Farewell: A Memoir of a Texas Childhoodby Horton Foote
For more than five decades, Horton Foote, "the Chekhov of the small town," has chronicled with compassion and acuity the changes in American life -- both intimate and universal. His adaptation of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird and his original screenplay Tender Mercies earned him Academy Awards. He received an Indie Award for Best Writer for The Trip to Bountiful and a Pulitzer Prize for The Young Man from Atlanta.
In his plays and films, Foote has returned over and over again to Wharton, Texas, where he was born and where he lives, once again, in the house in which he grew up. Now for the first time, in Farewell, Foote turns to prose to tell his own story and the stories of the real people who have inspired his characters.
He was the first child of his generation of Footes, born into an extended family of aunts, great-aunts, grandparents and dozens of cousins once removed, all of whom discovered that even as a young boy Foote was an avid listener with an uncanny ability to extract a story -- including those deemed unfit for children. Foote's memories are of a time when going down to meet the train was an event whether or not you knew someone on it, when black and white children played together until segregation forced them apart at school-age.
Foote beautifully maintains the child's-eye view, so that we gradually discover, as did he, that something was wrong with his Brooks uncles, that none of them proved able to keep a job or stay married or quit drinking. We see his growing understanding of all sorts of trouble -- poverty, racism, injustice, marital strife, depression and fear. His memoir is both a celebration of the immense importance of community in our earlier history and evidence that even a strong community cannot save a lost soul.
In all of Foote's writing, he reveals the immense drama behind quiet lives, or as Frank Rich has said, "the unbearable turbulence beneath a tranquil surface." Farewell is as deeply moving as the best of Foote's writing for film and theater, and a gorgeous testimony to his own faith in the human spirit.
New York Times Book Review
Harper Lee author of To Kill a Mockingbird Poignant, mirthful, eccentric, and deeply loving, Horton Foote's people mirror the Depression years of the South when the small town was at its zenith. Here, as in many of his plays, he preserves for us a society which, with all its inequities, was a unique part of America. A beautiful work.
Andrew O'Hehir The New York Times Book Review This warm, spare chronicle...provides a key to the birth of his distinctive sensibility.
Reynolds Price author of Roxanna Slade In Farewell, Horton Foote turns to the actual people and events that lie behind so many of his plays the apparently peaceful but land-mined surroundings of his childhood in Texas. The whole account is rich in Foote's most striking skills the brisk clarity of his memory and the uncanny ability of his plain language to summon the urgent human complexities.
Dan Hulbert The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Intimate astonishments jump out like fish breaking the surface of a still, dark lake from Foote's quiet, warm, dignified narrative....If you are new to Foote, Farewell may prompt you to explore his distinguished body of work. When the 16-year-old Horton boards the bus for Dallas and acting school, and bids farewell to Wharton, you may find yourself impatient for another installment of his long and well-lived life.
Jack Helbig Booklist His tales, most of them set in the Texas of his childhood, unfold with the slow, easy grace of a flower opening to the sun....But by the end of the all-too-brief, beautifully written volume, Foote's relations feel like our family, and Foote's memories of life in the segregated South before and during the Great Depression seem more vivid than any of our own.
Barry X. Miller Library Journal Not surprisingly, Foote writes prose as beautifully as he crafts the dialog that has earned him Academy Awards for the screenplays of To Kill a Mockingbird and Tender Mercies and a Pulitzer Prize for his play The Young Man from Atlanta....Foote's memoir is a loving and gentle recollection that every library will want.
Harper Lee author of To Kill a Mockingbird Poignant, mirthful, eccentric and deeply loving, Horton Foote's people mirror the Depression years of the South when the small town was at its zenith. Here, as in many of his plays, he preserves for us a society which, with all its inequities, was a unique part of America. A beautiful work.
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I left my home in Wharton at sixteen, but no matter how poor I was, and I was often very poor, I always managed to return for a visit at least once a year, and whenever I met with friends or relatives on those visits we inevitably got around to: "Do you remember when," or "I wonder whatever happened to..."
