Return to The Gay Place
Forty years ago a little-known writer named Billy Lee Brammer published one of the great political novels of all time. The Gay Place depicts an Austin that no longer exists in a state whose politics have changed completely.
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“The country is most barbarously large and final.” It is one of those rare first lines that readers remember all their lives. Published forty years ago, a novel called The Gay Place captured a period in Texas that today may seem as archaic as the book’s title, but its power bridges the years and generations gone by. The novel built for its author, Billy Lee Brammer—also known as Bill or Billie Lee or William—a legend of tantalizing and unfulfilled promise. How could he write a book so ambitious when he was only 31, and then never publish another? The most famous opening in Texas literature begins with a towering overview of the Balcones Escarpment as it divides the nation’s cotton-farming South from the ranch-land West. But Billy Lee was after neither of those rich literary traditions. With nary a sharecropper or a horseman, The Gay Place was Texas’ first successful urban novel. It does not, however, explore gay and lesbian sexuality (though today it often winds up misplaced in that section of bookstores.) For centuries “gay” has suggested joy, brilliance, and mirth; the author found his gaiety in the boozy, incestuous lives of politicians, journalists, and camp followers in Austin in the fifties. The opening passage narrows on a pickup full of farmworkers rattling toward a rendezvous with a state legislator named Roy Sherwood who is sleeping off a drunk in his car:
It is a pleasant city, clean and quiet, with wide rambling walks and elaborate public gardens and elegant old homes faintly ruined in the shadow of arching poplars. Occasionally through the trees, and always from a point of higher ground, one can see the college tower and the Capitol building. On brilliant mornings the white sandstone of the tower and the Capitol’s granite dome are joined for an instant, all pink and cream, catching the first light.
If that sounds like a Texas take on F. Scott Fitzgerald, the resemblance was desired. Billy Lee lifted his title from a line in a wistful Fitzgerald poem (“I know a gay place / Nobody knows”) and used it as an epitaph for the Austin he had known, and for love itself. Comprising three novellas, called “The Flea Circus,” “Room Enough to Caper,” and “Country Pleasures,” The Gay Place has two connective sinews: the theme of marital alienation and infidelity and an outrageous Texas governor called Arthur “Goddam” Fenstemaker. The author knew his material well. Billy Lee would be twice married and divorced in his short life—he died of a drug overdose in 1978, when he was 48—and to the end he remained a fervent womanizer. But his book is best known for what is still regarded as one of the most vivid and penetrating portraits of Lyndon B. Johnson. Like most fictional characters, The Gay Place’s Arthur Fenstemaker was a montage of persons real and imagined, but Billy Lee worked for LBJ for several years when Johnson was in the U.S. Senate; from the hokey yet endearing nickname of the governor’s wife, Sweet Mama, to his hapless fetchit of a brother, Hoot Gibson, there is no doubt that Bill took much of his material from Johnson.
Michael Janeway, a former executive editor of the Atlantic Monthly who now directs a program for journalists at Columbia University, was a summer intern on LBJ’s staff when Billy Lee became his friend. “He would write me about various civil rights maneuvers that Johnson carried on under the table, pushing back the old Southern power structure,” Janeway says. “That kind of story would come up in every after-hours conversation; there was a lot of hilarity in that office. And Billy Lee got to go home to the ranch with him. That was where Johnson was the most outrageous—and irresistible.”
My friend Al Reinert wrote in this magazine in 1979 that Johnson’s eventual rejection of Billy Lee was the crushing blow that caused him never to finish another book. That has become the conventional wisdom, but conversations with Billy Lee’s friends, children, and former wives—the last of whom is now my wife—and a fresh look at the author’s voluminous correspondence have convinced me that the LBJ theory is just not true. Billy Lee’s tragedy did not lie in what Lyndon Johnson or anyone else did to him. The shame was what he chose to do to himself.
At the time of its publication, The Gay Place was heralded as a literary triumph, not a political tattletale. Interest in John F. Kennedy’s gawky, oddly diminished vice president was not that great in 1961, but the New York Times Book Review raved about LBJ’s former speechwriter: “William Brammer has an authentic, even lyrical, writing talent. He has as intimate a knowledge of operational politics as any serious American novelist . . . . Brammer’s great gift is his ability to communicate the poignancy of the passing moment, the sweet sadness of love and time.” At year’s end, Times critic Orville Prescott wrote that five “brilliantly promising” first novels had been published in 1961. Only two are still in print and much remembered: The Gay Place and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.
