When was super depressed, I wasn’t working—I was always too depressed. Hemingway did his best work when he didn’t drink, then he drank himself to death and blew his head off with a shotgun. Someone asked John Cheever, “What’d you learn from Hemingway?” and he said “I learned not to blow my head off with a shotgun.” I remember going to the Michigan poetry festival, meeting Etheridge Knight there and Robert Creeley. Creeley was so drunk—he was reading and he only had one eye, of course, and had to hold his book like two inches from his face using his one good eye. But you look at somebody like George Saunders—I think he’s the best short story writer in English alive—that’s somebody who tries very hard to live a sane, alert life.
You’re present when you’re not drinking a fifth of Jack Daniel’s every day. It’s probably better for your writing career, you know? I think being tortured as a virtue is a kind of antiquated sense of what it is to be an artist.
[April 4, 1968] King was booked in room 306 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, owned by businessman Walter Bailey (and named after his wife). King’s close friend and colleague Reverend Ralph David Abernathy, who was King’s roommate in the motel room the day of the assassination, told the House Select Committee on Assassinations that King and his entourage stayed in room 306 at the Lorraine Motel so often that it was known as the “King-Abernathy Suite.”
According to biographer Taylor Branch, King’s last words were to musician Ben Branch, who was scheduled to perform that night at an event King was going to attend: “Ben, make sure you play ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’ in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty.”
At 6:01 p.m. on Thursday, April 4, 1968, while he was standing on the motel’s second floor balcony, King was struck by a single .30 bullet fired from a Remington 760 Gamemaster. The bullet entered through his right cheek, breaking his jaw, neck and several vertebrae as it travelled down his spinal cord, severing the jugular vein and major arteries in the process before lodging in his shoulder. By the force of the blast, King’s necktie was ripped completely off his shirt. He fell violently backwards onto the balcony unconscious. Shortly after the shot was fired, witnesses saw James Earl Ray fleeing from a rooming house across the street from the Lorraine Motel where he was renting a room. A package was dumped close to the site that included a rifle and binoculars with Ray’s fingerprints on them. The rifle had been purchased by Ray under an alias six days before. A worldwide manhunt was triggered that culminated in the arrest of Ray at London Heathrow Airport two months later.
Abernathy heard the shot from inside the motel room and ran to the balcony to find King on the floor. King was bleeding profusely from the wound in his cheek. His SCLC colleague Andrew Young believed he was dead, though King still had a pulse.
King was rushed to St. Joseph’s Hospital, where doctors opened his chest and performed manual heart massage. He never regained consciousness and was pronounced dead at 7:05 p.m. According to Taylor Branch, King’s autopsy revealed that though he was only 39 years old, he had the heart of a 60 year old man.