The music was gay; and life is completely crazy anyway, thought Miranda, so what does it matter? This is what we have . . . this is all we're going to get. From "Pale Horse, Pale Rider" by Katherine Anne Porter
Katherine Anne Porter, who died last September, was famous and honored and old, and she had crafted her life with care. "Look how long I have lived!" she once wrote. "Well, what an amiable sort of incurable trouble to have . . . I don't mind at all."
Last Friday, her friends gave Katherine Anne Porter a party, on the day she would have been 91 years old. "She dreaded the idea of there not being any more parties for her after she died," said Deborah Toll, the wife of the president of the University of Maryland, to which she had donated her library. And so they threw the party, and hoped it was in a style she would have appreciated, good liquor and quick-witted company.
"She told people before she died that she believed she was going to Fiddler's Green," said her lawyer, Barrett Prettyman, who serves also as special counsel to the House Ethics Committee. "It's an Irish concept that is neither heaven or hell, but a place where you go and gambol among green pastures."
They came together, old friends and young writers, admirers of the woman and her work. They drank champagne, they ate an elegant meal, they toasted her memory. Katherine Anne, they called her and at times there was a gentle competition to paint her portrait in its truest colors. But memory could only play second fiddle to life.
Katherine Anne Porter was an exquisite and painstaking writer, whose short stories were diamond bright and whose novel "Ship of Fools" brought her wealth and fame in the autumn of her life. By then, she was a wanderer, she had lived in Mexico and Paris, she knew revolutionaries and literary giants and blithe skaters gliding on thin ice. "I don't like gloomy sinners," she once wrote, "but the merry ones charm me." Katherine Anne was a good cook and a good talker, she collected her friends and lovers with care, she liked champagne and she knew how to make a good entrance. And a good exit -- she was married and divorced three times.
"The last four or five years were so tough," said her nephew, Paul Porter, a New York businessman. "I find that the memoires of the other times are just coming back." The one he proffered were gentle, the woman who emerged a pale shadow that played lightly on the wall. He talked of meeting her at 17 and being "dazzled, anyone would be," of the hours they spent talking about everything under the sun, of the way she had of scribbling in the margins of her books, arguing or commending. "I remember her quarreling with a recipe for glazed carrots," he said. He looked contemplatively at the food on his own plate. "I have no idea what this is," he said finally, "but it's easy to eat, so I like it."
They talked of her short stories which she began writing in 1923 and which of them could be made into movies, and Paul Porter mentioned how he once tried to get Dolores Del Rio interested inone, but he never heard back. And so famous beauties of the day were discussed, the eyes of one the cheekbones of another, in the way that people have when they are grateful for a subject of conversation. "Cheekbones," huffed one guest with admirable loyalty. "Talking of cheekbones at a party for the queen of cheekbones."
It came time for toasts, and one by one they remembered her kindly. They remembered her delight at walking into Tiffany's to indulge her taste in emeralds with the money that "Ship of Fools" brought her. "She told me she walked in and told the clerk, Honey, don't show me anything small," said Josephine Jacobsen. And you know, she never showed anyone anything small." It was not, said Prettyman, "a request but an order that we should all have some drink and some fun and to think of her with the very best of happy thoughts, not to despair of her passing, but to be happy we all knew her."
Paul Porter, however, made no toast to his aunt Friday night. No, he said, as his slim gold cigarette lighter caught the light from the single white candle in the middle of the table, Katherine Anne was too complicated a woman to sum up in just a few words. He had been her guardian the last few years and he is the executor of her will. Last month, he took her ashes back to Indian Creek, Tex., where she was born, and there, as the wind howled in the mesquite trees, and the wheat fields waved in the distance, he buried them beside her mother's grave. On her tombstone he put the inscription she had said she wanted, the motto of Mary, queen of Socts: "In my end is my beginning."
"Would you please come over," Father Joseph Gallagher remembered her once asking him. "I know you can't say anything new, but I'd like to hear the old things again." It was the prayers for the dying she wanted to hear. "Some nuns who were friends of hers had called me once and asked me to come over and say the prayers and give her holy communion," said Father Gallagher. "But she kept not dying, so I kept coming to see her. She used to weep as I read them. But she wanted to die, she wasn't afraid of dying. She said, 'You learn something the day you die; you learn how to die.'" He smiled. "She used to call me 'honey.'"
The guests ate strawberries and cream and fell to musing about the nature of their absent honoree, about the kind of woman she was. Someone remembered her as a woman who would drop a long white glove on the stage before a reading, to make sure the audience was with her. Another recalled her as a woman who would say, "Yes, indeed, I love a pretty man and I love a party," and to whom every man she loved did a disservice by getting in the way of her creative life. A feminist, someone called her. Not so, said another. "She hated the word, incidentally," said her nephew.
Toward the end of the party, the guests moved out on the patio to watch a movie of her as the evening wind blew cold. Katherine Anne Porter was dressed in black and she wore pearls and her dark eyes were bright like the eyes of some little night creature, alert to the lessons the wind has to teach it. She talked about writing in her sharp quick voice that seemed to hurry over the words. "Writing can't be taught," she said. "It has to be learned." Read history, she advised, and "for the love of heaven don't pay any attention to Freud. Pay attention to human beings," she said, and "you'll learn all you have a right to know."
"Boy," said one of the guests, as they all filed back inside for brandy or more champagne. "The great ones can always come through with a good punch line."
Even in death, she was the life of the party.
But not the singer, not yet, said Mirnada. Death always leaves one singer to mourn. Death, she sang, oh, leave one singer to mourn. -- "Pale Horse, Pale Rider"