Dallas, Part 1: From Afar
November 22, 2013 | by Edward McPherson
Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. With all eyes on Dallas, it seemed fitting to re-run one of our favorite pieces from 2012, an ode to the city and its complicated legacy.
Between 318 and 271 million years ago, the ancient continental core of North America butted against what would become South America. Land folded and faulted; mountains were born. Then what would become the Gulf of Mexico opened, and inland seas washed the peaks away. It pays to remember there are mountains beneath Dallas. The tops may have eroded, but the roots remain buried deep.
Some 165 million years later—in 1841—John Neely Bryan built a shelter on a bluff and called the area Dallas.
One hundred and twenty-two years later—in 1963—John F. Kennedy was shot on that bluff, now named Dealey Plaza.
Seventeen years later—in 1980—J. R. Ewing was shot on TV.
Dallas exists outside of prehistory. Unlike surrounding areas, it was not a camp for Native Americans or prehistoric men. Dig and you find few artifacts. The Trinity River formed a boundary for ancient tribes: farmers to the east and hunters to the west. The Trinity is a true Texan; it begins and ends within the state. Its 710-mile path slices through what is now downtown Dallas, making Dallas a city on the cusp, on the boundary, in between. It wavers between being and not being. Dallas wasn’t there until—suddenly—it was, called forth in the minds of white men.
John Neely Bryan, the founder of Dallas, was born in Tennessee in 1810. In 1839, he arrived at the three forks of the Trinity River with a Cherokee he called Ned and a dog he called Tubby. He was twenty-nine. He wrote his name on a piece of buckskin, affixed it to a stake, drove it into the soft ground of an eighteen-foot bluff, and went back to Arkansas. Two years later, he returned to his bluff and built a lean-to. In another two years, he was married, a union which brought five children. Dallas—as he called his claim—was on its way.
John Neely Bryan took to the bottle. In 1855, he shot a drunk man who may or may not have insulted his wife. Bryan fled to Indian territory and hid for six years. He drifted west, looking for gold. It was a time of paranoia (“I do not write to anyone at Dallas except you, for I cannot place my confidence in any of the rest”), privation (“I was in a storm sometime since and a tree blowed down on my horse and broke him down in the line. Since which I have had to borrow”), and fantasies of revenge (“I am surprised at Colonel Stone and the other attorneys in Dallas for turning against me and I shall meet them when they least expect it and will then know the reason why they do so”). In 1861, he came back to town after hearing the man he shot had lived. His children didn’t recognize him. He joined the army, but—a physical wreck—was discharged a year later. He died in a lunatic asylum in Austin in 1877.
Today, John Neely Bryan’s bluff is called Dealey Plaza. Built in 1941, Dealey Plaza was dubbed “The Front Door of Dallas.” In other words, all roads to Dallas run through Dealey Plaza.
Of course, that’s not entirely true. Born and raised but no longer living in Dallas, I rarely have found myself in Dealey Plaza.
The original Dallas aired 357 episodes between 1978 and 1991. It is a soap opera that often runs on the logic of farce; no one tells anyone else anything, and these often pointlessly kept secrets cause great misunderstanding. But from its swooping opening helicopter shot—with its swelling French horns and syncopated beat scoring a shifting triptych of skyscrapers, cattle, oil wells, football, ranchland, and Ewings—Dallas is surprisingly compelling television: a bunch of beautiful people making disastrous choices at a spectacular rate. My wife remembers watching the show with her family growing up in Missouri. Rewatching the series now, when a shirtless Patrick Duffy surfaces dripping from a pool, she says, “I think that’s the chest I imprinted on.” There passes an uncomfortable moment, but, in a way, she’s right—the rest of the country imprinted on Dallas, too.
