A Briefly Brilliant Editor, And His Long, Slow Twilight

The second act of Willie Morris’ life could be a sequel to The Great Gatsby—in which we learn what became

The second act of Willie Morris’ life could be a sequel to The Great Gatsby—in which we learn what became of Gatsby’s brooding confidant Nick Carraway, blasted out of the Manhattan high life by a brutal calamity, and spending the balance of his days back home in the provinces, savoring simpler pleasures and sizing up a long, bumpy road back to a less flashy, less unsettled existence.

The story of Willie Morris—the celebrated editor of Harper’s when that monthly was in its highest New Journalism fettle in the late 1960’s—is, above all, a fable of American ambition. A whip-smart native of Yazoo City, Miss., Morris made his name first as a crusading editor and writer for his college paper, The Daily Texan, and then for the state’s noble, perennially broke muckraking political magazine, The Texas Observer. From there—by way of an aimless academic detour to Stanford University—he was plucked for service as the aide de camp and likely successor to Jack Fischer, Harper’s then editor in chief.

At the time—this was the mid-60’s, mind you—Harper’s was marketing itself under the most unpropitious slogan imaginable: “The oldest magazine in America.” Morris’ apprenticeship under Fischer lasted four long years (the maximum leader proved far more reluctant to retire than he’d let on), and so when he at last ascended, Morris moved in short order to clean house and make Harper’s speak directly to the burning issues of the day.

By any measure, he succeeded wildly. At the peak of his game, Morris devoted an entire issue of Harper’s to a 90,000-word dispatch from Norman Mailer, who’d recently been jailed for participating in an anti-war march in Washington. The piece, which later grew into The Armies of the Night, is still the longest ever published in a general-interest magazine. Morris also published early versions of William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner, Gay Talese’s The Kingdom and the Power, Pete Axthelm’s The City Game and Mr. Mailer’s The Prisoner of Sex, among others—a truly amazing four-year track record, now wholly unthinkable in today’s magazine world, rotted to its core with vacuous celebrity profiles, lifestyle attitudinizing and subliterate service twaddle.

Willie Morris’ story, in other words, is part of a much bigger story about the contraction of journalistic imagination, and Larry L. King in many ways is well suited to tell both tales. After Morris took over in 1967, he brought on Mr. King, a former Congressional staffer turned novelist, as one of four contributing editors to help ring in the big changes he had in mind. A native Texan—best known for co-authoring the smash musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas—Mr. King also shared, sometimes to a fault, Morris’ own acute sense of Dixie outsidership in the snobbish circles of New York literary celebrity. In one especially droll set piece, Mr. King recounts how Morris goaded him into singing a camp Texas gospel number, “Jesus on the Five-Yard Line,” at the outset of a meeting full of Fischer loyalists. The idea was that such a flagrant show of yokeldom in their genteel Northeastern midst would drive them all to resign—as, soon enough, it indeed did.

Mr. King can scarcely help telling a good deal of his own story alongside Morris’, which is both a signal strength and flaw of In Search of Willie Morris. Mr. King’s fondness for his subject helps him evoke the heady confidence of the Morris years at Harper’s—where, as Mr. King puts it, “so long as a writer used the space he needed wisely and well … the sky was the limit.” On trips north from D.C., Mr. King writes, “I would almost vibrate with energy, shine with it in my eagerness to reach Harper’s and my colleagues and friends.” Suffice it to say that no one today could speak of a magazine office in Manhattan in such glowing terms without eliciting a chorus of bitter guffaws.

Likewise, when relating how Morris came afoul of the magazine’s new owners, the Minneapolis-based Cowles family—proprietors of a regional newspaper chain that includes The Star-Tribune of Minneapolis and The Des Moines Register—Mr. King effectively summons the alternating moods of puzzlement and outrage of an insider seeing his friend and institutional protector badly overplaying his hand in a corporate power struggle. When the new Cowles-appointed president of Harper’s, Bill Blair, berated Morris for editing the magazine for “a bunch of hippies,” Morris just sulked and stewed; in an additional adolescent funk, he stood up the younger John Cowles—his main defender in the owner’s clan—for a post-board-meeting dinner in Minneapolis, flying back to New York without notice. And in mid-1971, when Morris composed an acid letter to the Cowleses protesting the ways they’d hamstrung and undermined his editorship—essentially an open invitation to fire him—he followed it up with a maladroit offer to resign, which the family promptly accepted. The wunderkind editor was now banished, thanks in no small part to his own unrestrained, inarticulate and alcohol-soaked sanctimony.

