Hillerman Opens his New Mexico Chapter
When Santa Fe hosted a mystery writer’s early days as a newsman
By James McGrath Morris
When Tony Hillerman left behind his native Oklahoma for New Mexico in 1952, journalism paid his bills—but he dreamed of one day writing fiction. Santa Fe would be an important stop on his path to eventually becoming one of America’s best-known writers of mysteries. In a new biography, Tony Hillerman: A Life, author James McGrath Morris tells Hillerman’s story as no one has before; here, we excerpt Chapter 11, in which Hillerman arrives in Santa Fe.
Born in a small Oklahoma town and raised during the Great Depression, Hillerman had risen up through the ranks of newspapers and wire service reporting. He had followed this career path thanks to a fully paid college education provided by the GI Bill after his nearly fatal service in World War II.
Prior to taking the journalism job that brought him to Santa Fe, 27-year-old Hillerman had worked as a crime reporter in Borger, Texas, as an editor in Lawton, Oklahoma, and as a state capital reporter for United Press. Coming along for each change in jobs and locale was his wife Marie. The two had met their last semester at University of Oklahoma and had married shortly after graduating in 1948. Now with them was their first child Anne—who, years later after Tony Hillerman’s death in 2008, would continue her father’s mystery series.
But mystery novels and literary success were still years away. At this point Hillerman was slaving in the trenches of journalism and Marie was keeping a home with a much-absent husband and a 3-year-old daughter underfoot.
Chapter Eleven: Santa Fe
When Tony and Marie Hillerman batted around ideas about their future together, he confessed his ambition was to edit a state capital newspaper, preferably in neighboring New Mexico, which he had first seen in 1945 when delivering oil equipment. In late September 1952, a path that could bring him closer to his goal opened. One night, when he showed up to work a late shift at the United Press office, his boss told him the Santa Fe bureau chief had resigned. Would he want the job? he asked. The following day Hillerman was behind the wheel of his aging sedan rolling down Route 66 bound for New Mexico. Marie, always stalwart, remained behind to pack up and sell the house with their 2-year-old daughter underfoot. And, as Tony had left with the car, mother and child had to take the train to Santa Fe when the Oklahoma City house was sold.
For the fourth time in as many years, the Hillermans took to the road in pursuit of Tony’s journalistic advancement. Now he and his hopes traveled the same route that two decades earlier had carried Okies away from the dust bowl. John Steinbeck, one of Hillerman’s favorite authors, had enshrined Route 66 in the nation’s consciousness. His 1939 Grapes of Wrath described the plague of dust, floods, and unscrupulous land dealers that drove people from their lands. “From all of these the people are in flight,” wrote Steinbeck, “and they come into 66 from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks and the rutted country roads. 66 is the mother road, the road of flight.”
In 1952, a traveler would enter Santa Fe by way of College Avenue (later renamed Old Santa Fe Trail), which passed by the seventeenth-century San Miguel Chapel and led to the Plaza and the ancient Palace of the Governors at the heart of the city. The route was a quick introduction to the city’s infatuation with adobe architecture. Bypassed by the railroads, Santa Fe remained unaffected by the modernization that usually accompanied economic growth. The city of twenty-seven thousand was as it had been for years, an exotic collection of aging adobe buildings along winding streets, many of which were dirt.
The preservationists did have a gem to safeguard. Not only was Santa Fe picturesque, but it also possessed a storied history. Originally the site of an Indian pueblo known as Oghá P’o’oge in the Tewa language, the spot became the center of Spanish colonial rule in 1610 when it was designated the capital of the northernmost province of New Spain. The new rulers renamed it La Villa Real de la Santa Fe de San Francisco de Asís (the Royal Town of the Holy Faith of Saint Francis of Assisi), soon simplified to Santa Fe.
In 1680, Pueblo Indians rose up in rebellion and expelled the Spanish in the first successful war of independence in North America. In 1692, however, the Spanish returned and reimposed their rule. In the years following, Santa Fe served successively as the capital of Nuevo Mexico after Mexico’s independence from Spain, then as the capital of the New Mexico territory after the United States won its war with Mexico. By the time Hillerman arrived, Santa Fe was marking its fortieth anniversary as a state capital, New Mexico having been admitted into the union in 1912. Not only could it lay claim to being the oldest capital city in the United States, but at seven thousand feet it was also the highest in elevation.
