Cliff Graubart, he of the Old New York Book Shop, called me on the 9th of September to tell me that Annie—Anne Rivers Siddons—was in hospice. “The doctors say a week,” Cliff said.
She died two days later. Lung cancer. The news came to me in four words from an email posted by Cynthia Graubart, Cliff’s wife: My heart is heavy.
I do not know why it is so, but my first thought was of the opening lines from Annie’s Peachtree Road: The south started killing Lucy Bondurant the day she was born. It does that to all its women.
It is arguably the best opening any of us ever pulled out of a keyboard.
But it’s not the book that’s important here. It’s the us, a loose company of friends bonded by youth and energy and the explosion of fiction writing that came out of the mid-’70s in Atlanta—Paul Darcy Boles, Bill Diehl, Pat Conroy, Paul Hemphill, Robert Coram. And in that male-dominated environment, there was Annie. Annie, the lady. Not the woman. The lady. Our lady.
It was that core group that would inspire the emerging Atlanta and Georgia fiction writing communities of the last 40 years, including the work in the late ’70s and ’80s of such writers as Stuart Woods, Ferrol Sams, Celestine Sibley, Mary Hood, Pam Durban, Emily Ellison and dozens of others.
In that time—the mid-’70s—there were fewer than 10 published writers of fiction living in Georgia. Best known among them was Eugenia Price, from St. Simons. In Atlanta, there was Genevieve Pou and Jeff Fields. In Athens, Philip Lee Williams’s first book was released. There were others, of course, but time has scrubbed the slate board of memory.
But this is of Annie, the Lady of Us, and I do not want it to be read as a sentiment born of the melancholy of death, but as a deep, forever affection for her.
When she appeared in Atlanta out of Auburn University, she had a footnote that would follow her like a proudly inked tattoo. She had written stories for the university’s student newspaper, the Plainsman, that advocated integration. She lost her position on the paper.
In Atlanta, at the magazine edited by the happy rebel, Jim Townsend, the theme of human rights and dignity became a hallmark of her work and earned her the admiration of fellow writers. She was perfect for the role—young, brilliant, beautiful, soft-spoken, refined, talented. In almost every way, she balanced the anger and righteousness and fragility of the ’60s with passion and good sense. She had the best soul of the lot of us. She was the most refined, the kindest, the most patient, the one least likely to engage in put-downs or sarcasm or raucous humor. When she made the transition from nonfiction to fiction, as we were all beginning to do, she carried the discipline for magazine writing with her and her imagination quickly bloomed with the wonder of possibilities.
I think we were all in love with her, the men of us. She was, as Lionel Richie’s song put it, three times a lady. But it was love of respect and awe, though I’m sure all of us would have enjoyed a dance to Richie’s soulful lyrics.
Her influence on my own writing was profound. Though I worked for the Atlanta Journal at the time, I read her work in Atlanta magazine and was intimidated by its power and professionalism, the control and grandeur of her language, her caring and empathy for her subject matter. Her writing soared like the music of spirited operas, with phrases of pianissimo and fortississimo written in such perfect pitch that it turned readers into audiences.
And then fame. Book after book of fame. She moved from Atlanta to Charleston, bought homes in Maine, retreated little by little. Unlike the obsession of today’s writers to display on social media, Annie did none of that. No Facebook. No Twitter. No emails. She did not wallow in adoration. Adoration made her uncomfortable. I am told she had deep periods of depression. Her health became fragile, and her circle of friends drew tight. After her husband, Heyward, died in 2014, she became mostly reclusive to all but family and a few close friends.
The last time I saw her was in 2007. She came to Athens from Charleston to present me as the recipient of an award. It was a gesture of friendship that simmers deep in the warmth of my better memories.
You will find her name—always bold, always dominant—on many books. Anne Rivers Siddons. It’s as though what you see is an announcement, rather than an identity. My favorite is Peachtree Road, the one that established her as a must-read author among readers favoring the hybrid genre of literary and popular fiction. After Peachtree Road, her name alone would sell countless thousands of books and make her a megastar.
But in the beginning—in the mid-’70s, before the fame, in the company of us—none of that mattered. She was Annie, our lady. And that was enough.
