Skip to main content
Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group


The Biography

Warren Zanes

St. Martin's Griffin



The author Karen Blixen once said, “All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them.” But what if a person can’t tell a story about his sorrows? What if his story tells him?

The house was different from any Tom Petty had ever lived in. It was in Pacific Palisades, just off Sunset, nothing a man without money could consider; but neither was it a home typical of those the rich and famous are looking for out there in the land of trophies. There were chickens in the yard. It was like a thing ripped from an Adirondacks postcard and dropped into a redwood grove by the Pacific. There were no pastels, no Corinthian columns signifying wealth and, however inexactly, taste. It was dark, all knotty pine, with cracks of light visible through some of the logs.

Not too long after he moved in, an itinerant cleaning lady walked up the driveway—anything is possible in LA—and he hired her. She stole what she could before he caught on, more than a month in. Things like that happened in this place. But, finally, what made it most unlike any other home he’d lived in was this: he was alone in it.

Petty found himself in the “Chicken Shack” right on the heels of a remarkable string of successes. There wasn’t much glory left to dream up that he hadn’t already experienced. It had been years since he’d passed through the various phases that begin when kids sign record contracts: the excitement, the expectations wide and high, the astonishment that, yes, it was really happening, the seemingly endless waiting, opening slots on tours with the wrong headliners, the hotels blending one into the next, some fun with loose cash, cars, women, houses, a song on the charts, adventures in Winnebagos and buses, some disappointment, monotony, interactions with both the wise men and the clowns of the record industry, and—for the privileged few who actually begin to taste stardom—the unexpected isolation. This had gone on for long enough to normalize into something he could expect to find waiting for him each day when he awoke.

Tom Petty had taken up residence in a situation that even the most hopeful musician has to set aside as fantasy. And he’d honored what he’d been given by doing what he could to make the best possible records, one after another. He held himself to that. Every song had to count. When he wasn’t on the road, he was in the studio. His family knew the deal, and suffered for it. By the time he really entered manhood, he was locked into the album cycle and knew little about life outside of it. On the music side, the results were pretty straightforward: in a culture of argument and friendships lost because you couldn’t see eye to eye on what acts meant the most, Petty was the guy most everybody agreed on.

His story has a whiff of Horatio Alger and at least a little Elvis to it: a shitkicker from some two-bedroom ranch down in North Florida got out. And once he was out, he walked, without a lot of fanfare, into the room where the big dreams are kept, where he was given a place to hang his hat and coat. It had happened. Yet there he was, so many years into it, alone in a strange house in Pacific Palisades, staying in bed most days. Getting high was the last thing that seemed to be working. The songs had all but stopped coming.

None of us knew this. We saw the guy with well-worn and hard-earned rock-and-roll success, the nod of approval from his heroes, a wry, slightly twisted smile on his face—a musician who, apparently, wouldn’t know how to fuck up a hot streak if he had to. And he’d been on one for a long time. Even his inner circle, small by most standards, had not adjusted its view of the man. No one was fully aware of what was going on out there in that house, how low Petty had gone. Or how much lower he would go. He was falling from a high place, and no one caught on when he lost his footing.

A little more than a decade before, after touring with and behind Bob Dylan for almost two years, a formative if sometimes strange, sometimes euphoric, sometimes maddening collaboration arranged by Dylan himself, a chain of creative high points raised Tom Petty, already a platinum-selling artist, to the status of rock-and-roll elder statesman. He was young for the job but few filled the position better.

At the outset of that run, Petty stood alongside George Harrison, Dylan, Roy Orbison, and Jeff Lynne as a Traveling Wilbury. And he was there at a Beatle’s request. Then, despite the lukewarm, even harsh initial response of MCA, his label at the time, he released his first solo recording and found himself with the biggest record of his career. “Free Fallin’,” “I Won’t Back Down,” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream” were playing everywhere. He followed that with another major release, this time done with his longtime band, the Heartbreakers, which generated two hits, including “Learning to Fly.” Then, as if by that time the whole thing had a momentum that couldn’t be slowed, a greatest hits package came out that yielded another hit in the form of a bonus track, “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” Greatest Hits ended up going past the ten times platinum mark. In its wake, Petty looped back to solo territory and created Wildflowers, the recording he still considers his best. From that album, another hit, “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” won the Grammy, somewhat casually. A deeper collection, six CDs deep, entitled Playback was then released. Intended only for the listeners fanatical in their devotion to Petty, it caught everyone off guard and went platinum itself. The timeline was like a pileup of good fortune.