Several populations coexisted in the state. Pueblo Indians still lived in dwellings dating back almost a millennium, while Navajo and Apache peoples occupied large tracts of reservation land. Hispanos, denoting those who traced their lineage back to the conquistadors, dominated state politics, church life, and music. Completing the mix were newcomers like Hillerman, who were designated as Anglos. “The Hispanos, then, were the social cream,” said Hillerman. “All others were Anglos, whether their origins were European, African, Asian, Samoan, or Turk.”
The departing UP bureau manager took Hillerman around to introduce him to useful sources. It took only a few handshakes before Hillerman got an earful about how Santa Fe had declined, particularly since the arrival of the Tejanos, the disparaging name locals had taken to calling wealthy Texans who were making the city into their summer playground. Despite those complaints, the city still had a large population of colorful, eccentric, artistic, and oddball characters. “The situation in the autumn of 1952 gave tyro [beginner] political reporters such as myself scant time to enjoy them,” said Hillerman. Feeding the insatiable demand of the UP wire came first.
Hillerman’s title as bureau chief meant he supervised a staff of one inexperienced reporter while the rival Associated Press (AP) bureau had a staff of six. Unlike in Oklahoma, UP was new to the state and a weak competitor to the AP. Hillerman would have to churn out reams of copy. He began each day with stops at the state government offices, looking for tips, gossip, and news. Even though it was a state government, the size and scope of its jurisdiction over fewer than 700,000 people was similar to that of a county government like those in rural Westchester, New York, or Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
After completing his rounds, Hillerman would make his way to the office on Marcy Street, just a few blocks from the Plaza. Office might be a generous term. The UP bureau occupied a small room crammed with three teletype machines, a filing cabinet, a couple of chairs, but only one desk and one typewriter. Even reaching home at 6:30 in the evening did not mean an escape from work. His home telephone number was written down next to phones in state police headquarters and other offices. “It wasn’t a job that allowed time for relaxing,” said Hillerman.
His post, however, gave Hillerman a chance to learn more about Navajo culture. […] In March 1954 he went out to Window Rock, the capital of the Navajo Nation that stretches across the corners of Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. The Navajo Tribal Council was reconsidering its 1940 ban on peyote use following news that one out of every six members of the tribe was using it. Describing the “tiny, button-shaped cactus bean” as “the keystone of a strange religion,” Hillerman filed an article quoting an Anglo pharmacist and an Anglo sociologist but no Navajos. “Since the bean is the key ingredient in ceremonies of the Native American Church,” Hillerman predicted, “the issue will be freedom of religion.”
It was not long before his reporting was noticed by editors at the Santa Fe New Mexican, which occupied the building next door and was the state’s leading political paper. Five months after starting work in Santa Fe, Hillerman wrote about a shakedown at the state penitentiary, following the fatal stabbing of an inmate, that had uncovered a stash of handmade knives and rope of sufficient length to scale the wall. State police officials were under orders from the governor to keep the results of the search “confidential” but Hillerman found troopers willing to talk. The Santa Fe New Mexican ran Hillerman’s UP story on page 1.
The following day correctional officials invited the press to the prison, where they offered supposed evidence, often contradictory bits of information, to disprove Hillerman’s reporting. Even though he didn’t work for the Santa Fe New Mexican, the paper came to Hillerman’s defense. Referring to him as “an experienced and reliable newsman,” the paper’s lead editorial said it was “highly debatable” whether anything said by state officials “proved or disproved Hillerman’s story.” Any inaccuracies, if they existed, would not have been disseminated had the state been more forthcoming with details of the shakedown, opined the editorial board.
After almost two years of nonstop work with UP, Hillerman’s superiors reorganized the wire services operation in New Mexico and opened a bureau in Albuquerque. With no staff, Hillerman’s already impossible schedule worsened. Robert M. McKinney, the publisher of the Santa Fe New Mexican, asked Hillerman to join his paper as news editor. Hillerman accepted the offer and, in July 1954, walked across the parking lot separating the UP office from the Santa Fe New Mexican building. For the first time in four years, Hillerman was back at work in a newspaper’s newsroom, with its symphony of ringing telephones, dinging teletype bells, and clattering typewriters, the air thick with cigarette smoke laced with the smell of printer’s ink wafting out of the adjoining press room.
Established in 1849, the Santa Fe New Mexican was the West’s oldest paper. McKinney, who had been a successful New York financier, had bought the paper in its centenary year for $560,000. Though not as large as its rival Albuquerque Journal, the Santa Fe New Mexican was widely read, well respected, and often had the scoop on state politics as the capital’s newspaper. Politics was its life blood. “Its readership,” said Hillerman, “depends on political news to approximately the same extent as that of Playboy magazine depends upon bare skin.”
