“Tell Me a Story: My Life with Pat Conroy”
Author: Cassandra King Conroy
Publisher: William Morrow
Price: $24.99 (Hardcover)
When Eugene O’Neill finished his masterpiece, “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” the painful dramatization of his tormented family, he gave his wife, Carlotta, the manuscript with this dedication:
“Dearest, I give you the original script of this play … written in tears and blood.”
Cassandra Conroy has given us “Tell Me a Story” and it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that this book was also written in tears and blood.
She has fought through her own fresh grief over the death of Conroy in 2016, and painted a painfully honest and intimate portrait of her husband.
Cassandra perhaps set out to write a book about Pat, and about their marriage of 18 years, but she finally has written her own autobiography as well, and has been as honest about herself as about Pat.
They “met cute,” as Hollywood might put it, in Birmingham in February of 1995 at a writers conference, introduced by mutual friends. Cassandra was already a fan, in awe of Pat’s work. She felt awkward.
Conroy was of course his ebullient, extroverted, charming public self.
She writes: “His coloring was wonderfully vivid, with the snow-white hair, ruddy face, and pale blue eyes.” He had “shoulders wide as a tree trunk.”
Although unleashing his Irish blarney, on a woman he had just met, came naturally, Conroy also had an enthusiasm for meeting new people, especially young writers, hearing their stories.
In fact, he was a “story collector.” Everyone had one, he felt, and he wanted to hear it.
He queried Cassandra about her first book, “Making Waves in Zion.” He promised to read it. And did! He even generously blurbed it. For a long while nothing much happened. Cassandra was teaching at Gadsden State, grading student papers each evening, but then she began to receive the Conroy phone calls.
Conroy kept up, it seems, dozens of relationships by phone, always doing the phoning himself. He did not much answer his phone or his mail.
The calls went on sporadically, for a couple of years. Eventually there were meals, visits, and dates, and finally in May of 1998, marriage.
Both were leery of commitment.
As the world knows, Conroy had been married several times and painfully, nearly fatally, divorced.
Moreover, Cassandra had been through a horrible divorce of her own, from a minister who did not want to let her go. Ridden with “guilt and self-loathing,” over the failed marriage, she was raising three boys, working very hard, and was in financial and emotional straits, with thoughts of suicide.
Pat was well known as a depressive, a potential suicide.
Would these two save each other or kill each other?
We know the answer. Life on Fripp Island was perhaps not Edenic, but it was close.
Pat loved his adopted low-country home and loved being a host there, cooking meals and showing off the marshes to guests to the point he and Cassandra drove themselves crazy every summer.
The two nurtured one another. Pat came to know her Wiregrass family, and she met his, children, ex-wives, including the always complicated Don Conroy, the Great Santini.
Cassandra finally got the room of her own she had always wanted and needed—with a great view—and has now written six books, one of which, “The Sunday Wife,” deals with her darkest hours.
Both writers, they gave one another other emotional space to think and work, and do their book tours, no nagging or excessive neediness.
Conroy was, at last, contented and faithful except when he occasionally went off his regimen and ate too richly or drank too much—he had a collection of health problems—or briefly lost his temper.
In his last two years he had quit drinking and was really exercising himself into shape when the pancreatic cancer was diagnosed.
The disease was in this sense ironic as well as gratuitous.
Cassandra describes the death and burial and her own huge loss. There is no comparing, of course, but it is a loss for all of us who knew him.
We shall not see his like again.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.