From there, Morris went downhill fast. He became a sodden fixture in Bridgehampton, then more of a bohemian retreat than the South Fork Soho it is today. During his nine years on Long Island, he mainly racked up debts and dallied with a couple of rich divorcees. (His first marriage, to his college sweetheart, collapsed not long before his Harper’s tenure did—a casualty of his virtual marriage to the magazine and his incessant midtown carousing.) One of many low points came in 1971, when Morris contrived to kidnap his 12-year-old son’s dog, which he then let loose to be killed by a car on the Sag Harbor Turnpike—a horrifyingly negligent sequence of acts that Morris somehow persuaded himself was really the fault of one of his wealthy inamoratas.

He wrote sporadically, publishing an indifferently received novel, The Last of the Southern Girls (1973), and working obsessively on his never-completed “big novel” Taps. When the English department at Ole Miss came with an offer, Morris—bitterly mourning the death of his Long Island neighbor, the novelist James Jones—took a shot at a homecoming, particularly since the passing of his own, much-resented mother had made the prospect of life in Mississippi thinkable again.

During the Mississippi years, Mr. King’s narrative loses steam—one suspects because the duty of relating a friend’s ongoing dissipation and growing belligerence gets depressing. Morris was greeted as a local hero, with overflowing seminar classes and campus ceremonies of all description. Ole Miss boosters were even careful to supply his faculty house with appliances, food and firewood. (Eventually, they would also forgive his outstanding rent as he sunk deeper into debt as well as drink.)

Mr. King is obviously mindful of his friend’s decline, but records it in much the same way his Ole Miss sponsors treated it—indulgently, as an unfortunate tic of an otherwise charismatic, larger-than-life character. He confines to a parenthesis the protests of Morris’ son, David Rae Morris, that no Oxford friend of his dad ever informed him that the drinking had careened out of control, and euphemistically refers to a drunken episode when Morris took a swing at an Oxford cop as “not a good moment between town and gown.”

Morris was evidently surrounded by enablers on all sides at Oxford, from professors making excuses for his surly assault on the fictional grounds that he had just heard “bad news” of some kind, to city authorities who arranged for Morris’ orders to attend drunk drivers’ school to vanish—and for his revoked driver’s license to be just as magically restored. Matters are scarcely helped here—as throughout the book—by Mr. King’s penchant for folksy Southern idioms and clichés: Morris is a “grass-grabbing drunk”; a good meal is “yum, yum, y’all.”

Thankfully, Morris’ life had a happy ending. He managed to pull himself out of Oxford, and his last decade was remarkably productive—seeing, among other things, the publication of his memoir of the Harper’s years, New York Days (1993), a sequel of sorts to his justly admired 1964 memoir North Toward Home, as well as another Mississippi memoir, My Dog Skip (1995), together with a number of essay collections. He also remarried, which allows Mr. King to end on a jolly note—“the Yazoo kid had quite an exhilarating ride”—and with the cursory, clichéd assurance that Morris’ late-life productivity was indeed largely owed to the love of “a good woman.”

Well, shucks. Can a life as tumultuous as Morris’ be tidied up with last-minute nuptials? All that boozing, and the many foul tempers that came with it – it seems like more than just a cry for a helpmeet. It’s a tall order to write dispassionately about an errant friend—and at the end of Larry King’s appreciative, sympathetic biography, you’re left with the nagging suspicion that In Search of Willie Morris never quite arrives at its destination.

Chris Lehmann is an editor at CQ Weekly and the author of Revolt of the Masscult (Prickly Paradigm). A Briefly Brilliant Editor,  And His Long, Slow Twilight