Thursday, June 25, 2015

Stories from the Hunter S. Thompson of Texas

The exploits and irreverence of Gary Cartwright's larger-than-life persona has led some to compare him to gonzo god Hunter S. Thompson. The comparison is apt, but Cartwright's fully-lived life seems less dogged by self-loathing. In his new memoir, The Best I Recall, the Texas journalist saunters through his wild years and arrives at a wisdom earned not just from befriending strippers, dope fiends, inmates, and politicians, but from harrowing heart surgery and losing his son, two wives, and a handful of friends to cancer.

There are laugh-out-loud moments, eloquent passages on

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friendship and grief, and the kind of you-can't-make-this-up stories your wild uncle might come up with if he had run-ins with the likes of Jack Ruby and Dennis Hopper. Here are a couple of the things you'll learn from reading The Best I Recall.

Come see Gary Cartwright himself this Saturday at Austin's historic Scholtz Garten on San Jacinto. Gary will be signing copies of his book from 3 to 5pm.

You Could Get Away With Some Stuff in 1970s Mexico

Some of Cartwright's exploits read like the plot of Argo but with much-mitigated consequences and more drug-fueled decision making. Cartwright and his "soul mate" writer Bud Shrake filmed a movie in Durango starring Dennis Hopper (Kid Blue, 1973). Before they got to the set, this happened:

We crossed into Mexico at Eagle Pass, where I convinced an overly diligent Mexican customs agent who was about to refuse Pete entrance because of his long hair that we were filming a movie about Jesus. Pete had been obliged to grow the facial hair, I explained to the confused customs agent, in order to convincingly portray the role of Our Savior.
On the same film shoot, the eccentric director made up his own rules for helming a feature film production. Cartwright recalls, "When his mostly British camera crew complained of fatigue and heat exhaustion, Marvin [Schwartz] laced their cocoa with amphetamines." Now that's problem-solving.

Don't Play Cops and Robbers with Dennis Hopper After a Bender

On the same film set, Dennis Hopper certainly lived up to his reputation:

Throughout this psychodrama, Hopper had remained secluded in Schwartz’s bedroom. We didn’t see him again until we were leaving, shortly before dawn. By this time the house looked as though the Turkish cavalry had been playing all-night polo, using someone’s head as a ball. There was blood, broken glass, broken phonograph records, bits and pieces of flesh and salad, all covered with soggy, bloody, transparent plastic. Someone had managed to fall through the Christmas tree, which now looked like a secret cache of toy pistols concealed on the floor of a flattened pine forest. As we were leaving, we broke toy pistols from the branches and ran out pretending we were in a gunfight. You know: Bang, bang, you’re dead!
I was crawling into the back of Shrake’s van when I spotted Hopper, ready to climb into the backseat of his chauffeured car across the street.
“Bang, bang, you’re dead!” I said to Hopper.
“Bang, bang,” said Hopper, and I realized I was looking down the barrel of his cocked and loaded .38.
Don Meredith and me. Though we became good friends, I sometimes wrote caustic reviews of his performance as a Cowboys quarterback. This photo, taken after a skeet shoot, was a gag—mostly.
Image courtesy of The Dallas Morning News.

The Dallas Cowboys of the 1960s Would Probably Collectively Fail a Drug Test

It being the 1960s, drug use by professional athletes may not be all that surprising, but sanctioned doses of speed? Cartwright confesses:
Just outside of the Dallas Cowboys training room, at the entrance to the practice field, hung three five-gallon tins, available to all who happened by. One contained salt tablets, the second had lemon-flavored vitamin C, and the third offered five-milligram Dexedrine pills. I never passed the can without taking a handful.
The Contents of Willie Nelson's Bus May Surprise You

First of all, the bar has been set for the most laid back Austinite wedding: Gary Cartwright married his late wife Phyllis in the back room of the Texas Chili Parlor and sang onstage with Willie Nelson at his wedding reception at the Soap Creek Saloon. Top that.

Cartwright and Willie are longtime friends and the passage in the book devoted to the red-headed stranger's profound truths are well worth a read. Willie's bus, the Honeysuckle Rose, is "as densely packed as a Gypsy's knapsack." Yes, there are a bevy of beaded necklaces and a giant American flag in the well equipped bus, but Willie also keeps "a jump rope; some dumbbells; and a speed bag" that he can make "rattle like a snare drum."

The Radical Organization Mad Dog, Inc. was Founded at Austin's Scholtz Garten

The most influential (and absurd) force for good you've probably never heard of plotted to end the war in Southeast Asia, challenge the war on drugs, improve civil rights, and save the trees -- all from the watering hole known as Scholtz Garten. "It began (as all things Mad Dog seemed to) with several martinis and some drunken babble," Cartwright explains.

"We planned to produce and distribute books and movies, open an all-night general store that sold 88 flavors of ice cream, and start a sanctuary for depressed greyhounds." The group included the late Governor Ann Richards and her attorney husband David, former Dean of the University of Texas School of Law Mike Sharlot, former Dallas Cowyboys wide receiver Pete Gent, and Billy Lee Brammer.

Mad Dog Productions. Photo © Doatsy Shrake. Courtesy of Doatsy Shrake.

And now for the serious stuff.

A Free Press Is Essential to Social Justice

Over the course of his fifty-year career, Gary Cartwright helped free two wrongfully imprisoned inmates through investigative pieces in the Texas Monthly, one of them being Randall Adams from the Errol Morris documentary The Thin Blue Line (1988). He was also involved in unravelling the Satanic Ritual Abuse paranoid "social nightmare" of the 1980s.

Cartwright credits Texas Monthly editors Mike Hall and Pam Colloff for their "proud legacy of exposing wrongful convictions and freeing innocent people." He writes, "it is comforting to know that while the battle will always be 
heavily tilted toward the state, the free press is a staunch and reliable ally."

Matters of the Heart Hurt 

While recovering from his bypass, Cartwright and Larry McMurtry exchanged letters wrestling with the emotional aftermath of open-heart surgery. McMurtry writes:
I think the few hours that you are dead [i.e., on the heart-lung machine] opens a gap that’s nearly impossible to close . . . [It felt] as if I were holding up the ceiling, or holding at bay a beast, by an act of unrelenting will. I felt that to sleep in darkness would be to die . . .
Speaking of matters of the heart, Cartwright's third wife Phyllis was diagnosed with terminal cancer around the time Ann Richards received the same devastating news. He writes, "They shared a determination to fight to the end, which they did, with grace and courage. Texas lost two of its best daughters the same year, from the same terrible disease." The accounts of Mr. Cartwright's losses to cancer are painful but poignant, and are a moving and sober way to end an account of a life well-lived and thoroughly examined

Ann Richards and Phyllis, with a crazed Bud Shrake looking over their shoulders.
Phyllis and me with our Airedale terriers Bucky and Abby.

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