He’s been here from the very beginning. In February 1973 readers of the first issue of a brand-new magazine called TEXAS MONTHLY were treated to, among other stories, a strange but fascinating piece by a strange but fascinating writer named Gary Cartwright. Gary was already familiar to many Texans for his legendary work—and play—in the sports departments of the Fort Worth Press, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Dallas Morning News and for his gonzo contributions to various national magazines, including Harper’s, Life, Rolling Stone, and Sports Illustrated. His piece for the inaugural issue of this magazine was a profile of South Dallas native and ex—Dallas Cowboys star Duane Thomas, the moody but brilliant running back who’d been traded to the San Diego Chargers in 1972 before drifting away from football altogether. Thomas had a frosty relationship with the media, but Gary, being Gary, had found a way to get him to talk—and talk and talk.
“The first time I met Duane Thomas he told me about The Great Cosmos,” the story began. “The Great Cosmos was Duane’s attempt to express the inexpressible, and he used the term like a new toy. It was an interchangeable expression of faith and fear, of love and loneliness, of infinite acceptance and eternal rejection, a gussied-up extraterrestrial slang that still hovered painfully near his South Dallas streets.” By the end of the first page, Gary had made it back to Thomas’s apartment in time to witness his roommate, linebacker Steve Kiner, arrive with a bag of mescaline “for the Super Bowl.”
And with that, one of the great relationships between a magazine and a writer was launched. In the 37 years since then, Gary has written too many pieces to count for TEXAS MONTHLY, and every one of them has been a showcase for his big-hearted fearlessness, his honesty, his compassion, his toughness, and his distinctive voice—hard-boiled, weird, lyrical, and funny as hell. As an underdog-loving old newspaperman with a taste for life’s pleasures and a nose for action, Gary has always been drawn to the aspects of the human condition that don’t make for pleasant elevator conversation. His subjects have often been scammers, small-time hoods, prostitutes, mystics, losers, outcasts, and the terribly poor, all of whom he’s written about with the kind of truthfulness and tenderness that is earned, not taught. Everyone has a favorite Cartwright story—his profiles of Dallas stripper Candy Barr, murderer Kenneth McDuff, or his old buddy Willie Nelson; his examination of the true story behind El Paso private detective Jay J. Armes; his various journeys into the mind of Jerry Jones; his dispatches from the world of dogfighters or dirt-poor cedar choppers or satanic cults. They say that the old Yankee Stadium was the house that Ruth built. Well, TEXAS MONTHLY has been lucky enough to have several Ruths over the years, and one of them is certainly Gary. His stories helped make this magazine what it is today.
About a year ago, Gary came to me to say he’d been thinking about retiring. I pleaded with him to stick around for another year, and he did, and now that year is up. Hard as it is to believe, this month’s profile of John Graves “Writing Life”, will be Gary’s last story as a TEXAS MONTHLY staff writer (though of course he’ll continue to write for the magazine as the spirit moves him, which it better).
It’s an understatement to say we’ll miss Gary. In his Graves story, he writes that “every successful writer I know went to school on John Graves.” I could say the exact same thing about Gary, whose example has been a guide to several generations of TEXAS MONTHLY writers. In just about every office in the editorial department you can find a beat-up copy of Confessions of a Washed-up Sportswriter, a collection of Gary’s early magazine pieces published in 1982. For a lot of writers, myself included, it’s a kind of reference book. Above all else, what it—and all of Gary’s work—has taught me is that a writer’s power ebbs and flows in direct proportion to his ability to be honest, about himself and about the world. You can’t just choose to be honest; you have to be able to be honest, which is a far harder thing. Gary always has been, ever since the very beginning.
The rise of the Texas quarterback; fishing on Toledo Bend Reservoir; a funny time for an oil boom; the life and death of the youngest professional skateboarder ever; the most powerful Texan in Washington; and the king of the State Fair deep fryers.