Browse this book with Google Preview »
The gunman wore cowboy boots with bulldogging heels. He chased the woman into the bathroom of the boarding house at the intersection of Presa and Arciniega Streets in San Antonio at around six o'clock in the morning of Monday, May 10, 1943. An old man who lived there was scrubbing the bathroom floor when she ran in. "Stay by me, Dad!" she cried out to the man. "He's going to kill me!" Before the old man could do anything to help her, the gunman fired two shots from his revolver, dropping the woman. Then he stood over her, shot her three more times, and let the gun fall to the floor. He was stepping back from the fallen woman when another shot rang out—the last bullet in the pistol. It hit the gunman in the eye and lodged in his brain. When the police arrived just minutes later, Grover Virgil Lewis was barely alive. Opal Bailey Lewis, a waitress at the Menger Hotel who had been granted a divorce from Big Grover just six weeks earlier, was already dead. The police had Big Grover, as he was known in his family, rushed to Robert B. Green Hospital, where he died a short time later.
At least that was how the astounding story played in the police report and in Grover Jr.'s head down through the years. Many years later, Big Grover and Opal's son, the writer Grover Lewis, tried to make sense of this horrendous episode as he was entering the last months of his own life. Drawn to the brute pathos of that explanation, he had in his writing reconstructed the scene in ways that rang true. But the premise relied on a coroner's ruling that Opal—despite having been shot five times, with mortal injuries convening in not the steadiest rush, and with no known experience handling a gun—managed to pick up the revolver and fire the perfect fatal shot into Big Grover's eye. It was as if God himself hurled down a thunderbolt of outrage and retribution. For a long time, Grover believed the coroner's account, but from studying the scant evidence he decided that the old man in the bathroom retrieved the pistol; and he was the one who put Big Grover down. The San Antonio police assessed the situation, decided Big Grover deserved shooting, and let the old man walk.
Whatever happened, the killings culminated one catastrophic phase of Grover's life and opened the door to another phase that was as terrible in its own way. That he was able to survive what he did in childhood and go on to become a highly regarded magazine journalist and popular-culture critic is testament to a courage and stamina beyond what most people could ever hope for.
Grover Virgil Lewis Jr. was born November 8, 1934, in San Antonio. A daughter was born to Big Grover and Opal two years later. Big Grover worked as a truck driver, but he drank away much of his earnings, and by the early 1940s, the family lived in San Antonio's Victoria Courts, a low-income housing project. Big Grover and Opal's marriage seemed doomed from the start. He was a rough-cut, scarcely educated man who'd grown up in the small Texas towns of Lampasas and Bowie. Opal came from Dallas and possessed a level of sophistication far beyond Big Grover. She loved books and movies, passions that she passed on to her son. Young Grover Lewis himself seemed to be a source of conflict within the marriage. He was born with a congenital eye condition that manifested itself in a severe astigmatism that left him with only 17 percent of normal vision. The condition was common among the Baileys, and Big Grover came to blame Opal for giving him a four-eyed, geeky son instead of a "normal" child. When disputes with Big Grover became too violent for Opal to bear, she hit the road with her children. Big Grover stalked her until the shooting in San Antonio.
After the deaths of his parents, the boy and his sister were sent to live with Opal's sister and her husband on the outskirts of Fort Worth. The aunt and uncle were cut from a lot of the same cloth as Big Grover. Caught up in fundamentalist religion and not trusting education or culture, they were cruel to the boy with the intellectual airs. He frequently was beaten. At times, they withheld food from him as a penalty for some perceived wrongdoing. At other times, they required him to eat food he didn't like as punishment. As a result, Grover developed eating disorders that dogged him for the rest of his life. At one point, Grover saved up precious nickels earned from a newspaper route and bought a relative a copy of The Grapes of Wrath as a present. Spotting the book in Grover's room, his uncle became furious, convinced that it was some form of pornography. He forced Grover to burn the book in the backyard. Not long after that, Grover ran away from home and made his way to San Antonio. He was all of thirteen years old.
