Fightin’ Words: Larry McMurtry v. the People of Marfa

The grumpy Texas literary legend rips the Texas art and music mecca in his review of a new book about Elizabeth Taylor, calling Marfa "as bleak a place as you'll find in America." 
Wed April 18, 2012 9:47 pm
Flickr | Peter Guthrie

Larry McMurtry's stint as a critic for The New York Review of Books has already had its share of detractors . Now he's riled up the good people of Marfa (well, one person, anyway).

In his April 26  review of M.G. Lord's book about Elizabeth Taylor, The Accidental Feminist , McMurtry takes a 251-word detour (in a 1,242-word review) into Marfa, mostly to discuss his low opinion of the place: 

The friendship with Rock Hudson began in the mid-Fifties, when they were making Giant in the harsh environs of Marfa, Texas, as bleak a place as you’ll find in America, except for maybe Pine Ridge, South Dakota. I won an award there recently and was able to visit the ghosts of Liz and Rock: I was given the Rock Hudson suite in the Paisano Hotel, where the actors stayed while making Giant. My writing partner, Diana Ossana, stayed in the Elizabeth Taylor suite, which was modest compared to Rock’s digs; his featured seven telephones. Who was he talking to, during those long dusty weeks? Not yet, probably, the world-class beauty across the hall.

James Dean would have been around somewhere, doing the character of Jett Rink, his fine imitation of the long-forgotten wildcatter Glenn McCarthy. Edna Ferber, though not without some doubts, was a little too fond of the ranching elites; Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor provided so much glamour to Marfa that the town still thinks it’s important, a delusion not lessened by the Coen brothers’ dark fable No Country for Old Men, in which Tommy Lee Jones’s furrowed brow is the closest we get to the truth.

McMurtry goes on to recount how Taylor had her food flown in from Chasen's in Beverly HIlls, because the food in Marfa "ranges downward from horrible." Had he not said otherwise right there in the piece, you'd almost think McMurtry simply hadn't been to Marfa recently. 

The visit that McMurtry's piece makes reference to was in 2009, when he  introduced a screening  of The Last Picture Show . The "award" he "won" was the first ever “Texas Screen Legend” honor, presented by the Marfa Film Festival. 

With all due respect to the Marfa Film Festival (who probably aren't all that eager to invite McMurtry back now anyway), you've got to be pretty self-important to choose to include that as a detail in a book review of a feminist biography about Elizabeth Taylor. Especially when you've also won an Oscar.

McMurtry's column prompted a letter to the editor from fourteen-year Marfa resident K.B. Whitley in the Big Bend Sentinel , which just goes to show, for starters, that somebody in Marfa reads  The New York Review of Books

Whitley took "great umbrage" at McMurtry's comments, then chose to take the low road with repeated potshots at McMurtry's own hometown of Archer City. 

Marfa is an internationally renowned arts and cultural community today with the Judd Foundation, the Chinati Foundation, the Lannan Foundation, Ballroom Marfa, the Crowley Theater, the Marfa Book Co. (perhaps the best little book store in Texas). Marfa even has some upscale restaurants these days.

Marfa is located on a mile high desert plateau in the northeastern corner of the Chihuahuan Desert surrounded by worn mountains older than the hills under a sky from another universe. Marfa is located on Highway 90 between Florida and California.

Archer City houses McMurtry’s self-indulgent library and bookstore located in the North Texas boondocks on State Highway 79 between Wichita Falls and Throckmorton.

Marfa is a go-to place. Archer City is a ‘bleak blur’ in the road with a Dairy Queen and a bunch of books.

Mr. McMurtry writes a great story but seems to me he needs to get out of Archer City more often.

To be fair, McMurtry himself is hardly an unquestioning booster of Archer City, a place he chose to stay away from for the better part of forty years. Nor is he a man who hasn't traveled. 

But his comments about Marfa do raise one important question: a character in McMurtry's 1987 novel Texasville (the sequel to The Last Picture Show ) infamously called Odessa "the worst town on earth." And now Marfa is "as bleak a place as you'll find in America."

So Larry, do be sure to let us know: which of those two Texas cities would you rather spend another day in? 

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