With the relsease of two new movies based on his work, Wily Jim Harrison is finally being flushed out by fame.
By ANTHONY BRANDT
Photographs by MARY ELLEN MARK
JIM HARRISON SPENDS his winters in the little town of Patagonia in a plain but comfortable casita on Sonoita Creek, the only stream in southern Arizona that never dries up. Last winter a Mexican blue mockingbird, rarely seen in the U.S., wandered north and settled in a patch of bamboolike growth in Harrison's backyard. Word spread on the life-list hot line, and birders descended in force.
Harrison, a very private person, was desperate to get rid of them. He tried a sign: THE FUCKING MOCKINGBIRD IS DEAD. But the birders stayed put. Harrison got out his. 357 Magnum and fired it into the air. That didn't work, either. Finally he put a tape of Mexican ranchero music on his car stereo and cranked up the volume.
That worked. The crowd began to disperse. One birder approached Harrison and asked him what it would take to get permission to come on his property to see the bird. Harrison considered this. "I told him it would take a million dollars," he says, still half-affronted at the insult to his privacy. " In cash.
"The guy looked at me as if I had just gone over the edge."
Well, yeah. Peering over it, at least. This is the man, after all, who some have regarded as the Dennis Hopper of American letters. Who is reputed to have lived in a whorehouse while researching his classic novella, Legends of the Fall. Who has gone on toots so extraordinary they have become underground legends themselves. Who blew his final gram of cocaine out a New York hotel window. This is a man who, for that matter, actually likes ranchero music. But if Harrison has ventured quite a long way down the road of excess in his life, it hasn't stopped him from becoming one of the most serious and productive writers in America.
In April, at age 56, he published his ninth book of fiction, Julip, a collection of three new short novels. He has also published seven volumes of poetry (more than many full-time poets produce in a lifetime); a collection of nonfiction; a raft of occasional journalism, including a cooking column in Esquire for three years; and in between all that written some 20 screenplays. He has not lacked for widespread critical acclaim. Or - ever since Legends of the Fall appeared in 1979 and two of its three novellas were sold to the movies - for Montrachet to go with his lobster. All he has lacked in fact is bestseller status, and the wider fame that goes with it. Harrison is a literary but not a household name.
Now that may be about to change. This year will see not only the publication of Julip but also the release of two large-budget movies based on Harrison's work. In late June, Columbia Pictures will release Wolf, starring Jack Nicholson and Michelle Pfeiffer, about a book editor who is transformed into a wolf. It is based on an idea by Harrison, and he wrote most of the screenplay. The studio thinks enough of it to schedule its opening in the heart of the summer-blockbuster season. The second film, the long-anticipated movie version of Legends of the Fall, stars Anthony Hopkins and Brad Pitt and will be released in October. Harrison has seen pieces of it - although he did not write the script - and to his own surprise liked it "enormously."
"I was overwhelmed by it," he says with some wonder, "and if I am, for Christ's sake.. . "So this may be it, Harrison's big year, his year of living famously.
If so, Harrison will have more than birdwatchers to fend off. And this is a man who is almost obsessively private. When the movie people asked him to do interviews with major newspapers to promote Wolf, he refused. "What shall we tell them?" the publicists asked. "Tell them," he replied, "I want them to be better people."
For his own reasons - I have known him casually and corresponded with him for a number of years - he has made an exception in my case. He picks me up at Patagonia's one hotel, the slightly seedy Stage Stop Inn, in his navy blue Toyota Land Cruiser. Even physically he is prepossessing. He has a great round head mounted on a body best described as burly; the overall effect is a bit like a full moon just cresting a hill. He sports a mustache to balance a lower lip that pushes out in a permanent pout. His left eye was blinded when he was seven years old by an "unkind" little girl with a broken bottle; they were playing doctor at the time. The eye wanders, but most often it looks down and to the left.
The eye is disconcerting until you get used to it. Not surprisingly, it made Harrison a terribly self-conscious child, but there's little sign of that now. He's warm and friendly. There is little evidence of the wildness he is known for, either. He laughs a lot. He's thoughtful. He listens with full attention. Except that most of the time he's driving.
Driving is what you do when you want a long conversation with Jim Harrison. He is compulsive about driving. When he's blocked or when he's depressed, he gets in the Land Cruiser and drives, sometimes for thousands of miles around the country. On this day, he drives me first through the Nature Conservancy preserve adjacent to where he lives and then down a back road to his house.
