Warren Leslie May Be Dead Now, But His Book Dallas Public and Private Will Live Forever
Of all the books written about Dallas, it's easily the one most often cited: Warren Leslie's 1964 Dallas Public and Private, with a later edition underscoring its heretofore subtle subtitle "Aspects of an American City." Subsequent histories-of -- from Patricia Evridge Hill's Dallas: The Making of a Modern City to Darwin Payne's Big D to Michael Phillips's White Metropolis to Bryan Burrough's The Big Rich: The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes to poor ol' Harvey Graff and his The Dallas Myth: The Making and Unmaking of an American City -- all made mention of Leslie's book, written in the dark days following the assassination of John Kennedy.
Quotes from the book would, for years, turn up in unlikely places. The Rotarian, in advance of Rotary International's '82 Dallas confab, devoted an entire issue to "Dazzling Dallas." Its lead-off piece, "Saddle Up for Dallas," began with what it deemed a perhaps-too-harsh quote from Leslie, a Manhattan native who'd moved to Texas after graduating from Yale: "The truth is, there really isn't any reason for Dallas. It sits in the middle of nowhere and nothing."
Molly Ivins quoted it in her 2,547-word essay "Dallas: Funny But Not Funky," which originally appeared in the Dallas Times Herald but was syndicated nationwide in 1984, the year the Republican National Convention came to town:
It is all just beginning for black Dallas, left out for so long. Dallas was de-segged from the top down. According to Warren Leslie's book on Dallas, then-Mayor R.L. "Bob" Thornton called the Citizens Council (BIG bidnessmen) together and announced, "We don't want any Birmingham or Little Rock here -- it would be bad for bidness." And so the signs came down. De- segged, but not yet integrated. One result is that black Dallas has long seemed curiously leaderless.
Paul Burka returned to the tome in 2003 when profiling then-Mayor Laura Miller for Texas Monthly -- specifically, like Ivins, the part about the Citizens Council:
The photo of Leslie that appeared on the back of the original printing of Dallas Public and PrivateSeymour Linden
What I really wanted to know from Miller was what she had learned by being on the other side of the closed door. All of us who cover politics think we know what's going on, but there is always that nagging doubt that we don't really know, that the secret eludes us. "The day I announced for council," she told me, "I believed that the city was really run by about ten people who had an unhealthy and incestuous relationship with city hall behind the scenes. Even when I was on the council, I still thought it was true. Now that I'm mayor, I see that we have the opposite problem. There are very few stakeholders who have a commitment to the long-term health of the city. Dallas has suffered for a long time for having lost its CEOs."
I knew exactly what she was talking about: the "yes or no" men. Before I had come to Dallas to interview Miller, I had dug out from a bookshelf a long-forgotten volume called Dallas Public and Private, written by a former Dallas Morning News reporter turned corporate executive named Warren Leslie. Writing in the weeks after the Kennedy assassination, when Dallas felt the onus of universal contempt, Leslie attempted to explain the peculiar civic psychology of Dallas to its residents and to the world. He started with Dallas' most cherished myth -- that it had become a great city despite a poor location because its leading citizens had willed it to do so. "The truth is, there really isn't any reason for Dallas," Leslie wrote. "It sits in the middle of nowhere and nothing. The land around it is dry, black and unproductive; farmers do battle with it to exist. The only natural waterway is the Trinity River which is, alternately, almost invisible or flooding to the danger point." Leslie related how Dallas started on its way to becoming the largest inland city in the nation -- a title it recently yielded to Phoenix -- by bribing one railroad into coming to Dallas and outsmarting another by slipping into legislation a requirement that the train had to stop within a mile of Browder Springs, which happened to be in you know where. He quoted from a 1949 article about the city in Fortune: "Everything in Dallas is bigger and better; the parties are plushier, the buildings are more air-conditioned, the women better dressed and the girls more fetching. Dallas doesn't owe a thing to accident, nature or inevitability. It is what it is -- even to the girls -- because the men of Dallas damn well planned it that way."
"The men of Dallas," Leslie wrote, meant the Citizens' Council, a group of business leaders organized in the thirties by a banker, civic leader, and future mayor named Bob Thornton. To belong, you had to be able to commit your company to donate money -- to say yes or no. Leslie's thesis was that the narrowness of leadership had created a uniformity of ultraconservative thinking that made it possible for political extremism to gain a grip on the city in the years leading up to the assassination without anyone speaking up. The yes or no men did good things for Dallas, but they had also done incalculable harm. They ignored racial issues like substandard housing, excluded blacks from the decision-making process, and created racial polarization that persists to this day. Whatever was left of their influence dissipated when their banks and real estate interests went belly-up in the eighties or their companies moved to the suburbs.
And not so long ago, Schutze turned once more to its pages when writing of, among other things, the life and legacy of Jack Ruby.
In a 1964 book called Dallas Public and Private, author Warren Leslie said: "Ruby never lived outside the law. He lived on its fringes.
"He was a second-rater, and he knew it and hated it. For him, recognition and approval were necessities, not just from people in general but from people in authority."
There should be a statue.
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Warren Leslie died on July 6 in Chicago at the age of 84. News of his passing makes The New York Times this morning beneath the headline: "Warren Leslie, 84; Wrote Book That Rankled Dallas." Dennis Hevesi's obit is lengthy -- much longer than Alan Peppard's farewell that ran in Leslie's old newspaper a few days ago, hidden amongst the obits in Metro.
Legend had it that Leslie, who'd written for The News before becoming a spokesman and exec for Neiman Marcus, was run out of town and back to New York, to the ad game and soap-opera script-writing, following the tome's publication. His friend, journalist Hugh Aynesworth, disputes that in this morning's Times ... but not by much: "I heard a lot people saying that he took unfair advantage, and that the situation wasn't nearly that bad. I just feel very strongly that some of his friends turned on him."
I own several copies of the book, including a beat-up second edition hardback that made its way from The Book Swap Shop in Greenville, Mississippi, to Half-Price in 1993, where I paid $2.58 for it back then; only a couple of weeks ago I bought the Avon paperback for 50 cents at the HP mothership on Northwest Highway. Somewhere I have the SMU Press re-issue. Over the years, I've loaned countless copies to newcomers -- that, and Schutze's book, which is now way too expensive for lending.
Copies of Dallas Public and Private are plentiful and inexpensive. And some passages haven't dated at all -- though that line about how "in spite of its natural beauty, Oak Cliff is unfashionable" does elicit a chuckle. The perfect summer read, in short, all these summers later.