Monday, January 11, 2010

Larry McMurtry—At the Winedale?

Reprinted from the Dallas Observer, Nov. 15, 2001:

I've always believed that the humble Winedale Tavern, a shotgun railroad bar on Lower Greenville Avenue, attracts the most democratic mix of humanity of any club in Dallas. Both the homeless and celebrated sit stool by stool, on even keel, protected by embryonic walls—a room that somehow amplifies the warmer overtones of a person’s voice, as well as the musician’s guitar onstage. The meek are not afraid to make grand exits, bold gestures, marriage proposals. Derelicts proposition models, rich rednecks tip hundred dollar bills. Good and bad musicians are welcome. Some refuse to play there, considering the Winedale beneath them.

Fred Gleber, my Monday night drummer for over a year, left our Winedale gig directly to play with budding teenage country singer, LeAnn Rimes. I paid him $20 for his Monday night services during my second set. After “Blue,” which Fred drummed on, hit number one in America, I offered him his gig back at the Winedale with a five dollar raise. He fudged quite a few moments in consideration.

A Moscow contingent from the Russian Space Program actually landed at the Winedale one night. They sat in the back, quietly sipping Lone Stars. I sang “Georgia,” the Hoagy Carmichael standard, and dedicated it to our esteemed visitors. A cosmonaut stuffed a $20 bill in my tip jar and tearfully thanked me. He thought the song was about his homeland—Soviet Georgia.

Perhaps the most curious visitation to the Winedale occurred one summer evening in 1997. It was a Thursday night and a disheveled bon vivant strode to the stage while I set up my guitar.

“I’ve heard this rumor,” came the fellow. “Is it true that you are indeed the son?” He looked me in the eye with utmost sincerity.

“The son? Yes, what of it?”

“Your father is my hero,” he declared, sobering up. “I first read him at Northeastern. Then I went to Vietnam in 1966, where I read his books between raids. I went out and mowed down Viet Cong, high off reading his books and listening to Dylan. Killed a lot of ’em, too. How’s he doin’?”

I continued plugging in cords and arranging the PA. “Just fine,” I said. “Happy when he’s working on novels, not happy when doing screenplays.”

“I’m a writer, too,” said the gent. “Your father is my hero.”

“Mine too. Him and John Lennon.”

“Great choices!” yelled the man.

Neither of us yet mentioned anyone by name.

“You are talking about Bruce Jay?” I asked, to rectify any possibility of mistaken identity.


I nodded and the fellow bellowed, “He is the man!”

I told the ecstatic fellow I came to Texas in 1987, when by sheer coincidence, I happened to play some gigs with Kinky Friedman—who is not related. Folks in Texas kept asking if I was related to Kinky. No disrespect to the great Kinkster, but my lifetime identification as the son of Bruce Jay Friedman took precedence. That prompted me to drop the “Friedman” in favor of my middle name, a stage identity that fit neatly on marquees: “Josh Alan.”

Keenly sympathetic to my plight, the man hit his fist on the bar, demanding a bottle of champagne, top of the Winedale line, which is an $18 bottle of Corbal. He insisted I drink up on the spot—otherwise he’d polish off the whole bottle himself—which he nearly did anyway.

“You know, I’m a writer, too,” he stated again, slightly troubled. He continued to babble like white noise as I finished setting up the small stage.

“Let me introduce myself before you play,” he said with finality, extending his hand. “Larry McMurtry.”

I’d somehow pictured McMurtry as a quiet, professorial, bookish man. Taken aback, I asked him about his own son, folksinger James McMurtry.

“Fuck that!” he screamed. “You’re the son of Bruce Jay Friedman!” He’d picked up some ratty dame at the bar who instantly swooned over Texas’ leading literary light, and tongue kissed her. Then they sat down before the stage.

“Play McMurtry yer best shit first,” instructed a crusty old regular in the back, whom McMurtry had been sitting with. I began my Monday night set. McMurtry was up and groovin’, executing some weird kangaroo-hop around the bar.

“Hey, you,” yelled the bartender, keeping track of strikes McMurtry had been racking up. “Settle down!” Larry “Lonesome Dove” McMurtry was coming within one strike of getting kicked out of the Winedale, whose bartenders distinguish not between the homeless and the famous.

