The Unexpected Pat Conroy

Photo by Jennifer Hitchcock

Photo by Jennifer Hitchcock

About 20 years ago, I went to a writers’ conference at a rustic inn in the mountains of North Carolina. The featured authors were Gay Talese, Willie Morris, Winston Groom and John Logue, but they were upstaged by an unexpected guest — Pat Conroy.

I’ve referred to that weekend in the years since whenever Conroy’s name comes up, but only to talk about how he hijacked the weekend. But after reading about his death March 4 from pancreatic cancer, I realized that I’d overlooked something even more valuable.

I don’t know why Conroy was not invited that weekend, and I don’t recall that it was ever explained. Perhaps he was busy. Perhaps it never crossed the organizers’ minds. But Conroy said that he decided to attend when he learned that Talese’s wife, Nan, was on the panel.

Ms. Talese had her own imprint at Doubleday Books and, more importantly, she was Conroy’s editor. (Also on the panel was JoAnne Prichard, Morris’ wife and an editor at the University of Mississippi Press.)

The format was simple: The authors and editors sat at a long table at the front, and for a day and a half answered questions from an audience of about 150 writers and would-be writers. Although he had not been invited, Conroy could hardly have been expected to sit in the audience, so he sat at one end of the table next to Ms. Talese.

He was pudgy man with a ruddy face, a lively sense of humor and the unaffected air of a schoolboy. The easy, unassuming way he charmed the audience reminded me of the Irish, and something an visitor from Ireland once told me: “God created alcohol to keep the Irish from ruling the world.”

Which is not to suggest that Conroy had an issue with alcohol or, for that matter, that he was Irish — although I suspect he might have had some Irish in him. Whatever his lineage, his amiability added warmth and personality to what might have been a high-brow weekend.

Indeed, his exchanges with Ms. Talese seemed more like the good-natured bickering of a brother and sister.

I wrote two thousand pages,” Conroy commented early the first day, “and she took out the best twelve hundred pages, and what was left became ‘Beach Music.’”

That got a laugh, and Ms. Talese responded in kind. Taking out those twelve hundred pages, she said, saved Conroy from himself, and that, too, got a laugh.

Later, Conroy told a story about falling in love with a woman in the 1960s. To escape the fury of the the husband she was divorcing, Conroy took the woman and her child to Rome. They lived there for nearly two years and befriended the merchants in the piazza in their neighborhood.

You went to the piazza every day to get vegetables from the vegetable market, meat from the butcher, bread from the bakery, cheese, and so on,” Conroy said. “You worked your way around the piazza, and you got to know everybody and they knew you. It was like a big family. So when we decided to come back to America, we had to go to the piazza to say good-bye to everyone. So we would go into each of the stores and tell them we were leaving, and they would come out from behind their counters and hug us and cry and carry on. It was very emotional.”

He paused.

Compared to that,” he said, “leaving the Piggly Wiggly in South Carolina….”

The audience roared.

This was a Conroy I hadn’t expected. I had glanced at his works over the years — “The Great Santini,” “Prince of Tides,” etc — but I hadn’t read any of them. I was put off by what Conroy himself admitted was the “gloom and darkness” that pervades his work. I had enough angst of my own to entertain someone else’s, so I left Conroy to others.

But in person, I liked him, and I think most of the others must have, as well. He seemed real and approachable, not at all impressed with himself. And he was vulnerable in a way I’d never seen before.

Saturday afternoon, he told a story about his abusive father in such matter-of-fact tones that he might have been discussing grain futures. But then he added something — I don’t remember the exact quote — but the effect was astonishing. Without changing tone or delivery, without guile, he said that the episode convinced him that he could never win his father’s love, the thing he wanted most.

It was a remarkable moment. He had cast a spell, an enchantment that ended in heartbreak, and when I looked around the room people were wiping away tears and blowing their noses.  It was story-telling at its best and what made it so powerful was you knew it was true.

Conroy was by no means the whole show that weekend, nor did he dominate. The others were thoughtful and informative in a conventional give-and-take way, and yet I remember nothing they said and little about them.

In a world that seems driven by posturing, self-promotion and appearance, it was Conroy’s willingness to own his reality, to be who and what he was, that made him memorable. It would be nice to think that his final years were happier, that his story had a happy ending, but he was only 70 and I’m inclined to doubt it.  

A friend urged me the other day to read Conroy, and maybe I will. But whether I do or not is beside the point. I honor Pat Conroy because I saw him do the most generous thing a person can do — he gave himself.


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