Monday, November 10, 2014

Milking the Moon: A Southerner's Story of Life on This Planet excerpt by Eugene Walter as told to Katherine Clark

In Milking the Moon: A Southerners Story of Life on This Planet excerpt by Eugene Walter as told to Katherine Clark, finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, is a  sumptuous oral biography of Eugene Walter, the best-known man you’ve never heard of, is an eyewitness history of the heart of the last century—enlivened with personal glimpses of luminaries from William Faulkner and Martha Graham to Judy Garland and Leontyne Price—and a pitch-perfect addition to the Southern literary tradition that has critics cheering.

In his 176 years, Eugene Walter ate of “the ripened heart of life,” to quote a letter from Isak Dinesen, one of his many illustrious friends. Walter savored the porch life of his native Mobile, Alabama, in the the l920s and ‘30s; stumbled into the Greenwich Village art scene in late-1940s New York; was a ubiquitous presence in Paris’s expatriate caf√© society in the 1950s (where he was part of the Paris Review at its inception); and later, in 1960s Rome, participated in the golden age of Italian cinema. He was somehow everywhere, bringing with him a unique and contagious spirit, putting his inimitable stamp on the cultural life of the twentieth century.

“Katherine Clark…has edited Eugene Walter’s oral history into a book as amazing as the man himself.” JONATHAN YARDLEY, WASHINGTON POST BOOK WORLD

“Milking the Moon has perfect pitch and flawlessly captures Eugene’s pixilated wonderland of a life…. I love this book—and I couldn’t put it down.”

“Surprising and serendipitous.”

“Anecdotes so frothy they ought to be served with a paper parasol over crushed ice.”

“A rare literary treat…the temptation is to wolf it down all at once, but it’s much more satisfying to take your sweet time. The most unique oral history of the mid-twentieth century.”

“An exceptionally fun read.”

Milking the Moon: A Southerner's Story of Life on This Planet
Untreed Reads: (Paperback Edition) (2014)
IBSN: 9781611877700


