Pat Conroy was full of shit.
Conroy died of cancer in March 2016, and after he was gone the folks who knew him best said he was smart and fun to be around, which is all swell. But man was he full of shit.
I’ve never gotten around to his books, and I won’t get through My Exaggerated Life, the just-released memoir Conroy put together with oral biographer Katherine Clark. But it still hurts me a bit to say un-nice things about the dead here, because I loved The Great Santini, which the filmmaker Lewis John Carlino based on Conroy’s novel of the same name and which features a toweringly unlovable Robert Duvall performance. But while I can’t speak to the fullness of Conroy’s work as an artist, I can absolutely confirm that he was full of shit. Even posthumously, it turns out, as Conroy’s final book dusts off an old and wholly fabricated story about Conroy receiving yet another ass-beating from his dad.
I first learned the sad truth about Conroy in 2002, when I read an excerpt from Conroy’s autobiography, My Losing Season, in the Washington Post. That book was mostly about the 1966-1967 basketball squad for the Citadel, a team that went 8-17 with Conroy at point guard. Being full of shit is not remotely a liability for a novelist, which is what Conroy was—Prince of Tides and Lords of Discipline were his fictional blockbusters—before crossing over to non-fiction at a moment when memoirs were hot in book publishing. The Post’s 3,400-word excerpt found Conroy telling of his one year as a student at Gonzaga College High School, a historic Jesuit outpost in D.C. The highlight of the chapter, and an example of peak Conroy bull, came with his description of that night in May 1961 when Gonzaga held its annual athletic banquet and awards ceremony.
Conroy told readers that he got knocked out at the assembly by his father, Donald Conroy. Not metaphorically, either. Like, pops KO’d him with punches in front of everybody. And not just once! No, Conroy wrote that dear old dad put him down for the count twice at the same function. According to the author, Donald Conroy started wigging when he saw his boy prank another student in the Gonzaga auditorium during the proceedings and immediately resorted to violence, just as the father and ex-Marine that served as the model for The Great Santini might have done.
“The second backhand caught me on the left jaw, harder than the first, and I went down to the floor again,” Conroy wrote. “Then a free-for-all began.”
Conroy wanted readers to know that when he regained consciousness he saw his dad being attacked by “an angry mob of men” who were put off by the paternal pounding taking place in front of them.“They had no idea who my father was and did not care,” Conroy writes. “They saw a stranger knock a Gonzaga boy to his knees and came roaring to my defense.”
Talk about a Donnybrook! Luckily for Dad, young Pat regained his senses and got off the floor in time to pull the mob off Mr. Conroy and drag him out of the school and to safety.
I fancied myself as a D.C. prep sports history know-it-all at the time Conroy’s book came out, and felt bad that I’d never heard about such a crazy event. So I called lots of old-school Gonzaga folks—their alums are a very tight-knit bunch in the otherwise transient capital city—and asked them to tell me all about how the Pat Conroy Massacre went down.
Instead, I learned that this hole in my local sports history knowledge didn’t need filling. Conroy never got his ass beat by his dad at a Gonzaga assembly. He made everything up. Conroy boldly named names of folks who were in attendance at the ceremony when the brouhaha went down—for example, a Gonzaga classmate and friend named Chris Warner. Warner told me he never saw any fight that night. Conroy’s book also said that William Bennett, the Gonzaga grad (Class of ‘61) who grew up to be a gambling-addicted moralist and Drug Czar under President George H.W. Bush, was sitting nearby. After the book came out, I asked Bennett for his recollections about Conroy’s Daddy Dearest tale from his senior year sports banquet.
“Mr. Bennett says he was at the function, but he can’t recall that scuffle,” Bennett spokesman Jeff Kwitowski told me. “He can’t verify any scuffle.”
Pat Buchanan, a Nixon speechwriter and conservative fixture who, like six of his brothers, attended Gonzaga, told me that neither he nor any of his siblings ever heard the Conroy tale before the book came out. “But he’s some writer, isn’t he?” Buchanan said with a big laugh.
George Solomon, the Washington Post’s sports editor when Conroy’s book came out, told me at the time the newspaper didn’t bother finding out if the author’s aim was true before publishing the excerpt.
