Urban Tulsa Weekly Features Michael Wallis

Larger Than Life
by Mike Easterling

Michael Wallis remembers well the first time it occurred to him that being a writer seemed like a pretty good way to make a living.

At age 12, the Rockville, Mo., youth entered an essay contest sponsored by the American Automobile Association on “What It Means to Be a School Patrol Boy.” Wallis’ entry won first place, and the budding young writer was rewarded with a trip to a St. Louis Cardinals baseball game.

On the day of the game, Wallis and his father were delighted when a limousine pulled up in front of their suburban St. Louis home. They climbed in the back, enjoying the ride to Sportsman’s Park, the team’s ancient ballpark on the north side of the city. The elder Wallis was provided with a box seat just a few yards from the field and all the crisp, refreshing malt beverages he could drink, courtesy of the team’s ambitious owner, August “Gussie” Busch Jr., who was busy turning the small family operation he had inherited several years earlier into the world’s largest brewery, Budweiser.

The younger Wallis, meanwhile, was escorted down to the field and into the dugout. So excited he could barely breathe, he quickly found himself ensconced on the Cardinal bench between two of his heroes, third baseman Ken Boyer and outfielder Stan “the Man” Musial — the former on his way to becoming a St. Louis legend and the latter already there. To this day, Wallis can recall the peculiar aroma of sweat and tobacco juice, even urine, permeating the filthy, dank dugout, ballplayers being the vilest of professional athletes in terms of their personal habits.

But the young dugout visitor felt no revulsion to the smell. To him, it was merely another element in an experience that was nearly incomprehensible in its grandeur.

“I was catatonic,” Wallis said, laughing, recalling how he sat glassy eyed and slack-jawed among the spitting, swearing, crotch-scratching ballplayers for two and a half hours before the fabled Musial ended the proceedings with a walk-off homer in the bottom of the ninth to win it for the Redbirds — the perfect end to a perfect day for the young visitor.

Wallis and his father retired to their limo for the ride home, the vehicle’s windows rolled down to catch the cool evening breeze. Still glowing, the boy looked down at the baseballs in his lap — one autographed by Musial, the other by Boyer — then glanced at his father, who was still a little glassy-eyed himself, having enjoyed his fill of Mr. Busch’s signature product.

“You know,” father Wallis said to his son, “this writing is not a bad deal.”

Michael Wallis grinned at his dad and nodded his agreement before glancing out his window as the limo zoomed back toward Rockville. Not a bad deal at all, he thought.

You can’t exactly draw a straight line from that moment to the life Michael Wallis enjoys today, more than five decades later, but there’s no overstating the impact that experience had on the Missouri native. Wallis, who moved to Tulsa in 1982, so enjoyed his first taste of success as a writer that, after a stint in the Marine Corps and college, he made words his career.

And what a career it’s been. Best known as the author of the seminal 1990 book “Route 66: The Mother Road,” Wallis finds himself on a publicity tour celebrating the May 16 release of his 16th book, “David Crockett: The Lion of the West,” while his 17th effort, “The Wild West 365” hit bookstores on May 1.

After all these years, and despite all that success, Wallis — who will turn 66 soon, a rather important milestone for a man whose name has become synonymous with the world’s most famous highway — still loves writing, though he finds it as difficult as ever to get started.

“When I really, truly enjoy writing is after I finally make myself do it,” he said. “Oftentimes, and I know I’ve talked to others who write, and they’ve had the same experience — it seems like I try to do every other thing I can before writing, and not just because I’m a procrastinator.

“But when the phone’s off, when the Internet’s off, when it’s quiet and still, and it’s just me and that chair and that keyboard, that’s when I’m happiest. And I ask myself, ‘Why don’t I remember that?’ Despite the fact it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, it’s also the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

It’s also something that gets more difficult all the time, he says.

“I’m always trying to do better, to live up to a reputation you’ve tried to achieve,” he said. “You try not to let down the readers who have followed you, but, more than that, I try not to let down myself. There’s a great obligation that comes with writing.”