Authors as distinguished as Gore Vidal, Ronnie Dugger, and the late Willie Morris have praised The Gay Place as one of the best novels ever written about American politics. David Halberstam, the author of The Best and the Brightest and other splendid books about the nation’s life, says of his friend’s novel, “The Gay Place still stands as one of those really rare brilliant achievements. Of the political novels in our literature, only two rank with The Gay Place: Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men and now Joe Klein’s Primary Colors—though it remains to be seen if Klein’s book will endure as a work of art.” Years before Klein anonymously published his roman à clef about the Clintons, he wrote about The Gay Place: “Brammer’s unwitting triumph was to discover the perfect structure for communicating the exasperating unreality of the master politician.”
For Texas writers, The Gay Place reached far beyond politics. “I read that book chapter by chapter, as it was written, in Billy Lee’s apartment,” says Larry L. King, whose career took off when he was a star contributor to Harper’s during the tenure of Willie Morris. “He got his energy then from candy bars and hot cherry Jello that he drank in a milk bottle, which was a little strange. He had more raw talent than any of us who came along later. But I thought, by God, if Billy Lee can do it, I’m going to work a little harder at learning my craft.” Another friend, Bud Shrake, whose novels include Strange Peaches and the recent The Borderland, reflects, “The most important thing about that book is that it showed a generation of writers they could write novels about Texas, and editors in New York would publish them. The explosion of Texas writing was set off by Billy Lee.”
Though Billy Lee eventually stopped producing, he never quit helping to advance the careers of dozens of younger writers. Peter Gent, the author of North Dallas Forty, was a protégé. When this magazine was in its infancy, as a staff writer Billy Lee gave gentle nudges and guidance to William Broyles, Gregory Curtis, Richard West, Al Reinert, Stephen Harrigan, and me. And The Gay Place continues to inspire a host of talents. Many Texas writers in their twenties and thirties know the book by heart.
What makes it live on? It endures in part because of its characterization of a city. More than any other book or film, The Gay Place captures the spirit and verve of Austin. Of course, that’s not so obvious anymore. Today the dominant landmarks in Central Austin are giant cranes. Skyscrapers and parking garages sprout like weeds, obscuring views of the Capitol and the University of Texas Tower. Ostentation reigns in the mansions of cyber-nouveaux riches who chart the city’s future. Fits of road rage erupt on jammed and never-finished freeways.
Billy Lee wrote about Democrats in power—liberals locked in a struggle with conservatives and a profane and pragmatic giant modeled on Lyndon Johnson. The new Texas political titan is the religious and well-mannered President George W. Bush. The state’s politics has performed a 180-degree flip in the four decades since The Gay Place was published. Texas is still essentially a one-party state, only now the fight for power is waged between Republicans of the country club and the Christian right. And the Austin idyll suggested by The Gay Place’s opening passage is a mirage.
Yet the book holds up. Woven through it are themes that dominate our politics today: the siren’s song of lobbyists’ money, the ease of demagoguery, the lechery born of power, the cost of pursuing such a life on marriages and children. But at times these politicians do good things for the right reasons. The Gay Place succeeds because its characters have texture, resonance, and depth. They talk smart one minute and make fools of themselves the next. You care about them. I don’t pretend to have read the entire canon, but call up a sampling of the best Texas novels, or novels by Texans, in the twentieth century: Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools, Tom Lea’s The Wonderful Country, Donald Barthelme’s The Dead Father, Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses. All were produced by veteran writers of fiction. A first novel, The Gay Place stands at ease among them. What follows is a story of a precocious writer, his book, and the people he loved the most. It is a cautionary tale of success and addiction: Bill Brammer’s starburst of talent seemed to come out of nowhere—and its burnout led to Billy Lee’s ruin.
