Things They Used to Do
Two Texas Journalists Who Stared Danger in the Face
Turn Out the Lights: Chronicles of Texas During the 80s and 90sby Gary Cartwright
University of Texas Press, 282pp., $39.95, $19.95 (paper)
Close Calls: Jan Reid's Texasby Jan Reid
Texas A&M Press, 247pp., $29.95
By magazine publishing standards, Texas Monthly is positively long in the tooth: It turns 28 this year. In the early Seventies, when 25-year-old Mike Levy conceived of the publication, American journalism was at a crossroads. The progressive decline of major national magazines such as Life, Look, and The Saturday Evening Post cast a pall on the commercial future of all periodical publishing, so the timing of starting an expensive regional magazine was suspect at best. What saved the day for Texas Monthly was the drive of founding publisher Levy, the resilience of its young editors, including college friends Bill Broyles and Greg Curtis, and most of all, the quality of the writing.
Texas Monthly started up just toward the end of the magazine revolution called New Journalism. At Esquire, Tom Wolfe was popularizing American Studies, with exclamations added; Harper's, under the editorship of Willie Morris, featured the best writers in the country, some of whom, like novelist Norman Mailer, were just turning to nonfiction; and Rolling Stone was on a talent search that eventually introduced some of the best young music and film writers around. In the early days at Texas Monthly, new writers were given opportunities, but the new magazine also featured the best established writers available. Front and center were Larry L. King, an established star at Morris' Harper's; the beloved Austin novelist and psychedelic man about town Bill Brammer; and Dallas' literary gadfly A.C. Greene. King's classic piece evoking his West Texas roots, "Redneck!"; Brammer's whimsical trip through border radio, "Salvation Worries? Prostate Trouble?"; and Greene's "The Highland Park Woman" were essential reminders of what the best Texas writers were about at the time Texas Monthly began.
Sadly, Brammer's excesses soon did him in, and happily for Larry King but sadly for his readers, he was soon liberated from magazine writing by the unexpected success of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. The remainder of the early class of Texas Monthly writers provided a preview of what our journalism was to become -- this stellar group included Prudence Macintosh, who wrote about privileged girls going to summer camp on the upper Guadalupe River, Steve Harrigan on a sartorial crisis precipitated by fatherhood, and John Davidson on the drama of wetbacks crossing into South Texas. But most notable of all was the unforgettable magazine debut of Gary Cartwright, who after five years was the young magazine's star attraction. Implausibly, after a quarter of a century, Cartwright has remained the star -- the current issue of Texas Monthly features his cover story on Bonnie and Clyde.
Gary Cartwright didn't exactly come to Austin and Texas Monthly as an unknown. By the mid-Sixties, he had made a name for himself as a fearless sports reporter in Dallas, first working with Blackie Sherrod at the Herald Tribune and then working at The Dallas Morning News where, among other things, he covered the Dallas Cowboys in their pre-Super Bowl days. Cartwright was the wild man in a hyper-talented group of Fort Worth and Dallas sportswriters that included Dan Jenkins and Bud Shrake. The early Sixties were a period when sportswriters were considered not much more than paid publicity men for the college and professional teams they covered, but Jenkins, Shrake, and especially Cartwright made things more interesting by getting in the faces of people like Tom Landry, the straight-laced coach of the Cowboys. Cartwright and his slightly older compadres were natural born pranksters -- typical of their hijinks was an episode at Fort Worth's prestigious and stuffy Colonial Golf Tournament, when Cartwright, having borrowed a waiter's uniform, carried a tray of drinks to the top of the high diving board and jumped into the pool.
In 1982, Cartwright's signature pieces for the magazine were collected under the title Confessions of a Washed-Up Sportswriter, Including Various Digressions About Sex, Crime and Other Hobbies. The book demonstrated that Cartwright had no equal in these parts as a nonfiction miniaturist. The subtitle said it all: The world Cartwright inhabited and evoked was that of tough, urban Texas, particularly the underside of Dallas, the Texas metropolis that would like to believe its own upscale propaganda. In Cartwright's world, Dallas was full of small-time hoods, striptease artists, and doped-up football players. Particularly memorable from this collection are Cartwright's ruminations on the Dallas clipjoint proprietor and killer of Lee Harvey Oswald, Jack Ruby: "I can tell you about Jack Ruby, and about Dallas, and if necessary remind you that human life is sweetly fragile and the holy litany of ambition and success takes as many people to hell as it does to heaven." This sort of tough guy sentimentality is an example of sports prose at its most elevated. Even when he wasn't writing about football, Cartwright captured the essence of his subjects, including the stripper Candy Barr, Leroy, the champion fighting pit bull, and the "world's greatest private detective," J. Jay Armes. The excitement of a good writer finding his subject is still palpable after 20 years.
