April 8, 1968. The nation is on the verge of exploding into a firestorm of racial rage over the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., when Garry Wills walks in the front door of the Clayborn Temple in Memphis, Tenn.
Wills stands in the entrance of the church, his two small bags and raincoat in hand, and looks around. The place is packed, but he is alone—a white Catholic from the Midwest in the heart of the poor, black South. A hundred or so striking sanitation workers, whom King came to Memphis to support, fill the pews and try to hammer out the details of getting to King’s funeral in Atlanta, some 400 miles away.
The tension is high, although that wasn’t unexpected. In order to get to the church, Wills has to break the city’s dusk-to-dawn curfew and catches a ride with a surly taxicab driver who keeps a gun on his seat and reflects the unease of the nation by responding to Wills’ chosen destination with a racial slur.
As the plans are hammered out, Wills sits back and observes, collecting an inside look at the living, breathing state of the civil rights movement. He collects more observations at the Lorraine Motel where King was killed, and still more at the funeral home where the embalmers tell him how they had to work all night using plaster to reassemble the right side of King’s face where the bullet blew out his cheek and left the jawbone dangling. When they wheel King out for the viewing, Wills notes how the TV lights “pick out a glint of plaster under the cheek’s powder” and that “not one white person from the town goes through that line.”
The next morning, Wills looks even deeper into the movement, climbing onto the rented second-rate bus and riding 12 hours with the black mourners to the funeral in Atlanta. Folding chairs set up in the aisles block the path to the toilet in the back. They arrive exhausted and cranky—and late.
As the mourners scatter to watch the procession, Wills holds back. He doesn’t need to go. The funeral is the focus of the nation. It’s the main stage. And as the nation’s eyes watch it to see how the drama will unfold, Wills knows he already has the real story. The one from backstage, from behind the curtain.
He begins writing about his experience—a 15,000-word account that runs over 16 pages in Esquire magazine and quickly becomes one of the greatest articles of its era. The story also becomes, in many ways, classic Wills.
His ability to go where others don’t go, look where others don’t look, dig where others don’t dig help him carve out an unexpected life as a writer—a life that over the course of 50 years garners him bylines in Time, The New York Times and Vanity Fair, and etches his name on the cover of more than 40 books.
His ability to reveal America by shining the light on all its many layers, especially the ugly ones, lands him on the list of the greatest “New Journalism” writers alongside Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson, Joan Didion and Norman Mailer. And his ability to offer vivid insights into our world and shed new light onto our history—as he brilliantly did with Lincoln’s speech at Gettysburg—earn him pinnacle of the writer’s life: the Pulitzer Prize.
In all, they have made Garry Wills one of the best writers of our time. They’ve also made him, in some cases, one of the most scorned.
Richard Nixon hated Garry Wills.
The nation’s 37th president added Wills to his master list of political enemies in 1970, tucking him in alongside Bill Cosby, Ted Kennedy and The New York Times. Wills’ crime: Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man, a 617-page examination of Nixon—and politics as a whole—in which he concludes that the staunchly conservative Republican president is actually a liberal. Not in the modern liberalism sense—compassion for the poor, big government, tolerance of dissent—but classical liberalism, the liberalism of the Social Darwinians, and, says Wills, “he was as dated as those obsolete specimens.”
Wills didn’t return Nixon’s enmity, though. He admired the late President as intelligent but flawed, and admits he actually felt too sorry for him to feel hatred.
But that’s Wills—outspoken, never pulling punches, but honest enough and intelligent enough to back up his claims. That’s one of his virtues. And flaws.
After six years of teaching Greek at Johns Hopkins University, the chair of the department decided he would no longer tolerate Wills’ part-time work—columnist for the ultraconservative magazine National Review and its outspoken editor, William F. Buckley. It was the era of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement, but the magazine took a staunchly conservative viewpoint. The department head told Wills to stop writing for Buckley or he would not be recommended for tenure.
Wills refused. He also transferred to the humanities department to teach American history. But his coverage of the anti-war demonstrations and social issues of the time was turning him into a liberal. Eventually, he clashed with Buckley over a piece stating there was no conservative argument for the war.
“I said it’s hurting us and helping the Communists,” Wills says. “He said he couldn’t publish it, and so that ended it. We stopped talking for 30 years, then his sister called me up two years before he died and got us back together.”
Wills grew up in Adrian, Mich., where his father worked as an appliance salesman. Both his parents were chain smokers, and Wills would escape the smoke by going outside to read comic books and dog stories. He became a voracious reader, which made his father angry, especially when he was caddying while his father played golf. Once his dad paid him $5 not to read. Wills took the money and bought more books.
Neither of his parents went to college, but his mother followed the advice of the Dominican nuns at his Catholic grade school, who said he ought to be challenged more.
So he was sent one state over to Campion High School, a boarding school run by the Jesuits in Prairie du Chien, Wis., where he was immersed in classical studies and the liberal art.
“There was tremendous encouragement for reading, music, debating, oratory and Latin and Greek,” he says. “I was really lucky. In fact, there are none of my later interests that weren’t begun in that school.”
After graduating from Campion, Wills felt the calling to become a Jesuit priest, so he entered seminary at Saint Louis University. Almost immediately, though, he realized it wasn’t for him. He completed his degree, but at the end of the five and a half years, he left. By then it was too late to apply to graduate school, but a Jesuit at the seminary helped him get into Xavier on the condition he work to pay his way.