I was the first grandchild born into the extended family that surrounded me in Wharton and Houston. On my father's side I had a grandmother, a stepgrandfather, an aunt, three great-aunts, a great-uncle, a great-great-uncle and first, second and third cousins in abundance. On my mother's side I had a grandfather, grandmother, two aunts, three uncles, three great-uncles, four great-aunts and many first, second and third cousins. Also, nearer the coast in the towns of East Columbia and Angleton were other great-aunts and cousins.
I was fond of all of them, and particularly close to my mother's mother and father, her younger sisters and her brothers. The backyards of our houses joined and we were always, it seemed to me, visiting each other.
Whenever my mother and her sisters got together, sooner or later, one of them would ask: "I wonder why the boys [meaning their brothers] are like they are?"
As the years went on the questions were somewhat rephrased, and became more concerned and urgent, because by then the boys, now grown men, had begun in earnest their wasted, tragic lives. Wasted tragic lives, I had by twelve observed, seemed nearly always to occur to at least one male member of the families we knew, but to have the only three sons of a family turn out so was most unusual. The town, too, seemed to realize how unusual it was, and for many years seemed as obsessed with that question as we were. For my family learned from well-meaning friends that it was out of our hearing a much discussed topic, and to our faces, from time to time, each of us was asked the question, put in a studied, casual, offhand way, "What has happened to the Brooks boys?" or "Where are the Brooks boys now?" or "Do you stay in touch with the Brooks boys?"
I seldom hear that question now, because my father and mother and her immediate family are all dead and except for two cousins that live in Houston, anyone else related to the boys (as we continued calling them even when two of them lived to their early sixties) are dead, too, as well as any friends that knew them. When I visit with the cousin from Houston who remembers them as vividly as I do, we will still at some point ask once again, "I wonder why the boys turned out the way they did?"
Fifteen, or ten years ago, even, a number of people living in Wharton would have known them, or heard of them through their parents. They would have known, too, that the handsome, stately house on Richmond Road, now visibly neglected, with the huge cypress tree shading the front gallery, and the fruit market and general store to one side of its front yard, had once been owned by the Brookses, and was still called the Brooks house, although it had been owned for fifty years by another family, the owners of the fruit market and the general store.
I thought of the Brooks boys recently when I was sent a picture taken in 1928 of my eighth-grade class. I remember well all but four of my classmates pictured there, know in some measure what happened to those I remember and realize that none of them that are living any longer live in Wharton so that even if I wanted to ask again what happened to so-and-so, or do you remember when -- there is no one in town I could ask these questions, or no one to ask me about the Brooks boys.
I was the youngest in my class and in the picture almost every girl is at least head taller. It occurred to me that this slight young fellow (still eleven years old -- twelve in March) had already decided he wanted to be an actor, although it was still only a secret wish confided to few people. I had told my mother and father and overheard them one night on their front gallery -- my father always called it the gallery, my mother usually referred to it as a porch -- discussing this desire, "notion," they called it, and reassuring themselves that I would grow out of it. I didn't. Indeed the determination grew stronger each year thereafter, so that when I graduated from high school, at sixteen, I refused to even consider going to college and insisted that my Depression-burdened parents send me to New York to a dramatic school, which they did, though first insisting that I wait a year to be sure it was still what I wanted to do, and then substituting Pasadena Playhouse in Pasadena, California, for New York, "You are too young to be turned loose in New York, Son."
The only plays I'd seen were those performed by the Dude Arthur Comedians, a tent show that came to our town once a year for a week, Florence Reed in a stock company production of The Shanghai Gesture in Houston, Vilma Banky and Rod La Roque (two film stars whose careers had been ruined by the advent of talking pictures) in a touring production of Cherries Are Ripe, also in Houston. Then, too, there was the Wharton Little Theatre, formed when I was a freshman in high school, and where I saw productions of Coquette, The Silver Cord, Sun Up, Enter Madame, George Kelly's The Torch-Bearers and a melodrama, Gold in Them Thar Hills.
