later on, Billy couldn’t even take it seriously—but in the moment of truth he’d believed in his hero more than in himself. For the rest of his life he would tell of it wryly but wistfully, like a man never quite reconciled to a missed opportunity. And he never had complete faith in anything again, least of all in himself.
The change was immediately apparent in his writing. He promptly abandoned his sequel in favor of some magazine pieces, which, poorly conceived and overwritten, were never published. He quit Washington for Atlanta, where he covered the early civil rights marches for Time, but he still couldn’t get his mind off Johnson. In the spring of 1962 he sailed for Europe, his first trip, newly jobless but adventurous, determined to find new inspiration. He sought out all the places talked about in Fitzgerald and Hemingway, from the Ritz Hotel bar to the Goyas in the Prado, listened intently for the continental muse American writers had been tapping for a century. But in ten months Billy didn’t write a single word he judged worth keeping. Finally, broke again, he limped home to Austin and took a job reporting on the Texas Legislature. At night, stubborn as ever but half-heartedly, he turned again to the nagging subject of Arthur Goddam Fenstemaker.
“It seemed to me that Billy’s enthusiasm had run down,” recalls Larry McMurtry, a temporary roommate in the summer of 1963. “He wasn’t getting anything back from his writing. He was working on ‘Fustian Days,’ and I read everything he had. The first hundred pages or so was just wonderful, actually better than most of The Gay Place. You could tell it was written from a genuine impulse, he still had his original momentum going. After that it petered out pretty quickly, so far as its narrative interest. There were maybe another hundred pages, but it was pretty bad. I felt that it was running down already. Billy felt it too, which didn’t help. It just seemed like he was bored with it.” Billy’s wit and facility were of no use to anyone, because his heart was no longer in it. He never completed the manuscript.
The film rights to The Gay Place were sold that summer to Paul Newman, the current top box-office movie star due to his huge success in Hud, the screen version of McMurtry’s Horseman, Pass By. Newman wanted to play Roy Sherwood, Billy’s made-up alter ego. It could have been the modern equivalent of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, about the corruption of souls more supple and mortal that Jimmy Stewart’s. Columbia Pictures agreed to finance it, Paul Newman dropped in to look over Austin, a script was drafted. Jackie Gleason, one of Billy’s favorite actors, fresh from a triumphant comeback opposite Newman in The Hustler, was cast as Arthur Goddam Fenstemaker. Billy started taking whole crowds to dinner, playing big spender. He happily quit his job. But then Nadine’s lawyers in New York attached his royalties in lieu of the support payments for their three children, which he had flawlessly neglected. And then the President of the United States was murdered.
Billy was in Dallas that day, watching. He was at Parkland Memorial with John Connally, and later he was at the jail when Ruby killed Oswald: his instincts were alert. Within an hour after the announcement of Kennedy’s death, he had been approached by five magazines to profile the new president, and feelers were out to him for a full-scale biography. Billy committed himself to everything, oddly confident again, as if revitalized somehow by the tragedy. He realized he still had faith in his hero. Billy was so excited he even got married again, to Dorothy Browne, in the house in Oak Cliff, wearing one of his twelve new Brooks Brothers suits.
Next he signed a handsome contract with Random House for a Johnson biography, the first big Johnson book deal in the publishing business. Billy went to Washington fully prepared to play Boswell to his hero—it seemed to be his destiny—only to be told by his old friend George Reedy, the new press secretary, that he was the only journalist in the world non grata at the Johnson White House, denied press credentials. This would grow to a long list in the years to follow—and would be a prestigious distinction in some circles—but to Billy it felt like a knee in his soul, maiming his faith.
“Billy just couldn’t believe it,” explains Dorothy. “Hardly anyone would talk to him! People he’d known for years! Everyone said it was, you know, because of Lady Bird, but he never really knew. He never got near Johnson.” He no longer trusted himself to write about the man, couldn’t satisfy himself when he tried; his writing lost clarity, even conviction. “Billy said he just didn’t care about Johnson anymore. He’d sit down to work and nothing would happen. He’d just piddle around, type up his notes, then retype them. He finally did get together a bunch of anecdotes about Johnson, funny stories. It kind of turned into a joke book.” The writing is so lifeless that most of the jokes don’t even work.
