My Exaggerated Life, p.19Pat Conroy
It goes on, it goes on, and finally they rest. The judge looks out and says, “Mr. Conroy, do you have anything to add to that?”
Well, it surprised me, but since the judge asked me I stood up and said, “Your Honor, the writers of Georgia and the writers of America understand how important this case is, and we are very happy that the judge who heard it is taking his time because we understand that his decision is going to be important for writers all over this country. So the more time he takes, we feel the more he’s studying the case, familiarizing himself with the legal background, and especially with plagiarism. The American Authors Guild has sent money to Mr. Boles, PEN has sent money to Mr. Boles to support his legal case, and we are in disagreement with our esteemed opponent. We have no problem with the amount of time it’s taking, because of the importance of this case to the writing community of America.”
Well, I sit down. This judge immediately rules for us. I don’t even think my behind scraped the seat before he ruled for us. Okay, my two idiots, Paul and Dorothy, get up, and they both scream out loud, ah-hah-hah-hah, and then they go racing over to Hazel Cartin’s lawyers, and they’re sticking their fingers in their faces, you lost, you bastards lost, you motherfuckers lost, you lost, did you see it, you lost, we showed you. And I’m going shut up, shut up, will you shut the hell up?
Then I’m walking out with the Boleses, who are just so horrible. They could not have reacted worse, and they’re still talking over my shoulder as I push them out the door, when one of the other lawyers comes up to me. “We had no idea that you were a lawyer, Conroy; no idea that you went to law school. We could have you arrested for impersonating a lawyer.”
I said “You can’t do that. I didn’t impersonate an asshole.”
All this time I was trying to get Bernie and his wife, Martha Schein, to move to Atlanta. Bernie had gone to Mississippi and did valiant work there during desegregation. He was the first white principal of this school in Clarksdale, Mississippi. One of the guys he admires most is Mel Leventhal, who desegregated Mississippi schools and gets no credit for it now because he’s a white boy. He was also married to Alice Walker. Anyway, Bernie got fired from his school in Mississippi like I did from Daufuskie, because he believes in integration and he tried to make it work, and those people ate him alive. Bernie actually did heroic work there, and then he came to Atlanta about a year later when I got him a job at Paideia. I got Bernie and Martha both a job at Paideia, the hippie liberal school where my kids went.
Cliff Graubert was a bachelor then, and I was a cook, so we had boys’ night out in Atlanta. Bernie would come, and Terry Kay, and the two California boys, Zach Sklar and Frank Smith, who had taken Herman Blake’s sociology class on Daufuskie Island. We would meet once a month, we’d talk, we’d laugh, we’d have fun. Cliff would not let us talk about any of our children. That was the only rule, because he didn’t have children. So Terry Kay would start, he’d talk about his son scoring thirty points in a basketball game, and Cliff would say, “Who gives a shit? It’s boring. I don’t care. I don’t care that you have kids. Fuck it. That’s off-limits. We’re not talking about your fucking children.” Naturally, we all have children, and Cliff doesn’t get married till he’s ninety-eight. Then he has two children, and of course, I know their report cards each semester. Anyway, we would run our mouths, and I would cook.
I got into cooking when Barbara goes to law school, then she turns to me, I think her first day or something, and says, “By the way, you’re responsible for the evening meal. I’m not going to have time; I’m going to be studying.” I’d never cooked an egg. I had not. But I said okay. It was the time of women’s lib and Ms. magazine. We had just come through the civil rights movement in the South; I believed in everything that represented and had a small, small part in it. When I heard about women’s liberation, it seemed like the next phase of modern life, and I found it interesting as hell. So I was one of the first subscribers to Ms. Magazine, reading these very bright, pissed-off women. Everything they complained of men doing, I did; everything they complained of men thinking, I thought. Everything they are talking about, I am guilty of. I didn’t help out with anything in the house, didn’t help out much with the children. I thought that was a woman’s job. Mom had raised us where the boys mowed the lawn and took out the garbage; the girls washed the dishes. Then the Catholic Church was very one-sided for the boys. So the magazine had a great effect on me, and I said, “Uh, oh.” I was all for women’s lib, and I had to prove I was all for it, which I hated. Barbara knew I didn’t know how to cook, and she had that little Barbara mischievous look on her face. She got a lot out of that change in the ’60s. I didn’t become the house cleaner of the month or anything like that, but I became the cook eventually. I certainly thought it was a fair thing for Barbara to ask, so I became a good cook. But whether it made me a better human being I’ll never know.
