Mary Elizabeth Sherrill Endowed Presidential Scholarship in Music
The Mary Elizabeth Sherrill Endowed Presidential Scholarship in Music was established by the Board of Regents of the University of Texas System on January 29, 2010, to benefit The University of Texas Butler School of Music. The endowment honors Mary Elizabeth Sherrill. Gift funds were provided by Mr. Robert G. Sherrill.
Mary Elizabeth Sherrill
Sure, Mary was a very good pianist and organist. From the “Italian Concerto” to the “Maple Leaf Rag,” Mary was a knockout on her seven-foot Baldwin grand. And, ah, on the organ, what she could do with something like “Sheep May Safely Graze” would melt you right through the floor.
But except for brief stints teaching organ at Peabody College in Nashville; and as accompanist for former Metropolitan opera soprano Josephine Antoine when Josephine taught at UT and gave a few concerts out in the sticks; and playing the organ for churches here and there, including her favorite employment at the University Baptist Church in Austin during the enlightened term of Blake Smith — except for those opportunities, Mary never got to use her music much.
Reason: She married me in 1950, and for most of the next decade she was condemned to following me from one newspaper job to another or as a misplaced graduate student at three colleges. We escaped from those Dantean circles only because I finally got smart enough to notice that when we stopped tramping off where I suggested we go, and settled down where Mary suggested we stay, things clicked.
They clicked for fifteen years in Washington, D.C., where we landed in 1965, with $500 in the bank and no prospects for a job. But Lyndon Johnson was then president — considered a “curiosity” by many — and since I had a Texas background and had worked at several Texas newspapers (including The San Angelo Standard Times, The Texas Observer and The Austin American-Statesman) I passed myself off to a small New York publishing house as just the guy to write the “inside” story on LBJ.
Well, with Mary pillaging for information and me pounding my upright typewriter, and then her editing and correcting all my stuff, and Paul Bacon turning out a jazzy jacket cover with LBJ’s head as a hawk, we produced a book, The Accidental President, that sold well enough (in San Francisco — no surprise — it was on the best-seller list for several weeks) that we were able to buy a home on Capitol Hill and keep rolling.
And we did keep rolling — all because Mary was at the center of operation — feeding ego and stomach as my collaborator in turning out close to a hundred magazine articles for the Nation and the New York Times Magazine, hundreds of book reviews, seven trade books and two college textbooks on politics, as well as odds and ends like the annual roundup of politics for the Colliers Encyclopedia. Only a few friends knew all the things she did that were absolutely essential to my work — a great deal of the research, and all the typing, editing, and preparation for publication.
One of those friends, Molly Ivins, the legendary editor of the Texas Observer, called Mary’s and my partnership “extraordinary,” but noted a number of complementary differences. “For one thing, Mary had no temper that I ever saw. It neither upset nor disconcerted her that Bob was often mad as hell at some lunkhead or another. She seemed to think he was entitled to be mad as hell, rather thought it was a good thing, just didn’t do it herself. She was perfectly capable of despising the despicable, of course, but always with a calm good sense that didn’t exclude whatever redeeming social value might be found lurking in a person.
“I think the most important thing to say about Mary is that she was bright, in both senses of the word. She was just plain smart, so intelligent and perceptive that it was a treat to be around her. And bright as a person, not in any smarmy, goody-goody way, just upbeat and full of joy.
“She was at home in her skin. No pretense, no affectation, never tried to impress. She smoked cigars because she liked cigars. She played the piano because she loved good music. And I see her now, in the evening, after a long busy day, wonderful smells coming from the kitchen, she chortling over some outrageous observation of Bob’s, and then sitting down at the piano to make classical music come rippling out. It’s darker without her.”
Even after 40 years of living with her, I find it hard to convey the essence of Mary. She was a thoroughgoing romantic and adventuress, but a practical one. I talked her into taking a 400-mile bicycle trip up the California coast, but after 50 miles and a serious sunburn, she persuaded me it might be just as romantic to toss our bikes into a boxcar and make most of the rest of the trip on a freight train.
Jim Abourezk, probably the most radical liberal South Dakota ever sent to the U.S. Senate, liked to supply Mary with “Communist” cigars from Cuba. He says, “Oh, I know she had all the training necessary to handle the classical repertoire, but I think most of Mary’s friends will remember her best for the marvels she could produce at the piano with Big Band music and jazz. To see her searching through a stack of old sheet music meant that something memorable was about to happen at the keyboard.”
Shelby Coffee III, who much later became editor of the Los Angeles Times but first arrived at our home as a copyboy, remembers her as “the best of friends at Christmastime, taking care that our small children were spoiled beyond their years with all the goodies that she, as a real godmother, could provide.
“She and Bob were a fascinating mixed pair. Where he was earthy anger, she was his amused accomplice. Where he plowed into his formidable writing with the passion of a Florentine monk building a bonfire of the vanities, she was his serene director, coolly telling him which of the vanities needed to be tossed into the pyre.”
Ann Waldron, once the book critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer and author of a dozen books, was Mary’s frequent companion on junking tours through Florida and Georgia. She recalls, “Our friendship was built on many things, including a taste for old homes, high ceilings, molded plaster, and velvety heart-of-pine floors. Her homes, always humanely out of order, were pleasantly stuffed with antique furniture — we just called it “old.”
“From her I also learned about hospitality as a high art. Nothing was too good or too much for her guests, and that included the luxury (after a whirlwind of talk) of being left alone, with a good bedside lamp, plenty of pillows and stacks of good reading, and the privilege of sleeping late.
“Typically one would arise to a mound of homemade biscuits and honey and bowls of strawberries, or Elysian pancakes.
“Over the years, Mary’s example inspired me to slipcover a sofa, clip a dog, try harder with houseplants (hers always bloomed luxuriantly) and take up photography in a serious way. I learned to do none of these things as well as Mary, but I tried.
“Mary is, I’m sure, in heaven cooking dinner for J.S. Bach, upholstering a chair for W.C. Fields, and taking pictures of Monet and his buddies. How lucky they are; how lucky I was.”