Since the first time I stopped for directions more than a decade ago, the small town of Marathon exerted a strange attraction for me. I had been driving all over the West in search of the Perfect Place to live. I spent only fifteen minutes there, asking directions. After that, I couldn’t get the place out of my head, and I didn’t know why. I came back the next year and stayed for two nights. I remember the moment when, sitting on a rocker on the front porch of the Gage Hotel, I realized that Marathon was where I was meant to make a new home.
The next year I came back and stayed for two-and-a-half months in a rented adobe cottage on the south side of town. (This is the same visit I mentioned in the piece about providing hospice for Peter.) I visited the bookstore on my second day there, and saw a hand-made sign on the children’s book rack announcing books by Marathon’s Own James Marshall. James Marshall is one of the most-famous-ever children’s book author-illustrators and had been, in fact, one of our family’s favorites when Henry was growing up. We used to laugh so hard at The Stupids Step Out that milk would trickle from our noses at the dinner table.
Is James Marshall really from here? I asked Patsy Cavness, who was minding the store that day. “His kinfolk are,” she answered and then volunteered: “He’s buried out in the town cemetery.”
How odd, I thought, that I should find my way to the town where James Marshall is buried. You see, at the time I was still publishing The Five Owls, a national magazine about children’s books founded by my late wife Holly. Unlikely coincidences always get my attention.
So the next day I walked with Otto to the gravesite, which was about a half mile from the house I was renting. Patsy told me Marshall had paid money to save the Aermotor windmill that stands over his grave. “No one will ever be able to buy that windmill and take it away,” she said. “You’d be surprised how many ranchers have asked to buy it.” The windmill made it easy to see where I needed to go.
I found James Marshall’s headstone just beneath the windmill as Patsy had said. The monument stood out among the granite stones, a green slate slab that had obviously come from Yankee New England. I found out later that Marshall’s mother Cecille had arranged for its every detail. In an oval frame at the top of the stone is Marshall’s clapboard house in Mansfield Center, Connecticut. On either side are his famous characters including hippo friends George and Martha, Goldilocks dancing on a stump, Old Mother Hubbard, Fox and his friends, and Viola Swamp. He died in 1992, just three days after his fiftieth birthday.
I contacted his mother in San Antonio to do a story about my discovery for The Five Owls, and we subsequently became good friends. Cecille told me he had died of a brain tumor, but after her death several years later, Jim’s sister told me he had died of AIDS. Cecille was old-school and was obviously embarrassed by the cause of his death. She told me it was just a matter of months from the time the “brain tumor” had been diagnosed until his death; she said Jim complained that it sometimes felt like something was squeezing the back of his eye. Pressure turned to pain and in the end it became so great, she said, that he was hospitalized and died in a morphine fog. Before entering those mists he’d asked her a couple of times, “Mama, do you think my work will live on beyond me?”
Some of his friends have said that Marshall never believed he was as good an artist as people said he was. “Jim underestimated his impact on people, just as he underestimated his genius,” wrote Robert Hale in The Horn Book magazine. Though he drew as fast as lightning, Marshall would spend hours and even weeks drawing and redrawing the same piece of art so it would be perfect, and yet look like it had been dashed off in minutes.
Maurice Sendak has written that Marshall was a perfectionist in all things: “Better than anyone else he knew, I could understand that demanding, sometimes neurotic urge to redo and redo until the sheer punishment of it all convinces us that the work has to be finished and is the best we can do.” Other friends have commented that he’d hate a book when he delivered it to a publisher, only to warm up to it later on.
Despite any lingering self-doubts, at the time of his death James Marshall was one of the most popular and prolific authors of children’s books in the US. Yes, he had been financially successful, lived well, and enjoyed life. But more important, he left a legacy of more than 75 illustrated works, including retellings of “Cinderella,” “Red Riding Hood,” and Mother Goose tales. In 1998 the Library of Congress mounted the children’s book exhibition, “From Sea to Shining Sea: An American Sampler,” and paid special tribute to James Marshall by dedicating the exhibition to him. They described Marshall as one of the wittiest of America’s picture book artists.