I am fuzzy about the time—1985, I believe it was—but we were in the hills of North Carolina, not far from Highlands, and we were sitting outside on a twilight evening that had both summer and autumn in it. Sweet smell of pine forest and honeysuckle, fireflies blinking, song of a nightbird—the sort of setting he might have written about with such exuberance, the words could have posed for a portrait.
We had hiked the hills and had had dinner and were drinking wine fit for the occasion. Good vintage, but not extraordinary. The mood was melancholy, as it always was in the comedown from hours of merriment that marked the energy of those blissfully young days.
That is when he said it: “Boys, they’re about to make me famous, and I don’t know how to handle it.”
The memory is not fuzzy on that.
Pat Conroy said it. He said it to me and to Cliff Graubart and to Bernie Schein and to Frank Smith and to Dan Sklar.
The Boys, we called ourselves, the same simple stamp of comradeship used by millions of men, men grouping up for a poker night, or a game on television, or just a sit-around visit for no purpose other than being together. No rules to being one of The Boys, other than holding true to trust.
And so, there we were on that evening—The Boys, enjoying wine and a melancholy moment, and Pat Conroy announces he is about to become famous.
My memory tells me our response was mostly silence, though there might have been an obscene but gentle put-down about it, for that is the way of language among most men who call themselves The Boys. But if there was anything profound suggested, it was lost in the mood of the evening.
Still, none of us forgot it.
It was not a prediction. It was a proclamation. He was finishing The Prince of Tides, the book that would secure his reputation following the success of The Water Is Wide and The Great Santini and The Lords of Discipline.
Being famous was there for the taking for him, but it was more than a public relations gambit. Fame was in his blood, in his presence, in the enigmatic something that finds nest in select people.
He had a natural onstage presence so huge it overwhelmed his audiences. A large, imposing man, he could enter a crowded room and clear a path with his Irish smile and his Irish blue eyes and his Irish bluster, one of those rare people full up to the brim with charisma.
And he knew how to use it.
Everywhere he went—to live or to visit—he had something to say, something to do, something to leave that would be remembered. His presence was more responsible for bringing attention to Atlanta writers in the 1970s and 1980s than anything, or anyone. The publishers of New York paid attention because he talked it up. When he settled in South Carolina, at his home in Fripp Island and, later, in Beaufort, he made the state a center of Southern literature. (I do think his designation as an editor at the University of South Carolina Press was hilarious, however. Pat Conroy, Editor. For anyone who read one of his first-draft manuscripts, it is the definition of an oxymoron. I would have enjoyed seeing Nan Talese’s expression when she first saw the line, Nan having been his longtime editor at Doubleday.)
We met in the spring of 1973 at a luncheon that had something to do with Jim Townsend, then editor of Georgia Magazine. Jim had commissioned me to do a piece on the filming of Pat’s The Water Is Wide, which was in production on St. Simons Island under the title Conrack.
We would spend some time at St. Simons, Pat told me. Talking, he said. He wanted to ask about my experiences as a film and theater writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. It all sounded interesting to him, he vowed. Seeing all those movies and plays, mingling with celebrities.
That was the beginning of the relationship. Pat had moved to Atlanta earlier in the year to make a place for himself as a writer, and after St. Simons, there would be get-togethers at the Old New York Book Shop and impromptu drop-ins at his home on Briarcliff Road. A small core of writers grew out of the gatherings—nothing official, just friends. We had a lot in common. Youth. Energy. Promise.
And we had Pat. He was the catalyst.
Pat and I were discussing “character” with Pat Dickey, James Dickey’s sister, one evening in Pat’s study in Atlanta. She had expressed an interest in writing herself. So he challenged me to browse through his library and to pick out the book that most mattered to him when he was young. Bottom shelf, right in the middle: The Lives of Saints. An easy call, don’t you think?
Schein is an author and educator who taught at Paideia School for 33 years.
Anne Rivers Siddons
One of my favorite Conroyisms occurred on the roof of his house in Rome. Behind it, up Capitoline Hill, was the Regina Coeli (Queen of Heaven) prison. The poor inmates wailed ceaselessly. “I want a lawyer! I want a woman!” Pat interpreted. The crowd on the roof, gathered to celebrate Pat’s marriage the next day in a little chapel off Michelangelo’s Square, hooted back. Across the street was a two-story house where retired nuns and priests lived. I watched as the little old sisters toiled up the stairs bearing food, drink, tobacco, and other sustenance to the fathers, who sat with their feet up. I remarked on this to Pat, who grinned and said, “Yeah, the church always finds its own level in Rome.” I already miss him more than I thought possible.
