KATHERINE ANNE PORTER was born Callie Porter on May 15, 1890 in a simple two-room L-shaped log cabin in Indian Spring, Texas, a small frontier community near Brownwood, west of San Antonio. When she was 2, her mother, Alice Jones Porter, died, leaving her, her sisters, and her brother to be reared by their handsome, careless father, Harrison Porter, who soon moved his young family to Kyle, Texas, where they lived with his 65-year-old mother, a hardy, stern, moralistic woman the children called Aunt Cat. Nine years later, following Aunt Cat's death, Harrison Porter moved his family to San Antonio, where Katherine's rootless life took a turn that led her quickly from one place to another in "a vain quest for a place and people" she could call her own. Over her long life, she lived in towns all over Texas and in cities all over the United States -- Chicago, Denver, New York, New Orleans, Hollywood, and Washington, to name a few -- as well as in Mexico, Bermuda, Germany, and France. On September 18, 1980, she died in the Carriage Hill Nursing Center in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Like much of Porter's fiction, many of the stories concocted and circulated about herself during her lifetime evoked a home and heritage she had never known. The more she moved, the more she permitted memories of her past to mingle with the needs and desires she carried with her. Even to her closest friends, she spoke of distinguished ancestors falsely claimed as her own and displayed items purchased in antique shops as family heirlooms dating back to a grand family plantation that never existed. Yet, even as she was strewing fabrications and misrepresentations, she was accumulating letters and documents which she later turned over to a biographer of whom she asked precisely what she has received: candor based on the assumption that her actual life could bear the scrutiny of others just as it had borne her own.
One of the many virtues of Givner's absorbing biography is the careful way in which it sets straight the confusing story of Porter's life. The poverty Porter knew as a child and feared and fled as an adult was both physical and emotional. Much of the little money she made early and much of the considerable money she made late, she spent on perfume, jewels, and gowns. She was a woman of striking beauty and presence; and though these qualities changed with time, they did not diminish. Late in life she was still able to attract young lovers, and late in life she still needed to. About the time she reached puberty, her inconstant father withdrew his affection in order to shower it on a younger, seemingly more beautiful sister. "Regardless of her own advancing years," Givens writes, "she formed relationships with men around 30 -- Harrison Porter's age during her growing years -- and many of her partners resembled him in appearance." Approaching 40, she reported "that she had had four husbands and thirty-seven lovers"; and though the pace of marriages slowed (there were only two later), the pace of lovers did not.
Like her father and her sisters, Porter suffered from "increasing paranoia" in her last years, "growing hostile, furious, and at times violent." Throughout her life she was troubled by physical frailties, primarily bronchial. She could be cruel and ruthless, self-centered and self- serving, and she sometimes ran through friends as she often ran through lovers, almost heedlessly. During her public career, and especially in the years of her greatest fame, she carefully cultivated an image of herself that was at once deceptive and revealing: in one of her aspects she was the "pale priestess" and grand lady of literature; in another, she was a peerless conversationalist of exquisite taste and impeccable manners; and in yet another, she was a femme fatale. For interviews and on platforms, she appeared elegantly gowned, furred, and jeweled, the Southern aristocrat as distinguished woman of letters. She loved ceremony, insisted on good manners and scorned any but the most cultivated taste. Yet at the same time, she treasured her sense of herself as a high-spirted, reckless, uninhibited creature of desire to whom both amorous adventures and accounts of amorous adventures were essential. At age 70, she boasted to her nephew of having learned new tricks from her latest lover, her Italian eye doctor, who turned out not to be the last of many. Finally, however, despite her other needs, Porter was drawn to an ascetic life that she associated with writing. She came to this life after several false starts; and she was always easily diverted from it -- by her desire to live a lavish social life, to be a grand personage, and to imagine and know great love. Even her remarkable skills as conversationalist and letter writer often focused on her life as aristocrat, socialite, lover. Still, although it came after and in addition to other things, Porter's sense of herself as artist represented the most precious part of her, not simply because it yielded several stories -- notably "The Old Order," "Old Morality," "The Grave," "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall," "Flowering Judas," "Noon Wine" -- of lasting value; but also because it sustained her when jewels and furs and furniture, even friends and lovers, turned to ashes in her hands.
Reading Givner's story of Porter's remarkable life is a curious, sometimes disturbing experience: the farther you go, the more your interests shift from Porter's art, even from her life as a writer to her life as a remarkable human being. A partial explantion of this lies, I think, in the materials with which Givner works. Porter's reputation as a writer rests on the short fiction she wrote toward the end of the first half of her life. Compared to this late, brief blooming, her life was long and rich. Compared, furthermore, to her actual life, the life Porter imagined for herself, and continued to insist upon, is both familar and conventional. It may well be that some deep, unstated recognition of where her true achievement lay led Porter to insist that "the story of her life" be told: she consciously sought "a suitable biographer" and took care to make all her papers available. Just as her physical frailties were matched by a resilience of body and mind, so her flaws were matched by a gallantry of spirit that should daunt even the most judgmental of readers.
Another partial explanation lies, however, in Givner's own interests. Although she speculates about several aspects of Porter's life, she speculates little about Porter's imaginative process and less about her writings. Givner has researched her study with care, and she presents it sensitively, in prose that rarely gets in the way of her story. But there is loss as well as gain in what she has accomplished. Neither the imagined life Porter concocted for herself nor the scattered periods in which she wrote the stories that made her famous emerge with enough resonance and depth to compete on equal terms with the story of her life. As one consequence, this book is more likely to fix than to elevate Porter's reputation as an artist. As another, it leaves several questions hanging. Porter's stories, including her finest, characteristically merge elements from her actual experience with elements from her imagined life, drawing incidents from both. Yet they seem, in ways Givner never fully explores, to draw depth and intensity only from the first.