While locals derided the show’s inaccuracies (all those California cowboys stepping gingerly about in their ropers), the original series was rooted in a sense of place. It was a dream of a certain expression of wealth, taste, and desire that always drove back to one thing—family. How quaint all those communal meals seem now, with three generations meeting at the table for breakfast and dinner (making sure to phone when they plan to be out all night on their nefarious errands). The show’s constant refrain, “You’re a Ewing,” meant, “Act like one.” Southfork—such small potatoes to the McMansions of today—was a prison. The series was a journey into the claustrophobic dark heart of familial dysfunction. The central, often paranoid, concern: us against them. And that is how the show got Dallas right.
Dallas Mayor R. L. Thornton, on December 4, 1963, less than two weeks after Kennedy was gunned down: “I've heard people talking about erecting a monument in their sadness. For my part, I don't want anything to remind me that a President was killed on the streets of Dallas. I want to forget.”
According to the official Dallas fansite: “It wasn’t until its 1979–1980 season cliffhanger when J. R. was shot that the show was catapulted into a worldwide phenomenon.” In other words, Dallas wasn’t Dallas until it made its rhyme with history, until it acknowledged its own past.
Then again, perhaps Dallas wasn’t about Dallas at all. There’s something suspiciously translatable about a show that—in its heyday—aired in ninety-six countries and fifty-five languages.
December 1846: the first civil suit in Dallas goes to court, in which Mrs. Charlotte M. Dalton sues Joseph B. Dalton for divorce. The divorce is granted. Within a few hours, Mrs. Charlotte M. Dalton finds herself back in the legal register, this time for wedding Henderson Crouch, the foreman of the previous jury. Certainly this is not the first instance of intrigue and infidelity in the new city, but it does read something like a proto-Dallas plot.
In the middle of downtown, not far from Dealey Plaza, stands a cedar log cabin. Like most Dallasites, I grew up thinking it was Bryan’s original structure, but it turns out it’s probably a replica. (Theories and counter-theories abound.) They say John Neely Bryan named the city after his friend Dallas, but who that friend was has been lost to history.
In 1855, some 200 French, Swiss, and Belgians—some on horses, some on foot, some in wooden shoes—made the 250-mile trek from Houston, settling just west of Dallas in a utopian community they called “La Reunion.” The settlement was a cooperative founded on the social ideals of France philosopher François Marie Charles Fourier. Women were equal to men and could vote. The usual entropy—combined with substandard housing, a severe winter, a spring drought, summer grasshoppers, and a crop of wheat grown without consideration that there was no one there to buy it—undid the community’s best-laid plans. By 1860, 160 members of the colony had defected to Dallas. Thus the first piano entered the city, which also gained from a pool of pastry chefs, brewers, dancing masters, artisans, jewelers, tailors, physicians, naturalists, and the like. The seeds of Dallas as a cultural hub were planted. La Reunion ended without formal dissolution—it simply disappeared, save for a small cemetery, once called Fishtrap, now Crown Hill Memorial Park, which some seventy years later would become the final resting place of outlaw Bonnie Parker. Today the cemetery remains fairly overlooked, overtaken by a different kind of entropy, abutted by drive-thru liquor stores, video chains, thrift shops, gas stations, and check-cashing places. Reunion Tower—named in honor of the colony—rises roughly three miles to the east, standing tall like a late 1970s microphone.
Dallas is: Big Tex, the Cotton Bowl, the Dr. Pepper clock, Baby Doe’s Matchless Mine (as seen from I-35), El Fenix (the downtown original), Reunion Tower, Fair Park (home of the state fair as well as the world’s largest collection of Art Deco buildings), Texas Stadium (R.I.P.), Old Red Courthouse, Highland Park Village (the country’s first planned shopping center), NorthPark Mall (with its modern art and holiday penguins), Love Field, the Cathedral de Guadalupe, Neiman Marcus, Bank of America Plaza (aka the “Green Building,” built in 1985 and outlined with two miles of green argon lights), the aluminum-clad Republic National Bank building (its rocket-like spire stretching to the sky), First Interstate Tower (its giant slanting curtain walls once home to Ewing Oil), Texas Commerce Tower (its curved glass top pierced by a seven-story hole, a passage made narrower than originally planned for fear that some Dallas daredevil would try to fly a plane through it), the beaux-arts Magnolia Building (boasting, in 1934, the largest rotating sign in the world, a 6,000-pound, neon red Pegasus, the logo of Mobil Oil, now ExxonMobil, headquartered thirteen miles down the road), among others. Some of these skyscrapers were to be built in pairs, but even in Dallas developers can’t forestall a crash in real estate or a bust in oil. So the buildings stand, twinless ghosts on the skyline.
