Notes from a Biographer
November 5, 2014 | by Sam Stephenson
On reimagining what a biography can look like.
In December 2012, I spent several days in Laurel, Mississippi, with my wife, researching her grandmother’s family history and childhood. I also did a lot of thinking about Stella and Blanche DuBois, the sisters who, as imagined by Tennessee Williams in A Streetcar Named Desire, also hailed from Laurel. They would have been roughly the same age as my wife’s grandmother. When we left Laurel, we followed Stella and Blanche’s path down to New Orleans. While in the city, we made several visits to Faulkner House Books in the French Quarter; I’d seen a brick of a book there called Tennessee Williams: Notebooks, edited by Margaret Bradham Thornton, and couldn’t stop thinking about it.
Williams has been on my mind for the nearly two decades I’ve been researching W. Eugene Smith, who declared that the plays of Williams were a major influence on his photojournalism. I thought I knew the names of all the prominent Williams scholars, and I’d heard in 2011 that John Lahr was working on a major biography for Norton. So this huge volume of Williams’s notebooks (it weighs close to four pounds; Lahr’s recently published Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh weighs just over two, by comparison) and its editor were a bit of a mystery. A one-line bio on the jacket flap simply describes Thornton as “a writer and independent scholar,” with no other credentials and no photograph.
The book was puzzling in structure and detail, too. Williams’s handwritten diary entries are transcribed in chronological order on the right side of each spread—on the odd-numbered pages—in a font that couldn’t be larger than eight or nine points. On the left side of each spread are meticulous annotations by Thornton in an even smaller font, maybe six points, that correspond to numbers on the opposite page. The results are parallel tracks of text: one, a series of odd, cryptic personal notes jotted by Williams over the course of his life; the other, 1,090 annotations, occupying equal space, that contextualize Williams’s arcane references many decades later. All told, I later learned, the book contains 265,000 words. Read More »
September 18, 2014 | by Sam Stephenson
Today is the fiftieth anniversary of Irish playwright Seán O’Casey’s death. Sam Stephenson tracks his appearances in W. Eugene Smith’s archive.
On August 15, 1965, W. Eugene Smith was up late, as usual, in his dingy fourth-floor loft in the wholesale flower district, a neighborhood desolate after dark. He was working on the first issue of Sensorium, his new “magazine of photography and other arts of communication,” a hopeful platform free of commercial expectations and pressures. He was editing a submission by the writer E.G. “Red” Valens, whom he had met in 1945 when both were war correspondents in the Pacific. Despite the late hour, Smith decided to give his old friend a call.
Valens’s wife answered the phone just before the fifth ring. She’d been asleep. She gave the phone to her husband. He’d been asleep, too.
“Good morning,” said a groggy Valens.
“You don’t stay up as late as you used to,” joked Smith.
He then apologized for calling so late. Valens wasn’t irritated. He even resisted Smith’s offer to call back at a more reasonable hour.
Thirty-six minutes and nineteen seconds later, the pair said good-bye and hung up. We know this because Smith taped the phone call. When he died in 1978, this clip was among 4,500 hours of recordings he made from roughly 1957 to 1966. Read More »
March 20, 2013 | by Sam Stephenson
Mississippi and New Orleans were on my horizon. Light in August and Streetcar Named Desire were on my mind. That is to say, Gene Smith was back in the mix. The morality and narrative techniques of Faulkner and Williams influenced his photography: he taped the text of Faulkner’s Nobel speech to the wall above his desk in his dilapidated Sixth Avenue loft and considered Williams’s oft-maligned, rarely seen Camino Real a pinnacle of American theater. Plus, he once made a portrait of Williams in a pool, swimming the backstroke naked with an apparent erection (try that aquatic feat, literary lads). The fog of Smith had returned to my Southern holiday road trip.
After an overnight stop in Mobile, Alabama, my destination was Laurel, Mississippi, south of Jackson and north of New Orleans. Laurel was the fictional hometown of Streetcar’s Blanche DuBois and her sister, Stella, and the site of their family estate, Belle Reve. It was Blanche’s loss of Belle Reve after the war that sent her to steamy, bedraggled New Orleans to stay with Stella and her ape-husband Stanley Kowalski. The rest is theater history. I wanted to spend some time in Laurel and then follow Blanche’s path into New Orleans. Read More »
February 28, 2013 | by Sam Stephenson
A week before I began my holiday road trip in December, I learned that in 1936 Time Life’s founder and publisher, Henry Luce, and his wife, the flamboyant Clare Booth Luce, purchased a three-thousand-acre former slave plantation in Berkeley County, South Carolina, only twenty miles from the poverty-stricken region where Smith made his classic “Nurse Midwife” for Life in 1951. The Luces made Mepkin Plantation their vacation estate.
