Ink and Mercury
The life and times of Harper’s Magazine editor Willie Morris
by Jeanne McDonald
Truman Capote once told his friend Willie Morris that, “Most Southerners come home sooner or later, even if in a box.” Although Morris returned to Mississippi in a vertical position in 1980, he was a far different man from that optimistic, pink-cheeked 32-year-old who had assumed the editorship of the venerated Harper’s Magazine in 1967. Then, with a visceral excitement that rippled throughout the literary world, Morris had declared his intention to make the magazine “relevant… with a truly national focus” that would reflect the social and political issues of the time.
The writers who leapt aboard Morris’ literary train were prize-winning, up-and-coming authors to whom Morris gave carte blanche, often to the dismay of the magazine’s ultraconservative owners, who deplored his lax management and stories they considered too inflammatory. One example involved an anti-gay piece by Joseph Epstein, causing a delegation of gays to invade the magazine’s offices demanding to see the editor, but Morris stayed at home, leaving fellow editor Bob Kotlowitz to handle the situation.
Morris’ faithful writers included David Halberstam, James Jones, Truman Capote, William Styron, Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, Gay Talese, and Bill Moyers. Another of these rising stars, Larry King (not the King of television), recently wrote a history of Morris’ wild, headlong ride at Harper’s titled In Search of Willie Morris: the Mercurial Life of a Legendary Writer and Editor (Perseus/Public Affairs, March 2006).
King fondly recalls the intoxicated afternoons in New York bars, the excitement of riding on a splendid wave of critical success, and the inventiveness of Morris’ practical jokes. Morris once called the campaign headquarters of the White Supremacist David Duke on election night and asked to have Eva Braun paged. He heard the P.A. system repeatedly announcing, “Telephone call for Eva Braun,” but eventually the man who had answered the phone came back on the line and said, “She doesn’t answer. What does she look like?” “Well,” Morris replied, “she looks very Germanic.”
After four years of friction with the owners, Morris penned a hasty resignation, which, to his surprise, was readily accepted. Stricken, Morris wrote a letter to The New York Times , which said in part, “This is the saddest day of my life.”
King describes Morris as “...the brooder, the loner, the man who could lose himself in sleep because wakefulness was too painful, the man who preferred whiskey oblivion to facing problems.…” Stories told by old friends, Morris’ first wife, Celia, and his widow, JoAnne Pritchard, recall his extravagances, his habit of running from responsibility, and his sometimes-unconscionable escapades. But they also credit his sweetness, generosity and genius. Willie always burned the candle at both ends, and on Aug. 2, 1999, at the age of 64, as King phrases it, “his big, sentimental heart was stilled forever.”
When my husband and I were writing a book about Southern writers in 1997, Morris was one of the first people we asked for an interview. He’d often been my husband’s drinking buddy when both were young reporters, but it would be my first—and last—meeting with the charming Southerner who had for a time been the toast of New York.
We arrived in Jackson early in the afternoon, and were enthusiastically welcomed by Morris. We spent a pleasant afternoon taking notes and recording Morris’ reminiscences, while he constantly refilled his glass from a decanter of Scotch. Finally, as the light fell, Morris insisted on taking us to dinner. He directed us to the American Café, actually an Italian restaurant, with a huge American flag waving in the parking lot.
The meal Morris ordered was basically ignored. He ordered a gallon of Bolero wine, and while my husband’s glass was empty and mine was missing only a token sip or two, Morris told stories and polished off the bottle. Afterwards he insisted on our coming back into the house to watch a made-for-television film based on his book, Good Old Boy . There he went back to the Scotch. During the film, Morris cried and chuckled at the boy who played him as a child. “Watch what Willie does here,” he said during the snake scene. “This really happened. That snake should get an award as Best Supporting Moccasin. This is true. Everything in the book and the movie is absolutely true.”
Then he turned in his chair and grinned at us. “But as Mark Twain once said, ‘Sometimes you’ve got to lie to tell the truth.’” Finally, at the door, Morris hugged my husband and planted an 80-proof kiss on my lips.
Two years later, we heard about his death on the evening news. Morris was the third person in the 20th century to lie in the Capitol Building in Jackson. Even President Bill Clinton sent a lengthy eulogy describing Morris as “the classic Southerner… He showed us how we could love a place and want to change it at the same time... He showed us we could go home.”