Return to Splendor
Hunter S. Thompson, Larry McMurtry, and other literary lions remember San Antonio native Grover Lewis, the pioneering journalist who became one of the greatest magazine writers of our time.
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 from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1966, and that’s where we met. He was ill-suited for the job. We started running around together, and through him I met some of my best friends. I went out with Grover to Rice University to see Ken Kesey, and Grover knew somebody, and we got on the bus with the Pranksters. Years later I became editor of the Chronicle, and the pop culture I learned from Grover helped me understand what should be going into a newspaper. I’ll never forget the moment he quit. We were an afternoon paper. We came to work at six or seven in the morning, and at ten we got to have a coffee break. He had not been getting along with management. He was not happy. And this particular morning at ten, Grover got up from the copy desk, put on his sport coat, and said to all of us, “Adiós, motherf—ers,” and walked out of the Chronicle and never came back.
The Profile Artist
Lewis moved to San Francisco in 1969, where he covered the counterculture scene for the Village Voice and was later hired by Rolling Stone. There he wrote primarily about movies and the people who made them. When the magazine moved its headquarters to New York City, in 1977, Lewis headed down to Los Angeles, where he wrote for Playboy and New West.
Charles Perry (staff writer at the Los Angeles Times; worked with Lewis at Rolling Stone): Before we hired him on at Rolling Stone, Grover came in to do a story on us for the Village Voice. He was the Bay Area stringer. We had already noticed him because he had written a hell of a story about the Altamont rock festival. He came in, and he was definitely a grown-up for the crew. He had a more sophisticated understanding of blues. He was very knowledgeable about American folk culture. He wasn’t a suburban kid who had come across blues because he listened to the Rolling Stones.
Jann Wenner (founding editor and publisher of Rolling Stone): We were a very tight-knit group at that time when Grover was there. It was me, Paul [Scanlon], Grover, [Tim] Cahill, Joe Eszterhas, and Hunter [Thompson]. I’m sure I’m forgetting one or two others. We worked collaboratively, and everybody was out writing features and me and Paul were the principal editors. Grover just kept going off on these great assignments.
Tim Cahill (editor-at-large at Outside; former staff writer at Rolling Stone): He probably operated much more comfortably from the position of an underdog, but frankly, in the office for some number of years, he was a big star, maybe the star. It was sort of between Grover and Hunter Thompson, who was the literary lion at the time.
Hunter S. Thompson (writer; worked with Lewis at Rolling Stone): He was a cowboy, but in a quiet kind of way, like the difference between Austin and Dallas. He could get very dark. He would get into funks, and he had to be coaxed out of them. He’d stay that way for days. My job, as I saw it, was to get Grover out of the funk. I had great respect for Grover. He was a classic, solitary, almost academic writer. I mean, he was smart as a f—in’ whip. You could study Grover, and I did.
Gregory Curtis (former editor of TEXAS MONTHLY; knew Lewis while living in San Francisco): There was a bar we liked to go to in North Beach on upper Grant, and one night there was this guy standing in a doorway, and as we walked by, he whispered, “Grasssss.” “Aciiid.” “Hassshhhh.” And so Grover stopped, and he put his face right up next to this guy’s face. The guy was standing on a step, but Grover was as tall as he was—even though he was on the ground—and he had those big, thick glasses that made his pupils look the size of quarters, and they always vibrated back and forth. So right in the guy’s face, Grover, really loud, says, “I’ve heard of ’em! I’ve heard of ’em! I’ve heard of ’em!” The guy was completely petrified. He had no idea what to make of this.
Wenner: He was a very unlikely person for Rolling Stone in a way, but then we all were. He certainly did not fit the hippie rock and roll mold. Grover was more an old-school fifties kind of guy. Smoking, raspy voice, drinking all the time, you know? He was much more of an older, literary thing to me than a hotshot like Eszterhas or Hunter or our kind of new-worldies rock and rollers.
Jon Carroll (columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle; edited Lewis at New West): He was not fond of rock writing. He took stuff seriously. A lot of rock writing was self-important and inappropriate to the quality of the work under review. He didn’t have a lot of use for that.
