Leaving the Gay Place: Billy Lee Brammer and the Great Society
University of Texas Press, 2018, $29.95, 448 pp.
It is, to my mind, one of the great opening paragraphs in American literature, though few Americans who are not also Texans will be familiar with it:
The country is most barbarously large and final. It is too much country — boondock country — alternately drab and dazzling, spectral and remote. It is so wrongfully muddled and various that it is difficult to conceive of it as all of a piece. Though it begins simply enough, as a part of the other.
After kicking off with this aerial view of a vast western landscape, Billy Lee Brammer—in his only published novel, The Gay Place—floats us in toward an unnamed state capital where the first stir of life in the city’s quiet streets is “an old truck carrying migratory cotton pickers.” Its clattering wakes two key characters from the novel’s first section, both politicians:
The younger . . . was named Roy Sherwood, and he lay twisted sideways in the front seat of an automobile that was parked out front of an all-night supermarket. Arthur Fenstemaker, the other one, the older one, floundered in his bedcovers a few blocks distant in the Governor’s mansion.
“Arthur Goddam Fenstemaker,” as he calls himself, is modeled on Lyndon B. Johnson, whom Brammer served as a speechwriter when Johnson was Senate Majority Leader. Fenstemaker dominates the three novellas that compose The Gay Place, even though he’s only sporadically in the foreground action. Instead, the immediate focus is on a small circle of liberal Southern Democrats whose best intentions are in constant collision with their decadent personal excesses.
In “The Flea Circus,” the frequently hungover Roy provides our primary view of what’s going on behind the scenes in the state capital as Fenstemaker cajoles him into sponsoring legislation close to his heart, and seeks his advice on what to do about a lobbyist intent on bribery. Not that Roy is necessarily up to the job.
“He’s pretty damned independent,” we’re told. “And lazy. That’s a bad combination.”
In “Room Enough to Caper,” Senator Neil Christiansen, a gubernatorial appointee to the Senate for 10 months, is pressured by Fenstemaker to run for a full Senate term against a local Red-baiting demagogue whose role model seems to be Joe McCarthy. But Neil has trouble buying into his own campaign-trail act. Examining himself in the mirror, he tries “to affect the look of a winner, but the image that gaped back at him merely exuded a kind of vast, benign self-deprecation.”
“Country Pleasures,” the book’s final section, follows Fenstemaker and his entourage out to a film set where a movie (clearly based on Giant) is being shot. There they plan a photo-op with the film’s star, Vicki McGown, who happens to be the ex-wife of Fenstemaker’s assistant Jay McGown. Vicki, like Roy’s lover in “The Flea Circus” and Neil’s semi-estranged wife in “Room Enough to Caper,” follows wayward agendas of her own. Again and again, the women in The Gay Place aren’t just playthings. They break the rules as adeptly as the men do.
“Mr. Brammer,” Gore Vidal remarked in Esquire when the book appeared in 1961,
has written a political novel from inside and I don’t know of another work quite like it. The politics are at the state level and the state, though never named, sounds ominously like Texas. . . . The individual narratives tend to be somewhat formless and inconclusive and I think Mr. Brammer was wise to put the three into a single volume, if only because in that way he has been able to provide us with a full three-angle view of a splendid creation named Arthur Fenstemaker, governor of the state, a natural politician, sly, pragmatic, more inclined to good than evil, blessed with a roaring prose style.
The Gay Place, published when Brammer was 31, was a Book-of-the-Month club selection. According to Tracy Daugherty—in his stellar new biography of this half-forgotten writer, Leaving the Gay Place: Billy Lee Brammer and the Great Society—the novel got coverage on par with other notable literary debuts that year, including Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. In his lifetime, Brammer was sometimes compared to F. Scott Fitzgerald, and his book’s rueful, hedonistic strains do bring Fitzgerald’s work to mind, notably Tender Is the Night (a touchstone book for Brammer).