Shortly after he arrived, the police in San Antonio picked him up at a bus station. His uncle in Fort Worth wasn't much interested in having him back. And Grover was dead set against returning. The family decided that he should stay with an uncle from the Bailey side of the family who lived alone in a shabby apartment in the Dallas suburb of Oak Cliff. This turned out to be one of the few good decisions made about Grover in his younger years. This uncle nurtured him rather than stymied him, encouraging his jaunts to nearby movie theaters and the local library. His terrible eyesight forced him to read like a robot, literally moving his head slightly to the right as he read each word, then jerking it to the left to start a new line. Yet he began compulsively consuming two or three books a week, a habit that continued for the rest of his life. And in the dark recesses of Oak Cliff theaters, Grover developed an encyclopedic knowledge of the works of actors, directors, and screenwriters, plus a deep understanding of how movies are made.
A lackluster student while in Fort Worth, Grover now earned top grades. He graduated from W. H. Adamson High School in 1953, then headed north to Denton to attend North Texas State College (now the University of North Texas), where he took a B.A. in English in 1958. At North Texas, Grover flourished. He won student writing awards for poems, short stories, and essays. He helped found a student-faculty society for "the study of cinematic arts" and acted in theater productions. His stories and poems began to appear in prestigious literary magazines like Carolina Quarterly and New Mexico Quarterly. The Nation bought one of his satirical works while Grover was still an undergraduate. Samuel French Inc. published his play Wait for Morning, Child after it won the company's national collegiate writing contest. And Grover developed an important friendship with another North Texas student with writing ambitions, Larry McMurtry. The two discussed books they'd read, bouncing theories off each other. Grover later fondly remembered times when he and McMurtry would drive for hours just to get a milkshake at some out of the way drive-in restaurant they'd heard about, talking about books the whole time they were on the road. Students of other enthusiasms might react to them as a couple of odd-looking ducks wearing the unflattering spectacles of the time, but they were the undisputed star literati on campus. Their poetry and prose carried and dominated issues of Avesta, the student literary magazine (copies of it became a rare treasure in the world of collectors that would beckon McMurtry). Though McMurtry subsequently changed the dedication in later editions after their friendship had grown distant, the first edition of McMurtry's Horseman, Pass By carries a dedication, in part, to Grover Lewis.
Grover's time at North Texas had its rough moments, too. As soon as he discovered that there was such a thing as a counterculture, he championed it. In the 1950s, that meant embracing the Beat movement while snubbing his nose at the extremely conservative political views in vogue in Texas. His writings expressed these interests and brought about howls from some faculty and administrators at North Texas. And, in a place dominated by Southern Baptists and Campbellites, Grover proudly proclaimed himself to be a Unitarian. He had turmoil in his personal life as well. At nineteen he had married, and while still a college student, he fathered a son and a daughter. Money was tight. Grover was learning he had little in common with his wife, so the marriage grew tense. Compounding the situation was that, like his father, Grover had begun drinking—hard. Eventually the young couple divorced. Grover signed away his parental rights when his ex-wife remarried, creating an estrangement between him and his children that he came to regret later in life.
After graduating from North Texas, Grover spent a year teaching high school English in Wylie, Texas, before returning to Denton to enter grad school. Between classes, he held down a full-time job as a philosophy instructor at North Texas (in one class he formed a lasting bond with a lanky small-town student named Don Graham, who became a prominent writer and scholar of the cultural life of the Southwest). Grover also found the time to hold a job as a staff book reviewer for the Dallas Times Herald. In 1960, he was named a National Defense Act fellow and moved to Lubbock to pursue a Ph.D. in English at Texas Tech. At Tech, he encountered an environment that was even more hostile to his freewheeling ideas, and he was not happy, though he distinguished himself as a graduate assistant, a speaker, and a proponent of roots music, particularly Southwestern folk music. Frustrated by the cultural environment in Lubbock, he left Tech in 1963 without his doctorate and traveled to California to sample a less restrictive lifestyle.
