Dr. Julie McGory Reflects On Legacy of Father Walter Tevis< < Back to
The Queen’s Gambit, like most of Walter Tevis’ works, tells the story of an exceptional underdog.
The 1983 novel, which was adapted into the wildly successful 2020 Netflix miniseries of the same name, focuses on Beth Harmon, a spectacularly skilled chess prodigy whose raw skill and intellect rocket her to the heights of international chess competition, where she finds that her own self sabotaging tendencies are her most formidable opponent of all.
As it turns out, Harmon’s story bears a striking resemblance to the story of the man who wrote her into existence: the brilliant and complex Walter Tevis.
Tevis, who passed in 1984, taught English literature and creative writing at Ohio University from 1965 to 1978. The Queen’s Gambit is not Tevis’ only written work to be adapted into another media – he also wrote The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Hustler, and The Color of Money, each of which were made into major motion films.
WOUB, in partnership with the Ohio University Libraries and the Ohio University Alumni Association, will virtually present a Zoom screening of KET’s Walter Tevis: A Writer’s Gambit, a documentary chronicling Tevis’ life and legacy on Thursday, September 9 at 6:30 p.m. EDT. A panel discussion moderated by WOUB’s Community Engagement Manager Cheri Russo with Ohio University archivist Bill Kimok; Sam Crowl, a former Ohio University faculty colleague; and Tevis’ children, Dr. Julie McGory and Will Tevis, will follow the screening. Register for the event at this link.
Additionally, WOUB-TV will broadcast A Writer’s Gambit on Sunday, September 12 at 7 p.m. ET and on Saturday, September 18 at 9 p.m. ET.
In The Queen’s Gambit, the enormously skilled Beth Harmon wrestles with the traumas she experienced as a child while struggling with alcoholism and drug abuse, all while grappling with her overwhelming potential and her deep-set fear that she might never live up to it. Tevis also faced alcoholism, personal traumas, and the intimidating heights of his own skill.
In Harmon, Tevis renders a character that is not only a troubled genius, but a troubled genius who is also a woman – femininity and genius being two characteristics whose association has, sadly, historically been rare.
Tevis’ daughter, Dr. Julie McGory, said her father was very intentional in his crafting of Beth Harmon.
“He chose underdogs to write about, and her being female is just wonderful. My father was alive and around for the women’s liberation movement, and I don’t know how involved he was in it, but he certainly knew that I was involved. And I think he was sensitive to that. And so creating a character who was smart and strong and representing femininity in a really positive way is great, right? I mean, he knew what he was doing,” said McGory. “And he said that character is modeled after his sister, who was his brilliant woman. She died a few years ago as well. So I think Beth’s braininess comes from my father being a really intelligent person, but also his sister who was a really smart person.”
McGory, who teaches and studies within the Linguistics Department at Ohio State University, reflected on the years her family spent in Athens while her father taught at Ohio University.
“I wouldn’t consider them really very difficult years for me. I think that from my father’s perspective, he was going through some changes. He became a really well-known writer when he was really young and was able to eventually write a second book, not long after The Man Who Fell to Earth. And then shortly after that he was hired as a professor at Ohio University and then had trouble writing again — he didn’t write another novel until he actually left Athens and went to New York in the late ’70s,” said McGory. “I mean, he was my father when we were growing up, but now, I look at him more as a writer, and a person. And just from what I’ve learned about him since and reflecting on the time that we spent in Athens, I see that it was sometimes difficult for him, but it wasn’t difficult for us.”
McGory said it’s been a pleasure for her to see so many people becoming acquainted with her father’s literary works for the first time through The Queen’s Gambit.
“So now my kids have seen the Netflix series, and so have their friends. There’s a whole new generation of people now that are learning who Walter Tevis was. And hopefully they’re reading The Queen’s Gambit and they’re going back and reading the other books that he wrote as well. So, I mean, we’re floored. I mean, we knew that Netflix was creating the series, but we didn’t know how great it would be. My brother and I were just really pleased with the series,” said McGory.
Before we ended our conversation, McGory shared with me what her father wrote in her personal copy of The Queen’s Gambit: For Julie: Thanks for showing me what a tough and smart young girl is like, love dad.