There are also echoes of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End in Brammer’s language, especially its occasional jazzy breakdowns into ellipsis-linked phrases and scattershot dialogue that brilliantly embody the quirks of the characters. Take this wistful exchange between Jay and his ex-wife, where halting dialogue and interior reverie are cunningly twined, becoming a poetry built out of sentences cut short:
Jay lay on his back with his eyes closed trying to think of sleep, release, escape, of shaking loose and giving in, of headlong flight and boozy, luxuriant fulfillment. Where were all the gay places? Where were—
“I’m looking forward to the Governor’s party,” Vicki said. “Will you ride up with me?”
Where was all the fun and—
“Will you ride up with me?”
It was out there somewhere, remote and unattainable. It was out here in these landscapes. It was at the Governor’s party it was—
“We can leave day after tomorrow, Jay.”
“Try to sleep,” he finally said. “Lie next to me if you want, the way you were, and try to sleep.”
Ford was on Brammer’s radar. A famous passage from The Good Soldier supplies an epigraph to the novel: “Is there then any terrestrial paradise where, amidst the whispering of the olive leaves, people can be with whom they like and have what they like and take their ease in shadows and coolness?” It’s paired with lines from a Fitzgerald poem that lend Brammer’s book its title: “I know a gay place / Nobody knows.”
The Gay Place didn’t have much commercial success, but it won Brammer a measure of fame and brought journalistic opportunities his way, including a gig at Time magazine. A movie adaptation, in the works for a while, failed to materialize. When two New York theater producers asked if he thought the novel would make a play, his response was quintessential Brammer: “I had to tell them I wasn’t quite sure if it would even make a book.”
That quip hints at Brammer’s instinctive snatching of defeat from the jaws of victory. Still, he worked on a sequel to The Gay Place for years and had publishers and editors encouraging him every step of the way. Though he lived until 1978, when he died of a meth overdose, no other book appeared.
For decades, the questions longtime devotees of The Gay Place have asked are: Where did this one-of-a-kind masterpiece come from? And what the hell happened to its author?
Daugherty’s biography tells us.
Billie Lee Brammer, as his parents named him (he changed the spelling to “Billy Lee” while in elementary school), was born on April 21, 1929, and grew up in the Dallas neighborhood of Oak Cliff. His father worked as a lineman for Texas Power and Light at a time when much of rural Texas was first getting electrified. Young Billy Lee accompanied him on some of these work trips and got his first taste of “boondock country” then.
LBJ first came onto Brammer’s radar in 1938, thanks to a radio address Johnson gave decrying the plight of Austin’s least fortunate citizens (“so poor they could not even at night use the electricity that is to be generated by our great river”). But Johnson was far from the only prominent public figure in Brammer’s life. Other highlights of the “Billy Lee Myth,” as Daugherty dubs it, are jaw dropping. Despite a lack of legitimate press credentials, Brammer was riding in a press car behind JFK when he was assassinated, and witnessed Jack Ruby’s killing of Lee Harvey Oswald in the basement of the Dallas municipal building—or so he claimed.
Even if he wasn’t there, he had firsthand connections to the players. “He had known John F. Kennedy; they shared a mistress,” Daugherty tells us. “He knew the man who had just been sworn in as the new president. . . . He knew Jack Ruby. In the days leading up to the Kennedy and Oswald assassinations, Brammer had stayed in the Dallas apartment of a friend who was dating a mobbed-up stripper from Ruby’s club.”
That same year—while fleeing a subpoena from his first wife, Nadine, who hoped to nab some of the windfall her husband was supposedly going to get for film rights to The Gay Place—Brammer landed in California, where he met Jerry Garcia and Ken Kesey and was introduced to LSD. Even Kesey was startled by Brammer’s drug appetites. “The gnome-like Texan,” we’re told, “gobbled acid. He began to inject speed.”
Brammer’s Austin circle included future San Francisco music-scene luminaries Chet Helms and Janis Joplin. Some said he was “single-handedly responsible for turning Austin, Texas, on to LSD.” One friend told Daugherty, “I’m pretty sure he gave Janis her first acid.” And then there was the time Gloria Steinem hired him to write anticommunist propaganda for the CIA. That’s a lot to pack into one man’s short life.
