Pulitzer Prize-winning author Larry McMurtry dies at 84
DALLAS (AP) — Larry McMurtry, the prolific and popular author who took readers back to the old American West in his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Lonesome Dove” and returned them to modern-day landscapes in works such as his emotional tale of a mother-daughter relationship in “Terms of Endearment,” has died. He was 84.
McMurtry died Thursday night of heart failure, according to a family statement issued through a publicist on Friday. The statement did not say where he died but noted that he’ll be buried “in his cherished home state of Texas.”
McMurtry, who had in his later years split his time between his small Texas hometown of Archer City and Tucson, Arizona, wrote dozens of books, including novels, biographies and essay collections. He simultaneously worked as a bookseller and screenwriter, co-writing the Oscar-winning script for the movie “Brokeback Mountain.”
Several of McMurtry’s books became feature films, including the Oscar-winners “The Last Picture Show” and “Terms of Endearment.” His epic 1986 Pulitzer winner “Lonesome Dove,” about a cattle drive from Texas across the Great Plains during the 1870s, was made into a popular television miniseries.
“’Lonesome Dove’ was an effort to kind of demythologize the myth of the Old West,” McMurtry told The Associated Press in a 2014 interview. But, he added, “They’re going to twist it into something romantic no matter what you do.”
The “Lonesome Dove” television miniseries starred Robert Duvall, who has often cited the project as a personal favorite and likened his role as retired Texas Ranger Augustus McCrae to acting in “Hamlet.”
In a handwritten note from Duvall, texted to The Associated Press by his agent on Friday, the actor said McMurtry “was one of our most gifted of writers and one to be truly missed and revered.”
“Being in the TV series ‘Lonesome Dove’ was the highlight of my life and for this I owe him great amounts of gratitude. His works reached out and blessed so many!” Duvall wrote.
“The Last Picture Show,” his third novel, became a classic with its coming-of-age story set in a small Texas town. He and director Peter Bogdanovich were nominated for an Academy Award for their script for the movie, filmed in Archer City, located about 140 miles (225 kilometers) northwest of Dallas. The film adaptation of “Terms of Endearment,” released in 1983, was written and directed by James L. Brooks and received Oscars for best picture, director and screenplay, with awards for star Shirley MacLaine and supporting actor Jack Nicholson.
“Sitting here thinking of the greatness of Larry McMurtry,” Brooks tweeted Friday. “Among the best writers ever. I remember when he sent me on my way to adapt “Terms” — his refusal to let me hold him in awe. And the fact that he was personally working the cash register of his rare book store as he did so.”
McMurtry was born on June 3, 1936, into a family of ranchers. McMurtry graduated from what is now the University of North Texas in Denton in 1958 with a bachelor’s degree in English and from Rice University in Houston with a master’s degree in English in 1960. He was also a member of Stanford University’s Stegner writing fellowship.
He wrote his first novel, “Horseman, Pass by,” at the age of 25 in 1961. It was made into the movie “Hud” starring Paul Newman that came out two years later.
McMurtry opened his first used and rare bookstore in 1971 in Washington, D.C., and later opened other stores in Houston, Dallas and Tucson.
In the mid-1980s, lured by cheap real estate, he opened his Booked Up store in Archer City. Eventually, the store in Archer City was the only one remaining. He downsized the store — both in volume and storefronts — in an effort dubbed The Last Book Sale, but retained about 200,000 volumes.
He had about 28,000 books in his nearby home in Archer City. “I’m very attached to the books. I need them. I need to be among them,” he told The AP in 2014.
McMurtry’s writing collaboration with Diana Ossana began after she helped him get out of a slump following quadruple bypass heart surgery in 1991. They won the Academy Award for their screenplay for the 2005 movie “Brokeback Mountain,” based on an Annie Proulx short story about two cowboys who fall in love. His most recent novel, “The Last Kind Words Saloon,” came out in 2014.
He told the Associated Press in 1994 that his life throughout the 1980s had been peripatetic — traveling between his bookstores across the country and a home in Los Angeles. Then the surgery forced him to stop moving. “It just so happened that I stopped at Diana’s kitchen table,” he said.
The two, both divorced, had met at a Tucson catfish restaurant and struck up a friendship. After the surgery, McMurtry spent his time sleeping in Ossana’s guest room, writing “Streets of Laredo” on a typewriter in her kitchen, or staring out the window.
She helped edit “Streets of Laredo” and then began encouraging him to accept screenwriting offers. “I was getting lots of offers then from the movies. I was very popular, but I didn’t feel confident. I’d had real serious heart problems. I got a lot of offers and I think that she just got tired of me turning them down,” he said.
When the offer came in for a script on the Depression-era bank robber Pretty Boy Floyd, Ossana and McMurtry tackled it together and then wrote the novel “Pretty Boy Floyd.” After that they collaborated on dozens of screenplays.
From 1989 to 1991, McMurtry served as president of PEN America, a human rights organization of writers, literary and media professionals. The group’s current president, Ayad Akhtar, said that McMurtry was “through and through a vigorous defender of the freedom to write.”
McMurtry married Jo Ballard in 1959 and three years later, the couple had a son, singer-songwriter James McMurtry. In 1966, they divorced. In 2011, he got married for a second time: to Norma Faye Kesey, the widow of longtime friend Ken Kesey, author of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” They held their marriage ceremony in the Archer City bookstore.
The statement from McMurtry’s family said that he died surrounded by loved ones, including Ossana; his wife; his son; his grandson, Curtis; and his goddaughter, Sara Ossana. He also is survived by his sisters, Sue and Judy, and a brother, Charlie.
The late Don Graham, a professor of English and American literature at the University of Texas in Austin who died in 2019, called McMurtry “pre-eminently a storyteller” in a 2014 interview with the AP: “He’s a great creator of characters and dialogue. That’s one of the reasons he’s had so much success in Hollywood.”
AP National Writer Hillel Italie contributed to this report from New York City.