High life

Remembering one of the last great Americans

10 April 2021

9:00 AM

10 April 2021

9:00 AM

It takes a very good writer to produce prose that provokes an emotional response in a reader, even when it deals with events long past with which he or she has no connection. It also takes a good writer to subtly tip off the reader about a change in the character of the American people, one that has seen toughness replaced by weakness. Talleyrand once remarked that no one who had been born after the French Revolution could know how sweet life could be.

Larry McMurtry wrote about life in small American towns in the 1950s and the great American West in the late 19th century, and his writing evokes feelings that those born after those dates can relate to. Most of his heroes, like those of Hemingway, were ultimately defeated. But theirs were moral victories, just like those of Papa’s characters.

Larry was two months older than me and passed away a couple of weeks ago. He once told me that he had two subscriptions to The Spectator because he travelled a lot and never wanted to miss my column. Larry wrote some very nice things about me in one of his three memoirs, and the friendship began at Norman Mailer’s house in Brooklyn some 30 years ago. But first a few titbits about his work and habits. He wrote more than 30 novels, essays galore, memoirs and history. He churned out several dozen screenplays, among them Lonesome Dove, based on his 850-page saga about Texas Rangers who drive a herd of cattle from the Rio Grande to Montana.

His first novel was Horseman, Pass By, on which the wonderful film Hud was based. He also wrote Terms of Endearment, which became an Oscar-winning film. McMurtry senior was a rancher, and Larry spent his life undoing the myth of the shootin’-tootin’ cowboy as invented by Hollywood and authors such as Zane Gray and Louis L’Amour. In his numerous books Larry pitted the values of the Old West against those of the modern world, and words such as ‘wellness’ and ‘wellbeing’ did not get a mention. It was values that decided what was true, and the understanding of truth was based on conviction. His world was a taciturn one, stoic and brutal at times. Self-absorption was as unmentionable as cowardice.

His cowboys had real jobs, and there was not one woke impact officer among them. He demythologised the Hollywood version of the American West without using affected bad prose or overloading his books with descriptions of female genitalia. He lived most of his life in Archer City, Texas, and at one point a bookstore he owned held 400,000 books and occupied six buildings (his private library contained some 30,000 books across three houses). He was involved with five to six women at a time, and got married twice. When I saw The Last Picture Show, that unromantic but heartbreaking movie based on his novel, I understood the innocence of an America that no longer exists.

When we met at Mailer’s house that first time in Brooklyn it was just the host, Larry, my wife and I. As there was a lady present, boxing and women were off the agenda, so we talked about Hemingway. All three of us were big-time Papa fans, and Martha Gellhorn’s revelations that Hemingway’s love-making was ‘short and sharp’ did not go down well. I ventured that she should have taken one of those Latin gigolos who had nothing better to do in the afternoons. Norman and Larry were not as anti-Martha as I was, but we all agreed that Lillian Hellman, a Papa critic, was the pits. A consummate liar and fantasist, Hellman was an ugly woman who loathed physical beauty in others and envied Papa his talent, his machismo, his courage — he went out on the balcony during an air raid in Madrid and watched it as if it were fireworks while Hellman cowered and whimpered under a sofa — and of course his popularity with those who admired his traits.

According to Norman, Gellhorn may have been jealous of Papa but exposed Hellman as the ‘self-serving’ braggart that she was. Yet Gellhorn pursued Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Onassis and Hillary Clinton like a bobbysoxer. What’s more, she was a crabby, irritable, oppositional woman and to the left of Stalin. So said I, and Norman fixed me with his pre-fight boxer’s stare, as he was very friendly with the last two. Larry took it all in, and then he and I decided to hit the town.

My publisher at Grove-Atlantic had given me a key to some club that had a louche reputation, and after we had dropped Alexandra home we checked the place out. It was perfect, full of shady characters and loose women. Both of us were flying when, at around five in the morning, I spilled the beans about why it was that I had to get home, like now. I was going under the knife at 8 a.m. at a New York hospital, having torn my rotator cuff in a skiing accident months before. The doctor cut too deeply, but that’s another story altogether. What I’ll never forget was Larry McMurtry’s look when I apologised and told him why I had to call it a night. It was one of esteem, and I shall always treasure it.

Larry was the kind of American who made me so pro-American throughout my life. There are no more Americans like him, and that’s why the country has gone down the drain.

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