Truth to tell, Eugene Walter was a man most don’t meet in a lifetime.
He was born in Mobile, Alabama. He died in Mobile, in 1998. But in the 75 years life between that coming and going, Eugene did audacious things.
He played in a children’s theater as a boy, then organized his own marionette company and toured it around the South.
He knew Truman Capote as a child, back when the gnomic genius was known in the Alabama Gulf Coast ‘hood as Bulldog Persons.
Eugene served during World War II as a cryptographer for the U.S. Army in Alaska. In idle moments at a remote icy listening station, he made a pet of a caribou, feeding it cookies every day.
He moved to New York City after the war and worked with the public library. He claimed to have pioneered the mass impromptu gathering in a public place as an art form—the “happening,” as it would come to be called.
After New York, he lived for 30 years abroad (Paris and Rome), where he published essays and articles in Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, Vogue, Bottegha Oscura, Gourmet and many other publications. He helped launch The Paris Review, along with George Plimpton, Peter Matthiesen, and other literary legends, publishing a piece in the magazine’s very first issue.
He cultivated the art of being fabulous, throwing dinner parties with cat ballets for entertainment and guest lists that included Capote, T.S. Eliot, William Faulkner, Judy Garland, Anais Nin, Leontyne Price, Gore Vidal and Richard Wright, among—once again—many others.
He claimed as a friend Tallulah Bankhead. Ms. Bankhead bestowed her friendship on Eugene after he suggested a stage prop in one of her shows be given to “the state of Alabama because we ought to make a shrine over that like they made over Buddha’s tooth in Ceylon.” According to Eugene, Ms. Bankhead rewarded him with three of her pubic hairs for his suggestion … two of which he swapped for books or other treasures, and one of which he kept in a Chinese porcelain box until the day he died.
He moved from Paris to Rome in the 1960s and ‘70s, translating for filmmaker Federico Fellini and working with Franco Zeffirelli. He appeared as an actor in more than 20 films, including Fellini’s 8 ½, and he co-wrote songs with Nino Rota for Fellini and Zeffirelli.
He wrote the best-selling Time-Life Cookbook on Southern Cooking.
He illustrated his own books with whimsical self-taught drawings, often of monkeys and cats, his favorite creatures on earth. And he started his 1954 Lippincott Prize-winning novel The Untidy Pilgrim—his one and only novel—with the following dance of words:
“Down in Mobile they’re all crazy, because the Gulf Coast is the kingdom of monkeys, the land of clowns, ghosts and musicians, and Mobile is sweet lunacy’s county seat.”
Meet Eugene Walter, the most entertaining and famous man you never heard of.
Eugene was “something that got loose from Alabama,” in his words, a man who claimed membership in “a union called international cats and monkeys,” who claimed that “the very best sex is to be in a phone booth, naked, with a lot of butterflies,” and who traveled with “only the bare essentials: my Remington typewriter, my stuffed monkey in a bell jar, and a box of gold paper stars to sprinkle on the stairways of my apartment building.” Oh, and he traveled around Europe for a while with a shoebox filled with red clay from his native Alabama … so he’d always be home wherever he was.
Eugene’s Mobile was really a lost South, a lost way of life. He loved and lamented and chaperoned that lost world into literary awareness through words, art and song. He called the port city of Alabama “a vanished world of big dinners at high noon, afternoon naps, suppers at twilight, and long evenings of hide-and-seek and rocking on the front porch,” and he claimed that in that mythical-seeming place, “human relationships were all-important—before the almighty dollar had taken the place of God, and where, above all, people had time to talk and tell stories, where people grew things and had animals.”
Eugene’s gifts lay as much in his living as in his writing. I knew him personally, during seven years when I lived on the Alabama gulf coast, four of those seasons in old Mobile. I frequently enjoyed meals at Eugene’s home on Boulevard Avenue, a place with many cats in the house and many lizards in the garden. There was always Jim Beam and branch water, and always Eugene stories you felt were the purest hokum … until one day you arrive to find George Plimpton in the den, or a letter from Marlon Brando on the table, or a check for royalties from a song in Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet.
I was a pallbearer for Eugene when he died. After a long night spent decorating his coffin—as he requested long before his passing—the funeral cortege passed in a light rain through the streets of Mobile to the city’s oldest cemetery, where Mobile had given special dispensation for him to be laid. A New Orleans-style jazz band led that procession, and those of us who loved him turned out to celebrate not his passing, but his life. That procession suspiciously resembled an impromptu Mardi Gras parade.
Not every great book lies between pages. Some great books actually live and breathe among us; they cook and keep cats and bark out loud at an ear-splitting pitch in restaurants when waiters are inattentive.
Planet Eugene awaits your discovery.
Start your voyage with Milking The Moon, Eugene’s remarkable memoir, written with Katherine Clark. (Quoted sections in this essay attributed to Eugene are from this greatly entertaining book, which made it onto the New York Times best-seller list.)
Charles McNair is Paste‘s books editor. His novel Land o’ Goshen was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.