Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Gay Place

When the Texas legislature is in biennial session, I always think of Billy Lee Brammer and The Gay Place, the Texas political cult classic novel.

The title is from a F. Scott Fitzgerald poem, Thousand and first Ship, published as part of the appropriately titled (for both Fitzgerald and Brammer) The Crack-Up:
In the fall of sixteen
In the cool fo the afternoon
I saw Helena
Under a white moon-
I heard Helena
In a haunted doze
Say: 'I know a gay place
Nobody knows.'
The Gay Place is three interlocking novellas of characters wrestling with inner demons and the machinations of political infighting surrounding them. The book's personality comes form the cast of well meaning liberals who by different measure lose themselves in a slough of booze, drugs and licentiousness in a 1950's era Austin. 

The most fascinating thing about The Gay Place was reading later about Brammer himself. A gifted speechwriter, the demands of working for Lyndon Baines Johnson seemed to ultimately doom him to a cycle of alcohol, depression and amphetamine. He never produced another novel, and barely anything publishable after The Gay Place

He died of a drug overdose in 1978 in Austin. 

There are so many good things about The Gay Place, so many complicated, interesting and recognizable characters. Brammer worked at the Texas Observer in the mid-1950's as an editor. A story written by Michael May for The Observer in 2010 tells the story of Brammer covering a 1950's political event: 
One Brammer story, 'Hit ’Em Where They Live,' [tells the story of] Barefoot Sanders, a young, liberal legislator giving a speech when someone in the audience calls him a commie. Enraged, Sanders challenges the heckler to a fistfight, then and there.
In the great tradition of journalists turned novelist (Charles Portis [True Grit]; Tom Wolfe [Bonfire of the Vanities]), Brammer repackaged and retold this story, utilizing stunning metaphor, in the second of the three novellas ("Room Enough to Caper") in The Gay Place. Again from Michael May's Observer article
 In The Gay Place, the fictional Sen. Neil Christiansen energizes his lackluster campaign by grabbing his red-baiting accuser by the collar and marching him out of an event, 'feeling like a dim, flickering comedian’s image stumbling around in slow motion.'
My oldest son asked me recently the question of who was the most famous person I ever met. I thought a bit and replied to his non-plussed look, "Barefoot Sanders". It was then, of course, necessary to explain who Barefoot Sanders was. This is never a good sign in the "most famous person you met" inquiry.

Undaunted, I marched onward.

I told my son of the Barefoot Sanders of Brammer's real, and, sort of, fictional story. My son heard of Sander's later unsuccessful stint as Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate from Texas, and his loss of that election to a Republican named John Tower. I told him it was an important election that pre-cursed not only the Republican take-over of Texas politics, but the use of the successful, and the completely legitimate tactic of linking a political opponent to another unpopular candidate, in Sanders case to George McGovern, then running for President.

Barefoot Sanders was later nominated and confirmed as a Federal District Court Judge. He swore me in to the Bar of the United States District Court, Northern District of Texas in Dallas at his chambers in 1989. I asked specifically for Judge Sanders to swear me in because of his background. To my everlasting appreciation, he obliged. When he took me back into his chambers, I saw a massive office, with walls covered by photographs of every significant political figure and event in the 50 years before. I was transfixed. After administering the oath, he patiently answered a bevy of questions from a wet behind the ears lawyer about those events.

My son's reaction after finishing with my back story on the most famous person I ever met?


Oh well.

Judge Harold "Barefoot" Sanders died in 2008. My appreciation for his role in Texas politics and contribution to the best book written on my state's political order will remain alive in me. Now, hopefully, in some measure, it will also live on in my son.

Rest in peace Billy Lee Brammer. I hope you have found the gay place in death that eluded you so in life.

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