Holland McCombs tells a prospective interviewer that there are so many unbelievable stories about his life that one had best come down early to his Republic Bank Building office and read them, which would save a lot of time. While the interviewer reads, McCombs dozes nearby in his sleeping bag, which is rolled out on the floor of an adjacent office.
This is one of the first things to be learned about Holland McCombs. If a caller telephones early in the afternoon, secretaries Dorothy or Betty will dutifully report that he “is away from his desk at the moment.” In fact McCombs really is away from his desk – about two feet away, asleep on the floor.
The material McCombs gives you is comprehensive. How he spent a lifetime gallivanting around the world with various distinguished company, ranging from Cuban whores to the late publisher of Life magazine, Henry Luce. How he’d lost his $600 tuition during his first week at LSU, in a poker game, and dropped out of school eventually to become a gambling hall dealer. How he’d held 33 jobs in his first 31 years, before becoming a writer for Fortune, Time and Life magazines, which over the next 38 years brought him a sizable amount of fame, and a lesser share of fortune.
McCombs’ reflection silently appears on the glass-topped desk. He is soft spoken, a tall, lean man with a ruddy complexion and sad eyes framed by gray brows which flow down from his forehead, sweeping low beside his eyes. He talks about his well-chronicled life, his reminiscences at 75. He is indeed a rarity in our times: a pure hedonist whose only goal in life is to have a good time – to work just enough to sponsor his play.
“I doubt I’ll live longer than two or three more years,” he says. “I regret that I couldn’t pursue a couple more wild hares, but this last year I’ve been sick and so has my wife, so maybe I never will. But I’m like my father, who was a pretty good sinner himself. I’ve got an understanding with St. Peter.” McCombs, one finds, is a left-handed thinker in a right-handed world. He just doesn’t fit the pattern, but his way sounds like a hell of a lot of fun.
“Several years ago a writer came in here and asked me about my philosophy,” McCombs explains. “He sat back, waiting to hear the wisdom of the ages. I just looked at him and said, ’Philosophy? I haven’t any philosophy. All I’m asking for is forgiveness!’” McCombs’ own favorite description of himself was written 18 years ago in a Cipango Club newsletter: “McCombs is a human being who has always had his hand in the cookie jar of life.”
McCombs was born in 1901 on a Western Tennessee farm not far from the point where Tennessee, Kentucky and Missouri join at the Mississippi River. He began his lifelong pursuit of pleasure while down on the farm, although World War I and Prohibition greatly expanded his horizons. “When the older boys came back from Europe, they had seen places like London and Paris, and told us about them. That got us to thinking that there was someplace better to be than behind the north end of a south-bound mule.” McCombs’ thinking was lubricated by Prohibition, which caused him and his buddies to resort to drinking such cocktail delights as cough syrup and lemon extract, “so we could get some attention.”
After stints at the University of Missouri, where he learned a bit about journalism, and LSU, where he studied stud poker and sugar chemistry, McCombs bounced around. For a while, he worked as a sugar chemist in Cuba. While there, McCombs’ preoccupation with the fine life led him one evening to a society party in a fine hotel. “Three or four of us wanted to go to the party, but we didn’t know any girls, so we hired some Cuban whores as our dates. They’d never been to such a party before, so their madam dressed them up like ladies, instructed them on how to act, and off we went. Unfortunately, the girls hadn’t much drinking experience, and after a few glasses of champagne, started fighting. Even after we got them out into the street they were still swinging at each other. So much for high society.”
McCombs’ subsequent employment included selling bonds, radio sets for trains, vacuum cleaners and real estate, promoting a bus line, and managing newspapers. Eventually he wound up in San Francisco with double pneumonia, so he headed for warm Texas, at 31 years old, dead broke. While living near San Antonio, he began writing magazine features, and sending the stories to any publication that would buy them. This led McCombs to making contact with Fortune, which opened a writing career with Time Inc. McCombs’ years with Fortune, Time and Life took him all over the Western Hemisphere, where he covered fast-breaking stories, such as the Charles Whitman sniper killings in Austin, and the Kennedy assassination, in which he pulled a historic coup by finding Abraham Zapruder and securing Zapruder’s film of the assassination. Mostly, however, McCombs’ stories dealt with breeds of people. He wrote about such things as cattle drives, or the King Ranch, an effort which later turned into a two-volume book, written by artist Tom Lea, and researched by McCombs.
The real meaning of McCombs’ career, however, is not what he did, but why he did it, which goes back to that hedonism. “If I could live my life in any decade, it would be the Twenties,” he says. “Give me the Twenties. People lived purely for the fun and frolic. There was an amazing resistance to the serious and worrisome side of life. The speakeasies throbbed with joy and jubilation. There was an incredible camaraderie in those years, not like the kind of loneliness I see in people today.”
Because of some digestive tract problems, McCombs has lost quite a bit of weight during the last year. His collar fits loosely and even the cuffs on his white oxford shirt seem too large. “I abused myself terribly,” he says, “and I’m surprised that I’ve lived this long.
“I’ve already picked out my epitaph,” he snaps. “This little verse comes from an Eastern Tennessee tombstone, on the grave of a man named Johnny Icha-bod. My uncle told me about it, and it goes like this:
Here lies Johnny Ichabod, Pardon him 0 gracious God.
For he would you, if he were God, And you were
If McCombs could take another shot at life, how would he live it?
“The same. I only want one thing – to do it all over again,” he counters.
Would he have any regrets about his life?
“Not really,” he smiles, “except for the times when I bet too high on a pair of aces.” His eyes are sad, but still smiling.