a man who spent so much time recovering from so many operations; a man who had
so many close calls before the last one, Lewis Grizzard never seemed very
interested in 'The Great Beyond.' Oh, he wrote about illness and hospitals often
enough in his books and columns; joked about it on hundreds of stages across the
South. But the last sentence of his last book gives a better clue to his real
passion than all those jokes. "Life," he wrote,
"I do love that word." It was life that Lewis Grizzard loved.
And how he did live: Four wives, 450 daily newspapers, Millions of fans,
Hundreds of concerts, Oceans of vodka, Thousands of prayers, and at the
beginning and the end of it all, Moreland.
Always Moreland, the tiny town that time forgot and Lewis embellished. It was
his Mayberry, his Lake Wobegon. Like Twain before him, Grizzard used the scenes
of his youth to weave tales that were always truth, even when they weren't
And like Twain, he made us laugh
and think at the same time. Indeed, during his lifetime, Lewis Grizzard heard
himself described as "this generation's Mark Twain," "one of the
foremost humorists in the country" and "a Faulkner for plain
folks" by the national press.What he was, without a doubt, was a masterful
storyteller, stand-up comedian, syndicated columnist and best selling author. "I
am," he would say, "the only person from Moreland, Georgia who
ever made the New York Times Bestseller List.... I am the
only person in Moreland, Georgia who ever HEARD of the New
York Times Bestseller List..." He could poke fun at his hometown
and still be loved there. "Lewis is a good boy," they would say with
toleration and affection.
Actually, he was born in Fort
Benning, Georgia, and only moved to Moreland with his mother after his father
left both the Army and his young bride in a fit of despair and mystery that
would haunt Grizzard to his dying day. The tremendous love and frustration he
felt for Captain Lewis McDonald Grizzard, Sr. finally overflowed,' typical Lewis
style, in a book. "My Daddy Was A Pistol and I'm a Son of a Gun"
remains one of his most remarkable works, evoking tears and laughter in such
rapid succession that the reader finally understands that they are opposite
sides of the single coin of parenthood. Years later he penned his homage to
"Miss Christine," (his longsuffering, tough, school teacher mother),
entitled "Don't Forget To Call Your Mama - I Wish I Could Call Mine."
Together they form bookends to the entire Grizzard library, these sentimental
melancholy, misty memories of the Mama and Daddy from which he came.
often told interviewers he was raised "poor, proud, and patriotic."
Stories of his childhood in Moreland ring with Southern archetypes; the strong,
quiet man (his maternal grandfather "Daddy Bun," a farmer and school
janitor who was the inspiration for Grizzard's famous "Definition of a
Redneck"), the strong Southern woman who bends but does not break (his
mother, beginning life anew at age 40 after Lewis Sr.'s departure), the fearsome
school authority figure (O.P. Evans, principal of Newnan High School), and of
course the girls, always the girls (Kathy Sue Loudermilk and company).
note that Lewis Grizzard was a graduate of the University of Georgia may seem a
bit like noting that the sky is blue. For
the benefit of the uninitiated however, it must be said here.
Bulldog to the bone, he later pulled off one of the great feats in
syndicated newspaper history Ė that of publishing an almost entirely empty
column. It was the day after his
beloved alma mater had lost a match-up with rival Georgia Tech.
Lewis wrote one sentence above several columns of stark white.
The sentence read, "Frankly, I don't want to talk about it.Ē
His ashes (half of them, anyway) were, in accordance with his
fondest wishes, scattered over the fifty-yard line at UGAís Sanford Stadium.
Lewis' UGA jokes, both at his own school's expense and at their rivals',
were among his fans' favorites. They
recited them by heart on his concert tours, waiting for the punch lines, ready
to laugh yet again. "Earl,"
they would mouth silently as Lewis hit the pause perfectly..."that
dog would BITE you-u-u-!!" Lewis
was like that- like family; like a funny uncle or brother.
You always laughed and you always asked for the old stories one more
time. Lewis obliged. "I'm
Bulldog born" he'd
say, "Bulldog bred, and when I die I'll be- by-God Bulldog
dead!" He once said that while in between marriages, he had
considered placing a classified personal ad seeking a UGA coed with whom he
could attend the games because, "She would not thing that getting down
on one's knees and barking at a Clemson fan was odd behavior."
At 23, he became the
youngest-ever executive sports editor of The Atlanta Journal, where he was hired
by the legendary Jim Minter ("Mr. Minter" to Lewis all his life).
Mr. Minter was sports editor at the time and later became the Journalís
executive editor during the big years of the Grizzard books and columns.