The summer of 1957 was hot in Cincinnati. The air was humid and thick, hanging motionless inside the walls of Schmidt Hall where Wills spent his days cooped up in the library.
His job: Compare ancient handwritten manuscripts—some in Greek, some in Latin—of the homilies of St. John Chrysostom, one
of the founding fathers of the early Church. The job supported research by former Xavier classics professor Paul Harkins. It was tedious, but it underscored Wills’ ability to work in Greek and helped prepare him for doctoral study at Yale.
But Wills was not a one-dimensional guy. Though steeped in the classics—both his master’s and doctoral theses were on the Greek playwright Aeschylus—he also wrote essays on current events during his free time. Forbidden from publishing them
while in the seminary, he mailed off five of them to magazine editors across the country once he got to Xavier in hopes of getting published.
He got four rejections and one phone call—from Buckley, who tracked Wills down in his Brockman Hall dorm room. Wills’ essay, mocking Time magazine’s baroque style, caught Buckley’s eye.
“Can you come see me?” Buckley asked.
“No,” Wills replied. “I’m working, and I have to start class.”
“What are you working on?”
“A dissertation on Greek drama.”
“Well, would you become our drama critic?”
Wills said no, but Buckley kept talking. Finally he talked Wills into covering Jimmy Hoffa’s testimony at the labor committee hearings presided over by Robert F. Kennedy in Washington, D.C.
When the hearings were called off, Buckley invited Wills back to New York to attend a party at his 5,000-square-foot, 10-room Manhattan maisonette, where intellectuals and movie stars came to mingle.
This was pretty heady stuff for a 23-year-old, small-town fellow like Wills. It almost couldn’t get any better. Then, on the flight to New York, a stewardess buckles in next to him and introduces herself: “I’m Natalie Cavallo.”She eyes the egghead book he’s reading about religion and morality, and tells him he’s too young for such complex material. They laugh.
The plane was late, so she offered to drive him to the party. She let him off at the door and drove away before he could think to get her number. “I’m fresh out of seminary and so naïve,” Wills says. In the morning, he called Eastern Airlines and got her number. “We had our first date, and she became my wife of 52 years.”
Wills’ tree-shrouded home a block off Lake Michigan in Evanston, Ill., is a library unto itself. By his own estimate, he reads 200 to 300 books a year. Most go into boxes in the basement to be given away.
The ones he keeps are organized by room. English literature takes up the second floor study where he writes. Another room holds his collection of political thought and Latin texts. American novelists and poets occupy the shelves along one wall of the upstairs landing, Greek texts and philosophy on another.
His most prized collection is a 39-volume set of works by John Ruskin, a 19th century English writer and art critic, salvaged for him by a friend in England. It sits on the top shelf of his study. There are also copies of the Bible and writings from the early church, while a collection of Venetian and Italian art occupy a room of their own.
Wills, 77, is no longer teaching since being named professor emeritus of history at Northwestern University in 2005. He spends his days reading and working, getting up around 6:00 a.m. to write on the computer in his study, recently foregoing his preferred method of writing in longhand. He spends afternoons in the library and reads well into the night.
His latest book, Verdi’s Shakespeare: Men of the Theater, was released in October, and he has three more in the works. He writes regularly for The New York Times Book Review and The New York Review of Books.
To relax, he listens to opera with Natalie and plans trips to Italy, their favorite destination. But even there, he can’t stop researching, often visiting the excavated underground baptistery of St. Augustine in Milan.
“I didn’t think I would be a writer,” Wills says. “I thought I would be a teacher.”
Wills has never had to look for a job. He’s been getting offers to write since Buckley found him at Xavier. The offers continued after he earned a doctorate in classics at Yale in 1961, when he was invited to join Harvard’s new Center for Hellenic Studies.
“My parents thought my field of study was other-worldly, and my mother thought I wouldn’t make a living when I left the seminary,” Wills says. “But I started making money immediately when I got my doctorate. One of the senior fellows [at the center] was at Johns Hopkins, and he hired me. I was very lucky. I was just passed on from teacher to teacher and agent to agent.”
Wills stayed at Johns Hopkins for 18 years before moving to Northwestern in 1980 to teach American history. One of his favorite topics was Abraham Lincoln. Wills had loved Lincoln since high school and enjoyed teaching about the man and his rhetoric. It became the basis of his 1992 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Lincoln at Gettysburg, which analyzes Lincoln’s address that invokes the principles of the Declaration of Independence to redefine the purpose of the Civil War.
A fan of Shakespeare, Wills says great presidents like Lincoln are themselves performers.
“Lincoln invited actors to the White House and read Shakespeare to his secretaries,” he says. “When he had a painter painting him, he read scenes from Shakespeare’s King John about the little boy and broke into tears because his son had just died. They all had this sense of performance. Even Nixon had this sense of performance, but he never could pull it off.”
In 1993, Wills was toasting another great American president, Thomas Jefferson, when he learned he’d won the Pulitzer for Lincoln. The Pulitzer publicists couldn’t reach him beforehand, so he learned about the award when the Washington Post tracked him down at Monticello.
“The guy introducing me before the toast said I’d just won the Pulitzer,” he says. “I was pleased of course. I don’t know if I was surprised. I don’t really think about those things.”