Grizzard, Lewis McDonald, Jr.

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Grizzard, Lewis McDonald, Jr.

(b. 20 October 1946 in Fort Benning, Georgia; d. 20 March 1994 in Atlanta, Georgia), humorist, newspaper columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and a self-proclaimed “quintessential southern male.”

Grizzard was the only son of U.S. Army Captain Lewis McDonald Grizzard and schoolteacher Christine Word. Grizzard’s father, a coach, teacher, and decorated veteran had served in both World War II and in Korea. Lewis Grizzard was born in Fort Benning while his father was stationed there. After his parents divorced in 1952, his mother and her relatives raised Grizzard in Moreland, Georgia, the scene of many of his future stories. His interest in writing began at an early age, and he gravitated toward sports writing. As a fan of the Atlanta Crackers, a minor-league baseball team, he persuaded his mother to let him stay up late to get the final scores and highlights of the games. His aunt and uncle also fanned this interest by bringing him the daily local newspaper so he could read about the games.

Unlike most people in Moreland, Grizzard was not interested in a career in agriculture; nor did he have a desire to be a teacher like his parents. After graduating from Newnan High School in 1964, he left for Athens and the University of Georgia. He began writing articles and working as sports editor for the Athens Banner-Herald and met Nancy Jones, whom he married in July 1966. The next year, just one course short of completing his journalism degree (he eventually completed his degree by correspondence in 1984), Grizzard got a job at the Atlanta Journal through Jim Minter, who was then the sports editor. Grizzard made his way up the ranks at the newspaper, becoming the youngest ever executive sports editor of the Atlanta Journal at age twenty-three.

Despite his success as an editor, Grizzard’s work left him personally unfulfilled. In 1969 he moved to Chicago, where he became sports editor of the Chicago Sun-Times. He stayed there through 1976. Depressed over his marital problems (he divorced his first wife, Nancy, in 1969 and his second wife, Fay Rentz, in 1976), Grizzard wrote Minter asking for a writing job. Minter responded by offering a sports column with a cut in pay, and Grizzard agreed. Minter then encouraged him to write his opinions into the column. At first he was hesitant, but Grizzard found that adding in his own thoughts to the column and writing with a southern accent appealed to his readers. Grizzard slowly phased out the sports content (except for talking about his beloved Georgia Bulldogs and their rivals, the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets and the Florida Gators) and concentrated on giving his opinions on life in general. As Grizzard continued his column, his popularity in the South grew. In February 1979 he met and married his third wife, a former debutante, Kathy Taulman.

Grizzard’s mix of satirical humor and unabashed sentimentality made him a hit with his readers. Well-known for his conservative stand on politics, political correctness, and the everyday irritations in life, he had an easygoing, laid-back manner that made his opinions acceptable, even beloved, by some of his fellow southerners.

As his popularity grew, Grizzard was encouraged by Minter to compile some of his best columns in a book. In 1978 he took a grocery sack filled with his best columns to Helen Elliott, founder of Peachtree Publishers. The columns became the basis for his first book, Kathy Sue Loudermilk,I Love You, which was published in September 1979. According to Peachtree Press, Elliott gave Grizzard his first advance copy of the book in the same bag. He would publish eight more books with Peachtree, and before his death he published more than twenty books.

Grizzard noted that Taulman tried to bring some “style and sophistication” to his image, but a faulty heart valve that had plagued him since childhood led to the first of his four open-heart operations. The high living had to go, and with it, in 1982, went his third marriage.

As a result of his troublesome relationships with women and his discussion of this topic in his column and on national talk shows such as Larry King Live, Grizzard became well known for his stand on marriage. His book If Love Were Oil, I’d Be About a Quart Low: Lewis Grizzard on Women (1983) prompted Taulman to write her own book on Grizzard entitled How to Tame a Wild Bore and Other Facts of Life with Lewis: The Semi-True Confessions of the Third Mrs. Grizzard (1986), as well as her autobiography, From Debutante to Doublewide (1987). Grizzard took both books in stride, but, as he later wrote: “I howled as I read, I cried and I missed her.”

Despite having to change some aspects of his lifestyle, Grizzard kept himself busy with his column (which by then was syndicated in 450 newspapers), speaking engagements, public-service announcements, and television appearances, including a guest spot on the show Designing Women and a special called “Love, Sex and Romance.” He produced video and audio recordings of his comedy routines and songs and by the late 1980s had formed Lewis Grizzard Enterprises to help manage his business affairs. He also helped launch Longstreet Press, which published five of his books. Meanwhile, he found time for golf and tennis.

But unhappy events kept him grounded. His troubled relationship with his father had always bothered Grizzard, and eventually he told of that relationship in the funny and sentimental My Daddy Was a Pistol and I’m a Son of a Gun (1986). After his mother’s death in 1990, he wrote an equally stirring tribute to his mother, Don’t Forget to Call Your Mama—I Wish I Could Call Mine (1991).

In 1993 he was forced to undergo a third operation to replace a faulty heart valve. Following the surgery, doctors could not get his heart to beat on its own for several days. Grizzard survived this ordeal and wrote about it in I Took a Lickin’ and Kept On Tickin’ (and Now I Believe in Miracles) (1993). However, the operation left him with continuing medical problems. At this time he befriended Dedra Kyle, who was at first his caregiver. In March 1994 his continued problems left doctors with little choice but to schedule a fourth operation. Faced with imminent death, Grizzard married Dedra in a bedside ceremony. He did not have children with any of his wives.

On 20 March 1994, Grizzard died at Emory University Hospital after suffering brain damage resulting from the surgery. He was forty-seven years old. In accordance with his wishes, half his ashes were scattered at Sanford Stadium at the University of Georgia and the rest placed in the Word family plot in Moreland.

Recognized by critics as a writer who could charm as well as challenge, Grizzard made his mark in journalism. As noted by his wife Dedra, “He was a bundle of contradictions and a very funny man.”

Grizzard’s own works provide insight into this humorist that cannot be found anywhere else, especially They Tore Out My Heart and Stomped That Sucker Flat (1982), If Love Were Oil, I’d Be About a Quart Low: Lewis Grizzard on Women (1983), Elvis Is Dead and I Don’t Feel So Good Myself (1984), My Daddy Was a Pistol and I’m a Son of a Gun (1986), Don’t Forget to Call Your Mama—I Wish I Could Call Mine (1991), I Took a Lickin’ and Kept On Tickin’ (and Now I Believe in Miracles) (1993), and The Grizzard Sampler: A Collection of the Early Writings of Lewis Grizzard (1994). His half-brother and fellow humorist, Ludlow Porch, wrote a biographical portrait of his relationship with Grizzard in Lewis & me & Shipper makes 3 (1991), and friends of Grizzard wrote about their relationship with him in a book called Don’t Fence Me In: An Anecdotal Biography of Lewis Grizzard by Those Who Knew Him Best (1995). Thomas Kozikowski and Jean W. Ross collaborated on a biographical entry in volume 129 of Contemporary Authors (1991). Peter Applebome’s article in the New York Times Magazine (8 Apr. 1990), provides some additional information on Grizzard’s life. People Weekly (4 Apr. 1994), contains a one-page tribute to Grizzard. Obituaries are in the New York Times (21 Mar. 1994) and Newsweek and Time (both 4 Apr. 1994).

Brian B. Carpenter