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Larry McMurtry, Texas literary giant of 'Lonesome Dove' fame, dies

"Lonesome Dove" author Larry McMurtry, seen here at his Archer City bookstore Booked Up in 1998, has died at 84.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the correct magazine for which Lawrence Wright works, the New Yorker.

Larry McMurtry, the iconic and celebrated Texas author and screenwriter who redefined the Western with his novel "Lonesome Dove," died Thursday night of heart failure. He was 84.

Publicist Amanda Lundberg confirmed the details of his death to the American-Statesman.

His wife, Norma Faye, son James and grandson Curtis were at his side when he died, Lundberg confirmed, as was his longtime writing partner Diana Ossana, his goddaughter Sara Ossana and his three dogs. McMurtry, who died at his home in Tucson, Ariz., will be buried in Texas. He also is survived by sisters Sue and Judy McMurtry, brother Charlie McMurtry, former wife Jo Ballard and other family members and close friends.

The prolific author — with nearly 30 novels, about 15 works of nonfiction and more than 40 screenplays and teleplays to his credit — won a Pulitzer Prize in 1986 for "Lonesome Dove," a modern classic that revitalized the Western genre and inspired several sequels. He also won an Academy Award in 2006 for his adapted screenplay of the Western romantic tragedy "Brokeback Mountain," written with Diana Ossana. The screenplay was based on an Annie Proulx story.

Writers Larry McMurtry, right, and Diana Ossana pose with their awards for best screenplay for "Brokeback Mountain," at the 63rd annual Golden Globe Awards in Beverly Hills, Calif., on Jan. 16, 2006.

"Larry McMurtry almost single-handedly steered Texas literature out of the rut that it had been stuck in since the dime novels," said Austin's Lawrence Wright, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "The Looming Tower" and the New Yorker magazine staff writer. "He wrote about Texas in transition, a culture that was leaving the myth behind and confronting reality. And then he recreated the myth with the greatest cowboy story ever told, 'Lonesome Dove.'"

McMurtry was born June 3, 1936, to Hazel Ruth and William Jefferson McMurtry in Wichita Falls, a larger metro neighbor to the author's longtime hometown of Archer City. His paternal grandparents settled in the area in the late 1800s, and McMurtry's father was a rancher. He was an alum of North Texas State College (now University) and Rice University.

When a cousin left behind a box of books on his way to World War II, McMurtry found his true vocation, reading. Books became a means of escaping what he called “the drabness of Archer City.” He would spend hours in the barn loft reading “Don Quixote.” 

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In Archer City, McMurtry later opened a massive used bookstore, Booked Up. It was a Texas travel destination, home for almost half a million tomes.

"Larry McMurtry loved books," said Sally Wittliff, whose late husband, Bill Wittliff, adapted McMurtry's "Lonesome Dove" for the TV miniseries. "It didn't matter to him what kind. If it had a binding, he loved it. He had floor-to-ceiling bookcases full of books covering every wall in his home as well as in his bookstores. His bookstore's name, Booked Up, could have been a pseudonym for him."

Archer City inspired McMurtry's 1966 novel "The Last Picture Show"; Archer City's Royal Theater featured prominently in the film. He also co-wrote the screenplay for the 1971 film adaptation with Peter Bogdanovich, who directed the movie that starred Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Ellen Burstyn, Cloris Leachman and Cybill Shepherd.

The book was “lovingly dedicated to his hometown,” but it met a chilly reception by many residents of Archer City. The town eventually forgave McMurtry and in 1990 organized a Larry McMurtry Day around the time that “Texasville,” a sequel to “The Last Picture Show,” was filmed on the main street.

Larry McMurtry's "The Last Picture Show" was inspired by his North Texas hometown.

"Lonesome Dove," the story of a cattle drive from the Rio Grande to Montana, was inspired by conversations about the Texas frontier that McMurtry overheard as a child. The hefty book famously was adapted into an Emmy-winning 1989 TV miniseries, with the teleplay written by fellow Texan Bill Wittliff and the cast starring Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones and McMurtry's son James. 

“When ‘Lonesome Dove’ became this iconic book — he called it the "'Gone with the Wind' of the West’' — he got aggravated,” said Diana Ossana. “He wrote it to undo the romantic myth of the West and cowboy."

McMurtry's other notable literary works, many of which also made their way to the screen, included "Horseman, Pass By" (made in the movie "Hud"), "Leaving Cheyenne" and "Terms of Endearment."

"This is so sad. We are grieving the loss of a great Texas storyteller today," said Rebecca Campbell, director of the Austin Film Society. "The Texas landscape and Texas characters are known throughout the world through McMurtry’s classic, enduring stories. Two films based on his novels that are part of the Texas Film Hall of Fame are 'The Last Picture Show' and 'Terms of Endearment.' Although the artist is gone, we have the power and comfort of these stories to turn to forever."

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The Wittliff Collections at Texas State University in San Marcos — named for Bill Wittliff — holds the manuscripts to several of McMurtry's works and also houses the "Lonesome Dove" miniseries production archive.

"In his later years, Larry became the literary equivalent of those over-the-hill Texas Rangers he wrote about in 'Lonesome Dove,'" said Steve Davis, curator of the Southwestern Writers Collection, which is part of the Wittliff Collections. "His trail became uncertain, his books meandering. But, oh, what a force he was as a young writer! He changed not only Texas literature but the way a whole generation of Texans viewed themselves. Picking a favorite is easy: 'All My Friends are Going to Be Strangers.'"

His son James McMurtry, a nationally renowned singer-songwriter who turned 59 last week, has lived in the Austin area for more than three decades. James’ 1989 debut album, “Too Long in the Wasteland,” was produced by John Mellencamp, who first heard James’ music after Mellencamp starred in a film, "Falling from Grace," that was based on one of Larry McMurtry’s scripts. Larry’s grandson Curtis, born in Austin in 1990, also has become an active songwriter and musician in Austin.

In 2014, President Barack Obama presented Larry McMurtry with a National Humanities Medal for work that “evokes the character and drama of the American West with stories that examine quintessentially American lives.”

"Mourning the death of Larry McMurtry, we can hope to find solace in his legacy," said Margaret Koch, director of the Bullock Texas State History Museum, "his expert weaving of iconic narratives that went far beyond romanticism, truly reflecting our relationships with the land and its people — those elements which humanize and describe the depth and spirit of all that is Texas."

President Barack Obama prepares to award the 2014 National Humanities Medal to novelist, essayist and screenwriter Larry McMurtry during a White House ceremony on Sept. 10, 2015.

Eric Webb is the Austin360 entertainment editor at the American-Statesman. Email him at ewebb@statesman.com and follow him on Twitter, @webbeditor. Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at mbarnes@statesman.com.

Los Angeles Times staff writer Thomas Curwen and American-Statesman staff writer Peter Blackstock contributed to this story.