Brammer did abysmally in high school but managed to get into North Texas State Teachers College, where he immediately started writing for the college newspaper. There, his talents attracted the attention of the local town paper, which hired him to cover sports events. In the meantime, for his college paper, he wrote about LBJ’s second U.S. Senate run, Jim Crow-era injustices, and Joe McCarthy’s anti-communist crusade.
At North Texas State, Brammer met his future wife, Nadine Cannon. They married when she was 19 and he was about to turn 21. Brammer already harbored intense literary ambitions and Nadine quite liked the idea of being a second Zelda Fitzgerald. It was Nadine who introduced Brammer to amphetamines, beginning a lifelong habit. “He said the pills helped with his writing,” Nadine recalled. “He could type for hours, nonstop.”
In 1951, they moved to Austin where Brammer became a sportswriter for the Austin American-Statesman. Their circle of friends included Dave and Ann Richards (the later governor of Texas), future screenwriter-director Robert Benton (Places in the Heart), and writer Willie Morris, whose wife Celia, in her memoir Finding Celia’s Place, vividly describes the strange flavor of Brammer’s presence. “He could be stiller than anybody I’d ever known,” she wrote.
Where other men seemed out to prove something – to win an argument, perhaps, or score points, or feel their own sex magnetism – Bill simply liked women, and they liked him. . . . Although he did not seem personally driven by sex, he had an abiding sense of the havoc it wreaked with our best intentions, and perhaps he was the first person I really cared for who had something close to the tragic sense.
That “abiding sense” of erotic havoc informs almost every page of The Gay Place.
Sports coverage soon bored Brammer, who wanted to write about social changes that were fermenting in 1950s Austin. The local YMCA, for instance, was hosting interracial student gatherings, much to the displeasure of the University of Texas’s board of regents. Brammer eventually ditched the American-Statesman to write for the newly founded, left-leaning Texas Observer. An interview he did for the Observer with LBJ, following the Senator’s 1955 heart attack, led to Johnson hiring Brammer as a press aide and Nadine as a secretary. The Brammers moved to Washington, and it was there that most of The Gay Place was written.
On the surface, Brammer’s move into politics was an odd fit. “[H]e had never been, and never would be, a foot soldier for causes,” Daugherty points out. Still, for “sheer drama,” Daugherty adds, LBJ was “impossible for a literary sensibility to ignore.”
What drew Johnson to Brammer? One friend believed LBJ admired Brammer’s “careful perspective and reflective temper, the inward bent of his mind, and he trusted him because he could dominate him, or so it seemed.” Brammer’s estimate of LBJ, in turn, was always clear-eyed. “He’s a sick man,” he wrote in 1959.
I don’t want to oversimplify, and I’m not a snap analyst, but it’s rather obvious that the thing that eats on him is a king-sized inferiority complex. He’s got to prove himself, to bowl people over, plow ’em under. He has to keep people off balance; he has to reach the top – even if it’s the presidency. He draws strength from other people’s weakness, and he must have adulation. And, of course, he’s thin-skinned out of all proportion.
Johnson’s uncouth contradictions are manifest in Brammer’s portrait of Fenstemaker—most vividly when the governor, pressuring Neil to have the gumption to run for a full term in the Senate, dangles this carrot: “You can go back up to Washington and vote that economic aid and lower the interest rate and maybe even get a nigger bill through. You’d prefer that, wouldn’t you?”
The language gives you pause, but the push for racial justice is a given—and in 1961 that language was as common as fleas on a dog. In one party scene, a bohemian type on the fringes of Neil’s social circle takes integration efforts into his own hands.
Kermit appeared in the kitchen with two Negro girls, one on each arm. They were both a little terrified, and Kermit made an extra-serious effort to introduce them in a civilized way. Everyone was polite. But no one knew quite what ought to be said. . . . They had grown so used to seeing these people – and not seeing them – behind counters and at the back sections of public conveyances . . . that it would take years to get any contact established. Even for the young people here who were desperately striving to learn one another.