Later that year, he was back in Texas, working as a copy editor and music and book critic for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He was one of a number of talented writers performing groundbreaking work on Dallas and Fort Worth newspapers in that period—Dan Jenkins, Edwin "Bud" Shrake, A. C. Greene, and Gary Cartwright among them. He was not as close to Shrake and Cartwright—nor their legendary bacchanals—as he would have liked; he came to know them and gained their respect in later years. He was drawn to writers who shared his Texas origins and his ribald aspiration to transcend those roots. Of all the writers he knew over the years, he admired none more than Billy Lee Brammer, another Oak Cliff native who wrote the novel The Gay Place, and the all-purpose critic and stylist Dave Hickey, who came up on the brick streets of Fort Worth. During Grover's Fort Worth days, he made a name for himself by serving as featured speaker at various arts programs around town, and he collected a Sigma Delta Chi award for a series of features he wrote about blues singer Lightnin' Hopkins—he later drew on this material for a celebrated Village Voice series about Hopkins. His expertise on blues music prompted Chess Records to invite him to write liner notes for albums by Little Milton and Mitty Collier.
After leaving the Star-Telegram in 1965, he worked in advertising and public relations before taking another metropolitan newspaper position in 1966, this one as a state desk reporter at the Houston Chronicle. When Ken Kesey, Neal Cassady, and the rest of the Merry Pranksters showed up in Houston aboard their fabled bus to visit Kesey's old friend Larry McMurtry—the novelists had met while on Wallace Stegner writing fellowships at Stanford—Grover wrote about psychedelia's big-time coming to town for the Chronicle, pre-dating Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by more than three years. During these years, he also served as fiction editor for a local arts magazine and helped the David Gallery in Houston with its advertising. He left the Chronicle in May 1968 for a job writing copy for a Houston advertising and PR firm, but within a year, he'd taken a big step forward in moving his career to the national stage.
In January 1969, The Village Voice published his Lightnin' Hopkins series. With it, Grover was able to leave Texas newspapers and PR agencies and move to California. He went there to cover the booming counterculture for the Voice. The calm and frightful vividness of his piece on the Altamont rock festival-disaster caught the eye of many discerning readers. While still on the Voice staff, he coedited a publication called Focus: Media. One issue contained the bylines of Nelson Algren, Tim Cahill, Tom Buckley, Jack Thibeau, the great San Francisco sportswriter Wells Twombley, and two young writers who would make their marks in Texas, C. W. Smith and Gregory Curtis. But Grover scored the coup with an article about an upstart counterculture magazine, Rolling Stone. On the basis of that piece publisher Jann Wenner hired him as a Rolling Stone associate editor—and put him at the white-hot center of American journalism.
During the early '70s, he enjoyed the widest reading audience of his career as a major Rolling Stone writer at a time when the magazine was being lauded as the best publication in America. His most important pieces were written from the sets of films like The Getaway and The Friends of Eddie Coyle.
Early in his Rolling Stone career, he was cast in a small role in the film version of McMurtry's The Last Picture Show. As Sonny's dad, he appears on screen for only a few moments with a couple of brief lines of dialogue during the Christmas dance scene. It was not enough to open the doors of an acting career for him. But he kept careful notes about his experiences on the set, and the article he wrote from them turned out to be pure gold in terms of his writing career. "Splendor in the Short Grass" became one of the longest, best-written articles ever to run in the magazine, and it was a breakthrough achievement for him.
His snapshot of the set of Picture Show and other articles won plaudits from many people in Hollywood. But Grover never was one to respect inflated egos, and his experiments in style left some subjects of his articles thinking they'd been exploited. Pieces like "Splendor in the Short Grass" tested the waters of "gonzo journalism," an over-the-top form of the New Journalism first crafted by Grover's fellow Texan Terry Southern in the pages of Esquire and perfected by Hunter S. Thompson. One of the principals profiled in "Splendor" later claimed everything that Lewis wrote about him was a lie and expressed surprise that no one sued the magazine over the article.
