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The woman who helped Jim Harrison write

Joyce Harrington Bahle was Jim Harrison's assistant for over 35 years. Here she's pictured sitting in one of Jim's old chairs.
Dan Wanschura
Joyce Harrington Bahle was Jim Harrison's assistant for over 35 years. Here she's pictured sitting in one of Jim's old chairs.

Well-known Michigan author Jim Harrison passed away last March. If you remember reading about him after his death, a couple things might stick out. First, he wrote a lot – poetry, fiction and essays. And you probably remember hearing how much he loved to eat and drink. Jim Harrison was also a wilderness man. He didn’t like city-living but loved to be surrounded by nature.

These are some of the common themes in many of the obituaries written about Harrison. But his longtime assistant Joyce Harrington Bahle says there’s more.

“We talk about all of Jim’s loves and food and nature and all that, but I want to get back to the real core," she says. "That is his wife Linda, who Jim loved dearly. ... And the love of his life too is his children. Family was Jim’s life.”

Joyce had a glimpse into Jim Harrison’s life few other people had. She met Jim at the Bluebird Restaurant & Bar in Leland in the mid-1970’s. She quickly became a friend of the family.

Eventually, Jim asked Joyce if she would work with him as his assistant.

"He said, 'I don’t do life very well,'" recalls Joyce. "And he said, 'I’m writing, and I want to be freed up, so I’m looking for a person to be my assistant and almost be a manager.' And I said, ‘Ok.’”

Jim Harrison always wrote by hand. He'd then give the papers to Joyce for her to type out. Besides taking care of the bills and responding to fan mail, she was also a sort of gatekeeper between Jim and those clamoring for his attention. 

One day, Joyce had to get special signs made for his driveway, asking people to stay away. One of the signs read, "Do not enter this driveway unless you have called first. This means you."

Joyce’s career assisting Jim wasn’t always easy. He was demanding at times. He had his outbursts, but Joyce says she never felt like just an employee; she was a friend.

"Jim and I synced-up because we had an equal respect and admiration for each other," says Joyce.

In Joyce’s contract with the Harrison estate, she is to remain on staff for three years after Jim’s death. 

Part of her duties recently have been consumed by organizing a tribute for Jim Harrison, which will be held in Traverse City on Saturday night.

Joyce Harrington Bahle says she’s just grateful that she was able to play a role in Jim’s success as a writer.

"Jim said to me before he died, ... 'Joyce, I never could have produced this body of work without you,'" she says. "It allowed him to be freed up to continue to write books. And that was, perhaps, the greatest time of my life, was for Jim to have really come forward and shared deeply about our career and what our life together meant." 

Dan Wanschura is the Host and Executive Producer of Points North.