Pulitzer Prize-winning author Horton Foote has chronicled the experiences of American life in both his internationally acclaimed plays and his Academy Award-winning screenplays To Kill a Mockingbird and Tender Mercies. Now, in this poignant and delightful memoir, he tells the story of how he discovered his own vocation.
Horton Foote recalls his youthful aspirations, leaving his Depression-era Texas home to become an actor at age sixteen. He lands in New York City to search for work and to study with some of the great Russian and American drama teachers of the 1930s. But after mixed results on the stage, he finally recognizes his true passion: the written word.
Collaborating with such legendary talents as Tennessee Williams, Agnes de Mille, and Lillian Gish, Foote thrived in a world of artistic commitment and creative passion. Yet through it all, Horton maintained his genuine Southern charm, often returning home to Wharton, the town that nurtured and inspired him as a storyteller.
From one of the most moving and distinctive voices of our time, Beginnings is a rare, personal look at a fascinating era in American life and at the making of an American literary icon.
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About the Author
Horton Foote, born in Wharton, Texas, in 1916, has written and adapted over fifty plays and screenplays, including The Trip to Bountiful, The Young Man from Atlanta, Tender Mercies, and To Kill a Mockingbird. In 1996 he was elected to the Theatre Hall of Fame, and in 1998, to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, from which he received the Gold Medal for Drama for his life's work. Foote has won two Oscars, a Pulitzer Prize, Writers Guild awards, and the PEN/Laura Pels Foundation Award for Drama, and was most recently awarded the president's National Medal of Arts from former President Bill Clinton.
Read an Excerpt
By the time our bus was reaching the outskirts of Los Angeles there were very few of the original Dallas passengers left. James Hall's sister was still here but somewhere back in New Mexico she had gotten bored with me and changed seats and now I could hear her talking away with a man who had come aboard in Phoenix. I was sitting next to a lady from Tucson now. She was worried to death about the Depression. She and her husband had lost everything because of it, and she wanted to know if I thought Roosevelt was doing enough. I said I had great faith in Roosevelt. She asked me why, but I couldn't answer that except to say that my father had and he knew a lot about politics. She sighed and looked out the window and then I began to think of Pasadena and tried to imagine what the playhouse might look like.
"Excuse me," the lady said. "What does your father do?"
"He has a men's clothing store and he manages my grandmother's cotton farms."
"Are you an only child?" she wanted to know. Why on earth, I couldn't imagine.
"No, ma'am, I have two brothers."
"Older or younger?"
"I have no children." She sighed when she said that.
"Your parents are blessed to have three children. My husband and I wanted children, but the Lord saw it another way. Bless be the name of the Lord. Where are you going, young man?"
"Because I want to be an actor."
There was a pause while she thought that over.
"I would think," she said, "you would go to Hollywood for that, if you want to be in the movies."
"Yes, ma'am, but I don't want to be in the movies. I want to go on the stage and there is a school in Pasadena that will teach you about acting."
"About acting?" she asked and she seemed genuinely puzzled.
There was a pause again as she thought that over. Then she sighed and looked at me and said, "What does it cost to learn something like that?"
"Five hundred dollars for the first year and two hundred and fifty dollars for the second year."
"My God," she said, sighing. "That's expensive."
"I know it is," I said.
"Do they guarantee you a job when you finish your schooling?"
"Mercy," she said, sighing again. "How much did you say?"
"Five hundred dollars the first year and two hundred and fifty dollars the second."
"Let's see," she said. "What does that come to?"
"Seven hundred and fifty dollars," I said. A figure my father had drummed into my head.
"Mercy," she said, sighing. "Your people must be rich."
"No, ma'am," I said. "Not my daddy anyway. I have a grandmother that's pretty well off I'm told."
"Is she paying for it?"
"No, ma'am, my daddy is."
She sighed again then and closed her eyes. I looked out the window of the bus, but I couldn't see much except houses that looked like houses anywhere, or at least like houses I could see anytime in Texas.
The lady opened her eyes then and looked up at me, and said, "Seven hundred and fifty dollars is a fortune to me. A fortune."
"Yes, ma'am," I said, and I wished she would get off the subject. I felt guilty enough about my daddy spending the money without her going on about it.
"We lost our home," the lady said, "Our car. My God, this Depression is a terrible thing. Terrible."
