McMurtry, Larry Jeff (1936–2021)


By: Robert J. Duncan

Type: Biography

Published: September 1, 2021

Updated: December 2, 2021


Larry McMurtry, novelist, screenwriter, essayist, book scout, antiquarian book dealer, and bibliophile, was born in Wichita Falls, Texas, on June 3, 1936. His parents were William Jefferson “Jeff” McMurtry, Jr., and Hazel Ruth (McIver) McMurtry, and he was the eldest of four children. The family lived with his paternal grandparents on their Archer County ranch, and the house was bookless except for perhaps a Bible. In 1942 Larry’s cousin Robert Hilburn brought Larry a box of nineteen books containing boys’ adventure stories, which he eagerly devoured. Before McMurtry started second grade, he, his parents, and his siblings moved to Archer City, about twenty-five miles southwest of Wichita Falls, so that the children could attend school more easily. His father, who came from a ranching family, operated ranch properties in Archer County. Larry loved reading books (except textbooks). At Archer City High School, he played basketball, baseball, tennis, and ran track. He was the editorial writer for The Cat’s Claw, the school’s (mimeographed) newspaper, and a member of the school band. There were nineteen graduates in his 1954 high school class.  

After high school graduation, one day McMurtry saw a television advertisement about Rice Institute (now Rice University), a well-endowed and tuition-free school. He was admitted and began college in fall 1954. After completing three semesters at Rice, he transferred to North Texas State College (now the University of North Texas) in Denton. He graduated with a B.A. in English in the spring of 1958. While at North Texas State, he came to realize that a couple of his stories were novel fragments rather than short stories. He later combined them and included them in his draft of the novel Horseman, Pass By. He considered short stories to be more difficult to create than novels.   

Later in 1958 McMurtry finished his first draft of Horseman, Pass By. The title came from the William Butler Yeats poem “Under Ben Bulben.” Soon thereafter, McMurtry began work on a second novel, Leaving Cheyenne. He made a practice of writing five double-spaced first-draft pages (on a Hermes 3000 manual typewriter) every morning, seven days a week; if he missed a day, he was apt to develop a headache. 

McMurtry returned to Rice for graduate school. He continued writing and by October 1958 had two novel manuscripts in draft form. He completed his M.A. at Rice in 1960.

On July 15, 1959, Larry McMurtry married Elizabeth Josephine “Jo” Ballard Scott in Missouri City, a Houston suburb. They had met in Denton, where she was a student at Texas Woman’s University.     

McMurtry won a seat in the Wallace Stegner Fellowship in Creative Writing at Stanford University for the 1960–61 school year. His classmates included Ken Kesey, Wendell Berry, Edward Abbey, Tillie Olsen, Ernest Gaines, Robert Stone, Christopher Koch, Dave Godfrey, Jim Hall, Joanna Ostrow, Peter Beagle, and Gurney Norman. By 1999 graduates of the 1960–61 Stegner class had produced about seventy to eighty books. After the fellowship, McMurtry and his wife moved back to Texas, this time to Fort Worth, where he taught at Texas Christian University in the 1961–62 school year. Their son, James Lawrence McMurtry, was born in 1962.   

McMurtry sent the Horseman manuscript to Frank Wardlaw at the Texas Quarterly.  Wardlaw was unable to publish long fiction in the journal, but he sent the manuscript to John Leggett, an editor friend in New York. Harper & Brothers published it in May 1961. Almost immediately after publication, Hollywood expressed interest in adapting the book for a film. Paul Newman wanted to play the title character, Hud Bannon, in Hud, the film adaptation of Horseman, but he could do so only if production could begin relatively quickly. The movie was filmed in Claude, Texas, in May and June 1962. In addition to Paul Newman, it starred Melvyn Douglass, Patricia Neal, and Brandon de Wilde. The film was released in May 1963 and received seven Academy Award nominations and won three. 

Leaving Cheyene was published in 1962. McMurtry taught two courses per semester at Rice, beginning in the 1962–63 school year and continuing until 1969. He and his wife, Jo, separated in 1964 and divorced in 1966. Larry received a Guggenheim Grant for creative writing in 1964. Larry’s third novel, The Last Picture Show, was written in three weeks in the summer of 1964. It was published in 1966. 

In 1968 Bill Wittliff and Sally Wittliff, owners of the small independent Encino Press in Austin, published a book of  McMurtry’s essays, several of which had first appeared as magazine articles. The book’s title was In a Narrow Grave: Essays on Texas. In 1969 McMurtry and son James moved to Waterford, Virginia, near Washington, D. C. They lived in what a friend described as “a spare Quaker house filled with books.” McMurtry taught a year at George Mason University and a year at the American University. In 1971 he and friend Marcia McGhee Carter opened a bookstore called Booked Up in Georgetown.  

