texasmonthly.com: I believe you were working in Washington for Congressman Jim Wright when you first met Willie Morris. Do you remember the specifics of your first meeting?
LLK: Willie Morris came down to Washington from New York not long after he had gone to work as a young associate editor at Harpers. He called on Congressman Jim Wrights office and asked for me personally; we had mutual friends in the Texas LegislatureMalcolm McGregor, Charles Wilson, Don Kennardand in Bill Brammer, with whom I had worked in Congress. So it was almost as if we were friends before we met. I asked Willie out for coffee and headed for the House Office Building cafeteria. On the way he asked, "Do they sell Bloody Marys there?" I said, "No, but Ill take you where we can get Bloody Marys." So we stepped across the street to the Filibuster Room in the Congressional Hotel and commenced sipping at about 11 a.m. I think it was 2 p.m. by the time I got back to Congressman Wrights office, and by then Willie and I were brothers.
texasmonthly.com: What was your first impression of him?
LLK: I was disposed to like Willie from the first, due to having read his stuff in the Texas Observer and having been told by our mutual friends that he was a good dude and bright and funny. And all that proved to be true.
texasmonthly.com: Was there anything in particular that he said to convince you to quit your job in Washington and become a freelance writer? If so, what?
LLK: Willie did often say to me when I would tell political stories of Washington and LBJ and tales of Texas, "Larry, you simply must write that for me!" but he never asked me to quit politics for writing. But in September of 1963 I sold a political novel, The One-Eyed Man, and two months later John F. Kennedywhom I knew a bit and campaigned for and withwas assassinated. That truly soured me on politics. So in May of 1964 I quit. When I called Willie to tell him, he immediately said, "Ill buy articles from you and talk you up with editors of other magazines." And he did, which was very helpful to launching my writing career. He asked me on the phone that day I called to write a piece about what it was like to be the "faceless, voiceless, behind-the-scenes man" to powerful politicians, so I wrote "Washingtons Second Banana Politicians," which he published as the first of 26 pieces I ultimately would write for him.
texasmonthly.com: What kind of editor was he? Was he tough to work for?
LLK: Willie was the best editor I ever had, and I had some good ones: Alan D. Williams, Steve Gelman, Geoffrey Norman, Bill Broyles. Willie was a genius at matching writer to subject; he asked questions that made the writer dig deeper, and his copy editing was so sure I swear it improved my first two or three magazine pieces by 40 percent. I began to study how he edited and it quickly helped me become a better writer. No, he was not "tough to work for" if you did your job. Writers loved Willie, because he cared about their work and it showed. Most busted their asses to give him their best.
texasmonthly.com: What was your favorite piece you wrote while working for Willie at Harpers? Why?
LLK: My favorite piece for Willie was "The Old Man." Having heard me tell stories about my dad for years, Willie kept urging me to write about him: "Write your earliest memory of him and up to the present. Write about the ups and downs of your relationship, how it changed, why it changed, your differences and what you shared." I tried two or three times, but I was intimidated by what my father might think, and always quit the pieces. In October of 1970 Dad died suddenly. I flew home for the funeral, really ripped up. I had come to love that old man in his old age: He was almost 83.Willie called my mothers house the day of Dads funeral, and without knowing I was gonna say it, I blurted, "Willie I can write it, now." I worked on that piece 32 days and nights. Willie, on reading it, said, "Larry, people will be reading that piece fifty years from now." Well, maybe he was right: Its still being anthologized after thirty years, and I still think its the best thing I ever wrote.
texasmonthly.com: Was he a different person outside the office? If so, how? If not, why not?
LLK: To me, Willie was pretty much the same dude inside the office or outside it. What you saw with Willie was what you got.
texasmonthly.com: What did you like most about Willie? Why?
LLK: I liked a lot about Willie: his talent, his sense of humor, his intelligence. But I liked best, I think, his absence of malice. Willie never had his stinger out for anybody, really. He was generous to a fault in helping other writers and thats a bit unusual in the old word game. Willie just didnt harbor the envy, the jealousy, the chickenshitery that one associates with "life in the fast lane."
texasmonthly.com: What did you like least about Willie? Why?
LLK: I least liked Willies inability to say no when he should have. He hated giving bad news so badly that he would evade, stall, and let things reach crises proportions rather than dealing with problems. That was the flip sidethe "bad" sideof his being free of malice. That caused some problems at the magazine over time.
texasmonthly.com: Why did Willie think his resignation letter to Harpers would be rejected?
LLK: I think that Willie Morris had received so much good press and praise and awardsand knew in his heart that he was putting out the best magazine in Americathat he just couldnt fathom any owner letting him go. I tried to warn him during that 1971 fight with Harpers management"the money men," as Willie called themthat in American business, "If you dont own the mill, Willie, youre just another goddamned mill hand." But he couldnt bring himself to believe that. So he was shocked when his resignationwhich he had written in angerwas accepted.
texasmonthly.com: Did your relationship with Willie change after Harpers? If so, how?
LLK: Our relationship did change after Harpers, for quite a long while, because Willie was so crushed he went into hidingliterallyon Long Island and we had trouble reaching him. David Halberstam finally got an address and wrote him a letter saying we loved and admired him for who and what he was, not because hed been editor in chief of Harpers, and that it made a lot of us look bad to not be in touch. Eventually, we began seeing each other again. I went to Long Island three or four times to visit Willie; he came to Washington several times to see me, and we wrote and telephoned. And after he went home to Mississippi, I visited him there several timesso did Halberstamand he saw us when he came to Washington and New York.
texasmonthly.com: If you had only one word to describe him, what would it be?
LLK: Dead. No, thats a smart-assed answer. The one word I would use to describe Williethough many such as "brilliant," "loyal," "talented" and so forth would applywould be "mischievous." He just so enjoyed playing elaborate jokes on people. Im writing a book about Willie nowcalled "The Search For Willie Morris"and I think his pranks will take up an entire chapter!
texasmonthly.com: Is there anything you would like to add?
LLK: Ill miss Willie so long as I have breath. I can never repay all that he did for me. He was one of the best people I ever knew, right at the top of the list.