'My Exaggerated Life'
Legendary raconteur Pat Conroy holds court one last time in new oral biography. A book excerpt.
Adapted from a chapter titled “Atlanta: 1973-1981,” this excerpt starts after Pat Conroy’s book, “The Water is Wide,” based on his experience teaching poor, uneducated children living on a barrier island in South Carolina, was made into a movie called “Conrack,” starring Jon Voight.
We moved to Atlanta in 1973. “Conrack,” came out in 1974, in a small theater on Peachtree up toward Buckhead. It was a fundraiser for Paideia, the school my kids went to. The kids were all young then; they didn’t know what the hell was going on except there was somebody running around with my name up there on the screen who looked a lot better than I did.
Then I went around the country traveling with the movie in the role of the good Southern white person. I knew nothing about teaching. I knew nothing about anything. Usually it would be teachers I talked to. The moment I always loved is Jon Voight’s head is the last thing you see on the movie screen. They’re playing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in the scene between Jon and his students; he’s leaving by boat, and he wants to cry, but he’s a Hollywood star; he can’t cry. So his beautiful blue eyes are trembling and shimmering as he says farewell. There’s been progress made, but the horrible authorities have won again.
So anyway, he’s going off. OK, the screen would flicker off and the 50-foot beautiful head of Jon Voight would disappear, and then suddenly, the lights would come on; there’s reality; there’s day. At that exact moment after Jon Voight’s beautiful head disappears from the screen, Conroy rises like a toad out of the audience. And to my mind there’s a gasp of horror. An actual physical repulsion takes place in the crowd that I can feel, or at least vividly imagine.
Success too soon
I’m about 25, 26 when all this is going on, and it was much too early to have success. I’m in Life magazine. A movie has been made about me. Sudden fame like that does nothing but (expletive) you up. I had learned early to keep my head down with Dad, and he did not allow me to develop an ego. I found it best to keep low, hide in the grass, know where the shrubbery is, get out fast.
And all of this happened after I was brought low to the earth and a herd of elephants had trampled me in my front yard and my body had been used to fertilize the gardenias. I couldn’t get a job anywhere in the world teaching. My teaching career was over. I tried to get other jobs; I couldn’t get them. I just didn’t know what I was going to do. I did not know how it would ever turn around. Things were not looking good for the old kid. My life had been so bleak, so dark; it was so impossible to look forward to anything, and then suddenly my fate seems to change on a dime. I had a chance at an actual real life.
I had no idea that my being a writer would attract women to me. It just never occurred to me. And since I’d never dated, I think this ended up breaking my marriage up and screwing me up. I was a good Catholic boy. I tried not to make it hunting season, but I was simply responding to the testosterone God put in my body. But if not for fame, I would not have had women coming at me. It wasn’t because of my ebullience, my life force and charm. It wasn’t as if my personality had improved that much or I’d had a (penis) implant. It was simply because fame is an aphrodisiac that I had not really understood until it happened to me.
I should have been protecting the marriage with Barbara and these kids, and I have always regretted that I did not. Basically, I was just your common, dreary (expletive) new at fame who was too big for my britches, and my marriage with Barbara did not have a chance because I did not handle the first incoming of fame very well.
A snap-to moment
Houghton Mifflin thought my book was a success and wanted me to write another one about education, which I did not have in me. And I was not interested in writing nonfiction at all. I had the Thomas Wolfe, Faulkner, Fitzgerald dream. I don’t think it made them very happy. They wanted me to write teacher books for the rest of my life. But I didn’t even know anything about teaching when I wrote “The Water Is Wide.” So I said, I’m not teaching anywhere, I’m not going to teach anywhere, and I’d like to write a novel.
And of course when I told them what the novel was about, they had never heard of a novel about a military brat. That did not excite them. Now with “The Boo” (Conroy’s first book, based on the Commandant of Cadets at the Citadel), I was writing about the good dad. “The Water Is Wide,” that was the good teacher. Afterward, I was starting to face the reality of what Dad was, what our lives were, and what a lie we grew up under. That’s what drove me crazy, the lie that we all fell prey to, that we all paid lip service to: the happy family, the happy Conroy family, Dad calling us the magnificent seven.
