A Farewell to Winston Groom

Author Winston Groom left us with a collection of gripping histories, poignant novels and one of the most beloved fictional characters to ever come out of the South. But most of all, he left us wanting more.

Winston Groom working at his desk
Winston Groom at his residence in the Hamptons, 1978

It was never easy for Winston Groom to blend in. At 6 feet 5 inches, the author towered in every room he occupied, even as a young man. If blending in was the goal, he certainly didn’t do himself any favors in later years — upon his passing in September, at the age of 77, Groom had more than 20 books to his name, a Pulitzer Prize nomination and the elusive honor of having created a character that is firmly embedded in the national consciousness. In remembrance of Groom, the New York Times posited, “Forrest Gump became, like Huck Finn and Atticus Finch, to name two other fictional Southerners, a beloved American character.”

“He didn’t care about being in the spotlight much,” says wife Susan Groom. “If he was to receive an award, he’d be a little shy about it.”

Despite his eye-grabbing height and “Gump” (as he was known to refer to his 1986 novel), Groom often found solace in intimate conversations at the fringe of a party or at his summer retreat in North Carolina; after the release of the film version of “Forrest Gump,” he confessed that he “headed for the mountains to escape it all and didn’t answer the phone for a couple of months.”

Groom was raised and educated on Old Shell Road; as a cadet at University Military School (UMS), he found his niche as the editor of the school newspaper and yearbook. For a time, he considered becoming an attorney like his father, Winston, but he would come to find the law too dry. His mother, Ruth, was a high school teacher with a master’s thesis on Shakespeare. “So I had a dose of literature that way,” he noted. After returning from Vietnam and finding work as a reporter for the now-defunct Washington Star, Groom later revealed that he felt inspired to pursue his novelist aspirations in the wake of his mother’s death. 

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“It was the bravest thing I ever did,” he reflected. “I resigned and told them I was going to write a book.”

In Roy Hoffman’s 2007 profile of Groom in Garden & Gun, the author was asked what his mother would think of his writing success. “I’m not a big church-goer,” he told Hoffman, “but I think she’s seeing it.” 

He liked good-natured arguments and antique shotguns. He hated airplanes, disliked having his picture taken and loved the Crimson Tide. In a 2016 email with Groom in which I asked how he planned to watch Alabama’s season opener, he answered, “I will just have gotten back from the North Carolina mountains and am gonna watch it in my TV room with my wife Susan, dog Camellia and anyone else who promises not to talk during the plays. Boiled peanuts and cold beer.”

Winston Groom playing rugby with friends
As a reporter in D.C., Winston Groom (jumping) discovered rugby and threw himself into the sport. “He made so many great friends that way and stayed in touch with them through the years,” Mrs. Groom says.

At her home in Point Clear, Mrs. Groom flips through photographs of her late husband: Winston as a strapping, short-haired soldier in Vietnam; as a rugby player soaring skyward (“He loved playing rugby the years he lived in Washington, D.C.”); as a young novelist, sitting with his feet propped on his desk in the Hamptons, his English Sheepdog, Fenwick, posted at the door. 

Other photos show him drinking a beer with Willie Morris, a whiskey with Irwin Shaw — established writers who took to the curly-haired aspiring novelist, known for cruising around the Hamptons listening to bluegrass tapes in his Lincoln Continental. He would likewise fall in with the likes of Kurt Vonnegut, George Plimpton and Joseph Heller. 

“They exuded this electricity,” Groom told People magazine in a short profile in 1978, “and I guess I hoped some of it would rub off on me.” 

Perhaps it did. His first two novels, “Better Times Than These” and “As Summers Die,” were favorably reviewed, and his third book, the nonfiction “Conversations with the Enemy,” garnered a Pulitzer Prize nomination. Then came “Gump.” The short novel about a simple-minded Alabamian only took Groom six weeks to complete.

