“Horton Foote: America’s Storyteller”
By Wilborn Hampton
Free Press, 293 pages. $28
By Gina Webb
The lives of playwrights usually yield some pretty juicy biographical material. There’s Eugene O’Neill, married three times, who disinherited his daughter and had one son commit suicide while the other became a drug addict. Or Tennessee Williams, whose sister was schizophrenic and whose father called him “Miss Nancy,” possibly the cause of his decades-long addiction to prescription drugs and alcohol. Or Arthur Miller, who, in 1956, married Marilyn Monroe — a biography in itself.
And then there’s Horton Foote, playwright and screenwriter, who grew up in sleepy little Wharton, Texas, stayed happily married to the same woman all his life, had three children who adored him, and died this past March at age 92 without a single scandal to his name.
Fortunately, even though Foote had no skeletons in his own closet, he had something even better — hundreds of relatives back in Wharton who had screwed up big time, and the ability to remember every story he’d ever heard about them.
Foote’s enduring passion for the front-porch gossip of his hometown and his metamorphosis from aspiring actor to internationally acclaimed playwright is the subject of “Horton Foote: America’s Storyteller,” a new biography by Foote’s longtime friend and fellow Texan, theater critic Wilborn Hampton.
Hampton begins by reconstructing the insular world of Foote’s childhood, when families gathered after the evening meal to discuss the day’s affairs and tell family stories old and new. Foote’s family was no exception and, with “more branches than the giant pecan trees that grew everywhere in Wharton,” it offered a bottomless well of material to a curious little boy who would rather listen than go outside and play.
“There was a cousin, Mabel Horton, a celebrated beauty whose husband shot and killed himself on their honeymoon,” Hampton writes. “Then there was an aunt who was engaged to be married but called it off when she learned on her wedding day that her fiance had ‘outside children.’ … There was yet another cousin who had killed his father-in-law, and yet another who walked out into a lake in Florida, even though he couldn’t swim, and drowned.” And more. Lots more.
For the rest of Foote’s life, he would mine these memories for characters, plots and settings for plays such as “The Trip to Bountiful,” and his epic series, the “Orphans’ Home Cycle,” exploring “the inevitability of change and loss and the struggle to maintain one’s dignity in the face of it.” His obedience to that vision won him a Pulitzer Prize for his play “Young Man From Atlanta,” Oscars for the screenplays for “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Tender Mercies,” an Emmy and a Tony nomination, and too many medals and awards to list here. He would use the town of Wharton as “the setting, under a variety of names, for a canon of work that included more than 60 plays, films and television dramas.”
Hampton meticulously charts Foote’s odyssey from the day he left Wharton in 1917 — from acting classes in Pasadena to his decision to write plays, from the solid success he enjoyed during the “Golden Age” of television playhouses in the 1950s to his big breaks with “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Tender Mercies,” from the fast-paced world of film and TV studios to the more familiar world of playhouses and family — until he returned to his roots almost 60 years later.
Foote didn’t quite fit in with the commercial atmosphere in Hollywood, and whenever possible he traded it out for the theater. Though his talent for screenwriting was undeniable, producers, directors and studio brass demanded rewrites on his work or brought in other writers or simply dropped him, unable to appreciate his subtle, naturalistic scripts (until they won an Oscar). On many occasions, he fought to retain the authenticity of his settings and characters for movies in which, the studios often groaned, “nothing happens.”
Fans and aspiring playwrights alike will be inspired by the way Foote trusted his instincts about pacing and length, didn’t cave in to fashion, and never gave up on writing himself home again in works of “quiet and unobtrusive excellence.”
“America’s Storyteller” reminds us what the world would have lost had Foote not always been drawn back to the “drama of the commonplace.” One wonders, for instance, what would have happened if he had failed to pay attention that summer morning in 1961, when his wife hesitantly knocked on his study door, clutching a copy of a new book by an author named Harper Lee, saying “Horton, I think you better read this.”