Noted writer resurfaces in a tragedy Author: Gayl Jones, once heralded by Maya Angelou, turns up in a bloody confrontation in Kentucky.

February 24, 1998|By Don Edwards, Sarah A. Webster and Brian Bennett | Don Edwards, Sarah A. Webster and Brian Bennett,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- In the mid-1970s, Gayl Jones turned a life in Lexington into shocking new American literature -- but the fictional violence she wrote about has exploded into her own reclusive life here.

Newsweek magazine called her "The Invisible Woman" in its Feb. 16 review of the author's first novel in 20 years and asked:

"Where oh where can she be?"

The answer: 440 Locust Ave. in Lexington's Castlewood Park area, a small frame house with water-streaked green siding and a chain-link fence.

An emotional hand grenade blew up there on Friday night. After a three-hour standoff with police, Bob Jones, Gayl Jones' husband, killed himself by cutting his throat.

The dark, soulful eyes of Gayl Jones reveal no clue about how it happened:

How did a celebrated African-American author forsake a decade of fiction writing -- leaving the literary world hungry -- for a husband whose mental decline would end Friday night in fatal drama?

The answer seems to date back to 1983, when Jones' husband, Bob Higgins, disturbed a Gay Pride rally in Ann Arbor, Mich., by denouncing homosexuality and ranting about AIDS.

His mental decline became apparent with that incident, Ann Arbor News articles indicate. The episode caused Jones to resign from an English professorship at the University of Michigan and sent the couple into hiding for the past 15 years, according to the articles.

And it was remnants of that incident that sent police, armed with a fugitive-from-justice warrant, knocking on the door of 440 Locust Ave. in Lexington about 6 p.m. Friday.

In 1983, although a marcher had punched Higgins in the face, causing a fight, it was Higgins who was charged with assault after he returned to the melee with a shotgun, News articles say.

Jones wrote to President Reagan protesting the charge and resigned from her position. While the couple lived across the ocean in Paris, Higgins was tried in absentia, the News reported.

The jury convicted Higgins in 1984, and the couple remained in hiding until Friday.

In a stroke of incidental detective work, Assistant Fayette County Attorney Lee Turpin took note of a Feb. 16 Newsweek article, which profiled Jones and her book, "The Healing."

In recent months, the office of the Fayette County attorney -- as well as the Lexington police, the University of Kentucky Markey Cancer Center and the Lexington Herald-Leader -- had received bizarre diatribes of conspiracies and threats by a man named Bob Jones, who noted he was the husband of a Lexington author, Gayl Jones.

But the Newsweek article had a different name for Jones' husband: Bob Higgins. A police check of that name, said Fayette County Attorney Margaret Kannensohn, revealed the outstanding fugitive warrant. And police went to serve it with caution, Kannensohn said.

Higgins slit his throat after refusing to surrender to authorities. He died an hour later at the University of Kentucky Hospital.

Gayl Jones, 48, was taken to Eastern State Hospital for observation because she was threatening to harm herself, police said.

An important writer

Gayl Jones had once been an associate professor of literature at the University of Michigan.

She is a writer who has been acclaimed by such major literary figures as Maya Angelou and John Updike.

But who is Gayl Jones?

"Nobody really knew Gayl," recalls Sue Ann Allen, who was Jones' English teacher at Lexington's Henry Clay High School in the spring of 1966, when Jones was a junior. "She was very quiet and private. But she was an absolutely extraordinary student. The other students would discuss a question, then always turn to her and say, 'OK, Gayl, tell us the answer.' "

Jones was born in 1949 into a segregated Lexington and grew up on Florence Avenue. Her father, Franklin, was a cook at Matthew Amato's Restaurant the year Jones was born. Her mother, Lucille, was an aspiring writer.

The Henry Clay English teacher who changed Jones' life profoundly was Anna Dodd, who saw Jones' brilliance and persuaded Elizabeth Hardwick to mentor Jones. Hardwick is a Lexington-born writer who had also gone to Henry Clay.

By 1967, Hardwick was a nationally known writer who had co-founded the New York Review of Books and was married to poet Robert Lowell.

Hardwick and Lowell arranged a scholarship for Jones at the University of Connecticut in 1967, Allen said. At Connecticut, she won the school's poetry award two years in a row. She later earned master's and doctoral degrees at Brown University.

Jones' first novel, "Corregidora," was published in 1975. It is a sexually explicit story of a black Lexington blues singer who is a ++ battered wife.

"Gayl was so shy, almost mousy, that I couldn't imagine her knowing about those things, much less writing about them," said Dorothy M. Todd, another Henry Clay teacher.

The critics raved about the book and called it a milestone in the history of African-American literature.

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