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Playing for Time
He began to die when he was twenty-one, but tuberculosis is slow and sly and subtle. The disease took fifteen years to hollow out his lungs so completely they could no longer keep him alive. In all that time, he was allowed a single season of something like happiness.
When he arrived in Dodge City in 1878, Dr. John Henry Holliday was a frail twenty-six-year-old dentist who wanted nothing grander than to practice his profession in a prosperous Kansas cow town. Hope—?cruelest of the evils that escaped Pandora’s box—smiled on him gently all that summer. While he lived in Dodge, the quiet life he yearned for seemed to lie within his grasp.
At thirty, he would be famous for his part in the gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona. A year later, he would become infamous when he rode at Wyatt Earp’s side to avenge the murder of Wyatt’s younger brother Morgan. To sell newspapers, the journalists of his day embellished thin fact with fat rumor and rank fiction; it was they who invented the iconic frontier gambler and gunman Doc Holliday. (Thin. Mustachioed. A cold and casual killer. Doomed, and always dressed in black, as though for his own funeral.) That unwanted notoriety added misery to John Henry Holliday’s final year, when illness and exile had made of him a lonely and destitute alcoholic, dying by awful inches and living off charity in a Colorado hotel.
The wonder is how long and how well he fought his destiny. He was meant to die at birth. The Fates pursued him from the day he first drew breath, howling for his delayed demise.
His mother’s name was Alice Jane.
She was one of the South Carolina McKeys, the third of eleven children. Fair-haired, gray-eyed, with a gentle manner, she came late to marriage, almost twenty at her wedding. Alice was pretty enough and played piano well, but she was educated in excess of a lady’s requirements. She was also possessed of a quiet, stubborn strength of character that had discouraged beaux less determined than Henry Holliday, a Georgia planter ten years her senior.
Alice and Henry buried their firstborn: a sweet little girl who lived just long enough to gaze and smile and laugh, and break her parents’ hearts. Still in mourning for her daughter, Alice took no chances when she was brought to bed with her second child. This time, she insisted, she would be attended by Henry’s brother, a respected physician with modern ideas, who rode to Griffin from nearby Fayetteville as soon as he received her summons.
Labor in Georgia’s wet mid-August heat was grueling. When at last Alice was delivered of a son, the entire household fell quiet with relief. Just moments later, a dreadful cry went up once more, for cleft palates and cleft lips are shocking malformations. The newborn’s parents were in despair: another small grave in the red north Georgia clay. But Dr. John Stiles Holliday was strangely calm.
“This need not be fatal,” the physician mused aloud, examining his tiny nephew. “If you can keep him alive for a month or two, Alice, I believe the defects can be repaired.”
Later that day, he taught his sister-in-law how to feed her son: with an eyedropper and with great care, so that the baby would not aspirate the milk or choke. It was a slow process, exhausting for the mother and the son. John Henry would fall asleep before Alice could feed him so much as a shot glass of milk; soon hunger would reawaken him, and since his mother trusted no one else with her fragile child’s life, neither slept more than an hour or two between feedings, for eight long weeks.
By October of 1851, the infant had gained enough weight and strength for his uncle to attempt the surgery. In this, John Stiles Holliday was joined by Dr. Crawford Long, who had begun developing the use of ether as an anesthetic just three years earlier. After much study and planning, the two physicians performed the first surgical repair of a cleft palate in America, though their achievement was kept private at the family’s request.
With his mother’s devoted care, the two-month-old came through his operation well. The only visible reminder of the birth defect was a scar in his upper lip, which would give his smile a crooked charm all his life. His palate, on the other hand, remained unavoidably misshapen, and when the toddler began to talk, Alice was the only one in the world who could understand a thing he said. Truth be told, everybody but his mamma suspected the boy was a half-wit, but Alice was certain her son was as bright as a new penny, and mothers always know.