When I was a sophomore, Eppie Murphree, just graduated from college, came to Wharton to teach speech and put on plays in high school. I found a way to tell her my ambition to be an actor, and, to my relief, she took it very seriously. She cast me that spring in a one-act play, about three college roommates, one of them having a serious drug problem. I was cast as the young addict. I knew a lady in town that I was told was addicted to paregoric, but that was the extent of my knowledge of drug use. However I got my ideas for the behavior of this young man (there is a scene in which he confesses to his unsuspecting roommates that he is an addict and has a kind of fit before them, since he needs a fix and he has no money for drugs), it must have had some effect, for when the performance was over the judge called Eppie aside and asked, "Is that Foote boy afflicted or is that acting?" She assured them it was acting and they gave me first prize for best actor.
Eppie saw to it that I was cast in all the plays she did in my sophomore, junior and senior years, none of them memorable, but they kept me acting.
Where did all this start? I remember walking in summer evenings, with my parents and my brothers, the smell of honey-suckle everywhere, and we would often pass a small Victorian cottage, on whose porch a distinguished white-haired gentleman would be seated. He and my parents always exchanged greetings and once after we were a few yards away my father said, "That's Mr. Armstrong and he was in the cotton fields of Mississippi when he got a call to come to Texas and preach."
"What does that mean, Daddy?" I asked.
"What does what mean, Son?"
"Getting a call."
"He's a Baptist, Son," he said as if that explained everything.
"Is that why he got a call, because he's a Baptist?"
"Can only Baptists get a call?"
"No, honey," my mother ever patient said. "Methodists can, too, and Presbyterians and Episcopalians."
"What about Holy Rollers?" I asked.
"I expect they can, too, darling," Mother said. "I just don't happen to know any."
"Why do they call them Holy Rollers?" I asked.
"I don't know, precious. Do you, hon?" she asked my father.
"No, sweetheart, I don't; preachers have a hard life," he added is if to discourage any of his sons from the notion of getting that kind of call.
"Do Holy Rollers have preachers?" I continued asking.
"I wouldn't know, sweetheart. I'm sure they do," my mother said.
"Maybe they roll around, and that's why they are called Holy Rollers."
"Maybe so, honey."
When I was eleven, I got a call, so to speak, not to be a preacher, but an actor. It came to me as clearly as I presume Mr. Armstrong's call came to him that acting was what I wanted to do. And I never wavered from that call either until I began writing, some ten years later, and the desire to act left me as suddenly as it had arrived.
Copyright © 1999 by Sunday Rock Corp.
I was born Tuesday, March 14, 1916, in a rented room in the town of Wharton, Texas. The Wharton Spectator, founded by two of my great-uncles, printed the following item on Friday, March 18, 1916:
Mr. and Mrs. Horton Foote were the proud parents of a son born Tuesday.
My mother, twenty-two, was Harriet Gautier Brooks, named for her paternal grandmother, but always called Hallie. My father, twenty-six, was Albert Horton Foote, named for his father and great-grandfather, and I was named Albert Horton Foote, Jr.
What the bland Spectator item gave no hint of was the conflict that preceded my birth.
My mother's parents, Daisy and Tom Brooks, strenuously opposed the marriage, forcing my mother and my father to elope. They didn't elope very far, just five blocks across town to the tented house of their friends Allie and Arch Elmore. They were married in the Elmores' parlor by the Baptist minister. The Methodist minister, whose parishioners included my mother's family, had refused to marry them, and the Baptist minister agreed only on the condition that my mother call her parents and tell them what she was about to do. Her mother wasn't at home, so she called her father at his office, ten minutes before the ceremony was to begin, and he pleaded with her not to marry, as he was certain she would regret it the rest of her life. She didn't take his advice and in the late afternoon, on Valentine's Day, 1915, with only a few friends present, my mother and father were married. It was a marriage that lasted almost sixty years. I was always fascinated how they could manage the secrecy of all this, given the smallness of Wharton, the town then less than three thousand, and where like most small towns, everyone knew everyone else, and I would often question them about how they managed the elopement without my mother's parents knowing about it.
"Well, Son," my father would explain, "I had some good friends here at the time."
"Who were your friends?" I asked.
"Well, Barsoty, and Felix and Robert Rockwood, Arch Elmore. I got Barsoty to go to the jewelry store to buy the wedding ring and he made like it was for buying it for a girl he knew, and then I went to El Campo for the marriage license."