John Steinbeck on Texas: “Few people dare to inspect it for fear of losing their bearings in mystery or paradox.” Dallas, in particular, is a city that resists narrative. On my first day in New York City as a starry-eyed young writer, I recall sitting in the corner office of the fiction editor of The New Yorker and being asked, “Why is there no great fiction from Dallas?” My bookshelf brims with titles like The Lusty Texans of Dallas; Texas, My Texas; The Big Rich; Diaper Days of Dallas; The Cultural Studies Reader; Dallas: A History of “Big D”; Dallas: The Making of a Modern City; In a Narrow Grave.
A list of movies shot in Dallas: State Fair, Bonnie and Clyde, The Killer Shrews, Mars Needs Women, Benji, Logan’s Run, True Stories, Talk Radio, The Trip to Bountiful, Born on the Fourth of July, Bottle Rocket, Batman & Robin, Office Space, Problem Child, The Apostle, Armageddon. A film not shot in Dallas: Debbie Does Dallas.
In RoboCop, Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 dystopian warning about the perils of the corporate police state, the bloodthirsty private-sector executive is hurled out of the dramatically canted windows of Dallas City Hall—here representing the headquarters of the evil corporate monolith OCP, which is bent on taking control of the city. Villains and cops chase each other through the Dallas streets; at times, Reunion Tower can be seen in the background. Of course, in the film, this calamitous, nearly post-apocalyptic vision does not unfold in Dallas, but Detroit.
Dallas City Hall, built 1978 by modern architect I. M. Pei, is an upside-down pyramid sunk into the ground. The project was part of the city’s “Goals for Dallas” effort to rebrand itself after the Kennedy assassination. Pei is quoted as saying, “When you do a city hall, it has to convey an image of the people, and this had to represent the people of Dallas … The people I met—rich and poor, powerful and not so powerful—were all very proud of their city. They felt that Dallas was the greatest city there was, and I could not disappoint them.” The effect of the showstopping cantilevered façade was patently obvious to the makers of RoboCop: the blocky concrete building—which slopes to be wider at its top than at its base—is an architectural bully, looming overhead, dwarfing the individual and threatening to crush all who dare enter the halls of civic duty.
Dallas is geographically cursed: it bears no significant lakes, mountains, waterfalls, or waterways. (In time, settlers would learn the Trinity River was not navigable.) Nineteenth-century advertisements for the new settlement celebrated a climate that “for health and pleasure is not surpassed by any in the world, and in this respect may be termed the Italy of America.” It was a clear case of wishful thinking. The city lies a little above thirty-two degrees north, meaning it more or less shares a latitude line with Charleston, Marrakesh, Tripoli, Nagasaki, and San Diego. But its weather is its own. Dallas winters can be cooler than you might imagine; summers are unbearable. The decade of the 1950s saw a milestone for the city: the rise of the residential air conditioner.
Dallas, an incomplete timeline:
July 1872: The north-south Houston and Texas Central Railway arrives in Dallas to tremendous fanfare.
1873: The east-west Texas and Pacific Railway crosses the H&TC—at Dallas. The city becomes a boomtown.
