Writ­ers Welty, Mac­don­ald kept friend­ship flame alive with ex­tra­or­di­nary letters

South­ern nov­el­ist and crime writer talked of pol­i­tics, work, birds.

Austin American-Statesman Sunday - - INSIGHT & BOOKS - By Charles Ealy

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 NolanAr­cade 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.

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