He was born on April 21, 1929, to doting Dallas-Oak Cliff parents who named him Billie Lee. He feared the spelling implied a girl’s name, so starting in grade school, he signed his name Billy Lee. By the time he was a journalism and economics major at North Texas State College, in Denton, he called himself Bill. A handsome young man with a soft gaze and distinctive round cheeks on an otherwise slender face, he was short, just five seven, but he was a good athlete and a skillful dancer. On campus in 1949, the daughter of the McAllen police chief caught his eye. Nadine Cannon had cut her hair short after seeing Ingrid Bergman in For Whom the Bell Tolls. At the end of an Easter break spent in the Valley, Nadine was on her way back to school with friends in a wildly driven Olds convertible when they recognized the car of Bill Brammer. Such a romantic gesture: He had set out on the five-hundred-mile drive to surprise her. Nadine moved her bags to his car. They were in love, and they talked about what to do. They couldn’t go to Europe and be expatriates, as they wanted, and they didn’t dare live together.
“So we eloped to Lewisville,” Nadine reminisces with a laugh. “The office was down a dirt road. We interrupted the domino game of a one-legged justice of the peace. A little kid was delivering a testimonial in a tent revival across the street. It was just totally depressing.” As married students, their grades shot up, but Nadine believes she planted the seeds of Bill’s addiction. “Growing up in the Valley, I saw Benzedrine all the time,” she says. “I used it to cram for tests—stay up all night and forget everything as soon as I took the exam. But Bill liked it. I mean, he really liked it.”
After college he interned for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, then, like legions of young Texans who yearn for Paris or New York but can’t make that leap, he and Nadine moved to Austin. Billy Lee caught on with the Austin American-Statesman as a sportswriter and met Bob Sherrill, the first of a remarkable number of Austin friends who went on to writing careers of a national reputation. Sidney Brammer was born in 1952; her sister, Shelby, in 1954. Bill won awards for his newspaper writing in both those years, but he was always desperate for money. In 1955 Ronnie Dugger hired him to help put out the new Texas Observer. The liberal muckrakers tore into the archconservative Texas Legislature like a pack of terriers. A few blocks away, Willie Morris was about to be elected editor of the University of Texas’ student newspaper, The Daily Texan. At the end of the day the liberal cognoscenti gathered for beer, laughter, and much flirting at Scholz Garden, near the campus and the Capitol. “We were having fun,” says Nadine, “but we couldn’t keep up with it financially. Bill was an impulsive buyer; he was just awful. He bought nine cars in six years.”
One of those transactions poured fuel on her resentment and played an important role in the birth of The Gay Place. Bill traded her treasured Nash Rambler convertible for a Plymouth station wagon so that he and Nadine could go to Marfa, where he researched an Observer story about the making of the movie Giant. Nadine was livid, but they got to see Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and James Dean.
The material and the bizarre setting bored deep into the writer’s imagination. In “Country Pleasures,” the voluptuous movie star Vicki McGown comes roaring back from a whiskey-soaked excursion into the desert with Arthur Fenstemaker, Hoot Gibson, and the governor’s top aide, Jay McGown, who just happens to be the actress’ estranged husband:
“It was wonderful, Ed,” she said to [the director] Shavers. “You should’ve been there . . . We just gave everything back to the Mexicans! All of it! We had a little ceremony.” Vicki turned and yelled at the people eating lunch under the big tent: “You white men got twenty-four hours to clear out!”
The studio people had all turned to look now. . . . Arthur Fenstemaker sat in front next to Vicki, shaking his head. Jay tried not to look at anyone. He continued to sit upright in the backseat, and from time to time batted his eyes.
“What’re you talking about, Vic?” Shavers said.
“We gave it back!” Vicki repeated. “The whole damn state—every heathen square mile of it. To the Mexicans. We signed the Treaty of San Felipe Dolores del Rio. Governor here signed it over to the Mayor. Back there. Mexican mayor. Deeded it over to him. Mayor promised to give it back to the Indians first chance he gets.”
He had been working for the Observer just a few months when an Austin supporter of Lyndon Johnson’s relayed word that the Senate majority leader was looking for a liberal to join his staff. The Observer crowd viewed LBJ with suspicion, but he was planning his presidential run in 1960 and wanted people who could help him touch every Democratic base. For the money and a chance to stabilize his marriage, Bill seized the opportunity.
Shortly after Bill arrived in Washington, Johnson hired Nadine as well. They found someone to stay with the girls, left for work before dawn, and got home after dark. Johnson often asked them to come to his house for weekend socializing, and he was a hard man to turn down. They liked him because he was so entertaining. “But he was such an old lech,” says Nadine. LBJ’s sexual posturing was never-ending; he referred to Bill and other aides as his “hard-peckered boys.” On trips home to Texas, Bill would accompany LBJ on drives to small towns and watch the senator deliver speeches he had written. In the car he would jabber in staccato rhythms, wired on speed, as Johnson drawled back in volleys, fueled by scotch and his vast opinion of himself. LBJ had a trick of striking a match on the fabric of Bill’s suits to light his cigarettes. “Stick with me, son,” he often said, “and I’ll make you rich.”