Deciding that staying in Washington was useless as well as expensive, the Brammers retreated to Austin to discover that Columbia pictures, quite out of the blue and with no explanation, had canceled production of The Gay Place. Everybody was well paid, of course; Billy’s option was even picked up, thus relieving him permanently of the film rights to his novel. It was generally assumed the new president was behind the cancellation.
Billy knew when he was beat. By summer he was down in Manzanillo eating LSD with Ken Kesey, the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and an early sixties youth culture hero. Then it was on to San Francisco and more LSD, long hangouts at the Family Dog with the first true hippies, then to Denver, where the Brammars badly managed a rock ’n’ roll club. Billy never again wore a Brooks Brothers suit.
“He became fascinated by what was going on with young people,” Dorothy remembers. “The whole sixties thing that was just getting started, he could see it coming, you know. He thought it would change the country, and he wanted to be a part of it. I think the reason he took so much speed was he just couldn’t stand the idea he might miss something interesting, something fun. He’d stay up for days—listening, reading, talking. He was trying to absorb it all, everything. He was interested in everything.”
Because he believed in nothing. “Billy just sort of accepted everything,” as Dorothy puts it. “He never moralized or condescended to you, he never made value judgments about things. I don’t think he believed in good and bad. I know he didn’t believe in right and wrong.”
His writing degenerated into random and erratic fragments, notes from his endless readings, song lyrics, sporadic entries in an aimless journal. He and Dorothy moved impulsively and often. “Every time we’d move Billy would set up his writing place first thing,” recalls Dorothy. “He’d get his typewriter just where he wanted it, then he’d tack up all his funny little momentos, arrange all his books and his files, stack his paper just so: orange paper here, green paper, blue paper. That’d take him about a week and by then the house would be full of people every night.”
Billy grew adept at country-shucking New York editors out of large advances for unlikely stories, a skill that required increasing artistry as his reputation spread. He peddled “Fustian Days” like it was the Brooklyn Bridge. He did a little film work in San Francisco, some newspaper pieces, in Denver he even made a running start on a rock ‘n’ roll novel, but there was never anything Billy could sustain. Not even his marriage survived the decade.
The cataracts came on, the glaucoma, his hair started falling out, then his teeth, his joints stiffened: the calcium attrition of the dedicated junkie. Billy in fact was a legendary junkie, a man who knew the Physicians Desk Reference almost by rote, who could seemingly identify every pill ever minted and recount its effects. Some of the earliest underground acid comics, Wonder Warthog and the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, were conceived in the garage back of Billy’s house in Austin, on Billy’s acid. Doses that could paralyze an ordinary junkie would sometimes barely dilate his eyes. He even copped his pitiful dog Suzy’s epilepsy pills and kept refilling her prescription for three years until she finally died.
But Billy’s steady drug of choice was straight crystal methedrine, speed, the napalm of all drugs: a quarter-gram tapped into a spoon and dissolved in water, cooked on a flame to the color of milk and the warmth of blood, sucked with nervous fingers into the syringe, the arm quickly tied off, artery pumped-shoot. “The nature of vision is human and not chemical,” says an entry in his journal, a lonely sentence on a blank green page. Billy had been writing on speed since he was in college, the drug and the writing were so intertwined he couldn’t separate them, but neither could he focus them. He did more speed than a punk-rock band and all he could show for it were reams of stray impressions, run-on sentences, midnight digressions. He couldn’t concentrate his attention for more than a page or two. Speed, after all, is only a stimulant. What Billy lacked was inspiration—a vision, a dedication, a certainty of belief in what one is doing.
