A Helper and a Joker
By Wayne Greenhaw
It was three o'clock in the morning. Sitting at the cluttered table in the kitchen at Larry and Dean Wells' house in Oxford, Mississippi, Willie Morris had his elbows anchored on yesterday's New York Times, but his mind was on a day, years earlier. "I loved him," Willie said. "He was my brother."
He was talking about James Jones, the author of From Here to Eternity and other great novels. They had become friends in the 1950s, and in 1978, after Jones died at age 56, Willie wrote James Jones: A Friendship, a memoir of sorts, a continuance of his North Toward Home, a highly personal, loving tribute to his friend.
When I told Willie about my own time at The Colony in Robinson, Ill., he wanted to know every detail: How many drinks we had together, what Jones said, how his mentor Lowney Handy reacted when she found me passed out the next morning in Jones' living room.
"What'd she say?" he asked, wanting me to repeat how she screamed, "Get your sorry little ass up, you little shit!" Then Willie laughed so hard he almost spilled his drink.
When he'd calmed, he said, "Tell it again," and I did. When I finished the second time, he laughed almost as hard again. Then he said, "Jim would-a loved that story."
Then he told me how he'd known Jones in Manhattan, on Long Island and in the Hamptons, where Jones had lived and where he died at a place called Chateau Spud. "He told me to write a big novel with great themes, then the book-publishing world would take me seriously," Willie said.
At that time, he was deep into his "big novel," which he called Taps, about a young bugler during the Korean War, a young man, like Willie had been, who went from one soldier's funeral to another around the South, playing "Taps." He was not only intense about the details; he assured me and the others sitting around the table that he was tackling big questions, appropriate themes for a "big novel" as well as the panoramic sweep of the South.
As I listened to him and looked into those dark weepy hound-dog eyes, I wondered if his description of his book didn't sound familiar. Did it not resonate a little too much of James Jones? Or From Here to Eternity? And I wondered if Willie hadn't gotten so close with a love so great that he allowed the memory of Jones to become overwhelming.
But Willie was like that. He gave of himself to the younger writers who came to him for advice and guidance. Once at the round table in the corner of the Holiday Inn at Oxford, where Willie held court every afternoon for years, a young man from the University sat and waited while Willie read every word of an article he had written. The youngster watched while Willie pored over every word, every sentence, and when he finished, he motioned for the student to follow him outside.
Twenty minutes later Willie returned. He shook his head sadly. "I could not berate him in front of y'all," he said. "He needs to take some remedial English courses before he continues." He shook his head again. "What is happening in America when our young people are not learning the basics? Here this guy is: A freshman in college, wants to write, but can't spell and has no idea about subject and verb agreement. It is terribly, terribly sad."
I realized that Willie really did care. When the same young man came back several days later, Willie spent as much time with him as he had the first time. He was just as gentle, just as discrete, and just as sad.
On another occasion, when I went to Oxford to write an article for the old Southern Voices magazine about Faulkner and the Yoknapatawpha Conference at Ole Miss, my wife Sally called me to the phone on Saturday afternoon. She said it was Norman Mailer calling. "Who?" I asked, and she repeated what she'd said.
When I answered with a questioning edge to my voice, this distinctive voice asked, "Greenhaw? This is Norman Mailer. I understand you're going to Oxford tomorrow."
I told him I was, then he said, "Will they have something to drink down there?"
I said that I was not sure, but to be on the safe side I would carry a bottle of bourbon. After all, tomorrow was Sunday and Oxford was in Mississippi.
"Well," he said, "I was told you'd know."
After he told me he would be writing an article on the conference for Playboy, he hung up.
I told Sally that the voice sounded like Mailer, whom I had met once years before with movie director Frank Perry, but then I speculated that it was probably Willie Morris, who knew I going to Oxford and who was famous for his mimicking phone calls.
However, the call did remind me to buy a bottle of bourbon and have it in my car, just in case.
About two hours later, the phone rang again.
This time I answered.
The same voice inquired, "Wayne Greenhaw? This is Mailer again. What I want to know is: Who the hell are you?"
When I got to Oxford the next afternoon I was glad I'd brought along my own bottle. I found Willie and we went to a honky tonk up the road where they sold beer and set-ups. I brought my brown bag and bottle inside. At a table, where we were delivered glasses, ice and a pitcher of water, Willie said Norman Mailer called him the night before.
"He was upset because you told him Oxford was dry," Willie said. I eyed Willie suspiciously. "I didn't tell him that," I said. Then I accused Willie of calling me and pretending he was Mailer. "I did not," he insisted. "Well," I said, shrugging, "if he hadn't called, I wouldn't have remembered to bring the booze."
"Then it was a good call," Willie said. Then we toasted The Good Life.
Norman Mailer never showed up at the conference. Halfway through the week I asked Willie again if he had not made the call as Mailer. He denied it but two weeks later, home again in Montgomery, a mutual friend called and said, "That damn Willie's at it again."
"What?" I asked.
"He's called twice as Norman Mailer, then this morning he called as Marshal Frady. I couldn't tell with the first calls, but I know Frady's voice."
When I next called Willie he cackled like a hen. "Y'all got me all wrong. I haven't been Mailer or Frady in ages. During the last year I've been Halberstam and I've got him down flat."
Several years later when David Halberstam did call to ask about happenings in Montgomery for his book The Fifties, at first I didn't believe it was he. I questioned him, then I heard this silence on the other end of the phone. Then he said, "Harry Ashmore told me to call you," and I knew it really was Halberstam. But from that time on, whenever some writer called, there would be a hesitation in my thought processes: Is it really Willie?
[Wayne Greenhaw, a veteran journalist and Nieman Fellow at Harvard, lives in Montgomery, Ala. His 13th book, Beyond the Night: A Remembrance, is being published this fall by Black Belt Press].
Copyright © The Southerner 1999.