But Bill and Nadine’s marriage was in trouble, and libertinism defined them as much as liberalism. “Everybody was into Jack Kerouac,” Nadine recalls, “champing at the bit to have extramarital affairs and be as wild as possible.” Their problems climaxed in 1956 when Nadine got pregnant again. They decided to swear off their flings and stay together, forging a closeness they hadn’t known for years. Trying to make more money, Bill started writing the novel that evolved into The Gay Place. After dinner with the children, Bill took a nap. At midnight he got up and began writing. Nadine would wake up in the early morning hours, read his pages, and they would talk about them. How did he bear up under such a schedule? Speed, amphetamines, of course. Sometimes he didn’t sleep for days.
The situation took a toll on Nadine: She missed her parents, and she missed Austin. She told Bill she wanted to go home to have the baby and continue living there. The separation would last four years. The Big Pumpkin, as Johnson’s staff called him behind his back, tried to insert himself into even such private affairs. Just before Nadine left in the spring of 1957, Johnson put his arm around her and said, “If you’ll name that boy after me, I’ll give him a calf, and he’ll have a whole herd by the time he’s twenty-one.” But when their son was born, they named him Willie, not Lyndon, after their friend Willie Morris.
In Austin Nadine found a woman to help with the children, and she didn’t sit at home pining. Late in the day the phone would start ringing: Where was the party tonight? Scholz Garden was still a magnet for the in crowd’s politicos, professors, artists, and writers. Nadine fell into a serious affair with a politician from North Texas, and though Bill was having affairs himself, he didn’t like hers one bit. Nadine recalls that Bill went to Dallas to confront the man who had cuckolded him. When she asked Bill how that went, he replied, “Terrific. I think I’ll divorce you and marry him.” Nadine says the character Roy Sherwood was modeled on her paramour. Artist’s revenge—Bill invested a great deal of her lover and himself in the state legislator in the book’s opening scene. “When I read his book,” Nadine says, “I felt like he ripped me off. He was using all my stuff.”Yet their correspondence seldom faltered. In a January 1959 letter to Nadine, he fretted: “Have not seen much of Johnson. Don’t know whether I am IN or OUT.” In Boston, though, Bill had found an avid audience for his work. The managing editor of Houghton Mifflin, Dorothy de Santillana, wrote him in June: “It is wonderful reading, it has swing and glitter and pace. The people, even those who are only briefly on stage, are real and round. Governor Fenstemaker is GREAT.” That same month, he received a contract. The Gay Place brought just a $1,500 advance, but the deal was prestigious, literary. The gushy feedback and a swirl of entertainment provided by his New England publishers sent him on a surge of new production.
But other elements of his life were sorrowful. He and Nadine almost divorced later that year. He missed his children. Austin liberals thought Bill had fallen into an almost adolescent infatuation with LBJ. Yet in a letter to Nadine that spring, he hardly sounded like a teenager in his rebuttal. Asking her to return a book Ronnie Dugger had sent him to review, he wrote, “[A]fter the lengths to which Ronnie’s gone in condemning LBJ, [I] don’t think I could write anything for the Observer for a long while . . . Sounds shitty, but I like Johnson, and I can’t very well lend my name to [a] paper that calls Johnson a racist and a labor baiter. As much as I respect Ronnie, it’s just not true.”
The life of Washington politics had worn thin for Bill, though. Having given Johnson four years of his life, Bill took a job with the economics newsletter published by Eliot Janeway, the father of his friend Michael and a key supporter of LBJ’s in New York. Living in a small Greenwich Village apartment, he had an office on the fifty-ninth floor of the Empire State Building. In June his editors announced that The Gay Place had won a Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship. Previous winners of the honor included Carson McCullers, Robert Penn Warren, and Philip Roth.
