By Judy Carmack Bross
“The murder was a shock I never got over. I had told the story to my children so often that they knew it by heart.”—Martha Smith Tate, author of The Last Ride.
If you are yearning to stay home on a cold winter night, you will be up late, turning from one fascinating page to the next. After so many years, a cold case has become very hot, thanks to Martha Smith Tate.
At ten o’clock on the morning of May 24, 1968, Haynie Gourley backed out of the driveway of his elegant home in the wealthy enclave of Nashville’s Belle Meade. Driving across town, he pulled into the sparkling new headquarters of Capitol Chevrolet on the outskirts of the city. One hour later, the seventy-two-year-old founder and president of one of the south’s largest automobile dealerships was dead from three gunshot wounds–one just below the left ear, a second to the neck, and a third to the chest.
This tragic event set off a 55-year-old mystery: Who killed Haynie Gourley? His death, which caused an immediate sensation in Nashville, shattered the popular self-made millionaire’s dream of handing down his hard-won business to his only son and spelled the end of the charmed life he had created for his family.
Haynie Gourley with his family in Paris, summer 1965: L-R, Haynie and Josephine Gourley, son-in-law William Bainbridge III, daughter JoAnn Gourley Bainbridge, and son Billy Gourley. Courtesy of Billy Gourley
The next summer, a trial consumed the city of Nashville. Every word of the transcript was printed in both daily newspapers. Outside the courtroom, reporters and photographers stalked the families and attorneys like paparazzi. Every television station filled their news programs with updates. For three weeks, people lined up at 6 a.m., hoping for a place in the 64-seat courtroom. The entire city was obsessed. The controversial verdict, reached after only four hours of jury deliberations, sent shock waves through the community and left the murder officially unsolved. The police had no more suspects and closed their investigation. Only myths and rumors surrounding the case remained.
“The pieces of the puzzle of this highly publicized society murder were always there, contained in the 2,400-page trial transcript and hundreds of newspaper articles,” says author Martha Tate. “But no one ever connected the dots.”
The two families involved remained silent, never granting interviews for fifty-years. Aside from a pair of articles published in 1995 in a local tabloid, nothing much was written about the case, which was cited by the city’s archives in 2018 as “Nashville’s Most Notorious Unsolved Murder.” Sometime in the late 1980s, the evidence contained in the police files was burned.
“I came to realize that no one was ever going to write this story or get to the truth about who murdered this popular citizen, my Vanderbilt classmate’s beloved father,” says Tate. “I felt I was uniquely positioned to do what no one else had done. I had been at the funeral. I had sat through the heart-stopping trial in the sweltering summer of 1969 and listened as Tennessee’s legal giants alternatively built up and ripped witnesses apart.”
Defense attorneys for the accused: Jack Norman Sr., with his signature cigar, and Cecil Branstetter. Courtesy of Hal Hardin
Spectators look on as Billy Gourley, middle, follows his mother Josephine Gourley out of the courtroom during a break in the trial. ©The Tennessean – USA TODAY NETWORK
The author reconnected with Billy Gourley at their 50th Vanderbilt reunion in 2017. They did not talk about the case. But the next year, as the 50th anniversary of his father’s death approached, Tate decided to make a move. She composed an email in January of 2018, asking Billy if he would cooperate on a book. They had been close friends in college, but it took her four months to punch “send.” Billy called immediately and agreed.
Billy Gourley, left, with author Martha Smith Tate, second from left, at the Vanderbilt University chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s Black and White formal dance, May 2, 1965. Others pictured: Emily Binning, Keith Caldwell, and Sam Dewey. ©The Tennessean – USA TODAY NETWORK
What followed was four years of meticulous research and writing and interviewing the principals who still survived. Billy Gourley put Tate in touch with the assistant district attorney at the trial and the lawyer who represented a crucial witness. Her sorority sister tracked down the head detective on the case as well as the chief crime reporter for the Nashville Banner.
The result of this long journey is a suspenseful page turner that leads to a shocking ending. The deep portrayal of the characters takes it beyond true crime to become a universal story of greed and betrayal. What sets this story apart from a typical true-crime narrative is the pathos surrounding the profound loss that forever changes the lives and fortunes of a family. For this reason, the book has human interest appeal far beyond Nashville. The story could have taken place anywhere.
Capitol Chevrolet executives in front of the new showroom, completed in spring 1968. L-R Jimmy Allen, new car sales manager; Charlie McCaffrey, service manager; Haynie Gourley, founder and president; Bill Powell, executive vice president and general manager. Nashville Public Library, Special Collections, Banner Newspaper Collection
In The Last Ride, Nashville itself becomes a character hovering in the background. The murder takes place only weeks after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., while the city is still reeling from racial turmoil.
In the Preface, the author writes: “People who live in Nashville will recognize many of its streets and monuments; others who aren’t familiar with Nashville will sense the qualities that make this a modern-day tourist destination and a unique city that continues to draw people in. Still others will come to know a very different Nashville in a decade that was both turbulent and gentle and the characters, most now long gone, who lived this troubling story.”
Haynie Gourley, standing, at Capitol Chevrolet’s downtown offices at 510 Broadway. Seated is Charlie Rolfe, Haynie’s business partner. From 1937 until Rolfe’s death in 1953. Photo is from 1940s. Courtesy of Billy Gourley.
James Landon, who recently chose The Last Ride for his book club discussion, told us:
“Martha Tate has brought her powers of acute perception, which made her earlier book and newspaper columns so popular, to a completely new subject—justice and its nemesis in the murder case which mesmerized Nashville in the 1960s. We are witnesses as Haynie Gourley’s American dream becomes a collective American nightmare. Tate gives us the fascinating background in sufficient detail to make us empathize with the victims—of both the murder and the trial—through an unforgettable ride of our own.”
The prosecutors in the Gourley murder case: District Attorney Thomas Shriver, left, with Special Prosecutor John J. Hooker Sr. Hooker represented several big-name companies, including The Coca-Cola Company, Jack Daniel’s Distillery, and Chicago’s Marshall Field’s.
Nashville is home to the author Ann Patchett’s Parnassus, one of the most celebrated privately owned bookstores in the country. The Last Ride has made Parnassus’s top ten best-seller list with the likes of Jon Meacham, Michelle Obama, Bono, and Patchett herself. The first week it ranked with two Pulitzer Prize winners and one National Book Award author. A recent visitor reported that the books were “flying off the shelves.”
Tate grew up in the small town of Palmetto, Georgia, 25 miles south of Atlanta. The winter of 1969-70, she spent a season working at Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico. The next year, she moved to Paris and worked at a bank on the Champs-Elysées.
While a member of the Junior League of Atlanta, she was editor of the organization’s magazine, Peachtree Papers. This led directly to writing for magazines and for the Atlanta Journal and Constitution where she was a columnist and feature writer for 22 years.
At the same time, she and two friends came up with the idea for a garden television show. She was co-creator and co-producer for the HGTV series A Gardener’s Diary, turning out 240 episodes over eleven years. She is the author of the 2014 book Margaret Moseley’s A Garden to Remember.
Martha lives in Atlanta and has two daughters and four granddaughters.
Visit Tate’s website at marthasmithtate.com to see more photographs and to read an excerpt from The Last Ride.