I remember having a snap-to moment in Oliver Bowman’s wonderful psychology classes at the Citadel. He was a magnificent teacher. In his class I was getting jolted all over the place. He hit us with some statistics: “When you have seen your mother being beaten by your father as a child, you have 64 percent more of a chance of becoming a wife beater when you are a husband.” OK, I snapped to attention at that. “If you were beaten as a child, it goes up to 70 percent that you will probably beat your own children when they are born.” I’m sitting there absolutely shocked. I’ve never told a soul what Dad did. Oliver Bowman made it sound like this is just a fact of life, and I have a feeling a lot of Citadel guys had fathers like mine.
And I’m sitting there thinking OK, there is some poor girl running around out there that I have not even met who I will be beating someday because I had an (expletive) as a father. And not only that, if we’re lucky enough to have children, good God, what luck for them, I’ll be beating the (expletive) out of them like Dad beat me, and it horrified me. It repelled me more than I can tell you. That was one of the moments of clearest distinction for me, where I would start looking at things, watching things, making decisions about things, and changing whatever it was inside of me that would cause me to beat a wife or a child.
What it led into is Oliver Bowman wanted us to write something personal about our family that we’d never told before. I think he figured that a lot of his students had something like this they were hiding. And he was gay, so he knew about secrets. I got plaudits for writing the bravest article, as naturally I would at the Citadel. I wrote about my grandmother Stanny’s alcoholism. Even then I knew I was avoiding the big subject. I don’t think I had articulated it that well to myself at that time, but it was a very important part in my transition of what I had to write about. He got me thinking.
Later I was burning with all that, seething with all that. Then, the summer before I got fired from Daufuskie, Dad was going to Vietnam. The family came back from the movies, and I went up to bed with Barbara in our house on Hancock Street. I hear Dad hitting Mom downstairs, and I go down to stop it. That night, I beat Dad up.
Barbara’s yelling from upstairs, “What’s going on in my house?”
“Oh, there’s something horrible going on in my house. I demand to know at once.”
“It’s nothing, dear.”
When Barbara comes down, I realize I have never told her a thing. I’d never told anybody anything about the abuse I’d gone through as a kid, or my family had gone through. That was the hidden self that I had kept really hidden because we feared if Dad were ever arrested for child abuse or wife beating, that would be the end of his career. Mom used to say, “None of you will go to college.” Not that the Ivy League was waiting for the seven Conroys out there, but we would not even have gone to chiropractor or beauty school. I grew up in one of those households where the problems were not acknowledged or talked about, so there was always a festering, there was always a geyser exploding from inside. It was going to come out somehow.
After I settled people down that night, I then go out looking for Dad and find him passed out on the Green. Get him up — he’s drunk — and walk him back. Out of nowhere, I say, “I love you, Dad.” He looks at me and starts running. It tickled me so much that I’d finally found the words he could not take. I suddenly realized I had discovered a power that I had no idea I had. I had words that were more powerful than anything he had, more powerful than his fists, more powerful than his beating up of his wife and kids. I had found some shield. That shield had developed in this secret place in me, and I didn’t know it was there. It took me years to figure out where that came from. And I think my writing life has been dependent on where that came from, how it was in there, how it developed in there, how it survived in there.
Then when I went into the bedroom that night, I told Barbara everything. That and beating up Dad broke something. That night broke something where, OK, the truth is out now. It’s fair game now. I think I began writing “The Great Santini” that night, not literally, but it certainly began things in my head.
Later, after “The Water Is Wide,” I was invited to the Marine Corps Officers’ Wives Club in Beaufort to talk about the book. I’m surrounded by these pretty women who reminded me of my mother, my mother is there.
Nowadays I am famous for never talking about the book I’m trying to sell. I have driven the book reps nuts in every company that’s ever published me. I just go and tell stories and have fun.
That day, I was supposed to talk about “The Water Is Wide.” I got triggered, I wasn’t expecting it, and I ruined the day by talking about Dad knocking me around, knocking Mom around. I just wanted to tell them that should not have any place in a Marine Corps life or heart. That should not happen to you; it should not happen to your kids; your husband should not do that. Well, some women in there went crazy with fury. But Mom and I noticed that other people loved my ass for it. It turned out for me to be the absolute beginnings of “The Great Santini” because of the emotion it raised.
