High heels clicked across the tiled lobby floor of Little Rock’s Capital Hotel last Saturday evening. Cheeks were kissed, bowties straightened and spaghetti straps adjusted. It was the first Oxford American “Best of the South” Awards Gala, with Morgan Freeman and Charles Portis honored for Outstanding Contributions to Southern Culture and Lifetime Achievement in Southern Literature, respectively. Even at $500 a pop, all 200 tickets sold.
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The night began with a red carpet entrance. Every man in a tuxedo or woman in formal evening wear who walked in the front door was greeted by dozens of digital flashes and television cameras panning to follow them.
After an interview on the second-floor balcony with a television crew, Freeman — wearing a double-breasted black tuxedo sans tie, a gold hoop earring in his right ear and sunglasses — descended to the lobby and paused briefly at the media corral for photos. An all-star lineup of Arkansas entertainers trailed behind him: Kris Allen, the reigning “American Idol” and Conway native, his hair is perfectly mussed, his shirt collar unbuttoned and his skinny black tie pre-loosened. Mary Steenburgen, the Oscar-winning actress who grew up in North Little Rock. Then Joey Lauren Adams, the actress best known for her roles in Kevin Smith movies like “Chasing Amy,” also from North Little Rock. Ray McKinnon, most recently of “The Blind Side,” and his wife, the actress Lisa Blount.
Once the recognizable celebrities had come and gone, there were fewer flashes and TV cameras rested on shoulders.
“There’s only so many rich people you can see,” one cameraman said to another. “You know it’s time to go when they all start to look the same.”
“Have we seen this Portis guy?” another asked.
This Portis guy, of course, is the author of several wickedly funny novels, “Norwood,” “Dog of the South” and “True Grit,” chief among them. Cult classics, they’re often called now, though if the Coen brothers’ adaptation of “True Grit,” starring Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon and due Christmastime, comes off well, the cult could broaden.
In a twist one of Portis’ narrator’s might appreciate, the author has become well known for not being well known, earning him sidelong compliments from his devotees. A 2003 article in the magazine The Believer called him “a guy you’ve never heard of, but should,” and the Oxford American’s founder and editor Marc Smirnoff said, “Mr. Portis should be the most popular writer in America.”
A four-foot tall photograph of a young Portis, taking a drag from a cigarette, flanked the entrance to the Capital Hotel.
“I don’t know what he looks like, and that photo is so old,” the first cameraman said of Portis. “I tried to do a Google search, but I’m telling you, dude is like a recluse.”
But Charles Portis was already safely inside the VIP reception area. He had slipped by earlier, largely unnoticed by the media. And that was, apparently, fine with him.
There were other fleeting Portis sightings throughout the night. Later, while the crowd milled around over Southern-themed appetizers before dinner, a photographer returning from the hordes announced: “Charles Portis does not like to have his picture taken.” The photographer had followed him around the room, trying desperately to get one good photo of the author, only to be rebuffed at every attempt. “That son of a bitch took off every time he saw a camera. I got about a dozen shots of the side of his head.”
Soon there was another Portis update. “I think he left the building. Somebody told me they saw him leave.” Dinner was just starting and the awards ceremony was still a couple of hours away.
While the attendees enjoyed four-course dinners upstairs, the lobby downstairs was transformed into an auditorium. A man aligned chairs into 14 rows facing a small stage near the hotel’s front entrance. Word spread that Portis had indeed left but had promised to be back by 8 p.m. It was 8:30 p.m.
A few minutes before 9 p.m., Portis wandered into the largely empty lobby from a back hallway. Gone was the dark suit and tie he had worn a couple of hours ago. Now he was wearing sand-colored trousers, a button-up shirt and a zip-up khaki jacket. He claimed, to no one in particular, “I forgot all about this.” No one seemed to buy it.
Portis stood at the back of the room by a large marble column. When another man approached him and asked if he wanted to step outside for a cigarette, Portis said, “No, I’m not smoking anymore. I quit seven or eight years ago.”
“I thought you were a big-time smoker.”
“I was, until I quit.”
Then a gaggle of older women surrounded him. He tried on the explanation of his disappearance for them. “Well, I forgot all about all this,” he said. “I was at home watching television and somebody called me.” One of the ladies asked him about the remake of “True Grit”: Did he like it? “I’m all for it,” he said, “as long as the checks don’t bounce.” Then another asked the author if he’d like to be on the cover of a local society magazine. To which he said, “I don’t think it would be a big seller for you.”
Portis, glass of white wine in hand, took a seat in the 14th row, as far from the stage as he could manage. Even as the crowd came back down from the dining room into the lobby for the awards ceremony to begin, the guest of honor kept his seat. People swirled around, but few acknowledged the older man in all beige in the back row.
When Morgan Freeman, the night’s other honoree, came down to join the ceremony, a cloud of admirers hovered around him as he made his way to a seat in the middle of the front row, just in front of the stage.
Mary Steenburgen hosted the ceremony, which included a radio-style dramatic reading from Portis’ novel “Dog of the South” (including the “Dix puts William Shakespeare in the shithouse” scene), with Adams, McKinnon and Blount reading parts. Portis laughed at some of his old words. When the time came to present the award, Marc Smirnoff, the Oxford American’s editor, said a few words by way of introduction, then, holding a bronze statuette of a rooster high and scanning the crowd, said, “Mr. Portis, if you’re here…”
Morgan Freeman. Photo by Rett Peek.
Portis made his way to the stage, where he accepted the statuette and an envelope with a $10,000 check enclosed. He offered a few words of thanks, then returned to his seat in the back row. Before he was seated again, the crowd had moved on, the applause for Portis swallowed up by the applause for Kris Allen, as the “Idol” took to the stage.
The ceremony ran on. Allen performed a couple of songs, and then it was Morgan Freeman’s turn. Before his award was presented, there was a video biography of his life, directed by Harry Thomason and narrated by Bill Clinton. A choked up Freeman said of the honor, “This is the best evening I’ve had in … memory.”
Meanwhile, at the back of the crowd, Portis held the envelope in his hand. He opened it, pulled out the check, studied it for a minute, then leaned over to show it to the woman seated next to him before sliding it back into the envelope.
After Freeman made his acceptance speech and the lights in the lobby came back up, Portis stood and walked back down the hallway he had wandered in from a couple of hours earlier. He tried his best to escape the admirers and photographers, but did stop to shake a hand and even pause for a quick snapshot. All the while, he held a bronze rooster in one hand and his car keys in the other. Portis eventually made his way to a side door that exited onto an empty sidewalk. He climbed into his truck parked curbside and drove away for the second time that night.