THR Web Features   /   June 1, 2023

Starting Out

When the going was good for a fledgling writer.

James Conaway

( THR illustration/The Historic New Orleans Collection.)

This story begins during the presidency of Lyndon Johnson in the mid-sixties and ends in the early years of the twenty-first century. Better put, it begins the year of the Watts riots in Los Angeles and Jefferson Airplane’s debut at the Matrix in San Francisco and ends with Abu Ghraib and the tyranny of the Internet.

In many ways that half-century had more in common with the previous thousand years than with those in which we now live. Passing out of existence was the idea that truth’s eternal, literature sacrosanct, and the written word matters whether in the pages of novels or on sheets of newsprint flowing from once-ubiquitous newspapers.

Words sustained and made you a happier person, sometimes even a solvent one. It took craft, talent, and luckdefinitely that. My wife Penny and I lived an interesting and by some standards adventurous life. I produced over that half century many articles and books, three of them bestsellers. Some of what I wrote inspired beneficial change, but I would be hard pressed to prove it.

The leap was long and the plunge deep, but, in those days, there was usually someone down there with a dry towel. Young writers are often deprived of that today—or, at best, the towel is wet. Older writers are left to shiver.

For the moment, though, let me linger on those earlier days.


We live straight up Ashbury Street in San Francisco, past stair-stepped white facades alternately in liquid light, fog, and near-horizontal squalls, our lives imbued with the smells of fresh-baked sourdough and eucalyptus and lavender standing like purple sentinels in window boxes.

There are no window boxes in front of the dilapidated mansion that houses us and an indeterminate number of others in 1965. Our bedroom, once the maid’s, is now full of ravaged antiques deserted by the owner when she fled to the Peninsula. Students, aspiring artists, and hippies come and go like extras in a period drama while I sit over my Remington portable in the kitchen, looking from the keys to the cracked white enamel handles on the ancient stove to cats cavorting on the wall outside. I am trying to write fiction while keeping the furnace going in the basement for a reduction in rent, and Penny is working for real money at Pacific Bell on the other side of town.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s old crowd in City Lights bookstore in North Beach is gone, Mario Savio’s preaching revolution across the Bay, and drugs and politics seem to be supplanting all else. The Summer of Love will soon ruin this neighborhood, and I have sold nothing I’ve written.

We have friends and would-be writers less focused on the challenges of the present than on the legendary lives and work of the Lost Generation—Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Pound. One has a trust fund and sleeps every morning in his study instead of writing. Another’s girlfriend has a trust fund and he writes absurdist fiction, Catch-22 style but without war, danger, or death. Another produces artful short stories and publishes them, supplementing his income with real-estate deals in San Francisco.

The New York agent of a literary friend sends my short story, “The Abecedarian,” out to university quarterlies. I doubt, however, that this makes me a writer. If the story sells, I might earn a hundred dollars, less the ten percent commission. Meanwhile, Penny is pregnant.

We move back to Palo Alto, where we met, and into a tear-down with a fig tree of biblical fecundity in the yard. I cut a hole in the shed roof—rain is not expected until November and, hey, this is the sixties—to allow in light so I can sit and try to write. In the back yard, I dig a hole to accommodate Penny’s burgeoning stomach, so she can sunbathe comfortably while working her way through Light in August, her long auburn hair fanned out on the grass. I watch her acquire the lovely honied hue of summer while tenderly turning pages of the novel, a symphony of measured growth, inside and out. The sight of her inspires me far more than the sight of typewriter keys or the square of unblemished California sky above.

While at Stanford the year before I finished a short novel about working for a commercial fisherman’s helper on the Mississippi River, but it wasn’t as good as it should have been. Wallace Stegner had given me the grant, but he was a tough nut, either discomfitingly honest or silent. The novelist Robert Stone working on his first book, Hall of Mirrors, was considerate in his remarks, and Max Apple, author of amusing short stories, diplomatic. “Some of Jim’s writing I will never forget,” Max said when my final chapter had been read. But it would go publisher-less and one day go out with the trash.

My friend Dick Todd and I play chess in the water tower above his and Susan’s place in Los Altos Hills, while she and Penny visit and cook below. In those days you could see straight across empty, rolling meadows all the way to the foothills, never suspecting that all this would disappear beneath the hard edges of what became Silicon Valley.

Penny’s pregnancy has focused all minds, particularly mine. You cannot support a wife and child as a freelance writer, everybody says. But I rejected teaching as a profession long ago and the only alternative I can think of is newspapers, those mundane, gray bundles of pulp that just might show a clueless English major like me how the world functions. But what newspaper would hire one with no journalistic experience?