Good intentions and clumsy gestures are so awkwardly intermingled in this passage that it’s difficult to know whether to be mortified or slightly encouraged.
To achieve his goals on the civil-rights front, Johnson had to straddle conflicting factions of the Democratic Party in ways that demanded the skills of a contortionist. “Southern conservatives held sway in the Senate,” Daugherty explains. “Johnson couldn’t afford to lose their support. At the same time, to broaden his power base, he had to persuade northern liberals he was on their side. All this he had to accomplish without riling his home-state backers . . . while appearing to be driven solely by principles rather than careerism.”
Brammer, Daugherty tells us, was “entranced” by the way Johnson shepherded the Civil Rights Act of 1957 through the Senate, and Fenstemaker shares LBJ’s strategizing genius. Still, some of Brammer’s friends felt he’d soft-pedaled the repellent sides of Johnson. “As a human being he was a miserable person,” LBJ press aide George Reedy said of his boss, “a bully, a sadist, lout and egotist. . . . His lapses from civilized conduct were deliberate and usually intended to subordinate someone else to his will.”
Johnson was also a habitual sexual harasser, as Nadine recalls in witheringly droll terms: “LBJ could grope your whole body in a split second: this once happened to me as he ‘helped’ me get out of the backseat of a car.”
That womanizing side of Johnson comes up in “Country Pleasures,” as Fenstemaker enjoys the company of the film’s star. Vicki, however, is more than capable of holding her own. Off on a liquor-fueled joy ride with the governor and his entourage to a nearby Mexican village (“Not the one we built, but [a] real one”), she gleefully snares Fenstemaker in a diplomatic fiasco. “We just gave everything back to the Mexicans!” she crows upon their return to the film set. “All of it! We had a little ceremony. . . . You white men got twenty-four hours to clear out!”
Such humor abounds in The Gay Place. Sometimes it’s farcical—for instance, when Fenstemaker’s alcoholic brother, Hoot Gibson, reveals why the filmmakers are having trouble with the tumbleweed they’ve had to import from Burbank, California, due to a Texas drought.
“It don’t tumble,” Hoot Gibson said, overjoyed. “Even when there’s a good wind. It just don’t tumble. So they brought out some big blowers – big ’lectric fans – to make the tumbleweed tumble when they shoot the moom picture.”
Here and elsewhere, Brammer’s dialogue, a blend of canny phrasing and even cannier spelling trickery (“moom picture”), brings these characters jubilantly alive.
The humor takes a more incisive turn when we see Fenstemaker in backroom action. To Willie England, editor of a newspaper much like the Texas Observer, Fenstemaker explains what kind of press coverage he’d like for a hospital bill he’s trying to pass:
“It’s not much of a bill – not half enough of an appropriation – but it’ll close up some of the worst places and build some new ones and bring in a few head doctors. And this little bill can pass is the main thing. I’ll put it through next week if I don’t get everyone all stirred up and worried about taxes and socialism and creepin’ statesmanship. You gonna help me, Willie?”
“How can I help?”
Fenstemaker slapped his desk and showed his teeth. “Oppose the goddam bill!” His face beamed. “But just a little bit, understand?” he said. “Don’t get real ugly about it.”
“I don’t understand,” Willie said.
“Those fellows in the Senate – they think this is all I want, they’ll give it to me. But if somebody’s runnin’ round whoopin’ about how good this is, settin’ precedents and havin’ a foot in the door and braggin’ on how much more we’ll get next year, then all my support’ll get skittish and vanish overnight.”
“Only don’t oppose it too much, either. You raise hell and your bunch won’t go along. They’ll introduce their own bill askin’ for the goddam aurora borealis. I need their votes, too. Just oppose it a little bit – oppose it on principle!”
Brammer is just as sly when it comes to erotic matters. When things heat up between Roy and Ouida (a legislator’s estranged wife with whom Roy is, in Fenstemaker’s words, “hoo-hawin’ around”), the prose couldn’t be more seductive.
