ORAL HISTORY OF
HARRY C. MCPHERSON, JR. – FOURTH INTERVIEW
This is tape number four. Today is February 13,2003. I am again in Harry McPherson’s
Mr. Vanderstar: Where we left off was New York City and Columbia University
and a woman named Coco Read, who was an interest at that time.
Mr. McPherson: She was. She and her mother and sister had an apartment on
121h Street between 51h Avenue and 61h, right across from the New School, and I spent a couple of
weeks cadging a room from them.
Then I got into Columbia Graduate School, and I found a room at International
House, up on Riverside Drive across the street from Grant’s Tomb. A fascinating community of
people; I don’t know how it is now, but in those days it was quite wonderful. I went to
Columbia Graduate School to study English. I had some terrific teachers: Mark van Doren was
my teacher of great classics. William York Tyndall taught modern British writing; he was a
Joycean-I’d never read a word of Joyce, but I started to read Ulysses under the guidance of
Tyndall and it’s been a great interest ever since. Margery Hope Nicholson taught eighteenth
I decided to write a Masters thesis on the young Welsh poet Dylan Thomas.
Tyndall, who was my mentor, steered me to the early poems of Thomas when he was in his early
20s. They are wonderful poems but hard to decipher.
I also signed up for a couple of courses down at the New School in the evening. I
took a course under Reinhold Neibuhr and a course under Eugene O’Neill’s son, who taught at
Yale and then taught occasional evenings at the New School; he took his own life during that
year. Neibuhr was a great hero of mine to the extent that I understood him. A couple of times I
badgered him unmercifully while riding with him on the subway from the New School back up
to, for me, International House, for him, Union Theological Seminary. You can imagine, I had
just turned 20, I was from the South, I didn’t know anything about religion or philosophy or the
rest of it, but I was fascinated as many kids are at that age by the great questions. I remember
one evening subway ride in which I shouted questions at the poor man. I wasn’t trying to make a
point, I was trying to get him to understand my questions. He had been lecturing about agape
and philos and the other kinds of love. I was trying to get him to elaborate on all this. The poor
guy was probably thinking of getting home and having a good drink (laughter) and here’s this
kid hanging on to him for dear life, asking questions.
Mr. Vanderstar: What was your objective in studying at the New School?
Mr. McPherson: Just to take a course under Neibuhr really. I thought it would
be too great to pass up.
Mr. Vanderstar: What was it, Christian ethics or something like that?
Mr. McPherson: Something like that.
Mr. Vanderstar: So, your major at Columbia wasMr. McPherson: -English literature. My goal was to get a Masters and to go
teach somewhere so that I might write. I wanted to be a poet, and I thought that would be a way
to pay the bills.
During that year, I discovered New York. I discovered standing-room-only
tickets and tickets in the upper balcony, and I saw, in their initial years, Death of a Salesman
and Streetcar Named Desire-that was pretty spectacular.
I also saw for the first time the ballets of Balanchine. I don’t think I had ever seen
ballet, but to see the New York City ballet when Balanchine was in his real prime-maybe he
never had anything but a prime-it was just spectacular, with Maria Tallchief and dancers like
that. It was a real eye opener to me to see something like that.
Mr. Vanderstar: I think they call that a broadening experience.
Mr. McPherson: Yes. And I was absolutely without shame. You just go and
work your way into rooms where people look at you in a strange way and wonder, “What is this
kid doing here?” I just learned to ignore that because I wanted to hear and see everything I
could. Including some of the downside of life: I spent a weekend down in the Bowery among
At International House, which had a wonderful mixture of foreign students and
Americans, I got to know a lot of Paks, a lot of Indians, a lot of Eastern Europeans, including
people with amazing experiences. This was 1949, so we were not far away from the Second
War, and I met people who had been in concentration camps and had managed to survive them
and were now in graduate school at Columbia.
