Friday, March 6, 2009

Jill Krementz Photo Journal - Horton Foote, 1916-2009

I believe very deeply in the human spirit and I have a sense of awe about it because I don’t know how people carry on. What makes the difference in people? What is it? I’ve known people that the world has thrown everything at to discourage them, to kill them, to break their spirit. And yet something about them retains a dignity. They face life and don’t ask quarters. — Horton Foote
Horton Foote was born in Wharton, Texas—a small town once surrounded by cotton fields. His father was a local haberdasher and his mother taught piano. He left Wharton at the age of 16 with his heart set on being an actor. When he died Wednesday at the age of 92 he had become one of the greatest playwrights of the 20th century.

Horton Foote's bookshelf next to his desk.
In 1962 he wrote the screenplay adaptation of Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, produced by the late Alan Pakula. He won an Oscar. It was only the first. He won his second for the screenplay of “Tender Mercies.”

When I photographed him in 2006, it was in his Manhattan apartment on Horatio Street. His play, “Trip to Bountiful,” was playing at the Signature Theater starring Lois Smith, and his daughter, Hallie Foote. The director was Harris Yulin.

Mr. Foote wrote at a small desk at the foot of his bed in the bedroom. He wrote by hand. From the window, he could see the Hudson River. Between the bed and the wall was a treadmill which he said his son-in-law made him use daily. On the bookshelf next to his desk, books by Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Anne Porter, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Rainer Maria Rilke, Elizabeth Bishop and an inscribed copy of “Mockingbird” by his friend, Harper Lee. On the center shelf, a photograph of Alan Pakula.

In the living room there was a large vase of cotton balls on stems, sent to him on opening night by Harris Yulin.

He was a modest, unassuming man beloved by everyone.
As I think back on my early plays and my beginning as a writer, I feel I was attempting to redefine the Texas myth for myself. I did this, whether consciously or not, by being as exactly true as I could to a particular place and time. That is why when I am asked where I am from I don’t say “Texas” or “the South” or Southwest.” I say “Wharton, Texas.” Now my friends and relatives at home think I do this out of pride for my hometown. I do like my hometown, but that is not really why I do it. I think I do it to emphasize that Texas is not just one large myth. We do not descend from cowboys who lived for cattle drives and fought Indians, or from rich, greedy, vulgar cattlemen building impossible empires and mansions on the vast plains. — Horton Foote
Horton Foote and his daughter, Hallie.
Working in theater isn’t making me the richest person in the world, but I’m just the happiest. I think because the New York theatre has become like a small town, in many ways, we all know each other, and if you don’t know them personally, you know their reputation. For instance, Harris Yulin and I—this is our third play together. It’s been a great gift to me, discovering how much I get from him as a director. Lois Smith I have known for, oh, thirty years and always wanted to work with her. And here we are working together. I don’t know. I’m a theatre rat, I guess. — Horton Foote
Now After all these years I am reading my plays straight through for the first time in a long time. I see a pattern now in the whole, a pattern made clearer to me by different scholars and critics writing about the plays. I am in wonder that so clear a pattern seems to have emerged, since the plays were composed out of order and with no particular pattern in mind. The pattern, as I see it, is the search of the dispossessed, Horace, the homeless, seeking and finding a home. For me, the writer, I think the task is the old reoccurring one I always seem to set myself — to find a sense of order in disorder, a shape to chaos. — Horton Foote
All photographs © by Jill Krementz: all rights reserved.