"Why did you go to El Campo?" I asked.
"Because if I had gotten it here at the courthouse, where your mother's father and mother had a lot of friends, someone would march right over to Mr. Brooks's office to tell him and then he would try to stop it."
"Were you nervous?"
"Were you scared?"
"Yes, honey, scared to death."
"What time of day did you get married?"
"Five o'clock," my father said.
"What time did you leave home for the wedding, Mother?"
"I didn't leave home for the wedding. I told Mama I was going to spend the day with Allie, and I'd slipped the dress I got married in over to Allie's the day before, and so Mama and Papa didn't suspect anything."
"Did your aunts know about it, Daddy?"
"Yes, they did."
"And did they approve?"
"What about your mama?"
"Well, she was living in Houston, and I never saw much of Mama after she married Mr. Cleveland and moved to Houston."
"So she didn't know you were getting married?"
"Not until after. I wrote her a letter the week after the wedding."
"Was she happy about it?"
"I think so."
"We lived at Allie and Archie's house for three months after our marriage, you know," Mother said.
"No, I didn't know that," I said.
"And then we rented a room from Mrs. Grat Huston."
"That's when I was born, wasn't it?"
"Then we took our meals across the street at Mrs. Walker's boardinghouse."
"Why did you take your meals there?"
"Because we couldn't cook at Mrs. Huston's."
"Because we only had one room, and she didn't allow cooking."
"Did you like eating at the boardinghouse?"
"No," my father said. "I didn't."
"Now, hon, it was all right," my mother said.
"Wasn't Mrs. Walker a good cook?" I asked.
"Oh, she could cook all right," my father said. "But she never gave you enough. I always walked away hungry. After we were married Mr. and Mrs. Brooks wouldn't speak to us."
"Wouldn't speak to you?"
"No, sir. Not for a whole year."
"Did it make you sad, Mother?"
"Yes, it did."
"It was a mess, let me tell you," my father said. "My aunt Loula and my aunt Lida and my aunt Reenie stopped speaking then to the Brookses."
"Because they wouldn't speak to me and Mother."
"Wouldn't they speak to you even if you passed them uptown?"
"We never met uptown," my mother said. "Once I saw Mama in the distance walking down the street and she must have seen me because she suddenly turned around and went back in the other direction."
"When did they start speaking to you again?"
"Well, when they heard I was going to have a baby."
"That was me?"
"Who told them you were going to have a baby?"
"I don't know that, Son. All I know was that one day Bessie Marcus was visiting with me in my room at Mrs. Huston's..."
"Who is Bessie Marcus?"
"She was a little girl that lived down the street," my mother said. "She was a simple little thing, but sweet, and I was glad for her company. She used to call me Mary."
"Why did she call you that?"
"I never knew. One day I said to her, Bessie, my name is Hallie, not Mary. She looked at me for a minute, not acknowledging my correction at all, and the next day when she came to see me, she went right on calling me Mary."
"Didn't you say anything to her then?"
"No. I just gave up. Anyway, it was that day the phone rang at Mrs. Huston's and she answered it and came to my room and said it was for me, and as I went towards the phone, she said, Hallie, I think it's your mother."
"How did that make you feel?"
"Nervous. Anyway, I went to the phone pretending I didn't know who it was and I said, Hello, and Mama said, Hallie, it's your mama."
"And what did you say?"
"Well, I couldn't think of anything to say. I hadn't heard her voice in such a long time I was afraid I was going to cry, and so I just said, Hello, Mama, how are you? And she said, I'm fine, thank you. I thought I'd come over to see you this afternoon if you're going to be home. Yes, ma'm. I'm going to be here, I said. I'll be there around three, she said, and hung up."
"And did she come over?"
"And did she say she was sorry?"
"No, she just began talking like she had seen me the day before. The rift between us was never mentioned then and it has never been mentioned until this day."
"When did Papa come over?"
"The next day. Alone."
"Did he call first?"
"No. He just appeared, and he said he was going to build a house for us so we'd have a house to take the baby to."
"My goodness," I said.
