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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Growing up in the small town of Wharton, Texas, in the early decades of the twentieth century, prominent American playwright and screenwriter Horton Foote (1916–2009) wanted to become an actor from an early age.

Albert Horton Foote, Jr.—or Little Horton, as he was often called—was the third generation on his mother’s side to live in Wharton. His grandfather, Thomas Brooks, bought a large plantation in Wharton and built a comfortable house where he and his wife raised three sons and three daughters. Horton’s parents—Albert Horton Foote, Sr. (or Big Horton) and Harriet Foote (or Hallie)—eloped in 1915. The author was born the following March. Although the elopement caused a rift between Hallie and her parents, the arrival of her son moved Thomas Brooks to build a house for the young family.

The residents of Wharton, like those of many Southern towns, were largely untroubled by the presence of Jim Crow laws, lynching, and black disenfranchisement. But Foote’s family, especially his father, did not subscribe to these racist practices and values. In fact, Big Horton was disgusted by what he heard at a Klan meeting that he was pressured to attend.

Big Horton’s unusual views were present early. His parents’ unhappy marriage imploded thanks to his father’s drinking, so his mother left home, taking his sister. Big Horton lived with his grandparents and then an aunt and uncle. Later on he lived with an African-American couple.

Foote’s father’s family had been in Wharton for four generations, dating back to a time when the town was essentially a cluster of houses. Much of the history from this side of the family Foote learned from his father’s Aunt Laura, known as Loula, a gifted storyteller with a flair for the dramatic who seasoned her tales with strong doses of opinion. An artistic streak ran in this family; Loula and her sisters were all musical.

Foote’s maternal grandfather lost his father at age five and moved to Wharton after graduating from Texas A&M University. He became a prosperous businessman and community leader, married his secretary, and had eight children. For reasons unknown, he never wanted any of his daughters to marry, which is why the narrator’s parents had to elope. Big Horton and Harriet’s marriage lasted more than fifty years, and they enjoyed a closeness evident in their nightly conversations on the porch, when Big Horton would talk of current town events and memories of the town while his wife would listen and agree.

As a child, Little Horton had good friendships with many African Americans in town. He shares memories of Stant, who worked in his father’s store, Eliza, who cooked for his grandmother, as well as Eliza’s brother, Walter, and Idella, who took over for Eliza.

This region of Texas knew both prosperity and hardship. The Aldridges and Boltons lost everything when their men were convicted of fraud. But Little Horton’s grandfather, Thomas Brooks, prospered magnificently, owning an abundance of farmland he leased out. Riding around with his grandfather, Foote saw firsthand how some towns had dwindled down to nearly nothing; whatever needs they once met had disappeared. His paternal grandfather, a moody man with little ambition, failed to succeed as well.

Music was a large part of Foote’s childhood. His mother was the local Methodist church’s pianist, and his father collected sheet music to popular songs. After supper, she would play and he would sing. Foote also recalls hearing blues and “race music”—the music from the African-American part of town—drift into his home. His paternal aunt, Lily Dale, fancied herself a classical composer, although she never enjoyed commercial success.

Foote encountered...

(This entire section contains 1267 words.)

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another part of his family’s legacy during a hike. He met an African-American man who had been born a slave on his grandfather’s plantation. It was the first time the suffering of slaves became real to him. He recalls that fifty years later he read letters written by a woman who also was enslaved on his grandfather’s plantation to her daughter.

Racism in Wharton did not end with abolition. When oil was discovered, many farmers sold mineral rights to oil companies, allowing those companies to drill on their farms. One doctor in town made a fortune by convincing the African-American farmers to sell him their rights at a fraction of their value. Foote was shocked, as this man was kind and generous to white children but had no misgivings about cheating his neighbors of color.

Little Horton was an avid reader, although he had little interest in school until his sophomore year in high school. At that time, he joined the Book of the Month Club and read many classics—so many that his grandmother feared he would become a bookworm.

At nine years old, Foote lost his maternal grandfather, Thomas Brooks. The entire town mourned him as their “First Citizen,” eulogizing him in speeches and in print. It made a great impression on Foote when six months later the town seemed to have forgotten him.

Foote’s maternal uncles, Brother and Speed, never amounted to much. Underperforming at school, they were sent away to military school, but it had little effect in developing their characters. Brother’s first girlfriend died suddenly, but he married a beautiful widow, Mabel Horton. He managed farms his mother owned, but his drinking and extravagant lifestyle led him to ruin. He left town to find work, ultimately dying in Arizona on a farm where he labored. Speed, after getting into some trouble with the law, ran a clothes-cleaning shop bankrolled by his mother. When that failed, he stopped working altogether and lived with his mother.

Foote worked as a clerk in his father’s store as a teenager. He suspected that his father encouraged this work to prevent Foote from becoming like his uncles. The job’s hours were long, but Foote enjoyed the work, because the store was where the locals met to tell favorite stories over and over. Most Fridays there were dances at the Norton Opera House. Foote remembers attending these events with his girlfriend, Martha Jay.

The Depression made things tight for Big Horton, so he had to delay sending his son to acting school for a year. During this interval Foote planned on staying with his Aunt Laura in Dallas and studying acting locally. His favorite high school teacher, Miss Murphree, usually cast him as the lead in the school plays. But his final year she convinced him to play a character part to get better acting experience, because these parts took more skill.

Foote was Salutatorian of his graduating class and celebrated this milestone with a multitude of parties and dances given by friends and relatives. Then he went to Dallas, where he worked ushering at the Majestic Theater and studying at The Woodward School of Dramatic Arts. That spring, his mother, grandmother, uncles, and aunts came to see him play an aging Russian actor in Chekhov’s one-act play Swan Song.

The following month, when Foote was briefly visiting Wharton, his uncle Billy graduated from law school. His mother set him up in a law practice, which he quit after two days because he could not get a client.

The night before leaving, Foote walked through Wharton, saying good-bye to the places and people of his youth. The next day Billy drove him, his mother, and his grandmother to Dallas, where he spent the night with Aunt Laura before beginning his journey to California and acting school in Pasadena.