That Rich Mix of
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 café 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
POST BOOK WORLD YARDLEY, WASHINGTON
“Milking the Moon has perfect pitch and flawlessly captures
wonderland of a life…. I love this book—and I couldn’t put it down.” Eugene
“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.”
) NEW ORLEANS
“An exceptionally fun read.”
Milking the Moon: A Southerner's Story of Life on This Planet
Untreed Reads: (Paperback Edition) (2014)
That Rich Mix of
Right after the war, before I left for
, I had worked briefly in the Haunted
Book Shop in New
putting the poetry section in order. One day I came across an errata slip that
had fallen out of the poetry bookshelf. Cameron and Mobile ,
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 Adelaide , 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 New
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. Adelaide
When I got to
I kept asking the View
people, “Have any of you-all met a poet from the French part of New
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 Indiana 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
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. America
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
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
Everybody on earth called me long-distance. Everybody. “ Rome 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 Eugene
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 Bell . 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
Then years later when I was living in
went to meet her in Rome
after she returned to Naples 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
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. Rome
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