THE BUSINESS of selling snippets from the coattails, or hides, of celebrities of all sorts, in book form, shows no sign of declining. A prime requisite, of course, is name-dropping, never mind from how far the names may have to be fetched. Another is to bring the product out before the orbit is too stale. This example of the trade is like many others, I suppose, in being saddening as well as embarrassing in a number of ways, and in this case nobody would be more fun to discuss the ways with than the protagonist. For a first hoot and little yowl of incredulity she wouldn't have to look beyond the jacket blurb of Conversations with Katherine Anne Porter and Enrique Hank Lopez's preface, where we find her, respectively, "intriguing" with Hermann Goering and "knowing" Ernest Hemingway, whom she met once for a minute in a bookstore.
For some, by no means at all, of this book's blatant errors, Katherine Anne Porter would have had herself to blame. But her real bang-up would be over the quality of writing, and as any good reader of contemporary fiction knows, nobody published in this country between, say, 1930 and 1960, would be more entitled to such a fit. "Noon Wine," "Old Mortality," "Maria Concepcion," and eight or 10 more of her stories constitute a field where angels must fear to tread, though one hopes some will try. Meanwhile we are probably seeing only the first in a rush of all too mortal grave robbers, who would surely be less motivated if it were not for the big commercial success of Ship of Fools and the supposed drama of the author's secondary life, the one away from the typewriter.
That novel, as I am not alone in believing, has elements of a bum steer, more unsettling for its many passsages of the real McCoy, or Porter. It was a blessing mainly in giving its author enough cash for her old age, after the decades of nearly chronic scrounging for a living, from hackworth in youth to lecture trips and university stints beyond her strength later. This biography, takes just per se, rates as interesting chiefly through excess and confusion, due in part to the compulsion that made for a great many shifts of place, so there can be a treasure hunt for addresses and encounters, however insignificant. The life was by some lights madly unconventional, which is to say, according to Hoyle, for arts circles in her time and most others; in the light of present more it looks positively stuffy. It quite lacked the extremity of dissolution and crack-up dear to the trade, and was on the whole more grim and lonely than any way glamorous, though lightened by fine gifts of friendship and the mark of the phoenix on the brow. Down and out, though she was often close to it, Katherine Anne Porter simple did not know how to be.
On her death there is nothing in these pages, aside from one shameless invention about her burial, purportedly in the rustic Mexican coffin she had contrived to buy, out of loathing for modern undertakers' swank, and kept in her bedroom closet in her last years. She had the coffin all right, and took the same, rather girlish pleasure in having friends look at it as in exhibiting such other latter-day extravangances as velvet upholstery and emeralds. But she was not buried in it. It seems clear from the text, as from the gaping holes in it, that Mr. Lopez, for whatever reasons, had stopped seeing Miss Porter, or vice versa, quite a while before the end. In his perface he flicks this off as due to her illness, but the evidence points to his having worked on his own well before that. She took a long time dying, a matter of several years when strokes had left her bedridden, partly paralyzed and with her beautiful head tormented by nightmarish, if oddly selective, animosities. These indignities came to a sotp in September, 1980, four months after her 90th birthday. Luckly her last domicile, in a nursing home outside Washington, was as brief as many others that will reward or elude the fact-diggers.
It was there, in June last year, that my husband Rolbert Penn Warren and I last hear her voice. We had known and cherished her separately first for a good many years and together for many more, on dozens of those other perches that used to serve her as home for a while. She had always frowned on suicide, but the words that came through most clearly on that last visit were, "Oh God . . . oh God . . . let me die." She had lately turned, or returned -- this being one of the more debatable points in her biography and one not mentioned here -- to the Roman Catholic Church, but the priest who had been visiting her regularly in the next-to-last shelter, the last with her own precious belongings around her, was himself recuperating from a heart attack just then, so she was without whatever comfort he might have brought.
Much earlier, alas, she seemd clearly to have encouraged Lopez in his endeavor and to have collaborated in it. He writes that he first met and interviewed her when she was attending some cultural affair in Mexico City in 1964; the meeting led to others back in the U.S. and to the definite project of her talking her life into his tape recorder. He seems to have been duly acquainted with and admiring of her work, and of her old love of Mexico, secne of one of the most high-voltage periods of her young-womanhood, must have figured. She was no longer writing much, was suffering over it, and a receptive ear for her personal memories may have appeared a comfort and diversion, even a last chance to record anything.
