Boy Wonder

Willie Morris: An Unedited Life

When the subject is the life and times of editor and writer Willie Morris, who to believe? A case in point: the events mid-morning on a spring day in 1989. Or was it 1990? Larry L. King, author of In Search of Willie Morris (PublicAffairs), has it '89 on one page and '90 on the next. But to get to the story . . .


Morris was then writer-in-residence at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, and that mid-morning he was still asleep. But a lawyer friend and his motorcycle buddies, along with Ole Miss writer Barry Hannah, decided to pay Morris a surprise visit. The bikers were ready to tie one on. Morris wasn't, so he locked his doors. Hannah, however, needed to make a long-distance phone call, and he broke the glass of the back door to reach in and undo the latch. Morris threw Hannah out, but in so doing, Morris cut his feet on the shattered glass. The bikers weren't happy, so they disturbed the peace. They backfired their engines. They sounded their horns. Morris would have none of it. He grabbed a pack of Viceroys and some beer and headed for Jackson's Sun 'N' Sand Motel, which proved to be the beginning of the end of Morris in Oxford. But that's not the end of the story.

Hannah remembers it differently. He claims there was no glass broken, but he admits to breaking the lock to Morris' back door. And he did use the phone, but it was to call Morris' doctor, because Hannah sensed something wrong. Hannah also admits, that spring day in 1989 (or 1990), to being drunk. But that's not the end of the story.

JoAnne Prichard, Morris's second wife, told King that when she entered the house shortly after Hannah's breaking and entering (and Morris' exiting), there was no broken glass and no blood to be found. "Willie was a writer," she said. "And writers love drama, even if they have to invent it." Believe it or not.

How's this, though, for drama? William Weaks Morris (born in 1934) grows up in Yazoo City, Mississippi, his father a withdrawn, alcoholic gas-station operator and his mother a high-strung worrywart with a thirst for upward mobility and a hidden drinking problem of her own. Morris makes a name for himself as an undergraduate writing for the student newspaper at the University of Texas. Morris then becomes a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford (England). Morris then scores as a hard-hitting editor of The Texas Observer newspaper. This leads to an invitation for him to join the staff at Harper's magazine in New York, the oldest magazine in the country, and in 1967, at the age of 32, he's named editor-in-chief, the youngest editor ever of that august publication.

Morris aimed to return Harper's to editorial excellence, and he did. He hired David Halberstam, William Styron, Norman Mailer, and Gay Talese, to name but a few of the writers whose articles originally written for Harper's turned them into bestselling authors. The new owners of the magazine, the Cowles family of Minneapolis, didn't take kindly to Morris' handling of the bottom line, however. Articles, they claimed, were too long and too questioning of the status quo. Ad sales dropped. Readership too -- despite an influential readership that included another Rhodes scholar, Bill Clinton. The owners tore into Morris in a business meeting. So Morris up and resigned in 1971, the toast of New York literary circles suddenly . . . toast.

Then Morris did what? He turned down repeated offers to edit elsewhere, teach, lecture. And he drank. He moved to Long Island, helped by his wealthy love interest, Muriel Oxenberg Murphy. And he drank. (Morris' marriage to his college sweetheart, by this point, a bust.) But Murphy eventually had enough, so Morris had an affair with Georgetown hostess Barbara Howar, whose claim to (unlasting) fame was party-giving, a bestseller no one remembers, and a TV talk show with Maury Povich. And still Morris drank, and still Morris failed to produce as a writer of note. But he drank with the best of them, novelist James Jones being one; journalist, playwright, and longtime friend Larry L. King, who had his own (unlasting) affair with Howar, being another. But this is not the end of the story.

James Jones died in 1977. Morris' widowed mother died in 1977. And Willie Morris returned to Mississippi in 1977 -- to Oxford, on the urging of Larry and Dean Faulkner Wells of Yoknapatawpha Press. Morris was hired to teach at Ole Miss (his students included Donna Tartt, Larry Brown, and John Grisham), but his heart wasn't in it. It was Halberstam, though, who got him to write The Courting of Marcus Dupree (1983). It joined Morris' well-received memoirs North Toward Home (1967) and the popular Good Old Boy: A Delta Boyhood (1971). His novel, The Last of the Southern Girls (1973), wasn't such a hit, but Morris' move to Jackson and his marriage to JoAnne Prichard put him on somewhat solid ground. My Dog Skip appeared in 1995, but his heart gave out in 1999, at the age of 64. The novel he'd been working on for decades, Taps, appeared in 2001.

