Remembering Rust Hills

Remembering Rust Hills

Rust Hills
Rust Hills in the lobby of the Tennessee Williams Fine Arts Center, 1988. Photo by Doyle Bush.

We note with sadness the death, earlier this summer, of Rust Hills, our friend and collaborator for more than 20 years. He was 83.

The importance of Rust Hills to the world of American letters, particularly as fiction editor at Esquire, is well conveyed by the obituaries which ran in The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times. The enduring value of his own crisp, laugh-out-loud prose is plainly apparent in the idiosyncratic trio of books gathered together as How To Do Things Right. But Rust, who arrived in Key West in the early 1980s with his wife, the writer Joy Williams, was also a man who loved a day on the water; who played anagrams and poker, threw cocktail parties and chatted over the fence; and who will be remembered and missed by the many who knew him, first and finally, as a friend.

For this memorial, we turn to a handful of those who knew Rust in Key West. Recollections follow from writers Harry Mathews, Phyllis Rose, John Leslie, and William Wright, from former neighbor and barman John Vagnoni, and from sculptor and printmaker John Martini.

Joy Williams, Robert Richardson, William Wright, Rust Hills, Phyllis Rose, Annie Dillard, Robert Stone
Joy Williams, Robert Richardson, Bill Wright, Rust, Phyllis Rose, Annie Dillard, and Robert Stone on a seawall at cocktail hour in Andros Island, Bahamas, 1997. Photo by Laurent de Brunhoff.

No Change is Good Change

     “More than twenty-five years ago I met Rust Hills when he and Joy first came to Key West. For two or three winters they rented before eventually buying a place of their own on Pine Street. Cocktail parties galore ensued– once, twice, sometimes three times a week as they got acquainted with the denizens of Key West. All the literati were invited, along with a varying group of Key West roustabouts. Rust was about sixty then, a few years younger than I am now. I can still see him shuffling between the hibachi grill filled with fragrant kielbasa, and the bar. Liquor bottles bloomed, then wilted on the kitchen countertops– the Emerald Isle as it became known at Pine Street. In his trademark khakis and button-down Brooks Brothers’ shirt, a beloved Camel cigarette in one hand, a glass of Scotch in the other, Rust observed the unfolding parade. Never once did he waver in his identity. Re-inventing himself would have been unthinkable. With Rust, what you saw was what you got, as they say. And what he often said was, “No change is good change.” He was as resolute in his habits as he was steadfast in his friendships. The weekly games of poker and anagrams, the many lucid days on the water– for me, Key West will not be the same without him.”

—John Leslie
Rust Hills (r), Les Standiford (c), unknown man (l), 1989
Rust toasting Gerry Tinlin (left) and Les Standiford (center) at the Curry Mansion in January 1989. Photograph by Monica Haskell.

An Old Shoe

     “Rust was like an old shoe. He was just a great guy. He and Joy would come in to the Green Parrot when we used to have the poetry slams. They’d order margaritas and stand outside the doorway, listening. When we were neighbors on Olivia Street, we’d bullshit across the fence– this or that, whatever was going on, and I’d walk away and get goosebumps a little, thinking about who this guy was, what he’d been responsible for. I mean I grew up in awe of Mailer; Cheever and Carver and those guys; and Rust– he was the guy. He made it happen. That picture in the Times— boy, what a good-looking guy, drink in hand, laughing. The world was his.”

—John Vagnoni
oy Williams, Rust, Monica Haskell, and James Wilson Hall in front of Captain Tony's Saloon in January of 1988 or 1989
Joy Williams, Rust, Monica Haskell, and James Wilson Hall in front of Captain Tony’s Saloon in January of 1988 or 1989. Photograph by Doyle Bush.

