The Unvanquished

Marshall Frady and the dime-store rascals of southern politics

A few months before he died in a car accident, David Halberstam published a droll, melancholy homage to his colleague and friend Marshall Frady, who lost a prolonged battle with cancer in 2004. The essay appears as a new introduction to two books by Frady that Simon & Schuster has reissued: Billy Graham: A Parable of American Righteousness (1979) and Jesse: The Life and Pilgrimage of Jesse Jackson (1996). Halberstam wrote elegantly about a luminous interlude in his career, 1967-1971, when he—along with Frady, Larry L. King, and John Corry—was a staff writer at Harper’s under the celebrated editorship of Willie Morris, who transformed a stodgy magazine into an exhilarating one that printed works by Norman Mailer, William Styron, Gay Talese, and others.

When he took over Harper’s in 1967, Morris was already acquainted with Frady’s work for Newsweek and The Saturday Evening Post. Morris considered Frady “a genius of the language” and hired him when he was twenty-eight. The two men, southern boys transplanted to the glittering literary salons of Manhattan, had an affectionate bond: Frady called Morris “Sire” and sometimes “Boss.” But Morris was manning the helm of a foundering vessel: Harper’s bled $150,000 a year, and in 1971 Morris was forced out by the ruling Cowles family. “It all boiled down to the money men and the literary men,” he lamented in his resignation letter. “And, as always, the money men won.”

Morris’s departure jolted the literary world. Mailer, Styron, Talese, Bill Moyers, and Tom Wicker declared that they would boycott Harper’s as long as the Cowles family owned it, and the four staff writers hired by Morris—Frady among them—resigned in solidarity with him. Toward the end of Halberstam’s essay, we see Frady lurching through the 1970s, writing for magazines, and, in search of financial stability, eventually settling into a career in television, joining ABC News in 1979. “It was not where he should have been,” Halberstam noted, although “fortunately, he kept writing books even as television seduced him and he in turn seduced television.”

The books themselves remain seductive, and Halberstam’s final assessment of Frady offers an unequivocal explanation of their allure: “What is remarkable about his body of work is how well it stands up, that it is curiously timeless—as so much of the journalism of that era is not—that it comes together finally not as fragments but as a whole, a universe of George Wallace, Billy Graham, Jesse Jackson, Martin Luther King Jr., and all the contemporary Snopeses and other tricksters and dime-store rascals who populate his book Southerners: A Journalist’s Odyssey (1980), as if all of it put together forms a kind of autobiography.”

“I grew up not only a southern Baptist, but a Southern Baptist minister’s son,” Frady wrote in Southerners, “in the small cities and towns of my father’s nomadic pastorates over the inland South.” Part of Frady’s early youth was spent in Augusta, Georgia, inside his father’s church. What he recalled more than anything else was “the sensation of being recurrently pent there for long static ruthlessly abstracted hours of piety and propriety and the commemoration of a wholly inscrutable theology.”

He inevitably warmed to the sensations of the wider world: at age twelve he found a stray copy of The New Yorker (“it was like a secret pulsation from another cosmos”), after which he came across John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, and then Shakespeare, Dickens, Sinclair Lewis, and H. L. Mencken. Frady would soon discover his principal literary influence, William Faulkner, “an experience,” he wrote, “that a lot of Southern boys spend the rest of their lives trying to recover from.”

In 1965, Joe Cumming, the Atlanta bureau chief of Newsweek, heard about a gifted twenty-five-year-old reporter who was toiling for the Augusta Chronicle and asked him for a writing sample. “The next morning he turned in a seventeen-page piece—I think on himself,” Cumming told Halberstam. “All I remember was how good it was.” Already, in his mid-twenties, Frady was in full possession of an immensely sophisticated prose style. Readers of Newsweek were soon encountering passages like this, from “A Death in Lowndes County,” published in 1965: “The trial was held in the fall—pale mornings and dreary afternoons flicked by drizzles, with a small dim sun suspended over drab fields of dried corn stalks: a cool and quiescent weather strangely abstracted from that glowering summer afternoon, the instant astonishing flash and roar and blurting blood of the deed itself.” (The deed was the shotgunning of two young civil rights workers by a Hayneville, Alabama, sheriff.)