The house was built in early 1917, its backyard adjoining the backyard of my grandparents. A sturdy, simple six-room cottage high off the ground, to protect it from frequent floods, with a front porch almost halfway around the house. I was brought there when I was just a year old, and I live there again now. It has seen few changes through the years, although everything around it has completely changed.
My parents were given three-quarters of an acre with the house, part of a fifteen-acre plot belonging to my grandfather. His house, barn and outbuildings were also on two of the acres; the rest were in pasture or used for growing cotton or corn, depending on the mood of Uncle Joe, a black man, who grew the crops. He also was the yardman and general hired man for my grandparents. I don't remember what arrangement he had with them about the corn or cotton acreage, but I suspect he was farming it on shares. Uncle Joe (I never knew his last name) was small, wiry and very dark. He called my grandmother "Old Missy" and my mother "Young Missy."
My grandfather's fifteen acres had originally been part of the William Kincheloe plantations. Kincheloe, who received title to two leagues of land from the Mexican government on July 8, 1824, was one of the original three hundred settlers that came to Texas from Louisiana with Stephen Austin. He chose for his two plantations the alluvial land adjacent to Caney Creek and the Colorado River. This land grew switch cane along the creek, dwarfing, it was said, man and beast, and giant native pecans and live oak trees dripping with Spanish moss.
The Kincheloe plantation had been divided and subdivided many times before my grandfather bought his acreage in 1896, which included a Victorian cottage of six rooms. Later, in the early twenties, the house was remodeled and enlarged by my grandparents into the handsome one that I remember.
The house was set well back from Richmond Road, which was graveled then; four live oak trees lined the road, on one side of the yard were three more live oaks and directly in front of the house to the right of the porch steps was the cypress tree. On the opposite side of the yard was a huge sycamore tree and, beyond that, close to the side of the house were three fig trees. In the backyard were a pecan, a persimmon and a pomegranate tree.
The house was built high off the ground, so high, in fact, that I could and did play underneath it as a child, walking about very comfortably until I was ten or so. The porch or gallery was twelve feet wide, and here was a swing and comfortable wicker rocker chairs (five as I remember). A great deal of time, especially u night or early morning, was spent on the porch by the family.
Inside, the house was divided by a hall, wide enough for a good-size Oriental rug, a grandfather clock, and a table against the right wall. On the left, as you entered the hall, was the living room, high ceilinged, with three tall windows on the street side of the room, and two higher windows on either side of the fireplace, rarely used in our mild climate. In the living room were a Victrola and a baby grand piano. I remember my aunt Laura singing to the family here, my mother accompanying her on the piano. Their rendition of "Sweet Alice Ben Bolt" always moved me to tears, which caused my aunt to point out that I was very "tender-hearted."
The dining room adjoined the living room, separated by glass sliding doors, and behind it were a breakfast room and a kitchen. On the other side of the house was my grandparents' bedroom, an enormous room furnished with a huge Victorian bed, wardrobe, bureau, chaise longue and several rocking chairs. There were more bedrooms, big too, one of them leading on to a sun parlor, as large as the living room. The sun parlor had windows all around.
Besides being tender-hearted, I also must have had an active imagination. Until the age of five, when I was enrolled in the first grade, I had been restricted to playing with my friends either in my yard, my grandparents' yard, or the Wilsons' yard across the street from my grandparents. But I had made friends at school with Lindsay Carter, who lived in an old plantation house, long since torn down, near the livery stable, also long gone, on the now drained Caney Creek. To get there I had to walk for several blocks down a dirt road surrounded by cotton fields. Once on the way back home through the cotton fields, I began to run as fast as I could, for no apparent reason that I can remember, and by the time I got to my house I was out of breath and covered with the dust of the road. I ran to my mother and in panic told her that as I was coming through the cotton fields a mad dog started toward me, growling and foaming at the mouth. Just when it had almost reached me, Mr. Pitman, the town marshal, had come along on his spotted pony, reached down and grabbed me in the nick of time, shot the mad dog and so saved my life. My mother swallowed my story hook, line and sinker and when my father came home that night she told him of the miracle that had saved me from being bitten by a mad dog. My father equally gullible grabbed me and hugged me and said, "I always did like old Pit." The next morning on his way to the store he met Mr. Pitman and he ran up to him, extending his hand, and said, "Pit, I want to thank you for saving my boy's life." When Pitman looked blank and replied, "How is that, Al?" my father said he knew he and my mother had been taken. I was not punished for my fancy; instead it became a family tale illustrating my imaginative power and their gullibility.
