McMurtry in the 1970s. Photo by Diana Walker/Getty Images
Six writers pay their respects to the late Texas writer,
whose work left an indelible impression on them
Courtesy Simon & Schuster
Artifacts from the "Lonesome Dove" miniseries on display at the Wittliff Gallery. Photo by Kevin B. Stillman.
Casket Mountain on Prude Ranch. Photo by Dale Weisman.
Larry McMurtry, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist of Lonesome Dove and co-author of the Academy Award-winning screenplay for Brokeback Mountain, died last Thursday at age 84. A born-and-bred Texan, McMurtry featured many characters and places in his stories that were inspired by his hometown of Archer City, where he owned a popular book store, Booked Up.
Here, six writers pay tribute to the man, describing the influence his work had on their own work and lives, and what it was like to meet him in person.
Larry McMurtry changed my life by changing who I thought I was. It was November 1971, another gray, drizzly day in Leeds, England where I, a particularly oblivious 21-year-old backpacking and Eurailing her way around Europe, was visiting a fine fellow I’d met the summer before on Spain’s Costa Brava. We’d struck up a very sweet romance and planned to move to Hong Kong together and live the life that I, as a military kid, believed I’d been bred for: that of a rootless nomad. On that day, however, when the drizzle metastasized into a downpour heavy enough to force me into the first movie theater I passed, that illusion dissolved forever.
As I was finding my seat, a shot of a gloriously horizontal, impossibly vast landscape scrolled across the wide, wide screen and a wave of homesickness so intense walloped me that I had to read the title through a scrim of tears: The Last Picture Show.
Homesick? I’d certainly missed my family before, but a place? A specific landscape? Especially a Texas landscape? My conceit was that I could live anywhere; I was at home in the world. But those tears, and ultimately, McMurtry himself told another story. Whether it was labeled “Texas” or “New Mexico” or simply, most accurately, “the American West,” I was homesick for a world and a people of broad vistas and long views, and the only remedy was a one-way ticket out of a land and a future that I now saw was claustrophobically wrong.
Back at my family’s home in Albuquerque, McMurtry cured me with The Last Picture Show, Horseman, Pass By, Leaving Cheyenne, Moving On, All My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers, In A Narrow Grave: Essays On Texas. In those pages, I discovered not John Wayne’s uninviting West of blazing masculinity, but a West of grandeur and gaucherie peopled by misfits and irregulars. In McMurtry’s Texas the men were diffident, the women determined, and they were all forever setting off for a new frontier, even as they mourned the one that had just vanished. Or accepted that it had never existed to begin with.
In 1973, I moved to Texas. Eventually, I married one native Texan, gave birth to another, and had the happily rooted life I believe I was meant to live. Do I owe it all to Larry McMurtry? Who knows? But I will be forever grateful to him for introducing me to a West that was as messy as it was mythical. A West that he made feel like home.
Such Paris as I Had
Jenny Staff Johnson
I don’t remember how I first came to pick up Terms of Endearment as a west Houston high schooler. Perhaps because the movie, recently filmed around town, used some classmates’ houses for filming locations. What I do remember is the revelation of seeing my city, which I’d grown up experiencing more or less as a non-place, rendered with humor and heart and no small amount of wit, but without the slightest false note of romanticization. McMurtry’s characters were funny, often sad, but always human and dogged by the foibles that beset us all, regardless of station.
Suburban Houston had heretofore held scant role models in this regard. The oil bust was on, and Houston didn’t seem much like a place anyone would want to write about. Until McMurtry showed me that this is what a writer does. Take what’s before you, look at it long and hard, and make the best thing out of it that you can. He took my hometown seriously as a subject for literature—but not too seriously. Possessed of a wry, cantankerous intelligence characteristic of Texas intellectuals, he was as unlikely to mythologize the city as he was the Old West—which, he insisted until the end, was not his aim with Lonesome Dove.
One of my favorite characters from Terms of Endearment is Vernon Dalhart, the lovesick oilman who, pining helplessly for Aurora Greenway, sleeps in an enormous, tricked-out white Lincoln parked atop the 24-story parking garage he owns. When sleep eludes him, he watches the television installed in his Lincoln, or stands at the edge of the garage observing the “foggy, rumbling nights of Houston,” the flightpath and the traffic and weather systems as they came and went, sometimes seeing as far as Galveston, sometimes down to the “strange orange and pink glows of the great clusters of refineries,” but always accompanied by the vast relentlessness of modern and modernizing Houston. In this regard Vernon stands in for all of us, amazed if not entirely befuddled at the city’s mysteriously magnetic churn.