A long line of legends

Michael Wallis has been writing about larger-than-life characters throughout his career — bank robber Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd, the late Cherokee Chief Wilma Mankiller and especially gunslinger Billy the Kid. But among the subjects he has chosen to tackle, only the Kid comes close to matching the outsized myth that accompanies the focus of Wallis’ latest book, “David Crockett: The Lion of the West.”

Wallis himself wonders which legend has grown larger over the years.

“It’s hard to say, if you would go to a village in eastern Europe or Miami Beach or Ontario and said, ‘Have you heard of Davy Crockett?’ or ‘Have you heard of Billy the Kid?’, it would be interesting to see which one would end up with the most tallies,” he said. “They’re so vastly different in every aspect. But the thing they do have in common is that both of these men certainly became legends in their own time, especially Crockett.

“Much of the mythmaking and the continued story of the Kid went on after his demise, and then from time to time has been brought back up and rejuvenated, so to speak. Same with Crockett, except that Crockett truly was a major personality in America by the time he was in his forties.”

One thing Crockett was not, Wallis says, is the character as he was portrayed either by Fess Parker during the 1950s ABC-TV series or by John Wayne in the 1960 Hollywood blockbuster The Alamo. Not that Crockett would have minded those swashbuckling characterizations, Wallis believes.

“Like a lot of myths, he’s prone to clichés and stereotypes and myth,” he said. “And a lot of the myth, he had something to do with, you know. I think he rather enjoyed some of the things that went on.”

Of all the depictions of Crockett that have emerged in popular culture — and the man has been portrayed literally dozens of times in big- and small-screen versions of his story over the years, as well as countless books — Wallis said Billy Bob Thornton’s portrayal of him in director Ron Howard’s 2004 version of The Alamo comes closest to hitting the mark.

“But even that was off,” Wallis said.

Still, it is those whiz-bang, one-dimensional depictions of the iconic Tennessean that in many ways piqued Wallis’ interest in writing about him. In the book’s introduction, Wallis recalls the fascination with the Crockett character that poured over the America of Wallis’ youth.

“It’s hard for anyone born after, say, 1958 to recall the ‘Davy Crockett’ frenzy that swept American in the 1950s,” he writes. “So profound was the cultural inundation that no baby boomer can fail to recall this charismatic American hero’s name. Such recognition, to my way of thinking, is a good thing, but the veritable flood of misinformation about Crockett’s life that resulted — which I became aware of only later in the life, and which in part motivated me to write this book — created a mythology that continues to this day.”

Like millions of other American boys, Wallis was mesmerized that December night in 1954 when he sat down in the living room before his family’s 12-inch 1950 RCA Victor television for an episode of Disneyland, an anthology series that was showing the first installment of a three-part series on Crockett. Wallis characterizes that experience as an unforgettable one.

“I was a goner,” he writes. “Within only minutes, the larger-than-life Crockett, clad in buckskin and wearing a coonskin cap, had won me over. My fickle 9-year-old heart pounded.”

Wallis, and the other boys in his neighborhood, couldn’t have been more devoted to their new hero.

“Davy Crockett quickly became our obsession,” he writes. “Until he came into our lives, we had mostly played cowboys and Indians; other times, we went to war as pretend soldiers, using the helmets and canteens our fathers and uncles brought home from the war. The nearby woods where we skinny-dipped in the creek turned into our hunting ground for imaginary ferocious bears like the ones Davy stalked. The dusty hill topped by a stand of oaks on the edge of the playground became our Alamo, and every day we pretended we were in a pitched battle against the forces of Santa Anna. We became Davy Crockett, William Travis, and Jim Bowie, the trio of legendary Alamo heroes. No one wanted to be with the Mexican side, so our enemy, as if borrowing a page from the cold war, was largely invisible. In the end, we died anyway, just as our heroes did so long ago, but we knew we would miraculously be resurrected the next day and come back for another round of combat.”

