Charles Portis, ‘True Grit' Author and Arkansas Original, Dies at 86

Charles Portis, ‘True Grit' Author and Arkansas Original, Dies at 86
Charles Portis (left) speaks with William Whitworth in 2010 at the Oxford American Gala. (Amanda Hoelzeman)

Charles Portis, the Arkansan who quit “the best newspaper job in the world” to write novels, then found quick success with the hit western “True Grit,” died Monday in Little Rock.

He was 86 and had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s/dementia in 2012, his brother Jonathan told Arkansas Business.

A master of quirky characters and deadpan humor, Portis wrote five novels over 35 years, becoming the state’s great literary figure of the 20th century, admired by critics and fiercely beloved by a corps of cult-like fans.

“He had an almost Jonestown-like following,” said Ernest Dumas, the veteran Arkansas journalist who worked with Portis nearly 60 years ago in the golden age of the Arkansas Gazette. 

Through five decades of fame, Portis shunned the limelight, living quietly but not quite reclusively, despite the stereotype, in Little Rock. His name was in the phone book. But a low-key kind of celebrity became unavoidable as "True Grit" spent 22 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, sold millions of copies and was twice made into movies.

The first adaptation, in 1969, won John Wayne his only Academy Award as the irascible one-eyed Deputy U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn.

The second movie, a Coen Brothers film starring Jeff Bridges that was nominated for a best-picture Oscar in 2010, generated new worldwide interest in Portis’ work. Hailee Steinfeld played the teen narrator, Mattie Ross “of near Dardanelle in Yell County,” who doggedly avenges her father’s murder in Fort Smith. Kim Darby played Mattie in the original, and Arkansas native Glen Campbell was the Texas Ranger LaBoeuf. Robert Duvall played the bandit Lucky Ned Pepper, who called Cogburn's vow to kill him or see him hang "bold talk for a one-eyed fat man." Cogburn's reply, in Wayne's raspy cry, was "Fill your hand you son of a bitch!"

Through the decades, the novel transcended its Western genre as Portis wrote more contemporary novels populated with keenly drawn characters and sharply observed absurdities: A diner patron drinks from the lesser-used side of a coffee cup; a traveler “rescues” a tic-tac-toe-playing chicken from a roadside show and takes it on a bus trip to Arkansas. 

From the 1966 publication of his first novel, “Norwood,” Portis etched a reputation as a writer’s writer, and over the years he encouraged other writers over drinks at Little Rock establishments like the Town Pump, Faded Rose and Cajun’s Wharf. 

“I’ll leave it to others to assess his place in literature, but we in the family were all very proud of his accomplishments,” Jonathan Portis said.

Charles Portis quit his job as London bureau chief of the New York Herald Tribune to live in a fishing shack and write “Norwood,” which also became a movie starring Campbell. After “True Grit” came “The Dog of the South” (1979), “Masters of Atlantis” (1985) and “Gringos” (1991), books that delighted Portis fans but never equaled his early sales success. All the titles were reissued in paperback in 1999 and 2000 by Overlook Press.

Authors like Larry McMurtry, Roy Blount Jr., Calvin Trillin and Nora Ephron sang Portis’ praises, and the journalist Ron Rosenbaum described him as “perhaps the most original, indescribable sui generis talent overlooked by literary culture in America.” Rosenbaum's praise in Esquire magazine helped propel a surge in interest in Portis and his work.

The books were filled with idiosyncratic people with crackpot theories and schemes, characters who faced challenges, often on the road, enduring various bizarre indignities with straight faces.

Charles McGrath, writing in The New York Times, noted one rare public appearance by Portis, who kept a low profile even about his Marine service in the Korean War. The writer was present, in the 14th row, when Oxford American magazine awarded him its inaugural lifetime achievement award in 2010. The magazine, rallied by a protege of Portis’, the writer Jay Jennings, celebrated the 50th anniversary of “True Grit” with the author in April 2018.

“Mr. Portis doesn’t use email ... declines interview requests … and shuns photographs with the ardor of a fugitive in the witness protection program,” McGrath wrote in the New York Times.

Ephron, a New York colleague who later wrote the screenplays for “Silkwood” and “When Harry Met Sally,” described Portis, who never married, as charming but devoted to working without distraction. “Charlie thinks things nobody else thinks,” said Ephron, who died in 2012. “He was a newspaper reporter who didn’t have a phone. The Trib had to make him get one. So even back then the pattern was there.”