“Most publishers, we believed, were easy to fathom,” Hillerman said. “Robert McKinney wasn’t.” Nonetheless, the two men had a lot in common. They were tall, lanky Oklahoma natives and University of Oklahoma graduates—both of whom got in hot water as editors of campus publications—World War II veterans, and storytellers. In fact, before he became a newspaper publisher, McKinney had published a book of his poetry with Henry Holt and Co. “We knew that well-used language was important to him—a value sadly rare among publishers as a class,” Hillerman said.
At the same time McKinney’s aristocratic airs were off-putting to Hillerman’s country-boy sensibilities. On several occasions Tony and Marie dined with the McKinneys in their resplendent home in Nambe, to the north of Santa Fe. Marie fretted whenever the invitation came, and for good reason. Shawnee and Sacred Heart upbringings left them ill prepared to sup in a candlelit dining room, furnished in English antiques, with a uniformed server hovering about. The often-absent McKinney paid a great deal of attention to the running of his newspaper, much to the chagrin of his employees. The newsroom staff found McKinney to be abrupt, demanding, and often tactless. When the publisher was appointed ambassador to Switzerland, Hillerman was said to have joked, “We’ve never had trouble with Switzerland before, but this might be the start of it.”
Hillerman’s seven years of reporting, especially his time with UP, made him a valuable member of the paper’s staff. When not at the editor’s desk, he supplemented the modest-sized staff’s output of hard news stories and wrote bylined features on such topics as a couple training a bloodhound for rescue work, a profile of a state supreme court justice, how the state government watched over its fleet of cars, and even a little sports copy.
In January 1957, a storm coming up from Mexico blanketed northern New Mexico with up to six inches of snow. For a water-starved state, the storm brought welcomed relief. But when a second storm arrived on its heels, a good thing turned dangerous in some of the state’s isolated communities.
The Santa Fe New Mexican got a tip that a freight train on the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railway, which had been built across the southern portion of the Rocky Mountains in the 1880s, was stranded atop Cumbres Pass on the Colorado border. The railway was trying to keep a lid on the story, after it had failed to halt trains crossing the 10,022-foot pass at the height of the storm. A rescue train was now also stuck in the snow. In addition to the crew members trapped in trains, section men who had been working on the rails were also marooned at the top. In all, as many as sixty men were now in need of rescue.
The story was too good and too close by for Hillerman to remain at his desk. He reached the small village of Chama at the same time as a detachment from the army’s Mountain Winter Warfare School and Training Center in Hale, Colorado. The men brought two M29 weasels, small vehicles designed for cold-weather use in World War II, with treads like gigantic rubber bands that could travel over soft ground and snow. The weasels had not returned from their initial rescue attempt by the time Hillerman filed his first dispatch. Instead, he reported on conditions and what he could learn about the stranded men.
He put his story on the front page and it was sent out on the AP wire, a source of pride for any news reporter. But after coming all this way, Hillerman was still reporting from the sidelines. At last Hillerman talked his way into a ride on one of the weasels. With the reluctant consent of the commander of the army detachment, Hillerman set off through the snow. Watched by a crowd of sixty onlookers, the two machines pulled out of Chama and roared down State Route 19, now a snow trail. Four miles out the weasels began their climb up to the pass, past snow-filled canyons and buried cabins.
“Further up, four elk, led by an antlered bull, could be seen floundering slowly through the trees,” observed Hillerman. “They moved behind a stand of fir without a glance at the noisy weasels below them.” The drivers decided to turn back after the engine of one of the weasels died. A failed attempt to tow the disabled vehicle back caused the group to crowd into the other weasel. Spending the night in subzero temperatures was not an option. As they neared Chama, they picked up an exhausted CBS cameraman who had tried to ski up to the stranded trains. The following day Hillerman’s words and photographs dominated the paper. Soon the last of the stranded men was rescued with the functioning weasel, and plow trains began to cut a path to reopen the pass. Eleven months later, Hillerman’s coverage took second place in the straight news category of the New Mexico Press Association competition.
In his role as the editorial page editor, Hillerman could shed the writing straightjacket he wore when working on the news pages. McKinney gave Hillerman full license to represent the paper’s opinion, particularly on local items, reserving commentary on national and international events for himself. At first, Hillerman wrote staid commentary on such topics as the beauty of the aspens in the fall, traffic safety, and the March of Dimes. But over time, he developed a quiet folksy style salted with occasional bits of humor and vitriol.