Writer Patrick Bennett described McMurtry: “The novelist is a slender man, just under six feet tall and weighing about 160 pounds. He has dark-brown hair and brown eyes, and his tortoise-shell glasses give him a scholarly look. He talks with a soft voice in a flat, unemotional way.” Fairly early in McMurtry’s career as a writer, a critic once suggested that he was a “minor regional novelist”; in response, Larry sometimes wore a t-shirt bearing that phrase.  

McMurtry and film director Peter Bogdanovich adapted the screenplay for the film The Last Picture Show. The movie was filmed in Archer City. Released in 1971, the film was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won two. Lovin’ Molly, the film based on McMurtry’s novel Leaving Cheyenne, was released in 1974 but flopped at the box office. McMurtry later called the film Lovin’ Molly “simply dreadful.” Part of the problem was that the timeline of the story extended over multiple decades, and it was difficult to convincingly “age” actors that much.

By the 1980s real estate prices, property taxes, rents, and inflation in U. S. cities were increasing so much that used, rare, and antiquarian bookstores were being priced out of existence. In 1988 McMurtry moved much of the Georgetown Booked Up store’s inventory to Archer City, where he had purchased several empty buildings on or near the downtown courthouse square for a relatively small cost. He had also established bookstores in Dallas and Houston but later sold them by the late 1990s.

Although none of McMurtry’s early novels was a best seller, three of his early books were made into quite successful films. University of Texas professor Don Graham assessed: “Hud in 1963, The Last Picture Show in 1971, and Terms of Endearment in 1981 each racked up Academy Awards and built up McMurtry’s readership.”   

McMurtry commented that he initially was offered the opportunity to work on movie scripts because Hollywood filmmakers and directors assumed that he would be a good screenwriter of films set in the West or Southwest, since he had written a couple of Western novels that had been successfully adapted to film. He eventually worked on one or more drafts or fragments of about seventy screenplays.  

In 1986 McMurtry’s novel Lonesome Dove won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The epic novel ultimately sold more than four million copies. Bill Wittliff adapted the novel into a four-part, six-hour television miniseries that was released in 1989 and was a huge success. The miniseries had eighteen Emmy nominations and won seven Emmys. McMurtry estimated that more than 100 million people saw the film, and he attributed most of the success of the miniseries to Wittliff.  

McMurtry first met Diana Ossana with some mutual friends in a restaurant in Tucson, Arizona, in 1985. They became friends, and when he was in Tucson (where he owned another bookstore for several years), he would stop by to visit and stay in the guest room in her home. The two later developed a working relationship but denied having a romantic relationship.    

In August 1991 McMurtry suffered a heart attack. Doctors recommended quadruple bypass heart surgery, but he postponed the operation to finish his novel The Evening Star. On December 2, 1991, he had the surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Later, while convalescing at Ossana's home, he wrote Streets of Laredo in her kitchen. Then he became lethargic. For two years he stopped writing, reading, and traveling. During those years he spent most of the time sitting on a couch in Ossana's home and staring out the window at the mountains. When he was offered a screenwriting job about Pretty Boy Floyd, Ossana encouraged him to take on the project. She read him many pages of research that she had conducted about Charley Floyd. McMurtry agreed to write the script only if Ossana would write it with him. They did. Then they wrote the novel Pretty Boy Floyd (published in 1995) and the novel Zeke and Ned (published in 1997). 

One day in 1997 Ossana happened to read the short story “Brokeback Mountain” by writer E. Annie Proulx in The New Yorker. She immediately recognized the story as a masterpiece and asked McMurtry to read it. That afternoon the two wrote a one-page letter to Proulx and offered to option her story and adapt it for film. They subsequently wrote the screenplay together. The film Brokeback Mountain was finally completed and released in 2005. It won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay (along with Oscars in two other categories) and was a huge success financially. Wearing his Armani tuxedo jacket, blue jeans, and boots, McMurtry created a sensation on the Red Carpet and during his and Ossana's Oscar presentation.    

Irving “Swifty” Lazar worked as McMurtry’s film agent for many years. When Larry’s literary agent, Dorothea Oppenheimer, became gravely ill and died in 1987, Lazar also began serving as literary agent. Michael Korda at Simon & Schuster was McMurtry’s editor for more than four decades. However, that arrangement ended in 2014, when Liveright (a division of W.W. Norton) published his novel The Last Kind Words Saloon.   

