August 10, 1934 - February 22, 2017
Austin, Texas | Age 82
Gary Cartwright, the best Texas journalist and nonfiction stylist of his generation, died February 22 at 82. His passing resulted from complications of injuries suffered in a fall in his Austin home. Born in Dallas, August 10, 1934, Gary spent some of his early boyhood in the West Texas oil boom village of Royalty, where his dad ran a Texaco station, but he grew up in Arlington. In high school there he was inspired when an English teacher told him he had a gift for writing.
After five semesters at the University of Texas-Austin and his hometown college, then called Arlington State, and a two-year hitch in the army, Gary took a journalism degree from TCU. He caught on first with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram as a $55 a week "cop shop" reporter. He later reflected, "Covering the night police beat was where I learned to use fear as a battle-ax. It is cold and relentless out there, and fear is your primary weapon. Fear can induce paralysis, and will if you allow it, but it can also inspire accomplishments that at times seem unlimited."
He operated out of a joint newsroom with new friends and rivals-among them tall, handsome Edwin "Bud" Shrake of the Fort Worth Press. Bud lured him to the Press, which turned loose on the city a sports staff brimming with flair, wit, and style-Bud, Gary, Dan Jenkins, and their exacting editor Blackie Sherrod. A crank who covered bowling took in Gary's swarthy skin and mistook him for a past Asian-American intern he disliked and groaned about someone letting "that Jap" back in the building. Gary's new cronies at once nicknamed him "Jap." He accepted their politically incorrect and misconstrued term of endearment but grew sensitive about it. Decades later, when his rowdy friend and the recovered alcoholic Ann Richards was governor of Texas, she carefully called him Gary, never again Jap.
While with the Star-Telegram Gary married an art designer of retail show rooms named Barbara. They had a son and a daughter and divorced after seven years. In Dallas he married a stewardess named Jo, and they too had a son. Gary followed Blackie, Bud, and Dan to the Dallas Times-Herald and then the Morning News. Jack Ruby gave the sportswriters free drinks at his Carousel Club, for they were celebrities. Some nights Gary, Bud, and Blackie donned capes and tights and conned gatherings into believing they were a troupe of European acrobats called the Flying Punzars. Their pratfalls wrecked a lot of furniture. Bud and Dan soon went off to New York as stars of the newborn Sports Illustrated and became accomplished novelists.
Blackie meanwhile edited the Morning News sports section and wrote his popular column while Gary specialized in the pro football beat. In 1965 the Cowboys were trying to stop being a woeful expansion franchise. That fall in Dallas, with time running out they were one yard away from upsetting Cleveland's then-mighty Browns and their dominant runner Jim Brown. Don Meredith, the dashing quarterback and past SMU heartthrob, dropped back and threw a pass over the middle straight into the brisket of an astonished Cleveland linebacker. He was ordered to throw to a spot where a Dallas receiver, not the linebacker, was supposed to be. Coach Tom Landry made the call but let Dandy Don take the fall. In the press box Gary began his story with a nod to an apocalyptic verse in Revelations: "The Four Horsemen rode again Sunday in the Cotton Bowl. You remember their names: Death, Famine, Pestilence, and Meredith."
Dandy Don was wounded, but in practice that week he calmed the Dallas players who wanted to take some hide off Cartwright. "Just doing his job," Meredith said of Gary. They remained friends the rest of Dandy Don's life. The last time he called Gary, it was just to sing him a pretty song.
Gary had also befriended Billy Lee Brammer, author of The Gay Place, the classic novel of 1950s Texas politics featuring a dominant governor that resembled Lyndon Johnson, whom Billy Lee had written speeches for in the Senate. That August, while the Cowboys trained in Thousand Oaks, California, Gary had gotten a call from Billy Lee, then freelancing for Time. He told Gary to hurry down to the Watts section of L.A., which was aflame. Drawing on the resources of fear and adrenaline he learned as a police beat rookie in Fort Worth, Gary plunged into the gunfire, rage, and chaos, filing report after report. The Morning News ran none of it. Gary later wrote that when he was back in Dallas, he challenged the editor-in-chief, who responded airily, "This was an important story, but we couldn't have it written by one of our own."
