Prince Tut in Excelsus
November 12, 2002
LOS ANGELES — The most brilliant man I've ever known died last week,
far too young in life and certainly too premature for me to tell him
how much he had meant to me.
But chances are that my friend, John Tuthill, who died of pancreatic
cancer at the age of 57, wouldn't have wanted to hear it. Tut, as I
called him even long before the name became commonplace in our
culture, was also the most humble person I ever knew.
I met him when I lived in Dallas, but it would have been inaccurate
to say he was from Dallas. He was born in Washington, D.C., educated
at the Choate school in Connecticut and UC Berkeley, and later lived
in Minneapolis with his late wife and son and daughter before
returning to Dallas for his final days.
Most people who met Tut when I knew him were initially intimidated
by him. For most people, it was his height — he was six feet, six
inches tall — and his looks. Tut had eyes the color of the Pacific
at dawn and, though starting to lose his hair prematurely, he could
strike the pose of an Olympic god.
But I was also intimidated by Tut's mind, which is why I was
hesitant to be his friend at first. Tut, however, wouldn't allow me
to slide out of his life. A couple of drinks led to several dinners,
then some sets of tennis and a Dallas Cowboy game or two. Soon Tut
was a regular weekend guest at the new home my wife and I had just
We were fascinated by each other's backgrounds. I enjoyed hearing
Tut talk about going to prep school at Choate, where President John
F. Kennedy had been educated, and about being at Berkeley during the
free speech protests of the 1960s. Tut wanted to hear my stories
about growing up in the heart of the Bible Belt, about the identity
crisis I was going through, having grown up Latino but feeling
Anglophile, about being a newspaperman and the struggles of
Often we filled our Saturdays playing chess and tennis and poured
out our souls about our dreams and our insecurities. Tut wanted to
write but feared he couldn't, even though he had shown me notebooks
filled with promising prose and short stories.
The most memorable of those stories was an account of how he and his
fraternity pals at Berkeley would often skip classes for long drives
south to Los Angeles to watch John Wooden's great UCLA basketball
teams of the 60s that featured Lew Alcindor, who later became Kareem
Abdul-Jabbar. But the story smacked not only of UCLA basketball, but
of the free spirit of his youth, a 1960s Jack Kerouac.
Tut, meanwhile, was the only person to whom I ever confessed the
nagging insecurity that I then felt. I had been the first person in
my family to graduate from high school as well as college. Yet every
time I traveled back east, as I had several times for fellowship and
job interviews, I felt extremely inferior intellectually — a
phenomenon not uncommon then for Southerners I would learn later
from Southern writers such as Larry McMurtry and the late Willie
One day Tut showed up at my home with a book by Robert Hutchins, the
noted educator who championed a renaissance in liberal arts
education in America and the Great Books program at the University
of Chicago. Tut insisted I read the book and that I begin reading
Over the next months, our weekend games of chess and tennis became
backdrops to Socratic dialogs about the books Tut was having me read
— from Aeschylus to Augustine, from Homer to Hobbes, from Dante to
Darwin. I often joked to friends that I was only then getting the
education that I had missed at Baylor, my alma mater. It sounded
clever, but sadly it was true.
Several years later, I studied Homer at Harvard under Homeric
scholar Robert Fitzgerald, who gave me the best compliment I think I
have ever received. He said I had a good mind. I was speechless, but
I knew who was largely responsible. Tut.
It's strange what happens with friendships, especially with
teachers. Although you move on in life, part of them stays with you.
I moved from Dallas. My personal life at the time was unraveling as
Tut's was taking hold. He married and started a family as I was
going off on a writer's sojourn.
Every so often we would touch base. I think a part of Tut envied my
seemingly romantic existence as a writer in Los Angeles. I envied
his stability as a businessman in the Midwest. I remarried, had two
sons and developed a completely new set of friends in L.A., and many
of them came to know that someone named Tut had been one of the most
influential people in my life.
Some friends thought I had made him up — that Tuthill was a
make-believe friend I had concocted to explain why I had bothered to
read Plutarch or could quote “Long Day's Journey Into Night” or
recite the prelude to “The Odyssey” in ancient Greek. Maybe, as
someone once said about Mickey Mantle, if he hadn't existed, we
would have had to make him up. But he was real.
Once when I used his name for a character in a screenplay that was
in pre-production, I called just to make sure he didn't mind.
Tut was intrigued. “Who do you have in mind for my character?” he
wanted to know.
“Nick Nolte,” I answered.
“Yeah?” he said. “Well make sure he's sober. Is there a love
I told him I had written her with Kim Basinger in mind.
There was a long pause before I asked him what was wrong.
“Nothing's wrong,” he said. “I'm just fantasizing.”
That was Tut. Insisting on living out dreams. Good night, sweet
prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.