While his tone was often droll, Hillerman also used the page to chastise the behavior of public officials. School Superintendent Irving P. Murphy ran into Hillerman’s literary buzzsaw when he forbade a reporter from viewing records, as permitted by law, to learn whether athletes were getting an academic break. “We hate to spoil the fun, but to confess that those mysterious ‘certain persons’ to whom Mr. Murphy refers aren’t representatives of the Mafia—they are just us,” Hillerman wrote. “We are the sneaky fox causing the cackling in the chicken coop. But […] Scouts Honor, we don’t intend to blackmail anyone, break up any homes, or make an assault on the ‘human dignity and worthwhileness’ which the superintendent avows to protect.” The superintendent quit his job the following year and Hillerman’s editorial took second place in the New Mexico Press Association contest.
Perhaps inspired by his stint as editor of the University of Oklahoma’s humor magazine, The Covered Wagon, Hillerman enlivened the editorial page by mischievously enlisting the help of a Mrs. H. Pincus, a Texan who summered in Santa Fe. She had first appeared in the pages of the Santa Fe New Mexican in the spring of 1954, while Hillerman was still working for UP. Her one-sentence letter to the editor came after news reports that the city was considering paving over the Acequia Madre, a centuries-old irrigation ditch. “If you people in Santa Fe cover the Acequia Madre,” she wrote, “I’ll never come back.”
The acequia was not paved and Pincus returned to Santa Fe, at least according to the letters to the editor in 1957. But, according to reporter Lew Thompson, a classmate who coincidentally had preceded Hillerman as editor of The Covered Wagon, Pincus did not exist. She was the invention of a previous editor. It was now Hillerman’s turn at playing Cyrano de Bergerac of the press by penning letters for a fictitious Mrs. Pincus.
In her new letter, Mrs. Pincus complimented the city for paving streets but complained that no improvements were being made to College Street. “The main entry to your city from Texas—and we’re the people who keep you alive—is disgraceful,” Pincus wrote. “The city should condemn all those dirty mud buildings and make the street wide enough to handle traffic.” In this brief missive Pincus hit two hot-button issues: Santa Fe’s antipathy toward Texans and its almost religious reverence of adobe.
Readers took note. Artist Gustave Baumann offered up a poem chastising Pincus for wanting to make New Mexico into another Texas. He was followed by the owner of a brown mud building on College Street who asked, “Why, oh, WHY do you keep coming to Santa Fe? … Please, hereafter, stay in Texas. No other place in the world could endure you.”
Several months later, after more missives from Mrs. Pincus, one reader questioned the authenticity of the letters. “I suspect that Mrs. Pincus is a fictitious creation of some local citizen who is resorting to trickery in an effort to sway the local populace while others railed against her,” wrote H. Winneng of Los Alamos, New Mexico. If, Winneng added, Mrs. Pincus were for real, then an ordinance ought to be passed banning her, and other Texans like her, from coming to New Mexico.
“People would get up in arms about it,” said Thompson. Over the years, Mrs. Pincus’s letters would return at regular intervals. In 1959, for instance, she belittled yet another cherished aspect of Santa Fe. Penned in a style that hinted at it being a spoof, Pincus’s letter complimented the city for awarding prizes before “the date when people put out those messy incendiary luminarios and farolitos.” She hoped “a true-blue American tradition of up-to-date electric lights will undoubtedly be another of those dangerous and unsightly customs your people seem to cling to in spite of everything.”
In her final appearance in the paper, she praised construction projects opposed by many residents, such as the drab new Federal Building. She told readers to ignore Indian complaints about a proposed statue honoring the Spanish governor who reconquered New Mexico after the Pueblo Revolt, and tossed in a comment that the state would have never amounted to much had Indians been in charge. An accompanying editor’s note all but gave away the ruse.
“We had been informed that Mrs. Pincus, a frequent summer visitor in Santa Fe in past years, had died in a Fort Worth hospital last September,” wrote the editor, likely to have been Hillerman. “We are pleased to note that the obituary in the Dallas Morning News was exaggerated.”
Mrs. H. Pincus never reappeared in the pages of the Santa Fe New Mexican, although a Miss Lulu Maud Pincus of Dallas sent in a letter several months later. “Our family never did like that dirty old mud Governor’s Palace,” she wrote, adding it ought to be redesigned to look like the Alamo. “A chip off the old block.”
As much as Hillerman enjoyed humor, especially his own, he had his limits. For instance, when he became managing editor, he put a stop to a newsroom practice of appending funny tales or jokes to the end of copy to amuse the composing room staff. Hillerman told the newsroom that when he worked in Oklahoma one reporter wrote up a funeral, adding “and a good time was had by all.” No one caught it until it was published in the newspaper.