Marshall received the Caldecott honor award in 1989 for Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and his work was included on the New York Times Book Review’s best-illustrated-book-of-the-year list three times. He was honored numerous times by organizations including the American Library Association, the Children’s Book Council, and the International Reading Association. He was even nominated for an Academy Award.
While his books received many awards from publishers’, librarians’, and parents’ associations, the greatest number of Marshall’s awards were those in which the children themselves chose the winners. His mother told me it was the praise of children that meant the most to him. On the wall of his studio Marshall kept a framed fan letter from a 7-year-old written in Braille. His mother showed me a sheaf of thank-you notes which he’d kept from the classrooms he had visited. “Jim was serious about his work, and he was very, very meticulous,” Mrs. Marshall told me. “But Jim’s idea, the main reason for his books, was that kids should have fun.”
James Marshall’s idea of fun was pretty much like that of any mischievous kid. He was described as a sedate version of his characters, one of the Cut-Up Kids. Robert Hale wrote that “he was ever and always playing at being one of those bad but lovable kids.” His mother said Jim loved being a bad influence on his niece and nephew, and his friends’ children too. Visits to sweet shops were extravaganzas of excess. Gifts of money always carried the admonition, “Spend this unwisely. Do not let your mother bank it!”
In his work he never spoke down to children, but connected with them on their level. He shared their fascinations. Part of the allure of his work is the subtle shadow of the macabre that is there sometimes, just beneath the silliness: the beloved teacher who disappears, or the witch who tells a boy, “Don’t worry, I only eat potatoes”—and then casts a spell turning him into a potato and then eats him, mashed, for dinner.
As a child Jim liked reading ghoul comics and looked forward to his family’s annual visits to Marathon and its cemetery, which held a particular fascination for him. Buried there is his great-aunt Inez, who died as a child of typhoid fever around 1910. “My grandfather saw her buried,” Jim told Texas Monthly journalist Steven Harrigan. “Forty years later he was there as a witness when they moved the cemetery. He recognized her. In that dry limestone she’d just sort of withered. She was bald when she died because the typhoid made her hair fall out. Fifty years later there was still fuzz on her scalp. That story always impressed me.”
Though Jim grew up on a farm seventeen miles outside of San Antonio, his family had its way-back roots in Marathon. His father was born there. The Marshalls moved away when Marshall’s grandfather, a railroad water pumper, was promoted to superintendent in charge of water for the whole rail system from El Paso to Houston. Yet the Marshall family returned every year, and Jim came with them, even when he was famous and living in New York.
Marshall loved Marathon and West Texas more than just about anyplace. “I worry about a lot of things,” he once told Stephen Harrigan. “The environment, nuclear disasters, the general ugliness of the world. But then I go out to West Texas and I think how beautiful it all still is.”
I asked Mrs. Marshall why her son had bought that windmill. She told me he bought it because he used to like visiting that windmill and would sit high up, perched on the rim of its old wooden water tank. “He just liked it,” said Mrs. Marshall. When he gave the windmill to the cemetery association, she said, he had no idea he would one day be buried beneath it.
Yet the cemetery at Marathon is where Jim wanted to be buried after he found out he was going to die. His grandparents and great-grandparents are buried there. And it is where his father was buried after he died of Alzheimer’s disease just four years after Jim passed away. “Losing my husband was bad enough,” Mrs. Marshall told me with a sigh, “but you never expect to outlive your child.” And now she is buried there too.
James Marshall lives on through his writing and illustration—and through the exuberant laughter he causes. Even though Jim has been gone for almost twenty years, his books are still bestsellers. New titles have even been published after his death. Ten years ago an unpublished manuscript appeared as Swine Lake. Illustrated by his longtime friend and mentor Maurice Sendak, it was promoted as the creative collaboration that Marshall and Sendak had often talked about but never made the time to do. In Swine Lake‘s sly timing, clever jokes and puns, one can sense the echoes of their long friendship. As Sendak told me: “I will never, ever have another friend like him!”
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