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Saying Good-Bye to Jim Harrison, One of Our Celebrity Contributors

Looking back on Harrison’s involvement with Automobile.

El Segundo, California - Perhaps you've already heard about the passing of writer Jim Harrison. Famous as a novelist, poet, and sometime screenwriter, Harrison is better remembered by us as a contributing writer to our magazine. He belongs to a group that includes (among others), television personality Jay Leno, comedian Jerry Seinfeld (remember that Porsche Carrera GT road test?), and even the late fashion photographer Helmut Newton.

It's hard to say what brought Harrison to our former editorial office at 120 East Liberty Street in downtown Ann Arbor, Michigan, during the late 1980s.  It might have been Dan Gerber, as Gerber, Harrison and Tom McGuane were three Michigan-bred pals who had made it in the 1970s as writers of consequence, and who shared a taste for the hunting-and-fishing outdoors in that Michigan sort of way. Gerber had raced a Shelby Cobra in 1966, then crashed a sports-racer in a big, big way at Riverside International Raceway in California, and wrote about it in Sports Illustrated.

Getting acquainted at a birthday party

Gerber and Harrison attended one of Automobile Magazine's birthday bashes in the old brick building on Liberty Street, and no doubt they came to discover (as did so many), that while they might have been quick-witted media stars elsewhere, it took some effort to keep up with David E. Davis, Jr., and Jean Jennings. Mark Schirmer, then a young associate editor, recalls, "I think that David E. always liked Harrison, because with that blind eye of his, he had a face that looked as if it had been down as many bumpy roads as David E's face."

For a long while, David E. would pass along as a gift Harrison's famous collection of novellas, Legends of the Fall (Delacorte Press, 1979).  Davis liked the concise storytelling of a novella, so much like a magazine story. And he appreciated Harrison's strong, direct sentences and poetic outdoor-themed imagery. It's the kind of thing we should strive for in Automobile Magazine, David E. said. It was no surprise when Harrison wrote a couple of stories for us, for then as now we believe that people of accomplishment in other disciplines often have a car story to tell.

How we do it up in Michigan

As a person who was raised in Michigan, Harrison believed strongly in four-wheel drive, and he believed especially in Subarus. But really his stories were more about the road than the car. For example, he liked to stop and eat in distinctly regional establishments, much like Kentucky-born David E., who could never resist roadside barbecue. Harrison drove our long-term test cars on several adventures, notably one time to Nebraska for some research before writing Dalva (Dutton, 1988). Our Mark Schirmer remembers the state of the car afterward: "Well, there wasn't quite as much deer blood and hair from hunting dogs as when David E. brought back a car from a trip up north, but it was close."

Among his 30 books of one sort or another, Harrison contributed a couple of stories to Jean Lindamood Jennings's anthology of great car stories, Road Trips, Head Trips, and Other Car-Crazed Writings (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1998).  A great storyteller himself, Harrison liked the opportunity to hear Davis and Jennings spin their own magic. His enthusiasm for our magazine reminds us that while other writers are content to test cars, we feel obligated to tell stories about them, which is not exactly the same thing.

Jazz cornet by Bix Beiderbecke

It's hard to remember quite what it was about Legends of the Fall that resonated so strongly with David E. Perhaps it was some aspect of Revenge or Legends of the Fall, the two novellas in the book that later made into movies. But sometimes we suspect that the most important could have been The Man Who Gave Up His Name.

This is the story of a man who slowly abandons all the trappings of success that others expect from him and chooses instead a uniquely private point of view and uniquely private adventures. The main character frequently finds himself dancing in the dark to rhythms only he can hear, and this reminds us of David E., not to mention Jim Harrison himself.

Jim Harrison died from a heart attack on March 26 at age 78 in Patagonia, Arizona. It had been just six months since Linda King, Harrison's wife and the mother of his two children, passed away last fall.