When writer Larry McMurtry rolled up to accept his Academy Award for helping write the screenplay for “Brokeback Mountain,” many Texans would appreciate his familiar attire. On Hollywood’s grandest night, one where fashion is much discussed, McMurtry sauntered up to the stage in black cowboy boots and blue jeans. The rest of his ensemble — dinner jacket, black bow tie and white shirt — looked more like an afterthought.
McMurtry was the essential Texan and he showed it that night in 2006 on that Academy Awards stage. However, McMurtry was also a transcendent talent who had incredible success in Hollywood, but he was also careful to remind the audience that much of their work was built from the pages of a book.
In his lifetime, McMurtry chronicled life in Texas in “The Last Picture Show,” “Terms of Endearment” and the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Lonesome Dove.” He died on Friday. He was 84.
For those who love the written word and Texas, McMurtry’s passing was a blow, but his legacy will be remembered for his memorable stories, characters and words. While he was known for some of the heft in his books, especially the beefy “Lonesome Dove,” he was a man of few words on the craft of writing.
In one of his memoirs, McMurtry wrote: “The best part of a writer’s life is actually doing it. The thrill lies in the rush of sentences, the gradual arrival of characters who at once seem to have their own life.”
McMurtry’s most notable works were centered in Texas. In “The Last Picture Show” it was North Texas of the 1950s, and in “Terms of Endearment” it was 1970s Houston and finally “Lonesome Dove” — set in south Texas in the years after the Civil War. “The Last Picture Show” was nominated for multiple Academy Awards, while “Terms of Endearment” won Best Picture in 1983 and Oscars for Shirley McLaine and Jack Nicholson. “Lonesome Dove,” of course, was made into a wildly popular miniseries in 1989 starring Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall.
His work followed in the footsteps of many great Texas writers, including J. Frank Dobie and O. Henry, and there are a host of great Texas writers to follow in McMurtry’s footsteps.
McMurtry’s literary contributions are a gift to the state of Texas, one to be celebrated for its honesty and clarity — a talent of all great writers. In his preface to the 25th anniversary of “Lonesome Dove,” McMurtry summed up what he thought about life: “And the blue pigs walked all the way to Montana just to be eaten. Life ain’t for sissies as Augustus might have said.”
While we mourn the loss of McMurtry, we also must take note of the loss of celebrated children’s author Beverly Cleary, who died last week at 104 years of age. For many children and parents, Cleary’s work was an indispensable part of life growing up.
Cleary’s most notable work — in a very long and prolific career — was the series of books about Ramona Quimby. The series, which started in 1955, gained steam in the 1970s as Cleary incorporated some of the challenges facing parents and children during that era, including Ramona’s mother heading to work full-time.
Over the course of her career, Cleary’s books sold more than 84 million copies and were translated into numerous languages. Her journey to write books began when she was a librarian and a child asked her if there were any books about people like him. She took it upon herself to write those books.
“I think sometimes beginning writers are so impressed with what they have written that they can’t really judge it,” she said. “I know I wouldn’t want to see anything published as I wrote it initially because it changes so much in the writing. I revise until a little light bulb clicks off and I know it’s done. I just know when it feels right. My first editor told me I was an intuitive writer. I hadn’t really thought about myself that way, but I guess she was right.”
Like McMurtry, Cleary’s contributions are hard to measure, but the good news is that the written word is timeless and the stories they told will be with us for many years to come. Thank you, Larry McMurtry and Beverly Cleary for a life well written.