Willie Morris Goes Home

Dear Willie gone. He was a sweet, gentle man. I first became aware of him when I was editing the Observer a block off the U.T. campus, and he, the feisty young editor of the Daily Texan, started raising hell about the oil depletion allowance and such. When his elders censored his editorials, he ran blank space with a note saying that’s where the censored editorial would have been. That’s when we knew that someone real had arrived. But he was never a hard political case; he was closer to what Molly Ivins is now, enjoying the comedy of the sold-out Legislature while looking, and looking, and looking, for the good up ahead there somewhere.

He was always a Southerner in the outrageous way. I remember once while he was editor of the Observer, we were visiting his house in Austin, and were sprawled all over the living room floor, drinking beer, or maybe it was Jack Daniel’s, and listening to classical music on the radio. Suddenly the music was interrupted and an announcer came on with a news bulletin that Russia had dropped an atomic bomb on New York City. We all leapt up in alarm and horror — until damn! we remembered that Willie was from Mississippi. Sure enough, he had taped the interruption and rigged the sound system to take us in. He was in the bedroom, doubled up, Orson Welles from Yazoo City.

Those days, we embattled and self-embattled Texas liberals in Austin were very close personally, and many’s the night Willie, Bob and Orissa Eckhardt, Tony Korioth, Whiskey Bob Wheeler, Charlie Hughes, Bob and Claudette Mullen — the old gang — beered away the hours at Scholz Garden, with other drifting-in, drifting-out politicos, drunks, the outdoor types, and demurely conspiring professors, whiling away the nights and marking off the days till justice would surely prevail. Honestly, I wonder what we’d have thought, if a prophet had glided up to our long table under the trees in the open garden and told us, “You might as well know, that after you’ve worked your young hearts out, not to mention your asses off, at the turn into the new century in the year 2000 your beloved Texas and its Legislature, and except for your golden boy Doggett, the Texas delegation in Congress, are going to be leading the parade for such a cynical and entrenched corruption you will wonder why you hadn’t just drifted away together to some island in the Caribbean and gotten even more all mixed up together.” Would we have cursed the news, and given up — or might we just have seen sooner than some of us did that we had grossly overestimated the puissance of our ringing appeals to justice, and had grossly underestimated the triumphantly incorporated greed of our half-century?

After Willie wended his way to New York City and Harper’s I didn’t see much of him. I visited him once in his office in the city. (A story he told in a book about my visiting him there never happened, though. Like the late Walter Prescott Webb, and sometimes, though only when she is sorely tempted, Molly, Willie never let the facts get in the way of a good story.) Sometimes he’d blow into Austin for a weekend and we’d run together in the old haunts through the afternoon, and the night, maybe. He did more real good up there in New York City in a few years than most people would if they had a hundred lifetimes, but then it blew up for him at Harper’s. He resigned with indignation, perhaps thinking he would not be taken up on it, and his power was gone, and with it all but a lingering fame. Fame, that fame — the mistake of his life, I think, was wanting it. Within the past few years I learned, from one of the principals in the affair at the time, that some of those Willie thought were his friends fighting for him in the showdown with the publisher in Minneapolis had already cut themselves loose from his suddenly less consequential bonhomie and were trying to cut quite another kind of deal.

He wrote carefully, editing his typewriter lines a lot, spinning out his lofted flowers of crafted and recrafted prose, working for rhythms and effects he felt before he knew them. He was a very good writer, and his book about growing up in Mississippi and crusading in Texas, that book with the haunting title, North Toward Home, is his lasting representation among the living. After a while he went on home again, but things came to have a way of going wrong for him. His novel wasn’t so good; somehow the New York woman who wrote about their affair got the better of him. Well, he was the writer in residence at the University of Mississippi, and yes, he wound up in an Oxford graveyard with A.P. writer Jules Loh watching him as he poured a bottle of Jack Daniel’s onto Faulkner’s grave. But then he might get drunk and sound not just pompous, but too pompous — I saw him once like that among students at a university, and, not knowing what to do, quietly stole away.

He came back to Austin in 1994 to help us turn the Observer into the Texas Democracy Foundation at a big banquet one night, and Molly Ivins, Wayne Justice, Willie, his graceful new wife JoAnne, and I agreed to meet for breakfast at eight the next morning at Las Manitas on Congress Avenue, near the bridge. But Willie and JoAnne didn’t come. Molly, Judge Justice, and I had a great political rally over the coffee and breakfast tacos, but I have been sad about Willie’s not coming ever since. Maybe they had overslept. Maybe it was something I had said, or worse, something — what? — I had not said, the night before. I don’t know. After a few years I sent him a postcard saying I wanted to stop in at Jackson to visit them sometime, but I did not hear from him again, until there he was the other morning in The New York Times, young and proud, a photograph of a Harper’s cover on the wall behind him.

Ronnie Dugger was the founding editor of the Observer in 1954 and was its publisher until 1994. He has written biographies of Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan, books about Hiroshima and universities, and countless articles in The Nation, The New Yorker, Harper’s, Atlantic, The New York Times, The Progressive, The Washington Post and other publications. Home again, living and writing in Austin, he received the George Polk career award in journalism in 2012.

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