- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 11, 2006

IN SEARCH OF WILLIE MORRIS: THE MERCURIAL LIFE OF A LEGENDARY WRITER AND EDITOR

By Larry L. King

Public Affairs, $26.95 cloth, 353 pages

REVIEWED BY JAMES E. PERSON JR.

Willie Morris is remembered today for a handful of the truly great memoirs written during the 20th century, and for serving as editor of Harper’s magazine for four explosive years. Between 1967 and 1971, Morris brought America’s oldest magazine—established in 1850—back from the edge of irrelevance by enlisting the writing talent of such major figures as Norman Mailer, William Styron, David Halberstam, and the writer of the book in hand, Larry L. King.

Willie (as he is called throughout the book) was part storyteller, part prankster, an undeniable genius given to foolishness in affairs of the heart, a self-pitying individual occasionally paralyzed by blackest despair, an energetic go-getter, a man capable of immense self-sacrifice as well as undeniable selfishness, generous to a fault, though (for a miserable period in his life) given to sponging, at once a political liberal and a nostalgic good old boy. A complex, mercurial man, this Willie Morris.

Given this, Willie’s story, relayed in Mr. King’s well-researched though colloquial warts-and-all biography, reads in part like that of a down-to-earth Golden Boy, the sort who becomes a hero in the eyes of his friends and admirers. And in parts it reads like a description of the indulged, over-reverenced genius Elliot Vereker in James Thurber’s short story “Something to Say.” As I say, Willie was not an easy man to pigeonhole.

Mr. King provides an able, fairly general description of Willie’s early, unremarkable years in Yazoo City, Miss.—hometown of another yarn-spinner, country-boy comic Jerry Clower—and his suffering under an emotionally smothering mother from whom he long sought to escape, but who nevertheless successfully pushed her son to excel.

The biography then catches fire as he portrays Willie’s shake-‘em-up tenure as editor of the student newspaper at the University of Texas during the 1950s, when he became a thorn in the side of the campus administrators because of his calls for liberal reform in a host of areas.

An abruptly announced, rather dutiful marriage and a successful stint as a Rhodes Scholar came next, followed by several years of rabble-rousing as a writer for the progressive Texas Observer.

Because of his passion and skill as a writer and editor, his work caught the attention of Harper’s editor-in-chief Jack Fischer, who invited him to come to New York, join the magazine’s staff, and become groomed as his successor. Stunned, Willie obliged; he came to Harper’s and began courting the best writers at work in America and in time presiding over a striking special issue on the state of race relations in America, published on the 100th anniversary of the Civil War’s end.

Four years after coming to New York, in 1967, Willie was named editor-in-chief.

Immediately he assembled a crack editorial staff—including Mr. King, who was brought aboard as a contributing editor. Within a short time, the editors made-over Harper’s from a staid, play-it-safe relic into a must-read magazine, with Willie becoming the storied monthly’s most accomplished editor since the heyday of the influential William Dean Howells, who ruled the “Editor’s Easy Chair” during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Also in 1967, Willie published his renowned memoir “North Toward Home,” a minor classic in the genre. At the tender age of 32, he was riding high.

Mr. King, himself a Southerner and co-author of “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” among many other works, is an entertaining writer, and never more so than in his descriptions of life at Harper’s during Willie’s tenure at the helm. Mr. King knew all the principals at Harper’s and portrays each one of them truthfully.

As for Willie: Mr. King records that soon after taking the reins of editor-in-chief, he decided to put several of the editorial staff’s Old Guard on notice that it was time to strongly consider moving along. He called Mr. King into a staff meeting with the office elders and announced to the surprise of all, “Our new contributing editor, Mr. King, has asked to open this meeting with a favorite song. Go ahead, Sir.”

Shocked at this request, though knowing what Willie had in mind, Mr. King gathered his courage and belted out “Jesus on the Five-Yard Line,” a semi-bawdy song he had often sung at private parties and in bars by request, usually with a few beers under his belt.

After finishing the song, Mr. King was met by total silence. He records that Willie thanked him, and then “went on for a few minutes talking business with the elders as if nothing untoward had happened, while I sat there feeling like the fifth-place jackass at the county fair, certain that the elders were shooting me scathing looks of disgusted disapproval—though I feared to look up from my twiddling thumbs.”

But Willie’s ploy worked: the plain message was given that a new day of irreverence had dawned at Harper’s, and within a short time, all the elders left the magazine.

Elsewhere, Mr. King tells of how Willie began an affair with a wealthy New York socialite, Muriel Oxenberg Murphy. Willie began squiring her around and picking up the tab for her and her hangers-on at pricey events, even though “she had more money than God and Willie’s salary was but $37,500 annually.”

Having begun with such promise, Willie’s life at “Harper’s” ended in sorrow in 1971. Chafing under the strictures of the magazine’s cipher of an owner and a meddling business manager the owner brought aboard, Willie painted himself into a corner by writing the owner an incautious ultimatum that amounted to his own resignation, with no wiggle-room for negotiation.

The owner and business manager eagerly accepted his resignation, and told the stunned New York press corps that the whole ugly turn of events had something to do with Willie’s connection to the magazine’s marginally declining sales figures—this at a time when other general-circulation magazines were folding all over America.

With his career at Harper’s over, as well as his marriage, Willie published a minor classic of a memoir, “Good Old Boy: A Delta Boyhood” (1971), which a long time appeared to be his swan-song. He drifted for several years, troubled and depressed, drinking too much and given to explosions of rage. One night he and Mr. King even engaged in a fistfight over a woman in the streets of Georgetown. But in time the two healed the rift in their friendship, and then Willie went on to contribute several indispensable works to the corpus of 20th-century American literature: a biography of James Jones (author of “From Here to Eternity”) and the memoir “My Dog Skip” (1995). He moved back to Mississippi, where he taught at Ole Miss, remarried, provided helpful guidance to a young, would-be writer named John Grisham, and in the fullness of time died, in 1999, beloved and honored by his many friends to the end.

Mr. King concludes his fond memoir with an indisputable claim: “Willie Morris will mainly be remembered, and should be mainly remembered, for his many and unique contributions to American letters during his time on earth.” Indeed, so; and Mr. King is to be commended for his able, insider’s look into the troubled but in time triumphant life of an American original.

James E. Person Jr. is the author of the recently published biography “Earl Hamner: From Walton’s Mountain to Tomorrow”(Cumberland House).


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