But it was with all of that accumulated success and stature lending a golden sheen to his name that Petty came back down through the clouds. He had acted on what some considered an overdue decision and ended a long marriage that had started where many do, in possibility and promise, before growing complicated, and then going dark. True to the nature of divorce, no one in his family was quite prepared for what would happen on the upper floors when the foundation was ripped out. Petty included. All that had fueled his mind and spirit since he was a young man dreaming his way out of Florida, the grand ambitions, the visions of glory, the self-made character of his success, the drive to write songs—it all seemed like cartoons screened on a monkey’s back.

When making a follow-up to Wildflowers, Rick Rubin noticed that when Tom Petty did make it into the studio to work, he was often hiding behind a pair of sunglasses, sometimes even walking with a cane. Entertainment wasn’t a world in which you asked a lot of questions. So Rubin didn’t.

Petty closed himself off from the world he’d built. Visitors came to see him: Stevie Nicks, his manager Tony Dimitriades, a few bandmates. But even that traffic slowed. And when it was still coming, most guests didn’t get too far past the front door. Some speculated that he’d given himself over to drug addiction. Others felt sure that he was having a midlife breakdown of some kind. For a while there, he was behaving more like an animal that had gone off to die than a man at the peak of his career.

Back among the redwoods, Tom Petty felt like he was at the end of something. And though he wasn’t, he would have to pull himself up to see the vague outline of a future worth sticking around for.

Family Secrets

Whenever I smell chicken shit, it reminds me of the house my father grew up in.

Florida was a good enough place to run away to. You at least had a chance there if you needed to hide from some black mark on your record, some misadventure better left in another town. It was more uncharted and more unchecked than many other places, in the way that parts of the American West had been at one time. Of course, Florida had no prairie, plains, or deserts of the kind that gave western life its grand character, its John Ford vistas. If one writer described Florida as a “lone and distant place,” it was a vain effort to mask the brute facts with romantic but ultimately vague language. Florida was a swamp.

The strange history of the Black Seminoles is one reminder of that swamp’s role as a place one layer beneath the law. Escaped slaves, coming from the states just north of Florida, didn’t always head up the eastern seaboard in their often hopeless bids for freedom. Florida was the southern option. Down there, the Seminole Indians took them in by the hundreds. But this was no underground railroad, no temporary refuge. The escaped slaves became the Black Seminoles, many of them transported to Oklahoma reservations as tribe members when the deals were cut years later. In their case, Florida served its purpose.

It was around 1910 when William Petty needed a place to run to. He gave no thought as to what his decision to move to Florida might mean for the next generations—he was just getting out of a bind. Petty, called “Pulpwood” by some, had been working in the Georgia lumber trade, turning timber into pulp. Without significant forethought, he’d married a Cherokee woman who worked as a cook in one of the mill camps. He wouldn’t be the last in the family line to find himself marrying in haste. Maybe he was in love, but there aren’t records for that kind of thing. What he came up against very quickly was this: for a Native American at that time, there weren’t options. A Cherokee female wasn’t going to have an easy time moving through American life, certainly not at the side of her white husband. Soon enough, the lumberman felt the disdain of the men who worked with him. On a few occasions, it got rough. More than once he and his bride had to move on. At some point, however, the other millworkers found Petty’s limit. He got some blood on his hands. That’s when Florida started to seem like a good idea. They got away fast and never again saw the state they had once called home.

Even at that time there were a few different Floridas. Wealthy speculators like Henry Flagler, “the man who built Florida,” belonged to one of them. Flagler, alongside John D. Rockefeller, had made a fortune with Standard Oil. Different from Rockefeller, Flagler blew his fortune developing Florida. His first hotel, the Ponce de Leon, helped establish fantasy as one among Florida’s native languages. Flagler was what friends and admirers and some history books call a “visionary.” He had witnessed Palm Beach in its natural state, seen a city of luxury in his mind’s eye, and then built it. His mansion, Whitehall, was drooled over by the New York Herald, wherein it was described as North America’s Taj Mahal. His railroad, which he brought down the east coast of the state and out over the waters to the Florida Keys, not without massive expenditure, was a symbol of the kind of ambitions that would make the Florida of today. But in the shadows of such ambitions, there were the laborers on whose backs such dreams were carried. Those laborers lived in the other Florida. And that was the one that became home to Petty and his Cherokee bride, whom he called Sally.

When the couple got down there, they moved around, sometimes as migrant laborers in the produce machine. Mixed together with other southern poor, blacks, and Caribbeans, all of whom got work and lost work contingent on nature’s whims, they may have been free of some discriminations but only by hiding in the midst of others. Those landowners who made money growing citrus products and winter vegetables minimized their gamble with nature by paying the lowest wages they could get away with. A bad turn in the weather—and there were some legendary freezes, including those of the winter of 1894–95—could send waves of misery through the industry. The hardship was always hardest among the laborers.