It was at Newsweek in 1966, while covering the Alabama gubernatorial race, that Frady first began to contemplate a book about George Wallace—“a kind of journalistic novel, employing all the stagework, style and larger vision of the novelist.” Wallace was published to wide acclaim in 1968, a period when the “new journalism” was expanding the boundaries of literary nonfiction.

When I picked up the book in 1996, in a reissued Random House paperback, I knew only the basics about Wallace: that his 1963 inaugural address contained the words “segregation now…segregation tomorrow…segregation forever”; that he ran insurgent campaigns for president in 1964, 1968, 1972, and 1976, in which he galvanized white, blue-collar voters with a stark, earthy rhetoric that invoked a nation overrun by hippies, homosexuals, feminists, black radicals, and left-wing revolutionaries, a discourse that Nixon would successfully appropriate; that he was a key transitional figure between Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan; and that he was the victim of a deranged gunman in a Maryland shopping center in 1972. But I was wholly unprepared for Frady’s compact, seamless narrative, the opening lines of which filled me with elation:

On a cold, rain-flicked night in 1967 a rickety twin-engine Convair 240 began a blind and uncertain descent through low clouds, abruptly breaking out over the scattered watery lights of Concord, New Hampshire. It came in headlong, less by instruments and calculation than with a precipitous lurching optimism. A damp huddle of greeters was waiting in the dark, and they waggled dime-store Confederate flags when he emerged from the plane—a stumpy little man with heavy black eyebrows and bright black darting eyes and a puglike bulb of a nose who looked as if he might have stepped out of an eighteenth-century London street scene by Hogarth.

For me, Wallace remains, first and foremost, an incandescent portrait of a virtuoso American politician. Campaigning in a Birmingham shopping center in 1966, Wallace paused in the midst of a crowd before one man and inquired: “Yes, now, and how is Faye? Now, she was in St. Vincent’s, wasn’t she? Now, you tell her we gonna write her, heunh?” An old crony from Wallace’s hometown mused to Frady: “He don’t have no hobbies. He don’t do any honest work. He don’t drink. He ain’t got but one serious appetite, and that’s votes.”

Frady approached Wallace as a nonfiction version of Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men—“a tale of the methodical, relentless, and inexorable progression of a political Snopes, with a dauntless, limitless, and almost innocent rapacity, to the threshold of our most important political office.” A young liberal with a vigorous commitment to racial equality, Frady undoubtedly loathed Wallace’s politics; but there is nothing shrill or polemical in his rendering of the Alabama governor. Instead, Frady, in novelistic fashion, brought his subject to life with uncanny flair, and with considerable affection and sympathy. (Frady himself wrestled with fiction throughout his life, but never published a novel.) The book is dedicated to his editor at Newsweek, Joe Cumming—“under whom I learned that the highest journalism is informed by the insights of the poet and the artist”—and the qualities Frady attributed to Cumming were also the nerve center of his own modus operandi: “Instinctively he brings, to the hectic combustions of events, a most delicate sense of the dynamics of life, the most exquisite perceptions, a Dickensian relish for character, and a grace and vitality of language that approaches magic.”

The special radiance of Wallace also owes much to Frady’s avoidance of cant derived from rigid political frameworks, and he must have gazed with derision upon much of the blustery prose that flowed from left-wing quarters in the 1960s. His ambition was to create kaleidoscopic works of art along the lines of what Faulkner achieved in literature, Norman Mailer in nonfiction, and Tom Stoppard in drama. But he was also a sly, resourceful reporter who clocked the necessary hours with Wallace’s inner circle of advisors and cronies. Says historian Dan Carter, who has written extensively about Wallace, “They assumed Frady was a good old boy, and they took him in.”

Wallace has an intensely visual quality, and it is packed with marvelous set pieces, beginning with an atmospheric account of Wallace’s excursion to Dartmouth College in 1967, where he “paced restlessly” on the stage before a packed audience, “exhilarated by the violence heavy in the air.” During the speech, students stormed the podium—“led by a young professor with fine-spun hair and a freshly scrubbed cherubic complexion.” Later, protestors assaulted Wallace’s car while he reposed inside the vehicle with his cigar, “as small and still and inert as a rabbit in a burrow while hounds swirl and bay in the grass around it.”

