Larry McMurtry, the Texas novelist known for American West epics like Lonesome Dove and the Oscar-winning screenplay for Brokeback Mountain, has died. McMurtry’s death on Thursday was first reported by The New York Times. He was 84.
Born in Wichita Falls, Texas, in 1936, McMurtry was a prolific author with an uncanny gift for making a lengthy opus like Lonesome Dove — all 843 pages — eminently readable. The page-turning tale of two grizzled cowboys on a cattle drive from Texas to Montana in the mid-19th century won a Pulitzer Prize in 1986. First published in 1985, it was adapted into a CBS-TV miniseries starring Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones in 1989.
Along with Lonesome Dove, McMurtry wrote critically acclaimed novels like 1966’s The Last Picture Show and 1975’s Terms of Endearment. Both were adapted for the big screen. In 2006, he and his collaborator Diana Ossana, with whom he once lived, won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for their work on Brokeback Mountain, adapting Annie Proulx’s short story about an illicit romance between two cowboys. He famously accepted his Oscar in blue jeans and cowboy boots.
McMurtry spent time teaching English at Rice University and George Mason, among other institutions, and penned his first books during that period. He was more passionate about writing books than teaching, however, and was particularly interested in physical books themselves. McMurtry sought out rare copies and editions and worked at a number of bookstores, opening his own, Booked Up, in 1971 in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. In 1988, he opened a Booked Up store in his hometown of Archer City, Texas, which he operated up until his death.
His son, the songwriter James McMurtry, once described his father’s Texas store to Rolling Stone as “way out in the middle of nowhere,” a location chosen for its affordable rent. “He had a store in D.C. for 30 years, but had to fold it up and move it to Texas.”
McMurtry grew up as the son of a rancher and he inherited a deep but honest appreciation for small towns, hard work, and eccentric characters. His novels were calloused and lived-in, rich in the details of arduous cattle drives, lonesome nights on the plains, and the daily tragedies, both great and small, that affect us all. Despite his earlier escape to higher ed, he remained enamored of the ranching life.
“My dad called up in October of 2013 and said, ‘Did you hear about the tragedy?’” James McMurtry told Rolling Stone in 2015. “I said, ‘Which one?’ He said, ‘That blizzard that killed all those cows in South Dakota.’ It puzzled me for a second, because he absolutely hates cows. He hates them so much that he hates horses for putting him in proximity to cows. I stepped back a minute and thought, ‘Oh yeah, he still likes ranchers. He still has an affinity for the ranching people, because that’s how he grew up.’”
Over the course of his career, McMurtry wrote more than 30 novels, including 1983’s The Desert Rose, 1990’s Buffalo Girls, and the Lonesome Dove sequels Streets of Laredo, Dead Man’s Walk, and Comanche Moon. He also wrote a bevy of screenplays, including one for the 1992 film Falling From Grace, which starred John Mellencamp and featured music by Mellencamp, John Prine, and McMurtry’s son James. McMurtry’s last adapted work was Good Joe Bell, a 2020 film about a man who walks across the country after the suicide of his son.