The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Larry McMurtry, award-winning novelist who pierced myths of his native Texas, dies at 84

Author Larry McMurtry in 1980. (Linda Wheeler/The Washington Post)
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Larry McMurtry, a Texas-born, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and Oscar-winning screenwriter who pierced the myth of the Lone Star State’s romanticized past in works such as “Lonesome Dove” and “The Last Picture Show,” died March 25. He was 84.

His wife, Norma Faye Kesey McMurtry, confirmed the death and said he died at a home they were sharing in Tucson. She said she did not know the cause.

In a prodigious career spanning six decades, Mr. McMurtry wrote more than 30 novels, scripts for nearly as many movies and television series, three memoirs, countless book reviews and essays, and biographies of Western characters including Crazy Horse, George Custer and Buffalo Bill.

His best-known work remains “Lonesome Dove,” an epic novel about cowboys and cattle drives, grizzled Texas Rangers, frontier prostitutes, dexterous gamblers, odoriferous buffalo hunters and other roisterous denizens of the American West. The book sold more than 1 million copies, received the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and became a popular CBS miniseries starring Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall.

“Some claim the three essential books in Texas history are the Bible, the Warren Commission report and Larry McMurtry’s ‘Lonesome Dove,’ ” historian Douglas Brinkley wrote in a 2017 New York Times essay.

Ironically, “Lonesome Dove” appeared just a few years after Mr. McMurtry wrote a long essay for the Texas Observer in which he gigged his fellow Texas writers for their unseemly swoon over cowboys and for their lingering attachment to a rural Texas yesteryear. Relishing the role of curmudgeon, he observed that the open range had sprouted sprawling suburbia, that old barns and rustic windmills had given way to sleek glass towers thrusting skyward in several of the nation’s largest cities.

“Easier to write about the homefolks, the old folks, cowboys, or the small town,” he chided, “than to deal with the more immediate and frequently less simplistic experience of city life.” His own acclaimed trilogy of Houston novels — “Moving On” (1970), “All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers” (1972) and “Terms of Endearment” (1975) — plumbed the textured richness, brio and occasional craziness of one of America’s fastest-growing metropolitan areas.

Besides “Lonesome Dove,” several of Mr. McMurtry’s books made acclaimed translations to the screen, notably “Terms of Endearment,” “The Last Picture Show” and “Horseman, Pass By,” the last of which was adapted into the Paul Newman drama “Hud” in 1963.

In 2006, Mr. McMurtry shared an Academy Award with Diana Ossana, his frequent collaborator, for their adaptation of a 1997 short story by Annie Proulx about a tragic, decades-long love affair between two gay cowboys. The story became the hit movie “Brokeback Mountain” (2005), starring Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal.

Mr. McMurtry, a onetime co-owner of a bookstore in Washington’s Georgetown neighborhood, also was an obsessive collector of antiquarian books. In the late 1980s, he left the shop, Booked Up, bought a string of abandoned buildings in the moldering Texas town where he was raised, and stocked them with his personal collection, books from the Georgetown store and private collections he continued to buy — some 450,000 in all.

His intention, he said, was to turn Archer City — “a bookless town in a bookless part of the state” — into a Lone Star version of Hay-on-Wye, the celebrated bookstore and book-festival town in Wales.

Mr. McMurtry’s literary ambitions, for himself and his town, could be traced to a childhood on his family’s struggling cattle ranch. When a cousin went away to World War II and left him a box of boyhood adventure books, he began “a subversive, deeply engrossing secret life as a reader,” he wrote in a 1999 memoir, “Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen.”

“Unfit for ranch work because of my indifference to cattle,” he continued, “I went instead into the antiquarian book trade, becoming, in effect, a book rancher.”

Page and screen

Larry Jeff McMurtry was born in Wichita Falls, Tex., on June 3, 1936. He graduated from what is now the University of North Texas in 1958 and received a master’s degree in English from Rice University in 1960. While at North Texas, he enrolled in a creative writing course and wrote a short story dealing with the death of a Texas Panhandle rancher who resembled the legendary Charles Goodnight.

The story blossomed into his first novel, “Horseman, Pass By” (1961), about a charismatically amoral rancher who doesn’t care about selling poisoned cattle to his neighbors and will do anything to take control of his father’s ranch. In the film version, Melvyn Douglas, as the stoic father, and Patricia Neal, as the housekeeper Newman’s Hud tries to rape, earned Oscars.

Mr. McMurtry’s follow-up, “Leaving Cheyenne” (1963), chronicled a ranch-country love triangle that lasted more than two decades. “If Chaucer were a Texan writing today, and only 27 years old, this is how he would have written and this is how he would have felt,” Western author Marshall Sprague wrote in his New York Times review.