Bill entertained Willie and Celia Morris when they were in town. He hung out with Robert Benton (who later directed a comic movie called Nadine, in her honor.) At his boss’s expense, Bill watched Bobby Short sing and schmoozed with Edward G. Robinson, June Allyson, and Satchel Paige. But his tales of the good life in New York did not amuse Nadine. A $109 Brooks Brothers suit set off another rage. She wrote her parents: “The girls need shoes and I need money.” Their marriage needed to end, and in 1961, it finally did.
And he was off into another life. After much debate, the novelist’s Boston editors endowed him with the dignified but wholly fictional name of William. “No one, I repeat no one, up here thinks ‘Billy Lee’ is possible,” wrote de Santillana. “With all respect for your parents, who gave it to you with such evident love (it is a very ‘loving’ name), it has not the strength and authority for a novel which commands respect at the top of its voice.” But his haughty editors hatched the good idea of arranging the novellas in the reverse order in which they were written. Ornamented with the lovely opening passage, which Bill actually wrote last, “The Flea Circus” is the longest. Fenstemaker is a social reformer who knows what he’s up against in Texas; he readily sacrifices principle for results, and his legislative trickery leaves opponents and allies equally confused. Fenstemaker has a habit of picking out young louts who have some promise, and one of those is Roy Sherwood, a bachelor who dreads having to go back home and make a real living off his law degree. The governor rousts the legislator one morning, saying it’s the Prophet Isaiah calling: “Hell of a note. World’s cavin’ in all around us; rocket ships blastin’ off to the moon; poisonous gas in our environment . . . Sinful goddam nation . . . laden with iniquity, offspring of evildoers. My princes are rebels and companions of thieves . . .”
The editor of a liberal paper much like the Texas Observer is Roy’s best friend Willie—a broad hint that the character’s model was Willie Morris, though it may have contained some Ronnie Dugger too. The chosen few drink and dance at the Dearly Beloved, a mirror image of Scholz Garden. They consume alcohol in stupendous quantities, almost like they’re in search of a superior social drug. Roy gets punched to the ground for sleeping with the wife of a colleague. “Aw, hell, Roy, I’m sorry,” the cuckold says, offering a hand. Roy replies, “You want a sonofabitch, I’ll be your sonofabitch, Earl.” All the way through, the novel gleams with such simple, right-on dialogue.
Despite glowing reviews, the novel was no best-seller. Bill needed the job he found as a Time correspondent. “The last thing he wanted to do then was work for Time,” David Halberstam says, chuckling. “But they had this money box in the office, and he’d just grab a handful. He’d laugh and say, ‘This may be the only time in my life I can take you to lunch.’” Bill had an affair with a New York socialite who had been one of John F. Kennedy’s mistresses. Another new acquaintance, Gloria Steinem, landed him a gig as a delegate to a youth festival in Helsinki. Trying to save money, Bill booked passage on a freighter that proved to be a very slow boat. When he arrived in Finland, the festival was over and gone with the gig was his stipend. He hitchhiked to Paris and met his girlfriend from New York; they jumped on a train to Spain. Bill’s European idyll lasted six months, till the end of 1962. At 33 Bill was a success, and he wore it well, but the glamour of writing fiction far exceeded its revenue.
He moved back to Austin and briefly roomed with Larry McMurtry, whose first novel, Horseman, Pass By, had also come out in 1961. (McMurtry’s ranching novel beat out The Gay Place for the Texas Institute of Letters’ prize for fiction that year.) Gary Cartwright, a senior editor of this magazine, was living in Dallas and working as a newspaper sportswriter. He and Bud Shrake came to Austin once and went to see Bill. “Bud and I hadn’t seen him in a while,” Cartwright recalls. “When we walked in, there were three coeds sleeping in T-shirts and panties on a mattress on his floor. Each one was a knockout. ‘Uh, how you doin’, Billy Lee?’ we said. Not too bad, evidently.” One of those bottoms belonged to a woman who, nineteen years later, would do me the honor of becoming my wife.
