Local writer William ‘Gatz’ Hjortsberg dies at 76

Liz Kearney

Livingston has lost another of its literary legends. 

William “Gatz” Hjortsberg, 76, died at his Livingston home Saturday night of pancreatic cancer. 

Hjortsberg may be best known for his book, “Falling Angel,” which was the basis for the 1987 film “Angel Heart,” starring Robert De Niro, Mickey Rourke and Lisa Bonet. He was the author of many novels, several screenplays and a well-received biography of another local author, Richard Brautigan,” titled “Jubilee Hitchhiker,” which appeared in 2012. 

Family friend Joanne Gardner said Monday morning she was with the family and family friends when Hjortsberg passed. 

“At one point during the day, he woke up from a nap and looked at (his wife) Janie, with a twinkle in his eye,” Gardner said. “He was twinkly to the end. I think the book was on his mind. He was delighted with the new book.”

Another local author and longtime friend, Tim Cahill, said Monday the new book was a sequel to “Falling Angel.”  

Hjortsberg was a central character in the area’s literary scene since the 1970s, which included other renowned authors Tom McGuane, Jim Harrison and Richard Brautigan and celebrities, including Jimmy Buffett. 

Hjortsberg followed author Tom McGuane to Livingston. 

“I met Gatz in our first graduate school year and we became friends because we were the only people there who fished,” McGuane wrote in an email Monday about his friend. “Gatz had gone to Dartmouth on such meager funds that he worked the night shift in a pizza place and went to school in the day. Those limited available hours trained in him an almost photographic memory, grasping material at a glance, allowing him a full night’s sleep while I crammed for the same exams and never did as well.

“Our love of writing was extreme and we kept up our discussion from then on. We were each Stegner Fellows at Stanford and started our writing careers at the same time. When I borrowed a house in Pray in the late Sixties, Gatz soon arrived and we’ve been here ever since. In the intervening years, we fished in Montana, the Catskills, the Mountains of Spain and the Caribbean. 

“Gatz was at bottom such a gentle soul that it was surprising how fearless he was, delivering a speech, ocean diving, rock climbing or riding a bull. Along the way he wrote wonderful books that are still being discovered. He lacked a passion for self-promotion and so many of the facts of his accomplishment still lie ahead while readers discover why writers like John Cheever and Stephen King thought so much of him. Very modestly, as was his habit, he leaves a great vacancy,” McGuane concluded. 

Cahill came to Montana in 1978 to write about a total eclipse of the sun, he said Monday. He made Livingston his base and moved here the following year, when he met Hjortsberg. Cahill, too, had a story about Hjortsberg’s modesty. 

Cahill recalled Monday that Hjortsberg told an anecdote about living briefly on an island off the coast of Spain. Hjortsberg said the local bodega owner referred to him as a toad.

“A toad?” Cahill said. 

Apparently, with Hjortsberg’s limited Spanish, he thought they were saying “el sapo,” which means “toad.” But what they were actually saying was “el guapo,” Cahill explained. 

“He was naturally self-deprecating, but the word means ‘the really good looking one,’” Cahill chuckled. 

Livingston longtime resident and musician Scott Boehler, most recently of The Fossils, recalled Monday how Hjortsberg shone at Pine Creek parties. Boehler was in a band at the time called the Paradise Valley Band that played often around the area, including at the Wan-I-Gan and The Old Saloon. 

The literary crowd hung out at the  local establishments where the band played, and they all got to know one another, Boehler said. 

“They’d invite us to their parties, and he’d be literally on a soapbox, telling stories,” Boehler said. “Everybody would be drinking and hanging out and listening to Gatz. He was always fun to be around. He didn’t mind being the center of attention — in a good way.” 

Gardner recalled meeting Hjortsberg in an antique store when she first moved to town. 

“We both reached for a creel at the same time,” she said. “I said, ‘Hi, I just moved here,’and he said, ‘I’m Gatz, are you going to buy that creel?’”

He was just Gatz, one word, like Madonna or Bono or Cher, Gardner added. “And he was wearing a fabulous hat. The man wore a hat better than anyone I ever saw.” 

A “spontaneous wake” was held Sunday evening at Glenn’s, Gardner said, with many, many friends present. 

“There was a lot of laughter, a lot of stories,” she said. “For a wake, he would have liked the whole vibe of it. It was a spontaneous combustion of love. It was great.” 

Hjortsberg’s wife Janie Camp, an accomplished Livingston painter, met Gatz on a blind date, she recalled in an emailed statement. The blind date was set up by local author Richard Wheeler and his wife Sue Hart. On meeting Hjortsberg, Camp wrote, “Our attraction to one another grew from our deep passion for art  — which was the tie that bonded us. He was the smartest, kindest, most lovely man I have ever known.”

A full obituary will appear in Tuesday’s Enterprise. 


Liz Kearney may be reached at lkearney@livent.net.