Mr. McMurtry was teaching freshman English at Rice when he began writing “The Last Picture Show” (1966), a story of restless teenagers coming of age in the 1950s in dry, dusty Thalia — a fictionalized version of Archer City, the town about 120 miles northwest of Dallas where he grew up.

The 1971 film, directed in exquisite black and white by Peter Bogdanovich, featured a masterful ensemble of actors including Timothy Bottoms as the sensitive protagonist, Jeff Bridges as a jock, Cybill Shepherd as the fickle town beauty, Ben Johnson as the weathered pool-hall manager and Cloris Leachman as the forlorn wife of a high school football coach. Johnson and Leachman won Oscars for their supporting roles, and the film received many other nominations, including best picture and best screenplay by Mr. McMurtry and Bogdanovich.

The author spent several years as an itinerant English teacher, including stints at George Mason University and American University, but the success of the film meant that he no longer had to grade papers and lecture about literature as his main source of income.

He left rustic Texas in the rearview mirror — for a while — and turned his attention to the wealthy Houston enclave of River Oaks, a leafy neighborhood he knew well from his years at Rice. The result was his Houston trilogy, which also demonstrated Mr. McMurtry’s ability to create compelling, headstrong female characters.

Janet Maslin, a book and movie critic at the Times, dubbed Mr. McMurtry a father of “chick lit” on the strength of his character Aurora Greenway, the grande dame of “Terms of Endearment.” She was played by Shirley Mac
Laine in the 1983 film version of the novel, with Debra Winger as her put-upon daughter and Jack Nicholson as her ex-astronaut neighbor. The movie won five Academy Awards, including best picture.

Throughout most of the 1980s, Mr. McMurtry plunged deep into the Old West, steer-wrestling, as it were, an unruly draft that he once described as “the inchoate mass of pages having to do with the two aging Texas Rangers and their friends.” The narrative began to congeal, he later said, when he spotted a sign on an old bus: Lonesome Dove Baptist Church.

“It isn’t a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination,” Mr. McMurtry told Texas Monthly in 2016. “All I had wanted to do was write a novel that demythologized the West. Instead, it became the chief source of Western mythology. Some things you cannot explain.”

Herds of words

Life itself turned toward the inexplicable on an autumn evening in 1991. On the way to his Archer City residence, Mr. McMurtry hit a Holstein cow with his rented Lincoln. He felt ill that night, and at the doctor’s office the next day was told he was having a heart attack. Bypass surgery went flawlessly, but it set in motion a profound and unsettling change in Mr. McMurtry’s psyche.

“I became, to myself, more and more like a ghost, or a shadow,” he wrote in “Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen.” “What I more and more felt, as the trauma deepened, was that while my body survived, the self that I had once been had lost its life.”

Ossana took him in, and for more than two years he lived with his collaborator and her daughter in Tucson, rarely venturing outside. With their encouragement, he gradually regained a sense of normalcy. He often expressed his gratitude for Ossana’s role in his recovery, but both always maintained they were close friends, not romantic partners.

Mr. McMurtry continued to publish at a heady pace in recent years, though some critics said the quality diminished as Mr. McMurtry recycled his favorite characters in prequels and sequels. President Barack Obama awarded him the National Humanities Medal in 2014.

He married Norma Faye Kesey, the widow of novelist Ken Kesey, in 2011. They had met more than a half-century earlier when Mr. McMurtry and Ken Kesey, author of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” were writing fellows at Stanford University. They lived with Ossana at her home in Tucson.

Mr. McMurtry’s first marriage to the former Jo Scott, a literature professor, ended in divorce. In addition to his wife and Ossana, survivors include a son from his first marriage, singer-songwriter James McMurtry; two sisters; a brother; and a grandson.

In a 1968 book of essays about Texas called “In a Narrow Grave” — praised by Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley as “arguably the best book ever written about Texas” — Mr. McMurtry eulogized the passing of earlier generations, including his own family, who pledged allegiance to the god who gave rise to The Cowboy. “They found it bitter to leave the land to which they were always faithful,” he wrote, “to the strange and godless heirs that they had bred.”

Although Mr. McMurtry acknowledged he was one of those “strange and godless heirs,” he also spoke of an ineffable connection to his forebears. “The tradition I was born into was essentially nomadic, a herdsmen tradition, following animals across the earth,” he told the Times in 1997, using a favored analogy. “The bookshops are a form of ranching. Instead of herding cattle, I herd books. Writing is a form of herding, too. I herd words into little paragraph-like clusters.”

An earlier version of this story incorrectly described Larry McMurtry’s first wife, Jo McMurtry, as a novelist. She is a retired University of Richmond professor and has written books about literature.

Read more:

Larry McMurtry and the last bookstore

Review: ‘Lonesome Dove’ is McMurtry’s western epic

The splendors of ‘Lonesome Dove’