“I thought people would either think I was crazy or they’d love it,” he said. Published in 1986, “Forrest Gump” sold a respectable 30,000 hardback copies, but the blockbuster film it inspired resulted in a national frenzy, not to mention six Academy Awards. Upon seeing the film for the first time, at a special screening at Mobile’s Carmike Theater, Groom said he “sat there stunned when it was over.”

“Gump” always hovered over its author. In the most literal sense, the movie poster for the 1994 film had the preeminent spot over his writing desk, scrawled with handwritten notes from the cast. 

“Dear Mister Groom, I can only thank you and hope you’ll forgive my irregularities in this Forrest. Very respectfully, Tom Hanks.”

“Thanks so much for Mama Gump!!” reads another. “Yours forever, Sally Field.”

He clearly wasn’t smothered by the legacy of “Forrest Gump.” (After all, he put the poster there.) But you could hardly blame him if he was.  

“[‘Forrest Gump’] was the most fun I’ve ever had writing because I liked the character. I liked his voice.”

Winston Groom

“The night before [the Oscars], there was a big party,” he told Garden & Gun in 2019 in an interview celebrating the 25th anniversary of the film’s release. “I was talking to Hanks and he said, ‘I’m not sure you did me any favors here. They’re going to want me to play this character forever.’ 

“I told him I was in the same boat. The next book I wrote could be the Bible and all people would want to talk about is ‘Gump.’”

Winston Groom sailing with friends
From left to right, Jimbo Meador, George Radcliff and Groom enjoy a day on the water. Groom dedicated the novel “Forrest Gump” to his two buddies, not anticipating the national attention that the story’s success would bring to the men. “I think he appreciated his success, but he was very modest about it,” Mrs. Groom says. “The success he felt came through the satisfaction of people liking his books and wanting to talk to him about them.”

Groom dedicated the book to two of his best Mobile buddies, Jimbo Meador and George Radcliff. Upon the film’s immediate success, the national media raced to peg one or both men as the “real” Forrest Gump.

“There is no real Forrest Gump character that I know of,” Groom confided in that 2019 interview, “even though my friend Jimbo Meador gets accused of it all the time.”

During a phone call a few days after Groom’s passing, Meador reflects on their lifelong friendship. 

“I’m gonna really miss him,” he says, in a Gump-ish drawl. “He actually changed my life, you know, when they asked him if he would do a recording for Tom Hanks to study, to get a Southern accent. And he said, ‘Let me tell you something, I’ve been living in New York. My Southern accent’s gotten screwed up. You need to talk to Jimbo Meador.’ That’s how I got involved with that. But anyways, he’s changed my life in a bunch of ways. So I’ve been blessed to have had him for a friend.”

Another call to George Radcliff yields more memories of Gump and friendship. 

“He left a big hole in our lives,” Radcliff says. The pair met while attending high school at UMS, and Groom later lived at Radcliff’s Point Clear home for two years. 

“My ex-wife was living with us at the time and said Winston and I were degenerate pigs,” he recalls, remembering the state of their shared kitchen. “He wrote ‘Gump’ while he was there. I had a little house out back where he lived. One day, he came down on Arthur Corte’s wharf and said, ‘I’m writing a book about an idiot.’ We all said, ‘Well, you’re qualified, Groom.’” Radcliff recognizes, however, that Gump is “part Winston, part Jimbo and part me.”

“He was just a good friend. Good, good friend. I could talk all day [about him], but he was just a good friend.”

In an email with the New York Times, P.J. O’Rourke, famous journalist and Groom’s longtime friend, reminded the world that “‘Forrest Gump’ is not the only reason to celebrate him as a great writer,” noting that Groom’s debut novel, “Better Times Than These” (1978), “was the best novel written about the Vietnam War.” It’s an opinion that speaks to Groom’s incredible range as a storyteller.

