email from the Ozarks
(Vol. 1, No. 2)
Bradley David Williams
"Hi from Eureka Springs, Arkansas -- the funkiest
little town in America and perhaps the entire world!"
September 12, 2007
Blog Numero Uno got so much attention -- I've been swamped with positive feedback from people all over the country and lots of townspeople here in Eureka Springs, where it got picked up by the local website gaynewsbureau.com -- that I find myself already cranking out my second blog just two weeks later. Notice how comfortable I already am using that insufferable term "blog." If anybody out there knows how to get rich with a blog, let me know. I did send it to Arianna Huffington.
Today is the last day of my thirties! I turn the big 4-Oh! in a matter of hours now and am inviting the whole town of Eureka Springs to help me celebrate! I will be holding court at New Delhi (name another American town of 2,000 people with a fabulous Indian restaurant!) tomorrow (Thursday) night from six until nine, and then it will be on to the terrace atop the Crescent Hotel, the very grand limestone "castle in the wilderness" built in 1886, for a toast.
Television is verboten here at the writers' colony, which is quite a challenge for a CNN junky like me, so for occasional entertainment, I have been watching old episodes of "Absolutely Fabulous" on a British website I found ( tv-links.co.uk). I love the "Birthday" episode, written by the brilliant Jennifer Saunders, who also plays Edina. When the bookish daughter Saffie wakes her mother up on her 40th birthday, Edina says, "I couldn't sleep. I could feel the forty-ness coming upon me in the night, dahling. Have a look out the window. Are the buzzards circling, sweetie?"
But I am embracing the occasion and have already been celebrating. As a gift to myself, I hopped in the Honda and raced down to Texas, listening to Hillary Clinton on CD reading her very presidential "Living History" the whole way, for Friday's dedication of the Ann Richards Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin. It was so wonderful to see some of my favorite people in the world ¾ the characters I met working for Ann. As I wrote in my first blog, Ann died on my 39th birthday, so it will be the one-year anniversary of her death on my big day.
Naming the bridge for Ann was the perfect tribute. Ann often walked under and across that bridge on the hike-and-bike trail, she saw it out the window of her office during her post-governor years, and she was fascinated by the bat colony that resides underneath the bridge and emerges in a majestic swarm at dusk. (My maniacally opinionated Jewish intellectual neighbor in Houston said they should call it "The Old Bat Bridge," which Ann would have thought hilarious. Yes, Ann could be an old bat, but she usually had a sense of humor about it.)
But Ann became forever associated with the bridge during her campaign for governor in 1990. At some point, she started ending every fiery stump speech by telling the crowd that together we would win, and then on Inauguration Day, "I'm gonna meet you on the Congress Avenue Bridge, and we're gonna march up Congress Avenue, and we're gonna take back the Capitol for the PEOPLE OF TEXAS!!!!"
When we won, it suddenly became one of Cathy Bonner's Inaugural assignments to pull off this promised march, and on January 15, 1991, a pretty chilly morning, some ten thousand people showed up on the bridge to march with Ann. I got to help carry the huge banner at the head of the march, which read, "The People of Texas Are Back!" On one side of me was the late, great Pat Cole, on the other side a man with AIDS, scattering his lover's ashes along the march route. Very surreal.
The bridge dedication ceremony, rescheduled due to torrential rains in May, took place on a typical September Friday in Austin -- 95 degrees in the shade and humidity that had to be somewhere north of 90%. Literal bullets of sweat were shooting out from my shaved dome like something in a cartoon.
"Brad's sweating all over me," cried the person sitting directly behind me at the ceremony.
"I forgot my towel," I deadpanned, as I turned to see that it was Chula Reynolds, the relentlessly cool and hilarious investor, philanthropist, activist, member of the King Ranch dynasty, one of the major players of the modern feminist movement in Texas, and close personal friend of Lily Tomlin (need I say more?). On the historic night that Ann won the governor's race (November 6, 1990), Chula sent me over to Ann's house with a big white box of white chocolate chip/macadamia nut cookies wrapped in a big white bow. After hosting her traditional election day bridge game, Ann was all alone in the house and being very pragmatic about what might happen in a few hours.
"They say the exit polls look really good," I chirped.
