Leslie Garrett Writes His Way Back | Don Williams

See also: Lifetime Achievement Award — Leslie Garrett


In the 1960s Leslie Garrett was positioned to claim a place in the pantheon of important American writers. The Knoxvillian-to-be was living the life of expatriate writer in Paris in 1966 when he learned that his first novel, The Beasts, had won the prestigious Maxwell Perkins Award, named for the legendary editor of Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe and William Faulkner. Then Garrett disappeared from view, falling into a downward spiral of frustrated ambitions, deepening drug dependency, fractured family ties and depression. Except for occasional short stories, Garrett’s voice was absent from the literary world. That is, until now.

The reclusive writer has surfaced in Knoxville, where he has finished a new novel and a collection of stories. At 58, he stands poised for a major literary comeback. Crown Publishing is negotiating with Garrett’s New York agent for the rights to In the Country of Desire, an epic about… depression, fractured family ties, suicide, poverty and sexual desire. The novel covers three generations and four decades in the life of a manically dysfunctional family, and centers around a young girl’s search for her mother in the sordid remnants of the jazz underground of Philadelphia.

It is a world Garrett knows well. To walk up the dusky staircase to Garrett’s one-room apartment, in the Fort Sanders community near the University of Tennessee, is like walking into the life of a Garrett character poised for a fall. The furnishings are spare. A bed, two chairs, a range, an adjoining bathroom. Yet this is the room of someone who has survived a fall and is climbing back. A typewriter, sharpened pencils, a dictionary, thesaurus, pens and paper are arranged neatly on a desk. Faulkner, Flaubert and sundry Beat writers dominate a bookcase.

Garrett, a diminutive blondish-gray haired man reaches for a Lucky Strike. Then he begins talking in a worn but warm voice punctuated by good-natured laughter. In an offhand way he reveals that he has four manuscripts in varying stages of completion, then he launches into the story of his life, a story about writing, fame, beatniks, drugs, sex, jazz, suicide attempts, detoxification, celebrities, money, mania, cars, divorce, dread, poverty, a comeback, courage.

A juvenile delinquent

“I was 13, a juvenile delinquent. I had my own gang, the Leslie Garrett gang, if I remember my ego. We used to break into cars.” One day Garrett is sitting with some friends in a Philadelphia theater, when a man comes on the screen and says, “I’m Peter Lorre and I’m going to read to you ‘The Telltale Heart’ by Edgar Allan Poe.”

“It was a revelation… The first story I ever wrote was an imitation. It was called “Mother Hagen’s Glass Eye,” about a man who murders his mother. He wakes up at night and sees this one eye, then runs screaming into the street. It was terrible.” Three years later Garrett sold his first story to Donald Wolheim, editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. He made more money than his father that week.

“It was the only time he was ever impressed with me.”

Why Garrett feared a rope

At 17, Garrett joined the Navy and spent most of his tour at Whiting Field Naval Air Station near Pensacola where he worked for the base newspaper. Afterward, he took a job at a small town paper called The Milton Gazette. While the editor was out of town one week, Garrett wrote a too-frank expose of how the authorities were trying to pin the rape of a white girl on a black man.

“I was in my office and a knock came at the door, and it was the sheriff and three looming giants. They said, ‘You come with us.’ I thought they were going to lynch me.”

Instead they took him to the bus station, said “Where you from?” and bought him a ticket to Philadelphia. Fifteen years later he passed through Milton and found himself sliding down in his seat to hide.

Tales from the Crypt

Philadelphia. Then New York. No money. Garrett phoned Donald Wolheim, who got him a job working for a comic book called Tales from the Crypt.

“I came home one night; my wife asked if I had a job. I got out the typewriter, dashed off a story. I got $50 for three hours work. My wife was ecstatic.” Garrett quit the day job as too draining and took a clerical job on Wall Street making $1 an hour. In his spare time he read Joyce, Hemingway, Faulkner.

“I read this story called ‘A Rose for Emily.’ It knocked me off my feet. After I recovered, I started writing again.”

