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Urban Cowboy screenwriter Aaron Latham dies at 78

Aaron Latham, a magazine writer whose elegant ringside dispatch of a mechanical bull in a Texas honky-tonk saloon inspired “Urban Cowboy,” the 1980 film that evoked the modern American West and became the most notable credit in his wide-ranging literary career, died July 23 at a hospital in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. He was 78 years old.

The cause was complications from Parkinson’s disease, said his wife, Lesley Stahl, longtime correspondent for CBS News’ “60 Minutes.”

Mr. Latham was a burly Texan who first rose to prominence on the East Coast in the 1970s, embarking on his magazine career as the movement known as New Journalism was in full bloom. He played softball with Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese – more experienced practitioners of the form – and wrote for New York Magazine founder Clay S. Felker at both New York Magazine and Esquire.

It was Felker who sent Mr. Latham home to Texas, to a bar called Gilley’s in the Houston suburb of Pasadena, to write the article published in Esquire in 1978 as “The Ballad of the Urban Cowboy: America’s Search for True Grit”. Mr Latham delivered a vervy account – straight out of the school of new journalism – of petrochemical workers who swapped their hard hats for cowboy hats and rode a mechanical bull, clinging not just to the beast but also to what Mr Latham described as a demise of the “cowboy code”.

“According to this code,” he wrote, “a cowboy is independent, self-reliant, courageous, strong, direct, and open. All he can demonstrate by dancing the Cotton-Eyed Joe with the cowgirls, punching the punching bag and riding the bull at Gilley’s. In these anxious days, some Americans have turned to God for salvation, others have turned to fashionable prophets, but more and more people are turning to the cowboy hat.

Mr Latham – who has read Homer and Cervantes, earned a doctorate in English from Princeton and wrote his first book on F. Scott Fitzgerald – remarked that when he arrived at Gilley he was reminiscent of the anthropologist Margaret Mead “landing in Samoa for the first time, experiencing a whole new culture. But there was also a part of him, he said, that felt “like home”.

Inundated with proposals for films based on the article, Mr Latham set off for Hollywood, “taking transcontinental flights to that cruel city which had abused the talents of Fitzgerald and Faulkner (but was kind to me),” he wrote two decades later in an account published in New York Magazine.

Mr Latham co-wrote the screenplay for ‘Urban Cowboy’ with James Bridges, who was also the film’s director and became his best friend. The film starred John Travolta and Debra Winger as the couple at the center of a modern Western romance. Forty years after its release, Rolling Stone cited the film as the cultural touchstone that “brought Western fashion and country music into the mainstream”.

Mr. Latham teamed up with Bridges and Travolta again on “Perfect,” a 1985 film loosely based on his “Looking for Mr. Goodbody” article, published two years earlier in Rolling Stone. Largely set in a Los Angeles health club, the article billed gyms as “the new singles bars,” where singles could sound out potential dates at the heart-pounding pace of a workout. In the film version, Travolta played a reporter working on such a story, with Jamie Lee Curtis as his love interest aerobics instructor.

Mr Latham endured what he described as a ‘rainy season’ of his soul when several writing projects failed and he fell into depression which he says nearly drove him to suicide. He came out of his depression, he says, by writing “The Frozen Leopard: Hunting My Dark Heart in Africa” ​​(1991), a travelogue from a safari during which he confronted the existential questions of life and its meaning.

He then wrote a trilogy of Western novels, “Code of the West” (2001), “The Cowboy With the Tiffany Gun” (2003) and “Riding With John Wayne” (2006). In the first two, he transposes the Arthurian legend onto the landscape of Texas, basing the character of Guinevere, he says, on his wife.

John Aaron Latham was born on October 3, 1943, in Spur, not far from Lubbock, in what Mr. Latham described to Texas Monthly as “that remote corner of West Texas which is the last bastion of true cowboys, cattle ranches, rattlesnakes, and tarantula scrambles.

Although “Urban Cowboy” is largely based on Mr. Latham’s reporting, it also draws inspiration from his life. Travolta’s character Bud remarks at one point that when he was born, his father sold a cash cow to pay the doctor who delivered him. The same, Mr Latham told Newsday, was true for him.

Both of his parents were teachers. His father was also a high school football coach and Mr. Latham had the idea of ​​becoming a football player until an abdominal injury on the field led to the removal of one of his kidneys. His mother wrote and illustrated children’s books.

“She raised me with the idea that writers were the great heroes of the world,” Mr. Latham told Texas Monthly, “and I wanted to be my mother’s hero.”

Mr. Latham is a graduate of Tucson High School. He enrolled at Amherst College in Massachusetts, where he edited the school newspaper and earned a bachelor’s degree in English in 1966. He received a doctorate from Princeton in 1970. His dissertation was published l following year under the title “Crazy Sundays: F…Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood.

Mr. Latham found his first job in journalism at the Washington Post, where he interned before becoming an editor. “He stood out for his sophistication and simplicity,” said Leonard Downie Jr., who worked with him in the city office and later became the newspaper’s editor, “not like the scruffy guys around him. .”

Among other stories, Mr. Latham wrote a four-part exposé in 1971 on Junior Village, a home for impoverished children in Washington where, investigations later revealed, young residents were drugged, raped and abused.

“It was a classic, independent, penetrating investigation into an institution,” longtime Post reporter Bob Woodward said in an interview, describing the report as “a real head-turner.” Woodward joined the paper months after the expose was published and said he called the Junior Village story one that “embodied the Ben Bradlee approach to journalism”. (Benjamin C. Bradlee was the editor who chaired The Post during the Watergate investigation, led by Woodward and fellow journalist Carl Bernstein, which helped precipitate the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon.)

Mr. Latham later joined Esquire and New York Magazine. Stahl, at the time, was a young reporter for CBS. Both were covering Watergate. Mr. Latham called her one day, looking for leads, and was unceremoniously dismissed.

“Lesley wasn’t thrilled with the request,” he later told People magazine. “’How dare you call me home? If you want to talk, call me tomorrow at the office,” she barked, then hung up the phone.

They later met and saw each other regularly, but their romance only blossomed, they said, after Nixon left and they were forced to discuss other matters. They married in 1977.

Besides Stahl, of New York, Mr. Latham’s survivors include their daughter, Taylor Latham of Los Angeles; and two granddaughters.

Mr. Latham’s books included “Orchids for Mother” (1977), a CIA novel, and “The Ballad of Gussie & Clyde” (1997), a memoir of Mr. Latham’s father finding love late in life. life. With David S. Ward, he co-wrote the screenplay for a third film, “The Program” (1993), starring James Caan as a struggling college football coach.

Mr Latham also wrote the book for a short-lived musical based on ‘Urban Cowboy’, which premiered on Broadway in 2003. He remained creatively active late in his life, even though he suffered more and more Parkinson’s disease. He made his directorial debut in 2016, overseeing a production of Clifford Odets’ boxing play “Golden Boy” which was staged in a New York gymnasium with actors who also have Parkinson’s disease.

“The cowboy is the only truly mythical figure that America has created so far,” Mr. Latham recalled after the release of “Urban Cowboy.” “It comes to the fore in the culture and then it recedes for a while, but it always seems to reappear when we’re uncertain about the future.”

After his own “personal disappointments”, Mr Latham wrote in New York Magazine in 2000, “I was more than ready to welcome the cowboy into my life”.