Rae Lewis: He had a sign above his desk that said “I Do Not Write No Rock ’n’ Roll.” He was interested in music—I think he just found musicians not as interesting as actors.
Hickey: He was attracted to a certain kind of redneck-macho-loser poet. Bukowski-land, Robert Mitchum, those people.
Curtis: I think Grover saw himself in his subjects: They were doomed; they were brilliant; they never got the recognition they deserved; their lives were off-center.
Hickey: Jann Wenner’s idea of a reward for writing about rock and roll was to write about movies. And movies are really boring. You go out in the middle of nowhere; you stay in a motel; you drink with goddam camera guys. But Grover didn’t mind this. He got good access to people who don’t know anybody in the world, who have never stood up in front of an audience and acted. But he invented the tour story format, like the Allman Brothers story. Or the “movie set” story, like the Last Picture Show story [“Splendor in the Short Grass”]. There’s a way of recasting these events as a kind of narrative. That’s really Grover’s doing.
Perry: “Splendor in the Short Grass” was a new standard of writing for Rolling Stone. And it was a new standard for writing about movies too.
Peter Bogdanovich (director of The Last Picture Show): I don’t remember how Grover got on the set, obviously through Larry [McMurtry]. He introduced him. And at some point we decided he’d be good to play Sonny’s father. I had written something, and we told Grover what the lines were, and he did it. I don’t remember that I was told that he was going to write a piece about the film until it was a fait accompli. Because I never saw him take notes. No tape recorder. No interview. I was surprised when I saw the piece. At the time, I remember being very unhappy with it and thinking that it was ungenerous, unkind, and inaccurate, if well written. And I remember being rather angry about it at the time. I don’t believe I ever saw Grover again.
Rae Lewis: The thing about Grover—I saw this time and time again—was he had a reporter’s instinct for relaxing his subjects. By the time he’d interview them, he had researched them. When he talked to Robert Mitchum [for Rolling Stone], he knew about Mitchum’s short stories. He would start talking and point out that he was taping the conversation. He wanted them to understand that they would be quoted. But he just had a way of talking so they’d relax, and next thing you knew they were going to town.
Philippe Garnier (writer for Libération; hung out with Lewis in Los Angeles in the eighties and nineties): [His style] was not good for a lot of people’s egos. His portrait of Mitchum was actually embarrassing to Mitchum. Every interview he gave after that Rolling Stone piece, Mitchum denigrated the thing and played it down. It was in his biography. He says he spoke with the guy from Rolling Stone for five minutes, and that’s just not true. Well, opening Grover’s boxes after he died, I can assure you that whatever Mitchum says in Grover’s story is on tape. Every word. You can look it up.
Cahill: He was very particular about accuracy. I remember quite clearly he tended to tape-record a lot of his interviews. We had the same transcriber, and I thought the person did a really good job, but Grover was hell on her because he wanted precisely what they said, especially the “uhs” and “ers” and “ums.” Grover wanted that. So if somebody said, “Well, I’ve been a musician for, ooh, um, er, thirty years,” Grover wanted that “ooh,” “um,” “er” in there. Grover had a lot of people say, “I didn’t say that,” and Grover had it on tape. Down to the last “er” and “uh.”
Carroll: I made him a staff writer [at New West] pretty quickly, and one of the first ideas was to go cover the trial of [Hustler magazine founder] Larry Flynt. And he was walking five feet behind him when Larry Flynt was shot. He called me on the phone, just panicked. Just terrified. He said, “You have to get me out of here. They’re crazy. They’re shooting.” Which is a reasonable conclusion when a bullet has just passed your body and hit the guy in front of you. We figured out how to get a plane. And then the other side of me, the monster journalist, wanted the story for the next issue. We had the only eyewitness to the Larry Flynt shooting in the country, and he said, “I can’t write a word.” So we then come to a very interesting question: Am I a friend of Grover Lewis’s? But I also wanted the story. So I put him and Larry Dietz, the previous editor of New West, out on the back of Larry’s house in Santa Monica with two typewriters facing each other. Grover talked and wrote, and Larry listened and typed. And together, over the weekend, they produced the manuscript. Monday was our deadline for an issue to come out on Thursday.
