My Exaggerated Life, p.41Pat Conroy
Billy Keyserling, the mayor of Beaufort and the son of the doctor who delivered two of Pat’s daughters, gave an introduction that was so long Pat interrupted him to report that he had turned seventy-one. Undeterred, Billy went on to read a letter sent by Barbra Streisand, reminiscing about her collaboration with Pat on The Prince of Tides movie. She wrote to him: “First I fell in love with your books, and then I fell in love with you.”
In a voice she must have inherited from her father, James Dickey, Bronwen Dickey read two of her dad’s poems, one of which, “For the Last Wolverine,” is among Pat’s favorites. After Bronwen’s reading, Pat told her: “When I was in your daddy’s class and he read ‘The Last Wolverine,’ what changed my life was the line: ‘Dear God of the wildness of poetry.’ That is when I thought: That’s what writing should be directed at. That is the god you should speak to always. And then the last line of that poem that you read beautifully: ‘Lord let me die, but not die out.’ I think that’s the love song of every writer who has ever lived. In front of my daughters, it was an honor to have the daughter of the greatest writer I have ever known read that poem on this special night.” And later in the evening he said, “To hear ‘The Last Wolverine’ read with my wife, Cassandra, my brothers and sisters, my daughters, my beloved daughters, my grandchildren—it moved me very much.” Indeed, as I observed Pat while Bronwen was reading, it appeared as if he were listening to his own eulogy.
For many in attendance, one of the highlights of the festival occurred when Pat reminisced about going to Daufuskie Island and telling the poorly educated black students he found there, “They sent the right guy.” He said, “I don’t have any idea why I thought that at that age. I was twenty-three years old. But now that I’m seventy, I look back on that as the magic year when I discovered the man I was meant to be.”
Although he said this with his tongue in his cheek, Pat explained something about himself in his closing remarks when he said, “My mother sits on my shoulder, and my mother: ‘Be nice to everyone, son. Make sure you talk to everyone. Ask them a personal question, son. At least pretend like you’re sincere.’ And her final thing: ‘Whoever you meet, make sure they leave your presence happy to have met you.’” I know I was not alone in thinking that Pat Conroy followed his mother’s orders throughout his life, did so without his tongue in his cheek, with unfeigned sincerity, and everyone who met him was more than happy to have done so.
At the very end of the festival, Pat addressed his audience with this speech: “Here is where my life as a writer has been unlike anybody I have ever met. My readers are extraordinary.… It’s been the singular, most wonderful, fabulous part of my writing life. What I wanted to be as a writer, I wanted to be a complete brave man that I am not in my real life.… When I sat down to write, I wanted to talk to that god of the wildness of poetry, and I wanted that voice in me if I had it to speak to people like you. And I thought if your lives were anything like mine, you were suffering. You were going through things I have gone through. Do you doubt yourself constantly? Which I do. I have doubted myself every day of my life. You go through life struggling for happiness, for joy, for anything you can to help you get through life at that day. I have been lucky with my friends; I have been lucky with my family. My family I think knows I adore them. My daughters—oh, my daughters—my fabulous daughters. My grandchildren, who thought I was nothing. Right, kids? But I’ve written the books because I thought if I explained my own life, somehow I could explain some of your life to you. And I thought if I could write about my pain, my struggles, I could help readers like you. What I want for myself on this night, and the nights that go on, I want to write as well as I can as long as I can, as long as I can maintain the passion that put me at the writing desk at first. I want to honor the teachers who taught me. I want to honor this family I was luckier than anybody in the world in coming into. I want to honor my children and grandchildren. I want them to be proud of me.”
Then in January 2016, I received a phone call from Pat, who identified himself as the “soon-to-be-dead subject” of my oral biography. Pat regularly joked about his impending doom or death, most hilariously in one of our interviews, when he said: “Soon Conroy will sit like a cantaloupe in a nursing home, unavailable for comment. He will try to roll himself off the dock into Battery Creek, but the nurses will roll him back and put him on his dish. In his will he will ask that his feeding tube supply dry martinis on a twenty-four-hour basis so he will feel nothing, know nothing, and sort of like the last few years of his life.” But this time it was no joke, even if he was still making a joke out of it. However, he was on his way back from the hospital, where he’d undergone a biopsy for “cancery” lesions. Two days later he was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer.
On March 4 Pat Conroy passed away as the sun went down on Battery Creek in Beaufort, South Carolina.
The family, friends, classmates, teammates, and colleagues who knew Pat Conroy enjoyed the privilege of knowing a great man. When a person as special as Pat Conroy enters your life, the experience of knowing him expands your entire being as well as your existence beyond their ordinary boundaries. We are larger in spirit, broader in mind, and better at heart for having been welcomed into the “full Conroy embrace.” But his absence will leave a gaping void in all those lives he entered. For the many who knew him and will forever mourn his loss, and for those who never knew the joy of Pat’s presence in their lives, I hope this book will help preserve that great man and keep him in some small way still with us.