I decide to find out. The nine months I spent listening to Stone’s aborning novel attracted me to New Orleans, where Hall of Mirrors is set. Dark humor, gritty realism, a lot of good stuff to eat. The Times-Picayune is published in New Orleans, and my uncle in upriver Memphis, where I grew up, is the editor of the Commercial Appeal. No doubt he knows the Picayune’s editor, and, if I asked, would my uncle call him and announce my availability? Would the editor of the Times-Picayune care? He might. If so, Penny’s increasingly taut, bronzed, and beautiful belly might just deliver us all.   


Hurricane Betsy and I arrive at roughly the same time, it looking for a billion-dollar landfall and I for an apartment. I have driven alone from California in our old Volkswagen, lost money in Las Vegas I could not afford to lose, and barely slept.

The second floor of an old house on Pleasant Street, equidistant from the Garden District and the rough environs of Magazine Street, looks good to me—floor to ceiling windows, rooms laid out so-called shotgun style—one for Penny and me and another for our beautiful, new-born son, Brennan.

I give the widow downstairs a deposit and run for shelter. A friend from Memphis has a garage apartment farther uptown, and that night we sit up drinking Dixie beer and listening to the death rattle of the palms outside. At midnight we go out for an unwise stroll, our hats vanishing, rain tearing at our faces. Power lines dance as if possessed and trees shed leaves like evening gloves.

The next morning, we find prostrate live oaks lying all around, under a gun-metal sky. My friend works at Whitney Bank and I am to begin a try-out the Times-Picayune. So we put on our suits and ties, get into his pea-green Chevy with tail fins, and roll over a carpet of broken glass, boards, and ravaged vegetation.

Shadowy men who live in the missions and cheap hotels around Lafayette Square stand outside the Cave-In bar on a colossal morning-after. I walk across to the darkened building housing the newspaper and climb to the editorial department, the deserted floor branded by a century’s worth of cigarette butts. I sit and read back issues of the Picayune until a silhouette appears on the far side of the room—the city editor, carrying his suit jacket over one shoulder.

“I’m Jim Conaway,” I say. “I’m the new reporter.”

He shakes his head, turns, gazes at the curtains trailing from broken windows across the square, and says, “Go out and write a story about the effects of the storm on the city.”

I know little about New Orleans and nothing about writing newspaper stories. I wander from Poydras Street down to the French Quarter, eat a bowl of turtle soup in the only restaurant I can find open, talk to people outside their houses who have lost shingles and have water in their basements, write it all down in my spiral notebook, and go back to the office to eke something out. It appears on the front page of the first edition with a byline because no other reporter showed up in time to write a better story.

I missed the real one, which is down in the Ninth Ward, the city’s lowest and poorest. During the next two weeks I learn most everything I need to know about daily journalism, working sometimes fourteen hours a day and experiencing for the first time in my life, if by proxy, what most of humanity faces regularly: violence, deprivation, hunger, unbearable sadness. About eighty people have died during Betsy. The damage covers five thousand square miles and displaced a quarter of a million people, a stunning figure in those days. The flooding exposed the weakness of the levees and the inadequacy of the massive pumps that moved water ceaselessly from this shallow dish of a city unadvisedly built on mud.

The following day, in the chaos of the municipal auditorium which has been commandeered as a refugee shelter, a distraught black man pleads with me to find a daughter lost in the flood. I can’t help him. Then a mother with stunned children in tow inquires about drinking water, patient in her desperation. Again, I am of no use, journalism’s limitations suddenly obvious and its dubious privileges, too. People here move as if in slow motion, confused, resigned. There is stealing, though most of that is practiced by insurance companies. I am stealing, too—peoples’ words and their predicaments, stowing them in my notebook, and carrying them back to the fourth floor of the Picayune and into the cacophony of typewriters, lighting up a Camel, pounding a big, ancient machine built by Remington.

The job, it seems, is the creation of an inky simulacrum of what I have observed but far from the thing itself. The subjects—the perfect word—are still out there trying to survive while my colleagues and I have our feet on the desks, waiting for the edits. Street names, maybe a word questioned, but mostly not much. So this is journalism: Observe disaster, close to reality but still so far, force yourself to stand and ask the questions, even though as a southerner you know this to be rude. Write down the answers, publish them. You’re not really part of this society but a strange, inquisitive offshoot, essentially a freak.

