Johnson was born April 2, 1941, in Jamestown, New York, to Dorothy R. and Edward, Sr.
He graduated in 1959 from Clearwater High School in Florida. He was a six-footer with hooded dark eyes.
He loved going to horse races with his grandad, a Vermont tout named Warren Johnson who abandoned his wife. The grandson once published a piece on betting tips for a national magazine.
E.W. married and, in the mid-Sixties, earned an MFA from the University of Iowa program. He smoked a pipe constantly in class. His landlord overcharged him rent, he complained.
Kurt Vonnegut was then an Iowa writing professor. He too smoked like a chimney in class.
Johnson’s thesis adviser on a manuscript for his MFA was the tormented, brilliant writer Richard Yates.
Flashback to 1967. Johnson’s wife divorced him. He left Iowa City after Western Illinois University’s English Department hired him.
A vanity press published his novel about an instructor with an unsatisfying love life.
He nicknamed himself “Crazy Ed,” hanging summers with lesser-known Merry Pranksters chronicled in Tom Wolfe’s “The Kool-Aid Acid Test.” He boasted that he took psychedelic acid. He crisscrossed the country with his cocker spaniel.
He wore custom dress shirts and purchased expensive cigars.
He created a WIU writers’ conference in Macomb, Illinois.
Johnson advertised the conference in The New York Times.
The conference’s celebrity author was Kurt Vonnegut. Yates accepted and then cancelled.
Johnson mishandled the conference by putting together an impossibly chaotic agenda. Kurt chewed out Johnson. He handed back his fee and stormed off to the airport.
Kurt mocked “the cigar-eating” Johnson in a much-quoted New York Times Book review.
“You know why more people didn’t come?” a divorcee said, according to Kurt. “Because Macomb, Illinois, sounds like such a hellhole …”
While at WIU, Johnson published poems, edited two short-story anthologies, and wrote two biographies in pamphlet form. He began to co-edit, with Tom Wolfe, a “New Journalism” anthology.
Wolfe worked with Johnson for three years through the mails and in Wolfe’s New York flat. At least once, Johnson brought his offbeat druggie friends to hang with Wolfe.
When Wolfe, usually dressed in a vanilla-colored suit with fedora, fell behind, his co-author berated him and rekindled the project.
E.W. Johnson spent some of his $30,000 advance at the racetrack.
Picador published the best-selling Johnson-Wolfe anthology in 1973.
The book contained Wolfe’s essays on journalism’s new craft form, plus stories by literary stars Norman Mailer, Gay Talese and Joan Didion.
Johnson quit teaching at WIU. His students described him as weird. Tenure was unlikely.
He gave away his possessions, including a chandelier he bragged to students that he had stolen from his Iowa City landlord. He bunked with an artist buddy in Greene County, Indiana.
One day, Johnson guest-taught an Indiana University journalism class. He mumbled and was incoherent. A student came in late, and Johnson threw an axe, missing the boy.
The frightened instructor cancelled class.
The incident made the papers. Wolfe ended all correspondence with Johnson.
In disgrace, Johnson moved in with his parents in Pinellas County, Florida.
The FBI investigated Johnson for mailing threats to Vice President Nelson Rockefeller.
A medical exam diagnosed him paranoid-schizophrenic. His father, Edward, Sr., paid his bail.
He lived in cheap motels after his dad died. His father had been a benefactor for a local library.
Johnson next did terrible deeds.
I obtained records from Pinellas County through a Freedom of Information request. At least twice, he committed sexual assaults on women.
Court records said Johnson violated a woman who agreed to sleep with him. He inflicted unspeakable acts after she begged him to stop.
Florida placed Crazy Ed on its sexual offender list. His picture revealed a white-haired old man with the bulging eyes of a lifetime smoker.
He lived in a run-down motel.
Then, he fled and stopped reporting to his parole officer.
Florida named him an “absconded” sexual predator.
We all have a time to be born, a time to die, as the Bible says.
Tom Wolfe died at 88 on May 14, 2018. The Boston Globe cited his famous anthology with E. W. Johnson.
On November 10, 2021, I read the Florida Department of Law Enforcement announcement of E. W. Johnson’s recent death on an unspecified date.
E.W. Johnson once glowed bright as a meteor, then winked out.
I used his anthology while teaching journalism graduate students at Ball State for four years.
Turn the page.
Hank Nuwer is a professor emeritus with Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism.
By Hank Nuwer
Hank Nuwer is the Indiana-based author of Hazing: Destroying Young Lives; Broken Pledges: The Deadly Rite of Hazing, High School Hazing, Wrongs of Passage and The Hazing Reader. He has written articles or columns on hazing for the Sunday Times of India, Toronto Globe & Mail, Harper's Magazine, Orlando Sentinel, The Chronicle of Higher Education and the New York Times Sunday Magazine. His new book is Hazing: Destroying Young Lives from Indiana University Press.