By the mid-1990s, Larry and Diana segued to some extent into television script writing.  After about 1990 he worked more on television scripts than on film screenplays.  

McMurtry was president of the PEN American Center (in New York) from 1989 to 1991. While serving in that position, he testified before U. S. Congress against an antiquated immigration law that permitted the U.S. government to exclude writers whose ideological views it frowned upon.    

On April 29, 2011, Larry McMurtry married Norma Faye Haxby Kesey, widow of writer Ken Kesey. Their wedding was held at Booked Up #1 (the main store) in Archer City. By 2012 McMurtry became concerned about leaving, upon his death, a huge inventory of books for others to dispose of, so he held an auction to reduce the bookstore’s number of volumes to a more manageable level. The auction in August 2012 reduced his holdings from about 450,000 books to about 300,000. McMurtry was awarded a National Humanities Medal in September 2014 by President Barack Obama. In 2018 Brokeback Mountain was added to the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry. 

Larry Jeff McMurtry died of congestive heart failure on March 25, 2021. He was eighty-four years old. He was survived by his wife, Faye; his son, James; his grandson, Curtis; his sisters: Judy McLemore and Sue Deen; and his brother, Charlie. On the day following McMurtry’s death, James L. Brooks, who had adapted Larry’s novel Terms of Endearment for a screenplay (and produced and directed the Oscar-winning film), provided the following tribute: “Sitting here thinking of the greatness of Larry McMurtry. Among the best writers ever. I remember when he sent me on my way to adapt “Terms”—his refusal to let me hold him in awe. And the fact that he was personally working the cash register of his rare book store as he did so.” On the same day, novelist Stephen King offered this tribute: “Larry McMurtry was a great storyteller. I learned from him, which was important. I was entertained by him, which was ALL important.  RIP, cowboy.  Horseman, pass by.”     

Alexandra Alter, “Larry McMurtry’s New Myth of the Old West,” Wall Street Journal, May 5, 2014 (https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702303939404579532183485259654), accessed August 18, 2021.  Archer County News, March 31, 2021. Patrick Bennett, Talking with Texas Writers, Twelve Interviews (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1980). Linnea Crowther, “Larry McMurtry (1936–2021), Pulitzer Prize-winning Author of ‘Lonesome Dove’,” Legacy.com, March 26, 2021 (https://www.legacy.com/news/celebrity-deaths/larry-mcmurtry-1936-2021-pulitzer-prize-winning-author-of-lonesome-dove/), accessed August 18, 2021. Florence Morning News (Florence, South Carolina), August 4, 1959. Fort Worth Star-Telegram, March 5, 2006. Roy Hamric, “All Booked Up in Archer City,” Texas Co-op Power, August 1998. Larry McMurtry, Books: A Memoir (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008). Larry McMurtry, Hollywood: A Third Memoir (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010). Larry McMurtry, Literary Life: A Second Memoir (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009). Larry McMurtry, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, Reflections at Sixty and Beyond (New York: A Touchstone Book by Simon & Schuster, 1999). Michael J. Mooney, “Larry McMurtry Sells Out,” D Magazine, October 2012. New York Times, May 12, 1987; November 10, 2012; March 26, 2021. Ruth Jones O’Keefe, Archer County Pioneers, A History of Archer County, Texas (Hereford, Texas: Pioneer Book Publishers, Inc., 1969). Charles D. Peavy, “A Larry McMurtry Bibliography,” Western American Literature III (Fall 1968). Clay Reynolds, ed., Taking Stock, A Larry McMurtry Casebook (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1989). Keith Shelton, “Profile,” The North Texan 29 (November 1978). Gould Whaley, Jr., William D. Witliff and the Encino Press (Dallas: Still Point Press, 1989). Katherine H. Will, “An Excellent Source Book for McMurtry Fans,” Texas Books in Review XVI (Spring 1996).

Categories:
  • Education
  • Educators
  • Writers, Authors, Publications, and Literature
  • Authors and Writers
  • Literature
  • Dramatists and Novelists
  • Fiction
  • Literary Works and Characters
  • Screenwriters
Time Periods:
  • Texas Post World War II
  • Texas in the 21st Century
Places:
  • North Texas
  • Wichita Falls

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Robert J. Duncan, “McMurtry, Larry Jeff,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 27, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/mcmurtry-larry-jeff.

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September 1, 2021
December 2, 2021