Lunch With Louis 'n' Me:
A Few Casuals by Way of Reminiscence
By Harlan Ellison
Louis L'Amour was the kind heart of America. The walking, talking, smiling, and story-telling best of what we like to think we really are. Long after the Olympian virtues about which Louis wrote had been traded in the flea markets of Wall Street, Madison Avenue , the Pentagon, and Hollywood, traded for cultural egomania, dissembling, me-firstism, and Ollie North-style phony patriotism, the rangy cowboy from Jamestown, N. Dakota, remained a speaker for courage, ethic, friendship, craft, and independence. You know what Louis had? He had wisdom. Not just seat-of-the-pants common sense, but genuine wisdom, inspired by kindness. Louis was always the model of our better self.
In truth, I'm not even a minor footnote in Louis's life. We were friends who only shared each other's company maybe half a dozen times in the nine years we knew each other personally . . . which happened to be the last nine years of Louis's life, damn it. And if truth be told, I feel extremely awkward writing a memoir about so great and good a man, when I possess such thin credentials, when there are lifelong acquaintances and companion authors, not to mention family and loved ones, whose knowledge of Louis is vast compared to my few puny anecdotes. Yet here I be, doing it; and I confess to pleasure at the odd stroke of chance that allows me to get in on the legend of Louis L'Amour, however bogusly, however minimally. (Because he was the sort of guy whose association made you a guy worth knowing. "Do you know Louis L'Amour?" Yeah, sure, Louis and I go and have lunch sometimes. "Jeez, you really know Louis L'Amour?" I'm not saying you could run for public office on the strength of having eaten with Louis a few times, but it sure wouldn't have lost you any votes.)
The value of casual memories . . .
And if there is any value whatever in these casual memories, let it be by way of example: that whoever met Louis and got to chat with him, whoever got a smile or a sweet word from him in passing, whoever was enriched by his fellowship, even for a few minutes, became - like me - someone who counted: someone a few ounces heftier in the qualities Louis cherished, a layer or two meatier in the stuff that makes life worth living. Let me be representative of all the unknown buyers of this book, of all of Louis's books, who come away from the encounters heftier and meatier and more decently able to face the toxic pool we call modern society.
I don't usually write in such lofty, flag-waving terms. Louis does that to me. Makes me nobler, so I can do no wrong, so I can appear to get away with high-flown verbiage.
I met Louis first in books, of course. Can't even remember which one it was, but I think it wsa the Gold Medal paperback original of HONDO in 1953. Maybe it was the Geraldine page - John Wayne movie, but I don't think so. If it was, it was just about the only good thing John Wayne ever did for me. I'm not too high on the Duke and his legacy of superpatriotic machismo, as you may gather, but if he was the one who "introduced" me to Louis, it does mitigate his crimes somewhat. (Damn it! Never did get around to asking Louis what he really thought of Wayne. Oh well, one day, when Louis and I meet up again . . .)
To meet the mythic Louis L'Amour!
Read everything I could get my hands on by Louis thereafter. And so, in October of 1979, when I was scheduled to be one of the featured authors at the San Jose, California Mercury News "Creative Encounter IV," logged in with Jessamyn West and Paul Erdman and my pal the late Tommy Thompson, I was drooling and anxious to meet, actually and really, one of the other participants, the mythic Louis L'Amour. Because, though Louis and I lived within a mile or so of each other here in Los Angeles - me at the top of Beverly Glen, him down the road below in Holmby Hills - we had never crossed paths. Come 1979, I was twitchy with ready.
I've rummaged through my memories for even a wrack that would remind me if Louis was the man with whom I had a terrific, minutiae-filled conversation about Sarah Winchester and the Winchester Mystery House, up there in San Jose, on the night of October 12. I think it was Louis, whom I didn't actually meet, formally, till the next day . . . but I can't be sure, because we were being led on a guided tour of that spectacular, wonderful manse (which, in more than small measure, has been the model for my own home) and I was so entranced by what I was seeing that the man behind me - who wasn't quite the guide - became almost the equivalent of one of these tape decks they give you in museums to inform your observations. But I think it was Louis, because he was certainly there later that evening at the dinner party the San Jose Mercury News threw for us "celebrities" at the Winchester. He was pointed out to me at another table, but we didn't meet that night.
I remember being impressed with the size of his belt buckle. It was as big as the Ponderosa, Actually, it was the size of Lithuania, but I'm trying desperately to maintain a L'Amouresque idiom, so let it be the Ponderosa. Being from Ohio doesn't help.
Next day, Saturday the thirteenth, we were all herded into the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, to hear Louis and Mr. Erdman and Ms. West and James Kavanaugh speak. Then, at noon - before the afternoon series of public addressed by me and Tommy and David Horowitz and Elizabeth Hailey - we were all shepherded across the street from the Center for the Performing Arts, to McCabe Hall for a two-hour autographing session.
Tommy and I knew each other pretty well, and I'd met David Horowitz once or twice, but I knew none of the others, and I was nervous about possibly being seated for two hours next to Jessamyn West, who was so damned legendary that I was afraid I'd make my usual blithering idiot of a self; or that I'd get put next to one of the others with whom I had no common ground; so I tried to steer myself alongside Tommy. It never occurred to me that I'd wind up seated next to Louis L'Amour.
That was simply so amazing a possibility that it never got into my forebrain. I was just panicked that Ms. West would have to put up with me.
Louis smiled and stuck out his mitt . . .