Two years earlier: the sneaky delegates of Dallas insert a seemingly innocuous rider into a bill in Austin that gives the Texas and Pacific Railway Company—now laying track along the 32nd parallel, about fifty miles south of Dallas—statewide support and general leeway to plot its transcontinental course across Texas, provided that the line run within a mile of a little-known marker called Browder’s Springs—which was later revealed to be just south of downtown Dallas.
1873: The first theater in Dallas—really a second-floor auditorium without adequate space or dressing rooms—opens on Main Street, less than a mile from what is now a bustling cultural district.
1881: First telephone.
1885: First issue of the Dallas Morning News, circulation 5,000.
1887: First projection of Edison’s Vitascope, a year after its New York City premiere. Moviegoers gather at the opera house to witness a hanging, a lynching, dueling Mexicans, a fiery rescue, and scenes of Niagara Falls.
1899: The first automobile in the state of Texas is driven into Dallas by one-legged owner and local railroad magnate Ned Green, who piloted the two-cylinder, two-seater from Terrell, where it came off a train. The thirty-mile trip takes more than five hours, Green terrifying horses and livestock along the way with speeds of up to twenty-five miles per hour.
1905: Businessmen band together to promote Dallas as “the City of Splendid Realities.”
1907: The first skyscraper appears in Dallas, towering at fifteen stories. Neiman Marcus opens.
1914: Dallas becomes the smallest city in the country to get a Federal Reserve Bank.
October 24, 1923: Ku Klux Klan Day at the Texas State Fair. Twenty-five thousand fairgoers watch 5,631 men sworn into the Dallas chapter of the KKK, the largest in the country, at some 13,000 members strong. The Dallas Morning News—and many of the city’s old guard—are against the Klan, which had undergone a surprising resurgence after being essentially absent since the previous century. The paper remains unwavering in its opposition, and public support for the Klan dwindles. By 1926, the Dallas chapter numbers 1,300. Three years later, it closes its doors.
1925: For the second time in its history, Dallas hosts the national reunion of the Confederate Veterans of the Civil War, despite the fact that Dallas is not truly “Southern,” but Texan. The first time the city hosted the group was in 1902, when the entire town devoted itself to the celebration. In 1925, the veterans are treated with care, but to many Dallasites it is simply another of many conventions held in the city.
1935: Gertrude Stein lands in Dallas and is greeted by 8,000 fans, who are under the impression her plane is Clark Gable's. At her lecture, a reporter for the local paper finds her “perplexingly clear.”
1936: Dallas hosts the Texas Centennial Exposition, which runs for nearly six months and sees six million visitors. Two years earlier, in a surprising display of ahistorical chutzpah, Dallas won the bid to hold the convention, beating out San Antonio, Houston, and other cities that actually existed when Texas was founded.
1957: Maria Callas makes her debut in Dallas. Time magazine crows, “As of today, Dallas is on the map as an opera town along with New York, San Francisco, and Chicago.” Next came Newsweek: “For a couple of nights running last week, Dallas, Texas was the operatic capital of the U.S.”
1957 (again): Let us stop here, six years before the Kennedy assassination, and compare the crime statistics from Dallas to those from Atlanta, a city of a similar size. In 1957, Atlanta had seventeen percent more murders than Dallas, 50% more aggressive assaults, and more than twice the number of thefts over $50.
Dallas, an incomplete timeline:
Late 1977: Fledgling TV writer David Jacobs presents to CBS the idea for a glitzy drama called “Untitled Linda Evans Project.” Originally inspired by the work of Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman, the show’s setting is changed to Texas. Linda Evans is not involved.
December 10, 1977: Jacobs submits a pilot for the show, now called Dallas, despite having never visited the city. Even he objected to the title—pointing out Houston was oil, Dallas was banking—but a network executive told him, “Dallas is more commercial.”
December 15, 1977: The network orders five episodes to complete the miniseries.