By the summer of 1955, Wallis’ Crockett obsession had reached a fever pitch. He and his parents loaded up their dark green 1952 Plymouth and headed south out of St. Louis for Tennessee for their vacation. Young Wallis — his new coonskin cap perched atop his head — impatiently endured the stops at such tourist attractions as the Ryman Auditorium, home of the Grand Ole Opry, and Hermitage, home and final resting place of President Andrew Jackson. For him, the highlight of the trip would be the time the family spent in a motel in Gatlinburg, a resort town near Crockett’s birthplace in eastern Tennessee.

Wallis delighted in soaking his feet in the Little Pigeon River and riding a ski lift to the top of Crockett Mountain, glimpsing black bears in the distance. His imagination ran wild.

“I slept in my coonskin hat,” he writes.

The family learned from the woman who ran the motel that there was a wild blackberry patch just up the road, and when Wallis and his father returned to the establishment one day with a load of freshly picked berries, the woman whipped them up a batch of blackberry cobbler. The boy quickly dubbed it “Crockett Cobbler,” labeling it the best he had ever eaten. When the family returned home, it did so with two empty milk cartons crammed full of blackberries in the ice chest. Crockett Cobbler was about to become a staple in the Wallis household.

“Now, all these many years later, I still cherish the memories of that trip,” Wallis writes. “I think of it whenever I take out a photograph of my father and me sitting on the living room sofa. He is clowning around and has me hold a napkin to my chin while spoon-feeding me Crockett Cobbler. On my head is my coonskin hat. For the life of me, I cannot remember whatever happened to it.”

Setting the record straight

The heavily romanticized and carefully constructed Crockett of legend, in many instances, differs sharply from the real man, Wallis would discover in the course of writing “Lion of the West.” Deconstructing a myth can be a tricky business, but the journalist and historian in Wallis wouldn’t allow him to do anything else when it came time to creating his portrait of his childhood hero.

That’s the way it’s always been with him, he says.

“These kinds of people interest me, whether it’s Frank Phillips or Billy the Kid or Pretty Boy Floyd or Davy Crockett or Cyrus Stephens Avery,” Wallis said, reciting the list of individuals who have found their way into his books over the years. “I’m interested in human beings who are just that. And I like to approach them and present them in their human form.

“I don’t want to go to one extreme or the other. All of them have something in common, as far as the human condition. As they saying goes, they all put their trousers on one leg at a time. Now, some of them might have had fancier trousers than the others, but they had that in common. And I think it’s interesting to show their foibles, their shortcomings, show their strengths, whether I’m writing about an outlaw or an oil baron or an Indian chief or whatever. And Crockett is certainly one of those.

“I just like to set the record straight, you know,” he said. “That’s the main thing. That’s always been a goal of mine, as a journalist and a writer of books — set the record straight. Tell the truth as best you can.”

Wallis certainly does that with “Lion of the West.” His retelling of the Crockett legend may not satisfy those who prefer their heroes to have the depth of cardboard cutouts, but it is a balanced, insightful and, above all, well-told story that demonstrates its author’s obvious affection for its central character. There are more than a few surprises.

First, Wallis finds it necessary to dispel a few tall tales that linger from “The Ballad of Davy Crockett,” the theme song to the ABC-TV series that became a No. 1 hit in 1955 on the Billboard charts, as sung by Bill Hayes. First and foremost, as the title of Wallis’ book makes clear, Crockett went by the first name David, never Davy, as Hayes sings in the famous refrain.

In fact, not much of the tune has a foot in reality.

“He was not born on a mountaintop,” Wallis said. “He was born pretty close to some mountains. He certainly did not ‘kill him a b’ar when he was only three.’ However, he did kill plenty of bears as a young man and adult.”

Indeed, Crockett was such a prolific hunter, he once killed 105 bears in a single season.