He never saw Lyndon Johnson again, not after that shameful moment on Air Force Two when Johnson made him doubt himself. Billy watched him on television, of course, like everyone else; he even went to a couple of Johnson’s appearances and speeches, but they never looked each other in the eyes again. In the winter of 1972 Johnson was dying out on his ranch west of Austin, the same ranch Billy parodied so cheerfully in his novel. Rumors were all over Austin that Johnson was calling in his oldest friends for last farewells, some of them friends he had broken with years before—Walter Jenkins, even Bobby Baker—trying to mend the fences of his cyclonic life.
All that winter Billy was obsessed with Johnson, pulling out old notes, old tapes, reading all the books and articles he could find, telling the old stories again. He even cadged a major assignment from Playboy for a Johnson piece, then surprised everyone by actually producing some forty pages of a rough draft. It was the longest piece of sustained writing he had done in years. But the invitation never came, and he never finished it. Lyndon Johnson went to his grave still bluffing, afraid to look at the man who had seen into his soul more clearly than anyone else he had ever known.
To any objective reader, Arthur Fenstemaker is Lyndon Johnson at his down-home, earthy best. That is the side of him Billy brought out, hence the side he saw and captured with such penetrating subtlety. To Johnson, it must have seemed like running naked past CBS News: so what if it was his best side? Probably he never could read past the first ten pages. Nor did he ever again trust that part of himself that had trusted Billy. More than any other modern president he was intimidated by and suspicious of writers, artists, intellectuals of all brands. Like a tragic flaw, it grew under pressure into paranoia—FBI files, small deceptions, larger ones—which came back on the rebound as a gap in his credibility. Much the same thing happens to Arthur Ferstenmaker.
The novel like Johnson’s reputation has aged well. In retrospect we appreciate the man more for those qualities that Billy valued in him and grow lenient toward his failings. Lyndon’s brother Sam Houston Johnson—warmly lampooned in the novel as Hoot Gibson Fenstemaker—came to Billy’s funeral, hobbling forward on twin maple canes to stare in the casket with a longer, sadder silence than anyone else save Billy’s two daughters, Sidney and Shelby, and his son, Willie. George Christian, the press secretary from the stormy years, was also there, and a few others. Not Lady Bird, of course, or anyone from her circle.
Otherwise there was a pretty wide assortment: veteran legislators, dope dealers, musicians, innumerable married women who came alone, and anyone in Austin who claimed to be a writer. Plus a large quota of the nondescript. Over the years Billy had followed his curiosity wherever it wandered, and he always discovered friends. No matter who you were or what your story, when Billy was with you he gave you his full attention, and that was a lot of attention to have.
In his last years Billy was a redneck version of Woody Allen, a gnomish little man with giant glasses and cowboy boots. He found humor in irony and ironies everywhere, he thought people endlessly fascinating, he loved conversation, and he always learned your deepest secret. He was a fatalist with a positive attitude. He was also a gossip, a kleptomaniac, and a man you couldn’t trust with your sister, daughter, or car—but he still had the direct gaze and serene brow of a man with a very clear conscience.
Perhaps most important, though, for a whole generation of would-be Texas writers, Billy was that which he’d never had himself: a resident guide, teacher, standard of comparison. He provided a homegrown role model, flawed surely, but that was a vital lesson in itself. “To have something to say,” wrote Billy’s idol Scott Fitzgerald, “is a question of sleepless nights and worry and endless ratiocination of a subject—of endless trying to dig out the essential truth, the essential justice. As a first premise you have to develop a conscience and if on top of that you have talent so much the better. But if you have the talent without the conscience, you are just one of many thousand journalists.”
And no one has ever proved that better than Billy Lee Brammer, who more than any other writer of his time dug out and evoked the essential truth of Lyndon Johnson, the essence of the man. Billy’s talents as a writer were crippled and gone before most of us ever knew him—they disappeared with his confidence—but he always had the integrity of an artist, which is far more precious and lasting than talent. He brought to Texas letters a sense of honesty, sometimes painful but always sympathetic, and Texas is richer for his having done so. He knew it, too, and died a contented man, rushing like mad on a head full of speed, moving too fast for his own good. In his own way, Billy died singing, like William Blake. It was the rest of us who mourned.