Prince Tut in Excelsus

PUBLISHED: November 12, 2002, The Los Angeles Times


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.

John Tuthill at Choate, 1963

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 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 the University of California, Berkeley, and later lived in Minneapolis with his late wife and son and daughter.

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 appeared even taller — 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 moved into.

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 marriage.

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 Morris.

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 Plato’s ”Republic.”

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 the original ancient Greek. Maybe, as someone once said about Mickey Mantle, if he hadn’t existed, we would have had to make him up. But Tut 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 interest?”
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.