Tom Wolfe on ‘True Grit’ Author Charles Portis: ‘The Funniest Man I’ve Ever Met’


Before it was a movie starring John Wayne and a remake starring Jeff Bridges, ‘True Grit’ was a 1968 novel by reclusive Arkansas-born writer and former newspaperman Charles Portis. Over the decades, the author has gathered a mystique about him, and his five darkly comic novels have earned a devoted following. (Roy Blount Jr. has said that Portis “could be Cormac McCarthy if he wanted to, but he’d rather be funny.”)

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Though Portis has emerged as a cult figure, little is known about him as a man. ‘Men’s Journal’ contributing editor Tom Wolfe, who worked alongside Portis at the ‘New York Herald Tribune’ in the early ‘1960s, sheds some light:

“Charlie is the funniest man I’ve ever met. During the time we were working together, he appeared on a radio show with Malcolm X, and before the show Malcolm X said, ‘Look, my name is Malcolm X. It’s not Malcolm – I’m not your Pullman car porter. I’m Malcolm X.’ Everyone nodded, and the show begins – and then throughout the show, Charlie called him ‘Mr. X,’ which just drove him nuts. Well, that’s typical Charlie.

“A bit later, Charlie was sent to be the head of the paper’s London bureau, but after a year or so he suddenly quit. Nobody understood it – who would quit that job? And he moved into a remote shack in Arkansas – remote enough so he was not bothered by anyone – and in less than six months he produced ‘Norwood,’ his first novel. Every reporter was going to give it all up one day and go out to a shack and write the Great American Novel, but Charlie did it – and I couldn’t believe it.

“When the book came out, I said to him, ‘You don’t have your picture on the back cover.’ Charlie has this beautiful Southern mountain drawl – not the lowlands drawl – and he said, ‘Well, I figure that nobody’s going to buy this book because of how I look, and nobody’s going to not buy the book because of how I don’t look.’ And I said, ‘Actually, that’s not a bad strategy.’

“Charlie did have a saturnine look – he always looked more serious and solemn than he ever was. He was about as laid-back of a figure as you’d ever meet – at one point later on, I think he moved into an RV and was just roaming around – but at the same time very ambitious and on the ball.

” ‘Norwood’ began this cult – people began seeing Charlie as this very special figure along the lines of Nathanael West &ndash, but ‘True Grit’ was the bestseller. It gave John Wayne one of his best roles – his natural pomposity was perfect for Rooster Cogburn. And Jeff Bridges? No movie starring Jeff Bridges is going to be bad.”

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