Two years later he is in New Orleans. Divorced. Broke. Drinking. “I hung out at Papa Joe’s, where jazz musicians would hang out. The jukebox had Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins.” On napkins he began writing about people in the bar. The writing took over. Napkins piled up.

“One day I’m staggering up Bourbon Street and I saw this fellow who looked like Jesus Christ, with a goatee and long hair. I had never seen him before. I sat down next to him.” He was the editor of Climax, a new jazz literary magazine. Garrett turned his napkins into a short story, “A Walk Through the Streets of the City,” and sold it to Climax.

“I still remember the first line: ‘I walk through the streets of a city I had never known…’”

A square in San Francisco

About a year later Garrett walked into a bar in San Francisco. “I thought it was Halloween. I saw two Indian chiefs, at least three Jesus Christs with long hair and sandals.” Garrett was wearing a suit. The bartender thought he was a narcotics agent. He refused to call the friends for whom Garrett had come looking. Garrett introduced himself and suddenly everyone got friendly. They knew of him because “A Walk Through the Streets of the City” had been on display at City Lights, the famous San Francisco bookstore.

“That’s how I became an underground literary star.” In North Beach and other San Francisco environs Garrett met the writers and artists who would become known collectively as the Beat Generation.

“We didn’t call ourselves Beats, the press gave us that name.” Garrett never thought of himself as a beatnik writer, although he knew Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and others. But it was the Beats who gave Garrett his first entry into serious literary circles.

Garrett once turned down the chance to appear in a major Mademoiselle magazine feature as the representative Beat writer.

“I didn’t want to be bracketed with them. I thought it was a passing fad.” So the reporter turned to Kerouac, who accepted the role. A year later Kerouac’s novel, On the Road, was a bestseller. “The rest, as they say, is history,” laughs Garrett.

Hold the beefcake

When Garrett moved to New York in the mid-1950s, Allen Ginsberg was performing readings from Howl to jazz accompaniment. It seemed like an easy way to pick up $15-$20 a night. Garrett began reading from his unpublished fiction.

“Ginsberg and I used to have this running battle about poetry vs. prose and so on that extended to other things. At a party one night, he’s sitting in the floor in front of this TV set and he says, ‘I bet I can do something you can’t do,’ and I say ‘Nah. There’s nothing you can do that I can’t do better.’ And I looked away and I turn back and he’s sitting in front of the TV buck-naked and it couldn’t have been a minute.” Garrett got up to leave, tossing over his shoulder, “‘You win, Allen.’”

Writing for the skin mags

“I started publishing in the literary quarterlies. My stories started attracting attention, so I started publishing them the way I wanted to write them in girlie magazines. I can’t tell you what a thrill it was to see my story there on a newsstand the first time, but I didn’t have a dollar to buy my own story.”

That was to change. Garrett sent part of an unfinished manuscript for a novel to Seymour Krim, the well-known editor and journalist who championed underground writers and helped invent the New Journalism. Some time afterward, Krim asked Garrett to come see him.

“I walk in and here’s this large man behind these horn-rimmed glasses. On both sides are these pyramids of manuscripts. Krim said, ‘Every editor has a fantasy. It very seldom happens, but it happened to me. I came in here the other morning and I started reading and by the time I was at the end of the first paragraph I was sitting up in my chair. By the time I was through the first page, I swear, the hairs were standing up on the back of my neck. You’re one of the big ones.’” Garrett laughs. “I stand five-feet-five.

“One day Krim said, ‘You have everything to make it in a major way except one. You need someone to open doors for you, and I’m going to do that.’ I said if you can do that, Seymour, you’re a magician.”

Garrett moved to Paris to finish his eerily engrossing novel—a parable about a man named Farley Grimm and his sordid obsessions. In Paris Garrett made friends with James Jones (From Here to Eternity). It was at Jones’ house that actor Kevin McCarthy once stood among a crowd of the day’s expatriate celebrities to read from The Beasts.

Garrett never capitalized on his success. He moved to Ibiza, Spain, where he met Knoxville novelist Cormac McCarthy, himself flush with literary success, and McCarthy’s wife, Annie DeLisle. Before McCarthy left Ibiza, “He told me, ‘Garrett, get off this island. It will kill you as a writer.’”