Cartwright's new book, Turn Out the Lights: Chronicles of Texas During the 80s and 90s, is a sequel of sorts, a gathering-up of some of Cartwright's notable short pieces since the last collection. Compared to Confessions, the new book feels a bit pallid, but the fault, I would guess, lies in Texas, not in the reporter covering it. Texas in the previous two decades was a much tamer, more complicated, and perhaps more nuanced place, and more's the pity when you have Cartwright on the scene, with his taste for the outrageous and his sharp ears (like Truman Capote, he eschews the tape recorder).
Although there are a couple of departures for Cartwright in the book -- a nature story on the Gila wilderness and a piece about a day care center under attack -- the primary subjects in Turn Out the Lights are landmarks of his personal life and stories looking back at Dallas and Fort Worth. There is considerable nostalgia at work in many of the pieces, but readers of Cartwright will feel immediately at home with his articles titled "1963: My Most Unforgettable Year," and "Turn Out the Lights: Dallas Cowboys Reunion." "1963" again features Jack Ruby, but this time the story is made more personal. Explaining that his consciousness as a writer was set in Dallas the year JFK was shot, Cartwright recalls that
A lot of bizarre things were happening in Dallas in the fall of 1963. Madame Nhu, wife of the president of South Vietnam, bought a dozen shower caps at Neiman Marcus and tried to drum up support for the Diem regime in Saigon -- even while the CIA, with Kennedy's approval, laid plans to assassinate her husband. Members of the American Nazi Party danced around a man in an ape suit in front of the Dallas Times Herald building. ... Zealots from the National Indignation Committee picketed a U.N. Day speech at the Adolphus Hotel by Ambassador Adlai Stevenson; they called him Addle-Eye, booed and spat on him, and hit him on the head with a picket sign. When a hundred Dallas civic leaders wired apologies to Ambassador Stevenson, General Edwin Walker, who had been cashiered by the Pentagon for force-feeding his troops right-wing propaganda, flew the American flag upside down in front of his military gray mansion on Turtle Creek. Someone took a potshot at General Walker about that same time. We know now the shooter was Lee Harvey Oswald. The piety of the Dallas business climate was perfect cover for all brands of extremism -- pro-Castro cabals and anti-Castro cabals with overlapping membership, international arms smugglers, con men who lived under assumed identities in the near North Dallas apartment complexes, airline flight attendants who smuggled sugarcoated cookies of black Turkish hash.
Onto this rich tapestry, Cartwright sketches his domestic arrangement at the time. He was sharing an SMU neighborhood apartment with Bud Shrake, who was having an affair with Jada, the star stripper in Jack Ruby's Carousel Club. Jada, who liked to drive around Dallas in her convertible naked underneath a full-length fur coat, had Ruby wrapped around her little finger. Years later, Jada, like many others associated with Ruby and Oswald, died somewhat mysteriously in a car wreck close to New Orleans. Poking around in this old cauldron of sex and violence, Cartwright paints a compelling portrait of a time in Texas when everything changed. Reading about those days now, it's all too apparent how innocent they were and how jaded we've become.
In "Turn Out the Lights," Cartwright attends a Dallas Cowboys reunion where two generations of football stars mixed uneasily. One was the Don Meredith-era team, a notoriously underachieving but fun-loving group. The younger team was led by the upright and uptight Roger Staubach, whose U.S. Naval Academy-instilled discipline finally led the Cowboys to two Super Bowl victories. Meredith chose not to attend the reunion, and Cartwright asked his teammates about "Dandy Don's" beloved status on the team. They told him about the time when the Cowboys were behind two touchdowns early in a game with Green Bay and Meredith broke the tension by coming to the huddle and cracking, "Men, we're in a shitload of trouble." The team went on to tie the score. Cartwright may have made his own contribution to Meredith's downfall -- his story in The Dallas Morning News reporting the game in which Meredith threw a game-losing interception when victory appeared certain was a Grantland Rice pastiche that began: "Outlined against a grey November sky, the Four Horsemen rode again Sunday. You know them: Pestilence, death, famine and Meredith."
The remainder of Cartwright's homage to Dallas is made up of compelling pieces on Dallas Black Power ("The Bad Brother"), on the Dallas Police Department's handling of the Randall Adams case (Adams was the subject of Errol Morris' documentary "The Thin Blue Line"), a portrait of Dallas gambler Benny Binion and his family, and "I Was Mandarin," an investigation of how Cartwright was led to the family of a Dallas policeman who had confessed to them that he had been a shooter from the grassy knoll on assassination day. It was impossible to verify: The purported shooter's journal was allegedly confiscated by the FBI. Reading about Dallas 40 years ago almost makes it sound like an interesting place. If a writer as visceral as Gary Cartwright thought it was, it must have been.
