Oprah Winfrey was frustrated. She needed to get in touch with the woman whose words had tugged at her heartstrings. Winfrey looked through the phone book, but her number was unlisted. She was so desperate, she called the local fire department to see if they could help her find the number.
The subject of Winfrey’s obsession: Toni Morrison.
Fortunately, the two did get in touch and eventually forged a friendship — one that lasted more than two decades — all built on Winfrey’s love of literature and her utmost respect for the Nobel- and Pulitzer-winning African American writer Morrison, who died on August 5, 2019, at Montefiore Medical Center.
Morrison's 'Song of Solomon' was Winfrey's initial pick to launch Oprah's Book Club
When Winfrey started her national talk show in 1986, she kept her work and personal life separate, at least when it came to her passion for reading. But one day in 1996, her assistant-turned-producer Alice McGee asked her, “Since you love books so much, why don’t you talk about some of them with the audience?”
For years, McGee had been gifting Winfrey with leather-bound versions of her favorite books, and they often discussed literature in their downtime. If it was such a source of passion for them, surely it would be for others.
And soon Oprah’s Book Club was born. When it came time to make her first pick, at the top of her mind was Morrison’s Song of Solomon. At a 2018 event, Winfrey said every time she reads it, she “finds surprises on every page — a turn of phrase, or a sentence that’s so good you just want to spoon-feed every word to yourself.”
But at the time, she said she feared if “the audience was ready” for the novel. Instead, she went with Jacquelyn Mitchard’s The Deep End of the Ocean, but did follow up with Song of Solomon — and eventually also picked Morrison's Sula, Paradise and The Bluest Eye. In fact, when the latter was published in 1987, it had modest sales, but Oprah’s selection in 2000 turned it into a blockbuster, which sold hundreds of thousands of copies.
Winfrey had to convince Morrison to turn 'Beloved' into a movie
Like many busy professionals, Winfrey had started reading Morrison’s 1987 book Beloved in slices during her busy day. But she soon realized it wasn’t meant to be absorbed that way. So she set aside a day in her Chicago penthouse and read the entire novel, cover to cover. "When I put that book down, I couldn't even articulate what it was I was feeling," she said at a press conference in 1998.
“I called Toni and said to her, ‘You know, I loved this book — but do people tell you they have to keep going over it?’ And she said, ‘That, my dear, is called reading,’” she recalled to Robert Ebert in 1998.
As their conversation continued, Winfrey expressed interest in buying the rights to the play, to which Morrison reacted, “What do you want with those? How do you plan to make a film of this work?”
After building up the right team and perfecting the script, Winfrey eventually brought Beloved to the screen more than a decade after its publication — and she didn’t trust anyone with the lead role, Sethe, but herself.
“For me, doing [this film] was a gift, so every time anybody sees it, it's a gift to me. I feel deep passion for it,” she said in 1998. I feel like it was one of the reasons I was meant to be here, to create it… People think they live to get to the point to have as many shoes as I do. But really, you live to get to the point where you know your life is meaningful and on purpose."
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Winfrey calls Morrison 'our seer' and 'truth-teller'
Winfrey has continued to shower Morrison with accolades throughout the years, like at the 2018 Center for Fiction dinner, where Morrison was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award, but unable to attend. “It’s impossible to actually imagine the American literary landscape without a Toni Morrison,” Winfrey said. “She is our conscience, she is our seer, she is our truth-teller.”
And after Morrison’s passing, Winfrey mourned with the rest of the world, saying: “In the beginning was the Word. Toni Morrison took the word and turned it into a Song…of Solomon, of Sula, Beloved, Mercy, Paradise Love, and more. ... She was a magician with language, who understood the Power of words. She used them to roil us, to wake us, to educate us and help us grapple with our deepest wounds and try to comprehend them. ... She was Empress-Supreme among writers. Long may her WORDS reign!"