“The girl he’s with ain’t even good-lookin’,” cracked one boozer at the bar. “McMurtry could lay any movie starlet he wants.”
Oblivious to my songs as he danced a mad jig with his date, McMurtry hopped out of the Winedale to a limousine waiting at the curb. He announced he’d be bar hopping along the Avenue—but don't go away, he’d be back to the Winedale.

Indeed, several more times that evening, we were witness to Larry McMurtry on a bender.

I faxed my father the next day. “Had some adventures at the Winedale last night I thought you should know about.” I related the events above.

My father dashed back the following fax:

Dear Josh,

Saturday afternoon. Most beautiful day of the year. The whole world at the beach. Empty office building behind the Buick dealer, empty except for Rm 215. BJF sitting there because he feels he should be there, starts fleshing out a scene in Lawrence of America, play that may never be produced. It occurs to me that next time a kid asks me about being a writer, I’ll tell him the above which is representative. (This is not a sad story. Or maybe it is...)

In any case, then your McMurtry fax arrives—and that's what it's like to be a writer, too.

So thank you. I’d like to say I’ve arrived at the point where I don't need a boost, but it hasn’t happened yet. Mario [Puzo] has been after me to read, watch Lonesome Dove for years. So now I’ll do that.

Upon hearing of McMurtry's bender at the Winedale, Richard West, a founder of Texas Monthly, wrote a note assuring me McMurtry was not a man whose demeanor it was to hop around like a drunken kangaroo in bars. He was, in fact, a quiet, professorial, bookish man.

Larry has always been very conservative in his daily habits. Never drinks, workaholic... The idea of him drunk in the Winedale is laughable. I don’t think Larry’s ever been drunk in his life. Lots of famous girlfriends, so I've heard—Cybill Shepherd, Debra Winger, Diane Keaton, the American Indian novelist, Leslie Marmon Silko...the man understands women and writes well about them.

McMurtry’s bizarre appearance prompted other bookish events at the Winedale. Gary Acord, a regular at the Winedale pool table, appeared one evening with a box of his books, handing them out to everyone in sight. Nobody knew he was a writer. He was a former boxer whose pro career stood at 19-3. Rarely seen without a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other, Acord had an ever-protruding pot belly. But like many old boxers, he swore he was in top shape, as sharp in the ring now as in his prime, 20 years ago.

The book he had written was called Heaven on Earth: A Bold Affirmation of Humanist Faith, published in 1977 under the “Wotta World Books” imprint. No one had heard Acord preach Humanist Faith before. Bartender Steve Vail viewed Acord cockeyed the whole night, suspicious he’d plagiarized the thing.

The next weekend, I took notice of Helen Bryant’s column in the Dallas Morning News. Headlined “Sam, I am?” it broke the story of a Larry McMurtry impostor who’d been working his way across Greenville Avenue, on down to Laredo:

He buys people drinks. He runs around in a limo. When people bring him Larry McMurtry’s books, he signs them. He’s broken at least one heart under Larry’s name. And he’s fooled some savvy bar owners, who’ve called us to gleefully report the presence of the famous author.... A young Dallas woman he dated was crushed to learn, from a literature-loving friend, that her sweetie was not the Larry McMurtry—though she did wonder why he asked her to call him “Sam.” barfly asked the alleged McMurtry, ’Why'd you kill off Gus?’ The man looked confused. Not only did he not write Lonesome Dove; apparently he hasn’t even read it.

I dashed off the following fax:

Dear Dad,

New twist in the McMurtry story. Hope you didn’t run out and read/rent the Lonesome Dove trilogy.

Saw this in the paper tonight [newspaper column encl.]. Most likely, I was approached by the impostor. But rest assured you are definitely the impostor’s favorite writer. Sorry.

My father's response:

Dear Josh,

Somehow I detect the fine hand of Mel Shestack [legendary master of the "gentle con"] behind this scam. Is it possible that he's moved his operation to Texas? In any case, I still plan to follow up on Lonesome Dove, although not this week.

According to sportswriter Mike Shropshire, impostors thrive in Dallas. On any given night, there are seven Tony Dorsetts working the shithead bars seducing women. Dallas is the perfect town for impostors. “Dallas aspires to be cosmopolitan, fawns over celebs,” Shropshire commented, when hearing of the McMurtry scam, “but it’s still too provincial to recognize the real McCoys.”