"Oh, that's just what they say," she sighed. "But you've been so great, Brad…"
Just one of the countless special moments from those thrilling years with Ann…
Also on the bridge Friday were my old boss Bill Cryer, who was Ann's press secretary, speechwriter Suzanne Coleman, former State Representative Glen Maxey (the first openly gay legislator elected in Texas and one of very few in the country), Ann's longtime assistant Barbara Chapman, and old campaign war buddies like John Donisi, Mark Strama (the best-looking member of the Texas House, this guy may be president one of these days!), Joene Grissom, Lucy Cooper Oglesby, Roxanne Elder and Leticia Vasquez. Many had read my blog, had nice things to say about it, and were mostly just shocked to see that I had made the journey all the way from Eureka Springs.
"I just couldn't stay away," I told them. "Who knows when another Ann Richards reunion will come around?"
Three of Ann's four children and a number of grandchildren were on hand. Ann's oldest, Cecile, lives in New York now, where she is the national head of Planned Parenthood, and didn't make the trip. Cecile inherited a lot of her mother's presence and talent for public speaking, she's great on TV, and I hope very much that she decides to run for office one of these days, though she probably has more power where she is now.
Of course Cecile's daughter, Ann's "nearly perfect grandbaby" Lily Adams, who is now a student activist at Brandeis and has gotten to intern at ABC's "Nightline," is destined to be president. After her magnificent eulogy of her grandmother at the memorial last year, someone in the crowd chanted, "Hillary and Lily in '08!"
Clark Richards, the only child who didn't work full-time on the 1990 campaign, has become one of the family's most eloquent voices. When he spoke at Ann's private burial last year at the State Cemetery in Austin, he began his remarks with a priceless line: "When we were little, our mother told us that she was a witch and that she could cure warts." Always start with a laugh, Ann often advised.
Clark became emotional speaking on the bridge and proudly used the word "leftist" when describing his mother. Indeed it is important that we remember how passionate Ann was about her populist ideals and how radical it really was for this "leftist" woman to be elected Governor of Texas in 1990.
I got to talk to Ellen Richards, the youngest child and the one closest to me in age. Ellen is a social worker, married and with a young daughter, and has been raising money for the exciting new Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders, which just opened a few weeks ago in Austin. In her wonderful memoir about food ("Dishing"), Ann's friend Liz Smith, the legendary gossip columnist and Texas native, wrote about how Ellen made her wedding reception a big hit by serving pie instead of cake. Ellen had seen my blog and told me, endearingly, "You're crazy."
Dan Richards explained to me that Ann's monument for the State Cemetery is being designed and that a huge slab of granite is slowly making its way, on a "wagon" (?), slow as Christmas, from somewhere far off. He said it may be 2008 before the monument is erected.
And I got to see Cathy Bonner, who I call "Wonder Woman." Cathy was one of Ann's top aides, a major entrepreneur and public relations genius, she brought Hollywood films to Texas as head of the Department of Commerce, founded the national Women's Museum in Dallas, wrote a self-help book ("What I Want Next: 30 Minutes to Reveal Your Future"), runs "mini-triathlons" in her spare time, and now, in the aftermath of Ann's death from esophageal cancer, is vowing to "find a cure for cancer within our lifetime." She single-handedly got the legislation through the Texas House and Senate, and I was there with Cathy and Lance Armstrong when Rick Perry ("Governor Hairdo," as Molly Ivins called him) signed it this summer at M.D. Anderson in Houston. Now Texas voters will decide in November on a $3 billion allocation for cancer research in Texas. With all the cancer in my family, I was hoping to help Cathy with fundraising in Houston, but then, out of left field, the writers' colony presented itself.
I got back to Eureka Springs Sunday in time to see the finals of the U.S. Open on TV at our respectable Tex-Mex restaurant La Familia (another great spot, The Oasis, calls its cuisine "Ark-Mex"). Professional tennis is one of the many things I write about, and I had to email my old friend Martina Navratilova at Wimbledon this summer and tell her that for the first time since 1976, when I was eight years old, I would be neither at Wimbledon (I've been three times) nor glued to a TV for the whole two weeks of the tournament.
The Rainbow Gathering was a technology-free zone, and the locale so remote you couldn't even get a cell phone signal, so I was completely oblivious to what was going on for most of Wimbledon. I did see Roger Federer win the final, matching Borg's record five consecutive Wimbledon titles, from my room at the Matterhorn Towers Motel in Eureka Springs, where we had decamped to recuperate from the Rainbow Gathering.
