My Exaggerated Life, p.20Pat Conroy
I read a lot of nonfiction and enjoy every moment of it, but when I hear fiction thrown out like that, when I hear these third-rate minds dismissing it as something that serious people would not even consider doing, it irritates me. It seems to me that fiction is a place you can look for truth that you cannot find in nonfiction. Often you can use real life in fiction like you cannot use it in nonfiction. I think the most honest book written about the Clintons has been Primary Colors, and the reason is the author had the benefit of fiction to hide behind.
Larry Woods became one of my best friends in Atlanta; a poor kid out of Tennessee. He was a reporter for Atlanta magazine, classical reporter, smart, asked great questions. Larry and Dee Woods, when I get to Atlanta, are a married couple when I meet them. Larry was hysterical and witty and attractive and fun to be with, and so was Dee. They had a bunch of kids I adored.
Larry also slept around as much as anybody I have ever met, and eventually he’d be coming to my apartment or my house with his new girlfriend. She was always cute and kind of dumb, but I thought, you know, I was up from Beaufort; this is how the big city guys do it. But Dee was cute as hell and a lot of fun, and I always enjoyed their children. They had four beautiful children, and I got to know the kids as they were growing up.
Then Dee calls me up one time and says, “I got a job offer as secretary to a guy that’s trying to start a movie company,” and she was a school secretary at the time. So she took the job with Ted Turner, and by the time she died she was a millionaire many times over. She started out with Ted when he was headed up, and she went right along. And what she did for Ted that I eventually found out is I think she was one of the most important people in raising his children, and I think all of them know that.
Larry left her eventually, and I think he went to Colorado, or some job took him to Colorado, and during that year he’d call me. I’d go check up on Dee and the kids; the kids were in high school, and the kids were beautiful, and Dee was doing great. Ted Turner by this time owned the Braves and was hotter than shit.
I was working on The Lords of Discipline when I get a knock at the door, and I open it, it’s the middle of the day, I don’t expect anybody, and Dee is in tears and agony, and she gets hysterical. I know just what to say in cases with women like that. I said, “Dee, what’s wrong?” She tells me there’s a warrant out for her son Larry’s arrest. $50,000 worth of stereo and music equipment had been stolen from Radio Shack, and someone in a photo lineup picked out young Larry and his best friend.
So, she was just, you know, “I can’t do this; I can’t raise kids alone and work.”
I said, “You’re doing a great job. Don’t worry about it. I don’t think Larry did it; he ain’t that type of kid.”
So I said let’s go see him. We jump into my car and drive to Dee and what was Larry’s house, and he’s down in the basement asleep; he and his best friend are sleeping, so I wake him up. And there’s Dee, and she’s been crying, it’s obvious she’s upset, so I told the two kids, I said, “Okay, Larry, all you got to do is tell me and Dee you didn’t do it, and we’re going to believe you, and we’re going to have a lawyer who will fight for you, but the important thing is you got to tell us the truth, because the lawyer’s going to cost a lot of money, and we’re going to testify for you, but I got to know you’re telling me the truth because I don’t want to deal with liars, and I don’t particularly want to deal with thieves. So right now I need you to tell the truth.”
Oh, they were innocent, they were innocent, they were innocent, they were innocent, and I said, “Okay, I believe you.” Dee didn’t believe them worth a shit; she told them that. And so I said, “Dee, I’ll go down and hire the lawyer right now.”
I started walking out the door, and young Larry said, “Pat, I got something to tell you.”
They had stolen every bit of it, and Dee goes crazy, “You’re humiliating me in front of my employer; that’s the best job I’ve ever had.”
I said, “Dee, please try not to kill Larry. We can’t have child abuse added to this.”
We were sort of laughing somewhat, but I said, “First of all I’ve got to take this shit back.” So, I had the ugliest car on earth, which I am famous for, and this is a Datsun station wagon. Anyway, it was about buried underneath this material when they finally loaded it all on there and strapped it to the top. It looked like they were going to set up Radio Free Europe with this shit.
So I drive it back to Radio Shack, and I go to the manager, “Sir, I’ve brought back some material that was stolen from you.” They have a cop there, and the next thing I know, I’m arrested. I’m saying, “Sir, I have a reasonable explanation for this, but it’s not going to appear so right now, not with handcuffs.”
Before he could take me to book me at the station, Ted Turner calls, and Dee calls, and all of a sudden Dee shows up, and I’ve become a heroic figure in the Radio Shack people’s eyes. I am released from the handcuffs and sent off to my home, where I was on probation for the next ten years.
That was one of the ways Ted Turner and I had dealings with each other, but Turner is not a guy who gets close to people, I don’t think. Later, accidentally, this is how accidental the world is, I’m staying in Rome, and this is years later. This is three years after The Lords of Discipline, and I get a phone call from the Citadel Alumni Foundation. I am the only person who was a Citadel graduate living in Italy that they could find, and they said, “Mr. Conroy, we would not have called you.”
You know what I said? “Believe me, I know better than you, pal.”
