Feature: Wednesday, August 8, 2002
Maddog in Winter Part 1

Jay Milner survived success, failure, and all the fun along the way.

By Jeff Prince

something big was coming. Jay Milner could feel it in 1961. Book critics recognized his first novel, Incident at Ashton, as a bold look at civil rights. He pocketed an advance for a second novel, quit the newspaper business, left New York, and headed to his native Texas to settle behind a typewriter and become, in his words, a “famous arther.”

Some people go a little mad trying to arrange words in brilliant order. Milner, a Lubbock boy who had become a top journalist in Mississippi and New York, couldn’t get the second novel out of first gear. “I was spending too much time partying and talking about writing, but not writing,” he said. Meanwhile, his first novel tanked. The publisher did little to promote it and then went out of business. Another book about southern bigotry, 1960’s To Kill A Mockingbird, overshadowed Milner’s effort.

So Milner returned to journalism and bonded with a revolutionary rabble of Texas writers who dubbed themselves Maddogs. Edwin “Bud” Shrake, Gary Cartwright, Billie Lee Brammer, Larry L. King, Dan Jenkins, Larry McMurtry, and others composed a support system for one another as they created a passel of distinctly Texan prose that ensured the Lone Star State’s national mystique and their own counter-culture hero status.

Milner was a crack journalist and college journalism professor who is recalled with admiration by former students and top writers. Yet, almost four decades would pass before Milner’s autobiographical and highly entertaining Confessions of a Maddog: A Romp Through the High-Flying Texas Music and Literary Era of the Fifties to the Seventies, was published in 1998 to warm reception. Inspired, Milner decided to write another novel.

Again, words became stubborn. “I’ve kind of lost my fire to be a famous arther, I guess,” Milner said recently, taking a break from his daily habit of trying to craft at least one intriguing page on his word processor. “I’m tired. We had a pretty hard life, going night and day, for a lot of years.”

Now 78, he’s shed the vices — alcohol, speed, pot, cigarettes — that fueled whirlwind parties and whorehouse trips to Mexico with fellow raconteurs in the 1960s, and all-night singalongs with Willie Nelson and Jerry Jeff Walker in the 1970s. Vices prodded Milner to go, go, go, as Jack Kerouac might say. The “diet” pills lent fiery spirit to debates and debauchery that rolled for days and nights in bars and living rooms from Austin to Washington, D.C.

Vices weren’t the only fuel. Something unexplainable hurtled Milner toward the unknown. The need to find it — even Milner is unsure how to define it — kept him barreling down the party trail at the expense of his writing, and led to eventual mental and physical collapse in the late 1970s.

It no longer beckons. Milner is content to stay hunkered down in his south Fort Worth house, rising early, watching tv, working on his novel or his newspaper column, and hitting the sheets before the sun fades. Milner was asked to go on a short road trip for this story, a jaunt to jog old memories and, perhaps, rekindle a mini-quest for it. Milner refused, unwilling to roam from his comfortable routine.

Doctors replaced his kneecaps two years ago. Surgery curtailed his daily walks, he gained weight, his legs didn’t heal completely, and walking became difficult. He feels lucky, though. Old running buddies are battling worse — emphysema, heart problems, worn-out kidneys. Some have already lost the fight, such as Brammer, who wrote 1961’s The Gay Place, about Austin politics, and died in 1978 after succumbing to drug addiction and an exasperating inability to pen a second novel.

Expect no regrets from Milner about faded youth and unfulfilled dreams. Playing championship football in pigskin-crazy Lubbock, working for some of the most independent and colorful newspapers in the country, championing civil rights in the South, traveling and reveling in a 1949 Cadillac hearse transformed into a sleeping van, and befriending some of Texas’ most gifted and charismatic writers and musicians — these things make it hard to look back in doubt. “I lived a full life and enjoyed it,” he said. “I did a lot of stuff and I’ve got a lot of good friends. Now I want it to be dull.”