So she shielded John Henry from his father’s embarrassment and shame. She forbade the house slaves and John Henry’s many young cousins to poke fun at his honking attempts at speech. She studied Plutarch on the education of children, and with Demosthenes as her guide, Alice Jane set out to improve her child’s diction. All on her own, she analyzed how the tongue and lips should be placed to produce the sounds her little boy found impossible. She filled scrapbooks with pictures and drawings, and every afternoon she and John Henry paged through those albums, naming each neatly labeled object, practicing the difficult words. In that way, Alice taught her son to read by the age of four, and though correction of his speech required years more, their diligence was rewarded. In adulthood, if his difficulty with certain consonants was noticed at all, acquaintances were apt to ascribe it to his lazy Georgia drawl. Or, later on, to drink.
He was quiet and rather shy as a child. Hoping to counter this natural reserve, Alice started John Henry’s piano lessons as soon as he could reach the keyboard, and she was delighted to discover that he had inherited from her an accurate musical ear and a drive to master any skill to which he set his hand. Left to himself, the boy would have whiled away his hours reading, or practicing piano, or daydreaming, but Alice knew that was no way for a Southern gentleman to behave. So when John Henry turned seven, she began to encourage the other Holliday boys to spend more time with him, and it wasn’t long before he held his own in their rowdy, noisy games, riding as recklessly and shooting as well as any of them.
“He ain’t big and he ain’t strong,” nine-year-old Robert Holliday told his Aunt Alice, “but that boy’s got a by-God streak of fight in him.”
And he was going to need it.
Confident at last that John Henry would not be ridiculed for his speech, Alice enrolled him in a nearby boys’ academy. She had taught him well at home: from the start he excelled in mathematics, grammar, rhetoric, and history. Latin and French came easily. Greek was a struggle, but with characteristic determination, he kept at it, year after year, until he could read Homer in the original.
Like all Southern girls, Alice Jane had made a thorough study of the male of the species. She knew the rules by which boys played, so she wasn’t much surprised when her son’s diffident aloofness and scholastic success combined to provoke his classmates beyond toleration. The first time John Henry came home bloody, all Alice asked was “Did you win?” Later that evening, she told the story of the Spartan mother seeing her son off to war. “Come home with your shield or on it,” Alice reminded him the next morning when he left for school.
His cousin Robert followed that moral lecture with another involving applied physics. “Don’t start nothin’,” young Robert advised, “but if some ignorant goddam cracker sonofabitch takes a swing at you? Drop him, son. Use a rock if you have to.”
John Henry never did make many friends at school, but the other boys learned to leave him alone—and to copy his answers on exams.
And what of Henry Holliday? Where was Alice’s husband while their only surviving child practiced phonemes and piano, learned to ride and shoot, and came home from school with bruised knuckles and excellent marks in every subject?
At a distance. Away. At work. At war.
In the 1850s, there was foolishness being talked on both sides of the Mason-Dixon. Throughout John Henry’s childhood, the word secession had come up in conversations among the men. His cousin Robert thought the whole idea of war was glorious, but John Henry’s father and his many uncles were unenthusiastic about the notion, even after the North elected Lincoln in 1860 and as much as told the South, “Secede, God damn you, and be done with it!” When the hotheads of Charleston opened fire on Fort Sumter, his Uncle John remarked, “South Carolina is too damn small to be a country and too damn big to be an insane asylum.” That got a laugh, though the Holliday brothers agreed: it was unfortunate that a dispute over cotton tariffs had become such a tangle. Still, they expected practicality to win out. Why, the entire nation’s economy was based on cotton! Naturally, the Yankees would have to make some token response to the attack on Sumter, but cooler heads would surely prevail. There’d likely be a trade agreement signed by Christmas.
Certainly, nobody imagined that Mr. Lincoln would order an armed invasion over the affair. When he did exactly that, the entire South exploded with defiance and patriotism, cheering the new nation—?sovereign and independent—that had just been born.
