Remembering Winston Groom

Keith Korman is a literary agent and novelist. Author Winston Groom was one of his clients. When Groom died on September 17, we briefly posted the New York Times obituary in our Picks. Mr. Korman wrote us to recommend the obituary by Mark Hughes Cobb in the Tuscaloosa News as being truer to the man. I asked Mr. Korman if he would write up his own remembrance of Groom for Power Line readers. He calls this “Footnotes to a Life.” Mr. Korman writes:

I know what it’s like to have a dream. It’s a good thing.”
Ruth Groom, Winston’s mother, from a partial memoir

That was Winston Groom’s mom. As a young lady, she went to New York to become an actress in the late 1920s and got a part in a play on Broadway—that was a big chance to take for a woman from the deep South. Hell, it’s a big chance today. A lot can go wrong in the big city. But her family supported her dream all the same. As things turned out Ruth Groom acted well and received good reviews and then the Stock Market Crash came in early September and by the end of October all the theaters shut down. And Ruth Groom went home to Alabama.

So if dreams come true, it’s worth noting. When Winston told her his plans to quit working as a journalist and turn his hand to writing a novel about his experiences in Vietnam, how could she help but see herself in him? She knew the risks better than most. And the risks of pursuing artistic creation are always the same. You succeed, you fail, you fall somewhere in between. The only difference was that she’d lived her life and she was dying, while Winston in his 30s was beginning his. Our children are a continuation of ourselves, yet from generation to generation our struggles remain the same. We succeed. We fail. We fall somewhere in between. But it’s a good thing to have a dream.

Over the course of decades in the book and movie world it’s easy to run across both success and failure, larger than life characters, big egos, manipulative snakes, noble saints, and noble sinners—and not just those on screen or page—the ones you’re in business with. So all the better when you represent a man with old fashioned honor that still uses a handshake to seal a compact. My family’s agency, Raines & Raines, doesn’t use agency contracts, just an agency clause if we make a deal for an author—and we represented Winston Groom for his entire publishing career. On the basis of a handshake.

The year 1978 seems far away now — when I met Winston for the first time at his book party for Better Times than These, his Vietnam war story and first novel. There we were, getting off the train in the Hamptons and piling into the station car, somebody’s old Valiant or Rambler, Theron Raines, agent/stepfather, Jim Silberman of Summit Books, and me, as wet behind the ears as any 22-year-old could be.

I seem to remember Winston coming to pick up us on this blistering hot summer day in June and we piled into the old clunker like Keystone Kops — me, my stepfather Theron, and the slim and elegant Jim Silberman packed into the back of that car sitting on each other’s laps laughing at our temporary discomfort over every Hampton bump while Winston’s sometime roommate Adam Shaw sat up front along with the tall, powerful young man driving – who I seem to recall was Winston himself. After a short Hampton’s drive, we spilled out of the conveyance at Gloria Jones’s house in the Hamptons, still clutching our sides over God knows what. Everyone was happy because a great book was being published. Author, agent, publisher, and good friend all in the same tiny car with our knees clamped under our chins — we all knew it doesn’t get better than this.

At some point during the party, Adam Shaw made a toast to Winston, with a story of their roommate life as the two shared an apartment recently. The refrigerator wars—where one or the other would eat all the Sara Lee Cheesecake in the fridge in the middle of the night, then carefully put back the top over the tin, enclosing a handwritten note, that said, “Sorry, We’re Out of Cheesecake”. (Adam, if I got this story wrong or conflated it with another event, chalk it up to gauzy memory.)

One review of the war novel compared it to James Jones’s From Here to Eternity. I recall Theron Raines looking over the magazine at me, quoting, “Like that other great novel of combat in the Pacific, From Here to Eternity—”. Scowling over his half-glasses, he said, “This reviewer is an idiot. From Here to Eternity isn’t about combat, it’s about soldiers and their women.” Back then, in 1978 the WWII generation was still alive and in their prime. They’d seen Korea and Vietnam and these distinctions mattered.

Yet in the late 1970s we were only beginning to appreciate the sacrifices our men and women in Vietnam made for us. At the time Better Times was published, showing a human portrait of Americans at war was both new and very risky considering the recent turmoil that roiled the country. Cancel culture wasn’t a thing back then, but the tide of feeling about the Vietnam war was just beginning to change from “baby killers” to “tragic sacrifice.”

Among other extremely popular authors, Jim Silberman published Ira Levin (The Stepford Wives, Rosemary’s Baby, The Boys from Brazil), and now he was throwing his weight and reputation behind Winston Groom for a first novel about the men who fought and died in Vietnam, a story of pathos and action and a dozen characters. A big book in every sense of the word. Apocalypse Now was yet to appear a year later in 1979 and First Blood with John Rambo was another three years off. So in many ways the publisher was taking a big risk.