April 2, 1978: Bobby Ewing brings his new wife, Pamela, to Southfork to meet his family. She is the daughter of his father’s oldest enemy. Bobby is Romeo; she is Juliet. Pamela tells him, “Your folks are gonna throw me off the ranch.” She is not thrown off the ranch, but—in the first episode—she is accused of being a spy and subject to attempts to bribe, seduce, and frame her.
And so we meet the major players: Jock and Miss Ellie, the family patriarch and matriarch whose combined fortunes (Jock’s oil, Miss Ellie’s land and cattle) have made Southfork what it is. J. R., the slick and scheming firstborn up to his ten-gallon hat in shady oil deals. His wife, Sue Ellen, a boozy former Miss Texas. Bobby, the youngest—and best—brother, trying to prove himself in the family business. His wife, Pamela, the daughter of Jock Ewing’s former business partner, Digger Barnes, a wildcatter who claims he was swindled out of a fortune. Pamela’s brother, Cliff Barnes, a lawyer on the make who wants to bring down the Ewings. Lucy Ewing, the daughter of the prodigal middle brother, Gary, who couldn’t handle the pressures of being a Ewing and ran off, leaving Jock and Miss Ellie to raise Lucy, who—as a high-schooler—is having an affair with a much older ranch hand who later will turn out to be her (illegitimate) uncle.
Typical goings-on around Southfork: sexual blackmail, disco dancing, the threat of rape, gunplay, adultery, sex with a secretary, secret stolen files, betrayal, the ruination of a senator, a hostage situation, a rendition of “People” performed at gunpoint by a former beauty queen in a bathing suit, a pregnancy (Pam’s), a push out of a hayloft by a drunken J. R. (Pam’s), a miscarriage (Pam’s, after falling from the loft), the return and subsequence disappearance of a prodigal son, open heart surgery, revenge-seeking hicks, a hurricane, secret bigamy, and a black market baby. And that’s only in the first eleven episodes.
March 21, 1980: Alone in his office late at night, J. R. receives a phone call. He answers, but the caller hangs up. J. R. gets coffee and stares out the window. The camera follows the point-of-view of a mysterious intruder creeping into the office. J. R. hears a noise: “Who’s there?” He goes to investigate. As he steps through the door, he is shot twice and falls to the floor. Credits roll. End of season.
August 11, 1980: J. R. appears on the cover of Time magazine under the word “Whodunit?” Conspiracy theories abound; potential culprits include his brother, his wife, his mother, his brother-in-law, his wife’s lover, his wife’s sister (who is also his ex-mistress), an angry henchman, and a crossed business partner, among others. Las Vegas even eventually puts the odds at twenty to one that the shooting was somehow a suicide.
November 20, 1980: The New York Times reports, “Southfork now rivals Dealey Plaza and the Texas School Book Depository as Dallas’ most popular tourist attraction.”
November 21, 1980: Eighty-three million Americans watch Sue Ellen learn through hypnosis that she didn’t shoot J. R.—it was her little sister, Kristin! The revelation plays on seventy-six percent of the televisions turned on in the country. This viewership is dwarfed abroad, where 300 million people watch the mystery be solved, including the members of Turkish parliament, who end business early in order to make it home for Dallas.
December 11, 1981: Bobby buys Kristin’s son, Christopher, off a drug dealer and brings him home to Southfork. Christopher becomes a pawn in the battle between Bobby and J. R., before eventually being adopted by Bobby. He will fire a gun at J. R.’s son, John Ross (his cousin), before he turns six.
January 1, 1982: Miss Ellie receives the news that her husband, Jock, has died in a helicopter crash. With their father gone, the brothers’ feud flares up unchecked.
May 17, 1985: Bobby Ewing pushes Pam—now his ex-wife—out of the path of a speeding car and is thrown over its roof. The driver, Pam’s crazy half-sister who is disguised by a wig, dies instantly. Bobby dies in the hospital.