Did Smith know this? Is that why he fought so hard to celebrate the African American Maude Callen amid pages of Life’s whitewashed Madison Avenue ads, to shove the contradictions in Luce’s face? It’s hard to know, but I think probably not. Smith left behind voluminous bitter letters to replaceable bureaucrats, but I haven’t seen any to moguls. He tended to make dragons out of windmills.
What is known is that, in 1949, the Luces donated part of Mepkin Plantation to the Trappist Order of Gethsemani of Kentucky, creating Mepkin Abbey. When Henry died, in 1967, his body was laid to rest in the property’s gardens. After Clare’s death in 1987, her body was buried next to his. As a serial graveyard explorer, I knew I had to see these graves, which, together with Callen’s abandoned and crumbling clinic, form an unlikely set of Berkeley County monuments to Life magazine’s midcentury power. Read More »
January 30, 2013 | by Sam Stephenson
On Tuesday morning, December 11, I drove a rented 2013 Chevrolet Impala out of Chapel Hill on I-40 East, the first miles of a twenty-two-day road trip around the South, with points as far west as New Orleans and Shreveport. These were the first Christmas plans I’d made on my own in forty-six years.
Without children, my holidays since 1995 have alternated between my parents’ house in eastern North Carolina and my in-laws’ in Pittsburgh. Over a nearly identical duration, I’ve been researching the life and work of photographer W. Eugene Smith. Now I’m working to finish my last book on him. The first stop on this Southern holiday journey is Berkeley County, South Carolina, a former slave-plantation region near the coast where Smith photographed his 1951 Life essay, “Nurse Midwife.”
The truth is that I’m tired of Gene Smith. Read More »
December 29, 2011 | by Joan Schenkar
We’re out this week, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2011 while we’re away. We hope you enjoy—and have a happy New Year!
Let’s be honest.
I rue the day I didn’t have my late stepmother whacked.
I’d rather eat dirt than talk to my larcenous cousins.
I haven’t forgiven my father for disinheriting me.
I don’t like families.
Patricia Highsmith (1921–95), America’s great expatriate noir novelist (and the subject of my biography, The Talented Miss Highsmith), didn’t like families either. Among twentieth-century writers, only André Gide has more damaging things to say about blood ties than Miss Highsmith does, and Gide is a little more succinct: “Familles, je vous haïs!” But even the Great Counterfeiter himself never went as far as she did on the subject.
Sitting in the second-floor study of her stone farmhouse in the village of Moncourt, France, her body hunched in front of her scrolled, roll-top desk like a snail confronting its shell, the fifty-one-year-old Patricia Highsmith picked up her favorite Parker fountain pen on a summer’s day in 1972 and confided her feelings about families to her notebook:
One situation—one alone, could drive me to murder: family life, togetherness.
A year and a half later, Highsmith was circling her wagons again around the same thought by way of a nice, organizing little list. Like almost everything she turned her hand to her, her list—“Little Crimes for Little Tots1,” she called it—has murder on its mind, focuses on a house and its close environs, mentions a mother in a cameo role, and is highly practical in a thoroughly subversive way. It’s also vintage Highsmith: the writer who entertained homicidal feelings for her stepfather since grade school looks at six-year-olds and sees only the killers inside them.
Still, in spite of our shared opinion of family life, in spite of my growing admiration for the extremity of her writing voice (here she is as a coed: “Obsessions are the only things that matter. Perversion interests me most and is my guiding darkness”), in spite of the fact that she had the most fascinatingly complicated psychology I’d ever kept company with—living and writing in Highsmith’s cone of watchful darkness was giving me plenty of trouble, harrowing my feelings and upending my sense of myself.
- Little Crimes for Little Tots or things small children can do around the house, such as:
1) Tying string across top of stairs so adults will trip.
2) Replacing roller skate on stairs, once mother has removed it.
3) Setting careful fires, so that someone else will get the blame if possible.
4) Rearranging pills in medicine cabinets; sleeping pills into aspirin bottle. Pink laxative pills into antibiotic bottle which is kept in fridge.
5) Rat powder or flea powder into flour jar in kitchen.
6) Saw through supports of attic trap door, so that anyone walking on closed trap will fall through to stairs.
7) In summer: fix magnifying glass to focus on dry leaves, or preferably oily rags somewhere. Fire may be attributed to spontaneous combustion.
8) Investigate anti-mildew products in gardening shed. Colorless poison added to gin bottle.