In 1996, as part of a Feature Writing class I took to fill my journalism minor, I drove to Mobile, Alabama and interviewed a local legend named Eugene Walter. Eugene was one of the most fascinating personalities I’ve ever talked to – certainly he was the person who’d accomplished the most, or at least the most varied. The article he inspired helped me get an A in that class.
Eugene passed away less than two years after I wrote this article. I’m very glad I got the chance to spend a couple of hours with him that warm November afternoon. Eugene lived more fully and more authentically than most of us ever do, and I think there’s still much I can learn from his attitudes toward life.
(Don’t judge the writing too harshly – this was fifteen years ago!)</em>
Eugene Walter’s small house sits hidden behind a large weeping willow tree on a quiet street in one of the older, more distinguished areas of Mobile. The front door is surrounded by bumper stickers condoning various liberal political causes and specifically warning Republicans away from his home. Walter answers the doorbell and warmly invites visitors inside, making sure not to let any of the many cats in residence escape.
The front room is somewhat cramped, but the cramping is not a result of the room’s size. The room appears to be large enough, but the entire right two-thirds is filled with … well, stuff. Stacks of books, papers, paintings, more stacks of books, cats, boxes of books. Walter explains that he has had to move a large number of his lifetime’s souvenirs from the attic, where a leak caused by a recent storm had threatened to damage some of his mementos. He further explains that he has been attempting to catalogue and organize his stuff—and has been doing so since he returned to Mobile from Europe in 1979.
When Eugene Walter was a child, an uncle told him that cats have nine lives. The uncle was the overseer of some twenty-three cats who lived on his farm in Alabama. Some of the cats lived on the front porch, some on the back, some inside. Walter studied these cats, and he considered what his uncle had told him, and finally he decided that he, too, wanted to have nine lives.
He succeeded: Poet. Author. Actor. Cryptographer. Cookbook writer. Puppeteer. Production designer. Cook. Translator.
And to hear him tell it, he’s not done yet.
The parlor is located just to the left of the entrance hall. The room is quiet and still and, like the entry room, is filled floor to ceiling with memorabilia. On either side of the window on the front wall are ceiling-high shelves packed with books, which Walter has arranged as if his books were guests at a dinner party. He has books of like kinds generally grouped together—books by a certain author, for instance, or books on a certain topic or books about a certain region. He then places authors together whom he thinks would find each other interesting, just as he would arrange guests at a party, attempting to create the most interesting conversation among his friends. Along the same wall as the doorway and sitting just in front of yet another case full of books, a small toy monkey dressed in princely clothing rests in an intricately-carved wood-and-glass display case. The monkey is a souvenir from his childhood, a gift given to him before he was even born.
Walter spent his childhood in Mobile. (Interestingly, one of his companions was a child who went by the name “Bulldog Parsons”; Bulldog’s mother would remarry a man named Capote and the child would eventually be called by his given name, Truman.) As a teenager, Walter already exhibited a taste and talent for the arts: he had showings of his drawings and designs; he designed Mardi Gras floats; he had his first poems published. The toy monkey went with him when he left Mobile at age sixteen, touring the South with his homemade marionette show. Walter traveled and performed his puppet show at schools, prisons, and forestry camps until the United States Army summoned in 1941. He soon found himself in Seattle learning cryptography; he was later stationed in the Andreanof Islands, just south of Alaska, working as a cryptographer for the duration of World War II. “My monkey stayed in my backpack all during the war,” Walter says.
In 1945, after his military duty was complete, Walter returned briefly to Mobile, helping to found a chamber orchestra and an opera company, and then left for New York, where he became heavily involved in the theater as an actor and production designer. During his time in New York, Walter worked by day in the New York Public Library foreign exchange program and in the emerging off-Broadway theatrical community at night. He designed productions for a great number of plays and even won a Show Business Award for best off-Broadway set of the year for his set design for Henrik Ibsen’s Master Builder. He also is credited with engineering the first of New York’s “happenings,” or large-scale thematic arts-related parties: he created a surrealist “dream event” held in the garden of the Museum of Modern Art. In 1951, he took his money earned through the G.I. Bill and left for college in France. He would not live in the U.S. again for twenty-eight years.
Eugene Walter himself is a small man whose frail appearance does nothing to suggest the drive and energy which have propelled him through seventy-five years of near-constant activity. He walks slowly now and his eyes are magnified through the thick glasses he now wears, but his mind is still sharp and clear. He is extraordinarily learned in history, both world and local—“They don’t teach history in school anymore,” he says, sighing. Stories and memories of people and places come to Walter quickly, easily and articulately.