And, “But we have a freshman cadet who has gotten sick in Rome, and we need a Citadel man to go over there and offer comfort to him and the family.”
So I said I’ll be glad to do it, and it was the hospital where my daughter was born, so I knew it perfectly. I go over there, and there is this poor, sickly kid, and said, “What’s your name?” and he said, “Hey, Mr. Conroy, my name is Beau Turner.”
I said, “How have you heard of me?”
“Dee Woods works for my father.”
Aha, Ted’s son. So anyway, I went over to see that kid every day, nice boy. Meanwhile, Ted Turner’s second wife almost drove me crazy. She would take me out to dinner, pick us up in a limo—it was embarrassing beyond human belief—and we’d go to some tiny little restaurant. Anyway, she told me every affair Ted had, every humiliation she’d gone through in her life, and she wanted to write a book. She says, “Pat, I want you to write these books with me,” and I said, “Yeah, well, I’ll have to think about that.”
This obnoxious publicist who was traveling with her would grab my arm and say, “I see it now, a shelf of books, Janie Turner in big letters, and with little letters, ‘with help from Pat Conroy.’”
I kind of enjoyed all that. And when I got back to Atlanta, Dee called me up; Ted wanted to thank me for helping his kid. So I went up there, and Ted was as uncomfortable in his skin as any man I’ve ever met. He is also one of the most boring men I’ve ever spent time around.
Ted was telling me, “I hear you took care of Beau, thanks.”
I said, “Well, it was fun, I like the kid a lot, and how’s he doing in the plebe system?” because he was just going in his freshman year.
Ted says, “Ah, the plebe system’s nothing.”
Yeah, I saw it, it’s nothing.
He said, “Yeah, people complain about it, but it’s nothing at all to go through.”
I said, “You know, I’m always hearing that from people who didn’t go through it.”
There were some writers I didn’t like. Lewis Grizzard and I did not like each other. He had started writing a sports column for the Atlanta Constitution. He’s good, and I heard he’s interested in coming out with some books. So I invited him over to my apartment and introduced him to a young agent who was visiting from New York. He could not have acted shittier, could not have acted more pompous. I thought he was an asshole. He hadn’t taken off at all; he hadn’t published a book yet. I caught a
Anyway, Lewis started writing these books which were enormously successful among the rednecks of the Western world, and he was always yipping at me. Every once in a while he’d call me up, “Conroy, Conroy, you got to come on down; I got you a date with a stripper at the Gold Club. She’s got the biggest tits in Atlanta, and she’s waiting here for you.”
I said, “Thanks, Lewis, but there’s something you don’t know about me. I went to college so I wouldn’t have to date strippers.”
So he said, “Are you turning this down?”
I said, “Yeah, I think I will.”
“You’re shitting on me; you think you’re better than I am.”
I said, “Lewis, you got me there; I really do think I’m better.”
“You don’t fool me Conroy. You don’t fool me at all.”
He loved that redneck role; he appealed to rednecks in his writings. He really was a redneck, but not as much as he pretended. I wrote a letter to the editor one time saying, “Gosh, Lewis, what a brave man in the South, going after gay people, lesbians, blacks. Such courage. Such a gift for stereotype.” And I don’t like it when people write gimmicks and pass them off as books.
We had a conflict when Bill Kovach got fired from the Atlanta Constitution, which had hired him to make the paper world class. He had been the Washington bureau chief for the New York Times, and he was considered to take over the editorship of the New York Times when Max Frankel got the job, so as a booby prize he took over the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He was going to make it one of the nation’s great papers, and he was doing it. I don’t think they’d won a Pulitzer Prize in twenty years; they won two the first year he was there. One of the Pulitzer Prizes was for articles about the Atlanta banks redlining loans—not loaning to black people in the ghetto but loaning to all white people who walked through the door. That didn’t go over with the white power structure in Atlanta at all. Ultimately Kovach quit, because they would not let him do what they promised him he could do, to make it a great, great newspaper, not only in the South, but in America. That’s what he came down to do. Lewis Grizzard was on the side of the newspaper, and I was on the side of Kovach and people trying to change the paper.
I’ve got to admit I did love Lewis’s titles: Shoot Low, Boys—They’re Riding Shetland Ponies, and My Daddy Was a Pistol and I’m a Son of a Gun. When I did the screenplay about Bill Kovach getting fired, I did a parody of Lewis and had him write a book called Don’t Light a Match around Mama—She’s Been Eatin’ Navy Beans.
When Lewis died early of a heart attack, the paper called me up for a comment, and I was at my meanest. I should have been nicer, as my father told me. And I said, “Yes, Dad, I learned nice sitting on your knee, and you’re right, I should have been a lot nicer, but gosh, I wasn’t.” They didn’t print what I said, so it didn’t make any difference.
A woman called me, said, “This is horrible news. Did you hear the great Atlanta writer Lewis Grizzard died?”
I said, “Yes, I just heard that.” She would love to get a quote for the newspaper. I said, “Sure, be happy to.”
She says, “What did you think when you first heard that Mr. Grizzard had died?”