I got to know a lot of interesting foreigners, and several of them remained friends
for many years. One of them became the Foreign Minister of Pakistan and their ambassador to
the UN, a guy named Agha Shahi. I knew a wonderful Indian, a handsome guy named Prem
Ahuja, who went back and was the unfortunate victim of a scandal and killing. He was the lover
of an Indian naval commander’s wife. The commander came home in the classic way-the ship
docked a couple of days early-he came in, found Prem with his wife and killed him. It became
a big issue in India, Nehru having to decide between turning the commander over to a military
court or civil law. It was clear that if he went the naval way, the commander would be
exonerated. Nehru had a real dilemma on his hands. The world asked, “Is this a nation of laws
or not?” and finally, like a good politician, Nehru sent him to the naval court where he was
I became friends with a Black dancer who took me up into Harlem to Father
Divine’s Temple. We ate their Sunday night chicken and mashed potato suppers and listened to
Every year at Christmas the International House students would put on a
Christmas show. They would rehearse it for a month or so, two or three times a week. I was
asked to write it. I wrote a sort of Ogden Nash verse for a beginning and end of it; it was
supposed to be light, but sweet spirited. We sang in chorus and the Black dancer danced. It was
worth about a B-, I would think, in artistic terms, until the very end when a Mississippi-born
singer appeared who was studying at Julliard and living at International House. Her name was
Mr. Vanderstar: Oh, my goodness! (laughter)
Mr. McPherson: She sang a couple of Christmas hymns, Mrs. Roosevelt was
there in the audience, and-I think it was Nelson, but it could have been David Rockefeller; the
families gave a lot of money to the International House. I think it was the idea of International
House, of bringing students from all countries together that attracted them. But I’ll never forget
that evening. We’d done our best, somebody had spoken my bad lines badly, we were just about
done, and then Leontyne Price just transformed the evening. The audience was stunned to hear
this 21- or 22-year-old performer, a student, let fly with “0 Little Town of Bethlehem” with such
power and beauty.
Mr. Vanderstar: Did you know that she had that talent?
Mr. McPherson: I think everyone thought she would be a great singer.
Mr. Vanderstar: Oh, you hadn’t heard her before?
Mr. McPherson: No, though I knew her. Along with several people who knew
her better than I, we would have dinner with her down in the cafeteria. I enjoyed talking to her,
and she could be fun. I knew she was said to be good. I didn’t know she was THAT kind of
good (laughter) until she sang.
Mr. Vanderstar: Let me ask you a little bit about International House because
that would strike me as a place that foreign students would be, but you were there too.
Mr. McPherson: Both. It was about 50-50 foreign and American.
Mr. Vanderstar: Did you have to compete to get into it or was it randomly
assigned? How did you wind up at International House rather than some other place?
Mr. McPherson: I was signing up for my English courses and said to someone at
Columbia, “I’ve been staying down in the Village with some friends but I can’t continue to do
that. Do you have any recommendations?” This person just happened to say, “Have you tried
International House?” He told me where it was, about six blocks away. I walked over there and
asked if they had any rooms, and they had a couple. I just lucked into it.
Then a friend from Sewanee who had come to Columbia in part because I did, a
wonderful man, a writer from Clarksville, Tennessee-Bryce Runyon-came in too. I forget
what he took at Columbia, but we were a floor apart, and saw each other often. It was a
At the end of the spring semester I took the comprehensive exam for the Masters
and started to write my paper. By this time, I guess I had to move out of International House. I
was looking for a little cheaper rent and wasn’t going to stay for more than the summer, I
thought. So I found a tiny apartment in the Village.
This past Christmas holiday, when my family and I were in New York, I was
reading about that area in a New York guide. It drew attention to a little mews, a little in-themiddle-of-the-block mews, on Grove Street between Seventh Avenue and the Hudson on the
west side. I was amazed; my little apartment looked down on this scene. There were about six
little houses facing onto a garden in the middle of the block, something I’ve always thought
cities should have.
That reminds meI’m getting ahead of myself again-but once I tried to talk to
Ford Foundation into letting me and some other people see if we could persuade some
developers to buy a few blocks of rather run-down housing in Washington and turn them inward,
making entrances to the center part of the block at each comer and having the houses looking
inward where there would be a big common, a pool and some playgrounds and that sort of thing.
So, instead of facing the street, run-down, beat-up streets, people would be facing a community
that they had some kind of relationship with. It really came from this experience, living in a
little apartment, looking down on that mews.
Mr. Vanderstar: Okay. Well, let’s get back to Columbia. First let me ask you,
had it been your intention to be there for a year, was that enough to get a Masters?
Mr. McPherson: Enough to get the Masters.
Mr. Vanderstar: Okay. And did you contemplate hrther education or did you
contemplate going out teaching after that?