Her name was Dorothy Browne. A sorority dropout and an English major at the university, she had gotten Bill kicked out of his previous apartment by staying over one night, though all he did was help her write a paper on F. Scott Fitzgerald. (Her professor gave her a C, faulting her ghostwriter’s sentence structure.) So he moved into the apartment below that of Dorothy and her two roommates. By this time, Nadine had married Bob Eckhardt, a Houston state representative who later had a sterling career in Congress. Sidney and Shelby would speculate on which of the three coeds their daddy would marry. “They were all such beautiful women,” Sidney remembers. “Shelby and I were just in awe.”During the summer of 1963, Bill drove to Northern California to hang out with Ken Kesey, the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, who had been introduced by their common friend McMurtry. In the company of Kesey and his gang of friends called the Merry Pranksters, Bill added LSD to his repertoire of drugs. Around that time, he took a giant step in his intake of speed: He started putting a needle in his arm. His career continued, though. Bill was in Dallas on November 22, the day Kennedy was assassinated; he followed the dying president and the wounded Texas governor John Connally to Parkland hospital. The same day, he landed assignments to write about both LBJ and Lady Bird Johnson. He was at the Dallas jail when Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald. Suddenly his novel writing was on hold. He was the earth’s most praised writer about the new American president; Random House gave him a contract for what his editors projected as the definitive nonfiction portrait of LBJ. But first he was getting married. He was 34 and Dorothy was 23. At their Houston wedding, Dorothy wore a pillbox hat of the style popularized by Jackie Kennedy. Then they left for Washington.
He shouldn’t have been surprised when Lady Bird declined to cooperate on a women’s magazine piece he had lined up. In his novel, Sweet Mama Fenstemaker was a caricature—one of the few characters he took no pains with. LBJ was also displeased with Bill. Writer Murray Kempton recalled that when Bill was working for Time, they were assigned one day to the vice presidential plane. Johnson turned to his former aide and said, “I tried reading your novel, Billy, but I couldn’t get past the first ten pages because of all the dirty words.”
Living in a basement apartment on Capitol Hill with a standard-poodle puppy named Rosebud, Bill and Dorothy socialized with his friends David Halberstam, Robert Novak, and Larry L. King. “I got really tired of seeing Larry asleep on my couch,” Dorothy now quips. Bill must have thought his service to LBJ and his close friends on the White House staff would eventually thaw the ice; it was in Lyndon Johnson’s pragmatic interest for that book to get written. But LBJ was through with Bill. Press secretary George Reedy, Bill’s old friend and colleague, finally told him that he would never be granted White House press credentials.
“When that was over, it was over; he moved on,” Dorothy contends. “I lived with him for seven years, and most of that time he never mentioned LBJ. He lost interest in politics. He didn’t even vote.” It was hardly Bill’s fault that book could not be completed: He was a good reporter, and he was willing to do it for the exposure and the money. And editors were still clamoring for him to write more novels. Yet the LBJ detour set a reckless pattern. Publishers gave him money that he accepted and spent, but then no book followed, and his patrons were left burned.
Bill and Dorothy moved to New York, renting a tiny but opulent efficiency on the Upper East Side. Unable to find his beloved Dr Pepper on the East Coast, he would bring gallons of the bottler’s syrup from Texas and mix it with club soda and Dexedrine. Columbia studios bought the movie rights to The Gay Place for $25,000. When the check was cut, Nadine had a lawman sitting in the office of Bill’s agent to collect her lawful half (child support would remain a contentious issue between them). But Bill and Dorothy had financial breathing room, and the movie deal had superb promise: It was the same creative team—Martin Ritt the director, Paul Newman the star—that had made Larry McMurtry’s little-read first novel into the success of Hud.
Bill and Dorothy moved back to Austin in 1964 and rented a house; then, with their poodle in the back of their Volkswagen van, they took off for Mexico for three months. Times were good. The unpleasantness with LBJ fast receded in Bill’s rearview mirror. He even indulged in some payback when he reviewed a collection of the president’s speeches for the New York Herald Tribune. Trying to coax him into writing for the American Scholar, an editor there praised his assessment of the book. A top editor at the Atlantic Monthly Press wrote in the same vein. But the winning bidder was the New American Library: a December 1965 contract worth $50,000 for two novels of his choosing.
If any young American novelist had reason to produce, it was Bill Brammer. But he persisted in trying to write a sequel to The Gay Place. The problem wasn’t just that he had killed off Fenstemaker—his writing wasn’t the same. He wrote scenes that had no movement, and his crisp dialogue turned into campy dialect. One can see his struggling in the manuscripts. Before, his typescripts had been almost as clean as his letters. Now the sentences were endlessly inked out and changed in a scraggly hand. The sequel was titled Fustian Days. He always had that yen for the obscure word. The adjective “fustian,” in this use, applies to “pretentious and banal writing or speech.” That, sadly, was what his fiction had become. He knew it. “He bought a new electric typewriter,” Dorothy recalls, “and I would wake up and hear him hit the x key and let it run, line after line, wiping out everything he’d written.”
