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Larry McMurtry, author of ‘Lonesome Dove’ and ‘The Last Picture Show,’ dies

Larry McMurtry stands in front of shelves stacked with books,
Larry McMurtry in his Archer City, Texas, bookstore in 2014.
(LM Otero / Associated Press)

After Augustus McCrae came out on the porch to see the blue pigs eating a rattlesnake, he had to wait a spell before setting out on what would become the most famous cattle drive in American literature. But McCrae, the irascible lead in Larry McMurtry’s novel “Lonesome Dove,” was never much in a hurry.

Nor was McMurtry, who sat at his Hermes 3000 and pecked at that opening sentence in 1975. “… just doodling at the typewriter,” he recalled, “hoping to find a subject or a character that might hold my interest.”

Ten years — and three novels — later, readers finally had a chance to accompany McCrae, Capt. Woodrow Call and the rest of the Hat Creek Outfit on their 2,500-mile trek from South Texas to Montana. Their adventures would earn McMurtry a readership even more devoted than what he had already gained with his fiction, essays and screen adaptations.

The author of nearly 30 novels, about 15 works of nonfiction and more than 40 screenplays and teleplays, McMurtry died on Thursday of heart failure at his home in Tucson at 84, according to his publicist, Amanda Lundberg.

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Known for outspoken, brassy characters and a rare ability to cast scenes with raw, tender and often comic emotions, McMurtry coupled his deep understanding of American history with keen-eyed observations of American history and Western mores.

Michael Korda, McMurtry’s editor at Simon & Schuster, once described the novelist as “the Flaubert of the Plains” for his “sure eye for the bleak landscape of small-town Texas and the isolated ranches of the Panhandle, as well as the history of the West.”

He was the recipient of the 1986 Pulitzer Prize in fiction for “Lonesome Dove.” In 2006, he shared an Academy Award with co-writer Diana Ossana for best adapted screenplay for “Brokeback Mountain,” and in 2014, President Obama presented him with a National Humanities Medal for work that “evokes the character and drama of the American West with stories that examine quintessentially American lives.”

“He cast a big shadow across the landscape,” said journalist and Texan Lawrence Wright. “There are very few other writers in Texas history that had the popular appeal that he did.”

Once asked to describe himself, McMurtry called himself a writer, a screenwriter — and perhaps most significantly, a bookman. He opened his first bookstore, Booked Up, in Washington, D.C., in the 1970s, and later, relocated the shop to Archer City, Texas, filling an old Ford dealership with nearly a half-million titles.

Dressed in dungarees, black-framed glasses and work gloves, McMurtry could often be found loading books in and out of trucks and wearing a sweatshirt declaring, “Minor Regional Novelist.”

While regionalism came easily to him, he didn’t let it define him. In his books and outlook, he pushed against the boundaries of his world and the stereotypes of the West.

Larry McMurtry, premier Western novelist of a generation, seems content with the quiet life in Archer City, Texas. Or is he?

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As much as he celebrated the hard-bitten characters of the grasslands and reveled in morning skies “red as coals in the forge,” when “dew had wet the million needles of the chaparral,” he ranged far beyond the familiar, don’t-fence-me-in tropes of Western literature.

“He was always writing about America,” said Wright, “but it was set in the Texas part of America.”

McMurtry was born June 3, 1936, on a cattle ranch in north-central Texas where his father’s parents had settled in the 1880s not long after the Comanches had been vanquished. But he never took to ranching. He knew how to ride and herd but preferred to listen to his grandfather talk about life on the frontier.

When a cousin left behind a box of books on his way to World War II, McMurtry found his true vocation: reading. Books became a means of escaping what he called “the drabness of Archer City.” He would spend hours in the barn loft reading “Don Quixote.” That such a childhood could lead to literary success is part of his appeal.

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“I carry a torch for writers who grew up in circumstances that would not be conducive for launching a highly visible writing career,” said historian Patricia Limerick. “McMurtry is unique for living in a place where book signing and poetry readings are not common, and yet who reads and reads and reads and becomes an incredibly effective user of words and a crafter of personal experience.”

While earning a master’s degree from Rice University, McMurtry began a novel that eventually took him to the prestigious Stanford University creative writing program, where he and other notable writers of his generation — Robert Stone, Tillie Olsen, Ernest Gaines and Ken Kesey — were classmates.

He and Kesey struck up a competitive friendship. (Ten years after Kesey died, McMurtry married his widow, Faye Kesey.)

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While at Stanford, as Kesey workshopped “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” McMurtry completed his first novel, “Horseman, Pass By,” which was adapted into the critically and commercially successful movie “Hud.”

In this multigenerational portrait of life on a Texas ranch, McMurtry began to explore themes that would resonate throughout his writing, revealing little tolerance for popular mythologies that cast the world in a sentimental light.

“Larry is not romantic in any way, shape or form,” said Ossana, his friend and writing partner. “He is a realist. He views the world with a cynical eye and a severe eye.”

In his third novel, “The Last Picture Show,” McMurtry explored life in rural America through the frustrated dreams of its teenagers.

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Though the book was “lovingly dedicated to his hometown,” many residents of Archer City didn’t feel as if there was much love in the portrait. McMurtry seemed to have anticipated this. In a copy of the book that he inscribed to his parents, he wrote: “To Mom and Daddy. You probably won’t like it. Love, Larry.”

Despite winning two Academy Awards, the movie, directed by Peter Bogdanovich, did little to ease the insult. Filmed in black and white, it had a grittiness reminiscent of art films and was considered by some residents as “an extremely dirty movie.”