Mr. McPherson: I figured I would teach. You know, when you are 20 years old
and your father has never even told you what a mortgage is, you are really an innocent when it
comes to an understanding of practical matters of life. So I didn’t know what the options were.
I got myself an apartment and I started to check out books about Dylan Thomas
and about British verse and Freud-because Thomas was a young poet who was using Freudian
ideas in his verse-and God knows what else. I was finding myself struggling to be enough of a
student to be a scholar, enough of a scholar to be a teacher, to be happy with that life.
Mr. Vanderstar: When you say “teacher,” are you talking college or preparatory
Mr. McPherson: Maybe a prep school or something like that would have been
On June 25, 1950-
Mr. Vanderstar: Yes. I remember it well.
Mr. McPherson: -the Korean War broke out. I had three friends in Greenwich
Village-a bachelor and a man and wife, who lived a block from me. Let me take just a moment
to talk about these people: Norman Sly had gone to Sewanee. Norman was a short, powerfully
built man in his late twenties. He looked like a figure from a Hungarian film-wide cheekbones
and a long, skinny nose. He was a brilliant literary man, and he lived in a fifth-floor walk-up on
Bleeker Street in the Village. Since he was from Sewanee and I was, we were connected. He
was very kind to me and invited me to join him and his friends who were all maybe five years
older than I was.
They knew a guy named Tom Dardis. Tom was a panic-stricken Irish-American
literary man who had grown up in New York. I think he said he had lived in at least 45
apartments or houses, always getting either kicked out or getting out just ahead of the landlord
with his down-at-the-heels father. But he was a passionate literary man. His greatest passion
was for William Faulkner. He had gone down to Oxford (Mississippi) but never met him. He
was too embarrassed to do any more than just stand under the trees on Faulkner’s property and
look and hope, and he did, indeed, one day see Faulkner come out and get on a horse and ride
off. That was almost enough for Tom Dardis. In later years Tom published several books and
was rather well known. When he died a couple of years ago there was quite a decent obituary in
the Times. One of his books was about what Hollywood had done to writers like Faulkner and
Fitzgerald. His surprising answer was that Hollywood had been very generous to them and
helped them a lot more than they had helped Hollywood. The impact of alcohol on writers was
the subject of another book.
Anyway, we were all a ferociously interested bunch of literary people, very much
like the audience in the great film, Les Znfantes de Paradis. Remember that old film? Well, we
were the kids up in the balcony looking at the stage. We would go back to talk for three hours
after anything we’d seen about everything we’d seen. And I remember on June 2Sth or shortly
after, a week or so after, going over to the Dardis’ to cadge a meal. I pretty much lived on
scrambled eggs, black beans and tomato slices. (laughter) Not too unhealthy.
Mr. Vanderstar: Not bad, not bad.
Mr. McPherson: No, but I would go over and Jane Dardis, who was a nurse in
Bellevue, would come back from her duties there and cook a civilized meal, and I’d get my
broccoli for the month. (laughter)
I remember waiting for the elevator in this little apartment house down the block
from where I lived. There had been was some news about how the 24‘h Division was being
driven back into what became the Pusan Perimeter, and I said, “It looks like we’re taking it on
the chin” to a woman standing next to me in the elevator, and she said, “Who’s the ‘we”’?
Mr. Vanderstar: Oh, boy.
Mr. McPherson: And I, I thought, “Uh, I’m in the Village.” This was 1950, and
here’s somebody who thinks her side is the North Korean Communist side.
Anyway, when they were getting the draft started, I connected with the draft
board in my home town. I think I did it with a certain relief. It would get me out of this
dilemma that I had about what I was going to be. Do you know, when I told somebody that one
time, he said, If you read the Iliad carehlly, in some part of it Homer talks about exactly this:
That war for young men is attractive because it comes along at a time when otherwise they
would have to decide how to live their lives, or how to begin to live their lives. And war
answers that question. They can always say, “Well, I have to give my time to my country in the
military.” And that’s pretty much how I felt.
Mr. Vanderstar: You’re not alone in that, by the way.
Mr. McPherson: (laughter) I’ll bet! I’ll bet that’s not unusual.