“I don’t write the same thing over and over like they want you to,” he joked in a 2016 interview with this magazine. “Critics, book reviewers, my publishers and probably my own editor — even my literary agent — hate me. I’ve written about everything from the Civil War battles of Shiloh, Vicksburg and Nashville to ‘Forrest Gump,’ to the world seen through the eyes of an English Sheepdog (‘Only’) to a young adult biography of Ronald Reagan, to novels about Vietnam to the biography of a U.S. marine, alleged traitor and turncoat kept in North Vietnam for 12 years. They can’t peg me or put me in a category, and it drives them nuts!”

Winston Groom signing copies of his books
Winston Groom at a book signing in 1984 for his novel “Only,” a heartfelt tale told from the perspective of an English Sheepdog. Photo Courtesy Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama

In the past two decades, he churned out historical titles from Point Clear or his summer escape in the mountains of North Carolina. (At the time of his death, Groom was preparing for the publication of his next book, “The Patriots,” excerpted below). 

“You’re not gonna set the world on fire writing history books like you will with, say, ‘Forrest Gump,’” he once said. “But you will create a following.”

“He gained a lot from his association with other writers,” Mrs. Groom adds. “And he liked talking to young writers and trying to help them.”  

“Winston was the first ‘real’ author that ever read anything of mine,” remembers local author Watt Key. “He read one of my first novels and politely told me that it wasn’t going to sell. And then he told me why. 

“At first, I was insulted. But as he predicted, the novel never sold. And years later I realized that not only was he right, but the advice he gave was something I continued to revisit and use to make my writing better. 

“I’m thankful that he was honest with me that day. I’m even more thankful that he was willing to spend his time slogging through a terrible novel of a young writer all those years ago. That says a lot. Not many authors of his caliber will do that.”

Author and Mobilian Michael Knight reflects, “I never knew Winston very well, but he was gracious enough to blurb my first novel. ‘Forrest Gump’ came out when I was in high school. I remember reading it on an airplane. I honestly can’t recall where we were going, but I can remember laughing so hard it was embarrassing and loving the book so much I read it all over again on the trip and hunted up his two previous novels on my parents’ bookshelf when we got home, three very different books, especially read all in a row like that, and indicative of a broad and ranging talent. 

Bird hunting was a lifelong pursuit for Groom, as was collecting fine shotguns.

“I saw him most recently at the Alabama Book Festival in Montgomery. He was promoting one of his histories — more evidence of his range and intellect. We didn’t talk long — I was leaving the stage and he was just about to begin his talk — but I was so pleased to be able to shake his hand and thank him for the blurb.”

When this writer produced a short magazine article about the proliferation of wild hogs in the Mobile Delta, an email from a very familiar name pinged my inbox at 9 a.m. one Friday morning. 

“Enjoyed your piece on hogs,” it read. “But you forgot something regarding hogs in the Delta. No, we don’t have an abundance of cougars or bears to keep the hog population down. But there is now an overabundance of large scaly reptiles up there with big jaws, sharp teeth, long tails and a voracious appetite that enjoy raw hog whenever they can get it. Best, Winston Groom.”

He relished time spent with up-and-coming writers and editors. Philip Marino, a young New York-based editor who worked closely with Groom, remembers the author as a “founding father of my love for literature.” Following the release of the novel “El Paso,” Marino was tasked with driving Groom from New Orleans to Nashville on a book signing tour. Thinking back on the scotch-soaked adventure, Marino reflects, “What I’m left with is a conviction that Winston was the kind of person who comes along only a few times in a generation. He touched every life he came across and changed every life that came across his work. The world won’t be the same without him, but it’s also a much better place because of him.”

“And he loved hearing from his readers,” Mrs. Groom adds. “Every now and then, he’d send me an email and say, ‘I got this letter today, and this is why I write.’ Because somebody would say, ‘Thank you so much for telling that story.’

“He was a hardworking writer. He was very disciplined. But the reason he was, was because that’s what he really liked to do … He was just happy sitting at that desk and writing.”

