Willie Morris: The Prankster
By Curtis Wilkie

Willie Morris died much too young, but he never would have fit into the role of an old man. After his death, many good words were used to describe him: generous, loyal, gentle, brillant, progressive, kind-hearted. Youthful also applies. Willie had a cherubic face that twinkled with mischief, and he played boyish pranks all his life.

    In North Toward Home, a seminal book for anyone in his generation who wrestled with Mississippi, Willie wrote about a ruse he conceived 50 years ago after he realized his short-wave radio could pick up a live account of major league baseball games that were being re-created by a phoney named "The Old Scotchman," whose reports on a Southern network ran an inning or two behind the real thing.

    Willie called up the fire station, where a group of Yazoo City men gathered each afternoon to listen to "The Old Scotchman."

    "Hello, Chief, can you tell me the score?"

    "The Yanks are ahead, 5-2."

    "This is the Phantom you're talkin' with."

    "Who?"

    "The Phantom," Willie said, instructing the chief to listen carefully as he detailed the specific base hits and strike outs that were about to unfold in the game.

    "Aw, go to hell," the chief said, and hung up.

    The game, of course, followed the course Willie had outlined, so he called the chief again.

    "Say, how'd you know that?" the chief asked.

    "Stick with me," Willie said, "and I'll feed you predictions. I can predict anything that's gonna happen anywhere in the next 10 years."

    After a pause, Willie added, "Beware of fire real soon."

    Willie perfected his telephone tomfoolery until the day he died. His victims were always his friends. Posing as an editor, he called writers to make bogus story assignments. As an "AP reporter," he sought comment from political figures on bizarre events he invented. After Willie had reeled in his quarry, he would laugh and confess, "This is Willie Morris." He liked the ring of his down-country name, and he always pronounced it with a special inflection.

    Willie's funeral attracted enough literary firepower to light up the skies of the North American continent. The best and the brightest of Mississippi's politicians were there, too. But hundreds of men and women — whose names might not be known far from Jackson — represented the most touching element of the congregation. They were the proof of Willie's wide circle of friends.

    Nobody outside Willie's family was more torn up over his death than Jack Stevens, a bartender at one of Willie's favorite haunts in Jackson, Hal & Mal's. In The Ghosts of Medgar Evers, Willie immortalized "Shoeless Jack" Stevens as a "descendant of a prominent Jackson family, collector of vintage minutiae, actor, bon vivant." On the day of Willie's funeral, Jack, still weeping copiously, showed up for the services in a wrinkled suitcoat with the arms out of place. His employer, Malcolm White, shrugged it off. Jack's appearance was appropriate, Malcolm said. "He looks as disheveled as Willie."

    Willie had great taste in everything but clothes and wine. He favored knit cotton shirts and loose-fitting trousers, and when he and his wife, JoAnne, arrived for dinner at the Mayflower, a brown-bag cafe in downtown Jackson, Willie would invariably come bearing execrable jugs of wine.

    Willie was sentimental. Sometimes, usually late in the evening when his stories took on a melancholy air, he would cry gently, swipe at the tears and remark on his own foolishness. So when he died, none of his friends felt embarrassed by their own tears.

    During the time between the Monday evening his heart gave out and the Thursday afternoon he was buried, hundreds of people spontaneously collected at Willie and JoAnne's home in Jackson. They didn't come for a brief courtesy call and leave. They stayed for hours and wept and laughed and drank tons of beer and wine and stronger stuff. They were remembering Willie.

    Cats flitted through the house. Willie always had pets, faithful dogs and inscrutable cats. He wrote books about them. My Dog Skip has been made into a movie. Willie and JoAnne went to New York to see its preview the week before he died. Willie completed a sequel, My Cat Spit McGee, which will be published posthumously. Any man who loves animals is a good man.

    Willie had devised his schedule for the week, and JoAnne left it out for his friends to see. At the top of the page for Tuesday, Willie had written: "Vote." A throwback to the days of the "Yellow Dog Democrats," he intended to vote in the Democratic primary; Mississippians were choosing a nominee for governor. There were several other items on the list before Willie listed: "Work." He often put off work for play, but he still managed to put together an impressive body of literature in his lifetime. He wrote eloquently of his distress with his native state in North Toward Home. But instead of staying in New York to launch critical lightning bolts from afar, he came home, joined the forces that were changing the state, and wound up writing celebrations of Mississippi. This year, he tackled an ambitious project, a big book about Mississippi that he worked on with his son, David Rae Morris, a photographer. It will be his last.

    David, who lives in New Orleans, shares his father's mirthful ways. When they dined together at Galatoire's, a fashionable French Quarter restaurant, either father or son could be counted on to sneak a plastic roach into the other's salad.

    On the day that Willie lay in state in the rotunda of the Old State Capitol, David had the last laugh. As a long line of mourners coiled through the Confederate-era chamber to pay condolences to the family and to say goodbye to Willie, many were startled to see a plastic roach, resting on the marbled foot of Jefferson Davis.


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Copyright The Southerner 1999.