Mr. Vanderstar: And didn’t Tolstoy say that the military is the place where you
can get respectability and not have to work too hard? (laughter)
Mr. McPherson: Yes. I told Mr. Goldwater, who had rented his apartment to
me, that I was leaving early, and I went back home to Tyler, Texas. I started negotiating with
the Air Force and the Navy and the Army to see who would take me into OCS. I called up Bob
Thweatt, the guy I mentioned last week who was weeping because Henry VI11 had not turned his
attention to colonizing the New World but had his fight with the Catholic church. Thweatt had
been a pilot in World War 11. I asked him, “What would you do?” He said, “Well, I have
always felt that although I was flying in the Navy, the infantry is the Queen of Battles.” So, I
figured, well, okay, maybe I’ll do that. But the Army, for some reason, was slow in saying yes
to my wish to go to Army OCS. The Air Force said, “Come on. We can’t put you in OCS right
now, but go through basic training and then we’ll put you in it.” So I decided on the Air Force.
Mr. Vanderstar: What did the Navy say?
Mr. McPherson: I don’t think I ever heard from the Navy. When I started basic
training, I got a letter from the United States Amy saying, “Report to Camp Polk, Louisiana, for
OCS training.” (laughter) I wrote back and said, “Sorry, I’m a private in the Air Force.”
Mr. Vanderstar: “I’m spoken for!” (laughter)
Well now, when did you actually go in the service?
Mr. McPherson: In October of 1950.
Mr. Vanderstar: So you went home after Korea started?
Mr. McPherson: Just after it started. I think it must have been in August or early
Mr. Vanderstar: Okay, and so the Air Force was your choice. Did you want to
Mr. McPherson: Well, I thought I’d be a navigator. My eyes aren’t good enough
to be a pilot. They said navigation would be okay if you’re 20150 correctable to 20120. I went
through basic training and fortuitously got assigned to Warner Robbins Air Force Base in
Macon, Georgia. This was only about 150 miles from Columbus, Georgia, where Coco Read
and her mother and sister, Clayton Read, lived and where their grandfather had been the mayor
for 25 years. So I was in Macon or outside of Macon at Warner Robbins and hoping to go to
I met a fellow-we must all have stories like this-who was giving physical
exams. He was a mortician from Shreveport, Louisiana, and we became friendly. I really
wanted to go to navigation school. He examined my eyes, which were nowhere near
20/50–closer to 20/20@-and he wrote down 20/50. And so, after about two or three months, I
got orders to go to navigation school at Ellington Field in Houston. And almost at once, within a
day, I got another letter from the Air Force essentially saying “Something’s funny. When you
came in you had a physical exam and your eyes were 20/200. Go have another test.” Well, I
figured as long as whatever his name was there I was okay. But he had gone back to Shreveport
on leave (laughter) so some other guy gave me the test and I didn’t make it.
Mr. Vanderstar: And a great navigatorMr. McPherson: A great navigator was lost.
Mr. Vanderstar: Where had you done basic training?
Mr. McPherson: Shepard Field in Wichita Falls, Texas, a place where, in the fall
and winter-as they say out there, “There ain’t nothin’ between here and the North Pole but a
strand of barbed wire.” (laughter)
Mr. Vanderstar: And what were you supposed to be doing at Warner Robbins?
Mr. McPherson: Well they didn’t know what to do with me at first. They put me
on a cash register in the officers’ club; they figured I could, you know, I could at least count, and
I started playing baseball.
Mr. Vanderstar: You were still an enlisted man at the time?
Mr. McPherson: I was a private, or I guess I got promoted to corporal and was
made barracks chief. I shared a room with a very nice guy. I had a little 45 rpm record player,
and I played the Bach B Minor Mass which I was really engrossed in. That poor fellow had
(laughter) to listen to me play that a lot; I bet he would have destroyed the place if he could have.
Anyway, one day a lot of people started arriving at the base, a lot of reservists,
who were being called back out of civilian life, just as they are right now. I was put on some
kind of clerical detail to sign them in. Well, a tall, very nice-looking Lieutenant Colonel named
Lemuel Clark-he was a football coach in Macon-had been called back out of football
coaching to come back in to be the commander of a training wing which would be established
there. They would train the reservists, get them in shape to go where ever they would be sent. I
was signing him up and he said (accent), “Tell me, Corporal McPherson, tell me about yourself.”