Like Cartwright, Jan Reid is drawn to danger. Both Turn Out the Lights and Close Calls, Reid's collection, consider the life and career of heavyweight champion George Foreman. Cartwright gives a straight report of Foreman's match with Evander Holyfield when Foreman was well into his 40s. But it is Reid who wins this matchup by following Foreman on a trip to New York, where he performs brilliantly for a variety of audiences, including the cast and writers of Saturday Night Live, just then at one of its low points. If Cartwright's approach is quick and explosive, Reid's is manifestly deliberate and deep.
In fact, Close Calls is an instructive companion to Cartwright's book, given Reid's status as a solid contributor to Texas Monthly and close friend of Cartwright's. It is good to have Reid's best magazine work pulled together -- his other books include the novel deerinwater and his indispensable guide to Texas music of the Seventies, The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock. The beginning of Close Calls is an evocative essay on Palo Duro Canyon, and its human and geologic makeup. Reid is distinctly a North Texan (like many of the state's best writers) and during his mule trip down the undeveloped end of the canyon, he ruminates about this country that has harbored travelers from Coronado to the Comanche chief Quanah Parker. Reid's taste for inhospitable nature is further revealed in a companion piece on the natural and human history of both sides of the Red River that climaxes in a rough-and-ready beer joint in Northeast Texas where both men and women battle each other and tell stories and drink all night. A hair-raising trip down the Devils River presents the last unspoiled body of water in Texas in all of its scary majesty. Reid evokes the tension of the river by depicting the ranchers set against the canoeists who run the rapids.
Reid's book has a dark ending, one that is inextricably linked to another boxer, Jesus Chavez. In "The Contender," Reid traces the turbulent career of Chavez, a Mexican national banished from this country after Congress passed the 1996 revision of the immigration law. The two had met when Reid was working out in Richard Lord's gym on North Lamar, where Chavez was training as he moved up the ranks in the featherweight division. Reid's love for the "sweet science" is evident in his loving details of training routines and the tension of a weigh-in and a fight day.
In Reid's final essay, "Left for Dead," the writer follows Jesus Chavez to Mexico City, where the boxer is fighting for peanuts but needs to fight for the attention and for the world rankings. Impulsively, Reid decides to fly to Mexico City to cover the fight, accompanied by three younger friends, two from Texas Monthly, all of them fight aficionados. The story of the hijacking of the Texas friends' taxi (with the collaboration of their driver) and the resulting shooting of Jan is familiar to many, but "Left for Dead" reconstructs it with chilling detail:
The leader came after me with a look of fury. I didn't have the sense to turn and run. I weighed 195 pounds then, and in the gym I had learned to throw a hard left jab; I guess I thought I could stagger the smaller man, then make my escape. But I also felt the pleasure of anger -- of striking back at the only real enemy I had ever had.
Except I failed to heed my young friend's advice: Step up in the pocket, Jesus said. If I was going to throw a punch at a man with a gun, I damn sure needed to land it. And by inches it fell short.
My friends said Honcho fired once at the ground, almost like he was seeing if the old gun worked. It's odd; I have no memory of that. With stone contempt and considered aim, he looked me in the eyes and pulled the trigger.
In the air between us a wan flash of lightning appeared, crackling from above his left shoulder to the ground. As the bullet's force threw me backward I swear I could feel its churning spin. The pain was instantaneous and absolute. I cried out to my friends a line that in movies always made me cringe.
The remainder of the story is about generosity and friendship, since the outcome of Reid's incident involves good news for both him and his wife Dorothy Browne (an old friend wired Reid: "Jan -- Never go to a gunfight without a gun"). As of the publication of Close Calls, Reid was walking with a cane and was preparing a booklength memoir on the ill-fated trip to Mexico City, tentatively titled The Bullet Meant for Me.
Reid's account of stepping too close to danger mirrors the autumnal tone that pervades Turn Out the Lights, particularly when Cartwright writes about the death of his son Mark and his own health problems. At the end, these two exemplars of Texas ebullience are no longer carefree and full of curiosity and love of adventure. These books possess a cautionary wisdom, the kind you acquire when you court danger and danger provides you with a keen view of what lies beyond.
On Wednesday, Feb. 28, at 7pm, Jan Reid will participate in a program hosted by the Southwestern Writers Collection at SWT to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the publication of The Gay Place. Parking is available at the LBJ Student Center parking garage. Call 512/245-2313 for more information. The Southwestern Writers Collection is located on the seventh floor of the Alkek Library on the SWT campus.