The couple returned to Austin and moved into a handsome stone structure on West Avenue called the Caswell House. Billy Lee’s flair, reputation, and personality again made their home the epicenter of hipness in Austin. Famous guests included cartoonist Jules Feiffer and critic Dwight McDonald. But the crush was sometimes too much for Dorothy. “One night I counted,” Dorothy says, “and we had thirty-one drop-ins. I started yelling. ‘Get outta here!’” Their marriage was failing, but they kept trying to make it work. A friend gave Bill a job in the publicity department of Hemisfair in San Antonio, and Dorothy taught English at the old Brackenridge High School. “That was a good year for us,” she says with a sigh about their time in San Antonio. “It was stable. We both had jobs. But people still dropped in.” Among the guests for a couple of days were Ken Kesey and his Pranksters, driving their brightly painted and, by then, well-known bus. “When I went outside,” she says, “it looked like we were surrounded by every cop in San Antonio.”Over the years Bill’s children often visited him from Houston. “One afternoon Dorothy came out of their bedroom in these baby doll pajamas and said, ‘What time is it?’” remembers Sidney. “Bill said, ‘Look, kids, it’s the evil stepmother!’ We shrieked with laughter.” But those same weekends were when Sidney realized that something had changed, that something was wrong with her dad. “He’d be driving us home late at night, and instead of just pulling over and checking into a motel, he kept dozing off. I never relaxed. I kept saying, ‘Daddy, wake up!’”
Bill next got a job working on a movie script, and in 1967—the Summer of Love—he and Dorothy lived in Bolinas, a quintessential hippie town near San Francisco. He would drive a foggy cliff-side road into the city, his head full of acid and speed, to hear all the top bands at the Fillmore and the Avalon Ballroom. With the screenwriting gig playing out, Bill had a revelation about his work: He would abandon Fustian Days and move to Denver to manage a nightclub called the Family Dog and gather material for a new novel about rock and roll. Dorothy went on ahead. After a terrifying drive through a snowstorm, with no chains on her tires and a carful of poodles, she wound up hospitalized in Cheyenne, Wyoming, with an anxiety attack. The Family Dog quickly folded. Once more they were back in Austin and broke.
To make matters worse, the film of The Gay Place never got made. Rumors circulated that LBJ vetoed it by means of his loyal aide Jack Valenti, the longtime president of the Motion Picture Association of America. But Valenti had been Bill’s friend. Until the end of his life Bill continued to get calls from people who wanted to make such a movie and from editors who never stopped hoping for another novel. He never quit writing, never stopped dreaming of putting it all back together, but letters were his art form now. For thousands of words and audiences of one he would type on through the nights—eloquent, ribald, self-pitying, proud.
By 1969 he and Dorothy had separated. He landed a job teaching journalism at Southern Methodist University, and from Dallas he sent her a barrage of letters on the subject he considered most important in his life. It wasn’t ambition or fame, and it certainly wasn’t a snub by Lyndon Johnson; it was what he considered his repeated failures at love. He had hardly lost his ability to write. But he couldn’t deal with deadlines, contracts, and expectations. In 1970 a top editor at Harper’s Magazine Press wrote Bill’s agent in hopes that a manuscript would soon be available. She dutifully reported her client’s fib that he had written half of the rock and roll novel. She mentioned, though, that New American Library had threatened legal action against Bill to retrieve $14,000 in unfulfilled advances. Bill’s receipt of that dun set off howls of laughter. He framed it and put it on his wall.
His career was in ruin, but in Austin a cultural ferment was bubbling: a time was approaching when a new cognoscenti would celebrate, in a lightly mocking way, the Texas heritage of men with good ol’ boy names like Jerry Jeff, Billy Bob, and Billy Lee. Suddenly no one called him Bill anymore. He even came to admire “Billie Lee,” the name and spelling his parents had given him. For the rest of his life, by one spelling or the other, that was how people referred to him. One Fourth of July found him wearing a large sombrero, hired to hand out programs at a Willie Nelson picnic.
