Books
10:34 am
Mon March 1, 2010

"Enchanted Evening Barbie and the Second Coming: A Memoir" by Rheta Grimsley Johnson

Even as a child in Montgomery, this future reporter was already a skeptic. At an early age she had doubts about Santa Claus, even though she wanted a Barbie doll in the worst way, and before long these doubts spread to most conventional metaphysics, although as a citizen of the South, she has tended to keep her "doubts" to herself.

Readers are familiar with Johnson's writings from her thousands of columns, written over nearly thirty years, for the "Memphis Commercial Appeal," the "Atlanta Journal-Constitution" and in syndication for King Features. They appear in more than 50 newspapers nationwide.

In the last few years, however, in addition to her human interest columns, Johnson has worked in a longer form. In 2008 she published the delightful "Poor Man's Provence: Finding Myself in Cajun Louisiana." This memoir tells the story of how she and her husband, Don, bought first a houseboat, then a little house in Henderson, Louisiana, in Cajun Country. Over a period of 13 years, they spent all the time they could there, getting to know their generous, kind and colorful neighbors and their neighbors' ways until the place was home and the neighbors became family. It was pretty much all "upside."

Now Johnson has written a more serious, difficult and painfully candid book--a memoir of her personal and professional life from childhood until, really, the spring of 2009.

Even as a child in Montgomery, this future reporter was already a skeptic. At an early age she had doubts about Santa Claus, even though she wanted a Barbie doll in the worst way, and before long these doubts spread to most conventional metaphysics, although as a citizen of the South, she has tended to keep her "doubts" to herself.

Johnson tells of her time at Auburn where she was editor of "The Plainsman" and took on the administration or greedy local businessmen as she saw fit.

There she also met and married Jimmy Johnson, and with the optimism, energy and na?vet? of youth the two began a newspaper, the "St. Simon Sun." They worked like dogs, but even back in 1975 the newspaper business was an endangered species, and after seven exhausting months of reporting, writing, selling subscriptions, and selling ads, in short, doing everything, on Christmas Day, they folded.

Johnson went on to journalism jobs in Monroeville, Alabama, and then Memphis, where she established herself. Jimmy Johnson, who had always meant to be a cartoonist, succeeded, becoming the creator of the strip "Arlo and Janis," with the characters based on Jimmy and Rheta and named after Arlo Guthrie and Janis Joplin.

Their careers flourished but the marriage, unfortunately, did not. Johnson relates it this way: "living with Jimmy was just too easy for someone determined to make her life hard. I didn't trust the assurances he gave again and again that he would not leave me . . . [so] I did the most illogical logical thing I could think of. I left him."

It takes the wisdom of maturity to realize that one has behaved foolishly in the past and a heap of honesty to tell the world about it.

Johnson's life did not reach a calm harbor for some time to come, however. She took over Lewis Grizzard's column at the AJC when he died, and his fans couldn't stand it. His readers wanted the space left blank, one supposes.

After seven years in Atlanta, Johnson left. She never liked it anyway.

Johnson also tells the story of writing the biography of Charles Schulz, creator of "Peanuts," a generous and delightful man who, it turns out, suffered from depression and was somewhat agoraphobic!

The last third of the memoir is sweet and then bittersweet. After some, shall we say, inappropriate men, Johnson "fell hopelessly in love" with Don Grierson, a journalism professor from UAB. This marriage was a treasure, and they both knew it and appreciated it. It was all the more terrible, then, when Grierson died suddenly in March of 2009, and all the more remarkable that Johnson was able to transmute at least a part of her grief into several powerful columns and into this moving, utterly believable memoir.

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