Roy Reed, an old Little Rock colleague and former New York Times correspondent who died in 2017, interviewed Portis for an oral history of the Arkansas Gazette, describing the Herald Tribune posting in London as the best journalism job anywhere. He also noted Tom Wolfe’s marveling at Portis’ transition to fiction from newspaper work, which he had learned at the University of Arkansas' student newspaper and then the Northwest Arkansas Times, the Commercial Appeal in Memphis and the Arkansas Gazette.

“Back then all of us hot-shot feature writers wanted to be novelists,” said Wolfe, the author of “The Right Stuff” and “Bonfire of the Vanities.” “Now and then somebody would cut loose and do it. Charles Portis, for example, left this great job as the London bureau chief of the Herald Tribune and went home to the hills of Arkansas, for God’s sake, and lived in a fishing shack and wrote this great novel.”

Charles McColl Portis, known as Charlie or Buddy to his family and close friends, was born in El Dorado on Dec. 28, 1933, to Samuel and Alice Portis. “An ominous Dr. Slaughter delivered me,” he recalled in a remark that could have come from one of his characters.

He went to high school in Hamburg, and both of his younger brothers, Richard and Jonathan, followed him into journalism at the Gazette. “Richard came to his senses and went to medical school,” Portis said in a 2001 interview for the oral history. Jonathan was eventually state editor. An older sister, Aliece Portis Sawyer, died in 1958 at age 28; one of her sons, Paul Sawyer, is a longtime editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Along with his brothers and nephew Paul Sawyer, Portis is survived by nephews Sam Sawyer, Charles J. Portis, Cameron Aviles and Palmer Aviles; nieces Susan Portis-Ferguson, Jane Portis and Toni Portis King; and grandnieces and grandnephews Laura Davis, Walter Ferguson, Cora Ferguson, Allison King and Timothy King.

“He shunned the spotlight, social events and self-promotion while quietly mentoring other writers who somehow managed to find him,” Portis’ family said in a prepared obituary. “He loved dogs and cats, having no preference for one species over the other. He was a really funny guy with an uncanny gift for observing human behavior.”

Portis said he became an avid reader in the Marines, where he attained the rank of sergeant and once served under Lewis Burwell “Chesty” Puller, the most decorated combat Marine in Corps history. After discharge from the service in 1955, he drove with a friend from Hamburg to Fayetteville to enroll in the University of Arkansas. “You had to choose a major, so I put down journalism,” he recalled. “I must have thought it would be fun and not very hard, something like barber college — not to offend barbers; they probably provide a more useful service.”

While still a student, he worked for a year at the Northwest Arkansas Times before moving on to the Commercial Appeal. In early 1959, he went to the Gazette, where he was a reporter and “Our Town” columnist, befriending colleagues like Roy Reed, former Atlantic Monthly editor Bill Whitworth, the New Yorker’s Pat Crow, Newsday’s Patrick J. Owens, Pulitzer Prize finalist Ray Moseley and others who would make a mark on national and international journalism.

“He was the Our Town columnist at the Gazette when I went there in 1960,” said Dumas, the Arkansas Times columnist and dean of Arkansas’ political reporters. He grew up a few years behind Portis in south Arkansas. “My spinster aunt, Ruby Armer, was very proud of having taught Charles Portis how to tell time and tie his shoes.” Dumas said. When he mentioned this to Portis, his old colleague was unimpressed. “What’s that to be proud of?” Portis replied, according to Dumas' account. “She was supposed to teach me to read and write!”

Portis’ Gazette stint was brief — just short of two years — and then he was off to New York and the Trib.

Years later, Portis would praise the Gazette and Herald Tribune newsrooms. “They were both good places to work. Yes, that’s it, good company, and a pleasant atmosphere. I’ve been in other newsrooms where you could feel the gloom and fear hanging about. People who hated their work and their bosses.”

As a rookie at the Herald Tribune, Portis had a habit of informing Assistant City Editor Bob Poteete, another transplanted Arkansan, from Perryville, every time he needed to make a call to another city. When Poteete asked why, Portis said, “Well, at the Gazette you had to get permission to make long-distance calls,” leaving Poteet laughing at Portis’ “bush-league ways.”

Portis worked with Whitworth and Crow again at the Herald Tribune before they drifted over to New Yorker magazine. Whitworth, a Hot Springs native who became Portis’ replacement in New York when he left for the London job, later spent a quarter-century as editor in chief of the Atlantic, and at least that long trying in vain to teach Portis the difference between “that” and “which,” the author recalled. Whitworth now lives in semiretirement in Little Rock, editing books.