Yet he always commanded loyalty and respect. William Broyles, the first editor of this magazine, hired Billy Lee on the original staff. “He had a job cutting cedar,” Broyles recalls, “and for his ‘nervous’ dog he once got animal tranquilizers that he accidentally took himself. But he worked hard on the smallest details, and he had the best story ideas. He convinced us we weren’t just a bunch of snot-nosed kids.” Billy Lee complained incessantly of growing old. He complained of losing his hair, his teeth, his eyesight, his potency. He disliked the indignities that befell him. Still, he was doing what he wanted to do. In one letter he half-jokingly summed up his life: “Bestowed from birth with a lucy-in-the-sky twinkle and irreverence for everything, [I] bounced around the sub-culture after leaving LBJ, writing unfinished masterpieces by the score, ingesting hogsheads of drugs and acquiring a local image as the best approximation of guru and human wonder around.” He was a living bridge between Kerouac’s Beats and Kesey’s Pranksters. Billy Lee failed at being Texas’ F. Scott Fitzgerald, so he settled for being its Neal Cassady.
Dorothy became his friend again after they divorced. He had enough of a sense of humor left that he coached Lila, her little girl from her second marriage, to call him Uncle Looney. Dorothy recalls, “He was shooting crystal Methedrine and taking acid and mescaline at the same time. He was just a mess.” There were two busts for possession. Then Sidney got a fateful call in the early evening hours of February 11, 1978. “He was living in a house near the Austin airport,” she says. “My father had just died, but I drove around the block three times before I stopped. Casing it, because I didn’t want to get in trouble. Sure enough, the place was swarming with cops.”
“Did he ever steal from you?” I ask.
“Oh, yeah,” she answers with a smile. “He got in my jewelry box once and took the wedding ring from my first marriage. But he left me a pewter teapot in return. He sold everything he could, maybe to get drugs. But he was so voyeuristic. He wanted to know all your stuff. His stealing was a way to get into you.”
Sidney, who now writes, directs, and teaches filmmaking, has lived all over the country, but something always lures her back to Austin. It’s the same with Shelby, who went to New York to act. Yet Austin is where they find their mother, brother, memories of their dad, and many friends. Austin is home, but it’s also the glimmering, prismatic wealth in that novel. For the book and the letters are what’s left of Billy Lee. For years the sisters have worked on a script, trying to establish the story line that Hollywood screenwriters found so elusive.
Willie Brammer Eckhardt now distributes wine and liquor to restaurants. “I was a teenager before I really knew Billy Lee,” he says. “So it was like having an older brother. Lots of talk about sex and music. I used to run into Doug Sahm all the time. He’d say, ‘Man, I loved your dad! His mind worked just like mine.’”
When I first read the novel, in 1970, and again late last year, I thought the second novella, “Room Enough to Caper,” was the most dramatic and powerful. Governor Fenstemaker has appointed another reluctant hero, Neil Christiansen, as Texas’ junior U.S. senator. In one marvelous scene, the senator makes a thoughtful speech in a ballroom that could easily be in Austin’s Driskill Hotel, then a demagogue in the race stands up and starts yelling vile things about Neil, his wife, his brother, and his best friend. With a wild grin on his face, Neil leaves the podium, grabs the man by his coat and the seat of his pants, and hustles him to the elevator as power brokers gape. Fenstemaker strides in and smoothly turns the possible fiasco into an act of political courage. The senator is torn between his life in Washington and a wife and two young daughters who live in Austin. The marriage is failing, but on Easter weekend they almost recover the “splendor and recklessness and intensity of late afternoon loves.” Neil hides the kids’ Easter eggs to surprise them, but when his wife and children come in from church, they think the eggs have been stolen. The kids are crying, the wife is angry, and Fenstemaker is on the phone. The moment fades.Forty years after those scenes were published, Shelby sits at her mother’s kitchen table in Austin. I’ve been telling her and Nadine how cinematic and how contemporary those passages read, and how moved I was by the father’s awkwardness and the delight of the little girls on seeing him again. “I don’t know if a movie of it will ever get made,” Shelby says of the continuing contacts by filmmakers. “Decades go by, and politically, I say liberalism is going to come back. Or at least as artists we deserve to put the idea out there. This was something to be proud of. Yeah, we screwed around. Yeah, we drank too much. But people were dedicated to making society better and more just.”
Nadine hands her daughter a napkin. “I don’t know why I’m crying,” Shelby says.
“Why shouldn’t you?” I reply.
“I remember that Easter,” she says and dabs the napkin at her eye.