“He was a professional hunter,” Wallis said. “That’s what he did.”

But it is the enduring visual image of Crockett outfitted in buckskin and a coonskin cap that sticks in the minds of most Americans. Wallis maintains that, too, is a figment of Hollywood’s imagination.

“He hardly ever wore coonskin,” he said. “And certainly, when he went to Congress and even in later years, he was not decked out in buckskins. In fact, at the Alamo, there were witnesses who say that he was dressed like a gentleman. When he was in Congress, he was wearing a proper waistcoat, trousers and so forth, and looked the role of this congressman from rural Tennessee.”

Even so, Wallis says, many of the embellishments about Crockett’s life and personal style began with the man himself.

“When you’re a bigger-than-life character, and you have this very — for him — useful and expansive way of telling stories, the ability to be somewhat self-effacing but tell stories on yourself, there tends to be a bit of exaggeration,” he said. “I mean, every good storyteller keeps making the story better. I know that from personal experience.

“Certainly, Crockett knew that. And he discovered that storytelling ability early on, especially early in his political career when he was still running for state office before he went to Congress, giving the good, old-fashioned stump speeches — and they were very good.”

Crockett was the 19th century equivalent of a good ol’ boy, Wallis says, as much an entertainer as a politician.

“Most of what he was telling people had nothing to do with policy or what he thought he was going to do,” Wallis said. “I mean, he was quite naïve when he first got into politics. But he would tell stories on himself or some of his exploits, hunting bears, using some of those country parables and so forth.”

Crockett was also a crafty campaigner, being sure to budget enough money to hand out party favors to those who came to listen to him.

“That was very important,” Wallis said. “To be able to dole out some whiskey or a twist of tobacco endeared him to many a voter, which, of course, back in that time, were all white males. And it worked very well.”

Indeed, Crockett’s approach to campaigning got him elected to Congress in 1826. Again, the popular notion of Crockett as a guileless, rough-and-tumble, Indian-fighting woodsman unskilled in the realities of politics doesn’t really gibe with reality, Wallis said.

“I think he was a fairly quick study,” he said of Crockett the politician. “He was never a stellar congressman, but he worked at it. He certainly had his share of detractors, but he also had a good many friends. And he himself was always a populist. He felt like he was there representing people like himself, who came from his circumstances. He was there for the common man and woman, people of what was at that time the frontier, the far west, as far as the Anglo population went. And he wanted to help them out, the humble squatters who were just sitting on some Indian land out there, and try to help them get their piece of the American Dream, so to speak.”

Crockett was very much a man of his time, Wallis said — one who owned slaves despite having emerged from a poor childhood in which his own father had indentured him out from time to time to pay off his own debts. His formal education was extremely limited, but Crockett far from being a dumb redneck, Wallis maintains.

“He was not illiterate,” he said. “He could write. And we have some of his letters. He wasn’t exactly William Shakespeare, but for his day and his time and his station, he wrote a fairly good letter. He read Shakespeare.”

In the course of writing the book, Wallis unearthed a gem in regard to his subject’s reading habits — a copy of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” that once had belonged to Crockett. Wallis acknowledged he was quite surprised to realize Crockett had tackled a volume of such weight.

“It was not in Latin,” he said. “It had been translated, and it was a schoolboy’s edition. But I didn’t think he could read, probably, or very little, even if he did go to Congress.”

But it was what happened after Crockett left Congress — his ill-fated decision to go to Texas and join the Anglo revolution that was taking place there — that really intrigues most Americans and serves as the foundation for so much of his legend. Again, Wallis has a much different take on that.

“In researching and writing this book, I’ve come away with a whole other look than I was starting to accept about the so-called Texas Revolution and the Alamo,” he said. “I make a point in here that Texas claims Crockett as their own. He was definitely not a Texan. He was a Tennessean. I even say in there that actually what Crockett did was help invent Texas.”