"Yes, ma'am," I said. "I know it is," and I knew in my heart it certainly must be, and I knew I should be concerned about it, and worry about it like my daddy and his friends at his store, but all I could think about was getting to Pasadena and starting school. My mother had told me that my Great Aunt Mag and her husband, Uncle Walt, were going to meet me at the Los Angeles bus station, and then I began to worry about what I would do if for some reason they couldn't get there. How would I get to Pasadena? Now stop worrying about that, I said to myself. My mother says they are very dependable and they're sure to be there. Before I had a chance to worry any further the lady next to me took two snapshots from her purse and held them up for me to see.
"This is the picture of the house we lost to the bank," she said. "And this is the car. I'm going to Los Angeles to stay with my people until my husband can get on his feet again. We have no children, thank God. I don't know what we'd do if we had children to feed and clothe. I hope to heavens your father is right and Roosevelt does know what he's doing. Why does it take so long? This is September, September nineteen hundred and thirty-four. He's had almost two years. How long is it going to take?"
I looked out the window, but it was getting dark now and I couldn't see much except for lights coming from the houses we were passing.
The lady next to me called out to the lady across the aisle. "This boy," she said pointing to me, "is going to acting school. It's costing seven hundred and fifty dollars. Isn't that right, son?"
"Yes, ma'am," I said closing my eyes, hoping she would leave me alone, when the bus driver called out: "We're coming into Los Angeles."
I tried to look out the window again but it was pitch black outside now and I couldn't see anything but the lights of houses and cars. Then I could see streetlights and buildings and more cars and people on the sidewalks and the lady across the aisle said, "We're almost at the terminal now."
We rode on for another five or ten minutes and the bus pulled into the terminal, which was all lit up and seemed much larger than the Houston or Dallas bus terminals. The bus driver stopped the bus and called out, "Los Angeles!" and everyone began to get up from their seats. The lady next to me patted me on the arm as we started down the aisle and said, "Good luck to you, son," and I thanked her. I got off the bus and followed the people into the terminal. I saw Aunt Mag and Uncle Walt right away and they saw me. Aunt Mag hugged me and kissed me and Uncle Walt shook my hand as he said, "Welcome to California."
Aunt Mag was my grandmother's next-to-youngest sister. She immediately began asking question after question about our family in Texas. She idolized my grandmother and constantly interrupted my answers with descriptions of her kindness. She continued the questioning while we went to pick up my suitcase, which Uncle Walt insisted on carrying. Finally she stopped long enough to ask if I was hungry. I said I was, and she asked if I would mind eating in a cafeteria. I said I didn't know as I never had. I was about to say that wherever they wanted to eat would be fine with me, but before I could she began to explain why she preferred this cafeteria. Not because it was cheaper than a restaurant, but because the food was the best she knew of in Los Angeles, and without looking at Uncle Walt she asked if he agreed. He nodded his head that he did, and I said that all I knew about cafeterias was that my Aunt Laura and Erin May went to one in Houston and got ptomaine poisoning from eating some butterscotch pie. "Well, that was Houston," Aunt Mag said. "Nothing like that could happen in Los Angeles, could it, Walt?"
When we got to the cafeteria they instructed me to pick up a tray, napkin, silverware and showed me where to stand in line. I had not seen so much food on display before in my life and I had great difficulty making a decision about what to eat. I hadn't been able to sleep much on the bus, but I was so exhilarated about finally being in California that I didn't feel tired. The cafeteria seemed very glamorous, lit up as it was, and decorated in what seemed to me a very modern fashion. During dinner she said they would show me some of the sights if I was interested. I said I was. After we finished eating we got in their car and Uncle Walt drove us around Los Angeles. We passed some palm trees and Aunt Mag said, "I guess you know what they are?"
"Yes, ma'am," I said. "Palm trees." They seemed much larger than the palm trees I'd seen in Houston and Galveston. I asked my father once why we didn't have any in Wharton, and he said our soil was the wrong kind for palm trees. "Aunt Mag," I asked. "Do the palm trees have coconuts?"
"No," she said. "They don't. Why is that, Walt?"
"Why is what?" he asked.
"Why don't our palm trees have coconuts?"
"I don't know," he said. "I've never heard."
