Brave Heart
Jim Crumley’s characters are hardboiled,
but he was kind, generous and the life of the party.
By Bill Vaughn

I MET JAMES CRUMLEY one shiny afternoon in 1980 when I reported to a diamond in Missoula, Montana for the first practice of our softball team, sponsored in the beginning by the Eastgate Liquor Store, and later by a publication called The Montana Review of Books. Jim became the catcher for this gang of writers, carpenters and lawyers; I became the pitcher.

In the beginning we got beat by most everyone. Eventually, The Book drafted a couple of ringers and began to improve. Around 1984 or 1985 we surprised ourselves by winning the league championship, although the engraver made a typo on our trophy and called us the Montana Review of Brooks.  Crumley’s football-battered joints made it a struggle for him to get down in a crouch or run the bases; but he managed to stay in play by wrapping so much tape on his person he looked like the Michelin Man.

When I heard the news that Crumley had died at the age of 68 it struck me that the only guys I’ve spent more time with were my father, my cousin Mikey, and Victor Lieberman, my best friend.

These twice-a-week softball games were invariably followed by parties at one of Missoula’s fine old dives or in someone’s back yard, the bacchanal illuminated by a garbage fire in an oil barrel. Crumley was invariably the last man standing at these screeching convocations of booze and drugs. I learned early on that to keep up with him you had to pace yourself. He could drink way more than anyone, was physically stronger than any two of us, and drew some sort of life force from a can of beer or a snort of coke that other people get from a transfusion.

Meanwhile, his career as a writer flourished. The Last Good Kiss, published in 1978, is widely considered one of the best hardboiled detective novels ever written. He was also sought after in Hollywood as a screenwriter and a script doctor.

After we retired from the diamond Crumley and I still played poker together every week, including an annual weekend of gambling, meat-eating and binge drinking at Hank Harrington’s Flathead Lake cabin on Wild Horse Island (Harrington, former chair of the University of Montana English Department, died last winter along with his wife after their canoe capsized in the lake.)

And then there were the endless fêtes. Here was Crumley at The Festival of Champions, three days of trash fishing, cooking contests and silly sports like miniature golf, croquet and badminton. He won the first of these cook-offs, The Dark Origins of Barbecue, with a chile so hot you felt like it had melted a hole in the top of your skull. Here’s Jim at a day-long paintball war in the Bitterroot Valley, distinguishing himself as a fierce and devious warrior who convinced us that the covert raid and not the frontal charge would win the day. Here was the amused but proud father-of-the-bride at the arranged wedding of his daughter to an Australian guy who wanted to stay in the U.S. And here was Jim wandering down a Missoula sidewalk one morning behind a pair of bikers he’d been drinking with all night, the right side of his body matted with black dog hair.

One Friday in 1983 I flew to Los Angeles on a whim to attend a party to celebrate Jim’s publication of Dancing Bear. It was held at a bookstore on Melrose Avenue owned by Victor Lieberman. The store, which sold only first-edition fiction, was born when Victor and his pal, Rob Pettler, ran out of room in their apartments for all the novels they’d bought.

The place was so packed I could hardly get through the door. I was soon talking with a small, dark-haired woman about summer camps for adults. Suddenly, Crumley appeared, wrapped me in one of his trademark bear hugs and introduced me to the woman, who turned out to be Linda Ronstadt. I figured to spend the weekend hanging around with Victor and his new girlfriend, an actress named Linda MacEwen (They All Laughed), but when the party ended I found myself in a rent car full of people I didn’t know, driven through the night by Crumley.

The events of this lost weekend, I think, included a book signing during which Jim urged an obnoxiously eager sychophant to go home to his children, a dinner at Joe Allen’s restaurant in which Crumley broke up a hilarious fist-fight between two small actors, many little amber-colored bottles of cocaine, endless road trips back and forth across the hills dividing Hollywood from Studio City, and scores of people who knew Jim, admired his talent, and liked to be around him because of his intelligence and gracious spirit. At some point Crumley hovered over the novelist William Hjortsberg, who had collapsed from exhaustion onto a chaise lounge: “Just lie still,” Jim told him. “You’ve had an accident.”

Forty-eight hours after I got off the plane Jim drove me back to the airport. I hadn’t slept at all, and felt like someone had pumped my heart full of chilled diesel. Crumley seemed fine, nibbling on a cheeseburger as he maneuvered gracefully through the traffic on the San Diego Freeway.

One hot evening last summer I was parked in downtown Missoula waiting for take-out when Crumley emerged from one of his hangouts, a smoky tavern called Charlie B's, and headed for one of his other hangouts, a stool at the upscale bar in the Depot. Hard living, arthritis, gout and numerous other physical ills had taken their toll. He waited for the light to change. Then he carefully stepped onto Higgins Avenue. The light changed twice more before he made it to the other side.

But no one in the stopped cars complained.