Charles Portis, Elusive Author of ‘True Grit,’ Dies at 86

Charles Portis, Elusive Author of ‘True Grit,’ Dies at 86

Jay Jennings, an Arkansas writer and friend, compiled a collection of Mr. Portis’s work that included excerpts from his newspaper reporting on civil rights during the early 1960s. It also included a short memoir, “Combinations of Jacksons,” and a three-act play, “Delray’s New Moon.” The collection, “Escape Velocity,” was published in 2012 by Butler Center Books in Little Rock.

Mr. Portis shrank from the attention his more celebrated novels attracted. He steadfastly refused to be interviewed, although he made himself available to talk about his life for this obituary. When drawn into public gatherings, he dodged photographers. But he didn’t like to be called a recluse or compared to the likes of J.D. Salinger. He pointed out that his name was in the Little Rock phone book.

Ms. Ephron, a friend from his New York days, talked about his penchant for privacy. He was charming, she told The Times in 2010. “But he was a newspaper reporter who didn’t have a phone. The Trib had to make him get one. So even back then the pattern was there.”

Charles McColl Portis was born on Dec. 28, 1933, in El Dorado, an oil town in southeast Arkansas, to Samuel Palmer Portis, an educator, and the former Alice Waddell. He grew up in various towns in the region, including Hamburg, where he went to high school.

After graduating he worked as an auto mechanic and, in 1952, at 18, joined the Marines over the strong objections of his father. He served in Korea during and after the war there and left the service as a sergeant.

After enrolling at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, he wrote for the student paper, The Arkansas Traveler, and the local paper, The Northwest Arkansas Times. One of his tasks at The Times was handling country correspondents, who were known for their eccentric spelling and matter-of-fact reporting on the ailments and family events of local citizens.

“My job was to edit out all the life and charm from these homely reports,” he said in the 2012 interview.

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