Writers Welty, Macdonald kept friendship flame alive with extraordinary letters
Southern novelist and crime writer talked of politics, work, birds.
Mystery writer Ross Macdonald wrote a letter to Eudora Welty in 1970, praising her novel “Losing Battles,” and a year later, Welty wrote a rave review of his new novel, “The Underground Man,” in the New York Times Book Review.
That same year, Macdonald was in New York and heard that Welty was there, too, so he went to the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel, where he greeted her when she walked toward the elevator.
Thus began a conversation — and an exchange of letters — that was to last for 13 years, until Macdonald’s Alzheimer’s disease caused him to cease communication before his death in 1983.
The letters are rather extraordinary, with about 345 being made available in a new collection, “Meanwhile There Are Letters.” The title comes from what Macdonald wrote to Welty in a letter a couple of days after leaving Welty in New York. “I never thought I’d hate to leave New York, but
I do,” Macdonald wrote. “I feel an unaccustomed sorrow not to be able to continue our friendship viva voce, and in the flesh, but these are the chances of life. But there is a deeper and happier chance which will keep us friends till death, don’t you believe? And we’ll walk and talk again.” Then there was a postscript: “Meanwhile there are letters.”
The letters from Macdonald, who lived in Santa Barbara, Calif., to Welty, who lived in Jackson, Miss., were written under the author’s real name, Kenneth Millar. Ross Macdonald was the name he published under.
It’s unclear whether Macdonald and Welty actually ever had a physical romantic relationship. They would meet several times in the next decade or so.
Still, the letters that they exchanged show a deep affection, and an anecdote from longtime Welty friend and fellow writer Reynolds Price gives an inkling of the relationship. Both Price and Macdonald were chatting in 1973, discussing Welty, when Price says Macdonald/Millar nearly knocked him out of his chair with a comment. As Price recalled, “We were talking about Eudora and what a wonderful person she was ... And Ken stopped me and said, ‘No, you don’t under- stand. ... You love Eudora as a friend. I love her as a woman.’”
Both Macdonald and Welty were widely acclaimed writers when they met. Macdonald was the best-selling creator of the Lew Archer private-eye novels. Welty, meanwhile, was a regular contributor to the New Yorker and the New York Times and was known for such short stories as “Why I Live at the P.O.,” “A Worn Path” and her novel “The Robber Bridegroom.”
In the ensuing decades, she would go on to publish her “Collected Stories” as well as the Pulitzer-winning novel “The Optimist’s Daughter,” followed by the best-selling “One Writer’s Beginnings” in 1983.
The letters span a wide range of topics, from how to turn life into fiction, how to get around writer’s block, authors they admired and were reading, the Vietnam War and various political matters, including the presidencies of Nixon, Carter and Reagan.
The letters also contain quite a bit about nature — especially birds — leading a recent New York Times review to complain that “they spoke rather too much about birds and rath- er too little about politics.” But that’s exactly how Welty was. She loved to talk about birds, and once told this writer that she couldn’t imagine going through life without noticing them every day.
While working for the Works Project Administration during the Depression, she took photos of churchgoing women wearing hats covered in bird feathers in an annual Mississippi event called the Pageant of Birds. And she included birds in many of her stories, especially in her novel “The Optimist’s Daughter.”
Macdonald was similar- ly intrigued by birds, being involved in all sorts of conservation efforts for their protection along the California coast. And it’s rather clear from the letters that both saw a kind of divinity in birds. At one point, Welty reveals in a letter that “the one and only state authority” on birds “lived in our house for 25 years, Miss Fannye Cook of Crystal Springs. In the Depression, my mother rented her a little apartment in our house. ... She put herself through study at the Smithsonian and educated herself to the one single purpose of bird study. Never married — next to birds, she liked turtles.”
In the same letter, she goes on to describe how Miss Cook would go to the Gulf of Mexico each year to greet the birds coming back from South America. “She’d go out in a boat past the farthest bit of island, so she herself — an old maid sitting up in a row boat not missing a thing — would be the first landing spot the birds would see, and they’d light all over her and be too tired to know her from a post — she gave them water and banded many, and had them come back again and again to her hands.”
If those phrases make you smile, then “There Will Be Letters” will be a joy to read — a reunion with Welty’s good humor, long after her death in 2001.
MEANWHILE THERE ARE LETTERS Edited by Suzanne Marrs and Tom Nolan
Arcade Publishing, $35
Eudora Welty was the author of “The Optimist’s Daughter” and several celebrated short stories.
Kenneth Millar, as Ross Macdonald, created the popular Lew Archer mystery series.