Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Annie Golightly

I had heard of her before, but the first time I saw her was in my yard on a warm summer day. She walked around, casting a critical, but not judgmental eye on our place in the country that we call Bar Nun Ranch. It’s not really a ranch, of course. Not big enough. But I think Annie liked what she saw.  I was expecting her and hailed her from the metal-roofed building I call my office. Jan calls it the White House.

She drove the few yards in her new bright-red Ford half-ton with fancy wheels and all the accessories that cowboys tend to prefer. I found out later that her hair had been jet black, but it was now white and pulled back in a severe pony-tail. Tall, but beginning to stoop slightly, she wore jeans and a white western shirt and ivory ostrich boots with riding heels. I don’t pay much attention to jewelry, but I recall she had on a lot of turquoise. When she extended her hand and shook mine firmly and warmly with a bright smile, I knew we would be friends, but I didn’t know the half of Annie’s story. Still don’t, but I know more than some. 

Her reputation preceded her. My in-laws knew her and a lot of folks just older than me remembered growing up with her around Fairlie, Yowell, and Commerce. The mere mention of her name to any of those people always elicited a smile and a story or two of her young and wild days as Ann Milford (Anna Mac, Little Mac, etc..). Her brother was the famous Dallas weatherman and later congressman, Dale Milford. Everybody around here was proud that he was one of our own when we saw him on television every night. But five minutes into our conversation, I suspected Annie was nothing like her gentlemanly brother.

Annie loved my rustic office because, of course, it is about as cowboy as I could make it. She handed me a business card that said “Painter of Portraits, Poet/Writer, Umbrella Fixer, Goat Roper, Fry Cook, Grandma, Bootlegger, Part Time Cab Driver, Full Time Texan. I thought it was a joke, but it wasn’t. I was particularly interested in that part about painting. The red pickup just happened to hold a couple of large portraits she had painted. One was of a 911 first-responder that would bring tears to a grown man’s eyes. I’m no art critic, but I knew she was talented. That first meeting planted the seeds of a friendship that has blossomed over the years. I knew she had owned at least two night clubs, but did not know she had performed in “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” at Casa Manana and that she was a nominee for the Cowgirl Hall of Fame.

Annie was coming to see me about a manuscript she had written. Terry Mathews, now Arts and Entertainment Editor for the Sulphur Springs News Telegram, caused our paths to cross. Annie had participated (that word is too lightweight) in what became known as the Great American Cattle Drive of 1995. Her manuscript told of her adventures as the only woman drover on that drive. She had held her own with cowboys (all younger than her) all the way from Fort Worth, Texas to Miles City, Montana, a journey of some eighteen hundred miles and six months. As a veteran of my own horseback and covered wagon trip across Texas, I was impressed. We had traveled less than a quarter of that distance and we didn’t have 300 head of longhorn cattle and over a hundred horses to keep moving. And Annie was nearly sixty-four when the drive began.

I suspected that her drive was well-financed and that the participants were borderline coddled on the trip. I learned better. They endured rain, sleet, hail, high winds, a tornado, extremes of both heat and cold, and lack of funds. Worse, they endured homesickness, frustration, disappointments, and dissension. We had none of the latter and few of the former on our trip. Bad weather pales in comparison to dissension. But Annie persevered.

Annie is an unabashed lover of cowboys and everything remotely related to their lifestyle—makes no bones about it. She told me later that such unconditional love had delivered a lot of joy but also more than a few heartaches and trouble. I learned that she was once-divorced and twice-widowed. Done with changing her last name, she took the name Golightly on a dance-floor whim. I don’t recall who her dance partner was when she made that decision. She lost one house by flood, another by fire, but still managed to get all five kids raised.

During the time that we worked together on her book, I learned that she was not only famous in our small corner of Northeast Texas, but it seemed that almost everyone in the town “Where the West Begins” knew her, too. Her father was Cherokee and the heritage is so evident she became known in Fort Worth as “The Singing Savage”. She had performed for two American Presidents and two foreign ones, Governor and Ms. John Connally, Arnold Palmer, Nelson Rockefeller, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Slim Pickens, Chuck Connors, to name a few. She had performed with Tom T. Hall, Rex Allen, Rosemary Clooney (for you young folks—that’s George’s aunt), Ace Reid, Arthur Duncan, among others. She completed her degree in English and Creative Writing at Texas Wesleyan University at age sixty-three. 

She was also one of the most cooperative authors I ever worked with. And she knew how to market her work. Her friend Mike Cochran wrote the foreword to her book. Mike is a journalist retired from Associated Press and the Fort Worth Star Telegram who has been nominated for the Pulitzer three times, authored five books, won six Headliner awards, and the Texas Institute of Letters Stanley Walker Journalism Award (twice). Another friend of Annie’s and columnist for the Star Telegram, the late Jim Trinkle, said of Annie, “There is a happy, vibrant quality to songs as Annie sings them. Audiences . . . are moved by her personal magnetism.”