When I sit down and think about it, I can see my time in Atlanta was a very happy time for me in many, many ways. It wasn’t perfect, but it was really good.
I always have this need to form some group of people, and Cliff Graubart was one of the first people I met in Atlanta because he had a sign outside his Old New York Book Shop, “Hardbacks 25 cents,” and I thought, my God. I didn’t own any hardbacks, and I thought, that’s incredibly cheap. Of course they were all crap, but it got me into the store. And I started going through the stacks thinking, good God almighty. I realized I can get another college education out of this bookstore. I plundered that bookstore for the next 30 years.
But Cliff was always complaining about not making any money. “I can’t make a (expletive) shekel in this town.”
By then I had met a writer named Vern Smith, who had a novel coming out about Detroit, so I said, “Cliff, why don’t we give him a book party?”
He says, “A book (expletive) party? It ain’t his birthday.”
I said no. Just give a party celebrating the book coming out. So that began the parties at the Old New York Book Shop, which became something big on the Atlanta scene, kind of an institution, and now they’re legendary. At the time it was a new thing for Atlanta, some new order. Cosmopolitan magazine said that the parties at the Old New York Book Shop were the best and safest places for young women to meet young men in Atlanta. And I said, “Cliff, this is genius at work.”
But it was a nice group, a great democratic thing.
Governor Jimmy Carter gave a party at his mansion on West Paces Ferry for all the writers and journalists in town, and there weren’t that many of us. He didn’t permit drinking, you know, so he was watching all these writers go into delirium tremens. This is when I heard high heels clicking down the marble hall, and I turned around, and a beautiful, luscious Anne Rivers Siddons turned the corner with her Princeton husband, the very dapper Heyward Siddons, wearing his little bow tie. I met them that night.
Annie was a magnificent cook, fed us all, lived in a beautiful house, which none of us did then. Annie and Heyward’s was this post of civilization that we could always go to, were always invited to. They were an adult couple who were running a household that looked like a household, as opposed to the rest of us who lived in the inside of potato chip bags. If they ever had arguments, I never saw it. If they ever got mad at me, I never knew it. Those two people brought great kindness, great times of happiness into my life.
Paul Hemphill, the journalist from Birmingham — I met him that night. I met all the writers. Jim Townsend was there, who became very important in my life. He was the founder of Atlanta magazine, a brilliant mill town boy from Lanett, Alabama; had to drop out of the University of Alabama because he did not have the money to go there. He was an extraordinary drunk, but a fabulous personality, died at 47; one of my first eulogies.
Annie was mostly writing stuff for Atlanta magazine when I met her. She and I grew up together as writers; we all kind of helped each other. Then Annie and I sort of made it. I came out with “The Great Santini”; her first book was terrific, “Heartbreak Hotel.”
All this time I was trying to get Bernie and his wife, Martha Schein, to move to Atlanta. Bernie had gone to Mississippi and did valiant work there during desegregation. He was the first white principal of this school in Clarksdale, Mississippi. He got fired from his school like I did from Daufuskie, because he believes in integration and he tried to make it work, and those people ate him alive. Bernie actually did heroic work there, and then he came to Atlanta about a year later when I got him and Martha both a job at Paideia, the hippie liberal school where my kids went.
Cliff Graubart was a bachelor then, and I was a cook, so we had boys’ night out in Atlanta. Bernie would come, and Terry Kay, and the two California boys, Zach Sklar and Frank Smith, who had taken Herman Blake’s sociology class on Daufuskie Island. We would meet once a month, we’d talk, we’d laugh, we’d have fun. We would run our mouths, and I would cook. I got into cooking when Barbara went to law school.
What I did was I went down to Cliff’s bookstore; I said, “Cliff, I got to cook meals now, and I don’t know how to cook. Do you have a cookbook section?” He said, “Yeah, I hear Escoffier’s good.”
So I went home and started reading Escoffier. And it says, in the first pages, if you do not make proper stock, you should not eat. So I spend days. I’m breaking bones with hammers and axes out of the basement. I’m roasting the (expletive) bones. I’m doing all this (expletive). Anyway, I started making soups and sauces and these chicken dishes and lamb dishes and veal dishes.