“In the end, I’m just really damn grateful for the whole thing,” the author said in 2019.

Mr. Groom, color us grateful, too.

The Patriot

This month marks the release of Winston Groom’s masterful narrative, “The Patriots: Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and the Making of America.” Winning the American Revolution was improbable enough. But after the smoke settled at the Battle of Yorktown, the fledging United States of America was faced with a wholly different but no less daunting challenge — establishing a workable democratic government in a vast, newly independent country. 

Groom utilizes his storytelling sensibilities to bring to life three founding fathers who, he argues, were fundamentally responsible for the ideas that shaped the emerging country: Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. As the book jacket describes, “Their lives could not have been more different, and their relationships with each other were often rife with animosity.” 

It was an age of deep partisan division, but through the story of these three icons, Groom reminds us that compromise was, and still is, an essential aspect of America’s democracy.

Excerpt from “The Patriots: Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and the Making of America” 

From the still-glowing ashes of the Revolutionary War three men emerged, as unlike one another as it was possible to be. Alexander Hamilton grew up working as a shipping clerk on the island of St. Croix and came to America as a student. Thomas Jefferson was, first, a farmer — a slaveholding planter, a Virginia aristocrat, polymath, Renaissance man, and Enlightenment thinker. John Adams was an eccentric, Harvard-educated lawyer from Massachusetts, who became deeply involved with the early revolutionaries in Boston. 

Both Adams and Jefferson would become presidents of the United States; Hamilton would become the nation’s first secretary of the treasury, who saved the fledgling country from bankruptcy and gave it the foundations of the financial system that has existed for more than two centuries.

Despite their mutual concerns during the Revolution, these three founders developed an abiding hatred of each other so intense that at times it threatened to bring down the fragile republic. Yet each reached the very pinnacle of his own power and genius in the formative years of the nation, and each had a consuming patriotism. 

These three men loved their embryonic country and were ready to lay down their lives for it. They were present at the creation of America’s critical founding documents, and their high-minded ideals and policies have resonated for nearly 250 years.

Those 250 years have not always been easy. In his famous farewell address at the end of his presidency, George Washington warned against the growth of political factions, which he saw as malignantly divisive forces that could tear the nation apart. His fears were prescient, but his warning went unheeded.

As the newly minted United States attempted to create a viable federal system, the country began to split politically into two main parties. The Federalists, led by Hamilton (by then a New Yorker), argued for a strong central government modeled loosely on the British system. The Republicans, led by Jefferson the Virginian, demanded a much weaker central government, emphasized states’ rights, and generally favored the French over the British model.

As the tempest brewed, the press entered the fray. Newspapers not only informed but deliberately inflamed political opinion, inspiring duels and sometimes tearing family and friends apart. Personal attacks were the order of the day, with stories written on the flimsiest of evidence.

Into this toxic climate the three founders plunged themselves, each believing that the political notions of the others would lead the country into dangerous chaos and ruin. They were, after all, floundering in the unknown: nothing like the American experiment had ever been tried on such a scale and with such a diverse population, both ethnically and regionally.

If Hamilton, Jefferson, and Adams were intemperate in their political passions, it was most likely out of fear of squandering the exquisite chance they had acquired with the revolutionary victory. None of the three wished to dispel it; they wanted to see America   prosper as an enlightened model of self-government among men. It is a sad irony of history that at one time they were on such friendly terms—particularly Jefferson and Adams—and that their divergence in political thought led first to discomfort, then distrust, then mistrust, and at last hatred.

The arguments they engaged in have not ended, and Americans continue to enjoy the liberty to indulge in fractious disagreements. If the revolutionary victory was something of a miracle, it remains a wonder that the democracy it spawned has survived at all. That it does so is a twist of fate for which all Americans should be eternally grateful.  

Courtesy: Winston Groom, National Geographic Books

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