11111111011 ,1111111111111110, ington as Lyndon Johnson’s liberal and his triumph with The Gay Place . The stories leave the reader wondering what terrible blow was dealt to his immense talent. When The Gay Place was published in 1961, the critics likened Brammer to Scott Fitzgerald, but he aged much too quickly and never completed another book, never completed much of anything except a few articles for the Observer and Texas Monthly. I never knew Brammer during his “productive” years, but I did have the pleasure of his acquaintance during his final decade, the years when he was chronically poor, taking occasional jobs as a dishwasher or cook, getting into tangoes with the law, copping advances for magazine articles he never got around to writing. Various parts of his anatomy always seemed to be breaking down. He had cataracts and bad teeth and no telling what else. Inside the Austin funeral home, over the organ dirge and the recorded chimes, Hershey spoke of his grace and courage during many years of physical suffering. She said he was a gentleman, and above all, gentle that’s the adjective that describes Billy Lee best. He was a fascinatingly complex little gnome, who in discussing himself often sounded both serene and forlorn. He would describe his personal situation with such wit and precision and resignation that one was spared the impulse to feel sorry for him. I don’t want to make him sound pathetic, because he wasn’t, not in the least. Billy Lee had a hell of a lot of fun. A couple nights before the funeral, some of his friends were drinking and telling stories about him. It wasn’t an evening for eulogies so much as for scurrilous anecdotes. Brammer was a gentleman, but at the same time he elevated a quiet, non-aggressive sort of degeneracy to an art form. As we were sitting around hooting over stories about the time Brammer stole his dog’s tranquilizers and his penchant for snooping through friends’ personal correspondence, somebody said, “Damn, the only thing Billy Lee would have liked more than this is a wife-swapping.” A lot of us didn’t realize how much we were going to miss him until he was gone. You could talk about anything with Brammer. He always cut through the crap, always dealt with what was important. Back when we weren’t trusting anybody over thirty, Brammer was a shining exception, an ally. By some strange coincidence I found myself talking into the wolf hours with Allen Ginsberg the night following Brammer’s funeral. I was struck by the similarity between these two wise and gentle men. Brammer was as important to the Austin underground as Ginsberg was to the beats. They were both mentors, teaching the impatient how to cope with an imperfect world. During his last decade, Brammer’s gift to Texas culture was his own sweet, droll, eloquent, paradoxical, lascivious self. Kaye Northcott Ifirst met Billy Lee Brammer in the early 1960s when I was a onedimensional sportswriter in Dallas and he was being touted as the F. Scott Fitzgerald of our generation. It was a time of “political awareness,” as they said then, a time for knowing who you were and what you stood for, and though I wasn’t that much younger than Billy Lee, the differences in our achievements and knowledge of the real world were enormous. Billy Lee was already a certified writer. He had been to places and done things I couldn’t dream of. As an aide to Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson, he had firsthand knowledge of what he called “The Big Lie,” the illusion that men of great power hold it at our discretion, to do our bidding. Not only had Billy Lee lived the illusion, he had written about it in a remarkable first novel, The Gay Place. His LBJ character, Arthur “Goddamn” Fenstemaker, was a model of the ruthless, vulgar, deadly effective politician who could skin you alive and make it feel like a backrub. He was a character that you loved to hate, but in Billy Lee’s portrayal he was also touchingly human, the best and worst of reality. On the day of the assassination, Billy Lee was staying at the apartment Bud Shrake and I shared in Dallas when an editor at Random House telephoned to offer him a large advance for a book on LBJ, the new president. Billy Lee took the assignment, but he never finished the book. Except for a few magazine pieces, he never finished anything again. I’m not saying that he didn’t write a lot. Sometimes he would stay up all night, writing and sorting through great stacks of notes and clippings. And he could sit for hours telling LBJ stories. There was one about a badly worn legislative aideI don’t remember the namewho could never bring himself to refer to the Pentagon as the Department of Defensehe still called it the War Department. One day LBJ discoverd the old fellow hidden beneath a pile of memos and chewed his ass,for having the wrong kind of knot in his necktie. LBJ personally tied the correct knot and advised the poor wretch never again to appear in public with any other knot: as Billy Lee remembered it, the assistant wore the same tie with the same knot until the day they buried him, and perhaps ever after. Such was the force of the man Billy had already written about. Nobody realized it at the time, but I don’t think Billy Lee ever had any intention of writing another book, certainly not another book about LBJ. For that matter, Billy Lee never voted again. In my political infancy, this was difficult to understand. I once remarked that it was his duty to vote, but Billy Lee told me: “I choose not to choose.” By the same measure, he chose not to write. Maybe he was afraid that a second book wouldn’t be as good as the first, or maybe, having experienced the private hell that any novelist experiences, he opted for a more congenial madness. That same instinct that motivated Billy Lee to explore the political climate of the 1950s transferred naturally to the social revolution of the 1960s. Billy Lee was always ahead of the game. Instead of writing, he was cuing the rest of us on what to expect. He was always giving someone a new book or an obscure magazine piece or a newly released record. I first heard about Bob Dylan and Ken Kesey from Billy Lee. When Kesey’s bus came through Austin, Billy Lee climbed aboard. Having lived so long at the bloody center, he went to the edge and stayed there. Some people thought it was a great loss to literature, and I suppose it was, but everyone who knew the man profited. Billy Lee had somehow captured the spirit of Austin in his book, but he went on to define it with his life. You might have called him a middle-of-the-road anarchist. He made us understand Texas, and be proud of it. It was as though Billy Lee had singlehandedly led us out of the dark ages and said: “See? The place is alive with promise. Do with that what you will.” When Billy Lee died I was shocked but not really surprised. We all knew that he lived too fast to live very long, as he knew it, too. He chose to burn his candle at both ends and dwell in the lovely light. ‘Billy Lee was my friend for at least 15 years and if I had to sift through my memory for a single image it would be one stormy night on the muddy road leading to Soap Creek Saloon. It was raining like a bitch and all along the road cars were stuck and drivers were cursing their fate. Bud Shrake and I were up to our knees in mud, trying to push his van out of the ditch when we heard someone whistling a famOia: tune. And there came Billy Lee, in an open VW convertible half blind from cataracts and stoned out of his buck ct, navigating along the precise center of the loblolly, a smile of total rapture on his face. “There goes a man of infinite patience,” Shrake said. We won’t likely meet his kind again. —Gary Cartwright rHE TEXAS OBSERVER 21
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