Talk about tricky territory. Wallis understands how fiercely protective Texans are of their creation myth, of the glorious Battle of the Alamo, yet he doesn’t blink when he asserts that many of the leaders of the Texas “revolution” were simply land speculators or others running out on their debts, wives or other problems back home. That’s not to say there weren’t a lot of good people involved, he acknowledges. But it certainly wasn’t “these pioneer types in gingham bonnets,” he noted drily.

And many of those émigrés from the American South had a strong ulterior motive for seeking Texas independence: they badly wanted to keep their slaves, something that was prohibited under the Mexican Constitution, he said.

Eventually, Wallis said, so many Anglos were moving to Texas that Mexican officials were forced to stop them. Wallis grinned as he expressed his reaction to that.

“I find it so ironic that Mexico was having this problem with these gringos, and now, what is one of the hotbeds of anti-immigration but Texas?” he said. “Of course, Oklahoma is another state settled by Anglos — Sooners and Boomers — who were illegal immigrants, too. In the end, people just don’t learn from their history.”

Wallis said he is anxious to see how his book plays in Texas, not just because of his willingness to tackle those issues, but also his conclusion that Crockett initially survived the fighting at the Alamo only to be executed later. That contention is based on a 1955 book purportedly based on the memoirs of a Mexican officer named de la Pena who was present at the battle and who claims he witnessed the killing of Crockett and six other survivors who had surrendered.

Wallis believes the memoir to be genuine, though others have disputed its authenticity and rejected it. Wallis knows the diary is a major point of contention among Crockett historians.

“As I say in the book, in the long run, it doesn’t really matter how he died,” he said. “The fact is that David Crockett, at age 49, ended his very colorful life at a place called the Alamo.

“But me personally? I don’t believe he was the last man to die or one of the last swinging his rifle. Nor do I believe he fled as a coward (as other tales have indicated). I really accept the de la Pena account.”

Wallis prefers to view what transpired at the Alamo as “pure theater, and an ideal venue for Crockett, who was at center stage,” as he writes. “His participation in the quintessential event in Texas history was all part of the drama that had been playing out for the almost half century that he lived. And the final scene took place at the Alamo. The curtain calls, however, never cease for the Davy Crockett of imagination. The Alamo is what most people think of when they hear his name.”

Nevertheless, Wallis believes, it is a serious mistake to view everything that happened to Crockett before he met his demise in San Antonio de Bexar on March 6, 1836, as mere prologue.

“In the end, Crockett was a uniquely American character and formidable hero in his own right,” he writes. “He should not be judged by his death but rather by his life, including the good, the bad and the shades of gray. Consider him as a legend and a hero, but always bear in mind that he was a man willing to take a risk. That was what he symbolized, and that is how he should be remembered.”

A man of the people

Even by his own lofty standards, this is an exceptionally prolific period in Michael Wallis’ career. In addition to his two new books, a new version of his 1992 biography “Pretty Boy: The Life and Times of Charles Arthur Floyd” is due out June 6, while he has reprised his role as the Sheriff in the Disney/Pixar computer animated feature Cars 2, which will hit theaters June 24.

He also serves as co-executive director of the Route 66 Alliance, a national organization headquartered in Tulsa that promotes and preserves the historic roadway.

Wallis said he’s gotten busier and busier over the last few years as he has continued to develop his other talents — namely his deep, booming, mellifluous voice, an imposing instrument that immediately commands attention in a crowd. Wallis regularly does voice work for documentary films and museum narrations, and a few years ago, he found himself in such high demand as a public speaker, he had to get himself an agent.

Now, he says, that is one of his favorite activities.

“What I’ve found is, I love doing these speaking engagements, talking at town halls, talking at universities,” he said. “As I’ve said, I get as much creative satisfaction out of speaking as I do out of writing.”

Wallis estimates he makes 50 or 60 such appearances a year. They never become tiresome, he says.

