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The legendary Bill Emerson: ‘Exactly how I planned it’
Bill Emerson, a legendary writer and editor who died Tuesday at age 86, was a one-of-kind force field, a gargantuan figure of Southern theatricality. He amazed everybody who met him, as far back as when he opened Newsweek’s Atlanta bureau in 1953 and began covering a decade of what he called “riots, revolutions and everyday politics.”
Whatever he did, from keeping the Saturday Evening Post frisky long past its bedtime, to teaching journalism at the University of South Carolina, which he compared to “trying to start a reluctant lawn mower,” he radiated a heady sense of rule-breaking possibilities.
William Austin Emerson, Jr., wrote serious books, gave Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., their first serious journalistic interviews, and knew practically everybody worth knowing in New York before he circled back to his hometown Atlanta in 1986 to make a satisfying splash. But his so-called career was nothing compared to his gusty delivery of words – wild, polysyllabic, Shakespearean, backwoods, profane words uttered with a pitch and volume that carried like a jazz trombone.
His talk curved hilariously into Emersonian punch lines. “Old Governor Cherry was a wonderful man,” he would roar. “He hated people.” Introducing his reporter son Bo to a crowd, he’d say, “We’re proud of him, and hope he doesn’t disgrace us.” Or to an interviewer, he would allow: “Southerners are generous, fun-loving people. Homicidal, but basically decent folk.”
His physical presence, tall and cocked back from a Bacchanalian midsection, could be as inspiring as his words. He would greet you with a bear hug and a ready nickname – Ol’ Tiger! Peach! – and love you with the rambunctious play of his broad face and glittering eyes. He was the best of company with every sort of folk, except the pompous. The cleaning lady at the Post wept with him at the end. His best drinking buddies were the Pulitzer-winning newspaper editors of Atlanta and Little Rock, Ralph McGill and Harry Ashmore.
Throughout my life, I had the good luck to draw energy, and always delight, from his presence and wild words. Now that he’s gone, I wonder at the silence. “Did you feel that great sucking sensation of a vacuum?,” my mother asked when she called with the news. Emerson died at Canterbury Court in Atlanta in the midst of his children, who had been summoned from Connecticut, Chapel Hill, Decatur. His health had been declining for about a year, and he had been hospitalized two weeks ago.
There’s no explaining Emerson, but surely one of the more mysterious acts of his life was hiring my father in 1957 to help him cover the South for Newsweek. Emerson had a natural talent and background for journalism, having been a student editor at the Harvard Advocate, then a young editor at the former Collier’s magazine in New York. But my father was in the family building and supply business in Augusta, and not showing much talent for that. Emerson, who knew my father through post-war house parties and was impressed that he came from a “good family,” got him to file a few reports on President Eisenhower’s golf visits to Augusta.
And in ’57, as the South was heating up with the civil rights story, he hired Joe Cumming. My father wrote later about how Emerson for the next few years hammered away at the task of teaching his protégé reporting and writing. “It was a painful and exhilarating experience,” my father wrote. “He was tough and inspiring.”
Across the years, my encounters with Emerson have been remote from the world of journalism, which I also fell into as a career. Instead, I have basked in his fun, funny energy off in mellow vacation homes, by the spell of firelight, mountain twilight, candlelit suppers or cocktail hours on terraces. It seemed always to be in loud social gatherings, with dear kith and kin, lifted by the ethers of the mead hall. Off in Tamworth, N.H., or the Emerson place in Larchmont, N.Y., that looked down the street to a glittering Long Island Sound, or the rustic house called Wildcat Hill on a windy mountain ridge in Georgia.
In 2003, I sent one of my journalism students from Washington & Lee to interview Emerson in Atlanta. “The fluctuations in his strong, booming tone and fabulously familiar southern drawl made it impossible not to sit captivated,” she wrote. “At one point in the discussion he described Martin Luther King, Jr., as the coolest man he’d ever met: ‘cool, cool, cool,’ he said as if each word had at least three more ‘o’s in it, and goose bumps quickly appeared on my arms. There are people who can tell stories that bring across the emotion and power in their words, and then there is Bill Emerson.”
Even in his last days, as a frail man inching along on a walker, he could tell amazing stories that had remarkably hard facts scattered in them. “The truth can be very frightening,” he’d say about facts, then deliver one of his punch lines: “And I don’t want anyone to tell the truth about me under any circumstances.”
I was lucky, again, to be able to visit him in Canterbury Court, where he loved showing visitors the paintings, hanging quilt and photos that memorialized his rich life, especially his memories of his late wife Lucy. And one final time, I saw him in Wildcat Hill. As he was being pulled out of that cozy old familiar living room in a wheelchair, he looked around the room at a daughter, a son-in-law, a nephew, me, a granddaughter-in-law and a couple of great-granddaughters scattered on the floor, and he fairly shouted, “Seventy years ago, right here, this is exactly how I planned it all. Don’t mess it up.”