Style was his long suit but it wasn't perfect. The New Journalism encouraged lengthy articles (in proclamation of its newness Tom Wolfe, future author of lengthy novels, boasted that inventive magazine nonfiction had supplanted the novel). Grover ran off across the prairie with those free reins flapping, jerked from the hands of editors who must have given up and just tried to hang on. He wrote long: his pace for a narrative gallop seemed to be about 8,000 words, and some of his strongest articles exceeded 12,000 words. Though gonzos of the day routinely made themselves prominent characters in their stories, Grover was strangely out of sorts with himself in recounting interviews he conducted. He had a tremendous ear for the spoken word, and unlike some of the practitioners of the new form, he recognized the utility of a tape recorder. But he had his subjects answer his questions as if they had thought of them rhetorically. The resulting soliloquies had an archaic stiffness that contrasted with the swirl of exceptional prose around them.
As a reporter he also had a reputation for being ruthless, if not brutal. He was fundamentally a beatnik, an aficionado of jazz and blues; at Rolling Stone, of all places, he put a grumpy sign on his desk that read "I Do Not Write No Rock 'n' Roll." But like all journalists moving a publication to press he did not get to choose every one of his assignments; in more than one article, his contempt for the glorification and self-indulgence of the rock world showed. Grover's fireworks piece was his profile of the Allman Brothers Band on tour, which painted the band as rough-cut boys with cracker roots and a taste for loose women and mounds of cocaine. These guys, he intimated strongly, were not the brightest bulbs in the Old South's war-torn chandelier. Between the time Grover finished the article and its publication date, the superbly talented guitarist and bandleader Duane Allman died in a motorcycle crash. Given the circumstances, Grover was unenthusiastic about printing the article, but Wenner insisted it should run. And so it appeared, just days after the accident. The roar out of Macon, Georgia, was ferocious. The band in general and Duane in particular had found Grover to be an irritating presence while he traveled with them, so the pro-Allman camp laid blame for the article squarely on the writer, not the publication. Word has it that the name Grover Lewis can still raise Greg Allman's ire, all these years later.
Behind the scenes at Rolling Stone, Grover assigned and edited stories, took part in the meetings that budgeted money and space, and in general helped chart the magazine's direction. He fought the good fight for the copy of Tim Cahill and Texan Chet Flippo, who became star contributors. He bought a strangely appealing piece about the armadillo as countercultural motif from another fellow Texan, Stephen Harrigan, later a Texas Monthly mainstay and much-praised novelist. For a while, subscribers to Rolling Stone received a pamphlet printed on expensive paper containing Grover's spoof, "The Last Poem: All My Friends Are Going to Be Published." In 1973, Rolling Stone's book publishing arm, Straight Arrow Press, brought Grover's first book into print, a collection of poems entitled I'll Be There in the Morning, If I Live, most of them dating from the 1960s. And it was at Rolling Stone that he met the love of his life.
After his divorce, Grover had relationships with several women, including the writer Gina Berriault. But they were not cut from the same cloth as Rae Ence, a self-proclaimed "jack Mormon" originally from the small town of Kanarraville, adjacent to the Zion National Park in southwestern Utah. Rae was free-spirited, well-read, and tough-minded, and she possessed an artistic bent. The descendant of Utah sheep ranchers, she, too, reacted aversely to inflated egos and other forms of phoniness—exactly the kind of woman who appealed to Grover. Rae was emerging from a crumbling marriage and working for Rolling Stone's lawyers when they were introduced. The attraction was immediate and grew into a love that lasted for the rest of Grover's life.