Garrett didn’t listen. While McCarthy was composing four more novels, Garrett was living the high life. He returned to New York too strung out to work. He took a job with a car delivery franchise, moved to Philadelphia, then married a European singer-dancer named Linda Kerby. He watched his profits soar as his spirits declined.

Success sidetracks Garrett

“An editor pointed out to me that nearly all my work involves a person with an obsession. I’ve become the poet laureate of obsessives, which probably says something for this chain-smoking, coffee-gulping person sitting here. Yes, I have an obsessive nature. I have all kinds of phobias and fears.”

Here is a sample of Garrett’s work:

“At the actual moment of entombment, however, when the last clod of dirt had been placed over the grave, the moon that had been so bright during that night, dimmed. Upon his knees Farley looked up and saw a filmy cloud covering it. A moment later another denser cloud slid over it. And then he was in shadows. And then he was in darkness.”—From The Beasts.

“As soon as I put that thing in the mail I fell apart,” says Garrett. “I was lost, I didn’t have my anchor anymore. The book was out of my hands.”

When Scribners published The Beasts in 1966, it bore the following dedication: “To Seymour Krim, who is a magician.”

Garrett lives the high life

First, James Jones, author of From Here to Eternity, invited Garrett to the first of many parties attended by writers and actors, such as Kevin McCarthy and Anthony Quinn. Then, a cablegram came. Garrett had won the Maxwell Perkins award for best first novel. Next, an English agent paid Garrett the equivalent of $15,000, a huge advance in those days, for the British rights to the book. Garrett sewed the money into the lining of a coat and left for Spain. In Spain a friend named David showed up with “two gorgeous hippie girls.”

Garrett pairs off with his date. They rent a room. Recalls Garrett: “I’m afraid to take the jacket off, sitting here with this girl who is obviously expecting sex. She gets undressed. I take off my shoes, my socks, my trousers. I leave on the tie, shirt and this coat because I’m afraid if I take my coat off, the other girl or Dave is going to come in and steal it and this is all the money I have in the world.

“You can imagine what the girl thought. I said, “It has to do with my childhood. I’ll see a shrink about it one day,” and we made love.

Garrett in decline

Garrett returned to New York paranoid and full of manic energy that he couldn’t get on paper. He took a job in a car delivery business. With some leftover writing proceeds, Garrett bought into the chain’s Philadelphia franchise. “I became the wonder boy. I had success in my second career, but unlike writing, I’m making money. From 1969 to ‘73, I was the ‘playboy of the Western world.’ I had a yellow Jaguar, a playboy pad, and I wasn’t against using past literary success to get women. I was making out like crazy. These were the swinging seventies.”

He took Valium, ate tranquilizers like peanuts, drank two fifths of liquor a day but was not fulfilled.

“Not a day passed that I didn’t dream of writing. All the toys didn’t mean anything.” When he married Linda Kerby, a successful European singer and dancer he had met in Las Vegas, Cormac McCarthy was best man; Annie DeLisle, maid of honor. But marriage and good friends didn’t solve his depression. It only worsened. Garrett became obsessed with killing himself.

The author tries to end it

“Once I made up my mind I was going to kill myself the whole weight of everything was lifted.” Garrett made careful plans. For weeks he pretended to be writing. The sound of his keys striking the roll bar resounded. But here is what he wrote:Now is the time for all brave men to come to the aid of their country. It is a warm-up exercise for beginning typists, but it served Garrett as an excuse for solitude.

One day while Linda was away babysitting for a friend, Garrett gathered the following: A quart of vodka, 43 tranquilizers and a noose, which he hung from the ceiling. The plan was to take the pills, then climb into the noose and pass out. “I took the phone off the hook and sat down. Took the pills. Took one. Kept doubling. Two. Four. Eight…”

“I turned on the TV. Nothing was on but junk. The only thing I could get was a Bugs Bunny cartoon festival. I sat there, laughed. The last thing I’m going to see in this world is Bugs Bunny. All I remember is putting that last pill in my mouth.

