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On the Reinvention of Willie Morris

From Oxford Magazine, Oxford, Mississippi

Reinventing Willie

Aug 16, 2022 | ColumnsFeaturesJim Dees

By: Jim Dees

Reinventing Willie

Oxford is known as a retirement destination but it’s also a place for those of any age to rebound from a crisis, tie up messy loose ends or reinvent yourself. Perhaps no one practiced this art better than the late writer, Willie Morris.

Willie lived in Oxford from roughly 1980 to 1990 and he was, as they say these days, a hot mess. He showed up driving his deceased mother’s 1974 Plymouth with few possessions and an ancient black Lab, Pete, in tow.

Willie had suffered a painful divorce in 1969 and was forced to make a principled decision to resign his beloved job at Harper’s magazine in 1971. Willie’s best friend, the author James Jones, passed in 1977 but not before asking Willie to finish his novel-in-progress using an outline and his dictated notes. 

Willie dutifully honored his friend’s request. The book turned out to be Whistle, the final novel in Jones’ WWII trilogy that included, From Here to Eternity

The rest of the 1970s saw Willie deeply grieving while pursuing often demeaning freelance projects.

Just nine years prior, he had “owned” literary Manhattan, according to author David Halberstam.

Willie was the editor-in-chief at Harper’s, in fact, their youngest ever at 36. This was an era when magazines were the cable TV of their time and magazine writers had star power akin to Rachel Maddox.

It was the “Mad Men” era of publishing and Willie was in the thick of the swirl: endless phone messages, three-martini lunches, all-nighters on deadline, hefty expense accounts.

From The Baltimore Sun: “As editor of Harper’s, this former Rhodes Scholar from Yazoo City, Miss., published nearly every contemporary American writer of note, from Norman Mailer to Bernard Malamud 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, and not a few fakirs and reprobates and charlatans,” Mr. Morris wrote in his memoir, “New York Days.”

From such a heady whirlwind to a one-bedroom bungalow on Faculty Row at Ole Miss is quite a drop-off in intensity. Willie made the most of it. His tiny abode became a late-night salon for the nightcap crowd. He started teaching classes, going to Rebel sporting events and becoming a habitue of what became his favorite Oxford restaurant, Ruby Chinese. 

Ruby’s had sensational food but Willie went anyway. There’s an old legend that he actually edited Harper’s from a Chinese restaurant across the street from his office. “Not for the food, which was terrible,” Halberstam told the New York Times, “but because he liked the bar.”

In 1982, Willie published a haunting book about his days working on Whistle and his time with James Jones called James Jones: A Friendship.  A beautiful collection of essays followed, Terrains of the Heart, published locally by Dean Faulkner Wells and husband Larry at their Yoknapatawpha Press. 

In the meantime, Willie was reinventing Willie. During his teaching tenure at Ole Miss, he gave extra credit to students who could stand and recite the infield fly rule. When Pete finally passed at age 12, Willie arranged to have him buried in St. Peter’s cemetery. (Later disinterred).

Willie wouldn’t answer his phone but he’d write you a five-napkin letter of encouragement at dinner. 

He became a man about town when “town” pretty much consisted of the Warehouse, the Gin and the Holiday Inn. Yet he still published a book every two years while in Oxford and was often featured on national television as an “explainer” of Mississippi to glib TV interviewers and the similarly clueless.

In 1990 after a decade of being beloved in Oxford, Willie married JoAnne Prichard, moved to Jackson and began one of the happiest decades of his life. He published, My Dog Skip, which was later made into a classic movie by Disney.

We lost Willie on August 2, 1999. This summer, Willie’s son, photographer David Rae Morris, released a book of photos of his father accompanied by Willie’s letters to David Rae. The book, Love, Daddy – Letters from My Father traces Willie through his years in New York, Oxford and Jackson. 

You can see the progression from Manhattan star to lost soul on Long Island; his Oxford rebound years and finally peace and serenity (and more hard work) with JoAnne in Jackson. One of the final images in David Rae’s touching book is a photo of Willie’s work table on the day he died. 

The space is covered with notes for his next book which was to be about baseball and his father.

Sorry to miss that next beauty from the terrains of his heart. 

Thanks, Willie.

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