Charles Portis, the Arkansas novelist best known for his enduring best-seller True Grit, died this morning after several years of failing health. He was 86.
His death was confirmed to me by his brother, Jonathan, who is going to supply me shortly with an obituary prepared by the family. Here, too, is the entry on Portis in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.
He was born in El Dorado and grew up in South Arkansas, including in Hamburg. After a stint in the Marines during the Korean War, he studied journalism at the University of Arkansas, became a newspaper writer and then turned to fiction. True Grit, the western novel set in Arkansas, was his biggest claim to fame and twice made into a movie. But his other comic fiction had many fans — Norwood, The Dog of the South, Masters of Atlantis, and Gringos
Escape Velocity, a collection of Portis’ shorter work, included an exploration of the Ouachita River that he wrote for the Arkansas Times.
Portis lived for years in a Riverdale apartment until the advance of Alzheimer’s moved him to a care facility.
UPDATE: Here’s the obituary the family prepared for Ruebel Funeral Home.
Charles McColl Portis, 86, of Little Rock, died Monday, Feb. 17, 2020. He was the son of the late Samuel Palmer Portis and Alice Waddell Portis. His beloved sister, Aliece Portis Sawyer, died in 1958.
Charles, known as “Buddy” and “Charlie” to his family and friends, was born Dec. 28, 1933, in El Dorado. He grew up in El Dorado, Norphlet, Mount Holly and Hamburg, all in south Arkansas.
After graduating from Hamburg High School, Charles enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps and fought in the Korean War, serving with H Company, Third Battalion, Fifth Marines, 1st Marine Division, to battle the invading Chinese Communist and North Korean forces. He was promoted to sergeant and received several commendations for his service.
He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Arkansas in 1958. He was a reporter at the Northwest Arkansas Times in Fayetteville and the Commercial Appeal in Memphis. He was a reporter and columnist for the Arkansas Gazette, a writer for Newsweek magazine and was the London bureau chief for the New York Herald-Tribune.
Charles published five novels, numerous magazine articles and short stories and one stage play. He was perhaps best known for his 1968 novel, True Grit, which was a New York Times best-seller, and was made into two acclaimed motion pictures, though neither film measured up to Charles’s masterwork. The novel also became a television program and inspired a film sequel called Rooster Cogburn. His first novel, Norwood, published in 1966, was made into a movie in 1970.
His articles, short stories and memoirs were published in such magazines as The Saturday Evening Post, The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly and The Oxford American. Much of this work was collected in Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany, edited by Jay Jennings and published by the Central Arkansas Library System.
Buddy was a devoted son, a generous brother, a doting uncle and a steadfast friend. He shunned the spotlight, social events and self-promotion while quietly mentoring other writers who somehow managed to find him. He loved dogs and cats, having no preference for one species over another. As a teenager he worked as an apprentice mechanic at a Chevrolet dealership, setting off a lifelong passion for working on used cars and trucks in his spare time. He was a voracious reader, a habit he acquired while serving in the Marine Corps.
He was a really funny guy with an uncanny gift for observing human behavior and capturing it in a sui generis style of writing that captivated fans and critics. “Charlie thinks things no one else thinks,” his friend, the late Nora Ephron, once said.
Charles is survived by his brothers, Dr. Richard P. Portis (Leah) and Jonathan W. Portis; nephews Samuel Portis Sawyer, Robert Paul Sawyer (Nathania), Charles J. Portis, Cameron Aviles (Samantha) and Palmer Aviles; nieces Dr. Susan Portis-Ferguson (Michael), Jane Portis and Toni Portis King (Rob); grandnieces and grandnephews Laura Davis, Walter Ferguson, Cora Ferguson, Allison King and Timothy King.
Funeral will be at 10 a.m. Tuesday, Feb., 25, at Second Presbyterian Church in Little Rock. Graveside service with military honors will be at 2:30 p.m. Tuesday at Hamburg Cemetery, Hamburg, Ark.
Charles’s family is grateful to the staff of the Parkway Shell Alzheimer’s Center, the McClellan Veterans Hospital, Hospice Home Care, and the owners, staff and friends at Rivercliff Apartments and at the Faded Rose Restaurant.
The best way to honor Charles’s memory is to make a generous donation to the Humane Society of Pulaski County, Ark.
UPDATE: The New York Times’ obituary was an update written in advance by the late Roy Reed, a former colleague and retired journalism professor at the University of Arkansas.