I've often heard my mother and her sisters wonder how they all managed to fit into the original house of my grandparents. Besides their six children, my grandmother and grandfather's household included at one time or other my grandmother's parents, her brother, my grandfather's nephew and during the hurricane season assorted aunts and cousins from the Gulf Coast. When the relatives were gone, they often housed Mrs. Page, an elderly impoverished lady who had been married to a Methodist minister. At night her snoring kept the rest of the house awake.
My grandparents were always generous to the poor and needy, black and white. There was one white family called the Campbells that my grandmother took a special interest in. She regularly invited Mrs. Campbell and her spinster sister, Miss Mag, for meals, and often took them for afternoon rides in her buggy. Mrs. Campbell was plump, with abundant gray hair, and the Methodist Ladies would dress her up as Martha Washington and use her to pour tea for their annual Washington's Birthday tea. Mrs. Campbell and Miss Mag shared their run-down house with Mrs. Campbell's son, his wife and their many children. The son died and my grandparents offered to host the Campbells and their friends after the funeral. My grandparents supplied an abundance of food, more food than I suspect the Campbells had seen in many a day. They and their friends and neighbors stayed on and on. When it was time finally to say their good-byes, Miss Mag was the last to express her appreciation and she said to my grandfather, as she took his hand, "Mr. Tom, I want to thank you for the most enjoyable day of my life."
The three-quarter acre given to my parents was treeless, except for a chinaberry tree in the backyard, and one of the first things my father did was to plant two pecan trees in our front yard, and two fig trees in the back. My father also fenced in the backyard and built a chicken house. The instant he got home from his store at night he would change his clothes and go out to tend the chickens. As a small boy I was given one of the baby chickens as a pet. It was kept on the back porch and I was devoted to it. It would follow me around like a puppy and I played with it for hours on end. After a week, though, the poor little thing died. I was heartbroken and my mother and father were very sympathetic and helped me plan a proper funeral.
I was never allowed to have a dog, because of the chickens, but I had a number of cats. Later, when I was twelve and my father given up the chickens and started a garden, my uncle Brother (my mother's oldest brother) gave me a horse for Christmas used the former chicken house as a barn, because my grandfather's barn had long since been torn down and a garage for cars was in its place. I named my horse Minnie after Minnie the Moocher in Cab Calloway's song. I rode Minnie every day, and as no one had told me anything about caring for a horse, after I would run her as fast as I could, I would immediately give her all the water she wanted to drink. When I left home at sixteen, Minnie was sent out to a friend's farm. It seemed my running her and letting her drink water immediately afterward had crippled her in some way and in the unsentimental tradition of farmers they had her killed.
Copyright © 1999 by Sunday Rock Corp.
Meet the Author
Horton Foote has written and adapted dozens of plays and screenplays, including The Trip to Bountiful, The Orphans' Home Cycle, The Young Man from Atlanta, Tender Mercies, and To Kill a Mockingbird. The Death of Papa is being staged at the Hartford Theater in the spring of 1999. Foote has won Academy and Writers Guild awards, as well as the Pulitzer Prize. He recently was honored for his body of work at the Telluride Film Festival, and received the Writers Guild's Ian McLellan Hunter Award for lifetime achievement in writing. In 1996 he was elected to the Theatre Hall of Fame, and in 1998, to the American Academy of Arts and Letters as a member in the Department of Literature. He also received the Academy's Gold Medal for Drama for his life's work.
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In Farewell: A Memoir of a Texas Childhood, Horton Foote conveys the life of a southern child honestly and believably. Foote's book reveals the sacrifice his parents endured during the depression to make his and his brother's life better than their own. Although the book is a memoir, everyone can identify with Foote's view of childhood. It is a definite great read!