In a dreamy fugue-like manner that recalls Faulkner and Penn Warren, the narrative plunges backward in time to Wallace’s youth in Barbour County, Alabama. Following a “Huck Finn boyhood,” Wallace entered the University of Alabama in 1937—“a small, quick, wiry youth, as thin as a ferret, with a cardboard suitcase and a quality of impatient, exuberant, ferocious hunger”—where his “amorous gusto” and his campus political machinations attracted attention. In 1942, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces, but his mind was mostly concentrated on politics, not warfare. Frady’s quasi-anthropological excursions through Alabama, and his remarkable ear for vernacular speech, yielded a vast number of full-bodied anecdotes, including this one from a Barbour County farmer who recalled getting Christmas cards throughout the war from someone named “George C. Wallace”:

I thought it was real nice of this young fella, but I wasn’t quite sure I knew who this George C. Wallace was, and why he was writin’ me. It seemed kinda strange. Anyway, when the war was over with and the local political races had done got started over the county, I was out in my field one fine spring afternoon plowin’, and I happen to look up and see this young fella comin’ across the plowed field from the road, steppin’ real smart and lively across those furrows, already grinnin’ and his hand already stretched out, and all of a sudden I knew why I’d been gettin’ them nice cards every Christmas….

In 1958, Wallace, who began his career as a New Deal liberal, and who would always remain an economic populist, ran for governor against one John Patterson, who won the support of the Ku Klux Klan while Wallace was left clutching the endorsements of the NAACP and some Jewish groups. After losing by 65,000 votes, Wallace strolled into a Montgomery hotel and informed a “smoky and clamorous” room of politicians: “John Patterson out-nigguhed me. And boys, I’m not goin’ to be out-nigguhed again.” In 1962, pandering to the racial anxieties of Alabama’s whites, Wallace crushed his opponent, and before the inauguration privately confided, “I’m gonna make race the basis of politics in this state, and I’m gonna make it the basis of politics in this country.” In 1963, black students tried to integrate the University of Alabama, an endeavor that attracted the attention of Robert Kennedy at the Justice Department, who pressured Wallace to lift the racial restrictions. Wallace instantly grasped the political rewards he’d gain if he defied the Kennedys, and as the crisis reached its apogee, he mumbled to some cronies: “By god, you watch now, they gonna send federal troops all over this state. We gonna be under military occupation.”

Wallace is suffused with a bleak humor that intensifies as the book unfolds. In 1966, Wallace unveiled one of his most audacious political schemes: when term limits prevented him from running again for governor, he thrust his ailing wife, Lurleen, into the race, and she won a decisive victory. Still, the fact that Lurleen was running Alabama, and not him, left Wallace in a state of unease. Frady reproduces a salty exchange conveyed to him by one of Wallace’s lieutenants in the wake of Lurleen’s ascension: “I told him, ‘George, you better start sleepin’ with that woman.’ He said, ‘Yeah. Wouldn’t it be a helluva note if she runs me off?’ Back when he was governor, every time she’d call him up at the office, he’d say, ‘What the hell you want? I’m busy now, don’t be botherin’ me.’ But he’s even talkin’ sweet to her on the phone now.”

One chuckles at this, but not for long. Wallace has an exceedingly wide (and expertly modulated) emotional register, and we soon see the former governor in the hospital with Lurleen—“a quiet, still, dwindled figure, a small wraithy spectre bundled in shawls.” Frady writes: “On a soft and sweetly flushed May evening, about thirty minutes after midnight, she expired—Wallace glancing up from her slight form in the bed and snapping to the doctor, ‘Is she gone?’” Wallace himself would soon be struck down: The revised edition of the book recounts “that glaring May afternoon in Laurel, Maryland, when suddenly he was lying spilled on the pavement of a shopping-center parking lot, half-curled like a dropped and dying squirrel.”

Confined to a wheelchair, Wallace would famously repudiate his racial hate-mongering, and when Frady’s book reaches it climax in 1979, we see him inside Martin Luther King Jr.’s sanctuary in Montgomery, declaring to the congregation, as strains of “Amazing Grace” fill the room: “In a way that was impossible before I was shot, I think I can understand something of the pain that black people have had to endure.”

