Nevada Newsmakers

News - March 9, 2023 - by Ray Hagar

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Robert Laxalt was born in 1923 into a sheepherder's family and his father's home was the hills of Nevada.

From this humble beginning, Laxalt rose to be a giant of American literature, considered to be among Nevada's "Holy Trinity" of authors, standing with Mark Twain and Walter Van Tilburg Clark.

Laxalt's most famous book was Sweet Promised Land, published in 1957. It's international success and popularity elevated Laxalt to be the literary spokesman for the Basque people, especially Basque Americans, experts said.

"His writings, in particular, Sweet Promised Land and The Basque Hotel, have provided Basque readers with the first relevant literary texts on the experiences of Basque immigrants and their descendants in the American West," said David Rio, author of the definitive scholarly book, Robert Laxalt; The Voice of the Basques in American Literature.

The artistry and narrative of Sweet Promised Land have remained relevant throughout the decades, a parable for all immigrants, literary critics have said.

"Before he wrote this book, the Basques were looked down upon and called black Bascos," said Monique Laxalt, a lawyer, author and daughter of Robert Laxalt. "And he himself has this incredible paragraph where he says, 'That the shame that we bear, and having been ashamed of our immigrant parents, when as a matter of fact, they were the true Americans.'

"I think he was a leader, and the first one to say those things or write about the Basque, especially in such an honest way," she said.

Robert Laxalt wrote 17 books before passing away in 2001. His last book, Travels with My Royal, was published a few months after his death. He also wrote numerous long magazine articles, some for The Saturday Evening Post. He became a staple for National Geographic, mastering the magazine's lofty criteria and standards.

Yet his literary impact goes far beyond his writings. He has influenced multiple generations of Nevada writers, giving many a voice when he founded the University of Nevada Press in 1961. He taught at Nevada's Reynolds School of Journalism for 18 years and, of course, the Robert Laxalt Distinguished Writer Program is named for him.

"I can think of no writer who calls Nevada home who has not been influenced by Robert Laxalt, poet Shaun Griffin said at Laxalt's memorial service.

On March 9-10, a Centennial Conference to celebrate Laxalt's life and lore will be held at the Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center on the UNR campus. It comes on the 100th anniversary of his birth in a tiny hospital in Alturas, Calif., a few miles from the Nevada state line.

"His legacy is... the writing of beautiful books, which could only have been written with honesty, simplicity, humility and a God-given gift for language and for story telling and for a love of life," said Monique, who will give the opening presentation at her father's Centennial Celebration.

Preparing for her presentation has revived emotions and memories that have, for years, laid dormant, Monique said.

"The last few weeks of working on this, the talk and the preparation and the gathering, has been a little rough on me, yeah," Monique said. "We get used to living without someone and then suddenly, you're like, 'He's almost here. Yet he's not, but he is.'"

Laxalt's writings have had lasting significance on Basque culture and have been an inspiration for Basque writers in Europe, said Rio, one of the organizers of the Centennial Conference.

"His writings, in particular, Sweet Promised Land and The Basque Hotel, have provided Basque readers with the first relevant literary texts on the experiences of Basque immigrants and their descendants in the American West," Rio wrote in an email. "There was some knowledge about Basque immigration in America, but it was often limited to general information in the media about the Basque festivals and other cultural activities.

"Bob's books on the Basque Country, for example, A Cup of Tea in  Pamplona, have introduced an interesting hybrid approach to traditional Basque society and culture from an author who is neither a local writer nor a foreigner," Rio wrote. "This Basque American perspective is really enlightening because it combines both the point of the view of the outsider and the one of the insider."

Early life

Laxalt's father Dominique had come to America -- through Ellis Island in New York -- in 1906 at the age of 19, according to the book, Robert Laxalt, The Story of a Storyteller, by former Reno Gazette-Journal editor and publisher Warren Lerude, who won the Pulitzer Prize in Journalism for editorial writing in 1977.

Dominique took a train west. He found work breaking horses and herding sheep in Washoe County.

He and his partners eventually grew a thriving business with thousands of sheep and cattle, roaming the hills of Northwestern Nevada. However, the business failed in 1921 as Nevada's mining, livestock and agriculture sectors began a downward spiral that would continue through the decade.

The family struggled, living in a small shack in the dusty and played-out mining town of Bodie, Calif. In 1922, Dominique and his wife, Therese, welcomed their first son, Paul, into the family. Forty-two years later, Paul Laxalt would be elected governor of Nevada. The year after Paul's birth, Robert was born.

Therese, a noted cook, scraped enough money together to buy the small French Hotel on Main Street in Carson City for a $100 down payment. The hotel, restaurant and boarding house became a successful business.

