WASHINGTON -- Soon after “The Prince of Tides” became a blockbuster movie in 1991, People magazine put the film’s leading man, Nick Nolte, on its cover as the “Sexiest Man Alive.”
This couldn’t possibly be true, I thought (and wrote) at the time. Nolte, who played protagonist Tom Wingo, was a good-looking actor who did well by his role. But what made him sexy was the character created by beloved author Pat Conroy, who died last week.
Conroy, I wrote, was the sexiest man alive.
It was Conroy, after all, who had crafted sentences so sensuously lush and true they begged to be read aloud. He wrote that “... salmon dreamed of mountain passes and the brown faces of grizzlies hovering over clear rapids. Copperheads ... dreamed of placing their fangs in the shinbones of hunters. Ospreys slept with their feathered, plummeting dreamselves screaming through deep, slow-motion dives toward herring.”
It was Conroy who described South Carolina’s seductive Lowcountry as something you breathe: “the bold, fecund aroma of the tidal marsh, exquisite and sensual, the smell of the South in heat, a smell like new milk, semen, and spilled wine, all perfumed with seawater.”
Ever after, there would be no point in anyone else trying to describe animal dreams or the marsh. Forevermore, the world would experience the Lowcountry through Conroy’s eyes.
Several years after that column, I met Conroy at a Naples, Fla., hotel where, serendipitously, we happened to have adjoining rooms. We discovered this while speaking to each other on the phone, a conversation I was simultaneously hearing through the hotel wall.
Wondering whether we might be next-door neighbors, we poked our heads out our respective doors, receivers to ears, and were delighted to find ourselves face-to-face. Over drinks later that evening, Conroy regaled me with stories, including how cartoonist Doug Marlette had teased him mercilessly about my sexiest-man-alive column. We talked about friends, family, children and writing.
Why, he asked, hadn’t I written my own father-daughter novel? I began to answer, “I was waiting ...” when he interrupted to complete the sentence: “...for your father to die.”
“I wish I had,” he said. At the time, his father -- the great Santini -- was up in their hotel room, waiting for his son to escort him to the family wedding that had brought them to Naples.
Before we parted, I asked him, “What’s it like to be Pat Conroy?”
He threw back his head and roared with laughter: “It’s a dream!” he said, though I was never sure he really meant it. Sometimes, as his readers know, it was a nightmare, too.
One painful irony was his recognition that his books had liberated throngs of fellow sufferers -- the depressed, the abused, the father-haters -- not to seek therapy or write books but to share their miseries with Conroy at book signings. This was unwelcome duty for a writer who wasn’t inclined to guide others through their self-realization. Writing is not group therapy.
But such was the price Conroy paid for exposing so much of himself and his family, book after book, as he sought to explain his tortured childhood to himself.
When he wasn’t writing, Conroy was reading -- four hours a day -- or talking to Marlette on the phone, nearly every day for decades. Marlette, who wrote two novels of his own before his death in a 2007 car accident, also drew cartoons and comic strips. While he doodled, he liked to talk to his friends.
One can only wish to have had a party line with those two, both raconteurs with razor-sharp vision, wicked senses of humor and a flair for expressing what most others hide or never notice.
The last time I saw Conroy was, alas, nine years ago at Marlette’s funeral, where we were two among 10 eulogists and became forever bonded as members of what Conroy dubbed “Team Marlette.” Bereft beyond measure, we were nearly staggering with grief and choking on tears as we rendered our words of farewell. Conroy loved how, as we returned to our seats, the others would pat us on the back and offer commendations as though we’d scored a touchdown.
He found this both funny and heartbreakingly lovely. Now we are heartbroken again, our losing season upon us, another of our most brilliant players down. At least there is consolation in knowing Conroy and Marlette can roar together now, laughing and weeping at the glory of it all -- as ever the envy of the living.