That Rich Mix of New York in the Forties
Right after the war, before I left for New York, I had worked briefly in the Haunted Book Shop in Mobile, putting the poetry section in order. One day I came across an errata slip that had fallen out of the poetry bookshelf. Cameron and Adelaide, of course, had all the latest books of poetry, whether they sold or not. Some of them stayed ten years on the shelf, twelve years on the shelf. They always got what they thought sounded interesting. A Southern bookshop. Well, this errata slip fell out. It was on good paper and I liked the typeface and I was fascinated by what was on the page. So I went on safari. It took three days going through all those poetry books to find the one this had fallen out of. It was a book called The Ego and the Centaur that had just come out from New Directions. And I thought, Oh, when I go to New York, I’m going to have to go to New Directions and buy me a copy for myself. Because when I was talking about it, somebody was in the shop and right away bought The Ego and the Centaur. I was doing this big thing and talking about it with Adelaide and waving it. Then somebody in there said, “Well, I’ll buy that.” So I thought, Yeah, sure, it’s a bookshop. I’ll have to go to New Directions.
When I got to New York I kept asking the View people, “Have any of you-all met a poet from the French part of Indiana called Jean Garrigue?” I thought it was a man. Jean Garrigue. Well, life being what life is like, and the interwovenness of it all, somebody from somewhere—I can’t think who, it may have been Seymour Lawrence—and I were strolling down Christopher Street, having dined in a little restaurant, and he said, “Oh, look, there’s somebody you ought to meet.” And there was this charming-looking little thing with egret nest curls. Huge blue eyes; you could see across the street they were blue. And she was wearing these dirty slacks, sweeping the sidewalk in front of this slum building on Christopher Street between Sheridan Square and West 10th. Anyway, he said, “You Southerners from the provinces.” And he said, “Jean Garrigue, Eugene Walter.” I said, “WHAT? What? I’m your errata boy.” She thought I was saying erotic boy. Then I told the story about the errata slip. We became great friends. Her building almost backed up to mine in that block. We’d been two years vibrating at each other and didn’t know it. All these things happen to everybody, but most people don’t notice.
Jean Garrigue was Something Else Again. Even before I met her, I considered her America’s only Baroque poet. She wrote her own free verse, except it wasn’t free verse. Just as Walt Whitman has a secret meter, if you read Jean Garrigue aloud, you discover this secret American rhythm. And she was writing about everything: animals, vast landscapes, and vast concepts. She was not one of the race of professor lady poets, saying, “I don’t feel so well, I’m unhappy, nothing goes right, America’s a terrible place to live, there are no men in America or all the men are cavemen in America.” They never have any idea of a civilized male creature. It’s either the Neanderthal or the priss. Anyway, Jean Garrigue wrote big.
And that was surprising, since she was a lady of the old school. A lady. But also a bawd, as all the great eighteenth-century ladies were. Could carry on any kind of conversation. Loved the same sort of dirty jokes that I like. There were a lot of the beginnings of liberated ladies in New York who were tough and nasty. Bitchy, mean, sexually unsatisfied, and putting off the very men who were attracted to them because they had spirit. It was that beginning of the women’s lib thing, though it wasn’t called women’s lib then. But then there were people like Jean Garrigue and a whole bunch of Southern girls who stayed ladies except they learned to say “fuck.” They still had a certain graciousness and, above all, a sense of humor. What some of those New England girls didn’t have was a sense of humor. The men called them the scissors girls. If you weren’t careful, they’d cut your balls off. The scissors girls. Later it was called women’s lib. Jean Garrigue was just an exceptional creature. With this irresistible smile and these blue eyes. She was petite, and she dressed very well. Sometimes she wore slacks and a loose blouse in the bohemian way, but if she was going uptown, she had on a tailored Chanel suit. Her hair was some honey colored. She was adorable. Imagine Emily Dickinson after two glasses of elderberry wine.
It was only revealed much, much later that she was multierotic and the lover of Josephine Herbst, the novelist and revolutionary. But she also had a long list of male lovers. She was not an erotic whiz kid. She was not what was called a nympho. She had a feminine thing of comforting people. I think that kind of lady just goes to bed with guys they feel sorry for. “Oh, poor darling. Poogie, woogie, woo.” And I think she was a passionate woman in the eighteenth-century sense. It didn’t always show. She wasn’t lighting one cigarette after another and hiking her skirt up to her navel. She was a lady, but eighteenth-century: she knew everybody had to have sex.
She died of cancer while I was in Rome. Everybody on earth called me long-distance. Everybody. “Eugene we’ve got— Are you sitting down? We’ve got some news.” By the time I’d had twenty-four hours of this, I thought, People love catastrophe. Now I know why the Greek kings killed the messengers who brought the bad news. Just cut their heads off after they’d given their message. I wanted to bomb the Bell system because I heard so many times that she died of cancer. We had just been corresponding and talking about how we could meet in Paris.
You see, the world is very small. It doesn’t matter how many millions more are born. It’s still that 10 percent of people who reason, who are aware of larger issues, and it’s only 3 percent of the total that’s cats and monkeys. She was cats and monkeys. And I adored her.
I met Josephine Herbst through Jean Garrigue and all the Village set. She had intense blue eyes and graying hair, and she was much older than everybody else. Much older. She was very much of the thirties: a thirties protester. I don’t know if she ever was a member of the Communist Party, but she was extremely leftist. Of course, nobody today can understand what that meant in the Depression period. During those poor, poor, poor years, when people literally were starving to death in the streets, ordinary people had a certain resentment of some of the big wealth. They thought the government was in the clutches of the rich. Indeed it was, still is. I mean Reagan—
Oh, my God. I said I’d never say that in the same room with the monkey.
I’m sorry, darling. I have to apologize. Never again. I’ll say Baudelaire twenty-seven times as penance.
But anyway, nobody can imagine who wasn’t alive, and seeing the problems of the Depression, the rabid leftism of someone like Josephine Herbst. She did not come of a poor family, but she was of a farming family that was self-supporting and proud and red-white-and-blue American.
As a young woman she was successful as a novelist and a journalist. She covered the Spanish civil war and knew Hemingway through all that. But she was rabidly left, and I disapproved of that. Because I had come through the Depression and had seen real poverty with a Southern accent, and I still had a sense of humor. And even the most revolutionary young men never were that hysterical or rabid, where they got absolutely tremulous in talking about it. Even in 1948 she could get all worked up and get “What do you mean by that?” She was one of those “What do you mean by that?” persons. Like high blood pressure. I didn’t like that aspect of her. I always talked to her about gardening. I learned early on that was a safe subject. And I could make her laugh.
How did I make Josie laugh? How do I make anybody laugh? I don’t know. By putting omega before alpha rather than alpha before omega. Who knows? I could make Josie smile with just impressions of other writers

Jis’t like. I only had to give her impressions of someone at a party and I’d get her off politics for a minute.
I remember she took a great exception to Truman Capote. She thought he was a little puff from the South. He was not. He had a mind as sharp as a fox trap. But she, seeing that famous photo of him lying on a sofa—the photo on the back of his first novel—thought he was a cream puff from Alabama.
Then years later when I was living in Rome, I went to meet her in Naples after she returned to Europe for the first time since she’d been covering the Spanish civil war. I went right there and met her boat. Took her to a waterfront restaurant for a dinner, and I lent her my raincoat because she didn’t bring one and suddenly it was damp and cold. But she was too sensitive. I escorted her around and did everything and gave dinners for her when she got to Rome and all that and all that. But there was one evening she called me and she was feeling at loose ends. I said, “I’m sorry I can’t see you tonight because I have the proofs of Botteghe and I’ll be working all night to get these to the printer in the morning.” And she was offended. That’s the last I saw her.

To purchase Milking the Moon: A Southerner’s Story of Life on This Planet click (Purchasing the paperback at 25% off ($22.99)entitles the purchaser to an additional ebook copy. 

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