U-Md., Pulitzer winner's friends locked in messy battle over her estate, legacy

1962.  Author Katherine Anne Porter at home looking over one of her bestsellers "Ship of Fools."
1962. Author Katherine Anne Porter at home looking over one of her bestsellers "Ship of Fools." (The Washington Post)
By Michael S. Rosenwald
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 18, 2010; 11:19 PM

Katherine Anne Porter, the late grande dame of American letters, was a virtuoso liar. In her notes and letters, she fibbed about her age and her husbands (there were really five.) Recipients of her letters sometimes discovered while reading her ramblings that they'd been having an affair with her.

Although Porter delighted in fictions, even she, with her propensity for tall tales, would have had difficulty concocting the plot unfolding in a Montgomery County court. There, a battle over Porter's literary estate has erupted featuring allegations that the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer's friends hoodwinked a judge and engaged in low tactics in a highbrow effort to protect the author's legacy.

The thousands of pages in the case file far outnumber Porter's literary output, which includes such famous short stories as "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall" and a novel that became a Hollywood movie, "Ship of Fools." At stake are future rights to some of her work, as well as control of the 175 linear feet of letters and literary artifacts she left to the university in College Park, where she spent her last decade living near campus. Porter, who survived tuberculosis, the Spanish flu pandemic and lost pregnancies, was 90 when she died in 1980.

The struggle over Porter's estate is ultimately about who should dictate culture and taste - the academy or individual literary figures who believe they know best how to care for an artist's legacy?

On one side, the University of Maryland takes pride in its archiving of Porter's work. The school displays her artifacts in a special room and has worked to increase access to her papers by microfilming 57 linear feet of the works and making plans to put the collection online.

On the other side, several literary figures have other ideas about how to preserve Porter's legacy - winning publication of her work by the prestigious Library of America, encouraging theater and opera adaptations of her stories, and endowing literary awards.

"All of this fighting would probably have given her a good laugh - if it all comes out right in the end," said E. Barrett Prettyman Jr., a powerful District lawyer and executor of Porter's will.

As in great literature, the truth is open to interpretation.

In many ways, the saga begins with Prettyman. Now 85 but still active at the blue-chip firm Hogan Lovells, Prettyman was a clerk to several Supreme Court justices and the first president of the D.C. Bar Association. Late one night in 1962, Prettyman finished "Ship of Fools" and phoned Porter out of the blue at her Georgetown apartment to say he enjoyed it. The two hit it off, and he eventually became her lawyer, close friend and, in Porter's early letters to him, one of her imagined lovers.

"It was psychologically crucial that she be the creator of the affair rather than the object of someone else's mythmaking," wrote University of Nevada-Las Vegas scholar Darlene Unrue in her 2005 biography of Porter.

Prettyman, who grudgingly played along with the imagined affair but denied its physical truth, drafted Porter's will and the terms of her literary trust. He was the only person empowered to appoint a trustee to control her works. After the first trustee died in 1993, Prettyman named Barbara T. Davis to the role. Davis circulated in important literary circles and contributed award-winning short stories and interviews to esteemed publications such as the Paris Review.

She and Porter met in 1956, when Davis was a young copy girl in The Washington Post's For and About Women section. One afternoon, an editor shouted, "Anybody here ever heard of Katherine Anne Porter?" Davis, an English major at Wellesley, had. She was dispatched to the Jefferson Hotel to interview the author.

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