Days of Their Lives Willie Morris' return to his legendary, literary past

September 22, 1993|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

New York -- "I heard Mailer is going to be at the party tonight," Willie Morris is saying over lunch on a recent afternoon at the Algonquin Hotel. "And I heard Joan Didion is, too. It should be something, I believe."

He turns to his lunch partners, Robert Kotlowitz and his second wife, JoAnne Prichard, and he smiles. Willie Morris would be experiencing an epiphany of sorts in a few hours -- a book party in his honor, with much of the New York literati attending -- and what two better people to talk about it than the people to whom he dedicated his new book?

For, as Mr. Morris writes in his literary memoir, "New York Days," it was Robert Kotlowitz, the son of a Baltimore cantor, whom Mr. Morris chose as managing editor upon being named editor of Harper's magazine in 1967. Together they were part of the effort that made Harper's perhaps the most influential magazine in America in the late 1960s.

And JoAnne Prichard? She helped him put his life back together, after the years-long fallout from Morris' devastating ouster from the Harper's editorship in 1971. It's fitting that on the same day that her revitalized husband is being feted by old and good friends, the Morrises are celebrating their third wedding anniversary.

For Willie Morris is a man who has dealt with almost crushing pain and self-doubt. But today he celebrates his new book, his new marriage, his new life and the best of his future, present -- and past.

As editor of Harper's, this former Rhodes Scholar from Yazoo City, Miss., published nearly every contemporary American writer note, from Norman Mailer to Bernard Malumud to William Styron to John Updike. "I knew the writers, the poets, the intellectuals, the editors, the actresses, the tycoons, the homicide detectives, the athletes, the belle figure, and not a few fakirs and reprobates and charlatans," Mr. Morris writes in "New York Days."

He also knew emotional tumult that left long-lasting scars. He and his first wife, Celia, went through a painful divorce.

And there was his separation from Harper's. What began so promisingly in 1967 ended in deep disappointment four years later. Despite Harper's achievements, Mr. Morris was abruptly fired by a bottom-line management that fretted about the magazine's editorial content and its failure to make money. The magazine's cultural and literary impact, however, could be measured by the number of its contributors whose successes continue to this day. But Willie Morris was a wounded man for much of the 1970s and early '80s. To this day, he says, he cannot look at a copy of Harper's on a newsstand -- "I have to avert my eyes."

But more than two decades later, Willie Morris, now 58, has rebounded. Time has healed many of the hurts; so has writing "New York Days."

"I knew it was important that Willie write this book," says Ms. Prichard, who is an editor at the University Press of Mississippi. "It was important for him to come to terms with the Harper's experience."

More than a simple retelling of his life story, Mr. Morris says, "New York Days" "is about memory, and how we process memory." It's a subject he knows well.

Obsessed with history

Perhaps because of growing up in the Deep South, he's obsessed with history and stories. At 32, he wrote his first memoir, "North Toward Home," which caused a minor sensation when it was published in 1967 and to this day is frequently taught in colleges.

"I think the memoir really is his best genre," says Ms. Prichard of her husband, who had also written movingly of his hometown in "Yazoo" and of his relationship with the late author James Jones in "James Jones: A Friendship."

Now as Mr. Morris and Mr. Kotlowitz break bread for the first time in more than two decades, the talk turns, logically, to their own memories -- who had done what since the Harper's days, who had become one of the dearly departed, how contemporary New York literary life is nothing like that of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Mr. Kotlowitz also left Harper's in 1971, becoming a successful programmer for public television, as well as a critically acclaimed writer of four novels set primarily in Baltimore. He stayed in New York while Mr. Morris left town, first moving to Long Island, then to his native state in 1977, where he became writer-in-residence at the University of Mississippi.

While his life there was full and productive -- Mr. Morris helped encourage such young writing talents as Donna Tartt ("The Secret History") and John Grisham ("The Firm") -- the pain of his last days in New York remained. "Why would the hurt and anger and guilt, the tangible and continual sense of loss, last so long, so far into my adulthood?" he writes in "New York Days."

"I think you've come full circle now," Mr. Kotlowitz tells his friend at lunch. "First with 'North Toward Home,' and now this book."

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