Siddons, a former senior editor of Atlanta magazine, is a novelist.
Mark Childress I first encountered Pat Conroy at the uproarious publication party for The Lords of Discipline at Cliff Graubart’s Old New York Book Shop in Atlanta. Conroy was the radiant star of the evening, which carried on until after 3 a.m. He was back at the store the next morning at 9. He had come to clean up the mess his admirers had made. He wielded a broom while entertaining everyone with comic highlights of the party. He lugged sacks of trash and poured leftover beers out the window. That has always been my ideal of how a famous person should behave.
Childress, a former editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is a novelist.
In the 43 years between 1973 and attending his funeral on March 8, 2016, a lot happened between us, especially in the first 20 years.
We discovered we were cousins through the Peek bloodline.
“Distant,” I would explain.
“Remote,” he would counter.
The oft-told story of his influence on my career as a writer of fiction was true. He did make a phone call to Anne Barrett of Houghton Mifflin, telling her he had read 150 pages of a manuscript that his friend Terry Kay was working on, urging her to have a look at it.
It was a grand lie. I had never written a sentence of true fiction. When the letter came from Anne Barrett asking for the pages Pat had raved about, I went to his house to confront him. I snapped at him, cursed him, told him I had no desire to write fiction and I would be grateful if he would drop the issue. He listened to the ranting, then advised that I had two choices: I could tell Anne the truth, that I had nothing to share, or I could write 150 pages.
I wrote the 150 pages in one month. Out of it came my first novel.
He knew what I would do because he knew I had been reared in a family with a work ethic that said this: If someone has faith in you, you have an obligation to try.
Pat had faith.
And there was the other call.
It was in the early 1990s. He was living in San Francisco and had received news that I was suffering from depression following publication of my novel, To Dance with the White Dog. It should have been the grandest of times for me. Reviews were good. There was interest in foreign sales. A movie was in the planning. The hoopla of it all was like theme music. Still, I was depressed. When Pat learned of it, he began to call with regularity, asking each time about my writing. Each time, I lied, telling him it was going well. Then, one day, he said, “Why are you lying to me? You’re not writing anything.”
I began weeping, the kind of weeping made of desperation and self-pity.
I had nothing to write, I told him. Nothing. When I paused, he said to me, “Kay, you’ve bored us for years about your miserable life in the Catskills, but you’ve never written a word about it, so here’s your story: Young plowboy from a Georgia farm ties his mules to a fence post, packs his meager belongings in a pillowcase, stuffs what few dollars he has into the toe of a sock, and boards the Greyhound bus going north. He runs out of ticket money in the Catskills, takes a job as a busboy in a Jewish resort, and falls in love with a beautiful Jewish girl who’s a guest in the hotel.”
I laughed. I knew Pat. Knew he was being deliberately absurd in an effort to change my mood. I said, “Conroy, that might be the silliest plotline I’ve ever heard.”
There was a pause, a silence stretching from San Francisco to Atlanta, and then he said, “You didn’t read The Prince of Tides, did you?”
I thought: My God. That’s exactly what he did. Dumb Southern coach/teacher makes his way to New York to rescue his fragile sister and there meets the Jewish psychiatrist, Lowenstein, love of his life.
And then I thought: If he can get by with that, so can I.
Shadow Song came out of it. Shadow Song built the house I live in.
Lee Walburn Pat promised me he would write about the death of his father for Atlanta magazine. I did not believe him, but I loved him nonetheless for suspect assurance. Then one day Pat’s agent, Carolyn Krupp, left a message on my phone: “Pat has written for you a piece about the death of his father.” In that 1999 Father’s Day essay Pat began to finally wrestle to the ground his relationship with Donald Conroy. It planted the seed that grew into his last major book, The Death of Santini. I could only wonder if that first cautious step toward detente would cause the wind to escape from Pat’s literary bellows; would I ever again edit a scene or passage as magically crafted as those that fulfilled a promise?