A lawyer, we are told, with an office at the time in Mexico City, Lopez had grown up in Denver, Colorado, presumably of Mexican parentage and more or less bilingual upbringing. If the latter is true, it would be a good argument against the bilingual education so strongly advocated in some quarters now, unless the aim is no more than run-of-the-mill business competence. For literary purposes it is a rare mindd that is fit to be cheered by the linguistic example of a Joseph Conrad. Whatever the cause, the confused verbiage and incompatible locutions throughout the opus will set any fastidious reader's teeth on edge.
However, in one respect the write's knowledge of Mexico did serve him quite well. The section on Miss Porter's life in that country, her friendships with militants of the Obregon party and events such as the filming of Eisenstein's Que Viva Mexico that would be used in her story "Hacienda," is the fullest and best in the book. It is even the best written, perhaps from there being more tapes to draw on. She had also written about it, not just in fiction, by its nature bound to be misleading, but explicitly, as in her account of her friendship and rupture with Hart Crane in the sorry days not long before his suicide. Lopez, in his preface, writes that he later received in scattered batches. Probably so, but it seems plain that she talked most fully about that period, with one other not far behind. That was her earliest, poverty-ridden childhood on a farm in Indian Creek, Texas, where the family, earlier in Kentucky and long before that in Virginia, had migrated after the Civil War.
Of course tapes can be as deceitful as any other record, depending on who is doing the cutting and rearranging and omitting. Katherine Anne was much too skillful a talker to stilt any conversation with words such as "thus" and "merely" that appear in direct quotes and jolt you each time like a rock under a speeding car's wheel: "thus finding an absolute perfect harmony in my life." "I merely guessed it." If such stuff is on the tapes the machine must have been giving her the willies. Still, these sections do a good deal to bear out the author's description of his work as "a life as the holder perceived it" -- a curious way of putting it but you get what he means. As the book proceeds, there is less and less even a pretense of giving the "holder's" words, and we are pummeled instead with a great poundage of quotes from reviews of her books, items true and false dredged up from heaven knows where, and long ill-digested parts of treatises by two or three psychologists who probably never heard of her, to explain her marital fiascos, "writer's block," and "mistrust of people."
The last is quite a mouthful. My own unscientific opinion, based on a devotion of 44 years, is that barring some preliminary cause for huff or hatred she was as trustful as a well-treated puppy, and this was part, though only part, of her romantic and some other foul-ups. As everything in life relates to everything else in it, this overreadiness to trust people, especially handsome younger men as she grew older, no doubt did relate, as the opposite trait would if it had existed, to her mother's very early death and that of her remarkable grandmother not many years later, when the child was at an age that varies from one page to another.
By way of exculpating himself from inconsistencies, if not from errors of other kinds too, Lopez writes that she didn't always tell the same version of a story. That is so. A mutual friend has remarked, "I would never say that Katherine Anne lied. She fantasized." Not about everything, far from it, though she did in fact lie about her age for quite a while in her middle years, which this writer calls "justified" by her continuing "youthful appearance." It has been suggested elsewhere, in a published peice of a biography yet to come, that she ascribed a false affluence to her childhood home in Texas, but she never spoke of it in any such way to me or to any other friend who has happened to mention it in my hearing. On this the Lopez account is I think fairly reliable.
The same cannot be said in regard to her rather brief marriages. The little more than an overnight fling described here as her first marriage was in fact the second legal one. She told me about it one evening when we were having dinner alone together; there was no incentive to fabrication and nothing in her tone to raise any thought of it. The real first, which she liked to speak of as an elopement from the Ursuline convent that she and her sister attended in New Orleans some time after their grandmother's death, appears not to have been the scapegrace, demeaning alliance of some accounts but one to a quite proper young man of some social status, who evidently presented the only handy out at the moment and whom she came to regard as both boring and stingy. I have heard her tell more than once, with no discrepancy in the versions, about the day she up and left him, stopping to charge some very expensive lingerie to his account at a fancy store, before hopping on the next train out, I believe to Chicago. I assume he was the father of the two stillborn babies she mentioned to me several times, since she said that both births occurred before she was 21. Give or take a year or two of age, that would still make husband number one the progenitor. Fast work for a marrriage of one or two days, especially one described as probably unconsummated.