"Well, you should ask somebody," she said.
"I will," he said. "One day."
"That's your Uncle Walt, for you," she said. "No curiosity about anything."
My mother and grandmother had assured me Aunt Mag and Uncle Walt would have me stay in their Los Angeles apartment for an evening. Then they would drive me over to the YMCA in Pasadena where I would stay until the school office assigned me to a boardinghouse. After an hour or so of riding I was beginning to feel tired and I was about to ask if we could go to their apartment so I could get to bed, when Aunt Mag said, "Walt, we'd better take him out to Pasadena, so he can get settled." I wanted to say, Oh no, ma'am, I'm supposed to stay with you and Uncle Walt tonight, but I felt shy and couldn't bring myself to say it.
Pasadena was quite a drive from Los Angeles. Aunt Mag pointed out that we were passing through orange groves to get there, and it was too bad it was so dark out because they were quite beautiful.
When we finally got to the YMCA, I was so tired I could hardly keep my eyes open and Aunt Mag kept repeating over and over, "Look Walt, it's a handsome building. I wouldn't mind staying there myself Look Walt, look Horton, isn't it handsome?" I agreed I thought it was and then she said, "Walt, help him with his suitcase and be sure they have a room for him." "All right, Mag," Uncle Walt said, some of the few words he had spoken during the whole evening.
He got my suitcase out of the back of the car and I kissed Aunt Mag good-bye and I said I would call her and give her my telephone number when I knew where I would be living.
"All right, honey," she said. "We want you to spend Thanksgiving with us in Vista with our children."
I knew all their children lived in Vista, where Aunt Mag and Uncle Walt had once lived and I started to say my mother said she felt sure you would have me for Thanksgiving, but I didn't. I followed Uncle Walt into the YMCA. After Uncle Walt heard they had a room available for me he said he'd better be off as it was late and they had a long ride back to Los Angeles.
My room was small, but clean, and I was so tired I fell on the bed and went to sleep with my clothes on.
I woke up early the next morning and decided not to unpack my suitcase, since I would soon be moving to my permanent home. I went to the lobby and asked the clerk where I could get breakfast. He directed me to a drugstore a block and a half away.
The drugstore breakfast eggs, bacon, coffee, and orange juice cost twenty-five cents, and I was about to ask for a second cup of coffee, when I thought I had better not because they might charge me for it and I knew I had to be careful with my money.
I paid my check and asked the clerk where the Pasadena Playhouse was, and he said he didn't know as he had never heard of it, but a lady buying perfume said she knew. I asked if it was in walking distance. She said yes and told me how to get there.
I found the street it was on and in the distance I could hear church bells ringing from every direction. Pasadena, as I later found out, was a city of churches. I saw a building up ahead with a patio in front. There were two small shops and a small restaurant all on one side of the patio, all closed on a Sunday morning. I stopped to look inside the patio and I saw on the side of the building a closed ticket booth, and I called out to a man walking by. I asked if this was the Pasadena Playhouse and he said yes. I looked at my watch and saw it was almost noon and I thought about what I was going to do until the next morning when the school opened. I thought then of my mother and father and realized when it was noon here it was two o'clock in Texas. I knew they had probably done this Sunday what they did every Sunday. Mother had cooked a Sunday breakfast, grits certainly, ham or bacon and eggs, and biscuits, fig preserves, or maybe sausage instead of bacon or ham, and after breakfast my father would sit in the living room and read the Sunday paper, and Mother would go to the Methodist church with my brothers. I couldn't remember whether it was her Sunday to play the organ or whether it was my cousin Daisy Armstrong's. Then I suddenly thought of Miss Mina Barclay, who had also shared the organ playing until she committed suicide, hanging herself in her bedroom. I thought of my father's store and I wondered how much business he had done the day before. Saturday was always the day he made money if he was to make any money. I knew the cotton crop had looked promising if it didn't suddenly start raining and they could get it picked and to the gin. I looked up at the California sky to see that the sun was shining and I wondered if it was shining at home. I hoped so, because the last thing the cotton needed this time of the year was rain. I thought of my father locking up the store at night and wondered, since it was Saturday, how late he had stayed open and whether he had gone to Ray's or the Manhattan Restaurant for fried oysters, like he did when I worked with him. I thought of walking home with him down the dirt road after our meal at the restaurant and being greeted by my mother as we came into the house, and my father telling her how his business had been. I thought of my bedroom then and my bed, and I realized my brother was sleeping in my bed now and that gave me a funny feeling. I looked up at the street sign and it said Colorado Boulevard, and I thought of the river at home, the Colorado. I looked up and down Colorado Boulevard, and I knew I was where I wanted to be, or thought I wanted to be, in Pasadena, California.