December 1985: Het Geval Dallas, a work of ethnographic research done on viewers in Holland, is published in English under the title Watching Dallas. The author, Ien Ang, discovered that those who hated the show really hated it—with a fury that exceeded the logic of their objections (of sexism, materialism, sensationalism, etc.). Other viewers of the show used irony to distance themselves from it—and thus allowed themselves to enjoy it. One finding: “While liking Dallas ironically leads to euphoria and merriment, as we have seen, disliking Dallas is accompanied by anger and annoyance … Hence those who dislike Dallas run the risk of a conflict of feelings if, in spite of this, they cannot escape its seduction.”
May 16, 1986: Pam remarries. Sue Ellen, out of rehab and reconciled with J. R., is blown to bits by an explosive briefcase left in the offices of Ewing Oil. The morning after her wedding, Pam wakes to find Bobby in her bathroom, taking a shower. He says, “Good morning.” The past year has been a dream, thus nullifying her remarriage and the deaths of Bobby, Sue Ellen, her half-sister, and her brother’s wife, among others.
May 3, 1991: In the series’ final episode, “Conundrum,” a suicidal J. R. is visited by a demon who treats him to a vision of what life would be like if he had never be born. Some people fare better, others worse. In the end, J. R. puts a gun to his head. The devil shouts, “Do it!” A shot rings out. Bobby bursts into his brother’s room and says, “Oh my God.” The frame freezes on Bobby’s face. The credits roll.
In the aftermath of the assassination, eighty percent of the country blamed the people of Dallas for Kennedy’s death. Dallasites found themselves disconnected by long-distance operators and—when they traveled—harassed in gas stations, restaurants, and cabs. Two days after the assassination—and ninety minutes after Oswald was shot—the Dallas Cowboys took the field in Cleveland to the jeers “Kennedy killers.” (A lineman remembers, “They called us everything—murderers. Like we had something to do with it. We didn’t get over it for weeks.”) A card left in Dealey Plaza the day after the shooting pleaded, “God forgive us all.”
Dallas’s psyche was shattered. There was a statistical increase in murders, suicides, and coronary deaths. Dallasites felt profound embarrassment and shame. But “City of Hate” did not fit into Dallas’s narrative of optimistic exceptionalism, and the city went to work reinventing itself, thanks to a new mayor culled from Texas Instruments, a tech company with its eyes on the bright shining future, not the oily past. Within seven years of the assassination, Look magazine labeled Dallas an “All-American City.” Two years later, the Dallas Cowboys won their first Super Bowl, fast on their way to becoming “America’s Team.” Six years later, Dallas hit the air.
That is not to say that, at times, the city can’t be defensive, resentful, and forgetful. In 1988, a study revealed some 70 percent of Dallasites felt that non-Dallasites still held them to blame. After the assassination, Texas man of letters Larry McMurtry wrote, “Wealth, violence, and poverty are common throughout Texas, and why the combination should be scarier in Dallas than elsewhere I don’t know. But it is: no place in Texas is quite so tense and tight … Dallas is a city of underground men: the violence there lies deeper, and is under greater pressure.”
Men and women who can be found underground in Dallas: Clyde Barrow (outlaw), Bonnie Parker (outlaw, buried in a separate cemetery than Barrow), Tom Landry (Cowboys coach), Mickey Mantle (Yankee slugger), “Mary Kay” Ash (cosmetics mogul), among others.
The business of Dallas is beauty. An old saying: “Texas is all right for men and dogs, but hell on women and horses.” A film clip from 1935: Depression-era women seek jobs as models at the upcoming Texas Centennial Exposition. A line of women in bathing suits is examined by suited men with clipboards who turn them and grab their legs and shoulders before squeezing them into life-sized cutouts of the ideal female form. One woman jokingly hoists her leg to place a foot against the cutout and leans back to yank out her friend, whose posterior is presumably stuck in the frame.