As a result of that hole in this chronicle, the name under the photograph on page 216 is given as that of her third, instead of fourth husband. But that is the least of it. The picture is not of the gentleman named, it has no resemblance to him whatever, as he and any number of other people could have told the author and his publisher. I am told by people hwo knew the real third husband, Gene Pressley, a State Department functionary of her Mexico-to-Paris-via-Berlin era, that the picture is not of him either. This blunder ought to be enough in itself to sink any book.
With an author that careless, one would think the publisher would also have checked other boners, including a couple of no great importance but equal unveracity concerning my husband. In an anecdote about a ride away from a party in Hollywood in 1946, during which Miss Porter rather strenuously pulled a lock of Christopher Isherwood's hair, Robert Penn Warren, previously mentioned as working on a scenario there at the time and as having invited K.A.P. to the party, at Aldous Huxley's house, is named as one of the people in the car. He never set foot in Hollywood, or laid eyes on either Huxley or Isherwood, until 1949, when she had long since left. Later he is named as a participant in a cultural congress that she attended in Paris in 1952; perhaps his name was found on a list of people invited, but as that was the first year of our life together I can vouch for his whereabouts, which inlcuded neither Paris nor any such congress; he hates that kind of gathering anyway. Mr. Warren too is alive and well and could easily have been asked if he had been in those places at those times. In a further reference we get, after his name, "affectionately known as 'Red' among his close friends," to which he has appended in private, "and among his enemies too," since outside his hometown he has never been called anything else.
The guidelines were obviously "Who cares?" and "nobody'll notice." Yaddo, in Saratoga Springs, where Katherine Anne found a haven several times, is not a "writers' colony" or retreat but just as much for visual artists and composers. The connecticut house she rented in the early '50s is correctly located on one page in Southbury and soon after has jumped to the adjoining village of Roxbury.
In such trivia, as on many more crucial points, we are far indeed from the supposed speaker's voice. The Hollywood and Paris episodes she may have miscremembered, but these errors are given as facts, by Lopez, not in quotes attributed to her; they would not represent quite such arrogant disregard of the writer's job if he hadn't noted her inaccuracy in certain other spots, giving a reader the illusion that technique on his part would be followed throughout. For still further signs of haste, there are repetitions smacking of magazine versions not revised for the book, and points of ignorance that many people could have dispelled if asked, by telling him, for instance, that "Promised Land" (not "Lands" plural as he has it) and "No Safe Harbor" do not relate to mysterious, never-finished books but were early working titles for Ship of Fools.
There is no malice that I can see in all this. On the contrary, one blushes for the poor man in his relaying of her comments on "the parasitic kind of adorers" around famous writers and "the peculiar race of people who live by a reflected glory." She had had cafe glimpses of the phenomenon around James Joyce and Ezra Pound in Paris and of course knew it as a staple of literary lore, as in connection with Rilke and D.H. Lawrence. One might add that the line between adorers and exploiters can be tenuous indeed. Lopez's misjudgments of his subject, conveyed mostly by flavor and innuendo, tend not to the derogatory but in the direction of unwarranted compliments, in the end more damaging as they give an impression of her pretending to accomplishments she neither had nor claimed. He has her, for example, "as fluent in French as in Spanish." I never heard her say more than a few words in Spanish, always little popular drinking toasts, and have no idea how she went about her one long translation from it. But her French was close to nil; for translations for her song book she had to rely on friends. She could not have carried on a conversation in that language and I doubt if she ever had to try, as her life in Paris with Pressley seems to have beenm singularly hermetic, with no exposure, that I ever heard any trace of, either to French writers of the time or to any other indigenous circle.
France for her was a blank, a dud; perhaps she was too low in spirits then to care. But the language would have eluded her anyway. She was a born non-linguist, and I think the fact may well have compounded her alienation in 1931-2 in Germany, where she did care to look under the surface. Not that anybody is supposed to love the rise of Hitlerism but an extraneous factor, conceivably of isolation due to language, seems at work in the scorching hatred that makes The Leaning Tower the least satisfactory of her short novels, or long stories. In comparison with The Berlin Stories , set in about the same time, by Christopher Isherwood who evidently spoke German very well, that one of her creations suffers badly, which of course says nothing about the status of their respective life works.
