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Author's dutiful wife has her own story

Published Aug. 3, 2003|Updated Sep. 1, 2005

She played June Cleaver to his Ernest Hemingway, the dutiful spouse moving through life and child-rearing in the reflected glow of her husband's literary and academic limelight.

"This is what women did in the '50s," Jamie Griggs Tevis said, without taint of acrimony.

She made the canapes, prepared the dinners and emptied the ashtrays, once obliging an insistent and tipsy guitar-strumming James Dickey when he demanded she offer two sing-along encores of Your Cheatin' Heart.

For 27 years she was "Walter Tevis' wife," spouse of the author and Ohio University creative-writing professor who penned The Hustler, The Man Who Fell To Earth, Mockingbird and The Color of Money.

Now, almost 20 years after his death from cancer in 1984, she tells her story in the self-published memoir My Life with the Hustler (GreatUnpublished.com, $18).

When the young couple met, while finishing their undergraduate studies in Kentucky, Walter confided to Jamie two central truths about the man he would become: He had every intention of becoming a writer and no inclination to embrace a temperate life.

He kept his word on both.

By 21, he had sold The Hustler, a novel he had written, in part, while editing engineers' reports at a job with the Kentucky Department of Highways.

Selling the book's movie rights brought the young couple a $25,000 windfall, more than six times his salary with the highway department.

He was off and running, writing The Man Who Fell To Earth at the heels of the success of The Hustler.

Jamie implies that, in some ways, the former was an extraterrestrial twist on Walter's own wrestling with his identity.

The gangly, bespectacled and buck-toothed son of an overprotective mother, he struggled to fit in. Felled by rheumatic fever in childhood, he was placed in a West Coast hospital for a yearlong recuperation.

His family, rendered destitute by the Depression, left him in California to move in with family back in Kentucky.

He spent a year living a strictly enforced sedentary environment whose regimen of absolute tranquility was abetted by heavy doses of phenobarbital three times a day.

He fought to be anything other than the sick, geeky kid who emerged from the hospital. By 18 _ and living in Kentucky _ he made of himself the real-life pool shark Paul Newman would ultimately portray in The Hustler.

Jamie became his anchor.

"He was a creative, interesting, knowledgeable, loving, kind, decent person," she said. "He was not a wise person. I raised (the) children, ran the home.

"I gave him stability.

"He lunched with Paul Newman."

The laurel garlands of literary fame had not yet wilted when he arrived at Ohio University in 1965 to teach creative writing. For more than a decade, he would rest on those credentials.

"He could drink and teach," Jamie said, "but he could not drink and write."

"One drink and the typewriter was completely out of the question," he concurred in an interview a few years before his death. Although he was not physically abusive, Jamie learned to walk a wide circle around him as the night passed and the bottle drained.

Their marriage ended after he entered detox at Ohio State University's Talbot Hall and embraced Alcoholics Anonymous in the late '70s.

He moved to New York, writing three novels in six years, including The Color of Money, whose film adaptation would earn Paul Newman an Oscar.

As for Jamie, she said, "A whole new me blossomed, I guess you might say."

She taught, wrote magazine articles, traveled and took in a world that, for a long time, had been filtered through the veil of Walter's celebrity. When she speaks today of their years, it is not with bitterness or rue.

She was simply the woman who found the man who fell to earth and _ for their 27 years _ helped him pass for one of us.

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