“No, I really love it,” he said. “I really love speaking to people. It’s just another form of articulation, because I’m speaking about things I care about, things I know, things I have a passion for. And I think that comes through in the speeches. Fortunately, I like people, and I always have a good time afterward — much to some people’s chagrin, like a handler or a host, because I’ll stay and sign books, talk to people. To me, that’s what it’s all about — people.”

That affinity for wading into a crowd and mixing it up has led Wallis to weigh the idea of getting into national politics, he said.

“I was asked by several leaders in the Democratic Party to consider running for Congress from (the 1st) District,” he said. “And I must say I seriously considered it.”

Wallis said he’s been asked twice by Democratic leaders to run. Both times, he said, his wife Suzanne has encouraged him to do so, but Wallis found himself unwilling to make that leap.

“I have resisted for a lot of reasons, but mostly this — I think that I can do a good job and affect people and society by doing what I’m doing, just doing my work,” he said. “I’ll be 66 in October, so at this age, I plan to live many, many years. But I have totally paid my dues. I have got on a wild bronc and busted it, and now I’m having a great ride loping along here. And I’m not sure I want to leap off the back of this trusty steed on to the back of another bucking horse in Washington, D.C.

“But I’ve talked to plenty of people who believe I would get a lot of crossover votes. Wilma (Mankiller) and I used to kid each other. I’d say, ‘Why don’t you take the 2nd District, and I’ll take the 1st District. We’ll turn this state upside down. We’ll only be in for one term, but we’ll have a good time.’ ”

Wallis describes himself as a staunch liberal and understands that fact alone would make it difficult for him to win a congressional seat in Republican-dominated Oklahoma. But an even bigger hurdle, he believes, would be his insistence on maintaining his distance from lobbyists — something he swore to himself he’d do after serving as a newspaper reporter in the Texas state Capitol earlier his career and witnessing the undue amount of influence they had on the political process, and particularly on idealistic young office holders.

“I felt like if I became involved in political office, I would not allow a lobbyist of any sort — be it a lobbyist for the school teachers or for whiskey or guns or for something I believed in, like teachers — I would never allow them to buy me a single cup of coffee. And when I’ve told that to some political people, they’ve told me, ‘You’re going to have a hell of a hard time running.’ And I think I would, I think I would.”

So Wallis seems more than content to keep doing what’s he’s doing — knocking out books about subjects that intrigue him, making speeches and serving as a tireless champion for Route 66, his beloved Mother Road. Wallis’ bestselling book on the highway in 1990 triggered his rapid ascent up the publishing food chain, making him a household name in communities all along the route and beyond. His book tours now lead Wallis to regular guest spots on such programs as Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report or National Public Radio’s The Diane Rehm Show.

That’s a far cry from Wallis’ early days, when he found himself fresh out of the Marine Corps and enrolled in a basic Spanish class at the University of Missouri taught by an attractive young graduate student from El Paso named Senorita Suzanne Fitzgerald. The obnoxious Wallis — one of the worst Spanish students in history, by his own admission — kept trying to get her attention by throwing his hand up whenever she posed a question to the class. Wallis never had any idea what the answer was, but he found himself fearlessly spouting stream-of-consciousness gibberish in Spanish — or Wallis’ version of Spanish, anyway — whenever Fitzgerald called on him.

A flummoxed Fitzgerald endured this nonsense for several weeks, then finally wised up and quit calling on this smartass leatherneck. By mid-semester, Wallis was doing so poorly, he received a note from Fitzgerald, asking him to come by her office so the two could discuss his classwork. Wallis recalls Fitzgerald — who had an ironclad rule about fraternizing with students — handling herself in a prim-and-proper fashion as he took a seat in her cramped office.

“She said, ‘Senor Wallis, I had to call you in because I know you’re trying so hard, but you’re not really doing very well,’ ” he said. “I’m going to be forced eventually by the university to send a letter to your parents.’ Now, I hadn’t lived at home for some years, and I had been in the Marines, I had been married, I had bounced around. I said, ‘Well, Senorita, you do what you think’s best.’