Or did I? I really wanted to go to New York City, but I came here because it was best, my father said, for a boy of seventeen to be in a smaller city. Colorado Boulevard was wide, but there was little traffic on this Sunday morning, and I thought of Aunt Mag and Uncle Walt in Los Angeles and I wondered what they were doing and I wished now I had said I was supposed to spend the night. Even with hardly any people around I knew I was in a city. All the buildings up and down the street told me so. Not a town like Wharton. I was all alone and didn't know where to go or what to do. I thought, I'll go back to my room at the YMCA, and maybe write a letter to my mother and father. What would I tell them, that Aunt Mag and Uncle Walt didn't ask me to spend the night and left me alone with nothing to do? No, I couldn't write that, because it would worry them. I'd just say I arrived safe and sound, loved Pasadena, had a look at the outside of the playhouse, and I was very excited and couldn't wait until I met my teachers on Monday and saw where I was to live.
But where were the flowers? There were a few palm trees every now and again, but no flowers. I had seen pictures of Pasadena in the news reels at the times of the Rose Bowl parades, and flowers, particularly roses, seemed to be everywhere you looked. My grandmother had been to California and she said to her dying day she would never get over the flowers. Bougainvillaea was her favorite, she said. She tried growing it at home, but a cold spell killed it. Her Confederate jasmine lasted through all the cold spells, but not the bougainvillaea.
I thought about New York City then and I wondered what I would be doing there if my parents had allowed me to go. My cousin Nannie said it was the most exciting place she'd ever been in, even more fun than New Orleans and she did love New Orleans. She said the only thing she didn't like about it was the subways. She was afraid to ride them, but New Yorkers rode them all the time. I wondered when I finally got there if I'd be afraid of them.
I walked up and down Colorado Boulevard for an hour or more looking in the shop windows. I saw a movie house. I forget now what picture was playing, but it was nothing I wanted to see. Even if it had been, I don't think I would have spent money on a ticket. I passed a cafeteria like the one my aunt and uncle had taken me to the night before, only smaller. I tried to see without going inside how much things cost, but I didn't see any signs, so I decided not to go in, and turned back toward the YMCA. I saw a small restaurant, no tables, just a counter and stools. I went in and they had the prices of the food over the counter. I saw they had a hamburger for ten cents, and I ordered one and also a Coke. It was two o'clock by then and four o'clock in Wharton. Church was over and our cook had fried the chicken for Sunday dinner. I wanted to find a telephone and call them up but I knew I shouldn't, because my mother and father were making a real sacrifice sending me to dramatic school and we had to all be very careful how we spent our money. So I went back to the YMCA. The lobby was empty and no one around except the desk clerk, who was reading a paper. I thought, It wouldn't break me to buy a paper and that will give me something to do.
"Excuse me, do you know where I can buy a Sunday paper?" I said as I went up to the clerk.
"No," he said. "Not really, but I'm through with this, you can have it if you want it."
"Thank you," I said. "How much is it?"
"No," he said. "I'm giving it to you."
"Thank you," I said.
So I took the paper and thanked him again and started for my room.
"We have a swimming pool here, you know," he called after me. "You can go for a swim if you want to."
"Thank you," I said. "But I didn't bring a bathing suit."
"You don't need a bathing suit here," he said. "Only men use the pool, everyone swims naked."
"Thank you," I said. "I'll think about it."
I was too embarrassed to say I couldn't swim, so I just went up to my room and read the paper and wrote a letter to my mother and father. I was suddenly so tired I fell across the bed and went to sleep. When I woke up it was almost ten o'clock, twelve o'clock at home, I thought. My folks were all in bed asleep, and I thought, I'll never get to sleep now after this long nap, but before long I was sleepy again and I undressed and put on my pajamas and was soon back to sleep.
Copyright © 2001 by Sunday Rock Corp.