This is Apache country, high, dry, open, rugged. An old settlement about 100 yards from Harrison's house is where the Apache wars started. That is fitting, for Harrison has studied Native American cultures most of his life. The house, a single-story brick-and-tile structure that he rents with his wife of 33 years, Linda, is at the edge of a large ranch belonging to a friend from northern Michigan. After a brief stop, we drive on another mile or so to his studio, a small room with an unused bed and a round table in a ramshackle house up by the barns. The tiny room is spartan, unlike the studio at his farm in Lake Leelanau, Michigan, which is full of what can only be called totem objects: a coyote skull painted in traditional Native designs by a Sioux friend; a dried grizzly-bear turd given to him by another friend; a blue heron's wing; a crow's wing; odd stones picked up from here and there; a wild turkey's foot; a bone from a sea lion.
Harrison on his winter grounds in Arizona: Only someone profoundly wild could have dreamed up Wolf.
And then we're back in his car, heading for the mountains. Harrison wants to take me to the San Rafael Valley, and there is only one way to go, on a gravel road over a jagged range called the Patagonias that rises perhaps 2,000 feet above the valley floor. We start talking about Wolf, and it emerges that there is a wildness in Jim Harrison all right, running very deep, and that his partying, his history of alcohol and drug use, his long wilderness walks and drives, the animal totems in his Michigan studio, have only been the merest expressions of it. For no one who was not profoundly wild could have dreamed up Wolf.
Harrison: “I grew up hunting and fishing, and this is the landscape I respond to.”
"Literally. I was having a bad time mentally," he explains as we drive into the mountains and the country gets even emptier and more beautiful. "And about 2 a.m., I thought somebody was coming into the yard in Grand Marais [also in Michigan, where Harrison has a cabin], which is isolated. I saw car lights - it was really just lightning, it was in summer - and I woke instantly and threw myself out of my bed. I was obviously in the middle of a dream, because I shot up in the air so high that I caught my head on a deer-antler chandelier. If you see it, you know that this is totally impossible, it can't be done; and I ran to the door of the cabin, and I tore off both doors, and I ran out into the yard screaming and howling. I stopped, and I don't know which part is dream, which is real, though I have the scar on my head from the chandelier, but my face was covered with hair, my arms, everything. It scared the living shit out of me."
He laughs a bit. He has told this story before, though seldom in quite as much detail, and it clearly still has power for him. This dream was the seed of Wolf, although the story in the movie is a little different. The character played by Jack Nicholson in the film hits a wolf with his car on a remote country road, and when he gets out and follows the trail of blood, he finds the wolf still alive, and it bites him on the wrist and runs off, it is the bite that transforms him over a period of a month into a wolf.
Wolves are important to Harrison. He refers to them frequently, and they recur in his work. Later in our drive, he will be at pains to show me the spot where he had once seen a Mexican wolf cross the road. He has written about waiting 20 years to see a wolf in the wild. His first novel, published in 1971, was entitled Wolf, although it is unrelated to his screenplay and was written long before his dreams of transmogrification. In the novel, his narrator fails to see the wolf he knows is in the area, and he experiences this as a loss, as a gift not given because he isn't ready for it.
Harrison says now he wishes he had written the film's story as a novella first rather than as a screenplay. That way, he says, he wouldn't have lost control of it. Nicholson, a close and longtime friend of Harrison's, took to the script after only one reading. But Harrison would eventually write five drafts before resigning from the project. "Mike Nichols and I - we
became friends, you know, but we couldn't see eye-to-eye on the script," Harrison says in a tone that is less resentful than rueful. The producer insists that it's still 70 percent mine, but I'll believe it when I see it."
It is the source of the movie in his remarkable dreams, however, rather than his frustrations with Hollywood that is so revealing about Harrison. Although he is a cultivated and even cerebral man who laces his conversation with quotes from Rilke and loves Bach even more than ranchero music, he is also deeper into the woods than Thoreau ever was. For all his sophistication, Harrison is probably closer, inside, to true wildness and more at home in it than any American writer since Melville took up with cannibals.
HARRISON WAS BORN, in 1937, to a northern Michigan farm family. His father was a county agricultural agent. "I grew up hunting and fishing, and this," he says, waving at the pine and black-oak forest surrounding us at the top of the Patagonia range, "is the kind of landscape I respond to."