Well, the day before, I had been on clean up detail out around the parking lot and there were a lot
of cigarette butts with lipstick on them, thrown down by secretaries. I said, “You know,
Colonel, to be honest with you, I was really hoping I could do something to help the country out.
I really would like to take some role in this war. And yesterday I was out sweeping up cigarette
butts with lipstick on them. I wish I could be doing something that would be of more use.” And,
he said (accent), “Tell me about your schooling.” I said, “Well, I went to college, I spent a year
at Columbia.” He said (accent), “I’m going to be the commanding officer of this training unit
and you’re going to be my first instructor.”
Mr. Vanderstar: Wow.
Mr. McPherson: Meet me tomorrow morning at 5: 15 at the barracks and we’re
going to put these fellow through some exercises to get them started for the day.” And I said,
“Yes, sir!” (laughter) I really felt great. I would be his first guy, and he could make me into
something. And then he leaned over and he buttoned my shirt front pocket, and he nodded and
gave a nice smile, just to let me know that I wasn’t free of his oversight. (laughter)
Mr. Vanderstar: You mentioned that Coco Read was living in New York when
you first got there, and that may have been part of the reason you decided on Columbia instead
of some other institution, and now you’ve mentioned that your travels took you to Macon,
Georgia, which was not very far from her home.
Mr. McPherson: Yes, right.
Mr. Vanderstar: Can you fill in that year as far as she’s concerned?
Mr. McPherson: Yes. Our relationship had become kind of attenuated. It just
didn’t hold together. She had stayed in New York working for the Ladies’ Home Journal. Her
boss was a rather well-known woman, not as well known as the editor of Vogue, but well known.
Coco became her amanuensis and kind of executive assistant. She stayed up there for a time.
While I was at Warner Robbins I started going over occasionally to Columbus. I
always thought that maybe my attraction to that house and that family had to do with the house
and the mother, Ne11 Acree. Let me just take a minute. She was a fascinating figure. And all
this family is of some importance in my life because I married Clayton Read, the other, slightly
older sister, after having been tied up with Coco for a long time. Clayton and I got serious with
one another and got married.
Her mother, Ne11 Dimon Acree, was a very large woman. She was verging on the
obese, but she could dance like a feather, ballroom dance. She lived in a kind of large cottage
with a beautiful pine woods outside. The house was like something out of a children’s
story-wonderful brown shingles. Inside the furniture was spare but very pleasant; the place
was lined with thousands of books. She was dirt poor, having gone through whatever her share
of her father’s estate was. As a young fiery spirit when she was 18 she had been talked into a
marriage with some local social lion and left him after two weeks.
World War I broke out, and she went to France as a nurse and worked down in
the south of France near the Pyrenees in a hospital where they brought people for convalescence.
She got to know a woman, whose name later on was Grace Lambert. When the war ended the
two of them bought a small olive farm in Provence, and they got to know a lot of literary people.
She had a wonderful time there. But after a while, she ran out of money, and her father said,
So, in the early O OS, having had that rich experience, she did. That reminds me:
looking back at my year at Columbia, Coco Read finagled an invitation for us to Grace
Lambert’s home in Princeton. Grace was married to Jerry Lambert, of the Lambert
Pharmaceutical Company-the guy who, stuck in traffic in the Holland Tunnel one day, thought
up a slogan for his mouthwash product, Listerine-“Even your best friend won’t tell you.”
(laughter) Listerine became enormously popular, and they made a ton of money. He bought and
raced The Yankee, one of those 120-foot sailing sloops that used to-I forget the names of the
others, but Lipton had one-race these three- or four-masted schooners across the Atlantic; he
had one and he had a fabulous house in Princeton. Coco and I were met at the station in
Princeton by a driver in a Rolls Royce and driven out to this mansion. Out came this handsome
guy in black tie. I bounded out of the car and said, “Mr. Lambert, I’m Harry McPherson and I’m
so pleased to meet YOU.” And he said, “Sir, my name is James and I will be your man while you
are here.” (laughter)
Mr. Vanderstar: Whoa. Whoa, what a fauxpas.
Mr. McPherson: Well, well I guess it was.
Mr. Vanderstar: When did this happen?
That was Grace, and that was Ne11 Dimon Acree.
Well, Ne11 had a literary bent, and she had an enormous range of friends in the
That was during my Columbia year.