Another Morris memoir, however -- New York Days (1993) -- didn't suit me and it doesn't suit Larry L. King. And in In Search of Willie Morris, King puts the questions to Morris that Morris, King believes, failed to put to himself: What might I have done better? Where and why did I err? Why did I retreat from the world after the Harper's fiasco, becoming close to a hermit for months on end, even though I had many attractive offers? Why, simply, didn't I fight back?

King sees it as a case of clinical depression, worsened by alcohol abuse and a tendency not to meet matters head-on, to harbor resentments, a crippling sense of failure.

"Willie had a history of letting problems slide," King writes, "as if somehow expecting the cavalry to ride to his rescue, bugles blaring. And, somehow, he always seemed surprised when no rescue occurred. Surprise, often, was soon replaced by anger and, eventually, quite often the anger led to careless or foolish actions."

Cavalry with bugles blaring? Or bikers with horns blasting? Neither rescued Willie Morris. But his brilliance -- as an editor and, when he put his mind to it, as a writer -- could and sometimes did. Believe it.

Shelf Life

Given a good story, what's an editor to do? Give that story a good going-over, some hands-on help. A case in point: The Tinsmith's Son (AuthorHouse), a memoir by Memphian Joe Werner and a story too good to be in the hands of a vanity press.

You're old enough to remember Memphis in the 1940s? Skidrow on Poplar and the streets of Crosstown? The Brothers when they still had a high school on East Parkway? J.P. Werner Sheet Metal Works?

That's the business Joe Werner's German grandfather founded and where Werner witnessed the rough-and-tumble (and hard-drinking) life of the workers who scaled many a Memphis roof and steeple. It's also the business Werner salvaged when construction in Memphis boomed after World War II.

The book isn't all hard labor, however. It's about the memorable, sometimes unfortunate characters Werner worked alongside -- men with names such as Do Right, Grinder, Pear, and Rub. It's about an inner-city Catholic upbringing, where a Golden Gloves title ranked with being an altar boy. And it's about marrying your sweetheart from Sacred Heart and seeing her through births and miscarriages, bad times and better.

The Tinsmith's Son isn't Old South. It's New -- too gritty to be rose-colored, too honest to be mere vanity.

STAFF PICK Close to Shore

by Michael Capuzzo

Looking for some light summer reading, a pleasant book to take with you to the beach?

Then do not read Close to Shore. After just the first chapter, you won't go anywhere near the water.

Subtitled "A Story of Terror in the Age of Innocence," this is the compelling account of a series of deadly shark attacks that took place along the New Jersey shore in the summer of 1916. The first victim was a young man named Charles Vansant, killed while he splashed in the waves during a vacation at the resort community of Beach Haven. Other deaths quickly followed, as a rogue great white shark targeted men and women in the water up and down the coast.

The most amazing thing about these tragedies, so vividly conveyed by four-time Pulitzer nominee Michael Capuzzo, is this truly was the "Age of Innocence." Despite eyewitness accounts, including another swimmer who told reporters, "Mr. Vansant's death was the most horrible I ever saw," people refused to believe that the deaths were caused by a shark. Imminent scientists of the day insisted that sharks did not attack people. No, the good doctors insisted; these deaths were more likely caused by a -- sea turtle. A very vicious sea turtle.

As the death toll mounted, however, they eventually came to their senses, ultimately realizing that a shark is one of nature's most efficient killing machines. And what makes this book so compelling is that Capuzzo tells much of the story from the shark's point of view. What may, at first, seem like a hokey gimmick is effective and chilling, for example, when the shark first spots Vansant in the water:

"Fifty feet away, in deeper water, the great white was mulling whether to attack. Once it decides the odds favor it, the decision is beyond appeal, the attack relentless. In the last instant, it detected the final confirmation that its prey was a mammal: the blood pumping through Vansant's veins. The thumping of his heart. The great jaws rose from the water, a white protective membrane rolled over the eyes, fifty triangular teeth closed with more than six tons of pressure per square inch and man and fish splashed in a spreading pool of blood. One bite. One massive incapacitating bite, tearing into the left leg below the knee."

If this brings to mind nightmarish images of something familiar, it should. The true accounts of the horror that took place that summer in 1916 inspired the best-selling novel and blockbuster movie Jaws. There's just one major difference between the real story and the fictional ones that followed -- oh, we won't give it away. -- Michael Finger


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