Space is lacking here to discuss her forthright, occasionally skittish literary judgments -- what motives entered or didn't into her famous put-down of Gertrude Stein ("The Wooden Umbrella") or her praises of Dame Edith Sitwell, and so forth. Instead let us just affectionately recall, as with different terms of reference she would do for us, that she was a pretty bad dancer, a complete non-athlete, a music-lover of genuine intensity but quite limited range, ditto for pretty bad dancer, a complete non-athlete, a music-lover of genuine intensity but quite limited range, ditto for poetry, and that given her fierce need for isolation, in order to move into the depths that she must write from or die, it seems safe to assume that she would have been a very poor mother. As Lopez pictures it, her marital break-ups were always by her choice, as if the other party mightn't have had grounds for impatience too, espcially as her splendid company cooking implied nothing about endurance of a daily kitchen grind, or any other daily interruption. In short, like plenty of other artists great and small, she must have been hell to live with very long. Yet her affections and loyalties were many and for the most part long-lasting, and her sometimes conspicuous share of female vanity didn't keep her from knocking herself out for other writers she admired; several of them, including this writer, were much younger women.
So much for vanity. It was harmless, except perhaps at times to herself, as witness several discomforting portrait photographs, by George Platt Lynes and others, reproduced in this volume. She would speak, and is reported as doing so here, of "those dreadful posey pictures that George likes to take," but she did pose for them, dressed up to the nines and with her fine profile at its most advantageous tilt, and wasn't averse to giving copies of them to friends.
In any case the snapshots also printed in the book are a lot nicer, as are several in our possession. In one of those she is in borrowed winter garb on a toboggan with our children, jaw bravely set for the start downhill; another shows her radiantly smiling at a little girl, our daughter and her goddaughter, at a 2-year-old birthday party; in a third she is in a three-way hug with the same child, a few years later, and the co-godmother, Tinkum Brooks. The godmothers have their proper wrinkles, the little girl is clearly crazy about them both, and all three are really and truly laughing.
That is the Katherine Anne we too were crazy about, and now so sadly miss. The aloof lady of the Portraits we never knew.
A final word on the ygoering reference. The phrase in the blurb reads, " . . . political intrigues in revolutinary Mexico and with Herman Goering in Nazi Germany." There is only one way to read that and no way to explain it except as deliberate deceit with an eye to sales. Miss Porter saw Goering once, at a small dinner party, went dancing with him at a beer parlor afterwards, found him a surprisingly good dancer for one of his bulk, and stood him up when he was excepting to take her to dinner the next evening. In launching the episode, Lopez has her saying, "'ve told only a few people about this . . . it's the sort of thing that's easily misunderstood." She may have acquaintance that she hadn't told it to. It was a good story, which gets treated here in a technique that ought to be at least condemned by the Authors' Guild. A very long passage of supposed conversation between her and Goering after dinner is put, for both speakers, in direct quotes, as if that too were from tapes, when at best it can be only from hazy recollection, no matter what the writer put down in her notebook; even the shortest interval after the talk would make such lengthy transcription more than unlikely, and to have her filling it out after a lapse opf thirty-some years is an absurdity.
Furthermore the dialogue, in which she gives Goering a long lecture on the virtues of Jews, makes her sound like an imbecile. To be sure, Katherine Anne never had much political sense, beyond a decent sympathy for the poor and unjustly condemned and hatred of oppressors and malefactors. This syndrome was neither a prime force in her emotional make-up, nor backed by much consistent reasoning; it has been easy for students and Porter buffs of a later generation to misconstrue her Mexican revolutionary associations and her joining the march of protest against the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. She had, however, an extraordinarily keen eye for the phoney and the ruthless masked as public righteousness, a faculty that made her some enemies in Stalinist literary circles in their heyday, and which she put to superb use in the character of Braggioni in "Flowering Judas." Her insight was no less shrewd into practically any political or otherwise powerful figure who might come under her direct scrutiny. That she would get off a long schoolgirl diatribe on human values, to one of the leading butchers of the century, or that he would ask her to go dancing if she had, is in the realm of farce.
Her ashes were deposited, some weeks after her death, beside her mother's grave in Texas, as had been her wish. I am told that the Mexican coffin is now in the attic of a friend's house in Washington.