My Dinner with Pat Conroy

  • By Ronald Goldfarb
  • March 16, 2016

Recalling an encounter with the legendary, late writer

My Dinner with Pat Conroy

Kathleen Parker’s recent column in the Washington Post quotes some Pat Conroy passages that show how he combined the best of commercial and literary fiction in his writings, especially the scents and rhythms of South Carolina, as he did in The Water Is Wide.

Parker was, as I was, enthralled by Conroy’s “crafted sentences so sensually lush,” describing “South Carolina’s seductive Lowcountry.” I would add the human pathos of his stories, notably The Great Santini.

But Parker's charming comments about her chance conversation with Conroy — who died last week at age 70 — reminded me of one I had with the great writer years ago. It was after his appearance at a PEN/Faulkner event where he spoke in Washington, DC, at a late dinner in his honor.

I told the author-raconteur, who was as wonderful a storyteller in person as on the printed page, how I loved all his books, The Prince of Tides especially. I didn’t like the movie but thought the book was touching, sensual, one to be reread. I asked Conroy for the shrimp recipe he mentioned in the book, in passages that made my mouth water.

“I'll come cook it for you next time I'm here," he said. "Just keep the bourbon refills coming while I cook it in your kitchen." He didn’t tell me his recipe.

"A deal,” I said. But time and life intruded and, alas, that dinner never happened. But then Conroy told me the story of how his wonderful book became a movie, a lovely story I have retold many times since. I will try to tell it here as I remember his telling it to me:

"I had this friend from high school days who was always making jokes and playing pranks on me, telling me the principal wanted to see me in his office, when he didn’t, or that some girl wanted me to call her, when she didn’t. Always fooling me, until I stopped falling for his stories and game playing,” Conroy recollected.

“When The Prince of Tides was published and I was going from city to city marketing my book, I'd get messages at different hotels to call Barbra Streisand. ‘Not this time,’ I thought, sure it was my old buddy pulling another trick on me. Finally, while I was in Texas on the book tour, I am in my hotel room and the phone rings. I answer it, and a recognizable woman's voice asks, ‘Why aren’t you returning my calls?’

"‘Who is this?’ I respond.

"‘Barbra Streisand,’ she replies.

"‘Sure,’ I say, calling her bluff, ‘if you are Barbra Streisand, sing People.’

“Then over the phone I hear the unmistakable, ‘People. People who need people…’

"‘Oh, shit,’ I say. And that's how Barbra got to produce ‘The Prince of Tides.’"

Readers will miss Pat Conroy, a great storyteller gone too soon.

Ronald Goldfarb’s column, CapitaLetters, appears regularly in the Washington Independent Review of Books.

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