By the time Farm Security Administration photographers were crisscrossing the nation during the Depression era, capturing in pictures the conditions among the country’s very poor, Florida provided plenty of human imagery. Among the migrant workers were faces that told a sorry story of American working life.

Petty and his wife eventually got out of the unforgiving lifestyle of the migrant farmer. Perhaps because some time and miles had passed since that “incident” in Georgia, Petty was able to get back into the pulpwood business and even buy a plot of land. At last, the soil beneath their feet was their own, and nothing meant more if you were coming from the shithole of migrant labor.

It was a few acres near a place called Reddick, in Marion County, back in the woods and away from town. There were shady oaks and a few magnolias. The soil allowed for farming, and they grew corn and whatever else they needed. With a few chickens to supply eggs and the occasional meat for the table, they had a degree of self-sufficiency, if living at a near subsistence level. Inside their home, small by any standards, the walls were patched with varnished newspaper. The trouble in their lives, whenever trouble came, started when Sally’s dark skin got unwanted attention. If staying home was one solution to that, it seemed just fine to her. She was a family secret in human form.

“I’d never seen an outhouse until I saw theirs,” says Tom Petty of his grandparents’ place. “They had a little cornfield next to a tar paper kind of house, up on blocks. I remember newspaper patches on the walls, which struck me as funny, you know? There was a big iron pump that brought water into the kitchen. I don’t have any memory of a conversation with my grandfather, just that he wore a hat and sat out on the porch with other men. But he wasn’t inviting. Nice enough, I guess, but you didn’t walk over to him or anything.” At least three children were raised in the Reddick house, including twins named Earl and Pearl. Their skin a little dark, they all did like their mother and got where they needed to be going when color became an issue. “It makes you learn to shut up,” says the grandson. “They knew that there was no point in trying to be anything other than a white family.” The further one got from being a white family, the harder life became. And theirs was hard enough. A number of Cherokees changed their names to Macintosh.

Fishing, hunting, doing what they could to avoid their father’s guiding hand, which often came down hard and without a word passing from his lips, Sally’s children lived almost as if they were in the century that had passed rather than the one that was under way. They learned the woods. They knew how to hunt the wild pigs and turkeys in the thicket, to deal with alligators and snakes in or near the water, including those that were better left alone. Some of Florida’s best fishermen came out of worlds like that. “I think that’s where my father felt most at home,” says Petty of his father, Earl. “Being in a small boat on one of those lakes, that’s where he came alive. What he loved more than anything was to be in a fucking swamp. And there were so many in central North Florida. There, he was a master at existing. Wasn’t afraid of anything. I once saw him push an alligator, from right behind his head, just push him down in the water. Laughing.” The presence of the Ocala-Gainesville line, with a whistle heard for miles, was the only sign that there was something going on somewhere else that might prove another option. Knowing a little something about elsewhere, it wasn’t a draw to Earl’s parents. But the sound eventually got to their children. Earl, in particular, started looking down the tracks.

It’s difficult today to understand what a train whistle meant to a young man at that time. It was a symbol as loaded as any Earl would ever know. It was the sound of the end of the worst parts of growing up in Reddick. Like having an Indian for a mother. And that’s how he thought of her on bad days. He didn’t want to be branded an outsider. “We’re not really sure if our grandmother’s name was Sally or Fannie,” Petty says. “My brother thinks it was Sally, but we just don’t know. We weren’t told a lot, and I guess we asked even less.” When Earl eventually did get on that train and head north, he was old enough to know that part of the plan was to find a woman. And he’d be damned sure, he told himself, that she’d be fair-skinned and from another side of life.

Earl Petty met Katherine Avery when he returned from the Second World War, during which he served as an air force groundsman in Egypt. He hadn’t just gotten out of Reddick; he’d seen the world. In fact, he’d seen enough of the world to know that Gainesville was about the right distance from Reddick. Any farther was too far. He’d overshot the mark first time around. He didn’t need a pyramid in his backyard. And Gainesville was where he found his fair-skinned girl, working at Eli Witt’s Candy and Tobacco. He was a driver, and she worked in the office.

Katherine was born in Sycamore, Georgia, to John and Troas Avery. Her family, in search of more, or, at least, better, had moved to Gainesville when she was still young. Sycamore was a small town, not on the path of what was to come. “My mother aspired to be better than that, not to be country,” Petty says. “But in that respect, she certainly made an interesting choice when she picked a husband.” The Florida for which the Averys would set out wasn’t one they needed to go to in the night and undercover, like the Pettys. They made their way in broad daylight, fueled by a dream. America had forced its way out of the Depression, and no one wanted to go back where they’d just been. For Katherine and her sisters, Gainesville was the big city. By the time the war ended, she had let herself get caught up in the midcentury hope for something better.

