The 'Days' and knights of Willie Morris

BOOK REVIEW

September 09, 1993|By Dan Cryer | Dan Cryer,Newsday DTC

The rise and fall of Willie Morris is a wonderfully rich if terribly sad piece of Americana. In 1967 at age 32, this whiz kid out of Mississippi was named editor of Harper's and transformed that venerable journal into the country's most exciting, best-written magazine. Month after month the reportage and essays from the likes of Norman Mailer, David Halberstam, Alfred Kazin, Larry L. King and Irving Howe cast startling and unconventional light on those turbulent times. Willie Morris, who had arrived in New York "a presumptuous and callow impostor," stood at the red-hot center of the culture.

All this, of course, was too good to last, too threatening to the bottom-line mentality of the magazine's owners, and in 1970 they pulled the plug on excellence. Mr. Morris quit in protest, retreated to the Hamptons and 10 years later decamped for Mississippi -- and Harper's was never the same.

"New York Days" is a spirited apologia, a treasure-trove of anecdotes and a more limited evocation of an era when unprecedented excitements and lunacies were appearing daily. It is also a bittersweet paean to the city of New York, which for this small-town Southerner was "sometimes ally, sometimes antagonist, but never for a moment neutral." Unlike Mr. Morris' earlier memoir, "North Toward Home," which brilliantly portrayed his boyhood in Mississippi, his student days at the University of Texas and Oxford, and his tenure as editor of the muckraking Texas Observer, the new book is rooted in New York, that glittering siren luring generations of ambitious provincials to their fates.

In a dark subplot, Mr. Morris' marriage breaks under the strains of fame and discordant paths. The split between Celia, his college sweetheart become Ph.D. -- "introspective, academic, and disciplined" -- and Willie -- "inchoate, nocturnal, uncompromisingly headstrong" -- turns irreparable. In the book's most poignant moment, we witness the editor of Harper's staked out near the office of his wife's psychiatrist, desperate to catch a glimpse of the man he blames for the loss of his beloved.

Mr. Morris' New York is as fascinating as it is hazardous. "I thought sometimes I would die of my own heat and curiosity and cunning," he confides. On the Upper West Side, where this WASP lives as a minority among Jews and Hispanics, he finds himself part of "an endlessly arresting spectacle." He is appalled by city rudeness, surprised by unexpected kindnesses. He dines with Ralph Ellison and admonishes cabbies more racist than those down home. He eventually enjoys what he initially feared: the cocktail parties where literary types convene to look over each other's shoulders.

Once he trails an elderly, elegant Garbo making her rounds from greengrocer to deli to tobacconist; another one-time star, Veronica Lake, turns up in real life as a waitress at a shabby luncheonette. He makes his post-divorce home at Elaine's, chats up athletes at George Plimpton's townhouse, is mistaken for a bartender by Teddy Kennedy at Jean Stein's salon. Fellow Southerners Robert Penn Warren, C. Vann Woodward and William Styron become fast friends.

Summoned to Arthur Schlesinger's with other notables to meet potential presidential candidate Sen. George McGovern in 1968, Morris graces the affair with the odor of dog manure he's just stepped in on the street. So it goes among the best and brightest and smelliest. Unfortunately, many of these stories are more entertaining than genuinely revealing. For broader atmospherics, Mr. Morris relies on such reliable '60s chroniclers as Todd Gitlin and Joan Didion.

"New York Days" is strongest when focused on the magazine, when the author's personal journey intersects with the Zeitgeist. Mr. Morris is indelible as the outsider as insider, "half Yazoo boy, half cosmopolitan man." His Harper's portraits are vivid. John Fischer, his predecessor as editor, is shy, gentle and "the tensest man" he's ever known.

Larry L. King, later to author "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," is the staff wild man, a rambunctious partygoer and teller of tall tales. Mr. Halberstam is "a blend of belligerence and sweetness." John Cowles Jr., the Minneapolis corporate mogul who, according to Mr. Morris, ruined it all, is "wooden and stolid and imperious." In one of the strangest twists of fate, Mr. Cowles later surfaces as a champion of EST and nude dancing.

Mr. Morris gives credit where it is due. He and his deputies, Baltimore-born Robert Kotlowitz and Midge Decter, implemented a brilliantly simple and rarely employed editorial policy -- to set the best writers sailing freely among the dangerous currents of the time. The results were often spectacular: Mr. Halberstam on "The Best and the Brightest," Mr. Mailer on the Pentagon March and the '68 presidential conventions, Bill Moyers on "Listening to America," Seymour Hersh on the My Lai massacre.

Willie Morris was no victim of overweening ambition. He seized his moment with a passionate commitment to excellence, and for this he deserves accolades. If "New York Days" only occasionally rises to the charged eloquence of "North Toward Home," it still must be considered essential testimony documenting the life and times of literary New York in the late '60s.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "New York Days"

Author: Willie Morris

Publisher: Little, Brown

Length, price: 396 pages, $24.95

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