Discovering Eugene Walter

IMG_1111 During graduate school I briefly worked a part-time job as a reader for a press clipping service. This is another of those occupations that is now totally obsolete but I love to read and enjoyed the job. It’s clearly a great job for a liberal arts guy. The staff of readers would have our favorite newspapers and would try to make sure that the favorites were in our stack of papers to be read. I had personal picks among the large dailies and there were a few of the small-town weeklies that I tried to grab because of a particularly charming or quirky local columnist or point of vew.

“The Boulevardier” was the title of a column written by Eugene Walter and published in Azalea City News and Review, an alternative weekly newspaper in Mobile at the time. My first reaction was Who is this guy and why haven’t I heard of him before if he’s been all of the places and done all the things he claims?

The more I read, however, the more fascinated I became with the scope of knowledge and experience of a true, uncompromising, unpretentious, and erudite Renaissance man. Too late, I began to track down the biographical details of Eugene Walter (1921-1998) and realized that even if the majority of his claims were tall tales and fabrications, he still lived a more eventful and meaningful life than most everybody else.

“I don’t drive a car, I don’t wear blue jeans, and I don’t go to football games,” said Eugene Walter, but here are just a few of the things that he did do:

  1. Worked with the Civilian Conservation Corps as a highway sign painter.
  2. Served as an army cryptographer in World War II.
  3. With collaborators, staged some of the first “Happenings” in the garden of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
  4. Worked on a Paris-based multilingual international literary journal, Botteghe Oscure. He later relocated to Rome as the journal’s editor.
  5. Published a short story in the first Paris Review for which he served as a founding and contributing editor.
  6. Published his first novel, The Untidy Pilgrim, while living in Paris. It won the Lippincott Prize for best first novel.
  7. Published his first volume of poetry, Monkey Poems, during the Paris years.
  8. While in Rome, acted and worked as an assistant and translator for master Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini. He appeared in Fellini’s masterpiece and in many other films for Fellini and other directors including Blake Edwards and Lina Wertmuller.
  9. Wrote the lyrics for Nino Rota’s signature song “What Is a Youth?” for Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet. This theme song for the very popular film was an international hit.
  10. Wrote the best-selling classic American Cooking: Southern Style (1971) for the Time-Life Foods of the World cookbook series.

He was born and grew up in Mobile, served the military in the Arctic Circle, lived in New York City in the 1940s, lived in Paris in the 1950s, lived in Rome throughout the 1960s into the 1970s, and moved back to his beloved but changed Mobile for a number of social and productive years from the late-1970s until his death. “Sooner or later Southerners all come home, not to die, but to eat gumbo,” he said. As he lived and traveled around the world, he always carried a Thom McAn shoebox full of Alabama red clay with him and stored it under his bed – “So I always slept on Alabama soil.”

American Cooking: Southern Style is out-of-print, very precious, and somewhat hard to find in a good affordable copy. If you’re interested in food, grab it when you find it. Walter did other food-related books in his lifetime including Delectable Dishes from Termite Hall: Rare and Unusual Recipes (1982); and Hints and Pinches (1991). Posthumously, in 2011, The Happy Table of Eugene Walter: Southern Spirits in Food and Drink was published. The Happy Table was compiled from an unpublished manuscript and other recipes and food writing from Walter and focuses on “Southern Beverages and a Grand Selection of Southern Dishes Employing Spiritous Flavorings.”

His books on food are full of wonderfully vivid recipes and unvarnished opinions. “Baby turnip roots just boiled to a point, not mushy, dressed with butter, cream, salt and a generous flecker of nutmeg, are the sign of a highly civilized household.”

In The Happy Table … Walter writes, “For a real feast, you must have two kinds of meat and two kinds of bread, and there must always be more than enough food to serve the number of guests.” (My grandmother would add that one of the reasons for this abundance is to “be sure there is something on the table that everybody likes” and I still follow her mandate.)

His advice to cooks is simple and timely: “seek fresh, avoid chemicals, keep a light hand, rise to the occasion, try what you don’t know, have fun … and good eating, you-all!”

Don’t get him started on ready-ground pepper (or do, it’s very entertaining): “Never use the dead dust sold as ready-ground pepper. … dead dust is only dead dust. Many restaurants which pretend to be first class, and with prices which corroborate their pretensions, do not have pepper mills … either take your own pepper mill with you, or smash an ashtray when the waiter says they don’t have one.” As random and serendipitous as Walter’s pronouncements may sound, his food-related books are meticulously researched and the scope of his knowledge and historical grasp is constantly impressive.

