Barbara Warley was loved by everyone… including me.
I’ve come to that point in my life when my memories seem as important as the life I’m now leading. On February 26, I drove from Beaufort, SC to Williamsburg, Virginia to attend the memorial service of Barbara Nelson Warley – she of the grand spirit and radiant beauty. Her husband John was the best friend I made at The Citadel who roomed with me on the baseball team and we were inseparable during our senior year. Neither of us dated much that year – no, let me be blunter than that; we dated hardly at all, except on big weekends when cadets in Romeo and Tango companies had sisters who required escorts to the Corps Day Hop. But John and I would drive around Charleston on weekend nights, talking about girls and where we might go to pick some of them up. We never found that mythical place.
In Rome, at dinner with the novelist Gore Vidal, I once talked about my friendship with John Warley. Gore was fascinated by military colleges and had liked my book The Lords of Discipline. His father had attended West Point and had been a legendary football player there.
“You do realize, Pat, that Mr. Warley and you were gay.”
“I can’t wait to tell John,” I said.
I missed John and Barbara’s wedding at the National Cathedral in Washington. I believe I was embroiled in a fight with the School Board to get my job back on Daufuskie Island and I did not meet Barbara until after The Water is Wide was published. They were living in the Claremont Apartments within rock-throwing distance from the Culpeper Street house I lived in when Dad was stationed at the Pentagon.
Barbara Warley was a pure knockout, the stuff bad novels are made of. I’d never seen such a pretty girl and I found myself as intimidated as I was dazzled. But she bounced up to me and kissed me on the lips and said, “John’s told me all about you and I bet we’re friends forever.”
So it was and so it would always be. When John went to work the next day, Barbara and I began telling each other the story of our lives. Instinctively, we identified ourselves as members of that unhappy tribe who came from troubled and deeply flawed families. Like me, she endured one of those violent fathers who made their kid’s life a march of shame and terror. I had begun the write the first chapters of The Great Santini and told her of my own difficulty in describing a father I had loathed since I was an infant. When I told her I’d always worried that John’s parents did not seem to like me very much, she surprised me by saying that I was John’s parents’ least liked friend among all of John’s acquaintances. With a great laugh, she then admitted that John’s mother and father didn’t seem to like her much better. Barbara thought the Warleys thought John would marry a much higher class girl, “and they certainly want John hanging around with a much higher class guy than you.”
We would be fast friends for over forty years. I’ve had a bad tendency to fall in love with my friends’ wives, but it would seem unnatural not to fall for Barbara Warley. Everyone came under her spell, male and female, and it was a lemon-like soul who could resist her sweetness and vitality. She and John made a great marriage out of it and produced four children for the ages. No one writes much about the joy other people’s children bring to your life, but Caldwell, Nelson, Mary Beth and Carter have delighted me each time our paths have crossed. Mary Beth was a Korean orphan adopted by John and Barbara who provided some kind of ripeness and deepening of the whole family. John was a successful lawyer in Newport News, VA and a local player in Republican politics. Then he and Barbara announced that John was selling his law firm and moving to San Miguel de Allende in Mexico. John also told me he planned to become a novelist.
This was akin to me calling John Warley to tell him I was becoming an astronaut. But Mexico was their destiny as a family and San Miguel changed everything about them and became the most romantic adventure of their lives.
On their trips back and forth between Mexico and Virginia, they would always stop for a couple of days’ rest at my house on Fripp Island. This was the time when my friendship with John deepened again and Barbara would tell me about Mexico in a rapturous trance. Now she was wearing Mexican jewelry and clothes and everything about her life in San Miguel seemed meaningful and backlit with wonder. John and I would talk about novels and writing and he was doing some serious work. His prose style was becoming a lovely and serious thing.
Eventually, the Warleys returned to Richmond for John to resume practicing law. Like most writers, he had discovered it was easier to make a living doing something besides writing novels. It was during their time in Richmond that tragedy struck and Barbara found out she had breast cancer; an aggressive chemotherapy treatment eradicated the cancer but destroyed her joints and she was to suffer debilitating pain for the rest of her life.
When I called Barbara when she returned to her house to recover, I didn’t know what to say to her. Breast cancer seems so cruel and disfiguring to me, something soul-killing and personal. Being pretty had always been such a part of who Barbara was, I wanted to say something to let her know that the cancer had not touched her singular beauty.
“Hey, Barbara, you okay, kid?” I said.
“I’m hanging in there, darling,” Barbara answered.
“I still get horny when I hear your voice,” I said, instantly horrified with myself.
She saved me by laughing hard enough for it to hurt.
“It’s just like you, Conroy,” she said. “All talk and no action.”
After John retired from the law, they moved to Beaufort and Cassandra and I saw the Warleys a lot as a couple. Everyone who met them in Beaufort was swept away by Babara’s charm and comeliness. John finished his novel “A Southern Girl,” which proves that his late call to novel writing was a path well chosen. It is a brilliant literary achievement and it is the first in a series of novels published by Story River Books of the University of South Carolina Press. It is a novel that soars and moves with a lyrical sweep that is rare in modern fiction. I wish I had written it.
Four days before Barbara died, I attended the wedding of Caldwell Warley to the comely Vanessa Snyder at the Summerall Chapel at the Citadel. Barbara and John had returned to Mexico for the past two years and his reports of her condition had worried me. When her son Nelson walked the mother of the groom down the aisle, I turned to see Barbara Warley, the girl I’d loved for forty years. She looked frail and thin and unsteady to me, but there was an intake of breath from the crowd as this gorgeous woman was led up the aisle by her good looking son Nelson. God, she was beautiful.
At a crowded and boisterous reception on Daniel Island, I went through the crowd looking for her and I stumbled into her looking for me. We fell into each other’s arms as we always did. She kissed me on the lips and then wiped her lipstick off with her hand. We hugged again and held each other tight.
“I still get horny when I see you, Barbara,” I said.
“Oh, Conroy. All talk and no action.”
And both of us laughed. The last words we’d ever say to each other.
Barbara took her own life at her son Carter’s house in Williamsburg later that week. The pain had gotten overwhelming and no one I met at the memorial service displayed the slightest bit of anger at the way she ended her life. Her children were devastated and her friends wept. A group flew up from Mexico. Mary Beth was near total collapse. I cried every time I held one of her kids. I met all her friends from Virginia. The speeches in her honor were all moving and killing at the same time.
When I got home, it was announced among our Citadel classmates: “John Warley’s wife died last week. Barbara Warley – loved by everyone.”