Years ago, some fellow went around Dallas impersonating chief Little Rascal, Spanky McFarland (born in Big D). Around the same time, some portly fellow actually went around Fort Worth as Joe Besser—though to what possible end remains unclear (Besser was Shemp’s 1950’s replacement in The Three Stooges, and previously played the effeminate “Stinky” on The Abbott & Costello Show). For decades, any number of elderly Black men have passed themselves off as Buckwheat, Stymie or Farina.

Compared to character actors, novelists are not common fodder of impersonators. So I sent an inquiry to Larry McMurtry himself, in Archer City, Texas. McMurtry wrote back:

The man’s name is Sam Botts. He’s been doing it here and in Mexico for 10 years. I think he’s in Austin now. There’s no legal recourse."

Why not pass on legal recourse and have his legs broken, I wondered. But I always remained curious about what made this fellow tick. So recently, I tracked down Sam Botts—if indeed that was his name—to Fort Worth. His public record was not impressive, just some old marijuana bust and a divorce. An elderly woman’s voice—presumably his mother—answered the phone. “What do you want with Sam? You didn’t meet him in a bar, did ya?” she asked worriedly.

“Yes, we talked about. . . Larry McMurtry,” I said, in which she interrupted, exasperated. “Yeah, yeah. Sam can’t come to the phone.” He was in his room being “punished.”

The next time I called she said he was out. Asked when he might return, she said, “Maybe a few minutes—or could be two or three weeks.”

I called a week later and Sam the man answered himself. Finally, here he was on the phone, the very man who didn’t write Lonesome Dove. I invited him to a party for Now Dig This: The Unspeakable Writings of Terry Southern, to perhaps read a chapter. I reminded him of his night of revelry at the Winedale. He didn’t remember. He said he’d never heard of Larry McMurtry, Bruce Jay Friedman, Terry Southern—or even Josh Alan or the Winedale for that matter. I should stop bothering him. End of conversation.

And so, when the moon is full and Sam takes his act back on the road, the Winedale awaits his return. The Winedale is a most democratic institution. Small though it may be, there's room for the homeless, the celebrated, for bums and models—and even impostors. Sam, come back.

© 2001, 2010 Josh Alan Friedman


  1. A fave story i never tire of reading.

  2. I'm haunted by the two Sam Botts. Or were they one? I met Art Carney the same way once. He was living in a fourth floor walkup in East Haven, CT, and he had scrapbooks of his entire life, his acting career, and his prison time. He was a little like the Art Carney in Harry and Tonto but about 15 years earlier. Did the famous Art Carney do time? Don't know, but this one had. He had the scrapbooks to prove it.

  3. There was only one Sam Botts here in Dallas/Fort Worth. A Jekyll & Hyde schizo, probably. As for Art Carney, there could only be one, and it couldn't have been the guy you mention above.

  4. Apologies to Mr. Gary Acord, a fine gentleman, who did indeed write the illuminating book, Heaven on Earth: A Bold Affirmation of Humanist Faith.

  5. I spent an evening with Sam Botts/Larry McMurtry once, back in Gainesville, Florida. This is maybe 1991 or so? I was drinking with a friend at Snuffy's, and we met Larry McMurtry at the bar. He said he'd been speaking at UF. He was very high energy. He reminded me of Hunter Thompson. At the time I'd never read or seen any of McMurtry's stuff, so an eccentric guy buying us all drinks didn't seem particularly incongruous. We drank with him for hours, and then he took my girlfriend and I out to dinner at Cedar River, where I remember Sam and I drunkenly battling over the last piece of fried gator. He said McMurtry was his pen name. Sam Botts is what was on his credit cards.

    I'd been trying to figure that night out ever since. When you posted this last year, I finally got answers. Thanks!

    I have to say, he was an incredibly nice guy. We had a blast. It would be fun to meet the real Larry McMurtry. I'm a huge fan of Lonesome Dove. But I'd rather go carousing with Sam again, if I had to choose. I laughed at your line about the kangaroo hopping. That's definitely the "Larry McMurtry" I met.