Writer Pat Conroy, a personal friend of Walter, devotes a whole chapter to him in The Pat Conroy Cookbook (2004). Conroy writes that while he lived in Rome, shortly after Walter had returned to Mobile, “I met more Italians who were in love with the whole state of Alabama just because Eugene Walter had sprung so fully formed and elegant from that Deep South state. Many Italians were fully prepared to like me because they knew my native state of Georgia was contiguous to the one that had produced the incomparable Eugene Walter.”

In 2001, Milking the Moon: A Southerner’s Story of Life on This Planet was published. It is the life story of Walter in his own inimitable words as he told it to Katherine Clark in a series of recorded conversations near the end of his life. Be warned that once you pick it up, it is hard to put it down. He begins, “You may think you don’t know me but you have probably seen me on late-night television playing either an outlaw or a hanging judge… If you’ve ever seen Fellini’s 8 ½, I’m the tacky American journalist who keeps pestering Marcello Mastroianni with obnoxious questions. And if you haven’t seen , you need to: it’s one of the great films of this century.”

I re-watched not long ago and particularly watched for Eugene Walter’s appearances. He’s one of those performers who glows on the screen – not so much for his acting ability as for his sheer joy in acting. He smiles broadly, his eyes are shining and shifting with mischievous glee, and he is totally present every moment he’s in a scene. I couldn’t help thinking about the similar impact Tim Blake Nelson’s performance as Delmar had for me in the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? In each case, the glee of the actor in the performance is memorable and contagious.

Reading Walter’s work, one constantly has the urge to call somebody and quote a passage. But that’s a risky exercise since once you get started, you can’t stop. Almost every word on the page is quotable.

Eugene Walter knew everybody. The 23-page “Cast of Characters” at the end of Milking the Moon reads like a Who’s Who of important and famous people of the 20th Century. He threw dinner parties for whomever happened to be of interest to him wherever he happened to live. He claimed to have three pubic hairs which were gifted to him by actress Tallulah Bankhead in her dressing room after her performance in The Skin of Our Teeth at a Broadway theatre during his early sojourn in New York (but then, who didn’t have such a treasure from Tallulah at that time?).

I was familiar with Walter’s short stories but I recently read that first novel, The Untidy Pilgrim, for the first time. It is the story of a young man from central Alabama who comes to Mobile – “south of the salt line” – to work in a bank and study law. “Down in Mobile they’re all crazy,” the novel begins, “because the Gulf Coast is the kingdom of monkeys, the land of clowns, ghosts, and musicians, and Mobile is sweet lunacy’s county seat.”

Of course the stable and well-intentioned young man (who is never named) is quickly caught up in the intrigues and pleasures of his new surroundings and his Mobile friends and relatives. He is introduced to the colorful characters, artists, and underside of Mobile and encouraged to play hooky from his 8-5 grind. He samples the indiscreet pleasures around him and is taken into the fold by his more cavalier south Alabama relatives and Miss Nonie Fifield – “Fiffy” – from whom he rents a room.

As with all of Walter’s writing, I found the novel compelling and terrifically entertaining. And I was pleasantly surprised when the ending of the book was a somewhat conventional one – which was not at all what I expected given what I know about Eugene Walter. The book plays around with the reader’s expectations, dips its toes in the unexpected and bizarre, and then catches the reader off-guard by concluding in a sweet and almost conventional way. That unpredictable predictability left me smiling and satisfied at the end.

Eugene Walter spent much of his life in poverty, had a limited formal education, and died practically destitute, but happy. “I haven’t been smashed by the educational system, the financial system, the political system,” he said. He lived his life on his own terms and with style. When he died, a jazz funeral procession took him through the streets of Mobile for burial at Church Street Cemetery. The cemetery had been closed for a century but the city gave special permission for his interment.

Over the years, I have talked to a few people who met Eugene and each one seems simultaneously entranced, intrigued, befuddled, and half in love with the guy. He was what one might call an eccentric in every sense but his charm was evident to all kinds of people. “When I was growing up in Mobile,” he said, “there was no such thing as an eccentric, because individuality was permitted.”

I wish I had known to meet him.

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One thought on “Discovering Eugene Walter

  1. Maggie

    I wish I had some Alabama red clay in a box to keep under my bed, although never one of my homes. I have had dirt sent to me from adopted “homes.” I understand the need for the connection. Eugene is iconic. He is so often portrayed without due respect for his intelligence, and his writing genius. Thank you for this piece.

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