My mother had been the worst cook on earth. We had Italian night once a week, and I used to hate spaghetti and pasta. Obviously she did not know how to make pasta because she would boil it up, possibly for hours, put it in the colander and the colander would look like an octopus. It was in a hunk with arms hanging out of it. She would tell me or Carol, “cut the pasta.” So we would take this huge thing out, put it on a cutting board, and we’d slice it into nine, ten, however many kids we had. We’d throw wedges of pasta on our plate, and Mom would have warmed up whatever crap spaghetti sauce was going around, and that was Italian night.
What I did was I went down to Cliff’s bookstore; I said, “Cliff, I got to cook meals now, and I don’t know how to cook. Do you have a cookbook section?” He says sure. I said, “You know any cookbooks I could get?”
He said, “Yeah, I hear Escoffier’s good.” So I go to this thing, I find Escoffier. He says, “I hear that’s the best there is.” I think, great.
So I went home and started reading Escoffier. And Escoffier says, in the first pages, if you do not make proper stock, you should not eat, so I call Cliff and said, “What’s stock?”
“How the fuck do I know?”
I call Bernie, “What’s stock?”
“I have no fucking idea.”
I call Annie Siddons, and she told me. I said, “You’ve got me breaking bones, roasting bones before I even begin?”
She said, “Well he’s teaching you how to make the best stock.”
So I spend days. I’m breaking bones with hammers and axes out of the basement. I’m roasting the fucking bones. I’m doing all this bullshit. Anyway, I started making soups and sauces and these chicken dishes and lamb dishes and veal dishes. I had access to that because I lived in Atlanta. Barbara goes ape shit. She thinks this is the best fucking food she’s ever eaten, thinks I’m a natural. I never received such praise for anything in my life. So that was how I first got interested in it.
And of course, I did not know I had started out in the hardest cookbook on earth. I finally, later on, took my first cooking class. Nathalie Dupree had become famous in Atlanta because she started a restaurant in Covington. I had gone out there to eat a couple of times, and it was a really good restaurant. I heard she was doing a cooking class, so I ended up taking that. She was eccentric, neurotic, but so is everybody, and I thought she was a good cooking teacher. I enjoyed her stories; I always love it if somebody can tell me stories.
Cynthia became Nathalie’s first producer of her public television show about cooking. It was very big in Atlanta and Georgia, and I think it started Nathalie’s career. Nathalie knew Cliff by then, and would come to all the parties at Cliff’s store. Cynthia was young, maybe twenty-four, and somehow fell in love with the ancient Cliff Graubert. They got married in Rome after I moved there. Nathalie was the matron of honor, and I was the best man. Annie and Heyward came over and went on the honeymoon with Cliff and Cynthia through the hill towns of Italy. That’s where Annie wrote her book Hill Towns, which everybody had great problems with except me, because I didn’t mind her writing about me. I thought it w
Nathalie Dupree called me up and wanted to sue Annie. She’s crying and said, “Have you read her new book?” Yes, I have. And she said, “Did you see what she did to me?” Yes, obviously you were Yolanda. She said, “My lawyer wants me to sue her.” I said, well, have fun. “He wants you to go into it with me.”
I said, “Nathalie, if I sued a fiction writer for using the quirks of other people, who would be the greatest hypocrite in the history of the world? Yes, you’re right, it would be me.”
Then I told her, “I didn’t know it was me at first, Nathalie,” but here’s how good Annie is. I started reading it, and I said, “You know, I know this son of a bitch. I’ve met this son of a bitch somewhere, somehow. I know who this cocksucker is, and if I just concentrate, I’ll figure it out.” I kept reading and I said, “My God, it’s me.”