Black community. She was a profound believer in White supremacy. She hated Lincoln
because he had destroyed the Confederacy and all that, and yet she was extremely sympathetic
and warm towards the Blacks who lived around her out in the country near Columbus. If one of
them got into trouble and got thrown in jail, she’d be called at three in the morning and she’d put
on some kind of a gown and coat, get in her old Dodge and drive down to get him out of jail. All
her Black neighbors were friends of Miss Nell. And when she wanted to have a dinner party, she
would ask them to come serve and they would. George Alexander, a wonderful man, would put
on his white jacket, black tie and serve. Whether or not they ever got paid anything, I don’t
know, she didn’t have much money at all.
She had a real character of a brother who was in the Chicago Commodities
Exchange and made several fortunes and lost them, but every now and then would roar up to say
hello to her in an enormous limo with a chauffeur and all this. (laughter) He would get out and
she would badger him to lend her some money.
Well, I was hooked on her because she was gay and charming, heavy-set and poor
as she was. I’d never known anyone like her in Tyler, Texas. No one of this peculiar southern
literary cultivation had never been any part of my life, and it really struck me happily.
Coco and I just kind of drifted apart, and I began to take up with Clayton. This
was while I was at Warner Robbins Air Force Base. She wanted to be an actress, and she’d gone
to Mary Washington College down in Fredericksburg, Virginia for a couple of years. Then she
went to Catholic U. and joined the theater of Father Gilbert Hartke. When she graduated she
joined a touring company that he had called Players Incorporated, and she became friends with a
wonderful director named Alan Schneider. He later directed a dozen big hits in New YorkWilliam Inge and people like that.
I got word that my second choice of OCS had come through, so I went to San
Antonio, to Lackland Air Force Base, and for six months I was a cadet in the Officers Candidate
Mr. Vanderstar: What period of time was this now?
Mr. McPherson: This was late ‘5 1, early ‘52.
Mr. Vanderstar: Late ‘5 l? So you were at Warner Robbins for a long time.
Mr. McPherson: Yes, for about a year. Mostly playing baseball and drinking
and working for Colonel Clark. He wrote a letter, I think I still have a copy of it, to my father
when I left and went to OCS that was one of the nicest letters anyone ever wrote about me. It
was a very formal, southern military man kind of letter. It almost made my father bawl with
So I went to OCS, and because I had the loudest voice of anybody in the entire
cadet corps-it could be heard in San Antonio (laughterbwhen marching, 1 became cadet
major and found it a tolerable experience.
Mr. Vanderstar: And that was for six months?
Mr. McPherson: Six months. When I got out was sent to Intelligence School at
Lowry Air Force Base in Denver, where I lived with five other second lieutenants in a big
Victorian stone house. We chased girls and did all the things you do as a second lieutenant.
Mr. Vanderstar: And Clayton Read was in Georgia?
Mr. McPherson: Yes. We were writing all the time, and I was getting more and
more attracted to her. I went back midway through Christmas vacation to Georgia to see her.
Being a cadet major I had these shoulder boards on my coat, and I really looked very Steve
Canyon-like (laughter-r so I thought.
When I came back, my father said he wanted to see me. So I said “I’ll come back
through Dallas on my way to San Antonio and we’ll spend a couple days there.” Well, as the
planeit was a DC-3-was flying back from Georgia, it ran into a horrendous windstorm, and it
seemed that everybody on the plane was throwing up; it was really pretty bad. This very goodlooking stewardess was just in desperate shape with people being sick near her and people
demanding this and that. She was trying to take something to the pilot when she collapsed, and
everybody kept looking at me since I was this (laughter) cadet major: “Do something.” So I got
up and tried to help her a bit and was at least as helpful as in the way. Anyway, we finally
landed. The storm was over. I said “I’ll meet you in the bar,” and she said, “All right.” And
here I had just been to see my girlfriend but I caught the eye of this young woman. And in my
wonderful uniform I stepped out on the steel stairs, slipped, and went all the way down to the
bottom on my butt. I looked back. She tried to look away. It was too embarrassing, but I
decided I’d better get up and go with my father. (laughter)
Anyway, I went to Lowry in Denver and spent three months and drove back
through Georgia on my way to Fort Bragg, NC. I was assigned to Hope Field, which was at that
time the Tactical Air Command headquarters, connected to Fort Bragg, and I was to be trained as
an air combat intelligence officer. I was supposed to go to Korea and help identify targets. I
also, I guess it was part of my training, was asked to brief the staff officers once a week on
whatever was going on in the world. It was then, in 1952, that I began to read detailed Air Force
reports of the first American bomber crews, in South Vietnam, that they had gone over
Mr. Vanderstar: South Korea?