Despite all of this, it feels good to get it done. Sometimes it even feels right.


The arbiter of everything is either Fritz Harsdorf, city editor, or Vincent Randazzo, the assistant city editor who sent me out on that first assignment. He is a tough, taciturn New Orleanian devoid of sentimentality but not of humor, marking up stories with a black pencil and tossing them into the tray as though they are contaminated, a hint of a smile indicating that you have gotten away with something.

Fritz is easier on reporters’ egos, a frail Texan amused by the bizarreness of New Orleans, kind, obliging, funny. He grows his own vegetables, I later learn, and has to get drunk each spring in order to thin his precious new carrots.

“Trial by fire!” the editor himself calls out to me, emerging from his corner office brandishing the newspaper. He is George Healy, a bluff, sometimes overbearing man who has given me a chance. He has his own locked toilet stall in the men’s room and an entitled air, something all editors-in-chief have in common, as I am to learn.

Healy is off to drinks at the august Boston Club on Canal Street. Vince and Fritz invite me to the Katzejammer bar across Lafayette Square, where Picayune staff can always be found, including pressmen still in their paper hats, general assignments reporters like me, lesser editors, and the troubled and sometimes damned. Booze has a hand on everybody’s shoulder in this city. Even photographers working in the developing room come and go with small glasses of gin riding perilously in the pockets of their baggy trousers. Whiskey wields almost as much influence as food: Galatoire’s lunchtime Martinis are famous in their thick, cut-crystal tumblers, with olives the size of duck eggs stuffed with garlic cloves; the Sazarac was invented in the Sazarac bar of the Roosevelt Hotel a few blocks from the office; and pouring a pousse-café is required even in the lowly Katzenjammer
I stick with beer and have no stories to tell. California is another universe and of little interest to these newsmen who live in the hard-edged present, telling stories with an immediacy impossible to match. What they live for is the work, admirable because they have to constantly discern the difference between news and innuendo, and the speed with which they determine what a story is, and what isn’t, impresses me deeply.

I leave and catch the green trolley back up St. Charles Avenue, leaning out a window and watching the scarred downtown give way to big live oaks left standing after the storm, draped with Spanish moss. The acrid electric flash of the cable overhead is that of the San Francisco trolleys, but these are work horses. Penny and Brennan await, little B in his stroller, Penny’s big smile framed in the floral profusion of St. Charles and Pleasant Street.

Our balcony runs the length of the south side and overlooks another garden dense with semi-tropical profusion. We cook on an improvised grill while Brennan crawls, then walks holding the pickets and peering through at a world almost as new to us as to him. The apartment costs ninety dollars a month and has a working fireplace. We gather lengths of wood on the docks left when the cargoes have been loaded and burn it in when the evenings turn chilly.

Wherever we go, we eat. Wondrous gusts of garlic blow out of restaurant exhaust fans, and the smell of coffee roasting over in the Irish Channel suffuses the westerly breeze. Everywhere lurk the smells of life at its most basic: decaying oyster shells paving side roads, the silty immensity of the Mississippi, a million things growing. Creole tomatoes dance with andouille sausage, crabs in every imaginable guise, pearly oysters emerging in the muscular hands of black shuckers in Felix’s and the Acme in the Quarter.

Po’boys, crawfish étouffée, oysters again—Bienville this time, named for Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, Sierra de Bienville, founder of New Orleans in 1718—headcheese, lamb chops as big as baseballs, remoulade sauce, red beans and rice, roast beef and gravy slathered on French bread, gumbo Yaya. On a road trip to Grand Isle with Brennan, we eat fresh shrimp and watch the mother ships coming in with nets spread like wings over dark water while mosquitoes creep across the beach into the wind like tiny carnivorous birds.


My title is general assignments reporter, which means the rubber chicken circuit, listening to businessmen and politicians make speeches at International House or the Press Club. Louisiana’s ruddiest senator, Hale Boggs, sets his bourbon aside one day to tell me, “You’re a wonderful reporter!” I believe him and make the mistake of asking which of my stories he has read when in fact he has read none. He laughs anyway, one arm around my shoulder.

I cover a Veterans of Foreign Wars event where men in little pointed caps heavy with gold cord play trombone and tuba. I am thinking this could be covered in a different way, amused and ironic instead of dutiful, amplifying the bouncy peans to glorious service in distant wars that were not the hated Vietnam one, where we are losing. I’ve read this new author, Tom Wolf, who seems to have found a new way to write about American exuberance. But vets are not the right subject to try this with since neither Vince nor Fritz would let it into the newspaper.

