The Bard of Point Clear

Squire Fox
by Roy Hoffman - Alabama - Summer 07

The Inimitable Winston Groom

The objects in Winston Groom’s study in the elegant Point Clear home he shares with his wife, Anne-Clinton, and their eight-year-old daughter, Carolina, provide insight into the work and sensibilities of the author of Forrest Gump and thirteen other books of fiction, memoirs, and narrative history.

On the table is a six hundred-page manuscript for a novel, El Paso, about Pancho Villa and the Mexican Revolution, which Winston’s been working on for ten years. Across the computer screen unfolds the text for a history that he’s on schedule to complete this summer — a narrative of the Battle of Vicksburg together with his argument “that the war should have ended there.”

On the fireplace hangs the cavalry saber that belonged to his great-grandfather Fremont Thrower, who rode with Gen. Joseph “Fighting Joe” Wheeler. Thrower provided Winston with a personal connection to his Civil War history, Shrouds of Glory. The sword, Winston speculates, also likely belonged to his great-great-great grandfather, Elijah Montgomery, a major in the War of 1812. Winston wrote eloquently of Major Montgomery in his most recent book, Patriotic Fire: Andrew Jackson and Jean Laffite at the Battle of New Orleans.

While his military histories — his focus in recent years — are epic narratives, he often finds a way into them through his family’s past. As he explained in the opening of his World War II book 1942, “I was not born into a family of warriors, although practically every generation of it has served in one American war or another, from the War of Independence and the War of 1812, to the Creek Indian wars and the Civil War, to the Spanish-American War and the First World War.”

Over his desk is a Forrest Gump movie poster — Forrest sitting on a bench — autographed by cast members. “Dear Mister Groom,” reads one inscription, “I can only thank you and hope you’ll forgive my irregularities in this Forrest. Very respectfully, Tom Hanks.” “Mr. Groom,” reads another, “thanks so much for Mama Gump!! Yours forever, Sally Field.”

Then there are the cabinets filled with countless research books that Winston pores over for his histories. After publishing thousands of pages, he is an author who’s still intent on mastering new topics.

And, leaning against the cabinets are the guns. Shotguns, he specifies.

Although, like Winston, I grew up in Mobile, went to the same high school, and also had a distinguished lawyer dad, I never toted a gun of any kind through woods or field. So I look to Winston, whose father raised him hunting, to tell me about the seven double-barreled shotguns leaning against his library shelves.

As he lifts each and sights down the barrel, then handing it to me, he explains they are all bird guns, though each has a different use — waterfowl, quail, pheasant, or skeet. “I’m not a collector, but I do like fine guns,” he says, “especially old ones, since the craftsmanship was so much better then.” Then he recounts their stories.

One is a 28-gauge Arietta, a Spanish gun made in the 1960s that he won in a lottery at his sporting clays club in Cashiers, North Carolina, where he and his family spend the hottest part of each summer in their cool mountain retreat. Another is a 12-gauge Guyot, a 1910 French gun that he got from a man who’d been in the American embassy in India and claimed it had belonged to the Maharaja of Jodhpur.

Then there is the 20-gauge L.C. Smith, a Crown Grade American sidelock built in 1926, with engravings of dog and quail scenes on the locks and extra fine checkering on the black walnut stock. His newest, an Italian Beretta 20-gauge, a versatile gun fashioned to make left-handed shooting easier, was acquired for Winston by the president of Beretta after he lost sight in his right eye. “He took pity on me,” Winston says.

In a long row above the sofa are the framed dust jackets of his books. His mother-in-law, Wren, who doubles as his researcher, made the display starting with his first novel, Better Times Than These, which he wrote after serving in Vietnam as a lieutenant with the Army’s 4th Infantry Division. During the war, while in combat, Winston took notes; when he returned stateside and took out his notebooks, they still had dirt, clay, and bits of blood on them. He says they helped jog his memory for the novel, which was inspired by James Jones’ The Thin Red Line. Jones became his mentor and, soon, his close friend. While living in East Hampton, Long Island, and also in New York City, Winston also became friends with, among other luminaries, Willie Morris, Joseph Heller, and Peter Matthiessen. “They showed me many kindnesses,” he says.