“And I went back to class and finished up that semester. And she told me sometime later, she was looking at that grade book, those final grades, and she said, ‘You really richly deserved an F, but I just couldn’t do it.’ She gave me a D-minus.”

The next semester, the two bumped into each other in the student union and began a friendship, with Fitzgerald even serving as Wallis’ tutor as he limped through his next Spanish course. Eventually, they would become romantically involved and wound up in Santa Fe together. Wallis treasures the time he spent in that city in the late 1960s and early 1970 rubbing elbows with the likes of writer Frank Waters, photographer Laura Gilpin and painter Dorothy Brett, who gave Wallis a double-headed ax that once belonged to her friend D.H. Lawrence. It was there, on the streets and in the bars of Santa Fe, Wallis said, that he picked up his graduate degree in life from those who had come there before him to write and paint and ruminate on life. Wallis called them “the keepers of the old wisdom,” and he availed himself of their perspectives at every opportunity.

After a while, he and Fitzgerald parted ways. But they crossed paths again in the early 1980s when Wallis was working in Miami in the Caribbean bureau of Time magazine. This time, their relationship clicked, and in 1982, they were married and moved to Tulsa.

Since then, Wallis said, his erstwhile Spanish teacher — who went on to run her own highly successful public relations firm in Tulsa for many years — has become integral to his success as a writer.

“Anytime I write something, the first person who sees it is Suzanne,” he said. “That’s because I trust Suzanne so much. I can’t tell you how important she is to me in every way. I would not be the person I am today nor be in the position I am today without Suzanne.

“The best thing that every happened to me in my life was to stumble into that Spanish classroom in Columbia, Mo. There is no doubt in my mind that is the best thing that ever happened to me. She just backs me, but she certainly is her own person. As I’ve said to many people, Suzanne does an incredibly good job of not allowing me to believe my own publicity. We’re good partners.”

Success at last

When he looks back on the moments that have made a tremendous impact on his life, Wallis still recalls that ride home in a limousine with his father in St. Louis in the 1950s. In his mind, it serves as perhaps the perfect bookend for another enjoyable moment, one that took place in 2008 when Wallis was on a book tour stop in Santa Fe to promote the release of his “Billy the Kid: The Endless Ride” biography.

Wallis arose one morning in his suite at La Fonda, the historic hotel at the end of the Santa Fe Trail that has witnessed, and been a part of, so much of that city’s 400-year history. As he sat on his terrace overlooking the Plaza and sipping his coffee, he perused that morning’s edition of The New York Times that had been left at his door. Inside was a glowing review of “Billy the Kid.”

Nearly 40 years earlier, Wallis had been a poor, aspiring writer in Santa Fe, struggling to pay his $50-a-month rent or scrape together $1 a day to pay a lunchtime visit to a buddy who was a bartender at La Fonda. For that modest sum, Wallis could enjoy a shot of Jack Daniels and a bowl of piping hot tortilla chips and queso. Miraculously, as Wallis recalls, smiling, that shot of whiskey stayed topped off as long as he sat at the bar wiling away the afternoon.

It was during one of those leisurely, boozy lunchtime visits to the cantina that Wallis was introduced to Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Thornton Wilder, author of “Our Town.” Wallis wound up spending four days in Wilder’s company, picking his brain about writing and life. The things he learned over those four days, he said, were invaluable.

Wallis lowered his copy of the Times and thought about those days as he looked across the Plaza that morning in 2008, comparing them to his current circumstances. Finally, he could allow himself the luxury of believing he had made it, that he had become a success, perhaps in his own way becoming one of those keepers of the old wisdom and doing his part to pass a little of it along to the younger generation.

“It was just a magical, magical time,” Wallis said of his younger days in Santa Fe, which he still visits several times a year. “I was full of piss and vinegar, full of idealism. Hopefully, I’ve kept that in my life. I’ve tried to.”


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