In 1945, the University of Florida in Gainesville had 587 students enrolled. By 1946 it had more than 8,000. That rate of growth meant a few things. One, business was good in the halls of learning. Two, if you lived in town and weren’t a part of the world of young people, you were going to be outnumbered. It was a buoyant time. If the state of Florida wasn’t growing quite as quickly as the University of Florida, it was boom times nonetheless. Florida was well on its way to becoming Florida. Land of Sunshine.

To reimagine the fifties, whether in Gainesville or anywhere else in America, means setting aside some images and ideas about the era that have all but hardened into place. Too often the period is remembered as a time of ruthless conformity, with Little Richard providing counterpoint along the way. In significant ways, the push for conformity was real. But the convenience offered by the “decade” as an organizing tool for history, and the widespread tendency to establish the “straight” fifties in order to celebrate the sixties and its breakthroughs, has distorted the picture of midcentury life. The duck-and-cover fifties, with its blacklists and anxieties played out in Senate subcommittees on juvenile delinquency has become the fifties. But was the conformity of the era simply an effort, imposed from above, to control difference? Or was that conformity a choice made by many and for good reason?

In Earl Petty’s case, conformity had its benefits. It was bound up with an interest in leaving the Depression and the war behind and a desire to be a part of a situation that was, finally, about the “good life.” Fitting in also meant putting distance between himself and the small house back in Reddick. So long as he was a Cherokee, he was an outsider, and far less likely to get a share of the rewards. In the part of the world he’d chosen for himself, even by the late fifties, 99 percent of the population favored laws banning interracial marriage. His parents were on the wrong side of that popular position. No, conformity wasn’t a weakness, it was a place to get to as soon as he could. “As a Cherokee,” says his son, “Earl would be on the underside of the American dream. But if you were a white male in the fifties, it could be an incredible time.

“In so many ways,” he continues, “my father was like a man hiding out in plain view, afraid of being found out. I think there was a lot of theater in his life, a lot of masks, a lot of acting. But I sure didn’t know this then. I just thought he was an asshole. It would take me years to get past what he did to me in order to understand his situation. I only saw the outer stuff, the bravado, the machismo, the anger. We knew so little about the world he came from, because he kept it behind a wall he’d built himself. I think he felt he had to. And, you know, he was probably right. I didn’t think about what it meant to be a Native American, what it meant to be a kid who grew up in a shack with his Indian mother and his white father, suddenly in a college town, just as America was moving full speed ahead into the glorious fifties. That’s quite a scene, really.”

There are books that throw light on the era’s lost men. The Organization Man of 1956 tells a compelling, sometimes chilling story of postwar life. The author, William Whyte, seizes on a shift from an America founded on ideals of individualism and the “Protestant work ethic” to a country wherein a corporate sensibility begins to choke off that spirit. It is, in some respects, the sociological companion piece to The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. Whyte also puts a finger on an aspect of fifties aspiration that speaks to Earl Petty’s situation. The suburbs, he argues, were a “new melting pot.” There were those who had been pushed to the margins as ethnic outsiders who, now ensconced in the middle-class suburban environment, could transition into being “white.” This obviously had limits, harsh for those, such as African Americans, who had no chance of “passing.” But for a mixed-race Earl Petty, it meant having a shot. If he did it right.

The same year he married Kitty, 1947, they found a small house where they lived for a few years before moving to the two-bedroom ranch that would be their home for the rest of their lives. As far as being half-Cherokee was concerned, it was not discussed. Within three years of their marriage, their first child, Thomas Earl Petty, was born. It was 1950 when Tom came home from the hospital. With him, Earl and Kitty would move to that second house, a small place off the park, surrounded by live oaks draped with Spanish moss. Just one year after Tom’s birth, Time magazine would declare the generation to which his parents belonged the “silent generation.” Born around the Depression and living through the war, they had things they wanted to leave behind, as if there were a collective memory bank they agreed to seal off. The optimism of midcentury American life was real. Earl felt it as he drove the truck for Eli Witt’s tobacco and candy company. But, still, a darkness tugged at him.

Troas Avery, Kitty’s mother, didn’t simply have issues with her son-in-law Earl Petty; she had issues with all Earls. She’d married two of them. Her eldest daughter, Evelyn, married one. By the time her daughter Kitty did the same, Troas was refusing to speak the name “Earl.” She called Kitty’s Earl “Petty.” She called Evelyn’s Earl “Jernigan.” The name brought her bad luck. And, in Earl Petty’s case, it wasn’t just the name—she didn’t like him. He drank and gambled, without good results in either department. He made it to church on time, yes, but the results weren’t so good there either. And now he was going to try his hand at parenting.

Copyright © 2015 by Warren Zanes