Most first novels—if anyone notices at all—are launched with a case of cheap champagne. But for fledgling author Winston Groom’s Vietnam war epic, Better Times than These, the famous residents of Long Islands glittering Hamptons (East and Bridge) came out of the dunes in droves. Irwin Shaw, Lauren Bacall, John Lindsay, Willie Morris, Adolph Green, Phyllis Newman, Shana Alexander and others toasted the flabbergasted Groom, 35, on Gloria Jones’ lawn and then again in Manhattan. By the time George Plimpton’s annual summer bash rolled around, one Hamptonite asked another, in mid-fireworks: “Has anybody told Groom this party isn’t for him?”
The fuss is because Groom, a 6’6″ combat veteran, wrote his book under the tutelage of some of the best writers in the business, including the late James Jones. “Jim taught me to make the main character different from me in every way, so that if he has to do something embarrassing, he can [the hero is a Jewish geologist]. Irwin bought me whiskey and dinners and told me, ‘Kid, you wanna write, you gotta write—and nobody is gonna do it for you.’ Willie advised me not to read the reviews.”
Happily, the reviews have been mostly glowing. “A mirror of hell that leaves one awestruck,” said the New York Times reviewer. The paperback rights sold for $150,000 and movie talk has begun.
The only son of a well-to-do Mobile, Ala. family whose men have served in the Army since the French and Indian War, Groom went to military prep school and majored in English at the University of Alabama. He shipped out to Vietnam as a second lieutenant in 1966, “fearing the Commies would be knocking on the doors of San Francisco,” and came back disillusioned 13 months later. “It was a stupid, no-win war where the enemy scared you to death. They’d mine you during lunch.”
Groom took a job on the Washington Star and while covering local courts became a friend of Irwin Shaw’s son Adam, then his competition on the Post. Hobnobbing in the Hamptons with the Shaws, Groom met people he’d only read about before. “They exuded this electricity,” he recalls, “and I guess I hoped some of it would rub off on me.” But he kept quiet about his plastic bags full of notes on the war. “I wasn’t going to say to all these famous writers, ‘Hey, I want to write a novel too.’ ”
Willie Morris finally heard about Better Times than These over breakfast one day in 1976. “I wrote the title on a napkin,” Groom says. “Willie liked it, signed it and dated it.”
Groom sent an outline to a publisher he knew, who turned it down. Angry, Groom quit the Star, hired an agent, wrote and sold Better Times to Summit Books. “I didn’t know Winston had literary connections when I bought the book,” says his editor, Jim Silberman. “I just read it and liked it.”
Groom still lives in the rented Wainscott house he wrote his novel in—the same place where, legend has it, Barbara Howar once poured a bottle of bourbon over boyfriend Willie Morris’ head. Groom has been separated for six years from his wife, Ruth “Baba” Noble, who lives in Alexandria, Va., imports jewelry from China and is still “my best friend.” Though he dated actress Tammy Grimes for a while, Groom now says he’s “too selfish” for a one-woman life. “You bring a woman here, and she starts tiptoeing around saying, ‘Got to be quiet, Winston’s a novelist.’ ” Almost every afternoon he’s at his desk working on a new novel about “oil and the South,” already sold to Summit.
Then in his Lincoln Continental (“the only car that fits”), with bluegrass on the tape deck, Groom prowls the Hamptons, remembering the rules: “You joke when people are down, you don’t mention certain books that flopped, and you spring for the check now and then.”