Inherent in the city’s overwhelming present is a very palpable past. You hear it in footsteps on the old wooden stairs of the Pontalba apartments that flank Jackson Square, in the tugboat whistles and the hawking of produce in the Decatur Street market. Life has not yet been squeezed out of history; the past was not yet laminated because it is still being lived.

You feel it in the moldering depths of the Cabildo and the pews of St. Louis Cathedral, where parishioners outnumber tourists and mass is said as it has been for two hundred years. You see it in 14-foot ceilings and the superstructures of the ships rising above the warehouses along Front Street, hear it in the clatter of the trolley, feel it on cobblestones through the soles of your shoes, and touch it in the wrought-iron on street-flush Gallic balconies and ornate pagan faces carved into hidden fountains, in cascading bougainvillea sighing in the night breeze.


The book editor gives me books to review, which makes me feel connected to publishing. On the combined news and magazine stand on Royal Street just off Canal I discover a copy of The Texas Quarterly that contains “The Abecedarian,” an unlikely find that makes me preposterously proud. New Orleans has a real literary history: Sherwood Anderson lived in the Pontalba Apartments on St. Louis Square, and Faulkner worked on Soldier’s Pay in an apartment above Pirate’s Alley. Tennessee Williams was a regular. Poor doomed Malcolm Lowry lived for a time on St. Ann, and F. Scott Fitzgerald corrected the proofs of This Side of Paradise on Prytania Street, just blocks from our house.

I learn that the police beat is opening up, the least glamorous job of all but one that comes with its own office in the combined courthouse, parish prison, and police headquarters—the dreaded “cop house.” So I trade the lovely old St. Charles Avenue trolley for the Claiborne Street bus and ride through tenement slums to the massive, stained marble edifice on Tulane Avenue. The office is shared by the afternoon paper, the States-Item—two desks shoved against opposite walls, a Royal Crown Cola clock on the wall forever strangling on its cord, a row of lockers, and an ancient leather couch on which motorcycle cops napped with their boots on.

Wednesday is autopsy day in the morgue directly below us, and the essence of formaldehyde wafts up through floorboards singed by a century of dropped cigarettes. I have the day’s police report to complete, first tearing sheets off the teletype machine listing the horrors and iniquities so far beyond quotidian as to defy the imagination. I also have the courts to cover: Rapes, murders, acts of prostitution, embezzlements, assaults and batteries, theft await in their infinite variety.

I cannot manage without the help of Jack Dempsey, the other police reporter, an aging vet who knows every cop, judge, and official, including the coroner in the odiferous room below. Jack takes me down and introduces me to him and we chat next to the body of a young woman on a slab who has been cut straight up the middle and sewed tougher again with heavy cord. I force myself to look at those welts and at her pretty ruined face, never to forget the summary state of human affairs she represents, her assailant forever unknown and her grave-to-be, too.

The police beat is tricky politically, like everything else in New Orleans. The infamous Jim Garrison is the district attorney, tall, unsmiling, wall-eyed, a member of the establishment and despicable, hunting people he dislikes and making false accusations that will climax in his abortive “investigation” of the murder of John F. Kennedy.I learn a lot about legal procedure and human inequity sitting in those courtrooms, including the fact that elected judges take attractive female defendants into their locked chambers during recesses, to smirks and winks of flunkies who guard the doors. The underworld in all guises passes through those courtrooms, while on the other side of the walls hapless black men and women are jammed into cells in what had to be one of America’s most overcrowded prisons. Exposing some of that seems a good idea to me, but to no one else at the Times-Picayune.


I overhear a black man on the street talking to another describe New Orleans as “The Big Easy.” They are musicians and I assume he means that if you couldn’t make it in this city, you can’t make it anywhere. I don’t think much about the phrase at the time, but it will come back to me one day like a hand on the shoulder.

Penny and I always planned to go to Europe, where neither of us has been, and suddenly it feels like time. The war in Vietnam is picking up and increasingly troubling, and living is cheaper over there than anywhere in America. We have enough money saved for a few months and can get more by selling our car. So we buy, by mail, a cheap little two-cylinder Citroen that you can crank with the tire iron if need be. It costs less than a thousand dollars if you pick it up in Paris.

We send Citroen a check, give the furniture to the Salvation Army, say goodbye to colleagues and friends, and put our clothes into the white trunk Penny took to college. It is the day before Mardi Gras and the cab to the train station takes us past floats being assembled and firetrucks hosing down streets for the mayhem to come.