Alienated, weary of Dallas, Gary and Jo agreed without hesitation to a move when the Philadelphia Inquirer offered him a sports column at twice his Dallas salary. They liked the city but Gary hated what he was writing, and so did his superiors. He was fired after 89 days. For Harper's, then edited by Texas Observer ex Willie Morris, Gary wrote "Confessions of a Washed-Up Sportswriter." The essay established him as one of the hottest young magazine writers in the country.
However, back in Texas, Gary was arrested for giving a joint to two cops posing as Austin hippies who had knocked on their door and said they had lost their way on Comanche Trail. The statewide headlines were punishing, and the famed Odessa leader of his defense team, Warren Burnett, advised Gary to pipe down about the Constitution and wanting his confiscated weed back if he didn't wish to spend years in "the Big Rodeo" of Texas prisons. Another defense lawyer, A.R. "Babe" Schwartz," was a state senator from Galveston and won a legislative continuance, allowing Gary to party with pals and their wives for some months in Mexico City, Zihuatanejo, and Acapulco. When the trial began in Austin, Burnett proposed a defense of jury nullification-a theory that juries had the power to refuse to convict when they rejected the laws covered in the indictment. The prosecutors moved for a mistrial and got one, then lost interest. Gary's indictment went away, but the misadventure contributed to his second divorce.
Gary and Bud wrote a film script about a convict turned rodeo bull and bronc rider, J.W. Coop. The movie came out in 1971, but they had to sue the star and director, Cliff Robertson, and then settle in beaten fashion to get some pay and their screen credit. Robertson floated their names in taunting yellow type against a field of yellow wildflowers. Next for Gary came a voyage to Durango, Mexico, to observe the filming of Bud's movie Kid Blue, starring Dennis Hopper, who was still riding the success and excess of Easy Rider. Gary and Hopper became friends, though in the course of a Christmas party that got out of hand Hopper stuck a cocked and loaded pistol in Gary's face and said, "Bang bang." Gary then won a prestigious Dobie-Paisano Fellowship, which provided him six months on J. Frank Dobie's old retreat along Barton Creek. Gary enjoyed the beautiful setting, but the most work that came out of that term was done by a house guest, Pete Gent, the ex-Dallas Cowboys flanker who was writing a bestselling novel, North Dallas Forty. Still, the return to Austin allowed Gary the fortune of meeting, courting, and marrying the love of his life, Phyllis, who was becoming a superior real estate agent. Bud Shrake, a minister of some obscure faith, performed the legal ceremony in a side room of the Texas Chili Parlor, and the party moved on to a club where Gary whanged away on Willie Nelson's guitar and made up a ditty called "Main Squeeze Blues."
The marriage to Phyllis was not the only influence that settled him down some. Mike Levy, a young lawyer from Dallas who had sold ads for a Philadelphia city magazine, borrowed enough money from his father to pursue his dream of bringing that publishing concept to the whole of Texas. Levy interviewed hundreds of candidates for editor, including Gary, but hired William Broyles, Jr., who in turn hired Gregory Curtis. Bill and Greg had been writing students of Larry McMurtry when he taught at Rice. The birth of Texas Monthly turned loose a herd of ambitious twenty-somethings that included Griffin Smith, Al Reinert, Richard West, Stephen Harrigan, Jan Reid, Paul Burka, Prudence Mackintosh, and others of much talent to come. But most admitted they really didn't know what they were doing. Suddenly Gary was the grownup in the room-the seasoned veteran at 39 and leader of the pack. His first feature in the debut issue in February 1973 was a profile of Duane Thomas, the enigmatic star runner of the Dallas Cowboys' first Super Bowl winner.
Gary and Bud dreamed up Mad Dog, Inc. with the slogan "Doing Indefinable Services to Mankind" and the credo "Anything That Is Not Mystery is Guesswork." Members included David and Ann Richards, Pete Gent, Molly Ivins, and Eddie Wilson and other creators of Armadillo World Headquarters, who let them office upstairs in the converted armory. Mad Dog, Inc. was Austin's answer to Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters, and though they didn't roam the country in a wildly painted bus, they tried without success to buy three Texas ghost towns where they hoped to rule in anarchy and unbridled fun. All of their grand schemes fizzled, but in 1976 Hunter S. Thompson came through town and decided he didn't have enough octane to run with that crowd.