That response to wilderness grew as much out of emotional need as out of geographical familiarity. The physical and mental pain he suffered because of the accident that blinded his left eye when he was seven sent him regularly into the woods around his family's
house, looking for solace and solitude. He says he remembers being constantly bruised on his left side from walking into trees and rocks that his blind left eye couldn't see. When he was 12, the family moved to urban East Lansing in search of better schools, a move that devastated him. A year or so later, he entered the first of a series of deep depressions, he has had seven such episodes during his life.
When he was 21, his father and his sister were killed in a car crash. He happened to look at photos of their bodies in a lawyer's office. They died, according to the official report, from macerated skulls." His father and sister still appear to him in his dreams, he says, in the form of mourning doves. He has described his memory knots" as "tiny claymores that blow up on contact."
It was his poetry as much as his long wilderness retreats, he says, that kept him sane during some of those years. He published two books of poetry in the late 1960s that earned him a fine critical reputation but not much of a living. Then in 1970, Harrison hurt his back while hunting in Michigan. The injury put him in traction for a month, and a reaction to penicillin laid him up even longer. It was his friend Tom McGuane who suggested that he try writing a novel. The result was Wo A False Memoir.
Two more novels followed in the next five years; none of them earned much money, and the third one in particular sold miserably. Years later Harrison told an interviewer for the Paris Review, “That was something I couldn't handle... I couldn't maintain my sanity. I had a series of crackups. I was at the point where I couldn't pay my taxes, which were a feeble amount."
Jack Nicholson saved his career, if not his life. They had met in 1975 on the set of The Missouri Breaks, for which McGuane had written the screenplay. Harrison subsequently sent Nicholson his novels as they came out, and Nicholson read them all. "Then he heard that I was broke and wanted to help out," says Harrison now, "so he spotted me for the time to write Legends of the Fall. He spotted me for a year of grace to write the book." To the tune of $50,000. And the book transformed Harrison into a major literary figure.
Legends follows three sons of a Montana family who cross into Canada to fight in the Great War in a Canadian unit. The center of the story is the volatile Tristan, who is as wild and reckless as a Cheyenne brave. When his younger brother, Samuel, is killed in battle in France, it is Tristan who finds him and cuts his heart out of his body to be preserved in paraffin for burial in Montana and then goes on a rampage of revenge. It is part of Harrison's achievement that he makes these Byronic gestures totally believable.
The novella is only 82 pages long, yet it has the feel of an epic, something truly grand, achieved with an astonishing economy of means. It is perhaps the purest example of what Peter Matthiessen has said of Harrison's work: "He's a writer who writes from plenty; he's sort of overflowing."
Legends was acclaimed as a modem classic. With the sale of film rights, Harrison had money for the first time in his life, and he went on to blow a fair amount of it up his nose. This was the period, in the mid-1970s, that solidified his reputation for partying, what Harrison describes as "my Leon Spinks behavior." He gave up cocaine in 1982 after returning from a singular binge in Brazil.
Since then, Harrison has settled down. As we descend on the other side of the Patagonias, the air is cool and the landscape is lovely, green in the pine trees but otherwise sheathed in shades of black and brown. Harrison stops here and there to point out sites that figure in "The Beige Dolorosa," one of the novellas in his new book. Psychological healing is often a theme in his work now. The lead character in that story is a college professor whose life falls apart and who winds up on a ranch near Patagonia, learning to ride and do physical work and take walks in the mountains and change his life.
We pause where the San Rafael Valley comes into view, a vast level spread of dry grass that extends into Mexico. "All the driving I like is like today," Harrison says, "where there's no particular destination." He speaks quite slowly, with a midwestern drawl to his words and a voice that, after years of sporadic cigarette smoking, sounds as if it is being sifted through ashes.
There is hardly a time anymore when he doesn't work. When finishing a novella exhausts him for fiction, he turns to poetry or a screenplay. "I'm not what they call a real screenwriter," Harrison says, not disagreeing with the point. "Stanley Jaffe once told me he didn't hire me because I was a good screenwriter. He hired me because I could make up people. Isn't that an odd thing to say?"
Hardly. It is in fact one of the strengths of his fiction as well. Harrison makes no apology for the almost operatic passion, or some would say the sentimentality, of many of his stories. "Writers err on the side of making people either smaller than life or larger," he says, as he points the car toward the Mexican border in the middle of the valley. "I'd rather err on the side of making them larger."