The white-brick house is covered in green ivy, giving it a comfortable, cottage look, and promising a cool, dark interior. Inside, rooms are neat and clean, thanks to Gail Milner’s vigilant attention for the past 20 years. Out back, though, clutter dominates a small added-on room, where Gail’s contributions to cleanliness are off-limits. Her husband spends part of each day in this messy room, sitting at his word processor, thinking weighty thoughts, chasing them to shrewd conclusions, and corralling them in perfect phrases. At least, that’s the goal, if not always the end result.

The ex-athlete still cuts an intimidating figure; his large frame, thick cheekbones, white beard, and ruddy complexion make him resemble an aged Ernest Hemingway. He’s a bit of a contradiction — reclusive yet friendly. In conversation, he thinks a long time before speaking, and then talks slowly. But he smiles quickly and chuckles often.

These days, writing is as much about money as purpose. Jay Dunston Milner’s hearty life didn’t include socking away retirement funds, and he continues to write a column for Cox News Service and to pursue the elusive second novel. Proceeds from his 1998 book came in handy. “Most people are fully retired by now, but I didn’t put my money back like I should have,” he said. “Confessions made me a thousandaire but that didn’t last long.”

Money is important, but Milner is hardly obsessed with spending marathon sessions at a word processor in a closet-sized office. Life’s to be enjoyed. Some writers consider their offices sacred territory. Milner’s desktop is scarred by two pieces of wood, nailed clumsily and at odd angles on either side of his keyboard. “My grandson likes to hammer nails in boards,” he explained. “He’s also good at sharpening pencils.”

The second novel’s focus on college politics stems from Milner’s teaching stints in the 1960s and early ’70s at Texas Christian University and Southern Methodist University, a period of some fulfillment but mostly frustration. Satisfaction came from teaching eager journalism students, many of them called to the profession after being inspired by the works of Milner’s contemporaries — Shrake, Cartwright, and Jenkins, all local sportswriters in the 1950s and 1960s who went on to literary fame. Milner hired two friends as SMU teachers — the addled but still stirring Brammer, and Peter Gent, a former Dallas Cowboys receiver and fledgling novelist who would later write North Dallas Forty. Former Dallas Morning News editor Bob Compton called Milner’s reign “a golden age for the SMU journalism department.”

Print journalists and teachers can make an impact but seldom get the recognition of published authors, said Compton, who hired Milner for freelance jobs in the 1970s and worked with a half-dozen of Milner’s former college students. “Jay did some good work for me and was well known among people in the business because of people he trained and people who came in contact with him,” he said. “But most journalists aren’t very prominent except among other journalists — unless you’re a talking head on tv.”

Milner’s frustration came from butting heads with administrators who didn’t share his philosophy of journalism education and fought his attempts to change the curriculum.

Milner can still muster a roar. He’ll skewer university politics in his book, and he bemoaned the modern news media recently while eating eggs, bacon, and pancakes at the IHOP on University Drive. Newspaper chains and corporations have almost killed independent daily papers that were once backbone to the nation’s freedom, he said. “I wonder sometimes if it’s not just me being an old curmudgeon, but journalists these days are leaving too much unwritten,” he said. “They’re too Chamber of Commerce. Papers aren’t turning over enough rocks. It has to do with the big corporations buying up all the papers. The medium-sized local dailies are the ones that used to really report the news.”

The slide began, he said, when modern technology helped improve profit margins at newspapers, attracting corporate bean-counters with little emotional attachment to journalistic ideals. “A paper is not free if a person interested only in profits is looking over your shoulder,” he said. “In order to maintain maximum profits, they think you have to toe the line and not offend, when probably the real job of a newspaper is to offend certain elements of the population.”

Journalism wasn’t Milner’s original career choice. He grew up a country boy in the desolate high plains near Lubbock in the 1920s and 1930s, and was a football standout at state champion Lubbock High School. He served a hitch in the U.S. Navy from 1943 to 1946, where he developed a cigarette habit but saw no combat.