The hotel attracted a lunchtime crowd of some of the most powerful Nevada politicians of the day, including future U.S. Sen. Pat McCarran, considered Nevada's most powerful politician until the late 20th century rise of former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

This was the Prohibition Era. Paul and Robert loved to tag along with their father when he went to bootleggers to buy wine and spirits for the restaurant. Alcohol was technically illegal but proved necessary for the patrons of the French Hotel's Basque-style dining room, Monique said.

"Otherwise, they could not have a business." she said. "Nobody would come and have a meal with them without the alcohol. There were a lot of politicians who ate there and wine was expected to be part of any meal."

Robert was stricken with a life-threatening case of rheumatic fever as a child, keeping him bed-ridden for almost a year. It was then he developed a love of reading books. His imagination would soar as he buried himself inside the pages of books like Edgar Rice Burrough's Tarzan of the Apes and Jack London's Yukon stories, Lerude wrote in Laxalt’s biography.

"His Mom and his siblings would end up bringing him books from the library and he would just sit there and read all day." 

His first published work was the Sixth Grade Chatter, a mimeographed newspaper in which he served as the editor. The paper's student staff predicted their editor would "someday make a name for himself in the literary world."

"When he was in grade school, his teacher, Grace Bordewich recognized instantly that he had a gift for story telling," Lerude said. "He was her prized student in English class. And so, she pushed him along."

Laxalt overcame his physical disabilities to become an outstanding football and basketball player at Carson High School. His brother, Paul, had helped the Senators win the state basketball championship in 1938. Robert was on the 1940 team.

Robert Laxalt later wrote proudly that he was the only white boy to make the fierce and competitive boxing team at the nearby Stewart Indian School.

"My dad had multiple sides to him," Monique said. "He had a tough side. We had a huge punching bag in our garage growing up and when my dad got home from work, the whole house would shake when he hit that bag. But there were other sides to him. He was very compassionate."

During a sparring session with a Stewart teammate, Laxalt was hit by a "rabbit punch' in the back of neck, Lerude wrote in his book. The injury from the blow bothered him throughout  his life. In later years, it required surgery.

Robert was a freshman at Santa Clara University when World War II erupted in 1941. He tried to enlist as a soldier, sailor and airman but was turned down each time because military physicals revealed a heart murmur.

Distraught to be forced to sit out the global conflict, Laxalt wrote to Sen. McCarran, who arranged for him to be assigned as a code officer to the Office of Strategic Services. The OSS was the U.S. intelligence agency during World War II, precursor to today's the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Laxalt was stationed in Leopoldville in the African Belgian Congo, a snake pit of spies.

The U.S. was trying to acquire uranium there for the top-secret development of the Atomic Bomb and to keep it away from the Nazis. Laxalt's job was to send coded messages from the outpost. Later in life, Laxalt became fond of Ian Fleming's postwar spy novels with Secret Agent 007, James Bond.

Laxalt's OSS service was cut short when he was stricken with malaria and ordered home in 1945.

Eva Adams, Sen. McCarran's office administrator, who later became the director of the U.S. Mint, made sure Laxalt got on a ship steaming stateside, Monique said.

"He weighed like 100 pounds," Monique said. "He was so sick."

Laxalt, then 22, would be tortured with recurring bouts of malaria well into his 30s.

When Laxalt came home, he enrolled at the University of Nevada, regained his strength and became a star on the Wolf Pack boxing team. Fans would shout, "Frenchy, Frenchy," when he stepped into the ring.

He met his future wife, Joyce Nielsen, as a student at Nevada. She had boldly telephoned Robert to ask him out on their first date. He graduated in 1947. The couple married in 1949.

"Probably until he was 35 or so, he had the high fevers," Monique said. "One of the stories in our family is that when my mom and dad were going to get married, my grandmother said to my mom, 'You know, don't you, that he is not going to live very long.'

"But anyway, he lived a pretty long life," Monique said.

From a journalist to an author

It was 1947 when Bob Laxalt became a full-time writer.

That year, Laxalt started his own Capital News Service, providing news out of Carson City -- seat of Nevada government -- to various newspapers and radio stations in the Silver State. After Laxalt's Capital News Service proved his worth as a journalist, the United Press wire service hired him for its Reno office in 1949.

"At his core, Laxalt was a journalist," Lerude said. "The disciplines of that profession molded his style in literature. He began cultivating a writing style that served him well. He later shared it with his many journalism and magazine writing students."

Laxalt eventually developed four basic points of writing:

1. Write about what you know. "Just look at his books," Monique said. "(They are about) Nevada, Basque country, Nevada, Basque country."
Said Lerude: "That was his advice to everybody that he taught."

