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Pat Conroy

Our Lifelong Friendship

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True Bromance

Tuesday, 03 September 2019

Margaret EvansBernie Schein book Pat ConroyBy Margaret Evans, Editor

The friendship of Pat Conroy and Bernie Schein is near legendary in these parts. Not only does Bernie show up as a character in most of Pat’s books, but anybody who ever saw the two together will attest to the depth of their devotion. It was a real love match, albeit complicated.

In fact, says Bernie, it was a bona fide “bromance,” complete with petty resentments, mutual betrayals, a devastating breakup, and a joyful reconciliation.

“Pat and I used to say it was a shame we weren’t born gay, because we really were like an old married couple,” he says. But how many old married couples do you know who divorce, go fifteen years without speaking, then reunite for ten more years of wedded bliss?

You can read about all that – and so much more – in Bernie’s new memoir Pat Conroy: Our Lifelong Friendship. 

         I confess, I approached this book warily – maybe even wearily – wondering if the world really needed another book about Pat Conroy right now. Since his death in March of 2016, there have been plenty: My Exaggerated Life (Pat’s oral biography as told to Katherine Clark); The Lost Prince (a memoir by Michael Mewshaw); Our Prince of Scribes (a large collection of essays about Pat, including my own), and possibly some others I’m forgetting. On top of all that, Pat’s wife Cassandra King has a Pat-centric memoir coming out in October. I worried about Bernie stealing her thunder, or her stealing his, or each of them diluting the other’s readership. Though Pat, himself, was endlessly interesting, I worried we might be doing him a disservice with all these books. I feared people might actually – at some point – find themselves All Conroy’d Out. Like, maybe even me.

But then I started reading Bernie’s book. Lord have mercy, it’s a doozy.

Consider the opening paragraphs:

Pat Conroy, even as a child, long before he became a world-renowned writer and public figure, was either blessed or cursed, depending on how you looked at it, with a greater-than-life, love-your-ass, break-your-balls personality. As he himself so cheerfully noted, it was “fabulous.” It was.

         He was unremittingly open-hearted and hospitable, especially when he didn’t mean it. Of all the actors – John Voight, Michael O’Keefe, David Keith, Nick Nolte – who ended up playing his character in the movies based on his novels, none had his charisma, his outsize capacity for joy, for love, for hatred, for tragedy, to say nothing of his sense of humor. His personality was simply too much for them to grab hold of and contain, to internalize, to take on, even though they were just pretending, as he often did, which no doubt complicated their understanding of him even more. Throw in his false modesty and sanctimony, his Irish mischief, and his warrior-like mentality, and the cup really overfloweth. 

I dare you to stop reading after that. I couldn’t. And dammit, I didn’t have the time! Bernie handed me the book on my way out of our interview, though I’d repeatedly said I was too busy to read it. Oh, just scan a few pages, he said. To get the flavor…

He knew.

So, what is it that makes Pat Conroy so fascinating, even after death? Why should the literary world make room for yet another take on the man? And another? And another?

Bernie has an idea. “Pat was such an intimate writer, and such an intimate person, that people felt like they knew him,” he told me. “And, in fact, if they read his books, they did know him. But Pat had so many faces. So many layers. And all these books, they come from such different perspectives. Sandra’s book is wonderful, but it’s a romance. A love story. Mine’s a love story, too, but completely different. Fortunately, I never had to go to bed with Pat.”

That kind of throwaway humor is woven through the book and absolutely indicative of the way Bernie and Pat talked to each other. But make no mistake: Funny as it is – and it’s very funny – Pat Conroy: Our Lifelong Friendship is also a deep dive into dark and treacherous waters. This relationship was not for the faint of heart.

The friends had a falling out around 1990 – Bernie speculates about the source, but isn’t certain – and it lasted almost fifteen years. Both men were living in Atlanta at the time, but Pat soon moved his family to San Francisco for reasons left hazy in the book. Despite having been inseparable for 30 years, the two didn’t speak again until sometime in the mid-2000s, when they both found themselves back in Beaufort, where they’d first met as teenagers.

The narrative begins in that era – the early 60s – when Pat arrived at Beaufort High, where Bernie was already a big man on campus. “I heard of Pat long before I met him,” he writes. “Two really pretty girls, Gretchen Maas and Kathleen Kennedy, who sat at our For Seniors Only table, were themselves military brats and couldn’t shut up about him. Pat Conroy this… Pat Conroy that. ‘Oh, he’s so funny… Oh, he’s so cute, nice and friendly.’ And he wasn’t even a senior! Just some snot-nosed junior wannabe.”

I don’t want to include too many spoilers, because if, like me, you think you already know this story, you’re in for a revelation. There’s new material here, not to mention a wealth of illuminating hindsight.

Our Lifelong Friendship is the surprising tale of a relationship forged in paradox. A tale of two men as radically different as they were simpatico . . . who perfectly complemented each other, though often via insult. It’s a tale of two people who had each other’s back even while stabbing each other in the back, who loved each other madly even when they hated each other’s guts. It’s the story of two friends who were really more like brothers – brothers who almost teetered into Cain and Abel territory, but ultimately found their way back to Eden. Yes, it’s a story of biblical proportions.

Think I’m exaggerating? Well, that was Pat and Bernie for you.

Considering the depth and breadth of their relationship, I couldn’t help wondering what life’s been like for Bernie since Pat’s death. How does one go on after losing such a friendship?