He leaned forward, splashing whiskey on his wrist, and kissed the place on her leg.
“Kiss me here,” she said, showing him where. He kissed her throat. She moved her arms around him and touched the back of his neck. “I like you here,” she said. “It’s nice to find a neck that’s not shaved. . . . In Florence last year, when Earle was running around with that lady parachutist, I’d go out walking in the afternoons just to look at the backs of men’s necks. They all had such nice shaggy necks.”
“We’re both sick,” Roy said. “You like hairy necks. I like that place on your leg.”
Even bad sex is fun in Brammer’s hands. Ouida, after winding up in the bed with a man she didn’t really want to sleep with, is left with “more the memory of exertion than exaltation.”
Brammer wrote The Gay Place while working full-time for Johnson and surviving on a diet of “Butterfingers, warm Jell-O, and amphetamines,” Daugherty tells us. “Sitting in Senator Johnson’s office at night, he would put on a Paul Desmond record, pop a ‘Christmas tree’ (a green-and-red Dexamyl), and hear the words of his novel, the lovely, flowing sentences, the music of his brain, brighten with electric clarity.”
And he found success. He was awarded a $2,400 Houghton Mifflin Fellowship for The Gay Place the year after Philip Roth won the same honor for Goodbye, Columbus. An editor at Houghton Mifflin, Mrs. G.D. de Santillana, wrote Brammer in 1959 about his manuscript-in-progress: “It is wonderful reading, it has swing and glitter and pace.” “Arthur Fenstemaker,” she added, “is rapidly becoming my great American hero.”
Brammer completed the novel in 1960, then postponed proofreading the galleys so he could work on LBJ’s 1960 presidential campaign. Meanwhile, Nadine filed for divorce and money issues between them became bitter. Still, she remained his confidante.
“Want to get this stuff over with so I can pay off lawyers and love you a little better,” he wrote her as they went ahead with divorce proceedings. In a line lifted, almost unaltered, from Roy Sherwood in “The Flea Circus,” he added, “I am not and never have been a well man.”
Reviews of The Gay Place, Daugherty tells us, were “almost uniformly positive.” And over the years, critics have weighed in on what makes it so special. In a 2005 Washington Monthly essay titled “Why Americans Can’t Write Political Fiction,” Christopher Lehmann singled out the book as “the one truly great American political novel.”
“As political animals,” Lehmann said of Brammer’s characters, “they’re accustomed to honoring few clear distinctions between their messy, conflicted, adulterous, and boozy lives and their obligations to the public weal. . . . The genius of Brammer’s novel is its willingness to wrestle openly with the implications of a tragic, divided political nature—not merely for stars of first magnitude like Fenstemaker but also for the many lesser political beings in his orbit.”
One cause of those inner divisions is the characters’ ongoing inability to buy into their own reality. Roy, wondering how to deal with “all the ceaseless demands of public ambition and private loves,” finds himself utterly incapable of taking responsibility for his “ill-furnished fraud of a life,” while Neil, in mid-senatorial campaign, starts to think that “what was needed was not so much cerebration or good intentions as convincing stage props . . . ”
This sense of fakery becomes literal when the action moves to that film set in the middle of nowhere. Jay, studying his ex-wife and Fenstemaker as they pose for their photo-op, muses, “They were not quite people, those two. They were a little hard to believe; each of them heightened by special technicolor effects.”
The one figure in the novel not assailed by these debilitating doubts about his own reality is Fenstemaker, whose physical presence on the page is gloriously raucous.
Fenstemaker pinched his nose, moved a big hand over his face as if probing for minute flaws in a piece of pottery. He rubbed his eyes, sucked his teeth, punched holes in a sheet of bond paper with a gold toothpick. He stood and paced about the room and stared out the windows and scratched himself. ‘Well goddam and hell…’ he said. It was like a high mass, a benediction.