But that was yet to come. Now,
filled with the indecision and impulsiveness of youth, He left the Journal and
went to Chicago. Lewis liked to say
that he was "held prisoner" there.
Actually he went to make his reputation as sports editor of the Chicago
Sun-Times. Lewis loved newspaper
business. He loved the sound of the
old typewriters clanging, the copy room floor covered with discarded rewrites,
the pressure of deadlines, and the beer or two or three at the bar down the
street after it was all over. When
others began to suggest that he should switch to more modern methods of
composition, he said, "When I write, I like to hear some noise."
He was good. Mr. Minter later said that had Lewis not begun a writing
career, he might have wound up as one of the great newspaper editors of this
century. He was that good.
Fortunately for Southern literature, however, he was also very, very
cold. So Lewis came home to Atlanta and the Journal. The story of those years in
exile, "If I Ever Get Back To Georgia, I'm Gonna Nail My Feet To The
Ground" was a huge hit ... even in Chicago.
It was Mr. Minter, his mentor and professional
father figure, who first encouraged him to write a column. "What the hell
would I write about?" he asked. But one day, he tried it. He rolled the
paper into his old manual clunker and he hit a key and wrote a column. It
was a task he would repeat afterwards for upwards of two decades. Steve
Enoch, his friend and manager in later years, tells a story about a lady of the
evening who approached Grizzard in a bar in Mexico. "I make you very
happy," she is supposed to have said, "for one hundred American
dollars I do anything you want!," whereupon Grizzard shouts, "Thank
you Jesus! It's a miracle!" pulls out a hundred dollar bill and says
"Here. Go upstairs and write my next column." Grizzard likened the
pressure to top oneself day after day in print to "being married to a
nymphomaniac... it's a whole lot of fun for the first week."'
But the work paid off. The 1980's
and early 1990's were the glory years of Lewis Grizzard Enterprises. He became a
business, and things got, he would later admit, "a little crazy." It
was a wild ride, but Lewis' particular genius was that he always took his
readers along. Sure, he was famous, but he was also the friend in the paper each
morning. He let us in on the joke of celebrity. He sat with Johnny Carson
("Johnny wears a lot of makeup."). He acted with Delta Burke
("she don't sweat much for a fat girl..."). He did "Larry King
Live," "Designing Women," "Tonight," "Today,"
"Tomorrow." He was everywhere, even in his own TV special, "Love,
Sex, and Romance." Steve Enoch tells how Lewis, at the height of his reign
as a cultural phenomenon, was approached by Hollywood executives to be a regular
in a sitcom. "We need someone very Southern" they had said. So he and
Grizzard flew to L.A. and power-brunched and met the TV guys. They called back.
"Sorry, but Lewis is TOO Southern," they said. The column wrote itself
that day. "Too Southern?" Lewis wrote with mock indignation,
"Why, that's an oxymoron. There's no such thing as being "TOO
Southern." He ticked off a lot of people during the glory years, writing
what he thought and becoming increasingly loved and/or hated. Southerners of all
stripes could not help but feel a certain protective ownership of their testy
bard. He was, after all, one of them, writing from the point of view of a
culture that WAS a little different and a little slower and a lot more eccentric
than that of other parts of the country. Lewis was conservative. His favorite
movie was "Patton." He railed against "the speech police"
and the stereotyping of the South in films and literature. Sometimes he brought
to mind the legendary statement of LBJ regarding a foreign dictator who enjoyed
American support. "Yeah, he's an S.O.B.," Johnson growled, "but
he's our S.O.B!" And then, just when you thought you had him pegged as an
angry man, Lewis would up and surprise you. He'd write, "I've been noticing
flowers lately, which is something I've never done before." Or he'd speak
of the funeral of a friend's father with such quiet dignity and respect and
heart-rending loss that you wanted to comfort him. Lewis was like that.
But always, just offstage, there
was his heart trouble, a lurking, looming danger. He was born with a congenital
heart defect, a faulty valve, which led to three open-heart surgeries and a
series of near-death moments. The worst was the third operation in 1993, from
which he never fully recovered. The whole story is contained in one of his
finest works, "I Took A Lickin' and Kept On Tickin' (and Now I Believe in
Miracles)". The title was no exaggeration. He HAD been just shy of being
pronounced dead; was even on a heart donor list for a time. Dedra Kyle, who
would become his wife the next year and who was already his primary caregiver,
received a telling dedication from him on the first page of that book. It read,
"To Dedra, the real survivor." She says, "When he came home,
there were some very, very hard days. We did a lot of crying together; a lot of
talking about serious things; a lot of praying, but Lewis always tried to find
the humor." The news coverage of this worst-yet Grizzard illness unleashed
a remarkable outpouring of sympathy, prayer, and affection. There were 50,000
pieces of mail, calls from dying people wanting to donate their hearts, busloads
of church groups driving past Atlanta's Emory Hospital with get-well banners- a
family even drove from Louisiana just to be at the hospital for the deathwatch.