Walburn is a former editor in chief of Atlanta magazine.
Kathy Trocheck Pat was larger than life—in his affection, his passions, his capacity for enjoyment. He was unstintingly generous and genuine with other writers. I was with him at a large book club convention in a small town in Texas where all the participating authors were asked to wait tables at a dinner for readers. Nobody was faster to whip on an apron and serve dinner. He posed for hundreds of photos, chatted with everybody, especially all the other lesser-known authors at the event, buying their books and asking for their autographs. He was always doing that, inviting everybody to sit at the “grown-up table” of authors. Wherever Pat was, that was the party, and he always made sure you knew you were invited.
Trocheck, a former reporter at the AJC, is a novelist who writes as Mary Kay Andrews.
The phone call that led to Shadow Song also revealed something to me about Pat I had not realized—his need to be heroic. Thinking of him now, in the freedom of imagination, I believe as the first child in the combative family of Don and Peggy Conroy, he must have pinned a bath towel around his neck and set out in make-believe to save the world—first the one of his family, and second the one called Earth.
His father, Don—the Great Santini—once described to an interviewer that Pat was always the hero in his stories, and because heroes required villains, he, Don, had served that role for his son, which was why there were so many references about the contentious father-son relationship in the Santini stories. There are those who would question Don’s take on it, for he was as prone to exaggeration as Pat, and I always believed he had a myopic view of his place in his son’s angst. There were many things that angered Pat other than his father’s temper.
Still, Don was not wrong about Pat’s wish to be heroic. In his writing, the Pat characters—the protagonists—are always valiant. Gloriously so. They encounter threat, meanness, injustice, misery, and they metaphorically leap tall buildings and throw their bodies on nuclear warheads, and in the end, the world is saved and they stand triumphant—especially in the imagination of the reader. It is precisely that quality that has endeared him to millions, especially those who subconsciously wish to be rescued from some dastardly wrongdoing in the dysfunctional world of their existence.
Pat, the hero, is near-operatic in each of his novels, but for me, his best writing was in his essays and especially in his letters of anger and protest against such issues as censorship and inept education. In those explosions of righteousness, the language is riveting because he was far more effective at the short, intense expression than in his long passages of singing description, as good as they were.
Then, too, much of his presence was beyond language; it was in the mere force of his name: Pat Conroy. His name peppers the front and back of book jackets of countless writers, writers who took nourishment from his cheerleading endorsements, who memorized his words and slyly dropped them into their conversation. They were his congregants. His name was their blessing, their heroic rescue from doubt, their wished-for passage into literary acceptance. In book festival crowds, they thrashed around him like smiling piranha.
Frank Reiss I should have known better, but before being asked to host his 2009 Atlanta appearance for South of Broad, I had mostly ignored Pat Conroy, as A Cappella had primarily been an antiquarian bookstore. I had heard about the fervor of his readers, though, so it was pretty stupid to start selling tickets on the very day I was leaving town for a week at the beach. The flood of orders that came in deluged my short-handed staff, meaning that I spent my vacation (fittingly, on the Carolina coast) with an erratic cell signal, comforting hundreds of ecstatic fans with confirmations and delivering the devastating news to dozens of others once tickets were all gone. We survived Hurricane Pat. Nothing has been the same since.
Reiss is owner of A Cappella Books in Atlanta.
Susan Percy Sometime in the early fall of 1977, not long after we moved back to Atlanta, my late husband, Paul Hemphill, and I were invited to dinner at Pat’s apartment in Ansley Park. I had recently read The Great Santini, which had a wonderful cover image of a leather jacket—presumably belonging to the fictional Marine fighter pilot Bull Meecham—on a metal coat hanger. At Pat’s apartment, on a bedroom door, was another leather jacket, also on a metal coat hanger. This one, presumably, had belonged to Pat’s father, Donald Conroy, a real Marine fighter pilot.
Percy is editor-at-large of Georgia Trend magazine.
