From her table at wood-paneled Musso Franks, Hollywood's oldest restaurant , Meta Wilde looks out at the crowd eating lunch. They are directors and producers mostly, many with stylish secretaries, reminding her of another time and other people who used to inhabit these tables. She particularly remembers a time when a young, slender woman used to come here to dine on wine, fish and salad with her lover, the late William Faulkner.
"It was a wonderful world then," Wilde, now 69, recalls, straining her soft Southerner whisper above the clatter of conversation and bustrays. "Hollywood was the garden spot of the world and this area, Hollywood and Vine, was like the center of a small town. The orange blossoms pervaded everything."
Today those same streets are gritty and graceless, and no one else feels the loss more than Meta Wilde, who, over the last 40 years, has been an intimate part of the Hollywood community as a script supervisor on dozens of movies. "To walk down Hollywood Boulevard now, I can feel nothing but regret," she says. "It used to be like one family but now everything is completely industrialized. Not as pleasant."
After three marriages, her 20-year affair with Faulkner and open-heart surgery, Wilde is a survivor. Yet she has more than persisted and remains today the beautiful, graceful woman who so entranced the famous write.
A large poinsettia farm lined Sunset Boulevard when Faulkner arrived in Hollywood in 1932. Then in its heyday, the movie industry was becoming an irresistiable lure for some of American's leading writers including Nathanael West and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who settled in the lovely desert city by the Pacific.
But unlike Fitzgerald, and West, Faulkner never grew accustomed to Hollywood nor became part of its legend. Even though he worked here on and off for nearly two decades, the shy Mississippian instictively stayed away from the glamorous-folk ways of sunny Southern California. To the end of his life, his work remained deeply intertwined only with the soil of his native South and the characters of his imaginary Yoknapatawpha County.
Until very recently the Faulker years in Hollywood have been left obscure. Biographers and critics dismiss the California period as a mere bothersome, money-making deviation from Faulker's great life's work. History chooses to remember the creator of "Sound and the Fury" and forget the many screenplays he devised - sometimes without benefit of the merest credit line.
Curiously, however, the Hollywood years provide a unique opportunity to midity of Oxford, Miss. Here there are many who knew Faulkner distinct from his legend and environment - and perhaps for that reason saw most clearly his human longings and frailties.
No one during Faulkner's California experience touched this bared, personal side more than Meta Carpenter, the elegantly-featured script girl with whom the writer carried on an intense but sporadic love affair over nearly two decades. Now, with the help of Universal publicist Orin Borster, a long-time friend, Meta has painfully reconstructed her years with Faulkner in a newly released book, "A Loveing Gentleman."
Sitting in her spacious westside Los Angeles apartment, which she shares with her husband, publicist Arthur Wilde, Meta explains what moved her to write about the intimate relationship between her and Faulkner.
"I've decided I'm so near the end that no one else can tell the truth - no one can bring it from the grave," Meta says stoically in soft whispers. "I wanted people to know how sweet and lovely he could be."
Meta first encountered Faulkner in 1935 when both were working for director Howard Hawks on the film "Road to Glory." She had migrated to Hollywood five years earlier after being raised in Mississippi and educated as a proper young woman in Memphis. Faulkner was brought to Hollywood by Hawks, who met the impoverished novelist working in the basement of Macy's in New York. Through Hawks, Faulkner was able to make enough money to keep himself, his crumbling Mississippi estate, his alcoholic wife, his beloved young daughter and his relatives from total destitution.
Immediately after meeting Meta Carpenter, a divorcee, Faulkner pursued his romantic interest. This slim, 28-year-old member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy spoke Faulkner's idiom and shared a love for his world. But Southern roots at first proved not to be a strong enough link to overcome Meta's sense of Southern propriety. "I really didn't want to start a romance with a married man," she explains. "That was the way we were brought up. Nice ladies did not go out with married men."
What followed seems quaint, almost comical given today's mating rituals in Hollywood. Faulkner simply took Meta out for walks and dinner at Musso Franks, the writer's hangout, on Hollywood Boulevard. At the end of the evening he would drop her off at the Studio Club where she lived, and politely shake her hand. Only after many such evenings did the charm of Faulkner's gentle ways lead to physical love.
"I guess it was that we were both from home, both exiles from the South in a strange land," Meta recalls. "Bill really had no pitch with me in that sense of the world. We just sort of grew into each other." As the romance blossomed, there were weekends by the beach, nights cloistered in hotels rooms, even a social life among accepting friends.
