Doug Marlette never cared for his snuff-dipping, gun-toting granny Grace Pickard. “She was a blue-haired ayatollah,” says the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist and creator of Kudzu, a strip syndicated in more than 300 papers. “I was terrified of her.” But soon after moving to his father’s native Hillsborough, N.C., in 1991, Marlette found that some folks saw Pickard as a heroic figure. When he mentioned her name at a gathering of historians researching the local cotton-mill strikes of the 1930s, “their jaws dropped as if I’d just announced that I was Elvis’s illegitimate son,” remembers Marlette, 52.
In 1934, he learned, the then 30-year-old mother of five took part in a union drive among mill workers—lintheads, as they were called—and was wounded by a bayonet-wielding National Guardsman. (She died of natural causes in 1994.) Following that revelation, Marlette made another discovery: The 1833 mansion to which he had moved his family from New York City was built by a textile financier. “I was the grandson of a linthead living in the mill owner’s house,” he says. “I knew I had a story to tell.”
That story became last year’s semi-autobiographical novel The Bridge, which has become a best-seller across the South. But there was more in store for Marlette than commercial success. There would be controversy that he says he never saw coming.
The trouble started just before the novel’s publication last October, when the galleys became available. Mixed in with the cartoonist narrator and his colorful grandmother was a minor character named Ruffin Strudwick, a pretentious writer who is gay, wears red high-tops and throws an annual Halloween bash. Some readers saw a striking resemblance to locally based, critically acclaimed author Allan Gurganus (Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All). A vocal few were not amused. Though Marlette insists that Strudwick “is a composite of about 12 people,” Gurganus backers blasted Marlette as homophobic, a major bookstore reading was canceled, and nasty reader reviews popped up on Amazon.com. Gurganus refuses to comment but did have his name removed from the acknowledgments. “What Doug did not know,” says friend and fellow southern novelist Pat Conroy, 56, “is that writers are like a basket of blue crabs together.”
Despite (or partly because of) the uproar, The Bridge has sold out its first printing and Paramount Pictures has bought the film rights. Still, many Hillsborough residents are puzzled at the fuss. “I can’t see what they’re so upset about,” says Margaret Ann Dow, a school nurse. “I think it’s a great novel. Our book club is reading it.”
Marlette began ruffling feathers at an early age. The second of three siblings—brother Chris, 55, is a middle-school teacher, and sister Marianne, 49, an office manager—he was born in Greensboro to Elmer, 78, a Marine medic, and homemaker Billie, who died of a heart attack in 1991. Inspired by MAD magazine, he chose cartooning as a career despite a high school counselor’s advice that artists were “a dime a dozen.” “Didn’t he know,” Marlette says now, “that cartoonists never listen to authority figures?”
At Florida State University he drew editorial cartoons for the school newspaper and, to his family’s horror, registered as a conscientious objector during the war in Vietnam. After graduating in 1971, he was hired by The Charlotte Observer. “Charlotte was very conservative,” says Marlette, whose cartoons were antiwar, “and within months the paper was getting petitions demanding that I be fired.”
But his work soon attracted national attention. Marlette met Melinda Moore, now 46, in 1977 when he was interviewed at a TV station where she was a camera operator. Four years later, having discovered a shared love of singer Emmylou Harris and well-done cheeseburgers, they were wed. They have a son, Jackson, 15.
After stints with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (where he won his Pulitzer in 1988 for his editorial cartoons) and New York’s Newsday, Marlette moved his family back to the town where his ancestors toiled. There, old lintheads have sustained him through the storm over The Bridge. “People I never knew call and say, ‘Thank you,'” he reports. “‘I grew up on the mill hill and you have told my life.'”
Gail Cameron Wescott in Hillsborough