After his discharge, a recruiter offering a football scholarship at Mississippi Southern College came calling. The naïve Milner said, “Is that Ol’ Miss?” The recruiter said, “Some people call it that.” Milner discovered later that Ol’ Miss and Mississippi Southern were miles apart in distance and stature, but he enjoyed the small college, majored in education, had a solid college football career, and was drafted by the National Football League. The Pittsburgh Steelers sent a letter offering $9,000 a year, a decent sum for the times. “My knees were so sore by then I didn’t even answer the letter,” he said.

He coached high school football for a couple of years in Mississippi, but the emphasis on winning was intense, and he was restless. “I thought, ‘It’s crazy to have my whole career in the hands of a bunch of teenage boys,’” he said.

In his youth, Milner had cherished Jack London novels and once received compliments for an essay written in junior high, so he decided to pursue journalism. He considered it a noble profession when done well — “journalism with a capital J,” he calls it.

The American in Hattiesburg, Miss., hired him as reporter in 1950. He worked stints at the Associated Press and at a small newspaper in Jackson, Miss. Those jobs led to a managing editor’s position in 1954 at Delta Democrat-Times, owned by one of the country’s most fearless publishers, Hodding Carter. Milner wrote editorials on politics and civil rights issues and later fictionalized much of his experience for his first novel. The Big Apple looked mighty shiny back then, and in 1958 he became a reporter at New York Herald Tribune, another spitfire publication that supported the reporter’s mantra — comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

Independent dailies like those have dwindled. Chains and corporations stifled competition through buyouts. Lack of competition — fear of being scooped by another newspaper — instills laziness, and corporate CEOs are more likely to cater to influential people and advertisers, whose money ensures profit margins desired by stockholders. “Lack of motivation is what brought the Soviet Union down; communism takes motivation out of the system,” Milner said. “Greed is the big problem in capitalism. If we’re not careful, greed is going to bring us down.”

I forget what color the pill was because I think I closed my eyes as I took it from the banker’s fingers and transferred it to my mouth and swallowed. I remember thinking, “I don’t really want to do this,” but by then it was too late. That’s one thing about LSD that anyone considering trying it should keep foremost in mind: Once you swallow it, there’s no going back. You are on your way to somewhere, somewhere that might turn out to be scary, very scary, or very interesting, or — more likely — both.

— Describing his first acid trip in 1998’s Confessions of a Maddog

Financial problems doomed the New York Herald Tribune about the time Milner’s first book was published, and he moved back to Texas to live the easy life of a rich and famous arther. When that didn’t pan out, he headed briefly to Washington, D.C., to freelance articles and continue trying to write a second novel. There he met Larry L. King — not the tv talk-show host, but the uproarious magazine writer who would later become a prolific author and co-write the Broadway smash The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, made into a 1982 movie with Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton.

In 1964, King’s successes had not yet blossomed, and he and Milner were struggling writers living at the same cheap hotel. “I’ve known him so long it’s hard to remember how we met,” King said in a recent phone conversation from his Washington, D.C., home. “Oh yeah, I remember now. He was living in a little hotel on Capitol Hill, and I had just got a divorce and I was living there too.” Their mutual West Texas roots, high school football triumphs, and an appreciation of literature and writing cemented the friendship.

Rent wasn’t much, King recalled, but Milner still had difficulty paying. “One day, I thought I’d go over there and cheer Jay up a little,” King said. “I heard a-whoopin’ and a-hollerin’ going on inside the room. I knocked and Jay came to the door and he was looking all elated and waving a check in my face. It was for $1,200, which was a ton of money in 1964.”

The $1,200 was compensation for a Sports Illustrated story Milner had submitted weeks earlier. The mail carrier delivered the check to the front desk, where it had been sitting for awhile. King said the desk clerk had notified Milner that a letter was waiting for him, but Milner ignored the messages. “Jay thought it was a trick to get him to come down there, and then they’d padlock him out of his room,” King said.