Cliff Graubart He walked into my store in 1973 and changed my life. He was Pat then, not “Bestselling Novelist Pat Conroy.” He claimed never to have owned a hardback book before crossing the threshold of the Old New York Book Shop, and over his frequent visits to build his personal library, we became fast friends. His love of words, books, and writers became our book launch parties—famous for the cheap Champagne I served in plastic cups—and put the store at the center of literary Atlanta. Terry Kay, Anne Rivers Siddons, and so many others were buoyed by Pat’s support. You’d be hard-pressed to find a Southern writer that doesn’t have a Pat Conroy story. I miss him terribly.
Graubart founded the Old New York Book Shop in Atlanta in 1973.
On the day of his funeral, at St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Beaufort, South Carolina, I heard people calling him a complex man.
Unquestionably, he was that. It was part of his ascension to fame.
In the praise heaped upon his memory by mourners who gathered to celebrate his life, he was described as kind and giving and caring. And, yes, that was true. I am a beneficiary of that generosity. Countless others gratefully make the same claim.
Yet there are those who will tell you he could be a bully, a stubborn man with an addiction to being right, a man beset with demons, and a man who could find curious pleasure in unleashing his devastating wit against people who cherished him. I knew that side of him, also. There were a few times when the sting of his surprising, unexpected swipe left scars. He was a master at it, for he leveled it in the disguise of charm and you did not know whether to fight him or to laugh with him. There was no blood, yet you knew you had been wounded. To say he harbored a warped sense of humor is understatement.
“Just Pat,” people would say. “Just Pat.”
Over time, in his odyssey to find a place of adventure—Rome (Italy), Fripp Island, San Francisco—he eased away from early-on friends in Atlanta, though apparently he had been making an effort to reconnect with many of them. There was talk of it in the milling crowd attending his funeral. The mending was a good thing, those reconnected early-on friends admitted, a little like old times.
In fairness, time had a lot to do with the fading of his Atlanta influence, and it wasn’t just Pat’s doing. It was all of us. Anne Rivers Siddons moved to Charleston. I found my way to Athens. Rosemary Daniell relocated to Savannah. Cliff Graubart’s book parties at the Old New York Book Shop—the parties that gave emerging writers an identity—ended. The Boys drifted apart. Frank Smith moved to Maine. Bernie Schein went home to Beaufort. Dan Sklar went north to New York. Others died—Paul Darcy Boles, Paul Hemphill, Bill Diehl, Marshall Frady.
It is the way of life. Change. Slow and swift. People go from improvised dinners of watery oyster stew in chipped coffee cups (as Pat once served) to Champagne in Waterford crystal (as he surely enjoyed). Friends and acquaintances are lost along the way, new friends and acquaintances take their place. Novels are written of such storylines.
In full disclosure—as the newspeople say—I had not been close to Pat for 20 years. He would call occasionally, always with the same blarney he used with many people: “It’s up to me to keep this dying friendship alive.” I enjoyed those calls, but I had long known I was mostly a touchstone to another time for him, a memory residing in his Rolodex, one of the early-on people. Still—and this is honest—I was never bothered by the sense that I had become an outsider in his life. I knew there was more to the calls than periodically touching base. He had either a need to assuage some gnawing sense of obligation, a need to keep up appearances, or a wish to find some comfort in an old moment, perhaps one founded in the North Carolina mountains when not so much was expected of him. To me, it was Pat being Pat. Just Pat. I followed his rise to fame with interest and pride, but I preferred him as one of The Boys, not as a celebrity. Still, the sweet moments were indescribably fine. The last visit was one of those moments.
I saw him on Tuesday, January 26, at Emory University Hospital. He was weak and in some pain, but he was also jovial. We shared a few stories, ragged at the edges from so much telling over so many years. I hugged him. Told him I loved him. I did not believe I would again see him alive. And I didn’t. My last viewing of him was on March 7, in Anderson Funeral Home. In the casket, he did not look famous.
But he was, as he had proclaimed he would be. Death did not rob him of that quest.
Still, getting there was not easy work for him, not with the speeches, the blurbs, the parties, the begging of dreamy writers, the requests for selfies, the never-ending demands of giddy fans. Hard doing, it was, but necessary. As Pat learned, you cannot outrun fame, even if you wanted to. He didn’t want to. He had an ordination to accept it, much like the title of a Robert Frost poem I have long favored: How Hard It Is to Keep from Being King When It’s in You and in the Situation.
It’s a line that fit Pat perfectly.