Perry: He practically had a nervous breakdown. Imagine—when your eyesight is so bad in the first place, and then somebody’s shooting somebody next to you. His wife thought he might actually go around the bend.
By the eighties Lewis’s health had begun to fail, and a lifetime of smoking, drinking, and bad eating had taken its toll. For the most part, he was writing only one or two stories a year.
Hickey: You’d go to his house, and there would be four or five books facedown on the table. And he pretended to be writing. To be honest—I’m not a nice person—I always thought he was being a sissy all those years. He’d let Rae go off to work, and he’d sit around and roll his own cigarettes all day. Prowl around the apartment, look at the ocean. But I’m not going to call somebody up and tell them they’re f—ing up. If they’re f—ing up, they know it.
Carroll: Rae calmed him down, gave him a reason to live, a center for his erratic orbit. She was just great in every way to him. And he knew it. He was aware of how lucky he had gotten with Rae.
Rae Lewis: I didn’t even entertain the possibility of a family. But also he was a serious boozer for many years. And I think that that did not make me wish to have children. But I didn’t want to anyway. The reason I bring up the children is because in letters to friends, he wrote about the possibility of having a family and ay, ay, ay! I wanted a life of adventure and to be the glamorous girlfriend of the smart, rueful detective.
Robert Draper (correspondent at GQ; former writer at TEXAS MONTHLY; met Lewis while researching Rolling Stone Magazine: The Uncensored History): Around the time I interviewed him for the book, he hadn’t really done any work at all for two or three years. His confidence was shot. Maybe, to put a finer point on it, his ability to reconcile his standards with the realities of the publishing business had gone the way of the buffalo. Not to give myself too much credit, but in his eyes my book had restored his rightful place in magazine journalism, and it was only after that that he started to churn out magazine stories again. Although by churn out I mean three stories a year rather than one a year.
Hickey: Grover was a little older than me, I guess. He wasn’t nearly as cynical as people of my generation. He believed in truth and beauty and all that. So he would go off on rants on the sorts of things we shrugged our shoulders at, like, “Jann Wenner’s an asshole.” It’s like, tell a priest! That sort of thing. “New York editors are sleazebags.” So what? ’Twas ever thus. He took everything personally. He took the weather personally.
Kit Rachlis (editor of Los Angeles; edited Lewis at the L.A. Weekly in the early nineties): I was at the L.A. Weekly, and one Saturday I got a phone call at home from a writer named Clancy Sigal. He says, “Kit, this is Clancy.” And I thought, “You’ve never called me at home in my entire life.” And he said, “Do you know Grover Lewis?” I said, “No, but I’m familiar with his work.” He said, “Grover is interested in writing a piece for you, but he’s too shy to call you. A friend of ours, Gus Hasford, just died. Gus Hasford wrote a book that became Full Metal Jacket, and Grover would like to write his obit.” I said, “Yikes. Well, we don’t really do obits at the L.A. Weekly, but it’s Grover Lewis. Of course I’ll do it.” The idea that a writer of Grover’s stature and accomplishment would need an intermediary to find out whether he could write a short obituary for a short alternative paper—it seemed so wrong to me. So I called Grover. I gave him a deadline, and six weeks later he handed in a 7,500-word piece on Gus Hasford that was as near perfect a piece as anything I’ve ever edited in my entire life. I think probably two paragraphs got rewritten; otherwise there were about thirty word changes. It was near, near perfect.
Draper: I cajoled him into writing for TEXAS MONTHLY, and he decided he wanted to go back and revisit Oak Cliff as a story.
