Hilary Masters, 1928-2015 | Blogh

Hilary Masters, 1928-2015

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Leslie McIlroy studied under Hilary Masters about 30 years ago, when she was a student at Carnegie Mellon University. She remembers him as a great teacher. But while Masters taught fiction, and McIlroy went on to focus on poetry, she says, until recently he still came to all of her book launches.

“He’s continued to be hugely supportive of my work,” she says.

Hilary Masters - PHOTO COURTESY OF KATHLEEN GEORGE
  • Photo courtesy of Kathleen George
  • Hilary Masters
That experience seems typical of Masters, the noted novelist, memoirist and essayist who died this past Sunday, at his home on the North Side, after complications from surgery. He was 87.

Masters was an award-winning writer who might be best known for Last Stands: Notes From Memory, his critically acclaimed 1982 memoir about growing up as the son of author and Spoon River Anthology poet Edgar Lee Masters. But he had a long and varied career in the arts, journalism and academia.

The native of Kansas City, Mo., worked as a press agent in New York in the 1950s, and later owned and edited the Hyde Park Record, a newspaper in Hyde Park, N.Y. In the late 1950s, Masters and his former wife ran a theater, the Hyde Park Playhouse. He was also a freelance photographer with gallery exhibits to his credit, says his wife, Kathleen George. 

Masters’ writing appeared in Best American Short Stories, Best American Essays and Pushcart Prize anthologies. His awards include an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award for Literature.

Masters taught at several other universities before becoming a professor of English at CMU in 1983. He loved teaching, says George, herself a novelist and University of Pittsburgh theater professor. Masters taught at CMU through this past fall.

“He was an awesome fiction teacher. I recall him being patient. He had standards. He didn’t let anything sloppy get by,” says former student McIlroy. “He paid attention. He paid a lot of attention. And you don’t find that in a lot of teachers.”

George met Masters in 1988, at the Squirrel Hill home of Chuck Kinder, the novelist and former longtime head of the University of Pittsburgh’s creative-writing program. George and Masters married in 1994. The couple frequented local readings and gatherings of the literary community.

Masters was also a gourmand who early in their marriage would take solo trips to France, largely for the food and wine. “He’d call me and tell me what he was eating,” George says.

At home, she says, “He was very happy in the kitchen. Very competent in the kitchen.”

Food also played a role in their courtship. “He started cooking for me right away, so I thought that was really cool,” she says.

Masters’ later fiction included the clever satiric 2011 novel Post. And here’s an interview I did with him on publication of his Pittsburgh-set 2006 novel Elegy for Sam Emerson.

In 2009, Masters published the fine essay collection In Rooms of Memory. (Here’s my review for CP.)

George tells CP that until his final illness, Masters was still writing, most recently revising a pair of novellas. He was also researching a novel about a photographer.

“He’s just such a great writer and such a grounded man,” says McIlroy, Masters’ former student.

“He was the most wonderful man,” says George. “He was so kind to everybody. If you look at his checkbook, all he ever did was give money to people.”

“I feel a big loss,” says McIlroy.

George says that Masters did not want a visitation. CMU plans a memorial service in the fall. Contributions can be made to the CMU English Department specifying the Hilary Masters Fiction Award Fund.


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