I said, “The first thing that went through my mind was Lewis Grizzard Is Dead, and It Couldn’t Happen to a Better Guy.”
She was shocked. “Mr. Conroy, I can’t print that.”
I said, “Fine, how about Lewis Grizzard Is Dead, and I’m Feeling Like a Million Bucks?”
“I can’t say that either.”
I said, “My gosh, you seem to be having trouble.”
So I gave her a few more ridiculous things like that, but none of them made it. My father was appalled. He loved Lewis. He would see him at bars, and Dad would say, “Lewis, I love you way more than I love my boy. I just don’t know why.” Then Dad would race over to tell me that and laugh his ass off about it.
Howell Raines also wrote for the Atlanta Constitution and was my age. I thought we would have a rivalry, which I think we did have, but I thought it would be a healthy one, I thought it would be a good one, I thought we’d be friends for life, and it didn’t work out that way. Howell was one of these full-of-himself guys.
His talent as a journalist, which was immense, took him to the top of journalism. What I admired about Howell that I admire about anybody is ambition. I’ve always liked that, when people wanted to do better, and certainly Howell wanted to do better and did better than most of his generation and left a thousand journalists behind him. I always admired that, he knew I admired it, but he also knew that I had something he wanted.
Howell resented me a great deal because I went to Daufuskie. I had an active role in civil rights, where he had just reported on civil rights. I could never recover from this one. That was such a blow to him. He was supposed to be the chosen one of our generation in the South. He always wished he’d done what I had done, and that struck me as the oddest thing, as though I’d had a plan.
Then I had become a novelist, and I’m not sure one he even liked because he was not the type to ever let me know he liked something. Journalists have that problem. I saw him in England one time, and he took me to a place called Santini’s, which I thought was his way of acknowledging something.
I thought Howell had an extraordinary beginning with a novel and a nonfiction book coming out at the same time, and I thought his novel showed real promise. Then the New York Times took him away from that. I know he has somewhat always regretted that he gave up to journalism what he thought could have been a career as a novelist. I do not know whether that would have happened. We never know, but he made that choice. He came to me saying he didn’t know whether he wanted to be a novelist or stay in journalism. I said, “If you want to write novels, you’ll write them.”
But the New York Times called; they hire him. It was the power; it was the prestige. I’m over at the Old New York Bookshop with Cliff when Howell comes in; he wants to share his good news with his friends. And he is dressed to the nines. I mean he is dressed beautifully. So.
He said, “Pat, Cliff, I’ve just been hired by the New York Times. I’ve got to tell you, it’s different. They just took me out shopping, took me to Brooks Brothers, and bought me this suit, these shoes, these socks, this tie, shirt, cufflinks. They wanted to show me how the Times dresses. I’ve already done several interviews for the Times, and I’ve got to admit, going in there and putting my card on the table and saying, ‘Howell Raines, New York Times,’ is one of the most powerful feelings I’ve ever had. You can feel the guy collapse in front of you.”
I shouldn’t have done this, but I did it. Cliff and I are quick. We do this imitation about four or five times until we’ve perfected it, in front of Howell. I walked into the store where Cliff’s sitting down. I staggered into the store, throw down my card, look up at Cliff and said, “I’m Howell Raines, the New York-fucking-Times.” And Cliff perfectly goes, “Oh my God, the New York Times? I’m fucked. I better give up my business. I’ve got to move out of town.” Howell was not amused. Now, later I would do this every time I saw him. His wife Susan, after their divorce, said nothing killed Howell in the world more than Cliff and me doing this scene of him. “Howell Raines, the New York-fucking-Times.” And he just, he would die. I mean, you’d see his face crumble.
Howell is one of these people who let fame interfere with their personalities and interfere with their way of dealing with the world. He let himself become a bully. He was a real great reporter, I thought, in some ways a great writer, but that ego was overwhelming. It got him in terrible trouble at the Times. It cost him his job at the Times. I told him when I last saw him, I said, “Howell, I
He said “It’s my style. You know, you have no style.”
I said, “That’s true, but then I look at your pith helmet, and I don’t want to have no style, Howell.”
But he got in so much ego trouble. He was such a harrumph-harrumph guy, a pronouncement guy, and I’ve always hated pronouncing guys. “Well, I talked to Ho Chi Minh only this morning.” He was always doing that.
I’d say, “Hey, Howell, what does Ho Chi Minh say to you he’s not saying to anybody else?”
And “Ralph Abernathy and I went to lunch today, and I told Dr. Abernathy …,” and he’s wagging his finger.
It was self-importance and pomposity and flatulence. I would simply tease the shit out of him, and he couldn’t figure out why people laughed.
When I moved out of Barbara and the girls’ house, I was living in an apartment in Ansley Park, 71 Maddox Drive. I began writing The Lords of Discipline there. Anne Barrett had retired from Houghton Mifflin, and when she retired, I got this editor named Jonathan Galassi. I called him up, said, “Can you explain what an Italian kid is doing with a Southern boy? How did they arrange this?”
He said, “I’ve really liked your work, Pat.”
I said, “Great answer.” He couldn’t have had a better answer.
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