But Lewis recovered. His heart simply started beating on its own. The doctors
called it a bon-a-fide miracle. So did Lewis. He publicly thanked those who had
prayed. He made out a list of things he wanted to accomplish in his remaining
years. It included writing a funny novel and a book about male friendship,
planting a garden, riding more trains and catching a trout on a fly rod. At the
end of the list was this entry: "See Rock City. I've never seen the
son of a bitch. Honest."
He lived a little less than a year after that.
There were low points (pain, depression, the death of his black lab, Catfish,
and the famous column about it that broke reader's hearts along with his own)
and high points (the joy of his marriage to Dedra just four days before the
fourth and final surgery, and his delight and fulfillment in a fatherly
relationship with her daughter Jordan). He wrote less frequently, was unable to
tour, and gave few interviews. But when he did write, the power of his pen
seemed only enhanced by the stress his body and spirit were under. The same year
that he was voted "The Author From Hell" at a publishing convention
(for his "insensitivity" to his escorts on book tours, he was writing
powerful, evocative and deceptively simple columns like "Be Sweet,"
based on his late mother's habitual last words in every conversation. In it he
wrote, "My mother's words were so simple. Be sweet. But we aren't sweet. We
don't honor sweet. We don't even like sweet. Sweet is weak. Respect me or Iíll
shoot you. Sweet is weak. No. No. Be sweet. Be kind and gentle. Be tolerant. Be
forgiving and slow to anger. Be tender and able to cry. Be kind to old people
and dogs. Be loving. Share. Donít pout. Don't be so loud. Hold a puppy.
Kiss a hand. Put your arms around a frightened child. Make an outstanding play
and then don't do the King Tut Butt Strut to point to the inadequacies of the
vanquished. Be sweet. The wonders that might do. The wonders that just might do.
I can still hear you, Mama."
Two month later, on March 20, 1994, at 10:45am, he
went to join her. The doctors said he died peacefully. There was brain damage.
He would never have been the same. Lewis Grizzard was 47.
They sang "Precious Memories" at his
funeral, like he wanted. Fans still drive to Moreland looking for him. They
leave notes or flags or little toy bulldogs by the stone, which reads, "A
Great American." Lewis might have laughed at the reverence, which suddenly
descended on him at his death. He was, after all, rather irreverent,
sentimental, arrogant, kind, outspoken, gifted, driven, troubled, and brilliant.
He was a bundle of contradictions and a very funny man.
Kathy Sue Loudermilk, I Love
Glory! Glory! Georgia's 1980
If Love Were Oil, I'd Be
About A Quart Low,1983/
Don't Sit Under The Grits
Tree With Anyone Else But Me,1984/ Warner
Elvis Is Dead and I Don't
Feel So Good Myself,1984/
Won't You Come Home Billy
My Daddy Was A Pistol and
I'm a Son of a Gun,1986/
Shoot Low Boys - They're
Riding Shetland Ponies,1986/
When My Love Returns From
The Ladies Room, Will I Be Too Old To
Care?,1987/ Ballantine Books
Don't Bend Over In the
Garden, Granny - You Know Them Taters Got
Eyes,1988/ Ballantine Books
Lewis Grizzard's Advice To
The Newly Wed,1989/
Lewis Grizzard on Fear of
If I Ever Get Back To
Georgia, I'm Gonna Nail My Feet To The Ground,1990/ Ballantine Books
Does A Wild Bear Chip In The
Chili Dawgs Always Bark At
Don't Forget To Call Your
Momma; I Wish I Could Call Mine,1991
You Can't Put No Boogie
Woogie On The King of Rock and Roll,1991/
I Haven't Understood
Anything Since 1962 and Other Nekkid Truths,1992/ Ballantine Books
I Took A Lickin' and Kept on
Tickin' and Now I Believe In Miracles,1993/ Ballantine Books
The Last Bus To Albuquerque (posthumous)
1994/ Longstreet Press
It Wasn't Always Easy But I
Sure Had Fun
(posthumous) 1994/ Ballantine Books
Grizzardisms: The Wit and
Wisdom of Lewis Grizzard,1995/
Southern By The Grace of God - Lewis Grizzard on the South,1996/ Longstreet Press