“I can never be quite sure whether home is a place or a form: the novel, or Texas,” McMurtry wrote in his essential 1968 essay collection In a Narrow Grave. (In a Narrow Grave is the place to go for those curious about McMurtry’s influence on a generation or three of Texas writers—ask a Texas reader which McMurtry is their personal favorite, and you’ll get a variety of answers; ask a Texas writer and Grave will come up over and over again.) Surprisingly, given his enduring association with the state, McMurtry’s late-life choices suggest he may have decided in favor of the latter. He sold off most of his Archer City bookstores and spent much of his time in suburban Tucson, in the aptly and hilariously named community of Oracle Foothills Estates, at the home of his friend and longtime collaborator Diana Ossana.
For this writer, the answer to the question of where home is, resoundingly, is both—Texas and the novel, despite the trials and tribulations both have put me through over the years. And without Larry McMurtry, I’m not sure whether I’d be a writer at all. “Houston was my Paris, or such Paris as I had,” he once wrote. Houston only became my Paris after I saw it through McMurtry’s eyes, and I’ll be forever grateful.
Michael J. Mooney
It was perched at the end of his long, wooden dining table: a Hermes 3000 portable typewriter, in mint green. This machine, and another one just like it, were the devices at the end of Larry McMurtry’s fingers as he unspooled the thoughts and sentences that would become so many great books, essays, and screenplays. This is where Lonesome Dove became Lonesome Dove. After winning the Golden Globe for co-writing the screenplay adaptation of Brokeback Mountain, he promised a “big, wet kiss” to his Hermes. This Hermes.
I was part of a small group of writing students invited to McMurtry’s house in Archer City in July 2007. He had cold bottles of water set out for us on that long dining table. He walked us through his house, past the priceless art and ancient fossils he’d collected through the years. He showed us his private library in the carriage house—some 28,000 volumes, give or take—and I remember staring at the titles and authors on the spines, mesmerized. I also remember him talking to us about writing, about how he created literature out of the small-town characters he’d known all his life.
The most distinct memory from that whole day, though, was seeing the typewriter. This was the actual spot where the actual person sat and typed. I’ve never been a typewriterphile, but looking at that green Hermes felt a little like looking at a holy ceremonial relic somehow still in use. The square wooden chair at the end of the table was so plain and simple that it bordered on Calvinistic. Except there was a white pillow on the seat, because McMurtry, the literary titan that forever changed Texas letters and the perception of the American West, could sit and type so long that his butt sometimes hurt.
There were also pages stacked there on the table, freshly produced earlier that day, and it took every scintilla of restraint I had not to peek at them. I knew what a terrible violation that would be. Instead, I just gazed in awe at the machine, the table, the chair. The entire setup was so mundane it was inspiring.
Looking back now, he was likely working on Literary Life: A Second Memoir, published in 2009. “I come, not just from a different time,” he wrote in that book, “but from a different era.”
The stories he typed on that old Hermes, though, are timeless.
Speechless at Booked Up
Long before Lonesome Dove, well before Buffalo Girls, I fell victim to Larry McMurtry’s writing. My heart ached its way through The Last Picture Show and Leaving Cheyenne. And I don’t remember ever feeling as deeply—in wildly conflicting ways—the way I did about Hud in Horseman, Pass By. And the moods McMurtry conjured as he wrote about small-town Texas, often bereft of things that usually bring appealing thoughts about a place, haunted me for decades as I began driving the backroads of Texas to write travel stories about my state. If nothing else, his prose made me want to see what I could learn about the real essence of a place—not just what tourists see on the surface.
In 2000, I found myself face to face with the author, who’d loomed larger-than-life in my mind’s eye, but turned out to be most ordinary and quite grumpy in person. I’d driven to Archer City on a road-trip assignment for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, where I was a staff writer for many years; naturally, I found myself spending most of the time wandering around McMurtry’s store, Booked Up, which dominated the town square. You never knew if he’d be on-site, as he was in and out of his hometown a lot. Browsing one of the endless aisles of books, I rounded a corner and almost ran him over as he was stocking shelves on the next aisle. For the first time in my life, I was utterly speechless—and horrified that my impulse was to fawn over him.
And immediately I wanted to do something I’ve never done: I wanted his autograph. In the decades I interviewed famous people for the newspaper and for magazines—this includes writers like Doris Kearns Goodwin, Dave Barry, Carl Hiaasen, Robert B. Parker, then-governor George W. Bush, and food celebs like Jose Andres, Bobby Flay, and Jacques Pepin—I never once felt compelled to ask for an autograph or a photo. That just felt intrusive and not part of my job. But here, in McMurtry’s store, where his own books are among the inventory, it’s all I could think of. I couldn’t afford first editions of most of his novels (at the time, most started at $500), but his recently released biography of Crazy Horse was in my budget. I scurried to buy it, sucked up my nerve, and asked him to sign it. He scarcely looked at me, took the pen and book and scribbled his name. He grunted in reply at my profuse thanks and went back to restocking books.