Santa Fe fed Hillerman’s yearning to write fiction. The UP bureau, his first worksite in the city, was just up the street from where territorial governor Lew Wallace had written Ben Hur. In the newsroom of the Santa Fe New Mexican, where Hillerman worked next, columnist Oliver LaFarge’s Laughing Boy had won the Pulitzer Prize, and nationally renowned poet Winfield Townley served as books editor. On the Plaza, at the grocery, even in the jail’s drunk tank, Hillerman ran into people who made a living writing fiction. “I wanted to work with the plastic of fiction instead of the hard rock of truth,” he said.
Hillerman began to consider obtaining a master’s degree to expand his writing opportunities. In the spring of 1959, he contacted the dean at the School of Journalism at the University of Missouri. The dean told Hillerman it would be possible for him to work part-time, helping oversee the school’s commercial daily newspaper, and earn a degree in two years. Nothing further came from the discussions. In the end, a confrontation with death convinced him to follow his dream to be a writer.
On the night of January 7, 1960, Hillerman drove out to the state penitentiary on the outskirts of Santa Fe, where a prisoner was scheduled to be the first executed in the state’s gas chamber. In the company of other reporters, Hillerman was taken to a cell holding David Cooper Nelson, convicted of killing a man who had picked him up while hitchhiking. “I feel wonderful,” Nelson told the reporters. “Do any of you believe that you will live forever?” An episode of Johnny Staccato, an NBC private detective series, played on the cell’s television set. A guard turned the volume down. Hillerman watched as Nelson stretched out on his bunk and continued his expansive philosophical chat about what might come after death. The warden announced an end to the visit and the reporters filed out. As Hillerman looked back he saw Nelson gripping the bars of his cell. “God bless you,” said the prisoner.
Twice before, Hillerman had covered an execution. His first time was in 1954 when Frederick Heisler was put to death by electrocution. Hillerman had been horrified by the spectacle of more than one hundred police officers, politicians, and others who had come to witness the event, many with alcohol on their breath. “I had the feeling some of those guys were having orgasms,” Hillerman said. “It was just a sickening spectacle.” A few months later, state lawmakers passed the “Hillerman bill,” limiting the number of spectators at future executions.
On this 1960 night, Hillerman, his colleagues, and official witnesses took their places in the observation room whose plate glass window looked into the newly built gas chamber. Nelson, strapped in a chair, smiled and winked at the reporters he had spent time with earlier. Hillerman listened as the warden counseled the condemned man. “When you first smell the fumes, take a deep breath Dave,” said the warden. “Don’t try to fight it.” Minutes later thick fumes rose from a bucket of acid into which a pound of cyanide pellets was poured. “Nelson’s white shirt tightened across his bulky chest as he inhaled,” wrote Hillerman in his front-page story. “He gasped convulsively for several minutes.” Eight minutes later Nelson was pronounced dead. Hillerman could not shake the memory of that night, of Nelson’s hands on the bars and his smile through the gas chamber window. “It caused me to think seriously for the first time about writing fiction,” Hillerman said. “How could one report the true meaning of that execution while sticking to objective facts?”
In November 1962, after serving as managing editor for three years, Hillerman was given the newly created post of executive editor, overseeing all aspects of the newspaper. At long last his aspiration of running a state capital newspaper had come to pass. But during the climb to this position a different dream had taken root. Instead of news, Tony told Marie, he wanted to pursue his on-again, off-again longing to write fiction. Now fourteen years into a journalism career, Hillerman was burned out. “I felt like I was writing the same story over and over,” he said.
On November 24, 1962, Hillerman placed a sheet of paper in his typewriter. “Dear Mr. McKinney,” he began, “I have decided to resign from the New Mexican.”
Excerpt provided by the University of Oklahoma Press, 2021.
An online exhibition, assembled by the University of New Mexico Libraries Center for Southwest Research and Special Collections, draws from its collection of Tony Hillerman’s papers. It features a dozen documents and artifacts selected by James McGrath Morris. Each item is accompanied by a description as well as bibliographical information. To view, visit here.
Tony Hillerman: A Life is James McGrath Morris’s fifth biography. His previous subjects have included Joseph Pulitzer, the newspaper mogul; Ethel Payne, a Black civil rights reporter; and novelists Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos. Like Hillerman, Morris began his professional life as a reporter. He makes his home in Santa Fe.