Lonely Hunter: A visit to the Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians

By Jess Bernhart

Lonely Hunter: A visit to the Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians

In honor of our 2018 Lonely Hunter blend, Revelator Coffee visited the Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians in Columbus, GA. The center operates a museum in Carson McCullers' childhood home, presents educational and cultural programs for the community, maintains an ever-growing archive of materials related to Carson's life and work, and offers fellowships for writers and composers who live for periods of time at the Center. Director Nick Norwood gave us a tour and spoke to us about Carson’s life and legacy.

 


 

Nick Norwood: This is the house where Carson McCullers grew up. Her family moved here in the mid-twenties, when Carson was about 10 years old, and she lived here until she graduated from high school in 1933. She then moved to New York City “to become famous,” which obviously, she did. She would frequently come back to this house to work on her books, however, and she worked on The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Member of the Wedding, Reflections in a Golden Eye, and Ballad of the Sad Cafe, all in this house. And she was married in the backyard here in 1937. Her father was a jeweler, and he had a little shop in downtown Columbus. And by the way, when they moved here in the 20s, this was the ‘burbs. We call it "midtown" now. But there was a streetcar line out here, and not all the houses in the neighborhood were built yet. In Lonely Hunter, if you know that book, early on Mick takes her younger siblings on a ride – she pulls them in a wagon – and she stops at a house that's under construction and climbs up on the roof to smoke a cigarette. Every time I read it, I can't help but think of this neighborhood. And I think Carson must have been thinking of this neighborhood – she probably actually did that here when she was a kid. But her father died of a heart attack in 1944, and her mother sold this house and bought a house in Nyack, NY (which the McCullers Center also now owns).

This is a three bedroom house, and she had two siblings: a younger sister and a younger brother. Carson was sort of the doted on child, as well as the eldest. So the front bedroom was her room and she sort of let her sister Rita sleep here – that was the deal. And it was actually kept as her room even after she left for New York. Carson had a writing desk, a long work table, and her piano, all in her bedroom. The most famous piece we have of Carson’s is her marble dining table. It was her dining table at the house in Nyack. I don't know if you know about the famous luncheon with Marilyn Monroe?

Jess Bernhart: Please tell us.

NN: Well, Carson was a really big fan of Isak Dinesen, who wrote Out of Africa. Carson loved that book. And Isak Dinesen, who must have been around 60, was coming to New York. Dinesen was dying of cancer, and they were having a big luncheon for her at the Penn Center, so Carson went, because she really wanted to meet her. And at that time, Marilyn Monroe was married to Arthur Miller, and they were at the luncheon as well. Carson introduced herself to Isak Dinesen, saying "I just love you, I think you're wonderful," and Isak Dinesen said, “You know who I really want to meet? Marilyn Monroe.” So Carson said, “Let me see what I can do.” So she went over to Marilyn and said, "Hi, I'm Carson McCullers. I'd like to invite you to lunch," and Marilyn Monroe said sure. So they all had lunch at the house in Nyack. They got terribly drunk, because Isak Dinesen is dying of cancer so she's not bothering with anything except champagne and oysters – so that's all they had. And by the end of it they were all kissing and hugging on eachother: Carson, Marilyn, Isak Dinesen, and Arthur Miller.

JB: They became good friends didn't they? Marilyn and Carson?

NN: They did – they hit it off, and apparently Marilyn really liked her work.

JB: Was Carson quite wealthy?