Author’s Note and Acknowledgments
This book is the product of several special collaborations in addition to the one between Pat Conroy and me. Not long after Pat observed that I’d have a book if I’d been recording all our conversations, he suffered the almost-fatal health emergency he recounts in this narrative. Afterward he told me the experience had forced him to take stock of what he wanted to do before his death, and this list included the desire to cooperate with a biographer. I wasn’t the one to do a scholarly biography, I told him, but said I’d love for us to do the kind of book I did with Eugene Walter. “Let’s do it,” he said.
Soon after, I spoke with the then head of the University of South Carolina Press, Jonathan Haupt, with whom I’d already been in contact regarding the publication of my Mountain Brook novel series through Pat Conroy’s Story River Books imprint. Not only did Jonathan express immediate interest in publishing the proposed oral biography, but he enlisted the help of Dean Thomas McNally of the University of South Carolina Libraries to provide transcription services for my recordings. This offer was a monumental boon to my project. When I collaborated with the black Alabama midwife, I watched precious years of her elderly life slip away as I tried in vain to secure a publishing contract so I’d have advance money to spend on transcription. Eugene Walter was dead before I got a contract for our book. After Pat’s health scare, I did not want to flounder around in vain again as precious time elapsed and recordings remained untranscribed. I salute the press and the Libraries of the University of South Carolina for stepping up immediately with an offer of publication and a proposal for making that happen as expeditiously as possible.
Dean McNally assigned two stellar individuals of his library staff to coordinate with me: the head of IT, Glenn Bunton, and the resident oral historian, Andrea L’Hommedieu. Together they have been responsible for transferring my recordings and organizing them along with the transcripts as part of the Conroy archive. The transcriptionist that Andrea handpicked, Nicci Leamon of Casco, Maine, is someone she had used in the past on her own oral history projects. Nicci proved to be the most professional and exceptional transcriptionist I’ve ever worked with. Not only was she incredibly thorough and accurate, but she brought a researcher’s due diligence to the task. Her preliminary spell-checking and fact-checking saved me countless hours. When the need arose for a second transcriptionist, Stephanie Sword came through with an equally admirable job. Meanwhile, Andrea L’Hommedieu has given me th
A good 90 percent of the material in this book comes from the recorded interviews. But I started keeping a notebook soon after I started having phone conversations with Pat, years before we discussed this oral biography. As we chatted I jotted down the insights and turns of phrase that struck me as quirks of Pat’s special conversational style and the personality from which it flowed. In between calls I enjoyed reading over the words I’d collected. Much of that material has found a home in this book.
In the course of our interviews, Pat was anxious for me to make contact with his former psychologist, Dr. Marion O’Neill. Pat believed that Dr. O’Neill had gotten to the root of him and his troubles in the course of their therapy, and he believed she could help me get to the root of him in my interviews. He was correct. After Pat sent in a notarized waiver of patient confidentiality, Dr. O’Neill spoke on the phone with me for six interviews, which I recorded. The quotations from Dr. O’Neill that accompany each section of the book are drawn from these interviews. Pat wanted Dr. O’Neill’s voice to be a part of this narrative, and this is how we have fulfilled his request. I am grateful to her for the time Dr. O’Neill took with me, the effort she made, and the extraordinary insights that once helped Pat achieve a better understanding of himself, and then helped me become a better interviewer.
When my manuscript was complete, I had the benefit of two peerless peer reviewers. The first was “the other K/Catherine,” a.k.a. Catherine Seltzer, also the other Conroy biographer. At the time she read my manuscript, she had recently published Understanding Pat Conroy and had just embarked on her scholarly biography. In the Conroy family, we are known as “the two K/Catherines,” and Pat enjoys calling one or the other of us “the lesser K/Catherine,” as the mood strikes him. In return I enjoy pointing out that some men have two women who share the same name; Pat Conroy has two biographers who share the same name. At any rate Catherine Seltzer was a great peer reviewer. Although I was nervous about submitting my work to her scholarly scrutiny, I benefited from it in every way and appreciate that she shared the knowledge gleaned from her years of research. I also gained a lot of confidence after my manuscript passed muster with her. During the revision process, I went back to her again and again with questions and concerns, and she could not have been more generous with her time, advice, and insights.
My other peer reviewer was John Sledge, former books page editor for the Mobile Press-Register, for which I wrote reviews until the page was discontinued. It was actually through John that I first met Pat Conroy, when I received the plum assignment of interviewing the author for a profile. That initial conversation I had with Pat essentially never ended and ultimately culminated in the conversations that constitute this book. Besides being my editor for the fifteen years I wrote book reviews, John was also the peer reviewer for my four Mountain Brook novels, published through the Story River Books imprint at the University of South Carolina Press. Over the years I have come to rely on John for both his unguarded enthusiasm and careful criticism, which have always helped steer me in the direction of what works and away from what doesn’t work in my writing. Once again I am beholden to John for being there for me and coming through when I needed him.
