Nothing in the life of Walter Lee McClanahan became him like the leaving it.
I have heard the story a score of times from Willie Reynolds, known as Tiger, the last time in a rest home where he was preparing to die. Willie was the first caddy, in fact the first person, to be hired at the Sea Island golf course when it opened in 1929. He was also the first to be fired, but he always knew how to talk himself back in. When Mister Mac came into his life, he soon became his caddy and then his most faithful attendant, his chauffeur, his valet, his confidante, what Mister Mac called his partner. They sometimes played golf together, always starting on the second hole so as not to attract unfavorable comment from the clubhouse at the sight of an occasional player on the Negro Golf Circuit (and occasional sparring partner of Joe Louis) swinging a club when he should have been carrying a bag.
Mister Mac was an oil man, a wild-catter, and he was the only man in history to have two cottages on Sea Island (every dwelling on Sea Island is called a cottage though it may be a one-to-four scale model of the Petit Trianon in Versailles}, one where he could put up his mother and the other teetotaling relatives from Kentucky and Tennessee, the other where he could entertain his high-flying friends like Captain Eddie Rickenbacker and oilmen and bootleggers and United States senators.. He liked to boast that the deliveries to this latter cottage from the Sea Island Companys liquor store had more than once saved the Company from going bankrupt in the hard days of the Great Depression.
It was now 1949 and the Depression was well in the past, but Mister Mac had lately fallen, as had so often happened at regular intervals in his roller-coasting wild-catting career, on hard times, times of dry holes and tidal-wave debts These particular times were the worst any one could remember, But two days before Christmas a long-distance call came to Willie Reynolds at the club house, and it was Mister Mac in all the enthusiastic good form of flush times. Partner, he said, Ive got a gusher. And he was going to celebrate. He was going to fly in to Jacksonville the next day, and Willie was to meet him there after seeing to it that the proper cottage was well stocked with what was needed for a long party. But first he wanted to put in a good round of golf, and the usual foursome was to be activated for a starting time at ten in the morning...
The next day Mister Mac arrived at the airport in Jacksonville, and then there was the drive up route 17, full of potholes after they crossed the Georgia line because the southeast Georgia counties had a record of voting for the wrong candidate for governor. But the weather was glorious. Willie cooked a healthy snack for supper, they went to bed early and got up early, in great shape for the game All the way to the golf course, Mister Mac kept talking of big things. We have it made, partner, he said over and over again.
All the foursome got off to good starts, and they reached the ninth tee in great shape. Mr. Mac hit a beautiful drive, right down the center of the fairway. He walked to the ball, towered over it and the golf course while he calculated distances, then he said, Give me the eight-iron, Willie, and Ill put it right on the green, Then he fell over, dead.
It was a heart attack, said the doctor who was part of the foursome. He tried to revive him, but there was nothing to be done.
Tiger knew what he had to do. While they were bringing the body in, while everyone was exclaiming and mourning and running around, he slipped over to Mister Macs locker, which he had always said was the only place he trusted to keep his important papers in, and he scooped up those papers and took them off to the safety of his own locker.
After making sure that everything was being properly handled, he got in his car and drove over to Sea Island and down the drive to the cottage on Eighth Street, and as he expected Mrs. Mac was there, and hysterical. She was the second Mrs. Mac, a first cousin of the first, who had tragically died, her name was Estelle but the servants never spoke of her as anything else than She. She was now surrounded by sisters and other relatives and lawyers and hangers-on who had flown in from all over, and they were turning the place upside down trying to find the papers which would tell them just how many hundreds of thousands of dollars were owed to that Texas bank, how much it would take to pay off those mortgages, how much if anything would be left over for She to inherit. Tiger watched them flutter and chatter, and a deep growl formed in his throat, but no one was listening. This man has a daughter, he muttered to himself, and no one has even thought of letting her know that her daddy is dead.