Walter studies a theatrical poster on the wall of his living room advertising an Italian play whose title is translated in English as The Monkey Prince. The first name in the cast list is “Eugen Walter”; he says the play was written specifically for him. The comedy concerns a nobleman who returns to Italy after a considerable time abroad and brings with him a monkey which he successfully passes off as the new crown prince (hence the play’s title). Remembering the play leads Walter to remember his life in the 1960’s in the film industry. “During the 1960’s,” he says, “I was in cinema. And that was it.”
“I remember reading one biography of myself that said I was ‘active in Hollywood in the 1960’s,’” Walter says. He was in movies, yes—many, many of them—but he spent a grand total of five hours of his life actually in Hollywood. He passed through on a train on his way to San Francisco and was forced to wait at a train station for those five hours, and that was enough time and experience for Walter to decided he didn’t like Hollywood: “The place was ugly and dirty and I didn’t want anything to do with it.” His time “in cinema” was spent almost exclusively in Italy.
Walter estimates that he appeared in more than two hundred movies during his time “in cinema,” mostly in small character roles, frequently in spaghetti westerns. “I haven’t even seen most of the movies I made,” he says. He attributes his large number of roles to one major factor: he was willing and able to fall down, a feat many Italian actors were not willing to perform. Walter enjoyed falling, perhaps too much so—the Italian film stuntman’s union actually became angered with him because he was keeping work from its members.
Walter picks up a videotape he has recently received in the mail: The Belle Starr Story, a Western he made in the early 1960’s and one of the many of his films he has never seen. He distinctly remembers that film, noting that problems with the film’s title kept it out of distribution for years (international distributors pettily haggled over whether the film should be called The Ballad of Belle Starr, as the director wanted to title it, or The Belle Starr Story). Walter played a safecracker in the film; he fondly remembers the stunts he was given the chance to perform, including crossing the street on a rope between two buildings two stories above the ground. “As long as I don’t look down, I’m fine,” he says.
Walter’s friend and employer, the Princess Marguerite Caetani, introduced Walter to Federico Fellini, one of international cinema’s preeminent filmmakers. Fellini had heard of Walter’s history as a puppeteer and asked him to perform a marionette show for his now-classic film La Dolce Vita. Walter was too involved in the production of Princess Caetani’s literary magazine Botteghe Oscure at the time and could not appear in the movie, but Fellini indeed roped him into playing an American journalist in the also-now-classic 8 1/2. This connection with Fellini established two new careers for Eugene Walter: one as a film actor and one as a translator.
In addition to his work as an actor, Walter worked as a translator for Fellini. Fellini had difficulty negotiating distribution of his films outside of Italy, so Walter translated Fellini’s scripts and proposals from Italian for the United States and the rest of Europe. He estimates that he translated more than five hundred such proposals during his time working with Fellini. “I also explained those parts of the story that were distinctly Italian for the distributors in other countries,” Walter says. He also occasionally helped Fellini with casting and worked as a kind of unofficial assistant director on some films.
Walter remembers hounding Fellini for an interview for months. Walter wanted the interview for publication in The Paris Review (the story of his involvement with that magazine will come later), but Fellini continually brushed him off because the director was too busy. Frustrated, Walter eventually made up an interview with Fellini, threw it on his desk, and sarcastically told him “Thanks for the interview.” A few months later, in an interview published in the New York Times, Fellini quoted parts of that fictional interview almost word for word.
His connection to Federico Fellini led Walter to another of his major achievements in the film industry. Through Fellini, Walter met another prominent Italian director, Franco Zefferelli. Zefferelli was in the process of filming his version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and needed lyrics for some songs. Fellini knew Walter was a poet and recommended him to Zefferelli, who hired Walter to write the songs. One of the songs he wrote, “What is a Youth?”, became the featured ballad in the film, sung by Romeo during the Capulets’ ball.
Eugene Walter returns the videotape to its place on his desk in the study, placing it next to the old black electric typewriter surrounded by stacks of papers. He briefly fingers the ede of the clunky typewriter, an artifact of his other highly successful life: his distinguished career as a writer.
Walter’s first book, Jennie, the Watercress Girl, was published in 1946. The short fable, which was also illustrated by Walter, tells the story of a young girl who dislikes the “progress” she sees in Mobile; in that respect, the character and her creator are much alike. Young Jennie eventually moves to New York to become a dancer, where she has a long and brilliant career. She eventually moves back to Mobile in her later years, only to discover that the city is no longer as beautiful and vibrant as she remembered. Walter was perhaps being more prophetic in writing this fable than he could possibly have known.
