Sooner or later Southerners all come home,
not to die, but to eat gumbo.
not to die, but to eat gumbo.
I have always been fascinated by strangers. One never knows, sitting in a restaurant or flying on a plane or simple walking down a street, who is there with you. The person beside you on a plane may well be a famous novelist or chef. The woman in the red dress at the restaurant might be an artist whose painting sells for a million dollars and the waiter may win an academy award in five years. Those goofy, unknown faces we pass each day, may be someone we really want to meet and talk to and know. Eugene Walter was an expert at noticing those people and seeking them out.
He followed Greta Garbo down New York streets, but never spoke to her. After a busy day of buying castanets, he found himself alone on a bus with Edith Sitwell, and he would dress up in his finest clothes and slip into the theater at intermission to see Martha Graham.
When I was in Alabama dying to get out, Eugene Walter had returned for gumbo. We were a short drive from each other, but we never met. That is a tragedy in my life. A failure on my part. Though we share many things, in the end Eugene Walter, triple Sagittarius could have never overlooked the fact that I was a Pisces and he always said, “Sagittarians do not get along with Pisces.”
After returning to Mobile he told Katherine Clark, “I’m fat, I’m bankrupt and I’ve got fleas.” None of that stopped Clark from assembling an oral history, Milking the Moon.
You may have never heard of Eugene Walter, but he knew everybody and never met a person he didn’t have a good story about. Now the question remains, are the stories true. Well some are true and some are real, some are real and some are true, but not always at the same time.
Here are some highlights: Eugene Walter served as a cryptographer in World War II, founded a chamber orchestra, was a founding contributor to the Paris Review, won the Lippincott prize for his novel, The Untidy Pilgrim, won and O’Henry, won a Sewanee-Rockefeller fellowship for his poetry, composed music, sang opera, acted in over 100 films, including Fellini’s 8 1/2 and Lina Wertmüller’s Ballad of Belle Starr, and was a cookbook author including Southern Style a volume in the Time-Life American Cooking series.
"I should have been Boswelling all these years…but I wasn’t. I was Eugene-ing, which is different.”Like a true Southerner, there was always food and drink involved in his exploits. At a time when he was penniless he fed fellow novelist Patti Hill a meal she always remembered.
"…she had three onions, and I had a bottle of wine and some crackers. So I put some olive oil in a frying pan, and I did onions three ways. I did all this elaborate froufrou about giving it French names and pretending we were doing this very elaborate French meal. But it was onions thrown into boiling water just long enough to be crunchy and flavored with cloves; and then onions boiled until they were mush, flavored with something else; and then onions fried with a little sherry poured into them. Then crackers and I think I had some peppermints. We were both absolutely penniless; we just had arrived at nothing. So I did this pretend snob French dinner of onions. Lord, Lord. It just goes to show it’s not money that makes a party; it’s imagination."
Everyone who knew remembered his parties. Feeling that T. S. Eliot was a bit uptight and would probably be more fun if he could, “get enough Jim Beam into him,” Walter made his 23rd Artillery punch for a party thrown for Eliot by an Italian princess.
“We brought up from the cellar of Palazzo Caetani a huge, magnificent old punch bowl that had not been used since around World War I. And I put a block of ice in it. And I made a little hole in the block of ice. And I put some sliced oranges and lemons in the hole. And then I poured two bottles of cognac over that. And then I poured two bottles of good white rum over that. And then I poured two bottles of very good English gin over that. And then I just filled up the rest of the bowl with cold champagne. It tastes like the most delicious orange punch. You would never guess there is one drop of anything alcoholic in it.”Before the night was over, T. S. Eliot was teaching the party cheer leading chants from Holy Cross.
The stories are endless. Milking the Moon is a joy to read. Eugene Walter is truly one of a kind. But what kind? he might ask. Nearing the end of his life he talked about fate and his life he called “free-form.”
"I live three days in one day without haste, without hurry. I stop when I’m tired. I have a glass of wine when I feel faint. I have no schedule, although I work every day… You think you can plan a life? I’ve always thought you must improvise daily. Today may bring money in the mail. Today may bring a hurricane. You have to be ready for either one. In either case, give a party.”
Word to live by.
Find some of Eugene Walter's recipes at Cookbook Of The Day.