A Tribute To Winston Groom

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By Anderson McKean and photos by Carolina Groom, Stephen Savage, and Kate Reali

On September 17, 2020, we said goodbye to beloved Southern writer Winston Groom. Amidst a hurricane and a pandemic, the literary legend slipped away unexpectedly, in the same quiet manner that he would often stop by Page & Palette. Without fuss or fanfare, he would visit the store to sign books, grab a cup of coffee, and chat with customers. A native of Mobile, Groom was the author of many books, including A Storm in Flanders, Forrest Gump, Better Times Than These, As Summers Die, and the prize-winning Civil War history Shrouds of Glory. His book Conversations with the Enemy was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. His most recent novel, The Patriots, is a combined biography of Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams, providing a fascinating history of the makings of America. While best known for Forrest Gump, which was adapted into an Academy Award-winning film, to those of us on the Eastern Shore, Groom was a gifted storyteller and avid historian. Our community was blessed to have such a talented author in our midst. 

When I think about Winston Groom, I remember that cool, dark study. I wandered into it the last time I went over to his house at Point Clear, and remember thinking how this was what a writer’s office was supposed to look like. It wasn’t just the dark wood or the good books on the wall, or the expensive bird guns leaning against the wall, or even the fact that the whole place just seemed to whisper, somehow, of a family history that was old and very, very Southern. It was that it fit him, fit the man. If I leaned shotguns against the wall in my office, spiders would nest in the barrels, and at least one a day would tumble over with an awful clang. But Winston could pull it off. He was comfortable there, with ghosts of the Old South. Now, I guess he is one of them. — Rick Bragg, author of It’s All Over But the Shoutin’

The classic Mercedes Benz convertible roadster, a two-seater 190-SL, wheeled into the unpaved parking lot at Judge Roy Bean, a saloon in Daphne before it burned to the ground in 2005. The top was down and part of the driver’s head protruded above the windshield. I was standing on the porch with Richard Shackelford. “Who’s the tall guy,” I asked. “A writer,” he said, “Winston Groom.” Richard introduced me to him. I’m 5’7” and I looked up at a man six-and-a-half feet tall. He had a military bearing that suited a serious demeanor. Imposing, some would say. Even that first brief meeting revealed that our politics didn’t match. He was a hardline conservative who had been an Army officer, a soldier under fire on the battlefield in the Vietnam War. I was a veteran of the same war, but a liberal and a sailor. We became good friends. Over the years, he was always generous and supportive. Winston contributed to anthologies I edited and refused pay. He wrote endorsements for the books I wrote, and for other authors whose books I supported in my Over the Transom Bookstore. And he gave me business advice, told me to be aware that book collectors sought not only the vintage volumes on my shelves, but also modern first editions. When his novel Forrest Gump went out of print after selling only 10,000 copies, he bought ten cartons of hardbacks from his publisher and stuck them under his bed. Winston said I should be on the lookout for other up-and-coming writers whose books might take off. “You’ll just have to use your eye for good writing,” Winston said, and “make educated guesses about saving back extra copies in case the book becomes a big hit.” Forrest Gump did just that. Almost a decade after publication, the movie came out and made the book an international bestseller. Turns out those first editions under Winston’s bed were each worth about $500 signed. And the copy of his book I later found for a dollar at the Goodwill store? Turned into a month’s rent for me with one flourish of Winston’s pen.   —Sonny Brewer, author of The Poet of Tolstoy Park

Winston Groom was one of a handful of authors we considered family at Page & Palette. He dropped in to the bookstore often and had a special relationship with our booksellers. We loved to discuss books we were reading and looked forward to hearing about whatever he was working on, counting the days until it would be completed. I especially remember when he came in about a decade ago and shared his love for Unbroken, Laura Hillenbrand’s inspiring story of WWII hero Louis Zamperini. Winston offered up something I’d never heard him say, “You’d better order plenty.” We did and agreed it was one of the best books ever written! A few years later, Page & Palette had the privilege of hosting Zamperini in commemoration of one of the last Honor Flights.  The USS Alabama Battleship Pavilion was packed with veterans, and Winston and I got to meet our hero. It was epic. We all considered ourselves incredibly fortunate to have known Winston. His absence has left a void that can never be filled. —Karin Wilson, owner of Page & Palette

Winston Groom was the rare breed of writer who could enthrall with both nonfiction and fiction, but it was his fiction that hit me where it matters: in the storytelling heart. His life is a testament and dedication to the written word; His work lives on in the hearts and shelves of those of us who need the written word to make sense of this wild life. —Patti Callahan, author of Becoming Mrs. Lewis

I met Winston Groom one time. It was in the Oyster Bar at Grand Central Station in New York City, 1984. He had written some really good books by 1984 but the Gump book was still two years away. I knew him then as a stylistic protege of Irwin Shaw, who I admired, and also as the ex-husband of my father’s girlfriend, Ruth Noble Groom, who my father would later marry. This is how I got to have a drink with him at the Oyster Bar. I wanted to ask him a question.

Winston took up a lot of space at the Oyster Bar. He was tall and solid and it seemed unnatural to see someone of that stature underground. He had a martini in progress by the time I arrived, and I ordered a beer because in 1984 the idea of what a martini could be eluded me. 

There was some small talk. I didn’t want to take too much of his time. I told him I was about to start becoming a writer. I was 25 years old. I had been working for my father for a while but that hadn’t worked out and so now I was going to start becoming a writer and wanted to ask him if he thought it would be a good idea for me to move to New York City to do that. 

No, he said. Bad idea. Terrible idea. Don’t do that. 

Okay, I said. Thanks. I won’t.

And that was pretty much it. 

Not really, though. I could have done the whole thing over the phone, of course, but there was something else I was after. In my quest in starting to become a writer from Alabama I thought it would be a good idea to meet a writer from Alabama, just to make sure it could be done. 

He was the first I ever knew. — Daniel Wallace, author, Big Fish

Winston was a dear friend and he changed my life in so many ways.  When they were making the movie Forrest Gump, the producers needed help capturing a “Point Clear accent.”  Winston told them to call me. So, I got a call from a famous dialect coach asking to record my voice for Tom Hanks to study.  About that time I was obsessed with running —which was kind of unusual at the time. When the movie came out, between my voice and the running, people kept trying to make me into “the Real Forrest Gump,” London’s Sunday Times and even The David Letterman Show. All because they thought Tom Hanks needed a little more of my Southern drawl.

That’s all I have to say about that. —  Jimbo Meador, 17 Turtles Gulf Outfitters