It’s an unusual name, and one I find I can’t say without some degree of celebration, hence the exclamation mark-a piece of punctuation now wildly overused, I think because of social media, and I’ve been guilty of it too, but when I use Wayne Greenhaw’s name, I have to shout it out, partly because of how much I miss him and how many good memories I have of him, but mostly because Greenhaw lived life so fully while he was here that his name demands some accompanying distinction. Plain old “Greenhaw” just won’t do.
Many of you reading this knew him. Or it may be that everyone reading this knew him because Wayne knew an amazing number and assortment of people. When I first heard his name I heard it as “Greenhall.” I’d just started working at Capitol Book & News in Montgomery and a slightly overweight man with gray hair and a mustache came in and began picking out books and talking to Thomas Upchurch, who owned the store with his wife Cheryl. After a while the man put his books down on the counter and Thomas said, “Charge those to Wayne Greenhall,” or so I thought he said. Thomas then went back to talking to Wayne, who continued down another aisle. Before Wayne left, Thomas properly introduced us, but it probably wasn’t until Thomas checked the charge ticket that he set me straight on the name. He then showed me some of the books we carried that Wayne had written: Flying High: Inside Big-Time Drug Smuggling and Elephants in the Cotton Fields: Ronald Reagan and the New Republican South. And don’t let that title make you think Wayne was a Republican, because everyone who knew Wayne knew otherwise. A mutual friend once said to me, “The only bad thing about Greenhaw is he’s such a damn Democrat.” (Wayne laughed when I told him.)
So a few weeks later, I was sitting at my brand-new favorite bar, 1048 Jazz & Blues in the Cloverdale area of Montgomery, and Greenhaw came strolling in. And “strolling” is the right word, I think. Wayne had a slightly unusual gait because, I found out later, he’d had scoliosis in his early teens and spent a year on his back in a cast. That was when he became a reader because that was all he could do. And he read voraciously, which is what made him a writer, along with, I might venture, what he suffered because of his condition, which had to have made him turn inward toward language and what stories whisper to us about our lives. His back pain lasted the rest of his life. But to get back to that afternoon in the bar. Wayne remembered me from the bookstore, and we began to talk about writing. Even though I’d hardly published a short story yet, he saw that I took writing seriously and asked to read something of mine. His generosity was a hallmark of the man, and later he wrote a glowing review of my first book for the Montgomery Advertiser, for whom he’d spent decades working as a reporter, and he also wrote a weekly column for the Alabama Journal, Montgomery’s then afternoon paper.
I suppose when Wayne got out of that cast and up out of the bed, he had places he wanted to go and things he wanted to do. And here is where I must begin my litany of Greenhaw’s travels and adventures with the assortment of people he met along the way. I’ll start with his journey to New York state where he’d been accepted to a summer program for young writers. He was about fifteen at the time. One evening James Jones, of From Here to Eternity fame (and that was big-time fame, which I suppose is what happens to a writer when a movie is made from his novel and the movie features Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr rolling around in the surf), so Jones spoke to the students and read from his work. He must have taken a liking to Wayne, because soon enough he’d invited some of the boys back to his house, and Wayne rode on the back of Jones’s motorcycle, bear hugging the writer as they went flying down the highway. Once at Jones’s house, all went to the basement (this was before the term “man cave” had been invented) and shot pool and drank beer, I suspect in large quantities. By the time Wayne made it back to his digs where the writing program was housed, it was very early in the morning, and his brief sojourn was meet with much disapproval. Wayne was asked to leave. He did, with no regrets.
And within a year or two, he ended up at a writers’ workshop in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico (a literary entity that’s still in existence). Wayne spent some of his time there in a bar called the La Cucaracha. One afternoon he happened to look through the window and saw a young woman casually step out of a car naked. Several in the bar went running out with a blanket to cover her before the police showed up, and by this time the other passengers and the driver had exited the vehicle. Then all entered the bar, and by “all” I mean Jack Keruac, Allen Ginsburg, and Neil Cassady. The Beats had arrived. And stayed for about a week, hanging out at the bar, where Greenhaw joined them as much as possible. “Keruac mostly just sat there spouting all kinds of silly shit,” Wayne told me, “and Ginsberg didn’t say much of anything. But I liked Cassady real well. He was friendly and we talked a lot.” Imagine being seventeen years old, in a beautiful foreign city surrounded by mountains, and hanging out with a couple of the most influential writers of their generation. Wayne returned continually to San Miguel for the rest of his life, and owned a home there with his wife, Sally, also known by some who stood before her as Judge Greenhaw. For more stories about Mexico, check out Wayne’s book My Heart Is in the Earth: True Stories of Alabama and Mexico.