Money in hand, Milner paid his rent and took off on a partying binge. “He came back with $12 and some change in his pocket,” King said.

A return to Texas in the mid-1960s and a knack for sniffing out a good party and contributing to its rowdiness put Milner in the inner circle of distinctive writers who were making as much noise partying as they were with their prose. They printed Maddog Inc. membership cards with their slogan, “Everything that isn’t a mystery is guesswork,” and “carded” people who displayed the appropriate combination of eccentricity, intellectualism, and a knack for creating ruckuses.

In 1960s Austin, writers were celebrities, and the Maddogs were wild-eyed Pied Pipers. Where they went, a-whoopin’ followed. The group embraced the musicians who flooded the town in the late 1960s and early 1970s. “Shrake said the writers were the celebrities in town until the musicians showed up,” singer-songwriter Jerry Jeff Walker said during a recent phone conversation with Fort Worth Weekly. Together, they were a roaming pack of creative creatures on a careening mission to have the most fun possible while striving for fame and fortune.

Walker, Willie Nelson, Rusty Wier, and others would play Austin clubs, and the writers would go listen. Afterward, everyone would head to somebody’s house to drink, talk, smoke pot, woo the opposite sex, and play music until sunup. “Up until about 1974, Austin bars had closing at midnight,” Walker said. “I never left the house where I didn’t put a case of beer in the trunk. Later, it was two cases. We were always going around someplace.”

These were exciting times, but Milner wasn’t doing much writing, and his home life was in disarray. He first married in 1948, a 10-year union that ended in a bitter divorce. His ex-wife gained custody of their two children, and Milner saw little of them until years later. A second marriage in 1959 produced a daughter, Carter, named after his old publisher. But that marriage, too, soon ended in divorce. Milner gained custody of his daughter, who survived her father’s misadventures and benefited from the strict but loving supervision of Milner’s mother, Nina Payne.

By 1966, he had two failed marriages, no money, amphetamine dependence, and a strong affinity for parties. He was in his 40s and aimless. He jumped when TCU offered him a teaching job with benefits; his financial stability seemed assured in 1969 when SMU asked him to head its journalism department. The department was listing, with only a handful of students pursuing journalism degrees, when Milner arrived. He quickly changed that and began attracting some of the school’s top students, said 1971 SMU graduate Don Brown. “When I started college I thought that I would be a lawyer,” he said. “Then Jay came along, and I decided I’d give journalism a try. Various friends of Jay’s would show up from time to time, like Larry L. King and Gary Cartwright. Jay was impressive because he had real-world experience. He had worked for Hodding Carter, and he had worked in New York.”

King not only spoke to Milner’s classes, he observed his friend in class and was impressed by his natural ability to relate to students. “Jay did some great work teaching journalism at SMU and TCU,” he said. “I tried that once at Princeton, and I wasn’t worth a damn at it. I saw Jay in action and, believe me, he was good.”

The combination of Milner’s personality, talents, and willingness to help his students was powerful. “He spent a lot of time talking to students,” said Brown, who served as editor of the school paper his senior year in 1971. When he was married the following year, he asked Milner to be best man. Brown would go on to work 14 years with UPI before becoming a lawyer and establishing a practice in Washington, D.C. A couple of months ago, he was in Texas researching a case and made it a point to visit Milner in Fort Worth. “He was a great professor and mentor,” Brown said.

Despite his closeness with students, Milner wasn’t cut out for college. Big, stubborn West Texans with independent streaks don’t always make ideal college professors or department heads. “Politics on the university level is as bad as everyone thinks it is,” Milner said. “It was a situation where they wanted to go a certain way and I wanted to go another way, so I went another way. My plan was to stay at SMU until I retired. When that didn’t work out, I didn’t have a Plan B. I was really confused.”(Click here to continue...)

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