Doug Marlette, the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist who recently turned his incisive wit toward a budding career as a novelist, died Tuesday in a traffic accident in Mississippi. He was 57.
Marlette, who split his time between Hillsborough and Tulsa, Okla., and was visiting Mississippi to help a group of high school students with the musical version of his syndicated comic strip, "Kudzu." He had just delivered the eulogy at his father's funeral Friday in Charlotte, N.C.
"You know, there's a couple of family members I'd rather have lost instead of Doug," said author Pat Conroy. "And he would have laughed at that. This has been a shock of all shocks."
Conroy spoke daily with Marlette and last talked with him Monday. The author of "The Prince of Tides" said he expected a call Tuesday evening after Marlette had wrapped up a rehearsal with the drama students at Oxford High School, adding he had no idea how he will fill the void left by his friend's death.
"I've simply been sitting here crying all day, not knowing the answer to that question," Conroy said. "Just don't know."
Marlette started his cartooning career in 1972 at The Charlotte Observer, and most recently was on staff at the Tulsa World. He won the Pulitzer prize in 1988 for his work at The Observer and the Atlanta Constitution, the same year the Observer won the Pulitzer's public service award for its work detailing the misuse of funds by Jim Bakker's PTL television ministry.
At the time of the Pulitzer, Marlette said his biting approach could be traced in part to "a grandmother bayoneted by a guardsman during a mill strike in the Carolinas. There are some rebellious genes floating around in me."
Marlette was the passenger in a pickup truck driven by John P. Davenport, of Oxford, Miss., the theater director at Oxford High School, said Sgt. Leslie White, a spokesman for the Mississippi Highway Patrol. Davenport was treated at Baptist Memorial Hospital-North Mississippi in Oxford and released. He declined to comment Tuesday when reached at his home.
Marshall County Coroner John Garrison said the accident occurred in heavy rain about three miles east of Holly Springs. He said he believed the truck hydroplaned, then struck the tree.
The Oxford students planned to perform "Kudzu: A Southern Musical" in August at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland, and Marlette planned to write a magazine story about the production, said Katharine Walton, a Marlette friend and his North Carolina-based publicist.
Marlette published two novels, "The Bridge," in 2001, and "Magic Time," in 2006. He was just "finding his voice in writing long-length fiction and was finding great joy in it," said Sarah Crichton, his editor at Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar Straus & Giroux.
"It's tremendously sad to me that he only had the chance to write these two novels because he was both brilliant at and excited by it," she said.
"The Bridge" wasn't exactly a hit in Hillsborough, the small town west of Raleigh that is home to several well-known writers. They felt Marlette based some of the book's less-than-admirable characters on local residents.
"He was an opinionated man and he would get in trouble for it," Crichton said. "Part of the great spirit of Doug was that he was both full of opinions and full of kindness."
Marlette received death threats for a cartoon he drew in 2002 that depicted a Muslim driving a rental truck with a nuclear weapon on board. Above were the words, "What Would Muhammad Drive?"
Such criticism was unlikely to dissuade Marlette, whom friend and writer Will Blythe described as a "fearless guy with a big heart. ... I never heard him say anything boring." Blythe got an e-mail from Marlette on Monday with the first chapter of his new book.
"I used to say to him that it was criminal that somebody so good at drawing should be able to write so well," Blythe said. "As great as he was at drawing, as great as he was at writing, as a conversationalist, he was equally great."
Last week, Marlette delivered the eulogy for his father, Elmer Monroe Marlette, a World War II veteran whose son registered as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War.
"There were many tearful confrontations, arguments and shouting matches between my father and me over that abominable war, and many harsh words we wished we could retrieve," Marlette said in the eulogy.
"But when the time came for me to face my draft board, and make my case, collect the letters and testimony to my anti-war commitment from teachers, ministers and family, my father wrote the draft board the most eloquent letter one could hope for, not only testifying to the sincerity of his son's beliefs, but offering to volunteer himself to go to Vietnam in my place."
Born in Greensboro, Marlette grew up in North Carolina, Mississippi and Florida. He graduated from Florida State in 1971 and joined the Observer the next year. After more than a decade in Charlotte, he moved to the Atlanta Constitution before stops at New York Newsday and the Tallahassee Democrat.
"Cartoons are windows into the human condition," Marlette said in 2006 after joining the staff at the Tulsa World. "It's about life."
Marlette was a distinguished visiting professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's journalism school, and was inducted into the school's Hall of Fame in 2002.
Robert E. Lorton III, publisher and president of the Tulsa World, told the newspaper's Web site that Marlette's death was "a great tragedy, not only for the Tulsa World family, but for all who knew Doug."
"He was more than a great cartoonist and author, he was a tremendous human being," Lorton said. "Words cannot express the grief that we are all feeling today."
Survivors include his wife, Melinda, and an adult son, Jackson.
By Martha Waggoner
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