Fenstemaker knows what he wants and how to get it, and if anyone tries to throw him off-track (“Everybody’s tryin’ to blur my public image,” he complains), he handily marshals them back into line.
Faced with a need to earn some cash after the commercial prospects for his book dimmed, Brammer took a job at Time magazine in the spring of 1961. His beat was the Kennedy Administration. That was when he found out (“this is the darnedest thing,” he told his boss) that he was dating one of the President’s paramours. “From friends and colleagues,” Daugherty writes, “Brammer knew, but did not report, what Seymour Hersh would make public many years later, that ‘Kennedy was consumed with almost daily sexual liaisons and libertine partying, to a degree that shocked many members of his personal Secret Service detail.’”
In the meantime, things had gone sour between Johnson and Brammer. Johnson felt Brammer had “abandoned” him and objected, hilariously, to The Gay Place because it “had too many dirty words in it.” But his real problem with the novel went beyond that:
“When’d you write that book?”
“When I was in Washington.”
“When you were working for me?”
“You should have been answering my mail.”
Those were the last words the two men ever exchanged.
Brammer was well embarked on a self-destructive path by then. His apartment, Daugherty reports, was cluttered with “open cans of Betty Crocker cake frosting, spoons stabbed into the thick, sugary goo, for when he got hungry or felt a craving for sweets.” He continued using his Time credit card but failed to report back to the office. That could not, did not, last long.
He had a brief stint working at the CIA-supported Independent Research Service, where Gloria Steinem was his supervisor. His job was to write anti-communist pamphlets. When Steinem sent him to a Soviet-sponsored youth festival in Helsinki “to inject anticommunist sentiments into the proceedings,” he tried to save money by taking a tramp steamer from Mobile, Alabama, rather than flying to Finland. The ship’s engines broke down mid-Atlantic and he arrived in the Finnish capital three weeks late. “In what had become a deeply ingrained habit,” Daugherty remarks, “Brammer simply wandered away from his job[s] without completing anything or officially resigning.”
By early 1963, he had retreated to Austin where, on his first day back, he asked a friend, “Do you know where I can get some speed in this town? I’ve been away for seven years. I work much better on speed.” At about this time, he met fellow novelist Larry McMurtry, with whom he briefly shared an apartment. “I didn’t know [Billy Lee] well,” McMurtry told Daugherty in 2015, “but I knew him well enough to know that he wasn’t going to make it.”
Publishers in the book, newspaper, and magazine worlds hadn’t quite figured out that he had become entirely unreliable. When Johnson assumed office, Brammer got an offer from Random House to write a biography of his former boss (“I think I hit the jackpot”). But LBJ’s White House declared him persona non grata, and the project promptly died.
Still, in Austin he remained a local literary celebrity—and he was about to become some kind of counterculture guru, too. Despite the chaos of his existence, he somehow retained the loyalty of his friends, the devotion of his children, and even, to a certain extent, the exasperated fondness of his ex-wife Nadine. In 1963, he met his second wife, Dorothy Browne, a University of Texas undergraduate majoring in English. She was writing a paper on Tender Is the Night at the time—and lasted five years in the marriage.
All through the 1960s, Brammer was at the center of Austin’s party scene—not that he put much effort into it. “[T]he puzzling paradox of Billy Lee Brammer,” Daugherty writes, is that “he exhibited an essentially passive personality, always letting louder folks take center stage, yet on the strength of his quiet charisma and steady generosity, he was pivotal to his group’s activities, a powerful social catalyst.”
“He was never verbose the way most diet pill addicts were,” one friend said. “He listened and watched, somewhat tenaciously. People were always saying, ‘Look at Billie Lee over there watching us.’ I think most assumed he was gathering material. But looking back, I think he was living inside his head.”
His daughter Shelby, in retrospect, believes the Austin crowd her father ran with saw him as their “mascot of debauchery.” Her older sister Sidney adds, “There were so many drugs. It was so fraught. Rich guys with unlimited quantities of pot and meth.” Even when he tried to stay away from parties, Daugherty says, the parties came to him.