NN: On The Member of the Wedding she did really well. It came out in 1946 and was a bestseller, and she wrote a stage adaptation at the suggestion of her new friend, Tennessee Williams, who wrote her a fan letter after he read that book. He had rented a house on Cape Cod and invited her to join him for the summer, so that they could just write. So she got there for the summer and said, “But I don't know what to write,” so he suggested that she write a stage adaptation of Member of the Wedding. And that's what she did. It ran for 501 performances on Broadway. She made a lot of money on that. And then the same cast, which was Julie Harris, Ethel Waters, Brandon De Wilde in his first ever performance – they did the film version as well. That's where Carson made most of her money. And at that point, she bought out her mother on the house in Nyack, and again at Tennessee Williams' suggestion, divided it into five apartments. It was way more space than she needed, so she lived in one apartment, rented out the others, and didn't have to worry about making any money – she could just write. It's a big old Edwardian house with a view of the Hudson River. Sleepy Hollow is directly across the river from the house, so when you're looking out the window, you can see the Sleepy Hollow lighthouse. And she also, at that time, bought a house in France. So she made a lot of money - I don't think she was ever really filthy rich, but she did well. They also made film versions of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and Reflections in a Golden Eye. Have you seen either of those films?

JB: I haven't.

NN: Lonely Hunter is dated, but it's still very interesting. They actually shot it in Selma, AL, because I guess they thought downtown Columbus didn't look the right era. But the thing is, it's not set in the ‘30s, which is when the novel is set – it's set in the ‘60s. Alan Arkin plays John Singer, and he's spectacular. It was his first ever starring role. He was nominated for an Oscar for Best Leading Actor. And Sondra Locke, I don't know if you remember her – she was in a lot of movies with Clint Eastwood, who she was married to for a while – those really bad '80s movies, Every Which Way, Gondola, and all that stuff. Anyway, this was her first ever film role and she plays Mick. She was also nominated - she didn't win, but I think it was probably her best performance. And then the one I think you've got to see, Reflections in a Golden Eye, directed by John Huston, starring Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando, Julie Harris again, and Brian Keith. And it's just so weird. It's beautifully weird. Marlon Brando is the latent homosexual army officer. He's just spectacular. It was made in ‘67. Both Lonely Hunter and Reflections were in production when Carson died. She never saw either one of them, but she became friends with John Huston. You may have noticed the pictures of her in the other room – she's in a bed and John Huston is sitting there talking to her? That's at his house in County Galway, Ireland. He invited her to come over to Ireland, and she did, but her health was already so bad that she had to spend the whole time in bed. That was in April ‘67, she died in September. But that movie's just beautifully weird.

JB: I read that she got threats from the KKK for that work.

NN: Yes, for that book. The local people in general did not like her. Her - and they really didn't like her books. It was Reflections in a Golden Eye that pissed people off the most. Lonely Hunter deals with issues of race, sexual orientation, class – people didn't like it, but they didn't really care. But when she wrote Reflections, about gay soldiers on a Southern army post that looked an awful lot like Fort Benning – that's when the KKK started sending death threats and all that. What's interesting is that she married somebody from the army who was sexually ambiguous, as was she. And she met him through a gay soldier named Edwin Peacock, who became her lifelong friend.

JB: How did Carson meet Reeves McCullers?

NN: Carson had started taking piano lessons, and her piano teacher, Mary Tucker, was the wife of a colonel at Fort Benning. She was teaching Carson all about art and music, and they were going to go to a classical music concert in Atlanta. Somehow Mary Tucker had met Edwin Peacock, and she asked Carson, “Would you mind if this soldier, Edwin Peacock, came with us? He's really interested in classical music.” Carson said fine. She and Edwin became lifelong friends after that. Then Carson graduated from high school and moved to New York. But Edwin kept coming over to visit her mother, to listen to records and talk about books. Her mother started almost a little literary salon at this house. And Edwin met Reeves, who was also interested in those sorts of things, and said, “Hey, you should come along with me.” So Reeves had met the rest of the family before he met Carson. Then Carson came home and said in her big drawl, "He was the most handsome man I'd ever seen." They got married in the backyard here in 1937. She was twenty years old. We actually have footage of that day. It's 29 seconds, no audio, taken by her friend. But it was a really tumultuous marriage. They were both alcoholics. In fact, everyone in her family were alcoholics, her parents, both her siblings, and her husband. And it's a long story, but there was a lot of animosity in the marriage. When she found out that he was cashing her royalty checks, that was it. She divorced him in 1942. He rejoined the army and fought with distinction in Europe, was injured several times, but kept going back into battle. She became really proud of him. There are these great letters that they started exchanging while he was there. She's saying, "Oh my dearest Reeves," and all this. And so as soon as the war was over, he came back and they got remarried, and they went right back to the same shit that they'd been doing. And that's when they bought the house in France. He wanted them to commit joint suicide. She got away from him, but he did commit suicide, in a hotel room in Paris in 1953. It's a very troubled story. Edwin Peacock’s lifelong partner, Mr. Zigler, told me, “Reeves was just - you'd love him. He was a great person. He was really sweet, he was smart. But the two of them together, it was just bad.” And I think everyone agrees, a big part of it was how much they drank.

