The Greatest Editor I Ever Knew
By Larry L. King

He was the greatest editor I ever knew, and for many reasons.

    The first time Willie Morris edited a piece of mine — in 1964 — so deft was his copy editing that I was ashamed of my indiscriminate wordiness, and I immediately saw he had improved my copy by at least 30 percent. He edited all of the 26 pieces I wrote for Harper's magazine between 1964 and 1971, and I think he taught me something every time.

    But as good as he was with manuscripts, Morris was even better at matching writers and subjects. He loved to talk and to listen, almost always with a drink in his hand, and one was never quite sure where the conversation might go. The one thing that was a certainity was that when a writer's eyes began to shine, and words poured from him while his hands danced and darted and swooped, Willie Morris at some point would say, "Write that for me." He knew that if a writer was writing about a subject that truly engaged him, then he would likely bring to it his best bells and whistles and buttons and bows. This was particularly true of those of us who, free-lancing for a living with no guaranteed weekly paycheck, often met the rent and paid the utilities through grinding out pieces some editor had suggested and that, frankly, we didn't give a popcorn fart about except for the money. Willie knew how to mine for the true gold.

    It was amazing, to some, that Morris could turn out the "hottest book in America" — as Harper's was often called during his glory-reign as editor-in-chief from 1967-1971. These likely were anal-retentive types who put great faith in neat desks, long boring staff meetings, blizzards of memos, chair-warming, slavish attention to the telephone, and a grim business "game face" at all times.

    Ol' Willie's office — when he was in it — looked and sounded like dorm life among rowdy college football players: jokes, pranks, hoo-hawing and laughter prevailed. The editor-in-chief's desk looked liked a pile where pigs had fornicated, the editor-in-chief's shirt or jacket or sweater or trousers might host the spillage of one or more meals, the editor-in-chief's eyes surely sought out the office clock to see at what moment he dared to call it a day. Some days this might be at noon, or earlier, and other days the editor-in-chief might not even appear in the office until 4 p.m.

    "The office is a bad place to get anything done," Willie often complained. "The phones drive me crazy and everybody wants to give me goddamned memos to read." He felt, too, that he was fair game for literary agents when in the office: "Most writers are good talkers, interesting folks. Agents are tongue-tied if they ain't talking money." When he had editing to do, Willie Morris preferred to hide out at home or in a Chinese restaurant a few blocks from Harper's on Madison Avenue. It was there that he once set up his good friend, the writer James Jones, by seeing to it that the author of From Here to Eternity and The Thin Red Line received a fortune cookie saying, "You made your pile off the misery of others."

    Periodically, the money men at Harper's and more conventional old editorial heads persuaded young Willie Morris — all of 32 when he became top-dog at the magazine — to hold a staff meeting. Willie knew that I hated such meetings every bit as much as he did, and pressured me, finally, into attending one. None of my usual excuses or even some inventive new ones got me off the hook. I didn't know why I was so important to that particular meeting until I saw a certain glint in Willie's eye as he called the meeting to order and said, "Our visiting contributing editor, Larry L. King, has requested that he be permitted to open today's proceedings by singing his favorite Southern spiritual, "Jesus On the Five-Yard Line."

    I simply could not believe it. It was a song I never before had rendered sober, and always it was performed — usually at Willie"s request — at post-midnight concerts while I perched on a tall bar stool or perhaps stood up on a table. But I stood up, said with as much dignity as I could muster, "Thank you, Dr. Morris," and sang in my bar-room baritone — complete with cheer-leader gestures where needed — as follows:

Oh the game was played on Sunday
In St. Peter's backyard
Jesus played right halfback
And Moses played right guard.
The Angels on the sideline
Christ! How they did yell
When Jesus scored a touchdown
Against that team from Hell!

Stay with Christ! Stay With Christ!
Jesus on the Five yard-Line
Moses doing Goddern fine!
Stay With Christ
Stay With Christ
Staaaaaaaay with Christ!

    I nodded at a gaping, silent audience of elders and sat down. Willie began talking about the upcoming issue of the magazine as if I were not in the room or had not made a public fool of myself. For once, the old editors seemed almost speechless. The meeting was mercifully brief.

    Outside, as we escaped to that Chinese restaurant Willie loved, he laughed and said, "Now how was that for a good staff meeting?" As we drank a long lunch, he frequently broke into laughter at the expressions on the faces of the older editors. I think before we left, Willie had me rise and sing that song three times more. I should have known right then that, eventually, the money boys and the anal retentives would get Ol' Willie, as the funless and clueless group eventually did. But I will revere my old pal, for as long as I have breath, for putting out the best magazine I ever saw, read or worked on, and for all he did for writers and for writing then and later — while making it fun.

    Willie Morris died suddenly in Mississippi — his place — only a few hours before my family and I left for a long-planned vacation in Italy. On the day of his funeral I walked away from everyone else, in the shadow of The Colosseum in Rome. I talked privately to Ol' Willie's spirit for a few moments and then I sang for him — one last time — "Jesus on the Five-Yard Line." I think he would have liked that.

[Larry L. King is the author of 13 books, 7 stage plays, television documenaries, magazine articles and short stories. His most recent book, A Writer's Life In Letters, or, Reflections in a Bloodshot Eye will be published by TCU Press in October].

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Copyright The Southerner 1999. Illustration by Christopher Bookout.