As the decade wore on, Brammer conceded “that the speed, which had helped him compose The Gay Place, was now working against him as an illness.” In his notebook, in 1968, he listed his substance intake for the day: “Midafternoon dope, plus doughnuts, Coke, sausages, more dope, little hash, ½ tab purple acid, little wine, some rum, some . . . stew, beer, coffee, Desoxyn, Nembutal … aspirin, more wine, much more grass.”
He did still take erratic stabs at fiction (one attempted short story was titled “Is There Life After Meth?”), and he was still capable of sharp political observations. “It’s really amazing when you think about it,” he quipped to one friend. “The last two Presidents of the USA have been functionally insane, and yet the American people don’t seem to notice.”
In 1972, after observing an ailing LBJ being honored at a civil rights conference for his role in the fight for racial equality, Brammer’s last published words on Johnson appeared in The Texas Observer. “President Johnson was a giant, and remains one. What he did wrong, he did royally wrong; what he did right, he did royally right. Events are out of his control now, and we seem fated to be led by less imaginative, less colorful, less real people.”
Still, Brammer’s writing career had flamed out. An idea for a rock-and-roll novel and a proposal for a “journalism-as-literature-textbook” went nowhere. One of his last journalistic gigs was with an alternative paper, The Rip-Off Review of Western Culture, where his official title was “Editor at Sea.”
He drifted into rock-music promotion as the psychedelic scene took off, booking acts like the Grateful Dead, the Jefferson Airplane, and Big Brother and the Holding Company. But by the early 1970s, the drug excesses had taken their toll. It was, Sidney remembers,
. . . almost painful to visit him in his rattrap apartments with the electricity turned off and no phone. We’d watch him poke through the wreckage of his bedroom for his Coke-bottle lens glasses or dentures (he’d had cataract surgery and lost his teeth by the age of 42) while we browsed through a cornucopia of literature that always seemed to have been flung in great disorganized piles into his living quarters. . . . As painful as it could be, one often had a need to see him – because Billie Lee had a way of getting to the quick of your deepest despond, making you laugh at it, turning it to your own best end.
Dorothy, still in touch with him, remembers, “He was shooting crystal Methedrine and taking acid and mescaline at the same time. He was just a mess.” A friend who tailed him with a stopwatch at a party reported that longest interval between his requests for pills was 23 seconds. At some point he started helping himself to his pet poodle’s epilepsy medicine.
Yet he preserved the good will of those around him, with LBJ the exception that proved the rule. “I don’t think Bill ever had an enemy in his whole life,” Benton says. “You’d think that someone embarking on that path of self-destruction after he drifted back to Texas would make at least some enemies along the way, but he never did.”
When he was busted for drug possession in 1971, his friends rallied around him, raising money for a lawyer to defend him. (“No one wants to see the little bastard have to go to jail,” one of them said.) But the downward spiral continued. In ever more dire financial straits, he took a job as a hotel-restaurant dishwasher and chef’s assistant.
The end, from “acute methamphetamine intoxication,” came on Feb. 11, 1978. “Billy Lee didn’t look like himself in the coffin,” Shelby Brammer recalls. “Somehow, his dentures hadn’t made it to the service.”
So where does that leave us?
Well, we do have the one published masterpiece that has stayed in print—precariously, but more or less continuously—since first publication in 1961. Texas author Jan Reid, remarking on the novel’s staying power back in 2001, declared that “woven through it are themes that dominate our politics today: the siren’s song of lobbyists’ money, the ease of demagoguery, the lechery born of power, the cost of pursuing such a life on marriages and children. But at times these politicians do good things for the right reasons. The Gay Place succeeds because its characters have texture, resonance, and depth. . . . You care about them.”
Daugherty’s biography makes plain why Brammer was never able to deliver another novel, while also indicating there’s an abundance of Brammer correspondence and miscellaneous writings that merit being gathered into book form. Maybe someone will see fit to take on the project. Then again, given the way things have usually gone with Brammer, maybe not.
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