And of course, I did not know I had started out in the hardest cookbook on earth. I finally, later on, took my first cooking class. Nathalie Dupree had become famous in Atlanta because she started a restaurant in Covington. I had gone out there to eat a couple of times, and it was a really good restaurant. I heard she was doing a cooking class, so I ended up taking that. She was eccentric, neurotic, but so is everybody, and I thought she was a good cooking teacher. I enjoyed her stories; I always love it if somebody can tell me stories.
Nathalie got a public television show about cooking. It was very big in Atlanta and Georgia, and I think it started Nathalie’s career. Her first producer was a woman named Cynthia. They would both come to all the parties at Cliff’s store. Cynthia was young, maybe 24, and somehow fell in love with the ancient Cliff Graubart. They got married in Rome after I moved there. Nathalie was the matron of honor, and I was the best man. Annie and Heyward came over and went on the honeymoon with Cliff and Cynthia through the hill towns of Italy. That’s where Annie wrote her book “Hill Towns,” which everybody had great problems with except me, because I didn’t mind her writing about me.
Nathalie Dupree called me up and wanted to sue Annie. She’s crying and said, “Have you read her new book?” Yes, I have. And she said, “Did you see what she did to me?” Yes, obviously you were Yolanda. She said, “My lawyer wants me to sue her.” I said, well, have fun. She said, “He wants you to go into it with me.”
I said, “Nathalie, if I sued a fiction writer for using the quirks of other people, who would be the greatest hypocrite in the history of the world? Yes, you’re right, it would be me.”
When Annie got a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Hoover Library in Alabama, I introduced her for that, and I told them about “Hill Towns.” “I’m Sam Forrest,” I said. “There’s no question about it. And in it, I am a fat drunkard who does not bathe. But I’m an artist. Annie herself is a beautiful, winsome ingénue, and naturally, the old, unbathed drunkard wants to have carnal relations with her as my character tries to do. And as he is fumbling and mumbling and cartwheeling his fat body over the lithe, beautiful body of this maiden from the South, he finally passes out on top of her. Poor Conroy, in his one lustful appearance in world literature, cannot get the job done.”
Years later after I published my cookbook, I get the phone call from Nathalie, she’s crying, she’s weeping, and she’s going to sue me. I said, “You’re always suing people.”
She was upset about the whole thing. She thought I had pilloried her, mocked her, made fun of her. She didn’t understand that I was making her into a character. There’s always an element of elegy anytime I put somebody into a book. Because you have noticed someone; they have distinguished themselves in the world you are creating. Whether good or bad, whether foul or fair, they are somebody. I also know that when I write about people, I have a large capacity for love for whatever reason, and that is also part of why I’m writing because I love them and they are part of my canticle, whatever that is. They are a part of my litany to the saints, however that comes out, and I try to be true and follow that wherever it takes me.
I said, “Nathalie, it’s the nicest thing anybody will ever write about you.”
Well, she started getting phone calls from people who’d loved it, and she has forgiven me. Cynthia and Nathalie did several cookbooks together, and I wrote an introduction for the one that won the James Beard Award. When they won, Cynthia said, “Now I know what it means to feel like Pat Conroy.”
I said, “You mean, suicidal?”
This excerpt is adapted from “My Exaggerated Life: Pat Conroy” as told to Katherine Clark, and printed with permission from the University of South Carolina Press. “My Exaggerated Life” is forthcoming March 13, 2018.
And go here to read the AJC's Bo Emerson's 2013 Personal Journey on Pat Conroy, which includes a visit to the author's Beaufort, S.C., home. The story followed the publication of Conroy's memoir about his father, "The Death of Santini."
ABOUT THE STORY
Pat Conroy was renowned as a consummate storyteller, but his oral storytelling skills were very different from his authorial voice. Based on 200 hours of interviews conducted in 2014, “My Exaggerated Life: Pat Conroy” as told to Katherine Clark is a deeply revealing, outrageously funny, bluntly spoken account of the author’s colorful life told as only he could tell it. It’s also a painful reminder of what we lost when he died.
Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor