The Biggest Texan: John Henry Faulk 1913-1990
By Virginia Durr
Vol. 12, No. 2, 1990, pp. 15-17
Editor’s note: When John Henry Faulk died in Texas on April 9, 1990, many people lost a treasured friend and this nation lost one of its most passionate and articulate advocates of free speech. One of Faulk’s friends and fellow first amendment advocates was Virginia Foster Durr, a life member of the Southern Regional Council, who remembers John Henry here-with a few digressions-as an entertainer, a friend, and a down-home defender of particular American values.
John Henry had a room in New York City. He was just getting on the radio at CBS then and I was in New York with my daughter Lucy and another friend. Mary Price was running the Southern Conference for Human Welfare office in New York and she had arranged for us to stay in John Henry Faulk’s apartment. This was during the end of the war, about 1945. Well, we got there and his apartment was in the home of Pete Seeger’s mother-in-law. She came from a very old family in Virginia not far from where we lived [the Durrs lived in Washington, D.C., at this time, where Clifford Durr was a member of the Federal Communications Commission].
She [Seeger’s mother-in-law] had married a Japanese who was a prince or something. We first knew Pete Seeger because he had called us when he had taken his family in a van and gone down to Florida. He had his father-in-law with him who was a resident in Virginia. On the way [they were still in Virginia] they stopped with a picnic lunch in a park. Anyway, he called us and said his father-in-law was in jail. He had been arrested because in the park there was a sign that said, “Nobody but Aryans.” He wasn’t black but he was Japanese. My husband knew somebody there in [forgets the town]. He had to pay a $25 fine and we sent him the money. The lawyer got them out of jail and Pete sent his family on on the train and he was going to drive the van on back. The old man was shook up because he had never been arrested before for being a non-Aryan. He was upset about it.
But he got out of jail and that night Pete stayed over
with us and said he wanted to pay us back for what we had done. He wanted to do a concert and he asked me if I could get some people to come and I got twenty-five people together. So we had a Pete Seeger concert all to ourselves for about five hours. The next time I saw Pete was in London and he had sold out every ticket six months before: 12,OOO seats. We got hold of him and had tea with him and he offered us two tickets but unfortunately we had another engagement. He was just on top of the world. I’ve never seen anybody as exultant and happy and thrilled as he was. He felt like a new day was dawning. He’s a very attractive man.
Anyway, John Henry knew Pete Seeger. They were both folk singers, you see, and John Henry had a room from his mother-in-law. They had a house down in the Village there. When we got there we went to bed. There were two beds in the room and my daughter was in my bed and I woke up and there was a man wandering around the room. He said, ‘What are you doing in my room?’ I said, ‘This is John Henry Faulk’s room,’ and he said, ‘I guess we’re roommates.’ He told me to go on back to sleep and we did.
Early the next morning John Henry came by and picked up my daughter Lucy to be on his radio show. All she was supposed to do was yell ‘Whoopee!’ or something like that but she was thrilled to death to be on the CBS show with John Henry Faulk. After that he got more and more prominent and got on the big shows.
From the standpoint of oratory he was just terrific. He was very funny and very amusing. A terribly charming fellow. He was just doing fine. He was married and divorced and then married again. He had several children. He had three wives and the last was an English girl, and Yohan was her child. He was very close to him. John Henry was doing fine and made lots of money and was getting to be kind of a super luminary in the fifties after the war.
Then the Red Scare began. He was on the CBS news and one of the sponsors was a grocery chain and it seems John Henry addressed the unions. They accused him of being a Red. Palmer Weber was another Southerner, and he made a lot of money on Wall Street and he persuaded John Henry to fight the suit against him. They took years and years to fight the suit but in the meanwhile he stopped being a super luminary and he lost all the jobs he had.
No one thing happened to him-just making speeches before the unions, red unions as they called them. It was this grocery chain that was after him and that brought the suit against having him on the radio. John Henry would sing at union meetings. He would tell delightful, funny stories and act them out on stage. But he got into such a bad fix that his wife left him. He came back down to Austin, Texas, and he was really just as poor as Job’s turkey. He managed to make a living the last 20-odd years by teaching and speaking on the radio.
For a while he had a big public radio broadcast from Dallas that went all over the state of Texas. This was after the bad press Dallas had gotten on account of the death of John Kennedy.
So ho wanted to go on the air and make Texas seem more attractive to people. But this was a liberal outfit and the Ku Klux had gotten after them and had gotten on their wire, on their frequency. John Henry had Cliff [Durr] come down to speak on the radio show on the first amendment and when he started to speak this voice came out of the blue and said, ‘We know who you are. You damned lowdown communist nigger lover from Alabama. George Wallace has told us about you.’ It was the most dreadful thing that ever happened. John Henry would try to say something and they would come on and say, ‘Aw, you act like a country boy but you’re nothing but a damned lowdown communist nigger lover.’
It was truly terrible. It was the complete end of free speech because this Klansman or whoever he was…segregationist…had taken over the public radio system. That night he was asked to be on a statewide radio system and we went to the show and the same thing happened there-‘Damned nigger lover.’-I never did know how they managed to break in that way but John Henry had to give that show up because he couldn’t handle it, really.[Still] he was one of the most happy, cheerful people I’ve ever known in my life. His great belief in the world was in free speech, the first amendment. He supported my brother-in-law Hugo Black and Bill Douglass. What’s so amazing is that these people who had everybody against them-my husband, Palmer Weber, John Henry-stood up for free speech, and a ‘nigger loving communist’ was about as lowdown as they could call you, and they did it if you stood up for free speech. It was very difficult to make a living. People seemed to have gone crazy in a way. These racial feelings that had been around for generations were augmented by this vague communist threat. So John Henry really had a big problem. He got blacklisted and always had a hard time after that.
But he was a great hero. His last years were torture when he had cancer because it was behind his eyes and they couldn’t get at it. When he died he was full of pain. I talked to him on the phone just before he died and he was as cheerful as could be.
He came to visit in Montgomery a number of times. He was part of the Conference for Human Welfare and did a great deal of speaking and traveling. You have to realize how delightful he was, and charming and humorous. All these men that I mentioned, they were augmented by their love of the South and their state. John Henry was the biggest Texan there ever was in the world. He got a job under Lyndon Johnson but they went after him and he had to withdraw it. I was wanting to get away myself. I didn’t
have that devotion to the South like Cliff had. In any case we stayed and I’m still here. I’ve gotten very fond of Montgomery, Alabama, but we are on the bottom of every list about things like poverty and education.
But John Henry was so funny. He would change his personality and be Uncle Bud and Aunt Mamie and Cousin Rosa Lee or whatever. He would play the part of these country people in Texas come to town. He was a very dramatic person. The oil industry almost ruined Texas and John Henry didn’t get any of that money and I don’t know how he lived but he stayed in Texas.
The last time I went down to see him I went with him to a university and he got an overwhelming ovation. This was before Cliff died in 1975. He spoke a lot at universities. I think he had just gotten a job at a university in west Tennessee but he died. He was also a playwright. But young people today don’t even know his name outside of Texas. This is a sad time you know. John Henry has died and Walker Percy died and Myles Horton up at Highlander. All these people are like the-John Henry’s death was in the New York Times and the Washington Post but nobody mentioned it here. Walker Percy was in the paper, but of course he is a native Alabamian.
Virginia Durr’s recollections of John Henry Faulk were recorded, transcribed and edited by George Littleton.