He stalked out, he got in his car and drove back to the golf course and got to a phone. This was 1949, and in those days you didnt just poke a few buttons to be in touch with a broker in the Cayman Islands or a girl friend in Kamchatka. He had to go through a whole series of live operators all the way up the east coast to
put in a person-to-person call to Miss Marion McClanahan who was working as a researcher at Time Magazine in Rockefeller Center New York City, and the closer he got the more difficulties these operators had with his broad billowing accent which on account of its West African intonations is known as Gullah-Geechee. But he was a stubborn man, and he raised his voice and repeated his words and would not let them hang up on him, and finally he got through all the way up the coast and through the switchboard of Time Incorporated,, and when he did he said, in the accents of Heart of Darkness, Miz Marion, your daddy, he dead..
When he had told her all the details, and assured her she could count on him as long as he lived, he went back to his locker and carried off the papers to another hiding place which he never revealed to any one as long as he lived (he lived another fifty years) from which he could later retrieve them when the proper authorities came to settle the estate.:
The estate was finally settled, all the debts were paid, all the properties were sold, leaving behind for his heirs a small trickle of what Mister Mac called whispering interests in oil wells he had helped develop in a distant past and which had somehow slipped through the fingers of the banks and the lawyers, and which continue to arrive to this day, little checks at irregular intervals for odd sums like $32.78. ..
Walter Lee McClanahan was born on a farm in central Tennessee. His mother, left widowed with two little boys, became a school teacher, she taught in various places throughout the South, and one year she had a temporary job in a school in the little town of Adairville, once the murder capital of southwestern Kentucky but now a quiet pious tobacco-growing town of 999 inhabitants. One day when he was about fifteen years old, he saw a horse and buggy go trotting through the town square, and sitting upright and smiling in it was the most beautiful creature he had ever seen. Her name was Mary Lucy, she was the daughter of the leading town banker, and it was unlikely he would ever be invited into her home, but he determined on the spot that he would, after many adventures, come back to Adairville and marry her.
And so he did.
He left Adairville, he grew up to be a tall, good-looking, cheerfully energetic young man. He spent four college years at Sewanee, he played football, he studied geology, and discovered that his path of life went through the land, understanding the land, digging into it, not to grow crops like the ancestors who had been scratching a living out of it in the hills of Tennessee for almost two hundred years, but to find the hearts blood of the modern world, oil. After a couple of years working in the logging country of the northwest, he set up as an independent operator scouting out the unlikely places where his geologists nose told him there might well be treasure He came back once to Adairville to find that Mary Lucy had been married off to a bankers son in Nashville. He went off again to look for oil, and in the course of time he came back again to find she had gotten rid of that husband, and was waiting for him.
They had a daughter, Marion, they formed a devoted family, but it was not an easy life. They were on the move all the time, on endless roads marked out by the hope of oil. He was a wildcatter, and since he put everything he had into everything he did he was soon one of the best-known wildcatters of the 1920's and 30's, in the opinion of connoisseurs of the breed the greatest wildcatter ever.
Wildcatting demanded a special kind of man, a gregarious loner, an adventurer with a geological flair, reckless and shrewd, open-handed and open-hearted, hard-working and hard-drinking, with a fast tongue that could turn the heads of hard-shell-Baptist farmers, tightfisted bankers, itinerant roughnecks, old ladies crossing the street, everybody. His own confident energy bubbled over into them, it made them feel the world was not necessarily bad, that if they put their trust in him his drill might find its way into the gusher that would inaugurate their land of dreams..
If he was from the start a spectacularly successful wildcatter when it came to finding oil in unexpected places, he was also in those long first years a spectacularly unlucky one when it came to cashing in on his discoveries. He was known as Hard-Luck Mac because when they checker-boarded up a field he had discovered with the man or the bank who had put up the money for the drilling, and he chose the white squares, the gushers would almost always come up on the black squares, and he would be left with dry holes.. But every so often there was a lucky day and there was enough to keep going on, down the endless dusty back-country roads.