The business of Dallas is fashion. Since its humble beginnings in 1907, Neiman Marcus has given the people of Dallas a claim to taste and refinement that exceeds what might be expected of a city on the north Texas plains. Merchandising genius Stanley Marcus turned the department store founded by his aunt, uncle, and father into an international luxury brand—along the way personally selling more than $10 million in furs to his customers, as well as inaugural gowns to at least two first ladies. Neiman Marcus—known as “Neiman’s” or “the store”—offered luxury and rarity, but it was the imprimatur of good taste that ensured its success. (Gone were the anxieties of the Texan traveling abroad or the sudden possessor of New Money—by shopping at Neiman’s, they were guaranteed to be safe, clad in a certain kind of style.) The store also embraced the notion that the good life is part drama, part dream. Since the 1960s, its Christmas catalogue has offered his-and-her submarines, airplanes, mummy cases, robots, windmills, and the like; this season’s holiday gifts included a walk-on role in Broadway’s Annie ($30,000), a water-propelled jetpack ($99,500), and a McLaren 12C Spider convertible "supercar" ($354,000), all twelve of which sold out in under two hours.
Dallas has always had similar priorities. The first shot of the entire series is a close-up of the Mercedes symbol on a red 450 SL with black leather seats. The license plate reads “Ewing 4.” Bobby and Pam, just married, are heading to Southfork in style.
The business of Dallas has always been business. A town of oil, cotton, fashion, and banks. The irony, of course, is that there is no oil in the ground beneath Dallas. The city is surrounded by oil fields in nearly every direction, but at the center it is empty, like a donut.
A colleague once told me a story. She grew up during the Cold War in a city on the Romanian border. Under Communism, there was never enough food. It was illegal for citizens to start farming on the property of the state—even if the farms were small vegetable gardens, and even if that property wasn’t in use—but there was some neglected land on the banks of the river that—because it was in the flood plain and often underwater—didn’t exist on any official maps. In secret, her parents, along with four or five families in her apartment building, began growing food on that land. Soon, it became an organized social hub. For years, they would go to this commune, while the authorities turned a blind eye, content, perhaps, that the letter of the law was being observed.
What did these people behind the iron curtain call this communal space—of sustenance, of freedom, of dreams—that did and did not exist? They called it Dallas. My colleague tells me it is still there today.
Dallas is an underdog. Landlocked, not blessed by a navigable waterway, Dallas made itself into a transportation hub by sheer will.
Charles Lindbergh, at a banquet in Dallas in September of 1927, told the city, “Keep your airport—it will place you among the commercial leaders of the world.” A midcentury scene: an aviation company is considering moving to Dallas. The president of the company is heard saying the runways at Love Field aren’t long enough by 2,000 feet. Three hours and forty minutes pass. The phone rings; it’s the city council. Thanks to an emergency bond measure, crews will begin lengthening the runways on Monday.
But Dallas eventually outgrew Love Field and built itself a bigger airport, Dallas-Fort Worth International, which opened in 1974 and now sprawls some twenty-seven square miles, making the airport the third largest (in terms of size) and fourth busiest (in terms of takeoffs and landings) in the world. You could fit JFK, LAX, and O’Hare within its boundaries and still have room to park. Thanks to DFW, the people of Dallas are within four hours of every major U.S. city in the lower forty-eight. Not that all Dallasites feel the need to travel—what they don’t have, they build.
Despite a real estate boom and bust, dark days from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s when oil prices plummeted and banks collapsed, Dallas is back riding tall in the saddle. During the recent recession, it ranked among the most robust economies in the country. The city built a new bridge across the Trinity River and opened a massive, newly revitalized arts district, featuring, among other buildings, a sculpture garden designed by Renzo Piano, an opera house designed by Foster + Partners, and a performing arts space designed by Rem Koolhaas.