Three Sonnets for Rust Hills

     “In the autumn of 2001, during either an afternoon game of four-handed anagrams or an evening game of five-handed poker in Key West, the subject of the sonnet somehow entered the general conversation. To my surprise, Rust Hills after a moment looked at me and asked what a sonnet exactly was; and I responded by promising to write a sonnet for him that would answer his question by demonstration. Being naturally inclined to complicate matters if given the chance, I later decided to write him three sonnets; furthermore, all the lines of these poems (except the very last) would be drawn from Rust’s own writings; and on Thanksgiving Day I began collecting suitable approximations of iambic pentameter from the quasi-autobiographical works in which Rust gives us such intriguing glimpses of his life. This turned out to be hard work, since Rust, unlike Dickens and F. Scott Fitzgerald, almost never produced a line of pure blank verse (a sign, incidentally, of what a superb prose writer he was: good prose should never scan). In any case I managed to paste together my somewhat raggedy collage by late January and presented it to my friend with a certain pride. He was very polite about it; he read it carefully and thanked me repeatedly; but in fact he admitted to John Leslie he couldn’t make head or tale of it. I was astounded: it made perfect sense to me. But that, after all, was hardly the point; and I had had all the gratification I needed spending a few weeks in the stylish company of not only a fussy but an exceptionally funny man.”
      Click to open “Three Sonnets for Rust Hills.”

Harry Mathews
(l to r) George Murphy, Rust Hills, David Kaufelt, 1986 Key West Literary Seminar
George Murphy, Rust, and David Kaufelt at a cocktail reception during the 1986 Seminar. Photographer unknown.

An Unashamed Enthusiast

     “Rust was a central member of the group of men who, over the years in changing configuration, played anagrams and poker. Along with John Leslie and Harry Mathews, Richard Wilbur, John Malcolm Brinnin, and Leonard Bernstein all took part. A few local women (me included) were deeply resentful at not being eligible. It sounded like such fun! Last spring I took to going to Rust’s house to work on jigsaw puzzles with him and John Leslie. It was the closest I got to the legendary all-male game sessions, and it was as delicious as I imagined, even with Rust in feeble form.
     In a community of writers, you might think that everyone is talking all the time about literature, but that’s not the case. Rust was one of the rare writers who actually talked about books, and it was a delight to talk with him, he was such an unashamed enthusiast. He and I shared a love of Victorian novels, which he was writing about in his last years. Trollope, Dickens, and Hardy were as much fun to him as poker and jigsaw puzzles. He was that kind of guy. I doubt I’ll ever see again such a combination of grumpiness and joie de vivre, of impishness and weight.”

Phyllis Rose
Rust Hills
Rust as he appeared in our 1989 program. Photographer unknown.
Master of Dunnage

     “Rust loved a day on the water. No matter the plan for the day, he would arrive at the dock in his usual uniform of oxford shirt and khakis ready to be piped aboard. For him, a good day was any day on the sailboat; and if the boat de-masted, ran aground, or broke a rudder– all the better. As much as he loved sailing, his favorite of all voyages was an afternoon on the powerboat participating in what was to become known as THE FLOATING TOUR OF STOCK ISLAND. The tour would start at Boog Powell’s Marina and cross over some shallows to enter the working area of docks, abandoned scows, and precarious stacks of lobster traps. Poking into little known lagoons and large yacht harbors brought out his latent Merchant Marine. He loved the grittiness of a working harbor, the beauty of a well-turned wooden yacht, and the pleasure of eating a sandwich while floating in the shadow of the failed desalination plant. Rust had great enthusiasm for a boat well navigated and a tack well accomplished. He admired accomplishment in many fields and was never afraid to express his enthusiasm and admiration. There will never be a better first mate and master of dunnage.”

John Martini
Rust Hills, William Wright hitchiking in Andros Island, Bahamas
Rust, on garbage can, and Bill Wright hitchhiking on a road with no cars; Andros Island, 1997. Photo by Phyllis Rose.

Fussiness Is Its Own Reward

     “In recent years Rust had been going out less and less, but I ran into him at a party his wife gave. He asked what I had been reading. I lit up with enthusiasm for a book I had just finished by Sam Harris called The End of Faith. Rust asked the book’s gist. I said it was an erudite and powerfully written denunciation of all religion which, the author believed, would destroy civilization. Rust shook his head and said, ‘I don’t have much use for either.'”

William Wright

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