“This is such a personal memoir, we didn’t do any fact-checking,” Solomon said. “We trust Mr. Conroy, with his reputation, for its accuracy.”
The only person I could find who’d ever even heard a word about the sports banquet brawl was Danny Costello, Gonzaga class of ’72 and later vice president for development at the school. Where’d he hear it? From Conroy himself, naturally, years after the event that never really happened supposedly took place. “Pat Conroy came here [around 1990] and I walked the halls with him, and he told me a story of his father’s kicking his ass at a school dinner,” Costello told me. “I’d never heard that story from anybody before or since, until the book came out.”
Costello added that Conroy’s tale doesn’t even scan well: “He describes being dazed and not aware after getting hit, yet he also describes in great detail everything that was going on around him,” he said. “How the hell does that happen?”
Costello, however, said that he wasn’t shocked Conroy threw a fictional account of that night into a non-fiction work. “Everything he writes, his dad beats him up—I know he gets pounded in The Great Santini and The Prince of Tides—and stories about his dad beating him up are in every article that’s ever been written about the guy,” said Costello. “So nobody should be surprised that he gets beat up in this book, too.”
So after I’d established that there was zero chance that the May 1961 brawl had gone down in real life as it did in My Losing Season, I asked Conroy about the discrepancies between his account and those of other members of Gonzaga’s clannish fraternity. Through his literary agent, Marly Rusoff, Conroy backed off from the story that appeared in the book. “No one saw him get hit,” Rusoff says, “and he did not discuss it with anyone.”
Conroy had written that he got KO’d twice in the middle of a crowded event, and that lots of Gonzaga parents had seen him get hit and that many of those parents—the “angry mob of men”—had attacked Donald Conroy in response. Neither Conroy nor Russoff explained how the made-up version made it to print. They likely weren’t too bothered about getting caught making stuff up. At the time, Conroy was not only basking in great reviews and sales for the bogus book but had also just been given what Variety called a “seven-figure deal” by then-husband-and-wife aspiring moguls Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston to turn all this into a feature film. (The movie project died with their marriage.)
And now that he’s six feet under, Conroy’s fictional fight story has resurfaced, again posing as reality. Mike Mewshaw, a Florida-based author and onetime Conroy friend turned antagonist, wrote me about it when he read the new memoir. Mewshaw said he was appalled that Conroy had had the nerve to dust off the phony tale again, years after being called out for it. “I loved Pat,” Mewshaw says, “but he was a complete psychopathic liar. A lot of the people who knew what a liar he really was depended on him for alimony.” (Conroy was married three times.)
This time around, the fight scene comes up in a section describing how Conroy’s father liked being mean to him, “in front of other people, because the humiliation was ten times worse.” Conroy gets knocked down twice by pops on Gonzaga banquet night all over again in the new book, only this time around he relocates the fisticuffs from the school’s auditorium to the parking lot.
From the book:
He swatted me to the ground in the Gonzaga High School parking lot on letter night after the athletic banquet when he thought he saw me doing something wrong. Bam, I’m down. I get up, and bam, I’m down again. Some tough Italian, Irish and Polish fathers, who knew me from playing ball and did not know who he was, were pulling him off me.
Clark, who worked with Conroy for several years putting together the new book, now says that even with the title, all the tales included were meant to be truthful and accurate. Clark says that she and an independent fact checker hired by the publisher, University of South Carolina Press, both went through the material before the book hit the shelves. Well, most of the material: She says the Gonzaga fight scene, which she got from a 2014 conversation she’d had with Conroy, was not vetted this time around.
“That incident, I relied on fact checking having already been done because it appeared in a published book, so I just assumed that had already been vetted,” Clark says. “He did tell that story a lot. I assumed that was a cake that was already baked.”
Half-baked, alas. She made the same mistake George Solomon of the Washington Post made in 2002 when running an excerpt from Conroy’s earlier memoir. She trusted the guy.
Again, I haven’t read anything else from Conroy’s new book other than the fight excerpt. And admittedly, given his writerly bona fides, I’m taking his fabulism more seriously than fans of his fiction would say it warrants. But also: screw ‘em. Small sample and all, I’m ready to give a review of his last book that could double as an epitaph: Here lies Pat Conroy.