Sometime later, Wayne ended up working as a bartender in Birmingham. This was in the early sixties, and the bar just happened to be where Bull Connor met each day with his cronies and discussed “strategies” about how to handle the protesters fighting for Civil Rights. Wayne had to serve him, but he hated Connor and everything the man stood for. I’m sure the budding reporter began to learn that one has to be brave enough to witness evil and be willing to write about it. Greenhaw never shied away from his duty as a writer, even when someone once snuck up behind him and knocked him out cold as he was entering his Montgomery apartment. The attack was not random. He covered Civil Rights for decades, including the Selma to Montgomery March, and his final two books, two of his very best, I think, were The Thunder of Angels, about the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and Fighting the Devil in Dixie, which detailed the struggle for Civil Rights in Alabama.
In that same bar in Birmingham, Wayne also met the country singer Jim Reeves, who frequented the place during Wayne’s time there. Wayne loved country music. As a boy, he’d met Hank Williams in a country store in South Alabama while accompanying his barbershop-supply salesman father, and Williams bought Wayne a Coke and a bag of peanuts and signed a photo for him. Years later, in the late sixties, he became friends with the songwriter Steve Young when Young drove a milk truck and played in bars around Montgomery. One afternoon, when Wayne was driving Young and Jimmy Evans (who later became attorney general for Alabama) back from playing music south of town, Young said, “This road’s got seven bridges on it.” They were on Woodley Road, and Young began writing and signing the song “Seven Bridges Road” in that moment in the backseat of Wayne’s car. The Eagles made it famous. Much later, when Wayne was researching a book in Nashville, he meet Roger Miller, and then became, for a time, Miller’s tour manager. On the road-not with Keruac, but with Roger Miller. What could be more natural? Greenhaw was in his element. Many years after that sojourn, when Wayne was state tourism director, he attended a conference in Dublin. You know, the one in Ireland. I don’t think there’s a Dublin, Alabama, though if there is, Wayne probably visited. So one night he went out for some Guinness with two young women who worked with him. They settled down in a booth at the pub, and then the young ladies suddenly recognized two men sitting in another booth and were quite amazed at who they’d spotted. Wayne didn’t recognize their names, but he said, “Well, let’s go over and talk to them.” “Oh, no. We can’t do that,” both insisted. “Sure we can,” Wayne said. He got up and they followed. When he reached the table, Wayne said, “I’m Wayne Greenhaw from Montgomery, Alabama, and these two young ladies want to meet y’all.” So Bono and The Edge invited them to sit down. Wayne told me, “That Edge was a pretty nice fellow.” I’m betting Wayne was the one telling stories at that table. I wouldn’t be surprised if every once in a while Bono turns to The Edge and says, “Remember the old guy from Alabama we meet in the pub that night?”
People who met Wayne tended to remember him. Once when the writer George Singleton was in New York meeting with his publisher, he went out to eat with a number of people in that rarified world of letters, and one of the men turned to him and said, “George, you’re from the South. Do you know Wayne Greenhaw?” George did.
I could go on and on with my litany. I haven’t even touched on the political figures Wayne knew, or how he was the first reporter to break the story on Lt. William Calley and the My Lai Massacre and interviewed the man a number of times before publishing a book about the horrific event. But I’ll end with much lighter fare-with a movie star. Greenhaw’s first book was a novel called The Golfer. It came out from J.B. Lippincott, and it’s editor was Tay Hohoff, who’d also edited To Kill a Mockingbird. (Oh, and Greenhaw later became good friends with Harper Lee-of course.) The novel was published in 1967, and Wayne sold the movie rights to Steve McQueen, who loved the book and meet with Wayne in Memphis, accompanied by Ali McGraw. McQueen renewed the rights several times, and, if my memory is correct, met with Wayne on a second occasion, but the movie never got made, which isn’t unusual. But it is unfortunate. Oh, what kind of time would Greenhaw have had in Hollywood. Just imagine!