Margaret Evans, editor of the Lowcountry Weekly, and long-term researcher and assistant to Pat Conroy, distinguished herself as a remarkable resource in fact-checking Pat’s recollections. Although an oral biography features memories and storytelling rather than scholarship, proper names should still be spelled correctly, dates verified, and episodes corroborated to the degree possible. I also wanted to investigate items I had reason to believe Pat would have clarified or verified before including in a published book. However, I usually implemented only minimal changes pertaining to basic facts, names, and dates in the record Pat gave me. A good example of this approach is the handling of Pat’s story about visiting Jonathan Galassi at Random House. While Galassi corroborates the incident, his memory diverges from Pat’s on significant points. But the only thing I changed after receiving his feedback was to make the correction to Bob Bernstein’s status. Pat thought he was vice president at the time, but Galassi reports he was president, so I corrected this error of fact. But when it comes to different memories and perspectives, my responsibility is to share Pat’s version. If, in our interviews, Pat gave himself a heroic response to Bob Bernstein’s insult that Jonathan Galassi reports did not occur, then that could demonstrate something Pat and others have pointed out about his need to be a hero. If he sharpened the conflicts and drama of the episode throughout his retelling, that shows how the writer’s imagination seizes on events and reworks them for aesthetic effect. In this way an oral biography stays true to its central character and voice, and conveys these to the reader in an unfiltered and unmediated form. In any case I am fortunate that this painstaking job of verification was undertaken by Margaret Evans, who had many years of experience working for Pat and knew just where to find the sources and information we needed. Thanks for special assistance during the fact-checking process go to: Lara Alexander, Jay Bender, Barbara Conroy, Shannon Faulkner, Jonathan Galassi, Sandy Goldberg, Scott Graber, Cliff Graubert, Steve Gross, Steve Grubb, Stan Lefco, Bernie Schein, and John Warley.
I also want to thank Pat’s wife, the incomparable Cassandra King Conroy, for the unflagging support and assistance that helped this project come to fruition. A helpmate to the oral biography from the beginning, she also rendered hands-on daily tactical assistance. As Pat admits, he was one of those people who had trouble getting to sleep, and then had trouble waking up. Sandra made sure Pat was ready each morning for our phone call and brought him coffee in bed as we talked. I had planned on reviewing this manuscript with Pat himself and letting him direct the revisions. Although Pat claims he never reads anything about himself and had already told me he was not going to read this oral biography, I was determined that he would read it and help me perfect it if I had to go to Beaufort and force it on him. In fact this was precisely my intention. But by the time the manuscript was fit to be seen, Pat had just been diagnosed with cancer. In one of our last conversations, I said, “Now, I know you told me you didn’t want to read it, but—” Pat interrupted me: “I said that when I thought I was going to live.” Somehow he made this as funny as any other exchange we ever had, and it gave me hope that he would become stable and comfortable enough for me to visit and go over the manuscript with him. Alas, this was not to be. After his death Sandra had a thousand matters to tend to in the midst of her grief. I assumed there was no way she could take on Pat’s role of vetting the manuscript and was flabbergasted when she did so a month after he passed away. I was also thrilled when she declared that the book sounded “just like him.” Over the next several months, Sandra gave me the benefit of her wisdom, her intimate understanding of Pat Conroy, and her painstaking examination of the oral biography. While she did not agree with every editorial decision I made in the book, Sandra remained unfailingly respectful of me both personally and professionally. One of the best by-products of my collaboration with Pat Conroy is that it has brought me in close contact with a kindred Alabama spirit and fellow novelist, Cassandra King, whose friendship I value and cherish deeply.
Jonathan Haupt was the vital spark that enabled an abstract idea to become a published book. I will be eternally grateful for the alacrity with which he seized on the idea for this book and how he wasted no time in making it happen, especially as it turned out there was no time to waste.
Also Jonathan’s brilliant idea to celebrate “Conroy at 70” became even more brilliant in retrospect, after Pat’s diagnosis a mere three months later. This unique festival was the product of Jonathan’s genius for sweeping creative vision as well as meticulous attention to even the smallest details. It required two years of extensive planning and preparation. People from every stage of Pat’s life, from his oldest friends to his most recent protégés, were in attendanc
I have two first readers, Tom Uskali of New Orleans and Sean Smith of Atlanta, who have helped me with all the manuscripts of my novels and provided invaluable assistance on this project as well. These are the two people who help me overcome the struggles, fears, doubts, obstacles, and setbacks involved in the production of any manuscript. Tom is an English teacher and department chairman, a writer, reviewer, and editor with exquisite taste, judgment, and sensitivity. I don’t put anything out there to anyone that Tom hasn’t seen first. Sean Smith is a history and lit major turned First Amendment attorney who is also serving as my agent for this work, and I thank him for casting an expert lawyerly as well as a writerly eye over the book.
And then there is Brandon, who puts up with it all and makes it all possible.
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