In 2001, his fame riding high, Pat returned to the Citadel, his alma mater, to give the commencement address, ending an estrangement of many years. On that day, he invited Citadel graduates to attend his funeral when the time came. All they had to do to gain entrance was to announce, “I wear the ring,” the opening line to The Lords of Discipline, the book that had caused the rift.
If Pat had shared this plan with The Boys in 1985, in the North Carolina mountains, we would have convulsed in laughter.
But that was before he became famous. Famous people have a pass when it comes to being highly dramatic.
The graduates remembered his invitation, of course, for on March 8, at St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Beaufort, they appeared, forming a long human corridor from the hearse to the church. Inside, an entire section had been reserved for them. When they went forward for communion, I saw several of them weeping as they accepted the wafer.
Too, there was this: The priest called for a statue of Pat to be erected in Beaufort.
If it happens, I hope they make it life-sized from bronze. He should be holding a bronze journal pad in his left hand and the bronze replica of a Montblanc fountain pen in his right hand, for that’s what passersby and fans and wistful writers would want to touch, to rub. For the magic, I mean. With the touching, the rubbing, the bronze will stay bright on the pad and the pen, and that would please Pat.
If it does happen, if a statue is erected, I want to attend the unveiling with The Boys—with Cliff and Frank and Bernie and Dan.
We were there at the beginning. We should see it to the end.
This article originally appeared in our May 2016 issue.
The first great writer I met was Robert Frost, following a reading at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia. Nineteen sixty-one, I think it was. He was old and gently stooped in the shoulders. His hair had gone to white, as age will take it, and it had the look of being always wind-blown. There was a comfortable merriment in his eyes. When he spoke, it was a voice you wanted to hear.
The night left me with a glad awareness and, oddly, with a strong wish to also meet Carl Sandburg, the other great American poet of those years. And so, in summer, my wife and I embarked on a trip to Flat Rock, North Carolina, where Sandburg lived. It would become an annual vacation for ten or more consecutive years, becoming such a habit—a need, really—that the pilgrimage continued long after Sandburg’s death.
I never met him. Never had the nerve to knock at his front door and introduce myself, as a lot of people in Flat Rock advised. “He wouldn’t mind at all,” they said. “That’s the kind of man he is.” Still, we returned year following year, hoping for courage I did not have, yet leaving us to do the things people do on vacation—shop, dine out, meander the streets, discover things.
One of those discoveries was a few miles north of Flat Rock—walking distance, really: the town-city of Hendersonville, which, for us, is the kind of Brigadoon you look for when you need a getaway.
We liked it at first sight—wide streets made for strolling, sidewalk benches for sitting, an enticing variety of shops, the joyful nature of its people. A good place, we both thought, a place that perks the spirits and calms the jitters. (On occasion, in a melancholy mood, I have driven there alone to take an up-and-down journey of Main Street, and then I have driven home, the melancholy put to temporary rest. My wife knows if I go missing, she should look for me in Hendersonville.)
There’s something about the place that calls to us. I have written a goodly portion of a book there in the quaint and comfortable Rose Cottages. My wife has driven there to shop at Ruth Originals when I thought she was spending the day at Lenox Square in Atlanta. In the season of harvest, when apple orchards scent the air with the perfume of fruit, we take day trips for a bushel just plucked from trees. We can count our years in dated jars of applesauce.
We no longer go annually to Flat Rock and Hendersonville on vacation, for there are other places to see and other people to meet. Yet, if we’re within reasonable driving distance, we will detour for a drive-through. We always leave feeling renewed, and we always drive by Carl Sandburg’s house.
I did eventually make my way to the front door—as a paying visitor, for it is now a National Historic Site. And I did what I wish I had done a half century earlier: I knocked softly. And memory answered.
Terry Kay is the author of sixteen published works, including the just-released Song of the Vagabond Bird and the classic novel To Dance with the White Dog, which celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary in 2015. Kay and his wife of fifty-five years live in Athens, Georgia.
Since 1961, Atlanta magazine, the city’s premier general interest publication, has served as the authority on Atlanta, providing its readers with a mix of long-form nonfiction, lively lifestyle coverage, in-depth service journalism, and literary essays, columns, and profiles.