2. Take notes: "He always had notes because he said that the memory is not good enough," Lerude said.

3. Use short sentences and active verbs. "Bob told me, 'You will learn that when you write about war, you will write very short sentences. When someone is shooting at you, you don't have lots of words. You get to the point," Lerude said.

4. Save a literary morsel for the end of story. "Many talented feature writers try to save something poignant for the end as opposed to hard news stories diminishing toward the end," Lerude said. "Many book writers do, too, with a concluding thought."

Laxalt also gave another piece of advice: Try writing the first thing in the morning. If that doesn't work, try late at night.

Laxalt wrote in both time slots -- early morning and late night.

Moreover, he had the discipline to -- as he put it -- "burn the midnight oil," and resume his writing after he'd finished the daily work that financed his family.

Laxalt carved out time to write, whether he was working for the United Press, as the Director of News and Publications at UNR, as the founder and executive of the University of Nevada Press or as a Distinguished Visiting Professor, teaching classes at the Reynolds School of Journalism.

The noise and bustle of children playing at home never stopped his writing, Monique said. He had learned to focus in noisy confines at the UP, when wire services offices were small and immersed in the cacophony of teletype machines, ringing telephones and police radios.

"He would get on his Royal typewriter, probably about 9 o' clock and type well into the night," Monique said. "Then it was the same thing on weekends. He would have breakfast and then go down to the basement to his desk and typewriter and he would usually type all day."

In her book, The Deep Blue Memory, Monique recalled that during her childhood, the sound of the typewriter "was the background music as we played in our house."

The teacher

In 1983, at 60, Laxalt retired from the University of Nevada Press and lived at the home he and Joyce built in Washoe Valley, complete with a cabin where he could write.

Lerude and Laxalt continued as good friends as Lerude had started teaching journalism and media law in UNR's Reynolds School of Journalism in 1981.

Lerude said he could not see his friend holed up in a little cabin by himself banging away on his Royal.

"I remember talking to him, saying, 'You are an independent guy but also a people person. And if you go sit in that little cabin up there all by yourself, you are going to be talking to yourself," Lerude said. "And you know so much, why don't you share it? How can you not share it, with what you know?

"So we sat down with the dean and faculty and we figured out how he could teach these two courses," Lerude said. "One was magazine writing, which was gift from God, having a National Geographic writer teach magazine writing. And the other (class) was one only he could do -- this transition stuff -- from journalism to literature."

He liked teaching. He was good at it, Monique said.

"I think it made him happy because he was contributing, and he did it for 18 years," Monique said. "It made his life complete."

Greg Bortolin, the director of communications for the Governor's Office of Economic Development, took classes from Laxalt and remembers they were unique learning experiences. Bortolin became an award-winning sportswriter, covering Jerry Tarkanian's UNLV basketball program for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Later, he served as press secretary to Gov. Kenny Guinn.

"His classes were different," said Bortolin, who like Laxalt grew up in Carson City and played sports at Carson High. "We all gathered around a table and discussed taking real-life experiences and turning them into short stories and perhaps, eventually, something that would wind up as a book.

Laxalt exposed his students to the best writers of American literature, Bortolin said. He taught how literature and journalism melded, citing the works of Hemingway, Steinbeck, Crane and others.

"I was focused on becoming a sportswriter, but through the class and discussions and introducing us to boxing stories like a Piece of Steak by Jack London, we learned how to tell compelling stories with intriguing details."

Laxalt continued teaching in his later years, when his health was failing, by inviting students to his home for lessons. His classes were popular, difficult to get into, as they were sought after by undergrads, graduate students and established professionals in the community.

"I think he really got fulfillment out of working with the young people," Monique said. "Middle-aged people were taking his class, too, at the university. They got a lot out of it."

Yet you didn't have to be sitting in one of Laxalt's classes to be influenced or inspired by him, others said.

"Laxalt's novels and non-fiction have encouraged European Basque authors to write about Basques in the American West and, in particular, in Nevada," the Basque scholar Rio wrote in an email. "Among these authors we should mention, for example, Bernardo Atxaga (one of the best-known and internationally recognized Basque writers -- he is the author, for instance, of "Nevada Days"), Javi Cillero, and Juan Lekue."

Laxalt's influence as a teacher was best summed up by his son, Bruce Laxalt, in the eulogy at his father's memorial service. In part, he said:

"And now is the time and the season for Bob Laxalt -- the teacher -- to live and breath through the written voices of his students -- and their students as they take the proud duty of passing the torch and continue the lonely work of honing their craft."

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