But for the young lead actress, Cybill Shepherd, “The Last Picture Show” marked the beginning of two lifelong friendships — with McMurtry and Bogdanovich — “the most sustaining friendships of my career.”

Shepherd was 20 and recalled filming one cold night in a thin dress. As she sat in a car between scenes, McMurtry “got in the passenger seat just to warm up my hands.”

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“We’re talking about one of the greatest men who ever lived,” she said, “one of the greatest men of letters in this country, in the world.”

Archer City eventually forgave McMurtry and in 1990 organized a Larry McMurtry Day around the time that “Texasville,” a sequel to “The Last Picture Show,” was filmed on the main street.

A valued wordsmith in Hollywood, McMurtry was a familiar presence on the set but preferred writing novels over screenplays. “If one were to make a misery graph of Hollywood, screenwriters would mark high on the curve,” he once wrote.

He kept an apartment in Sherman Oaks and later a home in Santa Monica, but his primary residence was a three-story brick building in Archer City, shaded by mulberry, poplar and ash trees and featured in Architectural Digest.

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His morning ritual was to write at least five pages a day on one of his Hermes typewriters before walking over to the bookstore and later, heading to the Dairy Queen for biscuits and gravy and a lime Dr Pepper.

“He is a creature of habit,” said Ossana. “He likes routine.”

Whether he was imagining the West 150 years ago or writing film criticism essays for the New York Review of Books or his memoirs, his erudition matched his prolific output.

“People do not always necessarily recognize the intellectual heft of Larry,” said his longtime friend Susan Freudenheim. “People don’t put him in the same category as a New Yorker essayist. But he is.”

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Even when critics panned his work, they still found something to admire. “Words, sentences and paragraphs cooperate with McMurtry; they — appropriately — trust him to treat them right,” wrote Limerick in her review of “Buffalo Girls,” a novel about Calamity Jane.

For Limerick, however, McMurtry’s greatest skill was his ability to move inside and outside of his characters’ lives and minds, an “exercise for neurons that have gone dormant in much of American life.”

His empathy was especially apparent in his portraits of women and perhaps strongest in the daughter-and-mother relationship in the 1975 novel “Terms of Endearment,” where he deftly explored the range of generosity and courage, “things I always look for in women,” he once said.

“Larry had not just an extraordinary understanding of people, but his writings about women are very resonant for women,” Freudenheim said. “Maybe he has a taste for the vulnerable, but he understands people who are not necessarily in power.”

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But nowhere were his storytelling skills more realized than in “Lonesome Dove.” The story of a cattle drive from the Rio Grande to Montana, he said, took almost no research. All he had to do was recall conversations overheard in childhood about the Texas frontier at the end of the 19th century.

An improbable Western, published in 1985 when the genre had lost much of its national allure, the novel clocked in at nearly 850 pages. It proved a rare phenomenon, appealing to both literary and popular tastes, winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1986 ahead of Anne Tyler’s “The Accidental Tourist” and Don DeLillo’s “White Noise” and becoming a bestseller.

While readers embraced “Lonesome Dove” as a historical novel, McMurtry considered it a tragedy and regretted that his intent was so misunderstood. Many readers never forgave McMurtry for killing off McCrae at the end of the novel.

“When ‘Lonesome Dove’ became this iconic book — he called it the ‘“Gone with the Wind” of the West’ — he got aggravated,” Ossana said. “He wrote it to undo the romantic myth of the West and cowboy. He always said that Gus and Call were killers. They were not admirable, but they were realistic.”

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Adapted for television, “Lonesome Dove” became a four-part miniseries, and the adventures of the Hat Creek Outfit found their way into 26 million living rooms. It won six Emmys and starred Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones and McMurtry’s son, James, who was just beginning an acclaimed career as a folk singer and songwriter.

Larry McMurtry in 2006.
(Steve Granitz / WireImage)

Success of “Lonesome Dove” was soon eclipsed by the first of three heart attacks. After a quadruple bypass in 1991, he visited Ossana in Tucson to recuperate and found it difficult to leave. The depression he experienced after the surgery, said Ossana, was as great as anything that William Styron wrote about in “Darkness Visible.”

For almost two years, he would get up, get dressed and sit on a sofa with a view of distant mountains. Offers came in from Hollywood — Steven Spielberg, John McTieran — and he “batted them away,” she said. After a nearly three-year hiatus, he began reading again, picking up where he had left off in Marcel Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past” and the diaries of Virginia Woolf.

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Ossana eventually got him back to the typewriter with the story of the 1930s outlaw Pretty Boy Floyd. “It was the way to jump-start him into life,” she said. “He was shriveling up and would have died.”

The pair collaborated on a number of novels and teleplays, but their cultural and aesthetic sensibilities most famously aligned in 1997 when Ossana recommended an 11-page short story about two gay cowboys published in the New Yorker.

“I don’t read short fiction,” McMurtry told her.

Twenty minutes later, they were writing a one-page letter to Annie Proulx asking to option “Brokeback Mountain.” They had a first draft in three months, and in 2006, accepted the Oscar for best adapted screenplay.

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Standing with the golden statue in hand, McMurtry, who had paired an Armani tuxedo jacket and shirt with bluejeans, gave a special nod to “all the booksellers of the world,” whom he thanked, “from the humblest paperback exchange to the masters of the great bookshops of the world ... contributors to the survival of the culture of the book, a wonderful culture which we mustn’t lose.”

His words were an expression of a lifetime devoted to the printed page and a nearly religious belief that reading is essential to humanity.

McMurtry is survived by his wife, Faye; his son from a first marriage, James; his grandson Curtis; a sister, Judy; and a brother, Charlie.


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