That love was tested, though. Like many writers and editors who have worked at Rolling Stone, Grover eventually found himself on the outs with Wenner. By the mid-1970s, the rancor between them forced Grover to leave the magazine. Grover and Rae left San Francisco for San Antonio to collaborate with Texas writer Sherry Kafka on a Straight Arrow Press book about John Connally, the former Texas governor and presidential aspirant. The book never got off the ground, and Straight Arrow published instead a collection of Grover's Rolling Stone articles as Academy All the Way. While the trade paperback developed a cult following, Grover disavowed Academy, believing it to be a poorly planned and edited throwaway put out by Straight Arrow to satisfy a contractual obligation.
After the collapse of the Connally book, Grover felt adrift in San Antonio. He and Rae would stroll along the River Walk, stopping at an outdoor tavern for a drink and to listen to Johnny Rodriguez moan his early hit, "Pass Me By If You're Only Passing Through." As Grover's career bottomed out, his drinking spun out of control. But Rae stuck by him. She knew if she was going to rescue him she had to get him out of San Antonio, away from the ghosts of Big Grover and Opal. Whenever Rae needed refuge herself, she went back to her Utah hometown. She convinced Grover to spend some time with her at Kanarraville. It worked. Grover came to love the people of Kanarraville and the surrounding countryside. While he didn't quit drinking, he did cut back and was able to get focused on his career again. And in future years, whenever he needed to recharge, Kanarraville was where he went.
He and Rae returned to California, settling in Santa Monica. Grover continued to contribute to a variety of national magazines (including Playboy, for which he wrote a memorable dispatch from Oregon during the filming of One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest). He also signed on as a contributor for New West magazine, a sort of California equivalent of New York or Texas Monthly magazines founded by New Journalism pioneer Clay Felker and edited by Texan Joe Armstrong. Unfortunately short-lived, New West was a comeback venue for Grover. During their association he published several excellent pieces, including "Buried Alive in Hype," which won a National Magazine Award nomination.
Grover finished out his career working as a freelancer. His stories appeared in everything from the Los Angeles Times Magazine and LA Weekly to fairly obscure film publications, frequently focusing on all-but-forgotten movie presences like Lash LaRue. He also started a novel of Hollywood, The Code of the West, that he could never finish. In the 1980s, the years of bad diet, smoking, and drinking began to take their toll; his health began to fail. On three occasions in the 1980s, he suffered eye infections that threatened to destroy what little vision he had. Sensing that his time was growing short, Grover set out to make peace with his past. He reconnected with his sister and his children, with mixed results. After his son, who was now grown, spent a holiday with Grover and Rae, he expressed concern about how much his father drank. Grover responded by quitting drinking cold turkey. And he never backslid.
Grover and Rae traveled to Texas to allow him to visit his childhood haunts while researching his family history. Out of this came his last major magazine piece, "Cracker Eden," an account of a return trip to Oak Cliff, which appeared in Texas Monthly in 1992. Robert Draper had written a book about Rolling Stone that Wenner hated but Grover loved, for it gave him his due. (He had been removed from the magazine's authorized history, like those Bolsheviks erased from the revolution's photos during the Stalin purges.) Grover had published short fiction by Texas Monthly editor Greg Curtis two decades earlier, in Focus: Media. But Grover wasn't going to scrape and bow in gratitude; he may have aged, but he was still feisty. He delivered the story past the deadline and fought Texas Monthly over edits and cuts as well as his expenses. But "Cracker Eden" turned out to be a beautiful piece of writing. Book editors in New York took notice, and soon he had a contract with HarperCollins for a memoir, Goodbye If You Call That Gone.
Grover had begun work on his memoir when one day he felt some pain after moving some furniture. This felt like more than just a pulled muscle. He confided to Rae that he feared something was seriously wrong—he went to see a doctor, whose diagnosis was grim, terminal lung cancer. Grover went downhill quickly, never returning to work on his memoir. He died on April 16, 1995, almost seven months shy of his sixty-first birthday. Rae chose to bury him in Kanarraville, the place that had revived him when he was at his lowest ebb.