Considered a cold, heartless man by most who knew him in Hollywood, Faulkner revealed his inner passion for life to Meta. Escaping from the whisky-sodden tragedy of his marriage to Estelle Oldham in Oxford, his pent-up romantic longing exploded over Meta. He wrote her love poems, many of them explicitly erotic and full of trembling tenderness. Once during a weekend at the Miramar Hotel in San Monica, he spread gardenias and jasmine petals over her bed. "Did you ever know anyone who ever did anything so sweet as that!" Meta asks.
"He used to say he loved me because I was courageous. He never at any time in our relationship offended me. He never hurt my feelings. When someone loved you like that, you have to hold onto it. He was like my beacon light."
Despite these soaring moments, however, Faulkner in Hollywood was unable to purge his conscious guilt about the sad situation back home. He drank heavily and often was completely unproductive for months at a time. Rumors of his alcoholism followed him throughout Hollywood and allowed the studios to pay him far less than they paid the most mediocre script writer.
He stayed only because the money earned her kept the Faulkner estate alive. His books, now classics of American literature, were out of print thoughout the 1939s and failed to produce real income until Faulkner won the Nobel Prize in 1949. "He had a tragic life," recalls his friend, Hollywood scriptwriter A. I. Bezzerides.
"BIll was a lonely, frustrated man who wrote because something in him compelled him to write, but he found his writting couldn't support him."
Bezzerides, now 68, remebers several times when he had to collect a sodden Faulkner off the floor of a restaurant or bar and pack him back to his hotel room. "I can't tell you how much Faulkner used to grieve me," Bezzarides says. "I remember him as a man in pain. He would sit there, asking himself why he drank. But he couldn't answer that - it was too painful.
"When he was with her (Meta), he was happy, yes indeed," Bezzerides continues. "Whenever I saw them they were quite happy. After all, he had what he wanted - the companionship of a wonderful woman."
According to Bezzerides, who is preparing a documentary on the life of Faulkner for the Mississippi Television Authority (PBS), the Hollywood studios intensified faulknee's proglems by forcing him to work on pap and failing to pay him what his greatness warranted. The studios, Bezzerides charges, "knew he was more than just a writer. In New York they understood that, but in Hollywood the writer is little more than an exalted secretary."
Bezzerides singles out Warner Brothers, which signed Faulkner to a low-paying seven-year contract in the 1970s, as having helped demoralize and ruin the great writer. The man who authored some fine scripts, including "The Southerner," and "To Have and Have Not" - "as well as some of the greatest literary works of modern times - was locked into a contract at less than a quarter of his former salary when he worked for Hawks and others. "Jack Warner used to boast he had the greatest writer in the world for nothing, "Bezzerides says bitterly. "They did him a terrible disservice - he couldn't write for years. He was wasted and everything he did afterward was tainted with commerciality."
There are those in movie business who believe Faulkner could well have been one of the great writers for the screen. Howard Hawks, his first and favorite director in Hollywood, says "Bill did amazingly well. He gave me what he wanted - he gave me good scenes." Now in retirement in Palm Springs, hawks, in tandem with Faulkner produced the classics "The Big Sleep" and "Road to Glory."
As for Faulkner and his lover, Hawks says: "She didn't have any particular sense of judgement about him. She was in love with him."
While Faulkner no doubt was shabbily treated in Hollywood, Meta, who knew him best here, believes the real tragedy is that he had to come to the Coast at all. In Hollywood, she believes, Faulkner was severed from all that made him what he was - the world of the Snopes family, of the idiot Benjamin and the black Joe Christmas.
"He never would have been as creative in Hollywood as he would have been in Mississippi," Meta admits. "That was where the mythology of his bloodstream was. His old cronies he went pig hunting with were there. These were the people who gave him his peace, his joy, his life."
Love the Mississippi ultimately overwhelmed Faulkner's passion for Meta. The writer retreated for longer and longer periods to hix Oxford estate and Meta, recognizing the hopelessness of the situation, finally gave her hand in 1937 to pianist Wolfgang Rebner. Faulkner, scratched and torn from fighting with Estelle, came to Meta's house on the eve of the wedding to bless the inevitable.
Nevertheless, the romance retreated slowly. There were two brief flickerings, one during World War II, after Meta divorced Rebner the first time and following her final separation from the pianist in 1952.
After 1953 Meta never saw Faulkner again, although he wrote her from Oxford and the faraway places fame brought him. Yet even in these final years, as Faulkner reached the pinnacle of literary success, their relationship remained intensely personal and intimate.
But, as Meta says of their short encounters during the '40s and early '50s, "That first period was more ecstatic, less realistic than the one that happened later. Later on it was more mature - I no longer had any illusions."