When Dreams and A White Horse was published less than a year after that first meeting, I learned that Annie knew folks at Billy Bob’s (world’s largest honky-tonk) and arranged a signing there. She generously requested (make that insisted) that I bring along my own books to sell. I needed no persuading. I had listened to her CD’s, but finally cajoled her to sing a song or two that night in Billy Bob’s, a night I will never forget.  

It was to be the last time I would hear her sing and play. A stroke stopped all that. It affected her peripheral vision and she had to stop driving. She has trouble with one arm working like it used to. She had to give up the pickup of her dreams and leave her beloved Fort Worth to be near her daughter. She can no longer paint and has to hunt and peck on the keyboard.   

I dropped by to see her in Corsicana a short while back and spent a terrific afternoon. She talks frankly about her health problems but refuses to let them get her down. She’s filled with gratitude for the life she had and the life she has left, for the love and support of family and friends. She still possesses that dogged determination that caused her to rise to the challenge of participating in a long trail drive after being told that women would not be allowed to serve as drovers.

And did I mention she’s a good cook?  I keep a jar of her plum jelly in my office refrigerator, saving it only for special occasions because Annie told me there would not be any more. I hope she’s wrong about that.

Postscript: I write my postings days, sometimes weeks, even months, in advance of publication. I wrote the rough draft of this one on February 24, 2012. I put the final touches on it at 3:30 PM February 28. I planned to called Annie and read it to her before posting the first week of March. At 5:22 PM on February 28, I got an e-mail that appeared to be from Annie, a very rare occurrence. It was her address, but not from Annie. The e-mail was from Annie’s family. She died at 3:23, seven minutes before I finished the final edits on the article. She insisted that there be no funeral, no memorial service, only to be remembered by family and friends. She will be. She donated her body to science. That’s so Annie. She knew, I expect, when she told me there would be no more jelly.


kay Francavilla said...

What an amazing woman!. As usual, your articles entertain and inspire me, Jim!

J A Hunsinger said...

You article is terrific, Jim. I did not know Annie Golightly, but thankfully I have known others like her. When they are all gone the world will suffer an emptiness.

Charlotte Hilliard said...

If I'm not mistaken I met this delightful, wonderful woman for a moment at your book signing.
I read her book and wished I had her courage,knowledge and spirit.
She was more than those three. I wanted to be and still would love to be just like her but I can't ride a horse.
I was thinking of her a couple weeks back and wondered if she still lived. Now I know. An Icon has gone home.

ArtsJunkie said...

Great job, Jim. Annie would have loved it. Thank you for writing it.

Mike said...

I knew Annie very well and remember the truck she drove. Once I drove that truck taking her to the hospital and the nurse asked me who she was. Somehow there was a mis-commnuication and they thought I said she was a famous stripper not singer. Man she never let that down... It doesn't surprise me that she gave of herself even in the end! She will be missed. Thanks for the kind article.

Misty said...

Jim I want to thank you for this entry. You see Annie is my granny. I have heard her mention you. I can tell you loved her and I really enjoyed seeing through your eyes the first time you met her. My life will forever be changed without her. The legacy she leaves behind is larger than life and I am so proud to belong to her. Thanks again!

ruby scudder said...

Annie was my sister-in-law.F
rom the time she and I were young wives and mothers raising children till last month when I visited her in her rehab room she was strong courageous and always "Annie"

Jan said...

James & Annie were friends from the Fairlie community days. From the time I met him, he told me about Annie & some of her adventures. He always smiled when he talked about her singing & the places she appeared. Not long after we married, she called his cell and I answered. She was coming to town for a book signing & we were excited to meet. That day at the Bois d'arc Bash, we met and became friends, along with Keely, Kenny & Cindy..she was having trouble with her back even then, but we spent most of the afternoon eating, having a beverage & visiting. This was the last time we saw her, but talked by phone several times. Even in pain, she was a gal in charge. She will be missed by so many and I'm sure there are still stories to be told. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.

EarlStubbs said...


Annie came alive in your article even though I never met her.

I envy you cowboys and cowgirls. I grew up with a rodeo arena behind my house, but I can count the number of times I've been on a horse on one hand. I remeber each because each was so important to me.


KaHolly said...

I had the pleasure of becoming acquainted with Annie in the
90's. We became fast friends before I'd ever heard her perform. She was generous in nature and she will be sorely missed.

Mo Anne said...

What an interesting blog about Annie Golightly. Thank you for the insight as to the formation of her book, which I loved.

I saw Annie perform back in the 70's at her club in Ft. Worth. She held the audience in the palm of her hand (yes...laden with turquoise!) and did not suffer fools gladly!! She held court and when she sang Dixie,every cowboy in the place stood with hand over heart. She fed people.....she played and sang like an angel and she won our hearts.
I wrote her a fan later back in 2002 and she wrote back, sending me a Christmas letter and a personal note. I have both to this day and cherish them. Annie was truly one of a kind on a thousand levels. I miss her.
Maureen Valley
Mt. Dora, Florida

Kathy said...

Great article! Alan and I knew Annie Golightly from her club in Ft. Worth back in the 70s and 80s. Great entertainment from a great lady. Good times.

Kathy Sales

ArtsJunkie said...

I loved Annie Golightly. So. Freaking. Much.