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.)