Mississippi allowed the 20th anniversary of the death of one of its most celebrated sons to pass without notice almost a year ago. Willie Morris died at the age of 64 on Aug. 2, 1999, a few months short of his 65th birthday.
I cannot recall any mention of that milestone. May we never fail to remember this immensely talented writer and humanitarian who dearly loved his home state but also recognized its shortcomings.
Morris wished that Mississippi would someday join the rest of America in granting the full sweep of rights to all its citizens. I believe the entitlement he most valued was a quality education for our children, whether they lived in Sumner or Starkville, Vaiden or Vicksburg, Jumpertown or Jackson.
My own recollection of this Mississippi giant of letters was jogged when I read about the recent death of A.E. Hotchner, the author of “Everyone Comes to Elaine’s.”
The 2004 book told about New York City’s most revered watering hole for writers and other cultural artists. To say Willie Morris was a habitué of this establishment while living and working in that city is to say that fish occupy the Mississippi River.
I had read Willie’s accounts of Elaine’s and couldn’t resist Hotchner’s book to see what the fuss was about.
He quoted owner Elaine Kaufman as saying: “Right off the bat, I liked having writers around. They are a thinking group … they like to stick together, because they’re all under the same strain of working on their own against a blank piece of paper. But they don’t talk about writing, because they’ve had that all day long, so they turn their minds to other things. And they keep the same hours.”
The book has a full-page shot of Willie making a toast — or, perhaps, receiving one, at a party held in Elaine’s to celebrate his book “New York Days” in 1994. It was a sequel to “North Toward Home,” his acclaimed memoir published in 1967 while he was editing Harper’s Magazine. That book won the coveted Houghton Mifflin prize for non-fiction.
It’s easy to see why Morris adored Elaine’s as his after-hours haunt. There, he collected a bedazzling amalgam of writers for Harper’s. The list of literary luminaries included novelists Norman Mailer and William Styron and the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter David Halberstam, whose career began in West Point, Miss., and ended at The New York Times, where he covered Vietnam and civil rights.
Halberstam once said that when Willie was running Harper’s, “he owned New York.”
Morris came home and joined Ole Miss in 1980 as writer-in-residence. Heavily sought as an instructor and consultant on Mississippi life, it was there he wrote, among others, “My Mississippi,” a collaboration with his son, the photographer David Rae Morris. The book is described in its overview as “a father and son’s eloquent portrait and personal evocations of modern Mississippi.”
At Willie’s death, he became the first writer ever to lie in state in the Old Capitol rotunda. “Mississippi knows how to honor a writer,” said Pat Conroy, the noted author of “The Prince of Tides” and other novels.
I was thrilled, of course, when he brought Ole Miss historian David Sansing and Charles Overby, executive editor of The Clarion-Ledger, with him to McComb in early 1983 to raise funds for a journalism scholarship at Ole Miss in the name of my father, longtime newspaperman Charles B. Gordon.
As a young Mississippi weekly newspaper editor and Morris devotee, I was so mesmerized by his presence I hardly remember anything he said that night.
Mac Gordon is a part-time resident of McComb and a retired newspaperman. He can be reached at macmarygordon @gmail.com.