My window on this world comes almost entirely from the memories of his daughter, whom I married three years after his death, and who to the day of her death forty years later could call up at will luminous details of what must have seemed even at the time a very odd childhood. Her earliest memories were of endless rides in the back seat of an old Buick, the only vehicle sturdy enough to outlive tens of thousands of miles of Texas roads, The roads led almost always through flat featureless country, where her only distraction was adding up the jack-rabbits who came occasionally hopping by and at days comparing the score with yesterdays. Then there were the hours sitting in the car with mother while daddy was out in the fields trying to talk a suspicious old farmer into letting him tear up most of his land with drilling equipment in exchange for the pot of gold which he premised to find down below. There was a different school to attend every year, Midland one year Abilene the next, sometimes going over the same grade she had just finished (the Tigris and Euphrates all over again as she put it), and the only thing they taught successfully in those schools was how to draw the map of Texas. And then hundreds of miles more driving, more jack-rabbits, to another Midland or Abilene or Wherever on the map.
Then in 1930 Hard-Luck Mac made up his mind that it was time for a change. His geological research and his gut instinct assured him that there was oil to be found in the middle of Michigan. Everyone in the business told him he was crazy, but he went there, and soon he was established in the little city of Mount Pleasant, indefatigably talking his way through the doors of people who might be interested in becoming rich overnight. It was a popular notion in a Depression year when the prices of the produce of the surrounding farms were too low to pay for shipment, and there were piles of rotting vegetables dumped in the streets around the railroad station because they were not worth paying the freight..
For the little girl at least, it was a pleasant change, though these northern people seemed a little cold and standoffish. There was a teachers college nearby, and the students there came to teach in the city schools to get some practical experience, and they were all delighted to find a ten-year-old child with an infinite taste for piano-playing, painting, writing, anything foreign to Texas. A little green notebook survives Schoolbook Memories bring back, Pleasant Thoughts of Happy Hours Spent in Work and Play -- carrying for each day eager notes of new adventures, new discoveries, how to work in batik, how to make and paint pots (Mine was better than Idas),how to play difficult German piano pieces. About half way through the notebook, the text breaks off with a barely legible scrawl for Saturday March 25, 1931:
There was a matinee at the movie house that day, with a crime movie, The Doorway to Hell, starring Lew Ayres, and she was sitting upright in the dark, waiting for retribution to catch up with the bad guys, the gangsters. when suddenly there was a bustling in the aisle, and then it was her mother shouting to her to come at once, right away, right away.. She was appalled: this was the mother who was bringing her up to be a lady, and took dessert off the menu at dinner if she uttered so much as a single word aloud while a movie was in progress. Never mind, never mind, said mother, dragging her by main force up the aisle and out the door, this is the greatest day of our lives. No more moving all the time, no more driving all over Oklahoma. Your daddy has brought a well in, its a big one, its a huge one, We are rich.
And she continued, babbling on about a glorious future, youll br having a new dress every week, youll be going to the best school in Nashville, well go to Europe, while they drove through the decrepit streets to join what was turning into a procession of cars, the cars of people who had been talked into putting up their last savings for the drilling, pouring out of their houses and waving whisky bottles and whooping. They passed the clothing store, and the daughter of the driller came running out in a brand new purple satin gown and jumped into their car to join the procession.
When they reached the site of the strike, there was a patch of woods ahead of them, with a muddy road running through it, and behind the trees they could hear drunken shouts and a low rumble, and there was a smell of oil everywhere, and mother said, I dont want you going up that road, sweetie, its a sea of mud, you might trip and youd get all filthy, I am going to run up it and get your daddy and well drive back to town together and have our own little private celebration. And she ran off, with the drillers daughter behind her, waving and cheering, up the muddy road.
Sweetie was raised to be obedient, and she sat primly in the front seat of the Buick, but she was getting more and more impatient as she heard all those joyous shouts and could imagine them capering around the gushing derrick, and she didnt see why she shouldnt be allowed to have some fun too. So she wrestled with her coincidence and finally decided to be disobedient, and she opened the car door and was stepping out when the well blew up.
There was one great roll of thunder, and then the sky was a bright orange-red, and a fierce gust of wind came through, and then there was smoke everywhere in thick black waves, and then there were the trees with flames on their branches, and then there were the people running out of the trees with flames on their hair and their clothes, howling and screaming and stumbling and falling..
