Willie Had His Quirks
By Winston Groom
Willie Morris lived hard, wrote beautifully and went out at the top of his game.
He had been in New York for the press screening of the movie of his book My Dog Skip, and phoned me excitedly that the reaction was splendid. A few days later, heart failure struck him down.
Willie was one of the most cultivated people I've ever known. Coming out of Yazoo City, Miss., he became in turn a Rhodes Scholar, editor of Harper's magazine in its heyday, and the author of 15 books, including North Toward Home and New York Days.
His reverence for the craft of writing was almost mystical and his generosity to young writers legendary.
He came to the Washington Star in the 1970s as writer-in-residence and, when he learned I was working on a novel about the Vietnam War, he not only demanded that I leave the paper to finish it, but found a literary agent to represent it.
Later, I sent him the manuscript of Forrest Gump before anyone else saw it and, instead of his usual blizzard of suggestions and corrections, he wrote back: "Don't touch a word of it!"
But Willie had his quirks: He had a certain fascination with death and could sometimes be found hanging around graveyards, speaking to tombstones as if they were real people; he took the writer William Styron to a cemetery where he had earlier planted Styron's famous book Lie Down In Darkness on a grave, open to the epigraph on Death. Also, Willie positively hated the telephone. So as not to hear it ringing, he sometimes put it in the oven. Occasionally he would forget and heat up a pizza or something. He lost a lot of good phones that way.
Mississippi knows how to treat its writers. Willie's remains lay in the rotunda of the Old Capitol Building after he died. The next day he was buried in Yazoo City in the same cemetery where, as a boy, he had played taps for the American Legion at funerals of Korean War soldiers. As the sun set over the vast Mississippi Delta, and many of America's greatest writers stood by in the scorching August heat, the mournful notes of taps resounded over one of this country's finest literary figures.
[Winston Groom is a former reporter for the Washington Star, author of Forrest Gump and other books].
Copyright © The Southerner 1999.