Wallace, who died in 1998, remained a ghostly presence in Frady’s oeuvre. Near the end of his biography of Jesse Jackson, we glimpse Jackson, himself running for president, visiting Wallace in Montgomery in 1988:

Wallace [was] aging and gnarled and reportedly given to moments of remorseful weeping over his blusterous racial rancors in the sixties, with Jackson now swallowing up his lumpy little paw of a hand in his own capacious grip and conducting a prayer for his ‘healing and health,’ and Wallace blurting out, ‘Jesse, thank you for coming. And I love you….’

Excluding his stint for ABC news in the 1980s, Frady, who came to lament the ephemeral nature of television journalism, devoted his energies to book writing. In 1979, Little, Brown published his stirring biography of Billy Graham, and Southerners, a collection of essays and profiles that is currently out of print, appeared in 1980. In 1996, Random House published Frady’s biography of Jesse Jackson, which is one of the five or six most electrifying books I’ve read. Much of the material in Jesse originally appeared in The New Yorker. Still, by the time his final book came out in 2002—a slim but affecting biography of Martin Luther King Jr. in the Penguin Lives series—Frady was more or less invisible to the critical establishment, the serious reading public, and young writers. For a man who possessed a deep reservoir of pride, it wasn’t easy to bear.

How did Frady come to be eclipsed by the stars of the “new journalism”: Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Joan Didion, Michael Herr? Perhaps he was destined, like the columnist Murray Kempton or the novelist James Salter, to be a “writer’s writer,” whose work was mostly unappreciated by the public, but who remained an object of reverence and fascination to other writers, including Mailer, who sent a rousing message to Frady’s memorial service in Manhattan in November 2004. It’s not that Frady, in his prime, lacked the support of influential critics and publications. In 1979, Elizabeth Hardwick, writing in The New York Review of Books, insisted that Wallace and Billy Graham are “outstanding works of literature, not quite like any other in their intention and quality.” Reviewing Southerners in The New York Times Book Review in 1980, Robert Sherrill averred: “There are scenes here that Robert Penn Warren and Truman Capote couldn’t improve on.”

Halberstam attributes Frady’s career difficulties to a variety of factors: his refusal to pander to the literary marketplace (“he did not have a great commercial touch”); his turbulent personal life (“he was a world-class romantic…much given to falling in love with love and marrying a bit too often”); and his nonchalance about financial matters (“when he got a wonderful $100,000 advance for his book on Billy Graham, his first instinct was to throw an immense party”). And then there was the prose itself—lush, musical, sometimes baroque and forbidding, full of linguistic acrobatics and lengthy sentences laced with adjectives and adverbs. “His books are the opposite of a quick read,” says Gerald Howard, who edited Southerners for New American Library. “You have to enjoy the style as well as the subject.” Quite true: none of Frady’s works have the narrative engine of Capote’s In Cold Blood, Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, or Talese’s Thy Neighbor’s Wife. Frady’s prose could be “sentimental or even incoherent,” Sherrill wrote. “But when he brings it off, ah, the hair on your neck will stand up.”

Frady moved to Los Angeles in 1987, and remained there until 2004, when he accepted a teaching position at Furman University, his alma mater in Greenville, South Carolina. He died, at sixty-four, a few weeks before he could teach his first class. I met him once, at a sparsely attended bookstore event in Manhattan in 2002, when he was on the road promoting his biography of Martin Luther King Jr. The swarthy good looks of his youth had dissipated under the weight of his illness, but his melodious southern drawl was intact, and when he read a passage about King’s slaying in Memphis, I felt the hair on my neck stand up. Afterward, I approached him with an armful of his old books. Seated at a table, wearing an elegant cream-colored suit, his bearing somewhat stiff and formal, Frady flipped through the pages, lingering over the annotations I had scrawled in the margins. When he looked up, there was a glint in his eye and a conspiratorial half-smile on his lips. He reached for a pen and inscribed each dog-eared volume: “best regards”…“vibrant regards”…“voluminous regards.” And finally: “To Scott, one of the intrepid, Marshall.” 

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Scott Sherman is a contributing writer at The Nation and a contributing editor at the Columbia Journalism Review.