Little Rock: The 2005 American Heritage Great American Place


For a long time I didn’t feel part of any of this. I was in Little Rock, but Little Rock wasn’t in me. I knew no one outside the magazine. My regular track was West Little Rock to downtown and back again. West Little Rock was where everyone downtown had fled to. Even then the area was dotted with abundant stands of woods and unspoiled vistas.

I always liked driving home along Cantrell Road. It helped ease the blow on those evenings when I wondered what in the hell I had done to my life and career by leaving Chicago and moving to Little Rock. At a certain point in the drive I would round a gentle curve and find that a mountain had filled my windshield. Behind the mountain the sun was red and sinking. It was a beautiful view, so much softer than harsh sun beating down on a rawboned burg that had seen better days.

Capital Hotel
arkansas department of parks and tourism2005_5_52

In 1989, the year Southern Magazine folded, my new wife, Beth, and I moved with her daughters into a 1923 Craftsman bungalow on the corner of Holly Street and Lee Avenue in Little Rock’s old Hillcrest neighborhood. Our place was between West Little Rock and downtown, closer to downtown. “Ah, Hillcrest,” said an acquaintance when I told him where we lived, “the city’s first white-flight subdivision.”

The house at 501 Holly was the one with 56 windows, including a skylight that we carved into the erstwhile attic that became my writing space. The irony of my long relationship with Little Rock is that once I began sitting still inside that Craftsman bungalow, the city—its past and its future—seemed determined to sneak in and seek me out.

One day in October 1991 the governor stood with his wife and daughter on the veranda of the Old State House and announced that he was running for President of the United States. Suddenly Little Rock didn’t seem quite so out of the way. Soon I found myself traveling with candidate Clinton for what would become an 8,000-word cover story in the Washington Post Magazine . When it came out, I got a call from an agent in New York who wanted to represent me. He had a big idea for a book, a collaboration with Virginia Kelley, Clinton’s outrageous horse-playing mother, who lived in Hot Springs.

“I don’t want to write an as-told-to book,” I said.

“It’s not like it’s Jon Bon Jovi,” the agent said.

By then I had my own hot book idea. My friend’s comment about white flight had led me to research the background of the subdivision called Pulaski Heights, of which Hillcrest was a part. In the 1890s its developers, two men from Michigan, had built Quapawesque mansions in this no man’s land in order to showcase the quality of life they envisioned in this higher, cooler ground a mile from downtown.

Eyes glazed over en masse when I told people I wanted to write a book about the history of my house. But by researching the lives that had been lived in that one Craftsman bungalow for much of the twentieth century, I was connecting myself to Little Rock. History is best when it’s personal, like an old friend you meet on the street and whose secrets you know by heart. I had already discovered that one of those run-down warehouses near my Southern Magazine office had once been a NuGrape bottling plant owned by C. W. L. Armour, the man who built my house. The architect he had chosen had also designed War Memorial Stadium, whose Art Deco facade I stared at every day from a treadmill at the War Memorial Fitness Center.

Through the lives of Jessie and Charlie Armour, I learned about Little Rock during the hopeful twenties, the hard Depression (Charlie went bankrupt), and World War II (which their only son spent in a Japanese POW camp). Through the next owners, Ruth and Billie Murphree, I touched fingertips with that most infamous of Little Rock episodes, the 1957 Central High School integration crisis, in which President Dwight Eisenhower dispatched the 101st Airborne Division to escort nine black children through a mob of jeering, spitting white people. The Murphrees were the parents of a daughter who graduated from Central that year and of a second girl who ran off and got married, at 16, during the “lost year” following Gov. Orval Faubus’s closing of the public schools in 1958. My own stepdaughters would both attend Central, but each time I entered those labyrinthine halls the faces I saw were those of the Murphree girls.

Eventually I would write books about both Virginia Kelley and 501 Holly, and as I sat upstairs watching the elm limbs spread, the alien Little Rock of my beginnings became a place that felt like home. The extent of that change was underscored by an extraordinary telephone call one day eight years after my arrival in the city. I’ve never told this story before, but I think it belongs here. Virginia Kelley had just died of breast cancer, and when I picked up the phone, an official voice on the other end asked me to “hold for the President.”

I stared out the window for the longest time. Then he was on the line. “Jim,” said the President, “I’m here with Roger and Dick,” referring to his half-brother and his stepfather, Dick Kelley, Virginia’s last husband. During my book research President Clinton had told me, “My mother has lived a big, sprawling, messy life,” and this call was one of the results. “There’s a question about where she would want to be buried,” he was now saying, the choices being next to Bill’s dad, Roger’s dad, or Dick. “We’d like your opinion.”