Monday, 7 March 2016


My obituary of the writer Pat Conroy is online at the Guardian now, you can link to it here. I expect it will be in the paper paper tomorrow: it got bumped today by Nancy Reagan.

The piece is pretty much as written. It's a complicated story, and Conroy of course told it at great length and many times, in many ways. There was a quote about the divorce from his second wife that didn't make the final cut: 'If she had been a country, I would have married North Korea'. I wonder, but can't say, if that were at the root of his estrangement from his second daughter.

I probably should have noted that although he was named Donald for his father, he went by Pat, his middle name. I could have gone into more detail about his basketball career at The Citadel, and a four-overtime upset of Virginia Military Institute his senior year. I would have liked to write a bit about the guilt he felt for not going to Vietnam like his classmates: I don't know if he were deferred because he'd married a widow with two children, or if he had a high lottery number, or if it were something else, but this fits into a literary strain which runs from, say, Hemingway, through the south via James Dickey with whom Conroy apparently studied. And that he wrote a perceptive introductory essay to a book about the problems of military brats which I had to edit out for space.

I also had a slight connection with the film of  Lords Of Discipline. The black cadet who tries to break the colour barrier at what is supposed to be The Citadel was played by Mark Breland, the boxer. I was working for ABC Sports at the time, and I was assigned the task of trying to keep Mark Breland out of trouble when he came to London. I even arranged a blind date for him with my then-wife's assistant: he was stunned by his night of clubbing with her, which I took to be a good thing.

The film of Prince Of Tides was in some ways better than the novel: more compact and less rambling. Conroy's style was prolix and often melodramatic; he wrote beautifully within that expansiveness. But what was odd were the bright red sharply-pointed almost Fu Manchu fingernails Barbra Streisand wore: something that seemed rather aggressive for a psycho-analyst. There is also a scene where she walks away from Nick Nolte and the camera stays on her legs and swaying bottom as if the director were marvelling that the star still had 'it'. I actually laughed in the theatre. You might say, however, that Conroy's books gave Jon Voight, Nolte, and Robert Duvall some of the best roles of their careers (and it's amazing how much Duvall resembles Donald Conroy).

I'm tempted to call the expansive quality of Conroy's writing something Irish in nature, but his name-checking Ulysses in his final novel merely called attention to the differences. But you get the sense story-telling was Conroy's metier. He told one about being at the doctor in 2011 when heart and lung problems were so severe the doc removed 11 pounds of water-weight from him in just ten minutes. 'I have an idea for a Frank Conroy Diet book,' he said. Although he never could escape those dark memories which were the root of his work, he appeared to somehow relax after that health scare, and his final years may have been more rewarding for him. I hope so. RIP

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