“I talk to him just as much as I ever did,” he told me. “On his deathbed, Pat said to me, ‘We’ve had great conversations,’ and we’re still having them, all the time.” The final chapter of Our Lifelong Friendship records one of those conversations across the veil, with Pat dispensing “heavenly wisdom” so tender, truthful, and hilarious that I found myself laughing through tears for the thousandth time. It’s that kind of book.

I should admit that I read it out of order, in bits and pieces – because “I knew the story already” and was too busy for reading, remember? – but each time I started a bit or a piece, I was helplessly compelled to follow that narrative thread to its end. By the time I’d finished all those glorious threads, I was forced to conclude that, yes, the world really does need another book about Pat Conroy.

I’m awfully glad Bernie Schein wrote this one.

 

The public is invited to a book launch for Pat Conroy: Our Lifelong Friendship at The Anchorage 1770 on Tuesday, September 10 from 7-8:30 pm. Bernie Schein will sign books on Saturday, September 14 from 10am-noon at the Beaufort Bookstore (843-525-1066), and from 2-5pm at McIntosh Book Shoppe (843-524-1119). Books may be pre-ordered (signed and personalized) from either store and picked up any time after September 3.

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Pat Conroy’s bromance: Beaufort friend Bernie Schein says it wasn’t always easy

September 13, 2019 04:45 AM

By David Lauderdale

Bromance isn’t easy.

Especially if the “bro” is Pat Conroy.

But Bernie Schein of Beaufort, Conroy’s best friend since their days shooting hoops together at Beaufort High School in the early 1960s, says today, “No pain, no gain.”

It was the “pain” part of Schein’s book released this week about Conroy that surprised me. I expected to read only about the good times.

“Pat Conroy: Our Lifelong Friendship” does indeed tell how an instant bond formed between the smart-aleck son of Morris and Sadie Schein and the newcomer to town, another military dependent whose dad, a U.S. Marine Corps fighter pilot, seemed heroic.

Everybody knew Bernie’s dad. He ran Schein’s Grocery at the corner of Bladen and Prince streets. His mother was the concert pianist. And many could remember the murder of Bernie’s grandfather, a Russian immigrant who was a peddler before opening a country store near today’s Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort.

No one knew about the Conroys, though.

Schein quickly learned that he scored more points when Conroy was the point guard.

And he learned from Conroy to appreciate the beauty of Beaufort, which was there for all to see, but had always blended in like a corner table to Schein. Kids, he said, rode their bikes by the breathless view of the Beaufort River to sit on the curb outside Luther’s and read Batman comic books.

Young Conroy said, “Look at it!”

The egrets, blue herons, osprey, sunlight shimmering off the water, a lonely-looking barge, a dashing sailboat, colorful flowers on the riverbank.

The eye-opening would continue until Conroy’s death on March 4, 2016 at age 70.

“It wasn’t just that he opened my eyes to horror, he opened them to beauty,” Schein said Wednesday at his home near Battery Creek. “He opened them to redemption. Everything in his life was about redemption, including our relationship.”

That’s the part of the book I did not expect.

The “bromance” — so obvious since Schein retired from teaching in an Atlanta private school and came home to Beaufort about 15 years ago — was not all about beauty. It got ugly.

Schein writes about a 15-year separation when the two best friends never spoke. He tells why it happened, and how it was resolved.

But he says he didn’t write the book to tell the world more about Conroy, the best-selling author of “The Great Santini” and “The Prince of Tides,” the writer who outed domestic abuse, the second-rate education system for Lowcountry African Americans, and hazing at The Citadel. He also told the world about the Lowcountry’s beauty.

“He was the biggest truth-teller I’ve ever seen in my life,” Schein said. “By far.”

But Schein also says Conroy “lied for a living” as a fiction writer. He was a warrior you dared not cross. He drank way too much. He was demanding. He could be a pain in the rear end, and he knew it.

“I wrote (the book) because, after he passed away, I will tell you, I was broken,” Schein said. He was still literally talking with his old friend, until his daughter, Maggie, finally told him he needed to start writing.

The result is an inside look at a person who became famous. Painfully famous.

But to me, it’s a look at something rarer than fame: a close friendship.

“If you are talking about an intimate relationship, it’s going to be fantastic, you’ll never experience such depth and joy and understanding,” Schein said. “It’s also going to be far from easy, and you’re going to hate his … guts and he’s going to hate yours. And if you can’t get mad and express it, you can say goodbye to it. That was Pat’s weakness.”

Schein dissects their relationship like a therapist.

“Pat could not express his anger, directly,” he said. “He could only do it from a distance, and he could do it to humanity in general, but to a personal friend, no. He just couldn’t do it. He was afraid of Santini exploding. He was afraid of becoming like his father, ‘The Great Santini.’

“This is the rage that was repressed. He was afraid that it would come out. The rage, the violence. And then by suppressing it, it was a lot worse.

“So, if you want to tame the beast inside you, you’ve got to embrace it. You have got to embrace it.

“That’s why he medicated himself. That’s why he left people. He left me because he couldn’t tell me he was (mad). He felt like I had betrayed him.”

Schein said their relationship was restored after they returned separately to Beaufort. They enjoyed hours of conversation, jabbing and teasing — for years.

“I’m not giving anybody advice on how to make a friend, or if this is good or bad, or if this is the way to do it,” Schein said. “But when you say, what’s the moral, that’s the moral. It’s love. It’s love. You’ve got to earn it. You have to stick with it. No pain, no gain.”

Book signings Saturday:

Beaufort Bookstore, 2127 Boundary St., 10 a.m. to noon Saturday, Sept. 14.

McIntosh Book Shoppe, 917 Bay St., 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 14.