Tony Lukas: Fragment of a Memoir in Progress by Thomas Powers

It is not uncommon for writers in the late middle of their lives to embark upon huge projects. Ambition is one half of what drives them, confidence the other half. No writer I ever knew had more ambition and confidence than Tony Lukas in the late 1980s. His 1985 account of the Boston school-bussing crisis, Common Ground, had been an astonishing success – fifteen weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, bought by CBS for a television film, winner of a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize. But it wasn’t just hope of another success that had him hunting for a new project. Writing was his life. To be done with a book, in his experience, left the writer dangerously bereft. By writing here I do not mean only putting words down on paper, but, most particularly in Tony’s case, the research that lay behind them – the hunt for elusive fact. That kind of writing, which we shall attempt to name below, confers a kind of existential clarity on the writer who does it. It’s the thing he builds his day around, the thing he is always ready to talk about, the reason he reads some books rather than others, the last thing he thinks about drifting off to sleep at night. When the project is well underway all the big questions are suspended for the duration. What matters? What justifies sacrifice and effort? What gives meaning to life? Such questions can knock a man to the ground, but for a writer like Tony, once he had his book in mind and had committed himself to it, the answers were clear – the book matters, the book justifies all the effort, finishing the book is what rescues the writer’s life from futility. But for that happy state to resume in the late 1980s Tony Lukas had to find a new subject.

Lukas and I had been good friends since meeting in the green room of a Boston television station in 1971. After the show we flew back to New York together and he told me he wanted no more foreign assignments with the New York Times, where he was still working. The best stories were right here at home, he said, and then explained what he meant – exactly what he meant, everything he meant, and all the things he did not mean. In America, he believed, everything was in flux, a new story appeared every day, it was impossible to predict how American politics, culture and society would look in a year’s time. But it was his care in speaking that I remember most clearly; every point had to be thoroughly explored. I confess I loved his approach to conversation from the outset – the careful, dogged examination of the matter at hand. It was slow going but it was going – you got somewhere. Whenever we met or talked over the phone in subsequent years the discussion eventually turned to something he was doing, or thinking about doing, or trying to identify the best way to do, and that for several years after 1985 prominently included what his next book should be about.

First to be explored on his list of possibilities was a book about politics in some relatively obscure, smallish, upstate city on a purely local matter – zoning say, or school policy, or a fight over developing some choice bit of land, something that would stir and divide the community but would not necessarily touch on an overarching theme of urgent national interest. It wasn’t the issue he was interested in, but the portrait of the town which the fight would reveal. To me this seemed in part perverse. Why spend years writing a fat book about a small thing?

But what if he dug in really deep? Tony wanted to know – really brought these people to life? He was intrigued by the possibility that skill in finding and telling the story would make it compelling to a wide audience.

Of course I wasn’t the only one he was asking. He was working his way through a pretty substantial list of personal advisors, as always. Maybe a lot of them shared my doubts. Whatever the reason, he dropped that idea and the next time we talked he wanted to know how I felt about a big book on the Cuban Missile Crisis. I issued a vigorous warning about what I had concluded was the greatest danger posed to a writer by the bomb as a subject – manic alarm that the world was doomed. Immersion in the world of nuclear weapons I had found was like entering a morgue during an autopsy; for awhile it all seemed intensely interesting and then suddenly you were dizzy with the horror. But I need not have worried. For Tony, exploring what would happen if the nukes went off was never the point of the exercise. It was the story that came to repel him, as I recall. He did not want to wade into those Kennedy waters for the umpteenth time. He could see a book in it, but after quite a lot of work he concluded that he didn’t want to live with or write that book.

A year or more went by. Then, chance found us together in the old Scribner’s bookstore on Fifth Avenue. Tony suggested a drink, and over it worked his way methodically around to the big thing on his mind – the subject he had hit upon at last. He had learned of a vast collection of papers about a turn of the century murder case in Idaho. The subject was gorgeously rich. Starting with so much material would free him to push his research into entirely new territory. He had long wanted to work with an evidentiary record – documents instead of interviews. For years after Common Ground he had despaired that he would ever again find another project, not just a good project, worthy of the effort, but one which would obsess him in the same way. I knew what he wanted – whole body immersion in some irresistible story, an enthralling process I have begun to think of as “falling into the world”…

When I was in New York City one night in the early 1990s Tony invited me to join him for dinner at the Century Club. Inevitably the conversation made brisk progress through a list of friends and doings until we reached the subject of work in progress. The book he would call Big Trouble was now well under way and he had surrendered to its grip. He recounted the prodigies of research which had finally revealed what really happened the night Big Bill Haywood was arrested in Denver, Colorado. For decades it was insinuated by those who sought to hang him for Steunenberg’s murder that Haywood had been seized naked in a whorehouse. It wasn’t so. Haywood had been naked, it was true, and he had been in bed with a woman not his wife, but she was his wife’s sister, the affair had continued for so long it amounted to fidelity, Haywood’s wife was an invalid confined to a wheelchair, and the place was no whorehouse but a respectable rooming house (later hotel) often used by visiting officials of the Western Federation of Miners, whose headquarters were nearby. Was there a meaningful distinction between the rumors and the truth? Tony thought there was. He knew I would appreciate this tale and over dinner, and then over coffee at the end of dinner, and then over a drink after coffee, he left no detail aside in his account of the numerous strands of fact he had pursued relentlessly over the course of a year to establish the exact nuanced truth. In Big Trouble the story occupied less than a page.

Tony Lukas was a rounded, almost cherubic-looking man. He was not fat, but there wasn’t a straight line or visible bone in his body. When happy he glowed with a beatific inner light. Telling a story he often hugged himself into a ball, one leg up over the other, face beaming with pleasure at the drama he was unfolding. When he reached the all-important detail, or the nub of a tale, his eyes rounded dramatically. I understood the source of his excitement. He had burrowed deep into the story, had walked the ground in Caldwell, Idaho where the killing occurred; had read all the newspapers and magazines of the day, knew the personal histories of all the characters, handled the paper on which they scribbled notes, letters and legal briefs, learned to recognize their scrawl, to read between their lines, to note what they left out, to follow their swings of mood. He hadn’t skimmed all this material; he had consumed it whole – read it, typed it, organized it, pondered it, internalized it.

Sitting late at the Century, almost giddy with delight as he described his triumphs of sleuthing, he was the picture of a perfectly happy man.

The killing of Idaho’s former governor, Frank Steunenberg, in 1905, was everything Tony could have hoped for – a big story on a huge canvas. Perhaps a year before the book came out Tony called me, as I am sure he did a great many other people, to try out a book title. We went back and forth on this. There were at least two phone calls and a letter or two. He explained with immense care the reasoning process from which he had finally emerged with two words – Big Trouble.

That was the last time we spoke. Soon afterward Tony took his own life. The immediate explanation seemed to be unwise abruptness in switching medications for the management of depression. When Big Trouble appeared it was Tony who got the attention, not the book. The neglected thing was not the subject of the book, but the kind of book it was. Like a number of other writers, mostly men, and mostly journalists at least at the outset, he had been working his way toward that kind of book for many years.


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