When Annie got a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Hoover Library in Alabama, I introduced her for that, and I told them about Hill Towns. “I’m Sam Forrest,” I said. “There’s no question about it.” I said, “And in it, I am a fat drunkard who does not bathe. But I’m an artist. Annie herself is a beautiful, winsome ingénue, and naturally, the old, unbathed drunkard wants to have carnal relations with her as my character tries to do. And as he is fumbling and mumbling and cartwheeling his fat body over the lithe, beautiful body of this maiden from the South, he finally passes out on top of her. Poor Conroy, in his one lustful appearance in world literature, cannot get the job done.”
Years later after I published my cookbook, I get the phone call from Nathalie, she’s crying, she’s weeping, and she’s going to sue me. I said, “You’re always suing people.”
And, “You wouldn’t sue with Anne.”
I says, “Wouldn’t I be the biggest hypocrite if I sued somebody for basing a character on a real human being?”
You know, “You used my real name.”
She was upset about the whole thing. She thought I had pilloried her, mocked her, made fun of her. She didn’t understand that I was making her into a character. There’s always an element of elegy anytime I put somebody into a book. Because you have noticed someone; they have distinguished themselves in the world you are creating. Whether good or bad, whether foul or fair, they are somebody. I also know that when I write about people, I have a large capacity for love for whatever reason, and that is also part of why I’m writing because I love them and they are part of my canticle, whatever that is. They are a part of my litany to the saints, however that comes out, and I try to be true and follow that wherever it takes me.
I said, “Nathalie, it’s the nicest thing anybody will ever write about you.”
Well, she started getting phone calls from people who’d loved it, and she has forgiven me. Now she simply tells my wife, “I must give you the name of my plastic surgeon. You’ve got to do something with those eyes before you go out on the road again.”
Cynthia and Nathalie did several cookbooks together, and I wrote an introduction for the one that won the James Beard award. When they won, Cynthia said, “Now I know what it means to feel like Pat Conroy.”
I said, “You mean, suicidal?”
When I was a young writer in Atlanta I wanted to meet Jim Townsend because—if I had been younger I would have met the great editor Ralph McGill, but Ralph was dead, so Townsend is what was left, and we meet for drinks after work, and Townsend says, “You know, Pat, you’re going to hear some rumors about me,” and I said “What’s that, Jim?” He said, “A lot of people are going to tell you I’m an alcoholic.”
I said, “Jim, a lot of people told me that already.”
He said, “Well yeah, I know, but I used to be an alcoholic.”
I said, “What happened?”
He says, “I found out that if I just drank Brandy Alexanders it wouldn’t happen.”
I said, “What wouldn’t happen?”
He says, “I don’t get drunk. It’s the milk, it absorbs the alcohol, and you don’t get drunk. It’s amazing.”
I said, “Jim, you ought to write an article about that. That could save a lot of people a lot of trouble.”
He said, “Yeah, I may do that.” Then he said, “Conroy, let’s get down to business. I don’t want to talk to you about your writing; I only want to talk to you about one thing.” And then he asked me this question, “How many Miss Americas have you slept with?” I looked at him like he was crazy. He says, “Well, don’t answer that, it may be a private thing. I’ve only slept with three.”
He was usually too drunk to edit, but when he was sober he was good. Jim’s achievement, it wasn’t that great, but it seemed to be at that time, because Atlanta seemed to have almost nothing on the literary landscape when he started Atlanta magazine.
I knew he was troubled because I’d have to pull him out of bars. His wife would call me, “Jim’s drunk.” I’d say, “What bar?” She’d tell me the bar, I’d go, ask for his bill, and sometimes it would be for thirty drinks, and the bill would be hundreds of dollars. I was actually carrying him out on my shoulder. I was younger then. And he’d be telling the women as he passed by which one of them he was going to come back and fuck, and of course their boyfriends were leaping up, and it was a nightmare. It was just a nightmare. He was bad, but like many drunks, he could also be utterly fucking charming. He could call you the next day and charm you. He had a series of people like me; I mean there were hundreds of us. So Townsend got away with it.
