Billy Lee

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.

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 ISONE 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,


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