“I was saved because somebody acted out of character. They wouldn’t in a novel because I wouldn’t let them. But Linda did something out of character. She called me,” even though she knew Garrett didn’t like calls. Linda kept getting busy signals, so she contacted a friend and Garrett’s brother, Bob, who broke the door down and rushed Garrett to the hospital. An intern examined Garrett and said it was too late.

“My brother is a very gentle guy but a tough son of a gun. He was a golden gloves champion. He said, ‘You don’t know my brother. If there’s one breath of life left he’ll come back. You get your ass up and get that S.O.B. down here.’ And the doctor came down and they did whatever they did. My brother saved my life.” The suicide attempt segued into double pneumonia.

While unconscious one day, Garrett “rose up out of my body like a miasma, but it was still me. I could see everybody below, nurses, doctors. Then I was floating like Superman flying across a field facedown.

“It was a beautiful feeling of grass and flowers and suddenly it became a graveyard. But all these tombstones had no name. I got to the last tombstone and it had my name on it. That scared me. That’s when I came back.”

An ultimatum

Garrett left the hospital and enrolled in a detoxification center. He got all dried out, checked out, then walked into the nearest bar. Still, he had cut back on drinking, and had completely cut out the pills. He and his wife had a talk and then cut out the marriage.

“What I remember are her arms around me. She started crying. I moved into an apartment, dusted off my typewriter. I was near catatonic. I would sit in a rocking chair looking at the TV set. A crack in the plaster became an object of obsessive interest.”

He has read William Styron’s Darkness Visible, an account of Stryon’s bout with depression, now on the bestsellers list. Says Garrett: “Styron simplifies it. There’s no one answer, at least not for me. Clinical depression is pain. If you can imagine a scream inside your head day and night that goes and goes and goes, a constant, omnipresent pain.

“This whole recovery thing took place over years. It was like peeling back the layers one at a time.” Garrett was diagnosed as manic-depressive. “I had fear of cars six blocks away. It was illogical. If I heard somebody coming up the stairs I would cringe in fear. If the phone rang I jumped into the corner and knelt shaking.”

One day Garrett phoned his psychiatrist. “I said, ‘I will kill myself unless you do something. I can’t take it anymore.’ He said, ‘I’m going to tell you something. You have to stop everything. Alcohol, pot, everything. I have a friend at the hospital. Go in, dry out again. This is life or death.’”

“I dried out again, but this time there was a difference. I call it a miracle. I had no other explanation. I had been dried out twice before and walked in the nearest bar. There was a big blinking sign that said ‘BAR’ day and night. It was the same bar I went into the other times.

“This time I got a block past it, turned around and saw that sign flashing. I had no desire to drink.”

The demon stirs

Then he’s sitting in the same rocking chair looking at the crack on his wall, this time clean and sober. “Six weeks later I get the old feeling, the thing that happens to me before I can write. The demon is stirring.

“I had an old portable typewriter I had carried all over Europe. I literally had to wipe the dirt off. I put a sheet in and wrote, ‘by Leslie Garrett.’ Then wrote ‘Cat’s Wake.’ I had no idea what I was writing, but somewhere back there that part of me knew what it was doing. Suddenly my fingers are flying and I’m writing about this huge young man, 6 feet, 10 inches tall, 300 pounds, who has an IQ of 172.”

The story was the first of several he would write for a manuscript called The Book of Little Crucifixions, which is now in an agent’s hands.

Garrett returns

In 1980, Garrett inherited $4,000 from an aunt. He used the money to get out of Philadelphia. He phoned an old friend, Annie DeLisle, in Knoxville, then took a Greyhound to her house. Soon he found a single, rundown room in which to live, but he was content.

One morning in 1983, he sat down and his fingers wrote out in long hand the following words: “One pale October morning a young girl named Willa found her grandmother dead in a rocking chair on a porch, then set out for the city to find the mother she had never seen.”

“I leaned back and said, ‘What’s this all about. Why is this woman dead in a rocking chair?’”

Hundreds of pages later, Garrett knew. Then Garrett’s New York agent knew. Then an editor at Crown Books knew. If contract negotiations go as planned, the world soon may know.


See also: Lifetime Achievement Award — Leslie Garrett