I was friends with two journalists in Atlanta, Joe Cumming and Bill Emerson. Joe is the one who interviewed me for the Daufuskie story for Newsweek. He became one of my best friends in Atlanta, and through him I met Bill Emerson. They had sort of grown up together as journalists. These two guys were going to be writers, they were going to get out of journalism and write novels, and of course it never happens.
Bill was the editor of the Saturday Evening Post at about that time, and one of the funniest sons of bitches I have ever met. He was also an infamous womanizer. He would say, “My God, Conroy, there are muffins in that room. We must go in, and we must warm them as they deserve.” At one party, the women’s bathroom was so crowded they sent a couple of women into the men’s. Emerson comes in and goes, “My God, there are muffins in this bathroom.” He chased secretaries, and they would run away from him. He would shout out, “My God, have they never encountered heroes before?”
As he was getting old, he would say, “Conroy, my dick’s not working very well, but I read about this amazing breakthrough where you get this operation and you can pump your dick up like a tire and you get a hard-on that lasts for as long as you want. You just keep pumping that little thing up. Since you’re the only one I know making any money writing, I said I’m gonna go to Conroy and have him pay to give me this operation. Then I said, nah, I’m not doing that. I’m not an idiot.”
I said, “Why not, Bill? I’d love to pay for it.”
And he said, “Nah, you’re the type of son of a bitch that would go around saying I paid for Bill Emerson’s dick.”
Once a year we would have a writers’ party up at Tate Mountain, Georgia. It’s a private enclave, kind of where Buckhead would go to these cabins around this lake. No one knew about it, hard to crack, you had to be a real insider to get there, and both the Emersons and the Cummings came from very good Atlanta families, very good. I, of course, was an Irishman from the Bronx, trying to make my way driving a bus in downtown Atlanta.
Marshall Frady was another journalist I knew in Atlanta. He was dark and contemplative, and he spoke polysyllabically, which I’ve always liked. We were good friends on the face of it, but it was never a great friendship. It was locational more than anything else. We’d see each other every summer when Joe and Emily Cumming had their house party; we’d meet at Cliff’s bookstore for parties. He liked me when I was an acolyte and needed him to vouch for The Water Is Wide with Life magazine. But when I started writing novels, Marshall had a bit of trouble. His girlfr
My career remained unremarked upon by him after The Water Is Wide, which he was sent to verify. One of the things I’ve had to learn about is jealousy in friends, this whole lightning bolt of jealousy going through someone’s entire body when they hear of something good happening in my career.
Marshall was always trying to write a novel himself; this is the great and dirty secret of many journalists. One day they’re going to sit down for the big one. I encouraged him to write fiction; I thought he had great talent and an eye for the telling detail. I think he tried hard, but it just did not come to him. For the real journalist, it’s a difficult step. That journalist’s code is hard to break. When you’ve got a voice you know is not real, and you start quoting people that you’re making up or imagining, it’s hard for them. It ain’t for everybody; it’s a hard thing to do. I imagine journalists assume it’s going to be easy.
My friend Sonny Rawls, another journalist, used to say, “Conroy, you make up shit.”
I said, “Yeah, I do, Sonny, that’s why it’s called fiction.”
And he said, “Well, I’m a journalist. We don’t make up shit.”
I’m sorry: every kind of writing is hard and difficult to master. When I was in Hollywood people would say, “I’m not a real writer; I’m a screenwriter.”
I would say, “Why does everyone shit on screenwriting here? It is an art form. It is hard to do well.”
And every man I’ve ever met has told me they don’t read fiction, they read real stuff. “I’m a man of the world. I don’t have time for frivolous things like women do, frivolous things like—ha-ha-ha-ha—reading a novel. My God, they also paint their toenails, if you’ve noticed. This is not the real world of men. This is not the real world of business, or soldiery, or this is not the high practice of law. When we read, we read biographies of great men, great men like us. And when we read, we read about war or experiences in war. We read about politics and what is really going on in Washington.”
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