But not as many risks as a soldier in combat in Vietnam, and I think many were beginning to appreciate that. Certainly, as a young combat officer, Winston did. When asked about returning to southeast Asia for another project many years later, he told me, “I never want to go back to Vietnam.” What he meant was there were just too many ghosts there. What you saw in Forrest Gump for all its spectacular effects didn’t bring the horror to life. But the length and breadth and human cost of the conflict for the men and women who fought and lost their lives there as captured in Better Times Than These came a lot closer. A lifetime later, you could still hear the sorrow in Winston’s voice for anyone and everyone touched by our war in Vietnam.

Other books and 16 years passed when the world found Winston again with the theatrical release of Forrest Gump. It won him a kind of admiration and recognition that comes to very few. Yes, the movie was different from the book, but that didn’t matter to the throngs of Simon & Schuster employees who lined the halls waiting to meet the author and have a book signed. The line snaked down the office hall and spread to every corner of the floor.

An endless line of people waited patiently for a turn as Winston sat at a small card table. Unopened boxes and stacks of books surrounded the table courtesy of Simon & Schuster while every other person in the long line clutched the movie tie-in Pocket Edition of Forrest Gump with Tom Hanks on the cover. It was stunning how many had already bought a copy.

We were there for hours. There were so many people blocking the floor the President of Simon & Schuster, Jack Romanos, came down to see for himself. I remember him looking at the crowd lining the hallways of his company and quietly shaking his head. “I’ve never seen this before,” he said. We could all see Winston was pleased, but he was pleased in a quiet “Oh my oh my . . .” kind of way. He displayed a sort of humility you see in the South, innate politeness overpowering everything else, like the heat.

After Forrest Gump, everybody in the world ran at him, offering something or other—what I call showbiz promises—and still that handshake with Raines & Raines held, never broken. There were even some movie people who wanted to build a studio around him somewhere in Alabama—but the South is a place where tall tales take on mythic status—so maybe there weren’t. But maybe there were!

It didn’t matter. Massive success didn’t change the man. He loved the work. He liked to tell stories. And he was good at it. “A really good writer only has three or four really good books in him.” Many who know him heard him say this.

Any writing career has its ups and downs. For nearly two decades he worked on El Paso, a bold Western showing desperate men, cowboys, vaqueros at their best and worst, no punches pulled. El Paso – everybody turned it down, and for over a decade too. The agency kept a submission card on paper of the places we went to. This was the old fashioned way. No Word docs. First, in Theron’s chicken-scratch handwriting and then, when he passed, I began to add to it. It became several grimy pages of submissions, dates, people no longer in the business, with coffee stains and torn edges, telling an undecipherable but clear story, a palimpsest of failed effort.

Rewritten half a dozen times El Paso was finally published by Liveright, WW Norton—it went on to earn out its advance and may even wind up on the screen big or small. Yet those ink-stained, half readable dingy submission pages were still on my desk. So I took them to a fine arts framer and put them in a sturdy frame with backing and a double cut mat. The testament to all our effort, patience, and resolve. Winston put it in in his wood paneled office, on the floor, near a couple of shotguns.

At the time, I was with the director of Forrest Gump, the Musical—and we were in Mobile, Alabama to see Winston and his wife, Susan, so they could hear the proposed music. And so that director Joe Tantalo could give them a feel of what the show was going to be, telling them the stage story and speaking with his hands as he often does. After Joe’s curtain came down and the sounds from the final number faded, there was just silence in the room. I saw Winston and Susan smile and I knew we were on our way.

When he passed, Winston was working on a memoir of his life. He had completed the first third. Like anything Winston wrote, it wasn’t so much about him as about the world around him. The lost South of the late 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s — not nostalgic, not the one portrayed as evil, but a place where both the good and bad happened, as it still does today everywhere you look. A place where a black day laborer in a construction company could teach a teenager from another part of town how to build sidewalks and curbs in the early 1960s, as southern towns grew into suburbs and the wild rural places began to be tamed. Dirty, hard work in the summer sun. Then a long road, though military school, college, and finally the Army.

He never got to write about Vietnam again. But we still have Better Times, a book that in the wild 1980s brought him to the salons of Manhattan, where the literary life was crazier than Studio 54.

Some days before he passed, he said to me with a faint tone of doubt in his voice, “I think I left a mark.” Yet what humble man is truly certain?

Even in the latter part of his career where he moved on to historical biographies he gave us strong historical portraits of men who changed our world, who won our wars, who set the standard of accomplishment, resolve, decency, and vision—but above all with Forrest Gump, Winston made the importance of good character and compassion the final measure of what it
means to be human. Character as fate. And as his mom, Ruth Groom said, “It’s a good thing.”

When all is said and done, a darn good gift to the world.

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