Ross Cranford likes to think his dad, Wayne Cranford, is “having a scotch and soda with Charles Portis somewhere.”
That “somewhere” would not be on this earthly plane. Portis, the beloved novelist and author of “True Grit,” died Monday, two days after Cranford, a pioneering Little Rock ad man who founded Cranford Johnson, eventually CJRW.
The deaths were a one-two blow to the Arkansas media world.
The men were Arkansas elder statesmen, born here at either end of 1933. Wayne Cranford arrived on New Year’s Day in Bald Knob, where he went on to become high school valedictorian (without studying much, he’d protest) and founder of the student newspaper.
Portis made his entrance on Dec. 28 that year in El Dorado, delivered by a doctor by the name of Slaughter. He went on to fight as a Marine in Korea, cover Europe for the New York Herald Tribune and then write a best-selling novel that became one of the top 25-grossing Western movies of all time.
“They met quite a few times, and you know Jon Portis [Charles’ younger brother and a former Arkansas Gazette editor] worked at Cranford Johnson for a while,” said Ross Cranford, who with brothers Jay and Chris Cranford followed their father into the ad business. They’re partners now in Cranford Co. on Main Street, which Wayne Cranford served as a consultant till his death.
Cranford helped revolutionize the way Arkansans saw local ads, while Portis charmed the world with five novels full of offbeat characters and wry humor. Portis, a former Arkansas Gazette reporter, sold millions of books; Cranford, a former Arkansas Democrat reporter and briefly editor of the Newport Daily Independent, swayed millions of consumers and voters with his ads.
Portis’ story of U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn of Fort Smith spawned two Academy Award-winning movies, including John Wayne’s only Oscar as Cogburn. He reprised the role in “Rooster Cogburn,” co-starring Katharine Hepburn.
The movies never “measured up to Charles’s” work, relatives said in a family obituary from Ruebel Funeral Home.
Cranford’s impact was more local, but powerful. He founded Cranford Johnson with artist Jim Johnson in 1960, bringing Madison Avenue-style creative approaches to Little Rock and providing the “C” in the name of one of Arkansas’ big, successful ad firms, CJRW. He also kick-started many careers in advertising. “He was always supportive of young people, young men and women who wanted to get into the business,” Johnson said, calling Cranford “more like a brother” than friend and business partner. “He was a capable leader, and I really think he changed the game of advertising in Arkansas. He was one of the smartest people I ever knew. But chiefly, he was always a really kind, optimistic man.”
Cranford was also “a brilliant writer,” according to CJRW Chairman Emeritus Shelby Woods.
“He taught me that every written word is important no matter what context it would be used,” said Woods, who is widely considered a nice guy in the rough-and-tumble ad business. He added that Cranford “may have been the most gracious man I’ve ever known.”
Obituaries for Portis noted he was a “writer’s writer,” praised by authors like Larry McMurtry, Roy Blount Jr., Calvin Trillin and Nora Ephron. The journalist Ron Rosenbaum described him as “perhaps the most original, indescribable sui generis talent overlooked by literary culture in America,” and America’s “least-known great writer.”
But to close friends and loved ones, “Buddy” Portis was “a generous brother, a doting uncle and a steadfast friend” who loved cats and dogs, “having no preference for one species over another,” according to the family obituary.
Portis loved tinkering with cars, an interest sparked by a brief apprenticeship as a mechanic at an Arkansas Chevrolet dealership, the family said. “He was a funny guy with an uncanny gift for observing human behavior and capturing it.”
Ephron, his friend who wrote the screenplays for “Silkwood” and “When Harry Met Sally,” put it this way: “Charlie thinks things no one else thinks,” she said not long before her death in 2012, noting his eccentricities even back in his New York days. “He was a newspaper reporter without a telephone,” she said. “The Trib made him get one.”