Portis’ reporting on civil rights often brought him back to the South from New York, and Wolfe recalled that once, while interviewing Malcolm X, Portis addressed the black leader throughout as “Mr. X.” “Yes, I probably did,” Portis remembered. “But what can you do? To call him ‘Malcolm’ would have been a little familiar, wouldn’t it?”

Portis enjoyed the Herald Tribune’s sense of history, and noted that a fellow Arkansan, Henry Stanley, was writing for the old New York Herald when he “found Dr. Livingstone in Africa” in 1871.  “I had Karl Marx’s old job,” Portis told Reed in 2001. “He was the London correspondent for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune in the 1850s. Dick Wald was my New York boss, and I told him once that the Tribune might have saved us all a lot of grief if it had only paid Marx a little better.”

Portis said the paper always treated him well, “but I wanted to try my hand at fiction, so I gave notice and went home.” That was in November 1964. “He came back to the Ozarks, a cabin around Mountain Home I think, and wrote Norwood,” Dumas recalled. “Then ‘True Grit.’”

“Norwood” told the tale of a naive former Marine, Norwood Pratt, traveling from Ralph, Texas, to New York to collect a $70 debt. On the journey back, he encounters a menagerie of offbeat characters like Edmund Ratner, a former circus dwarf billed as “the world’s smallest perfect fat man”; Rita Lee, a girl he becomes engaged to on a cross-country bus ride; and Joann, a trained chicken wearing a mortarboard that he pities and steals from a sideshow. The ruse he uses in taking the chicken — telling a worker that he’s from the health department and needs to give the hen a shot — was a purely Portis touch. Pratt later argues with a bus passenger annoyed by the bird occupying a seat without a ticket.

“True Grit” appeared in 1968, first serialized in the Saturday Evening Post and then published by Simon & Schuster and quickly optioned to Hollywood. It tells the tale of Mattie, who hires a gruff 19th-century lawman to avenge her father’s murder by helping her chase the killer through the Indian Territory, now Oklahoma. Ross narrates the tale as an old spinster looking back on the great adventure of her life, employing a narrative voice so formal (contractions are rare) that McGrath described as “a little pious and platitudinous, given to scriptural quotation.”

The novelist Donna Tartt considers it Portis’ masterpiece, akin to Twain's “Huckleberry Finn.” But as McGrath pointed out in his 2010 appreciation of Portis’ career, other “true” Portis fans resent the book a little “for detracting attention from Mr. Portis’ lesser-known but arguably funnier books.” Blount suggested that the outsize success of “True Grit” shaped how Portis approached his next novel, “Dog of the South,” in which a Little Rock newspaper editor, Ray Midge, tracks his wife to Belize after she runs away with a copy desk colleague of Midge’s.

The book’s opening exemplifies Portis’ direct and unadorned prose, which also managed to be richly detailed and funny: “My wife Norma had run off with Guy Dupree and I was waiting around for the credit card billings to come in so I could see where they had gone. I was biding my time. This was October. They had taken my car and my Texaco card and my American Express card. Dupree had also taken from the bedroom closet my good raincoat and a shotgun and perhaps some other articles. It was just like him to pick the .410 — a boy’s first gun. I suppose he thought it wouldn’t kick much, that it would kill or at least rip up the flesh in a satisfying way without making a lot of noise or giving much of a jolt to his sloping monkey shoulder.”

Blount said that in writing “Dog of the South,” Portis “set himself the challenge of a funny book written by a boring narrator. That’s why other writers love him so much.”

Portis’ next novel, “Masters of Atlantis,'' describes the founding of Gnomonism, summed up by Bryan L. Moore in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas as “a Freemason-like society devoted to preserving the secret wisdom of the lost ancient city of Atlantis.” “Gringos” gives readers Jimmy Burns, an American living in Mexico on a series of odd jobs, encountering a series of zany characters and making wry observations on life.

In the years between novels and after “Gringos,” Portis wrote magazine articles, short stories and one stage play. Many of his pieces are collected in “Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany,” edited by Jennings and published by the Central Arkansas Library System.

Funeral will be at 10 a.m. Tuesday, Feb. 25, at Second Presbyterian Church in Little Rock. Graveside service with military honors will be at 2:30 p.m. Tuesday at Hamburg Cemetery in Hamburg. Services are by Ruebel Funeral Home, the family said.

Dumas said fans should know that to read Portis’ books is to experience something very close to spending time with the author. “He was an amused observer of the eccentricities of ordinary people, like each of us. He turned it into an art form.”