23 January 2010

Eugene Walter

Eugene Walter picnicing outside Rome

Sooner or later Southerners all come home,
not to die, but to eat gumbo.

Eugene Walter

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.

Eugene Walter "dancing" with some staff from the Paris Review

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.

As the Mother Superior in Fellini's Juliet of the Spirits

Eugene Walter could have written a multi-volumed biography, but he was far too involved living his life than writing about it. He once said after trying to remember a particularly juicy story told to him by Alice B. Toklas,
"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.


  1. I am in love with this man- His philosophy is quotable and I will lift it from these pages-if you have no objections-it expresses my sentiments to a T. off the get this book. pgt

  2. Great fun, I am definitely going to order this. Obviously lots can be learned from his story...Just wish I'd known him!

  3. The photograph of the Roman picnic virtually defines the word idyllic. Such a resonant image as is your sketch of him. Thank you for wheeling out this magical character.

  4. What a lovely page-
    If I had a Time Machine I'd go back for Eugene.
    "Milking the Moon" is a marvel.

  5. Just stumbling by...

    Oddly enough, I knew Eugene. My parents moved to Mobile when I was 18 and I was bored out of my skull. When I interviewed for a job at the local weekly paper (certainly one of the oddest interviews I've ever had) my interviewer said "Do you know Eugene? You should just ring him up." And, so, I did. I visited him several times that summer and then each time I came home from college. Since I had a car, I'd run Eugene to the Delchamps (always the Delchamps, and always the Delchamps giant jugs of burgundy). Eugene served up "leftovers" finer than any meal I'd ever eaten. He inspired me to cook, well, cook beyond the ramen I was living on. (Termite Hall, btw, is an under appreciated classic of semi-Southern cooking.) I guess I saw him a couple times a year, minus three years, from the early 80s to about 1993. He knew I was perfectly happy to talk/listen for hours and that I wasn't going to ask him to do anything, be anywhere, teach, or even act half civil. I think he enjoyed our visits. I love that he told me maybe 3/4 of the stories that show up in Milking the Moon but many of the versions he told me were slightly different. He was more than a bit lost his first couple years back in Mobile. Other than the guys at the paper, where he wrote assorted cooking/gardening columns, he didn't have many friends who he could talk to. He had, of course, lots of old friends in town but their lives had been so different from his--and at this point, he was living on the edge and his elderly friends tended to be well-off--that I suspect he ranted a lot more to outsiders and visitors that he did from day-to-day. He was, for the most part, just exactly like the Eugene in Milking the Moon. However, there are still a few secrets in Eugene's life, things he talked around the edges of but never quite let out. His time in Rome, toward the end of his stay there, was rocky and some of his work along the way was more complex and, um, problematic, than he let on but, in the end, yes, yes, yes, Eugene! May we all fail half as brilliantly in life as Eugene succeeded.


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