Mr. McPherson: -in South Vietnam.
Mr. Vanderstar: South Vietnam?
Mr. McPherson: Yes. I was reading about the fact that we had planes operating,
I don’t know whether they were Air Force or CIA, but we had planes operating out of Saigon,
picking up movements of the Vietminh in French Indo-China. This was before Dien Bien Phu.
Mr. Vanderstar: Right.
Mr. McPherson: I talked about it one day to these officers that I was supposed to
brief every week. One of them had spent a lot of time in Vietnam. He just opened up and took
over the briefing and for the next hour he held us all enthralled with his talk about what was
going to happen in Vietnam. He had been in an old A-20, two-engine attack bomber, when it
was attacked; he taxied down to the end of the runway outside of Saigon and just noticed out of
the comer of his eye a farmer put down his rake and pick up a rifle and started shooting at the
plane. After having an encounter like that, he said that our side is not going to win.
Mr. Vanderstar: Okay, so we’ve got you now at Fort Bragg or Hope Field, now
we’re in North Carolina.
Mr. McPherson: Headed for Korea, I thought, but I took time out to get married.
Clayton and I got married in Columbus, Georgia. A tall, rangy, very interesting priest from
Catholic University who was a friend of hers came down and married us in the Catholic church.
It was okay with me, I was interested in getting mamed and not in religion or which religion we
were in. We lived in Southern Pines outside of and near Fort Bragg.
I had filled out a chart, some kind of a personnel document. At the bottom it said,
“Languages,” and it had French, German, Spanish and so on and it said, Make a check to show if
you read, spoke or understood the language, fluently, reasonably well or poorly. I had had a
little Spanish, so I checked that, and then just for the hell of it I checked, “Understand German
Poorly,” which was certainly true. But I figured, it’s not too bad-German’s kind of like
English and I could probably learn to speak it in time. I wasn’t thinking of anything except kind
of doing a little unjustified bragging.
Well, in some primitive computer in the Pentagon there was a request for a junior
intelligence officer in the U.S. Air Force Headquarters, Wiesbaden, Germany. The computer
hooked on the “Understand German Poorly” in my form, and the next think I knew I had orders
for Germany, not for Korea.
Mr. Vanderstar: This was after you married Clayton?
Mr. McPherson: After we were mamed. The only other event worth telling
about in this time was the day before we left. As I mentioned, Clayton’s grandfather had been
the mayor of Columbus, Georgia, for 20 to 25 years. He had a business, the National Showcase
Company. He spent his after-duty hours as mayor of Columbus. In that capacity, he got to
know the commandant of the infantry school back in the OS, early O OS, one George Catlett
Marshall. Well, having more brass than sense, I prevailed on Clay to call the Marshall home in
Pinehurst, to see if we might visit them before we left. They remembered her grandfather very
well, and they invited us over for lunch. We went over on a cool, not quite chilly, but cool,
sunny afternoon and spent about four hours with General Marshall. It was one of the most
fascinating encounters I have ever had.
Mr. Vanderstar: I can imagine.
Mr. McPherson: In fact, he became much more open the longer we talked. I
said, “You know, you’ve been attacked, I know unjustly, as having been insufficiently
supportive of Chiang Kai-shek and in effect allowing the communists to drive the Kuomintang
out.” And he straightened up. We were sitting outside in the sun, and he said, “Let’s go inside.”
We went into his study and he pulled out some letters from Chiang Kai-shek to him after he had
returned, in which Chiang Kai-shek said, “Free China will always be in your debt. You did
everything a human being could have done and then more for Free China.” And I said, “What
happened, what did the Republicans say when you, when you presented them with these letters?”
He said, “I didn’t present them.” I asked, “Why not?” “Well,” he said, “they were from him to
me and I didn’t think it appropriate.”
Can you imagine another man going through such an unjust attack and not saying,
“Senator, let me just read you some letters.” Marshall had too much pride and too much sense of
what was appropriate to do that.
