My longtime friend and ex-Associated Press (AP) colleague, Warren Lerude, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former editor and publisher of the Reno Gazette-Journal, has written the definitive biography of the late Robert Laxalt, Nevada’s finest (with apologies to Walter Van Tilburg Clark) author and writer. Lerude’s well-researched and highly readable biography, “Robert Laxalt, the Story of a Storyteller,” is now available in local bookstores, at Amazon.com and at the University of Nevada, Reno, Center for Basque Studies, which published the book.
Lerude and “Frenchy” Laxalt were close friends for many years, beginning when they were young journalists and continuing through the ’90s as fellow UNR faculty members. Laxalt was instrumental in establishing the UNR Press and the university’s renowned Basque Studies Center. Later, Lerude recruited Laxalt to the UNR Journalism School.
Lerude combed through 33 large boxes containing 26.5 cubic feet of Laxalt’s personal papers in the UNR Archives, and has used what he found to tell Laxalt’s compelling story. For you newcomers, it’s about poor but proud Basque immigrants Dominique and Theresa Laxalt, whose six children achieved success beyond their wildest dreams. Paul, the oldest son, was Carson City’s district attorney and Nevada’s Republican lieutenant governor and governor before he was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he became President Ronald Reagan’s “first friend.” Brothers John and Peter (“Mick”) were prominent attorneys, sister Suzanne became a nun and Marie was a California schoolteacher.
Lerude tells the story of how “Poppa” Dominique tended sheep in the Sierra Nevada foothills while “Momma” Theresa operated the Ormsby House Basque hotel in Carson City.
I was present for one of the Laxalt family’s proudest moments when Paul was inaugurated as governor in January 1967. Although he had defeated the governor I had worked for, Democrat Grant Sawyer, I witnessed the moment as a TV reporter.
Bob Laxalt told his family’s story in “The Basque Hotel,” which was dedicated to legendary Carson High School English teacher Grace Bordewich, who encouraged young Bob to write and mentored many young people including my late wife, Consuelo.
Laxalt wrote about early 20th century Carson City, as people swept the sidewalks in front of their shops and stores “when the sun had barely cleared the desert mountains to the east with a blinding burst of light ...” He was always a Carson City boy at heart.
Lerude praises Laxalt’s literary masterpiece, “Sweet Promised Land.” Laxalt had accompanied his aging father to their Basque homeland, and it turned out to be a voyage of discovery for both. When his relatives urged him to stay, the old man said he couldn’t because “it ain’t my country any more.”
My Mexican-born wife always identified with the deeply moving story told in “Sweet Promised Land,” and so do I. Robert Laxalt wrote about immigrants who are proud to be Americans, describing how happy he and his father were to see an “awesome vastness of deserts and mighty mountain ranges” as they flew back home to Nevada.
Laxalt’s venerable Royal typewriter went silent when he died in 2001, but his stories live on and another gifted storyteller, Warren Lerude, has written a heartfelt tribute to his lifelong friend. For those of us who love Nevada, it doesn’t get much better than that.
Journalist Guy W. Farmer is a 50-year resident of Carson City.