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A Southerner at heart

Willie Morris wrote for Harper's and the Washington Star, loitered with the literati and forged deep friendships before moving back to Mississippi, where he died.

On the way to see Willie Morris in Oxford, Miss., one night in the mid-1980s we stopped at a small liquor store and bought a big old bottle of Valpolicella. Over dinner, we told Willie what we had in mind. We wanted to start a publication called Southern Magazine, a monthly exploration of the region's complexities.

Willie, who knew a lot about magazines and a lot more about the South, opened up his mind and his heart. He reached for the sack the bottle was in and enthusiastically began to sketch out ideas before our very eyes.

"Does the South still exist?" he asked in his soft, mellifluous, rhetorical way. "That's what your first issue should be about: Is there still a South?"

On the brown paper bag he jotted down names of writers we should enlist, good friends of his, folks who would help us wrestle with the notion. The list was a Who's Who of contemporary Southern literature.

Willie Morris knew the answer to his own question full well. Of course there is a South. When he died Monday in Jackson, Miss., at the age of 64, he took some of that South with him. But what he left behind is a region and a world made lovelier by his talents and largess.

"He had one of the biggest hearts," said Sid Graves, founder of the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Miss. Graves knew and admired Willie for years. Paraphrasing Tennessee Williams, he said that Willie's heart "was as big as a football."

"He had an extraordinarily keen mind for literature and ideas. I liked to hear him talk about football," recalled Chicago poet and professor Sterling Plumpp. "There was a kind of generosity in Willie Morris that I liked."

"I was always struck by his devotion to friends," said William Ferris, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and former head of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. His relationships with writers like William Styron, James Dickey, Ralph Ellison and Robert Penn Warren were deep and significant friendships. Many of these writers came to Oxford to honor Willie."

Willie honored Oxford by moving there in 1980 to become writer in residence at the University of Mississippi. Born in Jackson in 1934, Willie grew up in Yazoo City (pop. 7,000), a place he immortalized in several of his books, including Yazoo and North Toward Home. He gloried in small-town life _ baseball games, dogs, playing taps for military funerals. He went to the University of Texas on a baseball scholarship and was editor of the campus newspaper, then attended the other Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. He married Celia Buchan from Houston. They had a son, David Rae, in England. Under Britain's health plan, Willie told his friends, his son's birth cost him 87 cents. The couple eventually divorced.

In Europe, Willie traveled with fellow Rhodes scholar Edwin Yoder. On Tuesday, Yoder recalled their many escapades, including the time Willie, on a lark, dangled from the bridge at Avignon.

After England, Willie returned to Austin as editor of the Texas Observer.

Playwright Larry L. King met Willie at the Observer and they became lifelong friends. In fact, almost everyone who met Willie became a friend for life. "I never knew Willie to do anybody harm or to want to," King said Tuesday. "He was a helpful fellow to writers. That's unusual in this business."

In 1963, Willie went to work for Harper's magazine; he was named editor in 1967 and resigned in 1971. He opened the magazine up to new writers and longer pieces, said David Halberstam, a contributor to the magazine (and whose profile there of McGeorge Bundy became the seed of The Best and the Brightest).

Willie had a mischievous mind. When Halberstam's book was near the top of the bestseller list, he received a phone call one day from a man who said he had written a diet guide that was also very high on the list. "Perhaps we could collaborate on a book that would have stunning success," the man said to Halberstam, who realized about this time that the caller was Willie. "We could call it The Best and the Fattest."

"Willie had the lowest index of malice of anybody I ever met," Halberstam said. "That probably worked against him as he got up higher in the world of publishing."

He added: "He was not a great infighter. I don't think he was great at protecting his flank. There was part of him that was like a little boy."

In 1976, Willie spent some time in Washington as writer in residence at the Washington Star.

Though he continued to write for a few years in Bridgehampton, N.Y., and loiter with the literati _ James Jones, Truman Capote, Irwin Shaw _ he longed to see cotton fields instead of potato fields. In 1980, he moved back to Mississippi for good. He chose Oxford, a college town with a palpable literary history. One of his best friends there was Dean Faulkner Wells, the niece of William Faulkner, another Oxford favorite son.

On Tuesday morning Dean and her husband, Larry Wells, were sitting at their kitchen table, grieving over the loss of their longtime friend and turning to Willie's writing and other literature for solace. "Larry and I were looking for the words Willie loved the most," Dean said, fighting back tears. They read the poetry of Wallace Stevens and A.E. Housman.

"He really took care of the people he loved," she said.

Oxford, circa 1980, was an exciting swirl of literary activity. Ferris established the Center for the Study of Southern Culture. Richard Howorth opened his legendary bookstore. Larry and Dean Wells owned Yoknapatawpha Press, which published Willie's books and reprinted some of Faulkner's.

"It was a great time," Larry Wells recalled. "Willie always said, "I came home and it was not too late.' "

In Mississippi, Willie gave guidance to young writers in the classroom and out. And he wrote new books, including The Courting of Marcus Dupree, about an outstanding football player; My Dog Skip, which was made into a movie; Terrains of the Heart, a collection of essays; and a number of art books including Homecomings, a collaboration with Mississippi painter Bill Dunlap (who now lives in McLean, Va).

Tuesday Dunlap was remembering all that Willie meant to him and other expatriate Southerners. "He took a bridge out of Mississippi," Dunlap said, "then he took that bridge and came back."

To celebrate the publication of Homecomings, Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., threw a big bash on Capitol Hill for Willie and Dunlap in the late 1980s. The painter stood up and said a few words. Willie climbed on a table and announced that he was marrying the book's editor, JoAnne Prichard.

She was the one who answered his cry when he collapsed Monday afternoon at his writing table at their home in Jackson. He died in the evening of heart failure.

So, does the South still exist? True to his word, in the first issue of Southern Magazine, which appeared in October 1986, Willie Morris addressed head-on the question he raised along with a glass of red wine on that long, heady night in Oxford. In the answering, he also spoke of the way he chose to live his own life.

"One has to seek the answer on one's own terms, of course, but to do that I suggest one should spurn the boardrooms and the country clubs and the countless college seminars on the subject and spend a little time at the ballgames and the funerals and the bus stations and the courthouses and the bargain-rate beauty parlors and the little churches and the roadhouses and the joints near closing hour. ...

"Perhaps in the end it is the old devil-may-care instinct of the South that remains in the most abundance and will sustain the South in its uncertain future. It is gambling with the heart. It is a glass menagerie. It is something that won't let go."