Was I disappointed? Sure. Was I surprised? Not really—it’s not like I thought he’d invite me around the corner to get a Dr Pepper at the Dairy Queen, where he was known to stop in. He just wanted to be a guy placing his carefully curated used books in their proper places, understandably. It was an uneventful encounter, to say the least, but this one small autographed book will always be a prized possession.
Moon Over McMurtry
I was driving to a sacred place—the Medicine Mounds in Hardeman County—when word reached me that Larry McMurtry had died in Tucson, Arizona about 12 hours earlier. I knew immediately I had to sidetrack my journey in order to pass through Archer City, his hometown. I didn’t tarry when I arrived there. I just took a look around at the place that had provided the compost for a one-of-a-kind American literary flowering. Then I headed back across the West Texas plains that I love so much on the way to meet up with some Comanche friends, feeling my age with the passage of the miles.
I saw The Last Picture Show when it was new at a movie house about 200 miles away from Archer City. I was a teenager. I left the theater thinking, Damn, I’ve just seen a picture about my parents when they were young, with all sorts of what used to be called “adult situations” and language that you surely never heard at outdoor revival meetings. I went to the library the next day and checked out Larry’s novel. Reading it was liberating. Larry showed me that real literature could be based on people and places I knew well. It did not have to concern itself exclusively with existentialist angst among chain-smoking bohemians in Paris’ Latin Quarter. Larry’s books are what convinced me I could be a writer.
Larry was something of a firebrand back then. His writing was iconoclastic, cynical, controversial, and, usually, very funny. He was the same age as my late mother. Yet to me he seemed like a part of a new wave while Mom, in most ways, clung to older values. She never cared much for his work. Larry wrote books his own mother hated. My mother was angry at me for writing one called Chasing the Rodeo, which, in large part, concerned my runaway dad, who was a middling (at best) saddle bronc and bull rider. Larry liked it and blurbed it for me: “Informative, engaging, moving. It’s as good a book on this wild sport as there is ever likely to be.” I’ll always be grateful to him for those kind words, and for a couple of other things he helped me with.
But above all I’m thankful for Larry’s books, both novels and nonfiction titles such as In a Narrow Grave: Essays on Texas and Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen. On my Medicine Mounds journey, I checked in at a highway hotel on the west side of Vernon. As dusk gave way to night, I stood in the parking lot and gazed southeast. A splendid almost-full moon rose above Archer City, a fitting tribute to a great Texas writer, a great American writer.
Forty Years Later
I’m going to leave
Old Texas now,
They’ve got no use
For the longhorn cow.
They’ve plowed and fenced
My cattle range
And the people there
Are all so strange…
– Lyrics to an old Texas song, from In a Narrow Grave by Larry McMurtry
Friday, March 26, was shaping up to be a day to endure. Suffering from the flu-like aftereffects of my second COVID-19 shot, I was nursing a third cup of coffee when a friend texted, “Just saw this.” A linked New York Times article, “Larry McMurtry, Novelist of the American West, Dies at 84,” confirmed the details of McMurtry’s passing and gave a worthy tribute to his life and literary legacy.
Larry McMurtry stands among my favorite writers: Paul Theroux, Cormac McCarthy, Barry Lopez, Barbara Kingsolver, Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and others who have influenced my writing, reading, traveling, questing, dreaming, and pondering of big questions.
While it’s difficult to name a favorite among McMurtry’s 45-plus published works, a snap choice is Lonesome Dove, a masterful retelling of the Old West that never was. Instead of deflating the romance of the cowboy way, Lonesome Dove had the opposite effect on me. It opened up a new appreciation for the literature and lore of the American West. Over the years, inspired in part by McMurtry’s Western-themed novels, I’ve written about Texas longhorn cattle, trail rides at the Stillwell Ranch, Texas dude ranches, and an adventurous longhorn roundup at Big Bend Ranch State Park.
I had the honor of meeting Larry in 1981 at a writers conference at the historic Prude Guest Ranch near Fort Davis. This was four years before the publication of Lonesome Dove and his rise to national prominence. Nevertheless, Larry McMurtry was a powerful draw for the scores of wannabes, ranging from octogenarian storytellers to neophytes like me.
During the retreat, Larry and I met one-on-one in the shade of a rustling cottonwood. After reviewing my prose-poem scraps, Larry was kind and thoughtful in his muted feedback. Another writer might have eviscerated my sophomoric efforts, but Larry encouraged me to keep at it and find my voice.
The retreat highlight was Larry’s lecture, and I hung onto his every discouraging word about the reality we faced. He likened the 20th-century novel to an endangered species destined to become an academic curiosity, save for explosive bestselling “pot boilers.” Larry cautioned that it’s very difficult for a first-time writer to publish a novel. His parting advice: Write and enjoy the process of writing for its own sake and don’t worry about getting published.
Eight years later Larry McMurtry observed in Some Can Whistle, “If you wait, all that happens is that you get older.” It’s a sobering reminder to seize the day and get moving on.