The drillers daughter came out, with her new dress all on fire. Walter Lee came out, and looked around wildly, and shouted, Where is Mary Lucy? and he ran back into the furnace of the woods to look for her. Mary Lucy came staggering out, all on fire, pleading, Dont let Marion see my like this, and she fell down and died. Her brother, Uncle Marion came out, and pleaded, Beat out the seat of my pants, sweetie. And she picked up a dead branch that was lying there and beat out the fire in the seat of his pants, and he fell down and died.
Now there were cries and shrieks and sirens and smoke all over, a chaos of cars and ambulances speeding back to Mount Pleasant. And there was little sleep in town that night, the streets were full of people wandering up and down, asking for the latest news, crying, praying, speculating on how many names of friends and neighbors would be in the morning paper, wondering what was going to happen to the town when the fire would be put out and the well put in operation, calculating how much the investors or their heirs would make out of it, how much would be left for that little girl after all the law suits were settled.
The little girl, wandering with the rest, was picked up finally by someone who offered her a room to lie down in. They came to tell her in the morning that every one who had been at the well was dead, except the driller who had gone raving mad, and her father, but he would not last long because he was burned over more of his body than a body could take and survive. And she was to go and see him for a last goodbye but be sure not to tell him what they had told her.
They took her to the hospital, and he was propped up in a bed, all white with bandages, except for part of his face around his eyes which was black with tannic acid, the best available treatment for third-degree burns in 1931, all black except his sharp blue eyes, as bright and piercing as ever. And his voice was faroff but clear. He said, I know Ive killed your mother, and a lot of other people. And I know theyve told you Im going to die too. But Im not going to.
And he didnt.
He made a remarkable recovery, in a few months he was as fit and as lively as ever, as persuasive and as confident as ever and ready to go back to find other fields, bigger fields.
His face was badly scarred, but not as badly as he thought. (He thought that She was doing him a favor by marrying him.) But once he started talking nobody noticed it. He had such a vigor, a charm, such sincere blue eyes, such a soothing stimulating succulent tongue, his every word dripped so with confidence and belief, no one after a few moments paid any attention to what he looked like. Of the scores of people who have talked to me at length about him, not one has ever thought of mentioning the scars..
Now the bad luck that had dogged him for years turned tail. He found fields, he found gushers everywhere. He made millions, but he no longer cared what he was doing, and if he made a million one year he spent more than a million the next.
He could go to Washington to charm congressmen into agreeing that the oil depletion allowance was the lifeblood of Americas greatest industry, but he never took to politics, any more than he went to church, his life was nothing but what he was doing, nothing but oil, finding oil where no one else could find it, wheedling the money out of the bankers, backslapping the roughnecks into taking a percentage of the profits instead of regular wages, the long journeys, the long suspense, the suddenness of the gushers coming in, the money rolling in, the money rolling out on more ambitious projects and on fancy cars and private planes, on fancy frocks for She, on nightclubs, on parties that celebrities like Eddie Rickenbacker were clamoring to be invited to, on booze flowing like the Mississippi in flood.
He found the biggest field yet found in Louisiana, and it was only because it was too deep for the technology he could afford that he had to sell it out to Humble Oil. He had everything he wanted, or would have wanted if he cared. He built a log cabin in northern Michigan the size of a Scottish castle, he was planning another in the huge packet of jungle he had bought at the northern end of Saint Simons Island in Georgia. He insisted on tearing down the old farmhouse where his mother was living, the house in which he was born, to build a stately mansion that would be the jewel of central Tennessee. He imported a monumental staircase from a great English manor, but then the money suddenly ran out, and the land had to be sold to a man who built six ordinary houses on it. The staircase stayed on, and he promised to make it the centrepiece of the manor house he was going to build on Saint Simons Island, though his mother asked him what was the use of all that money if she had to be five miles away from anyone to talk to. But the money ran out again, and she had to spend her last years in a boarding house.
He rollicked and he frolicked and he didnt give a damn.