In a January 1976 Texas Monthly story titled "Is Jay J. Armes for Real?" Gary debunked an El Paso private eye's growing renown as the best shamus in the country. Armes had grown up poor and lost both hands in a boyhood blasting cap accident-he was a genuine wizard at getting through life with hooks instead of hands. Gary punctured his grandiose claims yet portrayed him sympathetically. The magazine had taken on a rookie fact checker named David Moorman. Gary, Broyles, Moorman, and the magazine's libel lawyer Jim George went to El Paso and certified all but one of Gary's allegations. Armes had a menagerie of large caged animals, such as bears and mountain lions, around his mansion. Moorman couldn't prove or disprove Gary's closing line about the menagerie, but how could they not use it? "A neighbor killed the elephant with a crossbow."
Gary's December 1976 cover story was a post-prison profile of Candy Barr, a baby-faced blonde stripper and star of one pornographic movie. Dallas police and prosecutors had put an end to her fame with a marijuana conviction. Gary talked her into letting him come see her in Brownwood. She came to the door with her hair in curlers and wearing a short disheveled house dress and no apparent underwear. Gary recalled the meeting: "'Don't think I dressed up just for you,' she told me."
On and on rolled Gary's panoramas of Texas, Mexico, and points beyond. He wrote about people imprisoned for crimes they didn't commit, and he didn't stop fighting for them when the issue was on the stands and another deadline called. He described the wanton killer Kenneth McDuff under a cover that shrieked, "MONSTER." He was a one-man town without pity on the subject of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. He spoofed himself as the state's greatest cook and greatest middle-aged lover. "Nobody checked my facts on that," Phyllis chided a staff newcomer, John Spong. Gary shared his inconsolable loss and grief when his older son Mark and beloved Phyllis died of cancer.
Gary made one real stab at writing fiction, his 1969 novel about pro football, The Hundred Yard War, but he knew nonfiction was his métier. Texas Monthly stories spawned his most successful books: Blood Will Tell: The Murder Trials of T. Cullen Davis (1979); Dirty Dealing: A True Story of Smuggling, Murder, and the FBI's Biggest Investigation (1984), and Galveston: A History of the Island (1991). Blood Will Tell won the non-fiction book of the year award from the Texas Institute of Letters and was adapted as a TV movie. That book was also translated in Russian by Soviet apparatchiks as proof of the depravity of American capitalism and justice.
Gary and Bud wrote scripts for two TV movies starring Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, A Pair of Aces (1990) and Another Pair of Aces (1991.) Following a major heart attack and bypass surgery, Gary wrote Heartwise Guy (1998) about his toned-down lifestyle and philosophy. He envied writers of good fiction and read it constantly. He was the last one to condescend to newspaper reporters; many were his friends, and he had given a decade of his life to that hard trade. When Gary retired from Texas Monthly he wanted his last column to be a visit with John Graves, the revered but age-stricken author of Goodbye to a River and Hard Scrabble. Their lives had played out in such different ways, at different decibels. Some wondered if they would connect, but they did.
In 2012 Gary won the Texas Institute of Letters' Lon Tinkle Award for career achievement. His eloquent remarks at the Institute's awards banquet inspired his finale, The Best I Recall: A Memoir. He relived high points of his long life but owned up to his considerable failures as a father and husband. '"Maybe I was an imperfect man, writing my own obituary,'" he recalled Willie Nelson saying in a sorrowful conversation they had on the singer's bus. "I didn't understand the meaning at first, but after a few years I discovered that Willie told me a profound truth: once you choose the night life, all roads are pretty much the same."
Gary Cartwright is survived by his daughter, Lea Hickman, of Santa Rosa, Florida, and his son, Shea Cartwright, of Houston. Another son, Mark Cartwright, is deceased. He leaves behind five grandchildren and six great grandchildren. On Saturday March 4 at 11 a.m. he will be honored with a graveside ceremony and remembrances at the Texas State Cemetery, where he will be interred near the graves of his friends Edwin "Bud" Shrake, Larry L. King, and Governor Ann Richards. The cemetery is at 909 Navasota Street, just east of downtown. A rollicking wake and testament of Gary's spirit will follow at the Scholz Beer Garten.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University in San Marcos, where his papers and mementos reside and are now on display. For more information, contact the Wittliff's Director of Development Ramona Kelly at firstname.lastname@example.org