I picked up Willie Morris’ book New York Days in a local thrift store some months ago and finally got around to reading it, mostly so that I could then free up space on my shelves. I expected the book to be a writer’s love story about the New York City of Morris’ youth since so many books of that type have been written (I have a Dan Wakefield book of the same kind that has also been waiting patiently for my attention!), but before I began reading I knew only that Willie Morris was a Southern writer who had written My Dog Skip. New York Days, however, has added significantly and pleasantly to my understanding of Morris and his importance as a Southern literary figure.
Morris hailed from Yazoo City, Mississippi, was a Rhodes Scholar and, at age 32, the youngest editor-in-chief at Harper’s magazine, guiding that venerable publication through the most turbulent years of the Sixties and, in the process, making it more relevant than it had been in some time. He gathered together a staff of excellent young writers, among them David Halberstam, Marshall Frady, and Larry L. King (NOT the elderly guy with the suspenders and talk show) and made Harper’s a magazine in which many of the greatest writers of the day wanted their work to appear.
As editor-in-chief, Morris moved among Manhattan’s elite, becoming good friends with James Jones, Truman Capote and George Plimpton; but he also saw the underside of fame. He recounts how he once stopped in a nondescript bar and thought he recognized the woman who was bar tending from somewhere. She allowed that he probably did. He later found out that his server has been Veronica Lake, once one of Hollywood’s most glamorous stars.
Willie Morris experienced great success and great disappointment during his tenure in New York but he remained a transplant from Yazoo City and, when he left New York, the South again became his home as well as the focus of his work. He died of a heart attack in 1999 but not before he has written much that celebrated and explicated the South that he knew. His friend and colleague Larry L. King honored him with his book In Search of Willie Morris: The Mercurial Life of a Legendary Writer and Editor. This book and several others by Willie Morris are available through the Library.