NN: That purportedly is the copy of Out of Africa she was re-reading when she had the final stroke that killed her in 1967. She had really bad health her whole life, and she apparently had Rheumatic Fever in her teens that went misdiagnosed, and she was a chain-smoker and a chain-drinker, and those were the worst possible things you could do. In almost every photograph you see of Carson, she's got a cigarette in her hand. She would go to Yaddo, a writer and artist colony, and she would get up in the morning and mix up a thermos of sweet tea and sherry and would walk around all day drinking that. At some point she turned to bourbon. She knew she drank too much, and in one of those letters to Reeves, she wrote, "And I've been really good and didn't drink anything all day except some beer after breakfast." So she started having strokes when she was in her 20s, and that's when she had the cane. By the time she was 31, she was completely paralyzed on the left side of her body. And she died when she was 50 years old. Bukowski has a poem about Carson. He tells a story of her dying in a deck chair on an ocean liner, which is absolutely not true, but a lot of people I've met think that's how she died because they read that poem. It's not at all true. She died at home in Nyack, reading this book. Last year, 2017, was the 100th anniversary of her birth and the 50th anniversary of her death.

JB: Is there anything that stands out to you as Carson's legacy?

NN: The thing to me is that Carson was one of the first writers that could write about really marginalized people in a sympathetic way. I don't know if you've ever read Richard Wright's famous review of Lonely Hunter? Richard Wright was a Harlem Renaissance writer, and he said in a review at the time, "She's the first white writer who ever wrote black characters with the same sensitivity that she has for white characters." I think that's her legacy. To write about people, particularly marginalized people, who have not been the main character of novels before – like John Singer in Lonely Hunter. To me, deciding to make him a deaf-mute was genius. The book is all about the need that everyone has to connect with other people. So to use a person who cannot speak as the main character is really genius. My girlfriend and I have this argument - she's also a professor at Columbus State. She says the relationship between John Singer and Antonapoulos is just totally unbelievable, because Antonapoulos has no redeeming qualities at all.

JB: He is pretty grotesque.

NN: He's terrible! But he knows what it's like to be a deaf-mute, and he can sign! And so I think when Singer writes him that letter, where he's talking about all the other characters who come to talk to him, spilling their guts, he reveals to Antonapoulos, “I only get about half of what they're saying.” He talks about Jake Blount, "He thinks he and I have a secret, but I don't know what it is." But the crucial thing about the letter is Singer knows Antonapoulos cannot read. And yet, Singer still has this burning desire to communicate with other people. So I think that it's a stroke of genius - this universal need that is developed in her work in a unique way. Another thing about Carson McCullers is that she's kind of like JD Salinger. A lot of people come to her at a certain time in their lives, when they're young, and she really sticks with them forever. One of the reasons is she can write about young people - a certain kind of young person - Mick, from Heart is a Lonely Hunter, and Frankie from Member of the Wedding, and it's sort of like Holden Caulfield. People read it when they're young and think "yes." And I have given this tour to people from all over the world, and have them at some point break down crying, and it's because they've had that experience. They can't believe they're standing in this house, where Carson was an adolescent. I think that's her legacy. Her work was about our universal desire for human connection, and so many people truly connect to her. She means so much to so many people.

 

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