Here today, gone tomorrow. A typical pendulum swing: when it came time for Marion to go to college, to Stanford, She stepped forward with some practical advice; stuff your bags with expensive dresses and take your fathers Lockheed to go out there, and the best sororities will be running after you like hound dogs, (She would do no such thing, of course, she took a train, and all her suit-cases were stolen.) Her sophomore year was a year of dry holes, and she waited on tables to pay her tuition,
For years her life seesawed between worlds. Most of the time she was tucked away in hymn-singing hog-calling Adairville with a grandfather who could remember the Civil War, hiding in the cornfields when the Union troops came through, and Mama Sue, a step-grandmother whose firmest belief was that the human body was the devil-s playground. It was in a dry county, a community where they only brought out the Jack Daniels once a year, on New Years Eve when they called it Syrup
But a significant other part of her time was spent in her fathers fancy houses, or flying with him distant cities to stay in fancy hotels, fancy resorts, fancy night clubs, and watching him and She get drunk.
Mister Mac drank himself regularly into a stupor once when he and She had passed out in their Cadillac at a filling station and he woke up 48 hours later in his bed and realized it must have been his twelve-year-old daughter who had pushed them over in the front seat and taken control of the car as she had seen him do so many days for so many years and, though she didnt know how to get into reverse gear had driven them home, he defied all the laws of God and Michigan and gave her a Buick of her own and used his considerable influence with the local authorities to make sure that no highway patrolman would ever ask her to show him her drivers licence,.
Once, when he read John Herseys account in the New Yorker of the bombing of Hiroshima, he said to his daughter, Weve been through it before, havent we, sweetie?
Otherwise, he was empty of what might pass as human perception and feeling. He was empty, he said, or would have said if he had had anyone to say it to. He was like a great machine intricately put together to increase the wealth and happiness of his fellow humans, a machine left without a driver running blindly over the country, from oil field to night club, from giant barbecue to race track to a box at the World Series, till the day the current was turned off on the ninth hole of the front nine of the Sea Island golf course.
He cant be said to have left a legacy. He endowed no foundations, he funded no worthy causes, it is more than fifty years since his name was attached to a company listed on any stock exchange. The people who have volunteered information about him to me rarely speak of anything specific he did. What they want to talk about is the impression he made on them.
Your father, said a vice-president of a big oil company we ran into one day at the bar of a transatlantic liner, was one of the two most remarkable personalities I have ever met in the oil business.
A lady whom I could not remember having seen before stopped me as I was coming out of the Sea Island post office forty or so years after his death. Your father-in-law, she said, knew every one on this island, and every one knew him. Just when he said hello to you, you knew he cared, and you felt better right away.
Many years ago, I accompanied Marion on a journey to the Michigan where she had taken her first art lessons thirty years before. We had hardly set foot on a street in Mount Pleasant when some one ran up to say, Youre the McClanahan girl, arent you? Youve got his eyes.
We went to see his last partner, Mr Stewart. To get to his place we had to pass through the town of Clare, which had recently been the scene of scandal when a Jewish gangster from Detroit, who had been living in retirement in a heavily fortified compound dispensing large sums in charity, was gunned down while playing an imprudent visit to local hotel an incident which would provide Vladimir Nabokov when he was making the rounds of Americas motels with the first name of the villain of his masterwork Lolita as well perhaps as a few details of the plot.
Mr. Stewart lived on a fenced square mile or so of forest land, fenced not so much to keep out gunmen as to keep in the animals which he collected from all over. He was feeding a flock of Canadian geese when we drove up, and greeted us effusively, and insisted on introducing to all his little Bambis, who formed a flock of Himalayan deer hiding shyly in the woods. I never get any visitors here, he said, and the house is a mess, but come on in. Margie will be glad to see you. Then, in answer to what he must have regarded as an unasked question he said, No, Margie is not my wife. My wife is a dried-up society bitch I married in Houston, God knows why. Ive built a house for her on the Lake, and I send over a case of whisky there every Tuesday. Come on in, and make yourselves at home, but watch out for your glasses. Margie likes to swipe them off your nose.