Shortly after he arrived in Paris in 1951, the Princess Caetani, after discovering they shared a childhood passion for marionettes and discovering his abilites as a writer, invited Walter to assist her in the development and production of the polylingual literary magazine she was founding, Botteghe Oscure. “The princess was quite obviously rich, but did not know the first thing about putting together a magazine,” Walter says. His work on Botteghe Oscure was brought to the attention of publisher George Plimpton, who was attempting to found a magazine of his own.
“George Plimpton was looking for people to work on this new magazine he was beginning in Paris and asked me if I would like to contribute some work,” Walter explains. That initial work, the short story “Troubadour,” appeared in the first issue of The Paris Review in 1951; Walter’s name appeared in the masthead as an Advising Editor beginning with the second. His name sits in the masthead to this day. Over the years, Walter has continued to submit stories, theater reviews, ballet reviews, and commentary, among other works.
“Troubadour,” which won Walter an O. Henry Citation after its publication in The Paris Review, was but the beginning of his career as an author. Walter’s writing career reached a new level of success with the publication of his novel The Untidy Pilgrim in 1953. The novel deals with the eccentricities of the fictional residents of Mobile, a subject with which Walter was intimately familiar. The Untidy Pilgrim won a Lippincott Fiction Prize in 1954. Walter also published another novel, Love You Good, See You Later, in 1964; he says that novel and The Untidy Pilgrim are the first two installments of a quintology he plans to finish writing someday.
One of Walter’s other passions has shown itself through his writing: he has successfully written two cookbooks, culled from both his own original recipes and traditional ones. The first book, American Cooking: Southern Style, was published in 1971 as part of the Time-Life Books series, “Foods of the World.” Walter was not fond of his experiences working with that company, however. “I didn’t care for the way they treated me, so I didn’t give them all my good recipes,” he says with a chuckle. Those other recipes appeared in Delectable Dishes from Termite Hall, named for a famed boarding house in Mobile.
“But, I am primarily a poet,” Walter insists. Despite his accomplishments in a variety of fields, his poetry is of essential importance to him. “Monkey Poems is my magnum opus, the one thing of which I’m most proud.” Monkey Poems is a collection of poems Walter says were written “honoring people who aren’t afraid to take chances on new things.” He laments the fact that poets cannot sustain themselves through their poetry in the United State the way they can in Europe. “America worships the 8-to-5 workaday world, the almighty dollar,” he notes bitterly. “There are secrets to be learned from poetry.”
Walter enjoys the occasional speeches he gives to school children on the subject of creative writing, one of his favorite activities these days. (“Young people have every reason in the world to be civilized,” he says. “The South knows three-hundred kinds of hypocrisy it calls good manners.”) He firmly believes in knowing oneself before one can write about others. “I tell the children they must find darkness, find silence. And I mean they must find true darkness and silence, where there is no light at all and no sound. When they find it, even if it is only for an hour, they should ask themselves ‘Who am I?’ They should contemplate that question for awhile. Then they should begin writing.”
Eugene Walter walks slowly through his crowded study, carefully avoiding the cats, and heads toward the back of the house to his kitchen. The kitchen is as full as all the other rooms of his house; the difference here is that the shelving contains multitudinous spices and sauces as opposed to books and magazines. Varying sizes of pots and pans hang at attention on the wall above the counter next to the sink. Four small bowls filled with and surrounded by cat food dot the floor.
For all that Eugene Walter has accomplished in his life, there is still much he feels he has left to do. In addition to the three final books in his quintology, he has at least one more cookbook he wants to write, as well as a book about housecats. But most of his remaining goals are more experience-related than accomplishment-related. He feels he still has a lot of travelling left ahead of him. “I’d like to go St. Petersburg,” he says, referring to the city in Russia as opposed to the retirement town in Florida. He would also like to visit Norway, China, Iceland, Poland and the Middle East.
One of the dreams he still carries with him involves making a very public political gesture. Walter wants to travel to Washington, D.C. with a good ol’ jet-action American water pistol filled with McIlaney’s Tabasco Sauce (“It can only be McIlaney’s,” he emphasizes) and shoot most of the politicans he finds in Congress. He wants to make sure the tabasco sauce is hot enough to blind temporarily but not to do any permanent harm. “There are only about three people in Washington that are even aware that there is a world outside Washington,” he says.
“Life is wonderful, and most people don’t even notice.”