On June 13, 2012, Dallas went back on the air, picked up by the cable channel TNT and updated to include hacked computers, sex tapes, smart phones, cloud drives, hidden cameras, and a real-life website where you could read the characters’ tweets (and tweet back at them). There might have been more French horns, but it was still your parents’ Dallas: the show was not a remake or a reboot, but a continuation, with the writers attempting to violate nothing in the convoluted backstory of the series. (How would you reboot these characters, who seem so real? It would be like dressing your grandfather in drag.) J. R., Bobby, Sue Ellen, and Cliff were back, supported by the next generation of Ewings and their mates. The first season—which averaged 5.3 million viewers and ranked as the top new adult cable drama—trafficked in the familiar: a Ewing barbecue, a health scare (this time Bobby’s, not Jock’s), secret identities, shifting loyalties, star-crossed love, and rapid-fire cliffhangers (the new show-runner has said she wants two to four an episode). Meanwhile, 300 to 400 fans visit Southfork a day.
How does J. R. play today? Since 1991, the country has seen its share of modern Machiavellis—men for whom truth is just a malleable means for power—but none can top J. R., the Lone Star scoundrel, the frontier incarnate one hundred years later in a trim power suit. (For those raising a hand in protest, George W. was never really a rancher; cowboys don’t attend boarding school and the Ivy League—and they certainly don’t summer in Maine. Meanwhile, Rick Perry is a more homegrown devil, with his ranching upbringing and degree in animal science, but many Texans I know hope he is riding off into the sunset.) Dallas is J. R.—he was the only cast member to appear in all 357 episodes of the original series—and, up until the actor’s death on November 23, 2012, J. R. was Larry Hagman. Hagman was and was not a real cowboy. He was born in Fort Worth and graduated from Weatherford High School. But he also spent time in California and New York, and, of course, his mother was actress Mary Martin—aka Peter Pan. He first big gig was playing Major Anthony Nelson in I Dream of Jeannie. He once lived on a ranch called “Heaven” in California, but years of hard living caught up to him. In 1995, he had a liver transplant, and days before shooting began on the new Dallas, he found out he had throat cancer, meaning that while Bobby Ewing was battling cancer in season one of the new show, it was J. R. who was undergoing real-life chemotherapy.
At the start of production on season two, Hagman was reported to be cancer-free and back in good health. His hair was thinning but his eyebrows were thick, sprouting out of his head and shooting skyward like the legs of a locust or, if you prefer, the horns of a Longhorn. Or devil. The eyebrows were a subject of great discussion on and off the set. But they were not up for debate. Hagman insisted they not be touched—J. R. does not manscape—but, given the demands of HD, the head of makeup was allowed to apply a little product. But should she want to trim a single hair, she had to ask permission.
At the time, Hagman ran an active charitable foundation that operated under the slogan “Evil Does Good.”
Is it too much to say Dallas never stopped being Dallas? Yes, the show is a soap opera, but it seems significant that the show and its viewers would stand for a whole season, from 1985 to 1986, that was a dream—and thereby erased a number of unspeakable tragedies. And, sure, people grow up and grow old, get jobs and get married, live busy, honorable, and pleasant lives in Dallas, as they do in any other place. It is, of course, just another city. But there exists another Dallas. And for many—perhaps most—people, the actual Dallas has been overtaken by the other Dallas, that Dallas of the mind (which was created by Dallas and which some might call Dallas). I’m not downplaying the death of a real president, or ignorant of the political and social consequences of assassination and alienation—but I want to be clear that our experience of that death (and that town) is understood mainly in symbolic or abstract terms. Squint your eyes and JFK becomes J. R., who was shot everywhere and nowhere. I know it sounds profane. My mom hates the fact that most of the country only knows Dallas for an assassination and a TV show; perhaps, she will not like this essay.
For her sake, among others, I visited Dallas once again.
Read Part 2 here.
Edward McPherson is the author of Buster Keaton: Tempest in a Flat Hat and The Backwash Squeeze and Other Improbable Feats. He has written for the New York Times Magazine, the New York Observer, I.D., Esopus, Salon, and Talk, among others. He teaches in the creative writing program at Washington University in St. Louis.