We went in. We had to stick close to the walls in the living room, since most of the space was taken up by a cage, inside which was Margie, who was an orang-utan. After kissing her and caressing and complimenting her a while (we learned later that he sometimes brought Margie with him to meetings of oil men and introduced her as his geologist), he took us to another room, poured out the drinks, and talked at length about what a wonderful man Mac was. If there was a drop of oil within fifty miles, he could sniff it out. He could talk money out of a Michigan banker. He could work twenty-three hours a day, and drink twenty-four. He had a personality that could cut through a steel wall. Once at Lefty Clarks in Detroit some gangsters, real important fellows, came up to him and they said, We want you to run for governor, and well get you in. It will be easy. Look at that fellow Roosevelt, they said,, all he had was a smile and he got elected president. And you have a better smile than he does. But Mac wasnt interested in politics. He would have made a good governor, though. He would have made everybody believe what he was saying.
Another time, another place. We were having a meal at the Westbury Hotel in London shortly before ethnic conflict in Cyprus broke out. It had already broken out between Greek and Turkish Cyprots working in the Westbury kitchen, and we could hear loud curses and other noises drifting out into the dining room while we were waiting for our food. After a while, the swinging doors swung open, and a Greek waiter bust through them into the dining room, carrying a tray lifted over his right shoulder. He had been a picture of elegant dignity when he had taken our order, but now his face was contorted and he was shaking with rage. Before the doors could swing shut, he turned his head to shout a last curse at the whole Republic of Turkey, and as a result did not notice some small obstacle on the floor, and stumbled, and though he righted himself almost immediately,
his tray dipped enough to allow a bowl of creamed spinach to fall off, barely missing the bare shoulders of a stately lady who must have been at least a dowager duchess. In the commotion which followed, we found ourselves exchanging comments with a pair of amiable American ladies sitting at the table to our left.
We checked in this morning just after you did, said Marion to them, and I couldnt help noticing that you come from Nashville, Tennessee. My mother went to school in Nashville, at Wards before it became Ward Belmont, and if she was alive she would be about your age, and I wonder if you ran into her. It turned out that they had been to Wards too, but not the same years, and this led to further discussions about Nashville and, Perhaps you knew my mothers first husband, Egbert Hail. Oh yes, they knew Egbert Hail, such a good family, what a pity he died in that awful automobile wreck.
At this point a portly red faced gentleman sitting at a table just across from ours, who had commanded the attention of the whole dining room while he was giving instructions on how he wanted his tournedos Rossini cooked, announced in the same commanding voice, Egbert Hail was one of the men I picked out of the 114th Field Artillery to go with us when we went to kidnap the Kaiser.
This gentleman turned out to be Larry MacPhail, the man who led the New York Yankees in their years of greatest glory, and the Kaiser story was perfectly true, though to the best of my knowledge it appears in none of the history books, and you will only find a record of it in a far-back copy of the Saturday Evening Post. Larry MacPhail and Luke Lea, who later became governor of Tennessee (and served some time in jail) were young army officers attached to the American delegation during negotiations for the peace treaty at Versailles in 1919. They were fervent patriots, and they had been taught to believe that the fearful war just finished, with its millions of dead, was all the fault of Wilhelm II, Kaiser of Germany. Yet here they were, watching delegates to the conference wrangle over boundaries and reparations while the greatest criminal of all time had slipped quietly into Holland and was living undisturbed in quiet luxury in a castle at Doorn. Their duty was clear, to go right up into Holland and grab the criminal and being him back to face judgment before the nations of the world at Versailles. And they commandeered a vehicle and talked their way through two frontiers to arrive at Doorn, and storm into the castle there, but the Kaiser was out walking in the garden at the time, and they only got out with an ashtray as a souvenir. I chose Egbert Hail as our driver, said Larry MacPhail, because he was the best driver in the whole damn regiment.
If you knew Egbert Hail, said Marion at this point, perhaps you also knew my mothers second husband, Walter Lee McClanahan.
In all my years of coaching football at Sewanee, said Larry MacPhail, Walter Lee McClanahan was the best quarterback I ever had.