So naturally, I sat down where they assigned me space, and I started signing books. About five minutes later, at a stirring to my right, I looked up and found myself staring straight into that enormous belt buckle from the night before, as it lowered past my eyes, appended to the midsection of this guy dropping into the empty chair beside me: and it was Louis Goddamn L'Amour, who grinned at me with a grin that had he asked me to schlep water buckets yoked across my shoulders for him I would have gladly bent forward to let him attach the collar! (You had to see that old man's grin! It was bloody lethal. Could have been used to deflect buzz bombs in the Battle of Britain. It had an effect you couldn't fight; you started turning mushy-mallow somewhere just abaft of your spleen, and by the time it conked your brain you were already babbling in tongues. Louis could have been a great scam artist or foreign ambassador, with no greater equipment than that sap-you-silly smile.)
He stuck out his mitt and we shook, and he introduced himself, and I introduced myself, and he said he knew who I was, and I said I knew who he was, and he said he'd been wanting to meet me for a long time, and he said didn't we live near each other in L. A., and I said maybe, where did he live, and he told me, and I said, yeah we do live near each other, and I told him where I lived, and he said we had to get together some day for lunch, that he liked having lunch, and I said yeah that was a good idea, because lunch seemed pretty neat to me too, and we grinned at each other . . . and we went back to signing books for people, because the lines stretched from the edge of our table to the far side of the moon.
Oh, by the way: he didn't "extend his hand," he stuck out his mitt to shake hands. That's the way I thought of it at the time, it's the way I remember it now. L'Amourism strikes again.
And we worked away, signing and answering dopey questions, for maybe an hour, not exchanging more than a few words, till a moment came when Louis mumbled, "Sometimes I wish I'd only written one book that I hadda sign just one time," because as it was with me, each person in line had brought four or five of our titles. I can't remember how many books I'd had published at that point in 1979, but it was in excess of thirty (not to mention the hundreds of magazines in which my stories or essays had appeared, also set forth for signing); and I have no idea how many of his 108-plus books were in print at that time, but with more than two hundred and fifty million copies in print worldwide at the moment, it had to have been a refrigerator-car-sized load even then. We were both getting constipation of the writing hand.
And I smiled without looking up, because if you fell behind in signing it was like Charlie Chaplin in the assembly line in Modern Times, and I replied with a standard response I'd been using for years. I said, "It could be worse. We could be E. Haldeman-Julius."
And Louis L'Amour gave a whooooop! beside me, and he grabbed me by the shoulder and turned me to him, and his eyes were all snapping and sparkling, and he said something like, "You know the Little Blue Books!?!" And I managed to say, "Yeah, sure, I know the Little Blue Books . . . I grew up with 'em . . . got a few of them in my library at home . . . "
And Louis and I were friends.
And Louis and I were friends.
I'm not going to go into the history of E. Haldeman-Julius and his astounding library of Little Blue Books (some of which were actually yellow ocher and others of which were a hideous belly-lox pink) that emanated from Girard, Kansas, from 1919 till I lost track of them in the middle fifties, save to say that next to pulp magazines and comic books, Haldeman-Julius and his Little Blue Books had a greater hand in educating the self-educated in this country than did the Britannica, McGuffey's primer, the Modern Library and the Great Books series all rolled together in one heap of fustian. And to anyone who grew up on the road - as did Louis and I, decades apart - the Little Blue Books were pocket stuffing as necessary as nuts and packets of cheese. They were survival for the soul, food for the mind, moveable schoolrooms at ten cents a shot.
That they are now almost totally unknown is a tragedy, and Louis whooped when he found a guy more than twenty-five years his junior who knew the Little Blue Books intimately enough to make a joke about them - see, E. Haldeman-Julius had put out thousands, maybe millions, of books to sign, and - well, maybe you had to be there - and he said that now, for certain, we had to have lunch, because we had this unbreakable bond between us.
And that's how it was. Louis called me soon thereafter, and we went to the Hamburger Hamlet in Westwood, and we talked.
And then I called him and we went down to the Valley and had Texas hot links and baby backs at Dr. Hogly Wogly's Tyler Texas Pit Barbeque, and we talked.
And he called me and we went over into Hollywood and ransacked Book City and the Cherokee, and had lunch at Musso & Frank's Grill, and we talked.
And if I'd known that Louis was going to die, and that I'd be asked to write something about him, I'd have paid a lot more attention to what we were talking about, and what I learned from him, and how historic it all was.
But the simple truth of it is that I'm not even a footnote in Louis's life. He probably had lunch with a million doting fans and equals till he passed away in 1988, and not one of them was any smarter than I am, not one of them likely jotted down all the good and funny things he said. He was a funny guy, did I tell you that? He was; he was truly funny. But I did a much better Yiddish accent.
So irony of all ironies, that I should wind up being one of those who, like you reading this, shared moments with Louis L'Amour, who has come to be asked to write about Louis. What I have to say about him is there in the books, all hundred-plus of them, even the potboilers. Nothing new or startling here, nothing the Sun or the Enquirer would spend a paragraph recalling.
Just that Louis L'Amour was the best of us, with our eyes lifted and our hands ready for work, without meanness in our hearts or laziness in our bones. He was the pencil sketch used to make all those great James Montgomery Flagg posters of the Spirit of America, with sleeves rolled up and honesty burning in the eyes.
If I'd known then, sitting and laughing and talking about books, as we wolfed down barbecued beef sandwiches, that one day someone would ask me to write about one of the greatest men I've ever known, I honest to goodness swear I'd have paid much closer attention. But to tell you the truth, I was having too damned good a time.
Maybe you had to be there.