In April of ’61, Henry Holliday and six brothers rode away to join the 27th Georgia Volunteers. John Henry was still four months shy of ten years old, but he was told, “You are the man of the house now.” He and his mother were not left alone, of course. The household staff was presided over by the aging brothers Wilson and Chainey, who’d been in the family since their own birth and who would have fought the hounds of hell for Miss Alice and her boy. Even with Henry and a half dozen uncles gone, there were all the aunts and the older Holliday menfolk and the younger cousins near, and Alice Jane’s many relatives as well. Hollidays and McKeys never lacked for kin.
Young as he was, John Henry took his responsibility for his mother’s safety seriously, and his solicitude warmed Alice as much as it amused her. She was especially pleased by the very great deal of thought he gave to an outing she proposed when he was eleven, with the war well into its second year. The great Viennese virtuoso Sigismund Thalberg was coming to Atlanta to perform Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto at the Athenaeum Theater. “Sugar,” Alice told her boy, “I wouldn’t miss this concert for all the tea in China! And I do believe you are ready to meet the Emperor.”
“The emperor?” Frowning, John Henry looked up from The Gallic Wars. “Did something happen to President Davis?”
“Mr. Davis is fine. The Emperor is the concerto’s nickname—you’ll understand why when you hear it. The concert is to benefit the Georgia Volunteers,” she added. “What do you think, shug? Shall we chance it?”
Alice watched her somber, spindly son think the matter through. He presented a number of objections. The weather might be bad, and Alice had not gotten over the bronchitis she’d developed last winter. Griffin was a good distance from Atlanta; twice this spring, the front axle on their ancient carriage had been repaired and it could not be considered reliable.
“You’re bein’ very sensible,” Alice observed. “Well, now . . . We wouldn’t have to take the carriage the whole way. We could stay with your Aunt Mary Anne in Jonesboro, and ride the train to Atlanta from there.”
A solution to the transportation problem swayed him, but he was concerned about rumors of marauding Yankees and highwaymen, so the discussion went on at some length. Finally, when Alice gave John Henry permission to arm himself with a pair of antique pistols his great-grandfather had carried in the Revolutionary War, the boy agreed to the journey, though he stipulated that Wilson should accompany them as an additional precaution, and that Chainey should remain at home to guard the household in their absence.
“Sugar,” Alice told her son, “it is a comfort and a support to have such a fine young man lookin’ after me.”
It was the sort of thing any Southern woman of breeding might say to flatter a male. What surprised Alice was how much she meant it and how touched she was to see him stand all the straighter for her remark, as though feeling even more keenly a gentleman’s duty to protect a lady from whatever insult or danger a barbaric, broken world might present.
He spent days planning their expedition, serious as snakebite about each of his decisions. It was only on the evening of the concert, with his responsibilities temporarily discharged, that John Henry began to relax. He acquitted himself very nicely during an economical supper at their modest hotel’s restaurant, and when they strolled down the center aisle of the Athenaeum, he offered his mother a young man’s arm instead of a child’s hand. They found their seats—on the left, so they could watch Maestro Thalberg’s hands—and chatted like old friends while the orchestra assembled. At last the house lights dimmed. The audience fell silent. A commanding figure strode across the stage, ignoring the burst of applause as he took his seat at a gleaming black concert grand.
And then: the first great massed orchestral chord sounded.
From that moment to the end, the boy was caught and held in a grip so tight, his mother could have snapped her fingers in his face and that child would not have blinked. He had never before heard the blended timbres of an orchestra, had not suspected there was such music in the world. At eleven, he possessed no words for what he heard and felt; indeed, it would be years before he could articulate the overwhelming impact of the concerto, with its tumbling, propulsive drive, its kaleidoscopic shifts of mode and mood, its euphoria and gentleness, its anger and urgency. Liszt was more showy and athletic, Chopin more sparkling and luminous. But Beethoven . . . Beethoven was magnificent.