A Legendary Legacy

How Larry McMurtry single-handedly elevated the Lonestar canon.

A Legendary Legacy

Like Larry McMurtry, my late father grew up in a one-stoplight Texas town whose residents worked mainly on farms and ranches. In the summer of 1963, when I was 9 and our family lived in Houston, he came home on a Sunday afternoon after seeing the new movie “Hud,” which was based on McMurtry’s first novel, Horseman, Pass By, written when the author was 24.

Dad said the film struck a nerve because of its riveting portrayal of the tension between a father and son amid the declining appeal of small-town life, a future pointed toward urbanization, and the movement of society’s moral compass away from true north. Dad was fine telling me and my siblings about the movie but said we were too young to absorb it.

Eight years later, when I was a senior in high school, my father saw “The Last Picture Show,” based on McMurtry’s novel of the same title. This time around, he wanted me to see it so I’d have a clear sense of the time, place, people, and social dynamic where he had grown up — the small Panhandle town of Shamrock. The reviews I read spoke of its generational, interpersonal, and, yes, sexual tension, which made me want to see it post haste.

Watching the film brought on a rush that didn’t cease. Cybill Shepherd, the most alluring woman I’d ever seen, played the young temptress sought by every man in town. Irresistibly charismatic Jeff Bridges was her boyfriend. Ellen Burstyn lit up the screen as a middle-aged cougar, while Timothy Bottoms played the lead as a high-school favorite with nowhere to go after graduation. Cloris Leachman played a lonely, depressed coach’s wife, a role that won her the Oscar. And last and most memorably, Ben Johnson won an Oscar for his portrayal of Sam the Lion, the town’s mentor and conscience, whose unexpected death accentuated its dismal future.

Filmed in haunting black and white by director Peter Bogdanovich at the suggestion of Orson Welles, with angst-filled scenes and dialogue that flowed from McMurtry’s screenplay, the movie penetrated into the soul of most who saw it, including mine. It did to me what “Hud” had done to my father.

Nine months later, I started college at the University of Texas. School had barely begun when the Daily Texan ran an ad for an upcoming program on campus: Larry McMurtry would be speaking in the student union’s main ballroom. I went to see him, and it impacted my entire college experience.

Although I can’t remember a thing he said that day, I know he mesmerized me — to the extent that I committed never to missing another major speaker at UT, and I didn’t. Within two years, I’d become chairman of the campus’ speakers committee, and it allowed me to bring people to Austin on the order of Coretta Scott King, Robert Penn Warren, William Styron, Willie Morris, and “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry.

McMurtry’s stature as a writer, meanwhile, continued to grow. In 1975, he wrote Terms of Endearment, which inspired the multiple-Oscar-winning 1983 movie starring Shirley MacLaine and Jack Nicholson. And in 1985, his masterpiece, Lonesome Dove, which one reviewer called “the Moby Dick of the West,” was released. It was a novel neither I nor anyone else could put down, and it won the 1986 Pulitzer Prize. Three years later, it was transformed into a television miniseries that became the most successful production of its kind in entertainment history.

My McMurtry fascination never waned. In 2002, my law partner Jay Madrid read an article in the San Francisco Examiner about the five greatest bookstores in the country, and one of them, Booked Up, was owned and run by McMurtry in his hometown of Archer City, Texas. Jay asked me if I wanted to join him on an excursion to see it, and there was no way I could turn down his invitation.

On that fateful Friday, we entered the store’s lobby, where its most notable titles were on display. Then I went ahead of Jay to a cavernous room filled with dozens of floor-to-ceiling shelves. Standing there was a paunchy grey-haired man in blue jeans, suspenders, and a white T-shirt marking prices on books. Yes, live and in color, there was Larry McMurtry. Since he and I were the only people in the room, I decided I had to start a conversation with the living legend.

“Mr. McMurtry, excuse me. I don’t mean to interrupt your work — but in September of 1972, I was a freshman at UT and saw you speak on campus…” Before I got out another word, he interrupted me and bellowed, “And I never went back!” He proceeded to tell me about his issues with Austin, and then we talked about his most recent writings and bookstore. Since it was noon, I invited him to join Jay and me for lunch. He declined but recommended a local café where the food was “mediocre but edible.”

After lunch, Jay and I browsed the rest of the massive store, which covered almost the entire courthouse square and contained hundreds of thousands of books. (McMurtry allegedly read at least a page or two in every book in his inventory.) When we reached the sports section, there, with its dust jacket facing outward, was my first book, 1939: Baseball’s Pivotal Year. Why I didn’t take a photo of that glorious moment I’ll never know, though I’ll always have Jay to corroborate it. On our way back to Dallas, I called my dad to tell him I’d met McMurtry and to review the day’s highlights.

Two years later, McMurtry and his best friend and writing partner, Diana Ossana, wrote the screenplay for the movie “Brokeback Mountain,” which would go on to win three Oscars, including Best Screenplay.

In 2014, seven years before his death, McMurtry received the National Humanities Medal from Barack Obama at the White House. In presenting the award, the president said, “His work evokes the character and drama of the American West with stories that examine quintessentially American lives.”

My extended journey with McMurtry’s work has now entered a new dimension with the September release of two books devoted to the author’s life and impact: Tracy Daugherty’s Larry McMurtry: A Life and George Getschow’s Pastures of the Empty Page: Fellow Writers on the Life and Legacy of Larry McMurtry. When read together, they allow McMurtry afficionados like me to finally connect the dots regarding why this man now (and perhaps forever) stands at the top of Texas literary history.

In short, his work covered the past and the present, and most of it was about Texas — its desolate plains, small towns, big cities, and, above all, its people. To McMurtry, nothing about the human condition was simple, all of it was tense and complicated, and he wrestled with that reality in a way that made the reader think about his own place in a changing world. For that reason alone, Larry McMurtry has done more than anyone to give Texas writers their esteemed stature in the pantheon of American literature.

[Editor’s note: This piece was adapted from a longer essay that originally ran in the Dallas Morning News.]

Talmage Boston is a lawyer and historian in Dallas whose most recent book is Cross-Examining History: A Lawyer Gets Answers From the Experts About Our Presidents. His next book, How the Best Did It: Leadership Lessons from Our Top Presidents, will be published by Post Hill Press on April 2, 2024.

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