With no TV at the writers' colony, I kept up with the Open as best I could on the Internet, but didn't get to watch much of it. Federer, who I covered a few years ago when he was in Houston for the year-end "Master's Cup," already has my vote as he greatest ever, and he's a really sweet guy. When he plays, I never pull for the underdog.
And I'm actually playing tennis myself, for the first time in many moons, here in the Ozarks. Amazingly, Eureka doesn't have one decent tennis court, which must make it the only "resort town" in the world without one. There's one lousy court at the Best Western on the highway and four lousy courts at nearby Holiday Island, a development originally built as a retirement community. With this terrain, part of the problem is lack of flat spaces.
My new tennis buddy Bryan and I have to drive ten miles to Berryville, where there are two excellent public courts. Carroll County has two county seats, Eureka Springs and Berryville, because back in the day there was no bridge linking the two towns! Carroll County was actually called Lovely County back then, and the impressive, somewhat edgy local weekly is called the Lovely County Citizen.
In my last blog, I forgot to mention the most fascinating factoid about the Eureka Springs compound devoted to all things Jesus, with the 67-foot "Christ of the Ozarks" statue, the Passion Play, and the new creationism museum. Turns out these attractions were the work of one of Eureka's most notorious figures, Gerald L.K. Smith. It seems ol' Ger, a white supremacist, had been the founder of the pro-Hitler, pro-Mussolini "Christian Nationalist Crusade."
Ger and his wife are buried near the foot (feet?) of 67-foot Jesus (I better make clear that it is 67 feet, as I have been mistakenly saying 62 feet!), which sadly altered the gorgeous Ozark landscape in the year of our lard, 1966. They had a big to-do "Happy Birthday, Jesus" celebration when he turned 40 last year. Sorry I missed that. Ol' Ger must be spinning in his grave over all these fags and dykes invading Eureka Springs, and especially that new "Atheist in the Ozarks." ;p
Another bad guy in Eureka's extremely colorful history was "Dr." Norman Baker, a flamboyant businessman from Muscatine, Iowa, who arrived in 1937 and purchased the landmark Crescent Hotel, converting it to Baker's Cancer Curing Hospital. Baker's stay in Eureka was cut short when he was found guilty in 1940 on seven counts of fraud. He was sentenced to four years in the pen in Leavenworth, Kansas and fined $4,000. He never returned to Eureka, dying in Miami in 1957 at 75, reportedly of cancer. He never had one day of medical training.
The above information, a warts-and-all glimpse at the ugly side of the town's history, is cheerily displayed on the tables at Dr. Baker's Lounge, the roof-top bar at the Crescent, where I will be having my birthday toast tomorrow night. Visible in the distance will be, you guessed it, 67-foot Jesus, all lit up. As one local says, when the light strikes the statue in a certain way, he resembles Willie Nelson in a dress.
Willie happens to be coming to town October 26, and tickets for the intimate old Auditorium are going for $116.50. I already know "Captain" Don McGuire, who is bringing Willie, but Don is a good promoter so there are NO free tickets for the media or even Don's closest friends. Don doesn't generally care for reporters, but he's considering talking to this one on the record. Originally from Mansfield, Texas, Don has known Willie since 1961, back when Willie had short hair and was years away from becoming a household name. Don can spin a yarn with the best of them, and I hope he lets me help him tell at least some of his wild Willie stories. As I told Don, "If you don't get your stories down, they die with you."
Of course I met Willie, along with people like Nelson Mandela and the Queen of England, through working for Ann. Ann and Willie (dare I call them the two all-time greatest icons of Texas?) were born just four months apart, north of Waco, Willie in Abbott and Ann just 20 minutes down the road in Lakeview, where there was no lake to view.
One of the best stories, I say, from Ann's incredible send-off a year ago was that on the evening news and in the papers the following morning, Ann's funeral and Willie's arrest the same day in Louisiana, for vast quantities of weed and hallucinogenic mushrooms, vied for the top story! Ironically, Willie had been asked to sing at the memorial but couldn't make it back from the road. Sobriety spokesperson though she was, Ann's sense of the absurd would've won out on this one, and she would've loved it!
At the bottom of my birthday invite, I wrote, "Fabulous gifts, cards, cash, checks and Willie Nelson tickets encouraged." I've tried this kind of humor before with predictably little success, but I won't be surprised at all if, in the alternate universe that is Eureka Springs, I manage to be there in the flesh to hear Willie sing "Crazy."
So Happy Birthday to me! ;p And Ann, we ALL wish you were here…