Gone to New York

In 1964 the already legendary Texas novelist and sportswriter Edwin "Bud" Shrake, who died earlier this year, moved from Dallas to New York and took his place in a literary scene as boozy as it was a distinguished. Over the next three years, the letters he sent to his friends—excerpted on the following pages—showed him at work, at play, and always angling for a way to get back home.
Gone to New York
Shrake in Fort Worth before he left for New York, when he was still writing for the Fort Worth Press .

Edwin “Bud” Shrake, who died earlier this year at age 77, was one of the best writers Texas has ever produced. His ten novels explored two centuries of Texas history and culture, a range so daring that it sometimes baffled editors, critics, and even friends. Shrake had the ability to go anywhere. In But Not for Love and Strange Peaches he rendered perfectly the carousing darkness within the soul of the Dallas elite. But he was equally at home in Blessed McGill, chronicling the exploits of a nineteenth-century frontiersman who goes to a martyr’s death. He wrote compelling as-told-to memoirs for Willie Nelson and Barry Switzer and five books with golf legend Harvey Penick, including Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book, the best-selling sports book of all time. Between these projects and long stints as an acclaimed sportswriter at the Dallas Times Herald, the Dallas Morning News, and Sports Illustrated, he also wrote an impressive number of screenplays and influenced Texas letters in a way few other writers have managed.

He was also my best friend. For me, Bud was a guide, a natural visionary who saw around corners and knew things before they happened. Friendship doesn’t begin to convey what he meant to me. He lifted off the covers and showed me life. He exposed potential: what books to read, what poets to follow, what recordings were worth an evening or two or more. By the early sixties, when we were both working for the Dallas Times Herald, Bud was launching his literary career. He was married at the time, and his wife, Joyce, was teaching English at SMU. My wife and I lived in the same apartment complex, and I’d pass the Shrake apartment late at night and spot Bud at his dining room table, bent over his old Smith Corona Skywriter, a stack of manuscript pages falling away to one side.

Book publishing seemed impossibly exotic and far away to me, but not to Bud. Not long after, we got word that Bantam had bought the book he had pounded out on that typewriter. It was Blood Reckoning, Bud’s first novel. About that same time, he left the Times Herald and took a job as lead sports columnist for the Dallas Morning News, which made him an instant star and got him frequent invitations from Dallas millionaires like Clint Murchison Jr. and James Ling, who were about to become characters in his second book, But Not for Love. The critic James Ward Lee would later write that it was “a daring novel that spoke volumes to the young people of Texas who had felt repressed by their elders and by the political climate of the country after World War II.”

Bud was no stranger to that feeling. By early 1964 he was hungry for a new terrain, a place that would stimulate his expanding mind and challenge him to explore new directions as a writer. His friend Dan Jenkins had already moved to New York, to work at Sports Illustrated, and Bud followed the same path. New York is the traditional proving ground for writers, and Bud needed to prove that he belonged.

In letters to me and other friends back in Texas, Bud described in detail the restless, searching life of a young writer making the scene. There was a ready supply of drugs and liquor and a constant stream of parties with literary lions like George Plimpton, Norman Mailer, Gay Talese, William Styron, and Willie Morris. The letters, often addressed and sent to a large group of us, were single-spaced carbon copies, sometimes blurry and hard to read, but they were funny and smart and full of Bud-isms. They described hilarity at Sports Illustrated, where Bud quickly became a star; strange nights wandering the city; and his dreams of coming back to Texas. Some were joke letters, such as the one to NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle. On the following pages, we’ve excerpted Bud’s letters from New York. They capture something that all the obituaries and memorials that followed his death could not: They give us Bud in action, once again working as a guide, pointing to a new horizon.

Texas has lost many writers to New York. Terry Southern left Alvarado and never looked back. Indian Creek’s most famous daughter, Katherine Anne Porter, famously hated her native state. Luckily for all of us who care about the literature of this place, Bud came home. His time in New York, in fact, revealed to him the depth of his Texas roots. Within a month of arriving in the big city, he was plotting how to move to Austin (he finally got back in January 1967). New York was invigorating, but Texas was what he knew, what he felt in his bones, and what he had to write. Gary Cartwright

Editors’ note: The letters are reproduced as written, with all idiosyncratic capitalization, spellings, and punctuation retained, but they have been edited for length.

May 15, 1964

fellow deviates, wing & masquers, club managers, orgyists, faddists, scholars and sex magicians, as well as pork chop devourers and cream gravy makers, plus anyone out there who happens to love me or vice-versa:

several of us have just come back from a very important editorial conference in which we planned the contents of the college football issue. we went to a place on 48th street called “the absinthe house,” which i suppose is meant to be like the place in new orleans but isn’t. [ Sports Illustrated senior editor Andrew] crichton is the editor of that particular issue and he begun the meeting properly by ordering three rounds of martinis and putting his elbow in the pate. de fois, of course. they talk here about hard sports, which i gather means where guys knock down other guys, and about soft sports, which is anything that’s really interesting. andy started about hard sports but after a few more rounds of martinis and an accident with the eggs benedict we got around to soft sports. more particularly, to girls.

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