Billy Lee Brammer’s The Gay Place, a collection of three related political novels, received national acclaim when it was published in 1961. Each novel follows a very Lyndon-Johnson-like Governor Arthur Fenstemaker who directs the fate of both his loved ones and the state of Texas. This was Brammer’s first and only published book.
But it’s Al Reinert’s introduction to the 1978 Texas Monthly Press edition that spurs as much intrigue as the novels themselves.
Updating the reader on Brammer’s tragic fall since the first publication, Reinert examines the writer’s early relationship with Lyndon B. Johnson as the state senator’s press writer and friend. Reinart summarizes, “Billy’s oldest friends recall how he idolized Johnson… toted, and fretted and apologized for him.”
On this pedestal, Johnson became Brammer’s inspiration for the character Fenstemaker. In Reinart’s words, “The splendid creation named Arthur Fenstemaker is Billy and Johnson both at their very best because that is what they inspired in each other.”
By the time Johnson read The Gay Place the two friends were no longer working together. Their paths met when Brammer was on assignment with Time. He asked Johnson how he liked the book. Johnson’s response: “I couldn’t get past the first ten pages because of all the dirty words.”
That was the beginning of the end, with a subsequent final blow: the Johnson White House denied Brammer’s press credentials.
Did Brammer expect anything else? Johnson was already known for the quirks and flaws Brammer used to develop the caricature named Fenstemaker. With a friendly “Haw Yew?” this narcissistic, raunchy, hard-drinking, and shrewd governor pushes through early civil rights laws in The Gay Place. There’s an uncanny resemblance to Johnson who legislated civil rights laws using charm, charisma and rough-edged tactics. Those tactics are again portrayed in the creative interpretation of Johnson in the movie, Selma, which tells the story of Martin Luther King’s civil rights leadership. Since the movie’s release in December 2014, historians have weighed in on its portrayal of President Johnson, his relationship with King, and his role in civil rights legislation2.
My guess: those flaws were trivial to Brammer. And elated by rave reviews, he blinded himself to the possibility of Johnson’s rejection. That rejection hit him hard, and Brammer never finished another book. His talent, which Reinert compares to F. Scott Fitzgerald, ended in relative obscurity.
1. Brammer, Billy Lee. The Gay Place. Texas Monthly Press, Inc. 1978.
2. Schuessler, Jennifer. “Depiction of Lyndon B. Johnson in ‘Selma’ Raises Hackles.” The New York Times. New York Times, 31 Dec. 2014. Web 09 Feb. 2014.