'Uncle and maestro': Friends remember George Garrett
At a memorial service held at the UVA Chapel on Monday, September 22 for writer and UVA professor George Garrett, who died after a battle with bladder cancer on May 25, UVA president John Casteen called the author of 11 novels, eight short story collections, eight books of poetry, as well as plays, essays, screenplays, and biographies a "great man of letters" and a "reader and teacher without peer" and credited him with conceiving of and shaping the university's program in creative writing, which is consistently ranked among the best in the country.
"He took his work seriously," Casteen said to a packed Chapel audience, "but never took himself seriously."
As evidence, Casteen cited how Virginia's poet laureate delighted in talking not about his best, most serious work, but about a screenplay he wrote in the 1960s called Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster, which became a very cheaply produced science fiction film, and later a cult favorite, before it was finally voted one of the 50 worst movies ever made in 2004. Indeed, Garrett spoke at length about the story behind the movie for a Hook feature in 2003.
"George made fun in every way," said novelist John Casey, talking about Garrett's ability to both make and poke fun, at others and himself, "and this side of him was a blessing."
"One of the best things he could do for you was make you laugh," said former Garrett student and novelist Madison Smart Bell, who pointed out that Garrett's combination of a sense of fun and a lack of pretense was also his literary calling card. "He was a smasher of molds and a great liberator," said Bell.
Longtime friend and fellow writer Sheila McMillan recalled how it was impossible to thank Garrett for his generosities, which included advancing the careers of countless writers with recommendations to agents, editors, and English department heads, professional advice, encouragement, cash for odd jobs, and book jacket blurbs. "He always changed the subject when you tried to thank him for something," said McMillan.
"George didn't tell jokes," said McMillan, talking about Garrett's sense of humor, "he told stories, and then modified them. He was often the goat of his own tales."
At a literary conference years ago, Garrett told her he was standing in the lobby of the hotel he was staying at when a very proper southern woman walked by and directed him to carry her bags to her room, thinking he was a hotel employee. Garrett obliged without complaint. When they reached the woman's room, she requested fresh towels and linen. Again, Garrett obliged. When it was Garrett's turn to read at the conference, he spotted the woman in the audience, thinking she would be appalled with herself, but instead she turned toward the woman next to her and said, "They're letting anyone read at these things."
"He loved to make fun of people, including himself," said McMillan, "but he was also a man with a bone-deep understanding of how difficult life was for people."
Novelist Richard Bausch, another long-time friend of Garrett's, brought to life a more raucous, dark-humored Garrett as he described the many road trips they took to readings and literary conferences together in the 1980s and '90s.
"We called it the 'money losers tour,'" joked Bausch, "and George's wife, Susan would always say the same thing as we pulled out of the driveway, 'I have two words for you guys: be-have.'"
As Bausch recalls, there was plenty of fun and alcohol to be had on those trips. In a hotel room one night Bausch recalled Garrett pulling a large bottle of green liquid out of his bag, a concoction Bausch had never seen before. Garrett told him it was J€germeister and poured them both a glass. "He took a sip and spit it out, he hated it," said Bausch. "And then I realized he'd never had it before, either. When I asked why he brought it along he said, 'I see the kids drinking it all the time.'"
Indeed, after the service UVA prof Sydney Blair remarked that Garrett had never seemed to act or appear to look like a stereotypical "old man," despite his illness and being 78 years old when he died. Instead, he was perpetually young at heart.
Amid the refined surroundings of University Chapel, with an elaborate stained-glassed image of Jesus Christ peering out from behind him, and John Casteen sitting in the first row peering directly at him, Bausch told a story that began to border on bad taste. "We were watching a documentary about Martin Luther King, and there was this guy carrying a sign that said 'Nig,'" Bausch explained, "and George just starts laughing, and I'm wondering 'How can you laugh about this? This is terrible!'"
But just as people began to shift in their seats, Bausch revealed Garrett's comic logic.
"Then George starts imagining the guy at home having trouble getting the whole word on the sign, then consulting his wife, 'hey, honey, I don't think its going to fit...what should I do?'"
As this reporter remembers, George did not suffer fools or bullies well, and his humor, though playful as it appeared, was often merciless on fools and bullies.
Bausch ended by reading a story by Garrett about a young writer who saves up enough money to buy a very expensive fountain pen. At the cash register, the woman behind the counter turns her nose up at him. "There are people starving around the world," she says. "And you want to spend this much money on a fountain pen? You should be ashamed of yourself." The young writer pauses for a moment, then describes a series of impossible things the pen can do, like allowing him to fly and so on, and ends by saying, "and if you stick it up your ass you can sing more sweet songs than a Georgia mockingbird."
Others read selections from Garrett's poetry, recalled his days as a football player at Princeton and as amateur boxer, described his love of irony and malapropisms, told more stories of his generosity and playfulness, and tried to describe a man who was both, as writer Allen Weir put it, your favorite uncle and literary maestro.
But perhaps the most astute characterization came from Hollins College writing program director R.H. Dillard, one of Garrett's oldest and dearest friends, who told a parable of Garrett's life. When Garrett was about five years old, said Dillard, he was at a formal Catholic religious ceremony and unprompted he left his mother's side and walked up to the front of the church and took hold of the bishop's hand.
"He did not let go of the bishop's hand during the entire ceremony," said Dilliard. "And people took it as a sign. People thought he was going to be a priest, or maybe even a bishop, but they at first interpreted it wrong.
"Parables are hard to pin down," Dillard explained, "they evolve and grow richer over time. But there is one solid truth in this one: when George took your hand in friendship, he did not let go."