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

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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."

Mr. Morris nods. "I knew I was going to do it eventually, because so many people were asking me to," he allows, a Mississippi Delta accent softening his tones and stretching his vowels. "But I'm glad I did it, and I'm glad I let 20 years lapse. I had tried to make peace with the period earlier, and I felt that bitterness would be self-destructive. I wanted the book to be generous in spirit."

That's perhaps why much of "New York Days" has an innocent sweetness to it, as evidenced by the first sentence: "I came to the city and it changed my life."

But Willie Morris' Harper's changed America, too. The country was undergoing enormous change, and its young, aggressive editor got the best writers in America to chronicle it.

Harper's had quite a cast, filled with such iconoclasts and fierce individuals as Mr. Mailer and David Halberstam, who left the New York Times to become a writer for Harper's. Somehow, Mr. Morris coaxed the best out of them, even when it meant stretching the rules of conventional magazine journalism.

Classics of the era

He had the vision to print such classic Mailer pieces as "The Prisoner of Sex" and "On the Steps of the Pentagon," which was later expanded into the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "The Armies of the Night."

He also persuaded novelist William Styron, a friend, to let him excerpt 45,000 words of the 1967 novel, "The Confessions of Nat Turner." The book caused a furor among those who felt a white Southerner had no right to write a book from the viewpoint of a black slave.

Mr. Halberstam's writings in Harper's on the Vietnam War -- later to become his best-selling book, "The Best and the Brightest" -- similarly caused an uproar.

"I think that so much of being a good editor is instinctive," Mr. Morris says, stubbing out one of the many Viceroy cigarettes he would smoke this day. "You have to learn a lot on your own."

But, like any good editor, Mr. Morris values the opinions of others. While writing "New York Days," he plumbed the memory of some 35 friends and colleagues. "Then, when I got the whole thing done, I sent the manuscript out to about 12 people."

He got some interesting critiques in reply.

"Mailer. . ." Mr. Morris begins slowly, and you see another story in the works behind his mock-solemn visage. "I had a description of cocktail party that I had gone to in Greenwich Village. . . I wrote that he and somebody else were involved in some heated discourse, and three minutes later I saw him lying on the floor with a bloody lip. So he writes in the margin: 'Wrong! I have only been knocked down three times in my life! You may be remembering a story I told you once about being knocked down in Mexico.' "

Mr. Morris takes a drag on his cigarette. "So I changed it to 'I saw Mailer standing with a bloody lip.' "

Four hours later, Mr. Mailer, standing and definitely not bloody, is among the literati assembled at Elaine's for Mr. Morris' book party. Literary old guard

Joan Didion doesn't make it to Elaine's on this warm, late-summer night, but Mike Wallace of "60 Minutes" drops by, and so does Walter Cronkite. The silver-maned George Plimpton holds court at one end of the bar. At the other, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. introduces his guest for the evening, Russian poet Yevgeni Yevtushenko. It was obviously a convergence of New York's literary old guard, although Donna Tartt flew in from Sweden.

All of this, of course, is not lost on Willie Morris. With dozens of copies of his book stacked behind him, he grabs a spoon and clinks it against his glass to ask for quiet.

"This is the most stunning convention of literary talent in one place since Elvis Presley dined alone," Mr. Morris announces solemnly, putting a twist on John Kennedy's famous remark about Thomas Jefferson.

"Willie is just a gifted, extraordinary, intuitive editor," says Mr. Styron when asked how his friend of nearly three decades could draw such a crowd. "He's got a great combination of honesty, intelligence and a touch of genius."

Two and a half hours later, after signing dozens of copies of his book, and after the innumerable hugs and handshakes and kisses on the cheek, Willie Morris is exhausted. He wipes his moon face with a handkerchief -- the guy looks amazingly like Babe Ruth -- and searches for another cigarette.

"This was an outpouring of writers of all ages, backgrounds," Mr. Morris says after a moment of reflection on the hours just concluded. His voice cracks just a bit. "I'm just absolutely overwhelmed. This was everything I expected, and more. Can you believe it? Yev-tu-shen-ko!"

In the next room, some of his closest friends -- among them Mr. Kotlowitz, Mr. Halberstam, Mr. Styron and writer Larry L. King, another Harper's alumnus -- are waiting to have a long-anticipated dinner. This is a moveable feast he is not going to miss.

Morris attracted the heavy hitters

Willie Morris' Harper's family tree, 1967-71:

Willie Morris: Editor. He also has written 13 books, beginning with his 1967 memoir "North Toward Home."

Robert Kotlowitz: Managing editor. Left to become an executive producer at WNET-TV in New York. Has written four novels, the last being "His Master's Voice" in 1992.

David Halberstam: Contributing editor. Wrote what became "The Best and the Brightest" for Harper's, went on to write several more best-selling books, including "The Fifties."

Larry L. King: Contributing editor. Became a leading nonfiction writer through such books as "Confessions of a White Racist," but is perhaps best-known as co-author of the Broadway musical, "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas."

Contributors:

Norman Mailer: After writing such notable Harper's pieces as "The Prisoner of Sex" and "On the Steps of the Pentagon," -- which shared the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction in 1969 -- he won the 1980 Pulitzer in fiction for "The Executioner's Song."

William Styron: "The Confessions of Nat Turner," which was excerpted in Harper's, won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 1968. Also wrote "Sophie's Choice" and, this month "A Tidewater Morning."

Joe McGinniss: Harper's published excerpts of his first book "The Making of the President 1968." Has since written several best-sellers, though his latest book, "The Last Brother," has received some of the toughest reviews of the '90s.

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