Curtis: He was very professional, although high maintenance. It took a long time for the story to come in, and when it did come in, I didn’t like it in its entirety. So I wrote Grover a letter: “Here’s how I’d like to see it reworked.” Very gentle, polite. A few days later, the phone rang, and it was Grover. And he just—it was—this was the best thing he had ever written and how could I be so dense and so tone-deaf and plain ignorant. The phone call ended, and I remember I was bent over; it was like somebody had kicked me in the stomach. A few days passed, and I got a call from Grover, and it was the complete opposite: “Greg, I’ve read over the story. I can’t tell you how sorry I am. This story is terrible. That I would send something like that to you—I’m just ashamed.” I found myself saying, “No, now, Grover, that’s not right, you know, I did think there were these things, but it—” and he said, “No, no. It’s just trash.” In the end, his standards were so high that even he couldn’t live up to them.
Hickey: After the [Oak Cliff] piece ran, he got the book deal from Judith Regan. Judith Regan was thinking, “Oooo-kay! Child abuse, murder, violence!” That’s what she does. Still does. So, yeah, Grover was fully aware of the ironies that accrued around it. The whole going back through and documenting all the things you’ve overcome is sort of silly. “Ohhh, I can still remember in sixth grade . . .” Jesus. What the f— is that about?
Several pages into writing his memoir, Goodbye If You Call That Gone, Lewis was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. He died on April 1, 1995, a few months shy of his sixty-first birthday. He was buried in Rae’s hometown, Kanarraville, Utah.
Kafka Wagner: At the end of his life he was on an up. He had quit drinking and he had gotten things together and he and Rae had this place in Utah he really liked. He had come back to Texas to trace the roots of his family and write about his mother’s story, and he was working with Judith Regan on this book about his parents’ terrible experience. Then he got sick.
Carroll: It’s a morbid game—and I bet you’ve played it—in which you consider all the people in your life and rank them according to most likely to die early. And he topped that chart.
Garnier: I think there was a reason he was saving all his stuff. He was directing his posterity. I’m sure he thought, “Well, they don’t get it while I’m alive; maybe they’ll get it when I’m gone.”
Kenneth Turan (film critic for the Los Angeles Times; worked with Lewis at New West): Posterity is so quirky. Grover was as good as anyone who wrote nonfiction journalism in his era. You can hold his stuff up against anybody’s. Who knows why some people get to be better known than others? But in terms of quality, Grover took second place to no one.
Rachlis: He asked me to read the first couple of pages of his memoir, and I said, “Absolutely.” I got the first eleven or twelve pages, and I felt guilty because I didn’t get to them until a few days later. It was classic Grover, near perfect; every sentence was carved into stone. And I got him on the phone Saturday morning to say, “Sorry it has taken me so long,” and Rae said, “I have horrible news. He’s got terminal cancer.” And he died six weeks later.
Kafka Wagner: I saw him out in L.A., and a friend had a dinner party and he and Rae came, and the diagnosis wasn’t certain, and he was very upbeat. He was brave to the end. I didn’t expect anything less; he was very dignified. He was kind of old-school and courtly.
Rachlis: Grover was an extraordinary writer in a form that was not considered art by most. Certainly writing feature pieces about movies for places like Rolling Stone wasn’t. And yet you look at that body of work, and it’s a stunning body of work. And that body of work is about what it means to be American. That sounds really corny, but that’s what it’s about: what it means to be an individual in this culture that both demands that we conform and yet prizes those who refuse to conform.
Carolyn See (novelist; friend): The day he died, we went over to be with Rae, and as we were leaving, another journalist, who had suffered his own disappointments, said, “You know, you have to have a thick skin in this business.” And Grover didn’t have a thick skin. I think there are some people who have terrible childhoods, and what it does is make them strong and tough and mean and nothing can hurt them ever again. Or it mortally wounds them and they never get over it, and that would be Grover. He had too much to take too young, and nothing good happened for way too long until he began to write and married Rae.
Kafka Wagner: I miss him. It was tragic and heartbreaking, but in a way it was like, he had a great time. He says in the poem “Thanks for the Use of the Hall”—I think this poem really sums it up—“It was really a very fine circus.” I’ve never met anyone remotely like him. I’ve never said to anyone, “You remind me of Grover Lewis.”