Mr. Vanderstar: Rectitude,
Mr. McPherson. Rectitude! Wow.
Mr. Vanderstar: That’s amazing. And what’s equally amazing is that he sat and
talked to you about this for a couple of hours and here you had just sort of blown in from Fort
Bragg on a visit under those circumstances.
Mr. McPherson: A five-star general and a second lieutenant.
Mr. Vanderstar: Absolutely remarkable.
Mr. McPherson: Yes, it was.
Mr. Vanderstar: Well, let me get back to Clay. What happened to her acting
Mr. McPherson: Except when she was acting under my direction, and I will get
to that after a while, in St. Mark’s Church, that was the end of her acting career. We went to
Germany and lived in an apartment in Bahnhofstrasse in Wiesbaden and were gone every
weekend some place. It was fascinating to be in Germany that soon after the war. We got there
in January of ‘53.
In August, I had been looking for targets in central Europe and that sort of thing,
contemplating two more years in the Air Force, the bureaucracy of the Air Force headquarters in
Europe got into the picture. Ike, having come in as president in January of ‘53, brought in the
guy they called “Engine” Charlie Wilson, the General Motors boss, as secretary of defense. He
talked about a bigger bang for buck, so the order came down that any reservist who still has time
to serve but wants out may get out, unless he is in some critical MOS. Well the Air Force
Headquarters in Europe had-I remember this very clearly; my numbers will not be exactly
right, but it is essentially this-about 18 generals, about 95 colonels and maybe 200 lieutenant
colonels and 300 majors and 200 captains and 18 lieutenants. (laughter) It had the same number
of lieutenants and generals. And, of course none of those majors and colonels wanted out; these
guys were used car salesmen, or shoe salesmen, and they were living on pretty nice pay in
quarters paid for by the military in Germany, eating well, drinking well, traveling to castles and
things like that. So I don’t think any of them got out. Seventeen of the 18 lieutenants practically
killed each other getting through the door. (laughter) We learned in early August that I was to
get out in late August.
I had by this time decided, and here we finally get to the point, to be a lawyer.
Two reasons: One, because it was a way to make a living using words and ideas and I thought I
could do it. The other was because of a profound belief that, in the era of Joe McCarthy-this
was ‘53; McCarthy had already taken some hits but he was still hauling people before him in
mid-‘53-if you could you ought to be a lawyer and defend people under attack by a fascist
government back home.
You know, when you are away from your own home and you’re reading the
Economist and things like that to try to understand what is going on back there, and what you’re
reading is unmixed with first-hand observations about what was really happening, or the degree
to which people were laughing at McCarthy or the degree to which they thought sooner or later
they would get him or he would have a collapse-I guess Richard Rovere in the New Yorker,
was beginning to write in ways that suggested that that would happen. I didn’t know any of that.
All I knew was that he was hauling cleaning women before him, threatening them because of
their beliefs, and a guy who later became a good friend of mine, Anthony Lewis, was writing
about those encounters. He’d just got on the New York Times after having been with the
Washington Daily News, and he started writing about McCarthy.
Anyway, I figured that would be a pretty good thing to do, so I applied out of blue
to Harvard Law School: “Can I come in September? I’m about to get out at the end of August.’’
I get a nice letter back saying, “We might be able to take you next year, but it’s a little late for
this year.” Well, I didn’t have any alternative for this year. I figured, as the old expression has
it, “home is where they have to take you in,” so I wrote to Austin and they said, “Sure, come on
So we went to Austin, Texas. We paid the 55 dollar a semester tuition charge,
and within a couple of months we were able to move in to one-quarter of a barracks. There was
a whole bunch of barracks that were sitting out on West Sixth Street in Austin, along the river,
that were divided into four apartments. They were 25 dollars a month, all utilities paid.
(laughter) Clayton got a job as a second-grade school teacher about 15 miles outside of Austin
in a little German-American town called Pflugerville, where the students were largely MexicanAmerican kids whose families worked on that great center-of-the-country wheat harvest drive. I
got a little money from my dad every month, 60 dollars or 80 dollars, and I got the G.I. Bill, and
we had her teacher’s salary. That was what we lived on that for three years while I went to the
University of Texas.
ORAL HISTORY OF